I was reminded the other day about my personal journey in Cairo and the relevance it carries to how Americans relate to one another (or not) in our current political climate. Indeed, my experience showed me a lot about learning to live with and understand people that you not only fundamentally disagree with on important issues, but who hold beliefs that are bigoted and even hate-filled.
When I moved to Egypt in the summer of 2005 to study Arabic, I didn’t know quite what I was getting myself into, but I had an idea. I was an American Jew (and an atheist to boot) going to live in the heart of an Arab world that didn’t like Americans, Jews or atheists. And as far as the city of Cairo was concerned, I was told to imagine where I had grown up — the posh suburbs of Chevy Chase, Md. — and where I had gone to college — Princeton University — and expect the complete opposite. So basically, as I departed for the Middle East a decade ago, I thought I was going to live in a really uncomfortable place where no one liked me. And from almost the moment I arrived, I realized that many of my expectations were spot on.
Cairo was, indeed, the opposite of where I had lived most of my life. It smelled like a combination of a city in need of a shower, shawarma and car exhaust, very little actually worked (from the toilets to the elevators), at least not for long, poverty was almost everywhere and there was a constant police and military presence which only made the city seem less safe and secure. And as far as being disliked, that view was seemingly validated soon after I arrived, when an Egyptian man told me that I looked like one of the many people he had killed during the 1973 war.
You could say that I had gotten what I asked for, and you’d be right. But that was OK. I wanted to be a diplomat or a spy, and so I was there to learn the language and about the culture, which I could only do by moving outside my comfort zone. And move outside my comfort zone I did, at least eventually. I left the dorms of the American University in Cairo, which were located in the diplomatic enclave of Zamalek, got an apartment near Tahrir Square, started spending a lot of my time in non-touristy coffee houses and made Egyptian friends, and not the kind who spoke very much English.
This strategy was simple enough, but it also required some compromises on my part. I wouldn’t tell most people that I was Jewish. And I would try not to get super-offended every time someone said something ridiculous about America and the West or Israel and the Jews. Otherwise, I would have been in a constant state of defensiveness and rage, and I wasn’t there to get angry and argue (although I did my fair share of that). I was there to soak it all up. So I would have to lower my offense threshold and my standards for whom I was going to spend my time with.
This was a process, and one that took a long time to unfold. But I gradually immersed myself in the culture and society. And over the 16 months I spent in Egypt, I made friends with unemployed college graduates, child laborers, cab drivers and shop owners at the ancient market Khan el-Khalili. Ultimately, I became so comfortable with my surroundings that you were as likely to find me playing dominos with old men for packs of cigarettes or trying to sell the perfume from my Egyptian friends’ stores to confused tourists, as you were to find me spending time with Americans or studying Arabic in any kind of formalized way.
So what explains this transition? Was this simply a function of me acclimating to a new value system and “offense threshold,” as I call it. Well, at first, sure. I simply reserved judgment whenever certain topics were discussed. But over time, something else happened to my mindset.
What I realized is that my Egyptian friends and acquaintances couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be defined by their bigotry. The vast majority of the time, they weren’t thinking or doing anything that had to do with their ignorant beliefs. They were human beings with many sides, and if I actually looked at their personality and life — which I did because I had “compromised” to become friends with them in the first place — I saw a core that wasn’t so different from mine. They were parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and strangers, colleagues, students and teachers, and a host of other roles, which were far more important to their identity and “worth” than that of ignorant bigot. To put this more biblically, if the Jewish God that I very much don’t believe in rendered judgment on my old Egyptian friends, I doubt their anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism would damn them. The worst thing they’ve probably ever done with their ignorance is vote for a ridiculous political candidate like Mohamed Morsi and tell each other Jewish jokes. And the best? I don’t know. What’s the best thing you’ve ever done?
It’s easy to label people as bigots and then dismiss them. But that’s not fair, and it just makes you feel superior while forcing the other person to identify more with their tainted belief system. To be sure, there were many times I didn’t take my own advice. And still other times where those that offended me went beyond the pale. For example, there was the time when a restaurant owner wouldn’t sell me a sandwich because “I won’t take money from a Jew.” And once, my cab driver introduced himself as “Osama bin-Laden,” which set me off completely. But over my almost year and a half in Egypt, I learned a lot about understanding people who hold ignorant and bigoted views. What’s more, this is something I’ve brought back home with me. It positively affects some of my personal relationships, and helps me navigate our fraught political climate.
I have to recognize that my situation in Cairo was completely different from most people who are subjected to racism and bigotry here at home. I could deny that I was Jewish while living in Egypt. I could also deny that I was American. This is not a luxury that people of color have in the United States. That being said, I do think my experience is instructive as we look across the political aisle at some Donald Trump voters and judge.
When I was in my criminal defense clinic in law school, a common trope was “people can’t be defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done.” I think that’s true and it was a particularly effective way to help us empathize with clients with long rap sheets filled with convictions for very serious offenses. But we should go one step further and add: “People can’t be defined by the worst thing they’ve ever thought or said.” This isn’t simply a neat trick to avoid confronting people about their bigotry or a way to excuse hatred, let alone behavior based on that hatred. It’s just a way to help us connect to people we think we’re completely disconnected from. Because after all, we’re not so different from each other. At least, that’s what I learned in Egypt.
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Daniel Miller is a lawyer, writer and activist in New York.