Friday, October 08, 2010

Working in Egypt

Me working as an office manager in Egypt
It's a challenge navigating the business world in Egypt as a foreigner. You're already an outsider, whether you speak the language or not. And no matter what you do or where you work, if the majority of the people around you are Egyptians - it will take some real time and effort to feel like you belong there.

I worked in Egypt for 3 1/2 years. I was an office manager for an Egyptian company for just over 2 1/2 years and worked as a supply chain specialist for an Egyptian/American company for just under a year.

Don't get me wrong, I loved working in Egypt. It allowed me a glimpse of a very different world here. But it also gave me a glimpse of a very different me.

Here is what I didn't know before I started working in Egypt.

Working in Egypt will teach you a lot about yourself. Something about being around the same people 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, that can bring out a side of you that you had never known before (both good and bad).

You find out what your *buttons* are. You can't spend that much time around people without them seeing the real you. So whatever my issues were, there was no way to hide them. So whether it was dealing with office politics, fighting to implement a system, or understanding how Egyptian managers should deal with subordinates - it was very easy to see that I had a lot to learn...and a lot to grow.

You learn what your strengths are. It didn't seem to matter what I thought I was good at. What mattered more was what my manager thought I was good at and what value I had as the only foreigner working in an Egyptian office. I never realized how creative I could be at solving problems, how crazy organized I was, or how extensive my *basic* computer skills were compared to the average Egyptian, until I began to work in Egypt. All these years I had taken for granted the privilege of being a native English speaker and how I was never intimidated by the words "I don't know."

You learn that being able to speak Arabic and speaking Arabic in an office are two very different things. Even though I spoke pretty good Arabic when I started, it still took me a while to learn the correct office vocabulary in Egypt. And speaking Arabic at work wasn't just about learning the vocabulary but rather learning the way of saying it so they'd understand not just the words but, more importantly, the meaning.

You learn that relationships are more important than everything else. This was one of the hardest lessons for me to learn. Because where I'm from, business doesn't get personal. Here there is a fine balance to walk between trying to get a job done and not losing the love of the people who work alongside you in the process. Respect was easy to get, it was getting their devotion and loyalty that was much harder.

You learn that understanding people in Arabic over the phone may be your greatest accomplishment ever. I can honestly say that the most difficult thing I ever had to do while working in Egypt was to answer the phone as a secretary for an Egyptian company. Now I take this skill for granted, but back when I was first starting out I dreaded every time that phone rang.

I know that working in an office in Egypt is probably a lot different than the types of jobs that many foreigners hold in Egypt. Teachers, for example, may have vastly different experience than I had just because the nature of their work is so different from what I was doing.

Still, even though I am taking a break from work now to care for my young son, I know that it was a privilege to get to work even for a little while in Egypt. Not only did it make me feel *normal* with a regular 9 to 5 job, but working side-by-side everyday with Egyptians also helped me to realize that they're just like us (Americans, that is).

And I think that made all the difference. It wasn't me against the world, against the culture here, against the lack of a system, or even against the people here.

I was just part of the family.

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