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November 19, 2013

Americans’ jokes reveal Middle East misperceptions

Before you start reading this column, please describe briefly in writing what you think of Egypt as a country.

“We don’t want to send our students to get blasted in Egypt.”

An Allegheny College professor said this jokingly to me. Some jokes are said to express malicious thoughts. This was not one. This was a pure joke. But it wasn’t funny. It wasn’t anything near funny. Not to me.

It hurt.

I am Egyptian, and I am very proud of my country. I think what has happened in the last few years there, with all its bright and dark moments, is one of the best things that has happened in Egyptian history — even in the world’s history. I am proud to have been there. I am proud to have been part of it.

The word “blast” is not a simple word, especially for Americans. This word is often associated with terrorism. It is not appropriate to use it in casual jokes. This word would not pass unnoticed in an airport no matter what the context is.

This joke sadly shows what many Americans think about Egyptians. People in Egypt don’t spend their time “blasting,” or killing, each other. I am sorry if this may sound crude, but it seems that many Americans need to be reminded of this.

The fact that a college professor made this joke was shocking to me. I can’t help but think that a comment like that can be mentioned in front of other students at Allegheny. They wouldn’t react to it the way I did. They may not even question it, and they may think that it is a logical comment, especially because it comes from a professor. This concerns me because it may lead students to dismiss the idea of visiting Egypt or studying abroad there. This is why I am writing this column.

With jokes and comments like these, all the college’s efforts to promote the Arabic study abroad program — and even the Arabic language and cultural program — may become futile. Even having someone like me, a cultural ambassador, on campus might be pointless.

Egypt is not as dangerous as the American media show. Thousands of students come to Egypt every year from around the world to get an education there, even after the revolution. There are hundreds of foreign and American professors and teachers in Egypt. I have never heard any of them getting killed, ever.

Students are old enough to decide whether they want go to Egypt to study or prefer other places. Admittedly, their experience in Egypt would be an unusual one, but maybe that would make it more enriching. The things that a student would be exposed to and experience can hardly be offered by any other country. Egypt also provides one of the strongest Arabic teaching programs in the world. Such jokes or comments imply that going to Egypt is a silly, unthinkable idea. It isn’t.

Even when it comes to tourism, Egypt today can be an interesting destination. I can’t promise that you will enjoy sightseeing fully in Egypt these days, but if you think about it, maybe this time is the perfect time to visit Egypt. You may have the opportunity to witness events that would shape this country for years to come.

A friend of mine told me a year ago that her mother-in-law, who is American, was visiting Egypt. At that time there were many protests, and a curfew was imposed. I told her that I was sorry she won’t be able to visit many touristic places in Egypt. My friend told me that her mother-in-law was extremely happy to be in Egypt at that particular time because she was witnessing history in the making. She said that when she goes back to the states she wouldn’t tell the old familiar stories about visiting the Pyramids and the Sphinx, but she would talk about what she has actually seen and experienced during that time.

A revolution is not something that happens every day. If you decide not to go to Egypt at this time, fine, it is your loss. You are missing out, especially if you are interested in Middle Eastern studies.

This is not only about Egypt, but it is also about how Americans perceive themselves and the world. It seems to me that Americans are failing to see people like me as human beings with thoughts and feelings. You talk much about “tolerance” and “embracing” people from different societies and cultures, but it is comments like these that expose your true thoughts and the way you feel about the rest of the world in general and people from the Middle East in particular.

“I want to do intelligence work in the FBI,” said a student replying to my question about the reason he wants to learn Arabic.

To me, it is as though he is saying I want to spy on people like you and your family because you are a threat to the United States. He never thought that I would be taken aback by his words or get offended. He is free to do whatever he wants in life, but his reply shows that he either does not see me as a person, or he doesn’t care about what I would think or feel.

Similarly, saying to me jokingly that Americans may get blasted in Egypt shows that this professor has not even considered what these words may mean to me.

The stories I have shared above are not unique to Allegheny. Other Arabic teaching assistants around the U.S. have shared with me similar stories.

There was a shooting incident in a school in Nevada recently. American newspapers tell stories about shootings almost every week. How would you feel if I tell my students back in Egypt that I wouldn’t send them to the states to get shot dead? How would you feel if these words were addressed to you? Would you think it is a funny joke?

Reem M. Abou Elenain is a Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant at Allegheny College.

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