Interviewer: Alya Osman
Location: Egypt (Virtual Zoom Interview)
Length of Interview: 34:46
Description: A 21-year-old woman who was born in Lesotho and moved to Egypt at the age of eight discusses culture shock, finding community in Cairo, and the difference between racism in Egypt vs the GCC.
Alya Osman: Can you please state your name, date of birth, and region of birth?
Interviewee: My name is [redacted], I was originally born in Maseru, Lesotho, and I was born on the 16th of December 1999.
Alya Osman: I know you’ve lived in a few places – can you list where you and your family have migrated to and the different places that you’ve lived?
Interviewee: So, I lived in Maseru when I was first born and then we moved to Egypt, to Cairo. I think we spent about two, almost three years there. And then to Kuwait. We spent seven, going on eight years where we lived in Kuwait City. And then afterwards we moved to Namibia for a year. Then when my family moved back to Lesotho, I moved to Dubai in the UAE, where I’ve been for the past four, going on five years now.
Alya Osman: And how old were you and what year was it when your family moved to Egypt?
Interviewee: I was eight years old when we moved, I think it was the year 2008.
Alya Osman: Why did your family migrate and why did they choose Egypt or why did it end up being Egypt?
Interviewee: We moved there basically because of my dad’s job. He was getting a job to play a role in the diplomatic mission. So, at the time, I guess Egypt was very central to the whole mission when it came to relations between both our countries. Later on, it just made more sense to move to Kuwait, since [Lesotho’s] relationship with Kuwait had developed further, I guess. But we originally did move there for my dad’s job. And my mom got a job there as well, also as a part of the diplomatic mission of my country.
Alya Osman: I’m curious to know – when did you leave Egypt, and when you say ‘we,’ do you have any siblings?
Interviewee: Yeah, I have three siblings. I’m the eldest. At the time, it was just two, because the other one was born in Kuwait. So, there were only the three of us at the time when we lived in Egypt. And there’s a six year difference. So, when I was about eight, they were only two. We left right before the whole revolution, literally two months before that, in 2010. It was crazy timing.
Alya Osman: That’s wild – there are so many people who left Egypt right in the nick of time.
Alya Osman: I’m curious to know what your first impressions were of Egypt. Did you only live in Cairo? Did you visit other places? But I really want to know what your first impressions were, what your memories are of that time when you look back at it.
Interviewee: To be honest, when I look back at it… It was a great experience because I was just so excited to travel abroad for the first time. I mean, I was only eight and it was just such a different culture. And being so young, I hadn’t anticipated these little things, like how to speak in Arabic and even the board, the signs are in Arabic, you know. So, yeah, it was a really interesting experience for me. Yeah, I did visit other parts. I remember, I think we went to Alexandria and then… I’m so bad at names and remembering locations especially because it was such a long time ago, but I remember we went to Mount Sinai. We did try to see other parts of the country, but most of the time we were just in Cairo. I remember the traffic there was just absolutely unacceptable. [laughs] I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it in my life. The traffic there and the car accidents are just absolutely next level. I remember that, where it was just so shocking. The traffic was insane because also, when we first moved, we lived in one of those high-rise apartments, so we had a view of… I think it was one of the main roads and the traffic there was always so insane. And when you see it from so far high above, you’re just like, “wow, this is what I deal with every day when I go to school.” It’s insane.
Alya Osman: Do you remember the neighborhood that you lived in, the name of it?
Interviewee: Yeah, I originally lived in – I don’t know if you’re familiar with Katameya Heights?
Alya Osman: Yeah.
Interviewee: So, that’s where I lived for like a year. But then since my dad’s office moved to the other side of town – well, it felt like the other side of town [laughs] – we moved and we changed schools and we moved to Maadi. That side was a bit more, you know… I don’t know if it was just me, but it was more quiet. As much as Katameya Heights is quiet, I felt like there was more of a sense of community there just because of it being kind of like a resort, really. So there was more of a community vibe there. Then when we did live in Maadi, I felt like everyone lived this completely excluded life from each other, even though… I don’t know. Maybe it’s also just because I was coming from Lesotho where it’s completely not like that, so that was also a shocking thing about my whole experience there when I first moved, was just how inward everyone was. How do I explain this? Everyone was just living in their own space, in their own bubble. Yeah. It’s not like that at all in my country… I mean, it’s become like that, but at the time it was very like, oh, you know, you just go next door to your neighbor and you get what you need. And it’s very chit-chatty, you know? Whereas I felt in Egypt, it wasn’t like that whatsoever. It was more of a formal setting almost, and there was a lack of community, I felt.
Alya Osman: I’m curious to know whether, before moving to Egypt, you knew anyone who lived there? And, generally who your community were – did you know other people from Lesotho who lived there? Did you interact a lot with Egyptians?
Interviewee: Yeah. When we moved there, we didn’t know anybody, but then because of my dad’s job, I guess it kind of does expose you to a lot of Egyptians. Even his staff, they were Egyptian. And I mean, you can’t really… you can’t really avoid Egyptians because there are so many of them. [laughs] It’s not [like] a country like the UAE where there’s just so few Emiratis that you can kind of go about your life, not really meeting them that much. So, yeah, I mean, it was just these little things of even going to the local supermarket and… You know, in our country, it was a bit more chatty with everybody. But then here when I came, it’s a bit more… I don’t want to say reserved, but it’s relatively reserved compared to what I had experienced. I mean, it is a very open country and people are outgoing. But it’s just when you view it relative to what I was used to, you know?
Alya Osman: Yeah, for sure.
Interviewee: And then at school… we went to an international school, so I guess that also probably limited my exposure to so many Egyptians. Because international schools, it’s just a mix of everybody. It kind of would have been nice to also have Egyptians there. But [from what] I know from experiences in other countries where there is kind of a divide between the locals and everybody else, I don’t know how that would have impacted my experience. But I do remember getting a sense of this community.
Alya Osman: Do you remember the schools that you went to? And whether there was a difference from your first school or second school and what that transition was like?
Interviewee: Originally, I was going to NCBIS [New Cairo British International School] and then I moved to MBIS [Maadi British International School.] They were both very international, but in NCBIS there were more Egyptians that I became friends with and everything. So, yeah, they were really relaxed and very easy to get along with. I don’t think there were any cultural clashes. Or the cultural clashes that we did have were more so in my head, of just, “oh, you feel this is better,” you know? But it was never a confrontational situation, it was more so just me recognizing differences – for them, they do things like this or they feel this way about certain issues where for me… I had never really felt like that was a thing or a “matter,” But I do remember a few moments of culture shock. From both sides. I remember at one point my mom cut my hair really, really, really short, like I had no hair. And in my country, this is very normal, you know? But I remember being so freaked out about it because I just knew that… I felt like beauty in that world of Arab society was tied to hair so much. Especially for women, your hair is like your sign of beauty. Which is funny because it’s like, yes, some people would wear hijabs, but it’s [still] that sense of pride that they just generally get from hair… I don’t know, it’s very closely linked with beauty. So, I remember just feeling so paranoid and scared, like, “how’s everybody going to react?” and you know. And people generally were supportive, they wanted to, like, to know about it, so it was a nice kind of supportive environment at school. At school. I don’t think we had that… when I say lack of community, we didn’t have that so much in our own neighborhood where we were living. It’s one thing to invite your friends from school to your house – but my experience in Lesotho was that, you know, you’re kind of friendly [and] you have camaraderie with your neighbors. And normally they have kids and your friends with their kids – and we didn’t have that in Egypt. I don’t even think that I could tell you if our neighbors had kids. It was that sort of situation. So, at school, it was as supportive as it could be. I mean, there were things… I mean, they’re just kids at the end of the day, so. So, yeah. And then MBIS, it was a lot more international. There were more “Black” kids, I guess. So, it’s easier to kind of identify with someone who looks like you. There were less Egyptians, though, I do remember that.
Alya Osman: You mentioned that there were moments that were a massive culture shock – are there any specific examples that come to mind of that?
Interviewee: I mean, the hair one for me was a different issue altogether. [laughs] Let me see if I can remember any other… Oh! I also feel like Egyptians don’t really view themselves as Africans. And that’s another thing. That was the shock because it’s like you’re physically located in Africa. But for them, they felt like they had to make this distinction of, “no, I’m Arab” and it’s like, you can be both. That’s how I felt. But for a lot of them, from our experience, it was like “no, no, you’re African and I’m Arab.” Like you tell someone, “oh, where do you come from?” And then you tell them, “oh, I’m from Lesotho.” “Where is that?” “South Africa.” “Oh, you’re African!” And it’s like, yeah, so are you. [laughs] We’re both Africans. And then they would insist. There were so many times we’ve had this experience with my family where the other person would be insisting that, no, they’re Arab. And it’s just – it’s weird, you know? It’s like, why do you want to not have that – how do I explain it? Like, that sense of belonging with other Africans? That would probably even make for a more… [it would] build on that sense of community that I think I was looking for or that I noticed was kind of lacking. Yeah, they kind of really just – from my experience – want to be associated as Arabs. Especially when it comes to talking about the struggles that Africans go through. They don’t want to be associated with those types of issues whatsoever. They would only rather be associated with Africa when it’s in the limelight. Like, I remember when the World Cup was hosted… it was being hosted in South Africa in 2010. And in such a situation, then you would kind of get a sense of the whole narrative shifting just a little bit or temporarily into accepting our African-ness. “Oh, we’re African and we can get a sense of pride from this global event that’s happening in Africa.” But generally, aside from those times, it was a sense of, “oh, no, no, no, no, no, I’m Arab.” You know? You’re African. And even just things like… you know, you have your light, like, White presenting Egyptians and then you have your darker skinned Egyptians. And it’s funny because they would be the same type of black or the same shade, or they could even be darker [than me.] But I remember for one instance, we were walking in a market with my mom and the people who owned the shops were referring to us as like “brown sugar, brown sugar.” And it was weird to us because it’s like, but you’re brown too. It would have made sense coming from someone else who was lighter, but it’s just this weirdness where they feel like you’re different and they kind of single you out for your difference? Even when you feel as though you’re all on the same page or you are kind of hoping or have an expectation that it would be understood that way. But I feel like they were a bit eager to always point out your differences. And not really be a part of the same category of people if I’m making sense. Like, it’s always “I’m Egyptian and you’re something else.” It’s never “oh, we [all] are this,” you know?
Alya Osman: No, for sure. There’s an insane amount of internalized anti-Blackness in every aspect of Egyptian culture, and film, and everything.
Interviewee: Definitely. It’s really bad.
Alya Osman: It is, and I don’t know what it is about sports, but that seems to be when it jumps out. World Cup, African Cup of Nations, Olympics… then we’re like, “oh, we’re the first African team to do this, we’re this, we’re that.”
Interviewee: Yeah, definitely.
Alya Osman: No, it’s honestly awful.
Interviewee: It’s crazy.
Alya Osman: It is. You’ve touched on this a lot and you’ve kind of answered it, but I still want to ask: what was it like settling in here at first? And were there any challenges with adapting to the new place, the new culture?
Interviewee: When we moved there… I don’t know if it was necessarily a challenge, but you just have to be more mindful and aware of how people do things differently. And like, you know, every culture has a personality. Like one thing is ‘Egyptian time.’ They’re terrible at time.
Alya Osman: Yeah. [laughs].
Interviewee: It was a thing of, you would show up late, but then the other person shows up way later. So, you feel like this person’s being disrespectful, but it’s not even their intent. It’s just such a different culture. So, I remember that was shocking at the beginning. And you just have to accept that that is just the culture, you know? And you have to not take it personal. And I feel like Egyptians are… are quick to lose their patience. Yeah, I felt like they were very quick to lose their patience. That was an issue as well as the racism. Yeah… definitely the racism is shocking at first when you get there. Especially when you’re not used to it. Because I was coming from a country where it was predominantly Black people and now it’s the opposite of that completely. I think those three are the main things that stick out in my mind.
Alya Osman: I’m also curious – have you visited Egypt since or do you feel like you maintain connections with that time in your life in any way?
Interviewee: I’ve met some of my Egyptian friends. But in different countries, not Egypt. And I haven’t been there since I left in 2010.
Alya Osman: And generally, when you look at when you first arrived and when you left, what would you say was the impact of living there on your life, on yourself, on your family?
Interviewee: I kind of feel like we learned to be more accepting and tolerant of – ugh, I don’t want to say tolerant [laughs] – we kind of learned to be more accepting of racism, to be honest where it’s kind of like you don’t take it personally. Well, for me. It was kind of, OK, you just don’t take such issues personally, like it’s this person’s own issues and not my issue. So, let me not internalize it. Let me not internalize the racism. I think that was the main difference. And just being accepting of other cultures because it was also my first experience living with so many other cultures. So, it opened my eyes a lot to other cultures and how they do things differently. And even just going to an international school, that broadened my overall understanding of different cultures and how to go about approaching people. And even just knowing that cultural differences genuinely are a thing, you know?
Alya Osman: I’m also curious, how would you compare your experience of living in Egypt when you later moved to Kuwait or when you later moved to the UAE?
Interviewee: I think the racism in Egypt is… how do I explain this? It’s a bit more open and the people weren’t really even aware that what [they’re] saying is not OK. What you’re saying is not, for lack of a better word, it’s not politically correct. Like, you shouldn’t really refer to me as brown sugar just because of the color of my skin, you know. Whereas in the UAE, in Kuwait, the racism there… to me, it seemed more like it was very systematic and enabled by the laws. It could have just also been my experiences being so different in age that I just became more aware of it. But I do think in Kuwait and in the UAE, the laws were kind of more enabling towards racism. And with those countries, especially with Kuwait, I just remember seeing a more striking difference between other races and their financial well-being vs. Kuwaitis’ – it was miles apart. But I will say that I think – my assessment of the Arab world, [clears throat] my professional assessment [laughs] is that I think the new generation is more understanding. I think generally, even with just my Egyptian friends, they’re more mindful now about race issues and issues surrounding diversity and how important it is. And they kind of understand the whole need for inclusivity and accepting differences, that’s what I generally felt from the younger generation. Because I do feel like the racism would more so come from older people than younger people. Maybe that’s why I felt a bit better in that supportive environment at school. Whereas in our own neighborhood where we lived, it was less supportive, and it lacked that kind of community. Maybe that explains it. Because, yeah, I do think people are becoming a bit more… they have more awareness about such issues and how to be more respectful and basically not be racist. [laughs]
Alya Osman: I’m curious – I don’t want to take up any more of your time, and so this is my last question – would you say that the experience of migrating to Egypt, specifically, changed your relationship with Lesotho?
Interviewee: Yeah, definitely. One hundred percent, because I was more able to now see it through the eyes of having experienced a more developed country. I don’t know if I’m making sense or explaining this right, but like… I had better access to schools there, better schools, better education, better health care, the infrastructure was better. And that obviously made the deficiencies of my country more jarring to me. Not to say, of course, that Egypt was at all perfect, but it was definitely miles more developed than my country. So having lived there, I became even more aware of just how much my country is struggling and how Basotho as we call them, are struggling. But then it also kind of did make me appreciate certain things about my culture. Like how it’s definitely more friendly, how there is more community. And I don’t think I would have been aware of these [things] at all if I hadn’t had that exposure to Egypt and living with other cultures.