I see a Mercedes car followed by a carriage pulled by a donkey amidst a horde of people. For a moment, the swarm of dirt suffocates me. A wave of heat envelops me. These are the first images that will forever be imprinted in my mind, when thinking of my first few moments in Cairo, Egypt.
I was born in the United States to parents who immigrated to the United States many years ago. I lived the early years of my childhood in the country of my birth. At the age of nine I returned to my father’s country in order to learn about my heritage and to gain fluency in my native language.
Before I left, my third grade social studies teacher at my elementary school had asked me, “Where will you be going?” I replied, “Alexandria, Egypt.” “From one Alexandria to another!” she exclaimed with a warm smile. Before my departure, my third grade class threw a surprise good-bye party for me. I was most dismayed about leaving my best friend, Poppy. Poppy and I were the best of friends and we did everything together. We were together in school and after school. Poppy and I had promised to keep in touch while I was away.
Despite being my native country, I was unaccustomed to this new land. I was raised in Alexandria, Virginia and this was a transition like no other. I felt like a tourist at first. Although I could speak the language, I was seeing things for the first time. The sight of carriages, street vendors and the sound of people, cars, and music was astounding. I was unaccustomed to this kind of hot and humid weather and the scorching sun that touched every corner of this new land. This was Cairo.
From there my family drove in a loaded van for three hours until we reached our new destination. It was much quieter here. A soft breeze cooled my cheeks. The air was fresh and salty. We were near the Mediterranean Sea. We were in the Egyptian city of Alexandria.
After spending my first few months in Egypt visiting relatives, sightseeing, and exploring, we slowly settled into our new life. Our new apartment in Alexandria was less than twenty minutes away from the Mediterranean Sea. The buildings right across from the sea were extravagant and included the Marriot Hotel, Ramada Hotel and luxury apartments.
The further you go from the sea, the less impressive the buildings become. The streets are narrower and the muddle of people, cars, and carriages seem to fill your view everywhere you look. The division between the rich and poor was drastic. You would find a five-star hotel on one end and a row of shacks on the other end.
Despite my interest in learning about my new surroundings, I was extremely anxious that in one month I would be starting school. “What would school be like?” I wondered. “What will the students and teachers be like?” I was most distraught about the fact that I could not read Arabic very well. The summer before school started my mom exhorted me to memorize passages in Arabic.
The first day of fourth grade is a day I will never forget. At 7:45 a.m., like every morning that followed, everyone in the school recites the Egyptian anthem. I did not know what the anthem was, so I pretended to move my lips as a teacher walked by. My first class was Arabic. All the students in the fourth grade are in one classroom. There were about 40-50 students. Each desk consists of two seats, however, some desks had three students sitting behind it. The teacher comes into the classroom and all of the students stand. “You may be seated,” the teacher says.
The teacher then asked all the new students to stand and introduce themselves. One girl had just transferred from a private school and another boy had just moved to Alexandria from a small southern village. When it was my turn I stood up, as the two students before had done, and said my name and that “I used to go to John Adams Elementary School.” “What?” the teacher asked. “John Adams Elementary,” I replied. “Where’s that?” “In the state of Virginia.” “Not in Connecticut?” the teacher jokingly questioned. My teacher later told me that he had some relatives who lived in Connecticut.
There were eight classes each and every day. The schedule changed from time to time but the school day was very much the same. Students would remain in the same classroom and the teachers would come in and teach and then leave when the bell rang, so that the next teacher would enter. We had a lunch break and during gym class we would go outside and either play soccer or basketball or sat and talked with friends.
I made two new friends the first day of school. They were fraternal twins who had come back to Egypt after living in upstate New York for a few years. To my surprise, they spoke English fluently and we have been good friends ever since.
In Egypt primary school is from grades one through five and preparatory school is from grades six to eight. The educational system in Egypt, and in most parts of the world, is very different from the American educational system. For one, students in their primary level of education receive greater amounts of homework and learn about more advanced subjects. I started to take advanced Algebra in the fifth grade and we began reading Shakespearean works like The Merchant of Venice and King Lear and Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield and Oliver Twist in the first and second years of preparatory school. I was elated to be able to immerse myself into learning about so many diverse subjects. However, the time I had to commit to schoolwork on a daily basis was overwhelming, and students were expected to cram vast amounts of information before monthly exams.
My experiences in Egypt were not without challenges. The number of students in each classroom made it more difficult for teachers to explain intricate material to each student. This poverty-stricken LEDC (Less Economically Developed Country) engulfs youth in many ways. Due to overpopulation, youth are often given less opportunities to gain new hands-on learning experiences. For instance, the lack of research laboratories and recreation facilities make it more difficult to gain mastery in learning and advancing one’s chances of “standing-out”. Despite the excellence that exists in the education system, young Egyptians are not guaranteed a secure job after they earn their degree and many young adults learn early why unemployment is such a staple of Egyptian society.
Unemployment, overpopulation, and the division between the rich and the poor are quite common in Egypt. As I grew older and learned more I realized how it seemed like the society was lacking a middle-class, such as what my family and I identified with in the United States. These are not concepts you think of as a child. Regardless of what seemed like a low standard of living endured by the vast majority of Egypt’s population, I also could not help but notice that people seemed quite content. I felt like the happiness, laughter, and kindness I recognized in so many Egyptian people were intrinsic values of their national identity.
Four years later, I sent Poppy an email informing her that I would be returning to the United States in June. I spent the last couple of weeks saying good-bye to the Mediterranean air that I had come to know and love. Egypt is a culture of over eight-thousand years. Walking through the streets I saw traces of the Greco-Roman and Ancient Egyptian civilizations. I always felt that the Mediterranean Sea encompasses Egypt’s thousands of years of history.
I would not be who I am today had it not been for my experience in Egypt. I have come to see a different side of the world, a different perspective, a diverse and fascinating people, culture, and land. I felt a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment now that I have fulfilled my innate task to learn and expand my knowledge about my native language, culture and ancestry. "