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Oasis Magazine Articles

The Experience of Culture Shock in Egypt

By Carol El Hawary

Once I had made the decision to move to Cairo, I had several months to prepare for the enormous changes I was about to face. I had heard the term ‘culture shock’, but had never truly experienced it. There’s plenty of information available - I read books, blogs, expat websites and anything else I could find on the subject. None of it adequately prepared me for the reality of living in a culture that’s about as different from Western European culture as you could get. Egypt is a country which engenders strong emotion – I love Egypt and hate Egypt in equal measure.  

Whilst there are many differences between British and Egyptian culture, the most significant of these is religion, which is soaked into Egyptian culture the way syrup is soaked into basbousa, the traditional Egyptian semolina cake. There is the call to prayer five times a day from Cairo’s numerous mosques. The regular refrain Insha’Allah (if God wills it) when discussing anything related to the future. Politics. Women and their role in society, their dress, their rights. Standards of behaviour. It permeates absolutely everything in a way that is just not the case in Britain, where for the majority of people, religion is something you do at weddings, funerals, and maybe the carol concert at Christmas.

It’s not just religion though. Egyptians have an extremely fluid concept of time and punctuality. The driving in Cairo is, frankly, terrifying. Most Egyptians say they are incredibly proud of their country, and yet everywhere I see evidence of the contrary, particularly with the litter, which is everywhere. Sometimes I think what Cairo needs is a massive declutter.   

Of course there are many wonderful things about Egypt too. They are a family oriented society. I told some of my students that I had never met some of my cousins’ children, and they were aghast. The more you get to know Egyptians, the more you appreciate their warmth, passion, friendliness and humour. Egyptians could talk the hind legs off a herd of donkeys. Just when I think I might go mad with some of the cultural challenges, one of my Egyptian colleagues will make me laugh so much it makes me forget that there are cultural differences; in the end, we’re all human.

So how have I coped with the enormous culture shock that is Egypt? Pretty well I think, but I’ve had help. I’m working with a counsellor from Expat Nest, which is a professional online counselling service for expats. I have coped with the adjustment to life in Cairo, and my difficulties with a cross-cultural relationship, so much better because of these fortnightly sessions.  What I have discovered though is that you can go backwards as well as forwards; some days I look at the piles of litter and long to see a bin lorry! My Egyptian husband and I still have many animated discussions that are entirely caused by our different cultures and perspectives.  But I’m going to continue to integrate into the culture of this incredible country. I’ll always be British, but maybe one day I’ll be a little bit Egyptian too.

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