Junior Geoff Bendeck, an international affairs major, is finishing his semester studying abroad in Cairo. Twice a month, he has shared his experiences and observations from the Middle East as one of GW’s many expats. Next semester, he will return to GW, as the Office of Study Abroad did not approve his request to study in Beirut, Lebanon.
“His body plodded on mechanically, while his reasonable mind left him, and from without, looked down critically on him, wondering what that futile lumber did and why. Sometimes these selves would converse in the void; and then the madness was very near, as I believe it would be near the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments.”
-T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”
The Middle East is a world of twos – caught between old and new, rich and poor, educated and ignorant. Like T.E. Lawrence said, it can drive the sane man mad. Yet in the general chaos and disorder of a city such as Cairo lies a beauty unlike the greatest churches or cobblestone streets in Europe. It’s a beauty not appreciated by everyone. It takes a certain type of person – one, I suppose, who is not altogether sane. It’s the beauty of the human spirit, the life and happiness that can be found with a soccer ball or a smile.
It’s pretty universal: Most of the American students here are ready to go, back to the familiarity of spending the holidays at home. Where there are meters in cabs, traffic rules, clean air and familiar faces. Cairo can be a tough place to live. There are constant double standards to being a Westerner. Always being expected to pay more, struggling with the language and living in a city of 20 million can drive anyone to lose his nerve. But I know I will miss it. I know that some part of me will always look longingly back on this experience, this challenge, as a milestone in my life.
I think I’ve seen the good and the bad of Egypt and Cairo. It is a country stuck between modernity and the dark ages – democracy and authoritarianism. The rich upper class is content to watch the poor struggle on less than $2 a day. They complain about the authoritarianism yet don’t really enter the political fight against it led by the Muslim Brotherhood. The poor are overwhelmingly turning to the mosques and radical Islam as the answer to their oppression. It is a problem that too few are paying attention to in the United States.
Perhaps the greatest and most universal thing I’ve experienced this semester is that in all countries there are rich and poor. Eventually, unless they are given an avenue to rise above their abject poverty, the poor will become empowered through violence and any movement which promises them a voice and future. In this case, it is the Muslim Brotherhood.
I’m not really sure what the whole purpose of my life is, but I know living in Cairo, traveling to Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco and around Egypt has shown me that more students need to see what I have. According to the New York-based Institute for International Study, only 0.5 percent of students studying abroad in 2003-2004 chose to in the Middle East – a little more 1,000 students. Even fewer, about 0.3 percent, chose to study in Africa. In today’s world, that simply isn’t enough.
I am coming home with a greater appreciation for the freedom our founding fathers bestowed upon us – yet knowing that too often we as Americans choose to stay in our bubble of democracy, refusing to engage the greater world. The Middle East has its problems – I’ve seen them firsthand – but more importantly it has limitless potential, with a people who just want a chance at their own dreams. So as I end my student expat experience, and close this chapter in my life, I must encourage everyone to do the same. Travel, study abroad, take a semester off and see the world waiting outside our Foggy Bottom doors.