Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

An Oasis of New Perspective

CAIRO – It takes an overnight trip into the middle of the Sahara Desert to realize how disconnected Americans are from all the places around the world over which we have an immense influence.

Last week, five Hoyas studying abroad in Egypt realized they only had a few days before orientation began and decided it would be a clever idea to take a 10-hour bus ride from Cairo to an oasis 50 km. from Libya, a place called Siwa.

I had been in Egypt for only a few days, yet was already starting to remember the locations of places in downtown Cairo by mapping out the KFC, McDonald’s and Hardees restaurants. I needed to escape Little America in Egypt.

Siwa is an oasis of hot and cold fresh springs in the middle of the desert, which gave rise to thousands of olive and palm trees. The people who live in Siwa are Berber and speak mainly the Berber tongue, but their business language is Arabic. It is believed that Alexander the Great consulted the oracle Ammon about his divine origins here. For millennia, Siwa has preserved its own culture and heritage, separated from the Nile by 600 km. of sand.

What does Siwa have to do with Georgetown? Not a whole lot on the surface – I suspect that, unless you have lived in Egypt for some time, you have never heard of this place. The children we spoke to in Siwa, however, have heard much about our country.

A young boy named Mohammed asked us if we wanted to hike the ruins of Shali – rising above the desert for over seven centuries. As we were walking up the ruins, we realized how unexplored Siwa was. I could not help but think about how direct an impact the United States has on the Middle East and on people like ohammed. After Israel, Egypt is the second-highest recipient of our foreign aid. In a place like Siwa, though, it’s hard to see where that money is put to use.

After we explored the ruins, Mohammed invited us to his mud-brick home for a break. There was no floor to the home, and we found ourselves surrounded by children and the occasional small goat. The stark simplicity of the Siwan people’s way of living reminded me of how often I assume that other people live the same way I do.

When I asked the children if they knew much about America, they looked at me as if I was crazy.

They were quick to tell us that, of course, they know about America. They study three languages in school: Arabic, Berber and English. They also believe that Americans don’t care about their culture, and wondered if it was true that Americans only learn English in school?

As I translated their words to my fellow Hoyas, we looked at each other and thought about how true their comments were. We were visibly upset.

While we, as Americans, pride ourselves on celebrating diversity and different cultures, we fall short of seeking to learn more about the world where our influence is felt.

In Siwa, people may live in mud homes, but they still have satellite televisions that broadcast images of America. Despite seeing the United States on TV, Siwa remains relatively untouched by globalization (often the same as Americanization). But they still see what America does to their neighbors and watch Hollywood images of sex, violence, drugs and wealth. These images are not America itself, but they are part of what we export. Combine these images with perceptions of U.S. policy in the Arab world, and you have some sense of how America appears to a person abroad.

I can’t imagine what Siwa would look like if oil were discovered there, but I suspect that more of us would know about it.

That isn’t to say that the Siwa’s imagination of America is entirely accurate. The people of Siwa had many misperceptions of life in the United States. They probably would not imagine poverty, a Muslim mosque or multiculturalism. Those are some of the missing pieces of our image abroad. It is often difficult to find a common ground between ourselves and other cultures.

I don’t expect everyone to know about a tiny gem in the Sahara called Siwa. I certainly had never heard of the place prior to my visit. However, my experience in Siwa caused me to wonder how many Siwas the United States affects with its culture and policies.

Mohammed is one of the smartest kids I have met. While he may never read this column, I am sure he would be proud to know he inspired someone to teach others about his culture.

My time in Siwa made me acutely aware of the asymmetry of knowledge that exists between the United States and the countries for which we profess concern. Hoyas could learn to take a page from a slower, simpler culture that does not need McDonaldization to accept globalization. Since we want to see change in our world, we should make a genuine effort to explore the more esoteric facets of foreign society.

Hammad Hammad is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at SALAMAT runs every other Friday.

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