Terminology. When institutions in Egypt call things "Faculty of Art" or "Faculty of Communications," that's like the "College of Art" or "School of Communications" in the US. I didn't understand before I got here, and therefore so I thought I'd be speaking with... the faculty. As in the professors. Not so. We were scheduled to talk to undergraduates in media and communications about strategies in independent filmmaking, and again these folks were in their first few days of school. (There's an interesting thing to explore here about "faculty" as people vs "faculty" as an institution, which comes first, chickens and eggs, but I've not teased it out in my head yet.)
It was a big group. Maybe 40 students, mostly women. We showed some work and gave a short presentation, but were mostly interested in sparking some discussion with the students, and we found them to be very frustrated. Not with us, not with their school, but it was a mystery. Like they were trying to figure out what question to ask us, and they couldn't do it in English, and the translation wasn't getting it across.
Finally one of the students stood up and explained in excruciating detail: they had made a video about dangers on The Corniche (a huge road that runs along the beach in Alexandria), about how people were getting killed on this road because they were trying to walk across it instead of using pedestrian tunnels, and it was critical of the ministry that manages the roads and traffic. They felt that the video didn't get attention in deserved, and they didn't know if it was because they were being silenced/sandbagged by the people they were criticizing, or if it just wasn't any good.
"So," the student concluded, "we want you to tell us exactly how to make a documentary, starting from the very beginning." I couldn't help it, but I laughed. "I get it," I said. "You want a whole film education in two hours." We talked more about strategies they could use to become better and more confident gradually, and then we discovered that many of these students were going to be in a workshop with us later that night, so they'd be able to show us their work and get more input. Problem (somewhat) solved, and after a customary and awkwardly posed group picture, we moved on.
Next up was lunch with people from Channel 5 Alexandria, TV producers, directors, editors, etc. at the swanky Greek Club. We had a tremendous interpreter with us (not just a translator, but an interpreter), which was very fortunate, because once again people were chomping at the bit to talk politics. God, where did it even begin? First, I think these folks had some preconceived notions about what we'd be like, like perhaps I'd be some government shill or something like that, so everything I'd say was through this Gringo Filter (or whatever gringos are called int he middle east). Case in point: one of the producers made an offhand comment about how crappy some of the public schools had become in Alexandria. I foolishly thought "common ground!" and tried to draw a parallel to the American public education system.
This lady stopped and said "I don't think you could possibly compare the schools in Egypt to schools in America," implying that I couldn't possibly understand their pain. I restrained myself, wanting to throttle this woman who lives in a Mediterranean resort town and tell her about trying to navigate the absolute joke that is South Carolina public school district horse trading shenanigans, but instead I just said that without a tax base the infrastructure crumbles. "But you pay the taxes," she replied. I explained that the way to get elected to an office in the US, especially in the south, is just to say you'll cut taxes no matter what. Eventually this wears away the fabric of a social contract. She wasn't buying that it worked that way, but keep in mind that the absolute most assured way to be elected to office in Egypt is to already be in office.
Somehow we got onto the subject of the Kyoto Protocols. "Kyoto is a problem, because it restricts developing nations. What developing nations contribute to global warming is nothing compared to the US." I mentioned that I thought it was funny because that logic in reverse is exactly how the Bush administration justified ignoring them. This did not go over well, a few of the people bristled, thinking I was daring to compare them to Bush, due to some language disconnect. This was starting to get ugly, so I figured I'd make my opinion absolutely clear. "I'm not agreeing with that logic," I said "Kyoto failed because the biggest country didn't buy in. Our government lies!"
I had forgotten that there were embassy personnel at the table, who at this point jumped in. The next part was a blur. It got sort of loud and someone jumped in and said "I just need to step in and say that this is the opinion of this citizen, he is not speaking for the U.S. government!" I got a bit nervous. Someone else smiled at me and said "careful, you're a delegate now."
Screw that. I didn't fly five thousand miles so I could pretend everything is ok all the time. If they want cultural exchange, then damn it, let's exchange. If not, then let's all just go back to the hotel, Americans can watch Fox News, Arabs can watch Al Jazeera, and we can all feel smug in our assumptions. Except that I felt very alone and nervous all of a sudden. "Am I in trouble now?"
"No!" Bridget was reassuring, "you're allowed to say anything you want, anytime. But since you're with us, I have to make it clear that you're not speaking for the United States." The table was very chilled out after that. From what I'd heard, since they get a lot of diplomat-speak, Egyptian folks love it when Americans don't speak diplomatically. So this must have been just delightful for them. But I was exhausted again, this time emotionally, and it was only midday.