We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
The following is a guest post from AUA Mosaic Scholarship recipient Shayna Orens. She is currently volunteering with Hands Along the Nile Development Services, Inc. in Egypt. To find an amazing opportunity like this one, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations© today!
In our meetings with college students, I recall hearing my Egyptian peers ask, more than once, if Americans think Egyptians ride camels to school. They usually proceeded to tell me that they had never ridden a camel or even visited the pyramids.
They were equally shocked when I told them how much I hate going to Times Square and that I’ve never been inside the Empire State Building even though I live in New York City.
Even though we sat down to talk about politics, democracy, and revolution, we spent more time talking about cultural implications of soccer and whether American high schools really have jocks and cheerleaders.
I guess it’s necessary to acknowledge that we go to a very diverse and very liberal University in a very diverse and very liberal city. Being in Cairo has made me see American perceptions of the Middle East in a completely different light—in ways I never saw back home. It is so ironic to realize that cultural stereotypes are embedded in popular culture and media everywhere.
Whether it’s through Disney movies or television news, Americans are conditioned to look at the Middle East in a certain way. I know my first “exposure” to Middle Eastern culture was the movie Aladdin. It’s one of my favorite movies from my childhood, but it also imposes so many stereotypes about Arabs: that they ride camels, have genies in lamps, live in palaces, or have pet monkeys. When I visited Saudi Arabia and had to wear a hijab, someone commented on the photo, saying, “you look like Princess Jasmine.” I don’t actually look like princess Jasmine… I just looked “middle eastern” because I was wearing a headscarf.
I never realized that people might see Americans through this type of skewed perspective. I attended an arts high school that had no sports teams or high school “cliques.” We didn’t have a prom queen, and that shocked my peers in Egypt.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an unofficial ambassador. I’m realizing that it’s not just about what I’m doing here and now on the ground in Cairo. I feel like it’s up to us to not only break down stereotypes about Americans while here, but to go home and let people know that the Middle East is not what we see on the news and in movies. Yes there are terrorists. But there are terrorists in other places too. Many years ago, Egyptians may have ridden camels to school in rural places. But today, camel riding is mainly a tourist attraction.
It’s also about realizing how similar we are, and that these similarities, despite many differences, warrant respect and friendship. I talked with one student who wanted to study literature but knew he’d be more likely to find a job as an engineer. I face the same dilemma as a humanities major at Columbia. I appreciate my liberal education even more because I know it’s a privilege.
By our third outing with college students, all the initial awkwardness was gone. That’s because we took the time to break away the stereotypes and really got to know one another. As peace-builders, this is indispensable. On both sides of the table, we have to ask the obvious questions and get cultural stereotypes and filters out of the way. That’s how acquaintances become friends and how fellow nations become allies.