Junior Geoff Bendeck will spend the next two semesters studying abroad in Cairo and – Office of Study Abroad permission pending – Beirut, Lebanon. Twice a month, he will share his experiences and observations from the Middle East as one of GW’s many expats.
“Booosh Bad, Amer-e-can people guud.”
It was not the first or the last time I’d heard this popular Egyptian saying, but the context was a little different than the usual cab ride banter I’d experienced in Cairo so far.
When my roommate first invited me to meet some of his new friends at a local Islamic bookstore near campus, I didn’t know what to think. Having nothing better to do on a short day of classes, we headed over to meet some Islamists and perhaps make a few purchases that I’m sure could be added nicely to anyone’s FBI file.
Arriving down the side street, past the real markets of Cairo, I could tell we were off downtown’s main drag. There weren’t any KFCs or Pizza Huts here, just the proverbial smog and traffic of the authentic poor Cairo street. We had left behind the commercial, Westernized bubble of Cairo’s main square and our campus.
As we hesitantly entered the bookstore, I couldn’t help but feel like I was going back to that small Christian bookstore I remember from my hometown. It could very well have been that small Christian bookstore except for a few small things – like the Arab-scripted books with angry looking clerics on them and that one odd-looking book titled, as it was translated to us, “Bush’s blasphemous comments on the Prophet Muhammed.” Of course our Islamist friend assured us that everything in the book was true and its author was a respected intellectual. I had to bite my tongue not to ask if he taught at Jihad University.
Before departing for the bookstore I couldn’t get the image of the Taliban out of my head when making preconceptions about what an Islamic bookstore owner would be or act like. In reality, like most things, it wasn’t the case – or at least all of the case. The two brothers who ran the place were very different. The older and wiser I nicknamed Omar, for his eerie similarity to Mullah Omar, the former Taliban leader. There was a creepy way his eyes looked behind me when he talked to me, and after I turned around to see if he was talking to me or someone else, I realized there was something wrong with his sight. The younger brother was all smiles and eagerly asked us if we could help him get a visa to visit the United States. After explaining new visa regulations and the Patriot Act I had to sadly tell him to keep dreaming and one day – maybe after the Republican Party is dissolved – his dreams might come true.
Interestingly though, they had almost a full wall of books in English. Several fascinating and interesting books, a few of which I couldn’t help but revel at. The titles ranged from “Noble Women Around the Prophet,” a kind of who’s who of the Prophet’s female compatriots, to selections from the Koran – Islam’s holy book, to “Milestones” by Sayyid Qutb, a book of religious social criticism that I thought the Egyptian government had banned.
What I learned in little more than an hour and a half, browsing in the store and talking, laughing and joking with the two owners, was very enlightening.
Around campus, there is a running joke that American University in Cairo is divided between Beirut and Tehran – liberal and conservative. There are the girls in tight-fitting designer jeans, bare shoulders and sunglasses. In fact, it’s a scene that can take me right back to Kogan Plaza on a sunny day. There are also the veiled conservative girls at AUC. It is bewildering to watch at times, Beirut and Tehran, strengthening my belief in the bipolar nature and difficulties we find in the new global world. So, when I asked Mullah Omar his thoughts on the designer jean-wearing and unveiled girls at AUC, I got a surprising answer. His reply was that there are those who don’t wear the veil who are good and those who wear it and are not good. He was uneasy with the tight jeans, and said of course he wished they would not wear such form-fitting pants. His little brother, about my age, had a big smile on.
When the time came to leave, after making my two small purchases (sadly, not the one about Bush’s blasphemous comments on the Prophet) our host smiled at us and offered us the standard hello and goodbye to Americans in Egypt.
“Boosh bad, Amer-e-can people guud.” And we all laughed. Yeah, we might not have the most popular leader, but today we made two new Egyptian friends who, like a lot of people all over the world, just want a little slice of that American dream.
-Geoff Bendeck is a junior majoring in international affairs.