Semester at Sea Fall 2006 Voyage banner


True Wealth of Knowledge


By Robbieana Leung

            Forty five minutes of being hassled by merchants, sexually harassed by children who enjoyed cutting off our path by biking in front of us, dodging reckless drivers that drove lawlessly, stared, heckled and “welcomed to Alaska” by Egyptian locals roaming the streets, rewarded us with our arrival to the grand Bibliotheca in Alexandria. The library was a towering structure of many shapes. From where I stood, a huge pane of diagonal glass windows overlooked a wall with engravings of words from a melting pot of languages. Its contours were brightened by giant ball and triangle figures that were decorated in blue neon lights. On our way to the ticket booth, a man in his late forties suddenly came up to us and informed us that “the library closes in thirty minutes.” I never imagined that such a superficial comment from a stranger would turn into an hour and a half long talk - one that would cause me to never enter the doors of the great library, yet experience the best conversation I would have in Egypt.

            We managed to talk about everything from his work, intimate questions about religion, war and peace to even the meaning of life! Amir works at the Port of Alexandria, but he devotes much of his time doing social work and being a part of an organization called ­Sustainable Development Association (SDA), which seeks to dispel ignorance between the West and Middle East through student exchanges. While the details of the program are still in progress, Amir enthusiastically encouraged us to check out, and apply to be one of the sponsored students that stays in Egypt, and learns about Arabic culture and language for one, three or six months. The state of the world, he said, is shattered, but as an optimist, Amir works to “do something good for the future” though SDA, which believes is his calling. He believes goodwill between nations is achievable, the most progressive way being through small scale interactions between people of different nations, with the goal of understanding each other. Through understanding, respect can be achieved, which brings the world closer to peace.

            As Farha Ghannam mentions in her book “Remaking the Modern”, my unexpected encounter with strangers certainly “enriched, in ways that I had not anticipated beforehand my understanding of daily practices and struggles” (8). Through participant observation, I was able to see another different part of a Middle East that the US media rarely portrays – I saw the genuine heart and wisdom of a compassionate Muslim man, who strives to do something great to better the world, despite the overwhelming odds of ineffective political security and damaging finger pointing.

Ghannam also talks about encountering a rich community that warns her not to visit the poor sections of society, which they see as the “Other”, and perceived as “drug dealers, criminals, troublemakers, and most recently, fundamentalists and terrorists” (5). Regardless of these cautions and her fears of being discriminated as a foreigner, Ghannam travels to the poor area and meets accepting people who she befriends. Her anecdote reinforced the idea that ignorance and stereotypes, created by looking at a region through the eyes of another without visiting the place for oneself, can be dispelled through meeting local people and learning from them. I experienced this through conversations with Amir, which dispelled propaganda and stereotypes of Western media that Muslims are Islamic terrorists.

            My walk in the city showed me how much value there is in talking to people, even if it means committing a tourist crime of not going to the main attractions of a place, deemed by the tourist industry as “must not miss, or miss out.” The encounter with Amir was valuable for a multitude of reasons. I was reminded that visiting a country without meeting the locals steals away from an experience because the locals are prisms of truth, knowledgeable about their country in an intimate and real way, because they live it everyday. Talking to Amir had provided me with more education than what one of the biggest and most impressive libraries in the world could ever offer.

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