Seven Anthropology Students Go Diving into Egyptian Society
Each student has a research project, a concrete question they wish to explore. Each takes the reader with them into a different world: the world of young, unemployed women, the world of middle-class youngsters looking for love, the world of teachers who top up their meagre salaries by giving private coaching. It is not only the vividly written reports on the objects of the research that make their stories come alive. Descriptions keep slipping into the narrative of experiences the students themselves had in the course of their stay, and these are even more compelling.
This research really is an adventure, because when a female student from Berlin in her early thirties decides to investigate the informal networks of women in a Cairo suburb, it is a challenge for her not only as an academic, but also as a person. In her article ‘Children, Chatting and Tomatoes: Women’s Networks in a Suburb of Cairo’, Frederike Köppe describes her research process, which consists of such simple things as her bus journey from the centre of Cairo to Al Nahda, an area on the outskirts of town. She describes the reactions of Egyptian acquaintances: ‘Their comments were along the lines of: “Just be very careful out there, the people there are dangerous,” or: “What do you want to talk to these women about? They don’t know anything about the world, they just chatter and cook and eat all day long.” Köppe quickly realises that she can only move about in Al Nahda if she is accompanied by her hostess, Umm Zaynab. This certainly restricts her freedom of movement and thus also her access to information. However, the student is dependent on Umm Zaynab; if she were not staying with her, she would not be able to remain in the area at all for very long. The strength of her research is that her relationship with her hostess flows into the cognitive process as part of her reflections. This is the charm of the project: because all of the authors are relatively young, they are included by their interview partners not so much as authority figures but rather as young people with whom one can establish a relationship. This is how Köppe describes the way a woman’s social position alters when she gets married: ‘Instead of talking about her dreams and expectations, she now has the feeling that she occupies a position from which she can give moral and practical advice to others, or imparts her judgement to other as yet unmarried women – including myself.’
While Anne Schonfeld, whose research is focussed on intercultural romantic relationships, refrains from relating her own experiences in her report – though as a Western student she is also a potential research subject – the author’s personal experiences are central to the article by Katharina Lang. She is researching access for unemployed youths to further vocational training, and in doing so she herself comes up against unexpected obstacles. She describes the unfriendliness and lack of transparency in the NGO she was initially working with. After reading the first half of her report the reader is tempted to believe that the large-scale projects for further vocational training are all just castles in the air. The programmes do not seem to reach young people at all. However, in the course of her research she discovers another, very active NGO and interviews people there. The trainees are all very satisfied; they hope that doing the courses will improve their situation. Unfortunately, however, they are wrong. As Lang and her fellow student Tabea Goldboom, who concentrates on the strategies of unemployed women in the same part of town in their search for work, conclude, further vocational training does not necessarily mean that the job hunt will get much easier. While it is true that many unemployed people lack the necessary qualifications to do the jobs they are applying for, it is also the case that suitability for the post is often not the only basis on which jobs are allocated. Connections are far more likely to play a major role.
In the course of her research Sarah Hartmann visits private schools offering extra tuition. By describing the system of private coaching, which almost all Egyptian children have, she illuminates both the failure of the Egyptian education system and the ambitions of parents who see education as the key to a better life. She describes the complex interests of pupils, parents, teachers, and tuition centres.
Sarah Gollnest is interested in the factors that prevent women from making use of the health services. The official version measures accessibility in kilometres. However, it is not only distance that prevents women from going to the doctor. Financial considerations and also linguistic barriers – doctors speak a different language to women on the street – also play a part. Gollnest’s descriptions of her visits to nutrition courses and NGO infirmaries are very vivid and offer a glimpse of daily routine within the health system.
Nicolas Kosmatopoulos has chosen a promising subject: he is investigating the interaction among shoppers in a shopping mall in the centre of Cairo. However, it is not the people he interviews who are at the heart of his article, but rather the attempt to construct a theory. This tendency can also be found in other reports: instead of trusting the results of their research and drawing conclusions from their interviews, the students rely on existing literature in their field, some of it very old. In some cases the theory even seems to get in the students’ way and prevent them from observing properly, as in: you see only what you expect to see. This is apparent, to mention one example, in connection with the employment of girls and young women in simple jobs. Goldboom writes that many employers favour men. This also fits with all the findings in the specialist literature. In fact, at present young women often have a better chance than young men of finding work in the private sector as shop assistants or unskilled employees because they are generally cheaper and more motivated. This preferential treatment of young women in some sectors of the job market, especially in so-called ‘informal neighbourhoods’, is so pronounced that it is leading to conflict between the sexes. The work of NGOs is primarily concentrated on women and girls, because this work corresponds to foreign donors’ funding guidelines. This may well be an additional reason why the shift in the balance between the sexes in this sector was not taken into account in the students’ research.
The anthology Youth, Gender and the City is a fascinating read, and the stories of individuals in this enormous city make it a book that is sure to find many readers, not only in academic circles. It tells us just as much about the city and its people as it does about relationships between young people from the West and from the Arab world. The reports are written in a vivid and lively way, which makes them a pleasure to read.
is a German journalist in Cairo. The book Youth, Gender and the City: Social Anthropological Explorations in Cairo was edited by Thomas Hüsken and published by the Goethe Institute Egypt, 2007.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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