Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Wonder Years, Part 5: Making Egyptian Friends

Friends make the world go round. Sure it's your family that has to love you through thick and thin, but it's your friends that CHOOSE to love you.

Plus they make life a whole lot more fun.

Egyptians are friendly. There is no doubt about that. I would say that most newcomers could agree with that, considering how many "Welcome to Egypt" greetings you might get your first several years here.

I always say that the sign that you've been here long enough to fit in is when you don't have people coming up to you and saying that to you here in the street.

Making local friends is an important step to settling down in Egypt.

I already told you about how hard it was for me to begin to learn to speak the language here and how I suffered from the side-effects of culture shock early on during my first years in Egypt. So I guess it's no surprise to you that I didn't make any Egyptian friends until after I'd been here for several months.

I think that if I'd made Egyptian friends earlier that I would have had an easier time those first few months.

But once I did find some locals to become friends with, this was all I needed to open the door to me feeling at home in Egypt. Of course it helped that I had learned a little Arabic and understood a little more of the Egyptian culture by this time.

I wouldn't say it's hard to make friends in Egypt. It's just that it's not something you can really measure at first. So when you think you've made a friend, maybe in a week's time they won't call you back. Or maybe someone you hadn't counted on becoming friends with sticks to you like glue.

In the beginning I found it easier to befriend the people I spent the most time with. Since most of my time was spent studying Arabic, I became friends with my Arabic language helper (a girl my age who helped me practice Arabic and learn about Egyptian culture 3 times a week). Also I enjoyed being with my Arabic grammar tutor who I met with twice a week - an older lady but still friendly.

I did also get the chance to spend two weeks with a young married Egyptian couple as a sort of cultural immersion experience. So after struggling through speaking all Arabic to the wife for two weeks and getting to know all her family and friends (especially from the church), I because such good friends with her I decided to marry her older brother.

Okay, so it wasn't JUST because I liked her so much. (He was pretty great himself...)

So my Egyptian friends were mostly the people around me, people I saw on a fairly regular basis. I didn't usually consider people I met while I was out and about as friends.

In fact, it's pretty difficult to become friends with just someone off the street. I'm not saying it can't happen in Egypt, just that it can be hard to really make that kind of a connection out on the streets of Cairo. Seriously, do you meet your friends back home while you're out at the mall? Most people become friends with people they know - not complete strangers. I'm not saying it can't be done, just that it's difficult.

But I can honestly say that I had some great friends in Egypt after I'd been here for a while. They have been such a help in making Egypt feel more like home to me.

And now that I live in Egypt full-time, well, since so many expats come and go every few years, it is nice to know that there are some Egyptians that will stand with me through the years, regardless of circumstance.

And despite the fact that I'm still American and stick my foot in my mouth occasionally...

There are some definite advantages to having Egyptians as friends:

They open the door to the Egyptian culture. Sure after living for so long in Egypt, I could sit here and try to give you a rundown of all the things you need to know about living in Egypt... or you could watch them being lived out by an Egyptian. Which is more interesting? Which is more accurate? (Trust me, after almost 8 years in Egypt, I still make mistakes)

They can teach you Arabic. The only skill they need is to be a native speaker. An Egyptian can tell you if you're pronouncing something incorrectly... and they can tell you how to say it right. You can (and will) learn all kinds of new vocabulary from them.

Egypt is their world. They know all the best stores to buy things. They know all the best places to eat and drink. You'll experience things you'd never dream of doing simply because you're with an Egyptian. It doesn't get any better than that.

Let me just say that I was more than thankful for the friends I had back then... they certainly made Egypt a home away from home for me.

Just keep in mind these important things when trying to make friends in Egypt:

Be sincere. People anywhere in the world respond to sincerity. Cross-cultural communication doesn't really allow for that "fake it till you make it" stuff. If you don't mean it, don't say it. (This is not to be confused with some of the cultural traditions you might pick up in Egypt.)

It takes time. Be patient. Friendships don't happen overnight. I've found that a real friendship develops with shared experiences which, of course, requires time. Try not to get discouraged (like I did in the beginning) if you can't write home about all the new friends you're making in the first weeks (or months) you live in Egypt.

Another thing about time is simply that Egyptians spend more time with their friends than we're used to back home in the States. So if I hung out with my best friend once every couple of weeks, here they might see their friend minimum of once a week and they talk to them even more often. My husband talks to most of his closest friends on a daily basis, and if he doesn't call them - they call him.

Be a friend first. An Egyptian you meet may not understand that you want to be friends with him or her (stick to same genders please, ladies to ladies and guys to guys, just to be on the safe side). You might have to make a little more effort from your side from the beginning.

Learn the Egyptian culture. The first mistake a lot of expats make when they try to become friends with locals is they put their foot right in their mouth by saying the wrong thing. They say something (usually a direct translation from their native language to the Arabic) and it just doesn't mean the same thing here. Depending on how much exposure your newfound *friend* has had to Western culture, they might not be so forgiving if you say or do something wrong (or offensive). I'm not saying don't make mistakes, because - let's face it - nobody can just move to Egypt, learn the language and assimilate into the culture without making any mistakes. I'm saying just be aware. Try to learn all you can.

Don't force it. Just because an Egyptian is friendly doesn't mean that they necessarily want to be your friend. If they give you their number and then don't answer your calls, then they don't want to be your friend. Or if they do and yet they never call you back on their own, well they probably don't want to be your friend then either. Trust me, if they never EVER call you - they don't really want to be your friend.

Location matters. It's hard to be friends with someone who lives all the way across town. But if you find someone who lives close to you, you might find it easier to keep that connection with them in the long run.

Don't get discouraged. Lots of people who move to a new country don't know anyone when they first get there. You're in the same boat that every other expat has been in. If you can't find local friends, stick with your expat ones for now. But keep trying to get out there and meet people. You might be surprised at the friends you'll make in the end.

Also, don't get discouraged if your friend doesn't open up his or her entire life to you right away. Maybe if you're female the family might want to meet you to make sure you're a *good girl* for their daughter to spend time with. But often you might just meet with your friend one-on-one. Eventually they might introduce you to other friends, but again just be patient and try not to force the issue. You don't want to make them uncomfortable.

Try not to complain. Egyptian friends are not the people you should complain about Egypt to. I don't care if you hate the traffic, hate the crowds, hate the dust, the pollution, the heat... try to find something positive about Egypt when you talk with your Egyptian friends. And ESPECIALLY do NOT complain about the Egyptian people to Egyptians... be careful not to make any kind of negative generalizations about Egyptians in their presence. Trust me, they won't say it, but they'll be wondering if you think that of them in the back of their minds.

They're just people too. Maybe this is just an American thing, but I've had to catch myself from thinking about how much better things are in the United States than they are here. Sure, there's room for improvement in Egypt in many ways but we can still come here as expats and learn from the people here. So if you have in your mind that you're somehow *better* than Egyptians (even in the very very back of your mind), this might be an unconscious barrier to making any real friends here.

All in all, the point is that if you're living in Egypt as an expat you're missing out on the most important part of the Egyptian experience if you don't make local friends here.

Because the best part about Egypt is the Egyptians.

Don't forget to check out the rest of this series:
The Wonder Years, Part 1: Arriving in Cairo
The Wonder Years, Part 2: Learning to Speak Arabic
The Wonder Years, Part 3: Seeing the Sights of Cairo
The Wonder Years, Part 4: Dealing with Culture Shock

The Wonder Years is a series about Erin's first 2 years in Cairo before she met and married her Egyptian husband. Stay tuned for more of her adventures in Egypt the first time around.


  1. Always a pleasure to read you Erin.

  2. Thanks Marie! Hope you are doing well. Sorry this one was a bit late in coming... =)

  3. Excellent tips. I'm not used to speaking to friends on a daily basis either. In the UK we're all busy and quite isolated from each other; we'd be lucky if we saw each other once a month. I realised in Egypt friends want to see you every other week and call you every other day; if not then they think you're being rude or distant, but it's not that, it's just a way of life I'm used to.

  4. Yes that's true. It was a bit hard at first to get used to calling more often, but after a while I just sort of got used to *asking about them* on a regular basis. I think perhaps we've gotten lazy in the States to keep up with friends more often, particularly the ones we don't see as much. But I like that I talk to my friends more often here.

    But I totally understand what you mean, it's a way of life that we're used to. We can choose to continue to act like we did back home or to adjust to the way they do things here. It's not right or wrong, it's just different.

  5. Hey Erin!! My name is Vanessa and I am married to an Egyptian also and I just happened by chance to your page when looking for Egyptian baby food. Lol. My husband and I just got back from Cairo with our 2 kids (we live in Minnesota), but are planning to possibly move to Cairo in the next year or two. I couldn't find your contact information so I'm just adding a comment here. :)

    Would love to chat some time! my email is venabambina@hotmail.

    Love your blog, by the way. :)

  6. Really good points on friendship! I was wondering if there is much of an American expat community happening in Cairo?? (My husband and I plan on moving to 6th October in a few years.)


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