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Gillian Kendall, Alexandria

Who are you?

I’m Gillian Kendall, full-time freelance writer and writing coach, former assistant professor of English and teacher of ESL. See my website at www.gilliankendall.org. I’ve written two books, one of which is a travel book (Mr. Ding’s Chicken Feet) and edited a collection of travel stories (Something to Declare), both published by University of Wisconsin Press.

I’ve been writing professionally since about 1988. I did my first professional, freelance journalism when I lived in Egypt, writing for what was then the biggest English-language publication in the country, a glossy, color mag for ex-pats called CAIRO TODAY.I began traveling as the only America child in an English-Australia family, and as an adult I’ve lived in five countries (USA, England, Germany, Egypt, and Australia) and about 8 states.

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

I was teaching for Central Texas College on board a US Navy vessel in the Mediterranean, and the ship docked in Alexandria, Egypt. I was invited along with the officers to a party at the “Marine House,” and there I met some people who were teaching at the American Cultural Center, in Alexandria. I liked what I saw of Alexandria, and the teachers I met seemed friendly and happy people who enjoyed their work. I asked if they needed help, and they did. So when my assignment on the navy ship came to an end some months later, I moved to Alexandria to start work teaching at the ACC.

What challenges did you face during the move?

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By far the biggest challenges were the ones related to culture shock. Not speaking Arabic was difficult, but what was more difficult was the fact that Americans – especially women – were somewhat of an oddity in Alexandria then, and I could not leave my house without being ogled, stared at, and receiving a great deal of attention. Most of the attention – though not all – was friendly, but even that was tiresome. Egyptian men followed me in the street, walking very close to me and putting their faces up next to me, trying to force me to make eye contact and talk to them. Of course I was happy to talk to people sometimes, but such interactions are very tiresome when they go on constantly. I could NEVER have a moment of peace.

Even worse, some of the attention was very unfriendly – such as the time I had stones (small stones, but still!) thrown at my backside by a young man. He ducked away when I turned around and yelled at him (in Arabic!), but I was still quite upset. I think he was “stoning” me because I was wearing blue jeans and was therefore in his eyes an American whore. I didn’t wear jeans – or even trousers – very much after that.

Also, sometimes when I walked by strange men they stroked my hair, touched my skin, or made lewd comments. These interactions were the minority, but they were certainly challenging, and that kind of attention made it unpleasant for me to live there.

I learnt to wear a scarf over my hair and ALWAYS wear dark sunglasses when I left the house, and that made things slightly better. But I never got used to being constantly the center of attention on any street or public place. Although I took taxis most places, when I’d walk a little way or go into a market, I was very uncomfortable.

How did you find somewhere to live?

The manager at the ACC had moved out of his top-floor apartment in the “American” section of Alexandria, so I was able to move in. It was fantastic and I was very lucky to get it. With one other person, I shared a spacious 3-bedroom place with polished floorboards and two balconies, the top level on a three-story building. The only drawback was that the master bedroom was immediately across from the speaker for a mosque, so we heard the amplified, scratchy, and badly recorded call to prayer 5 times a day, including at dawn.

But it was otherwise a fine apartment. We had adequate heat, two showers and several sinks, and nice furnishings. Although the electricity supply wasn’t too bad, we had occasional trouble with other utilities, such as the phone, and with the “Butagas” that heated our stove. We also never really understood how we were supposed to get our mail; there was a man who sat in a doorway across the street who occasionally brought letters or messages to us. I don’t know if he worked for the people across the street, or worked for our building’s owner, or what.

The rent was affordable on our ACC incomes. We were able to have a cook one day a week and a cleaner ditto, and in between we were able to get our dry-cleaning picked up and brought to the house, all for payments that seemed modest to us but were quite fair in that city.

Most of my colleagues were not so lucky, and lived in less salubrious dwellings: some of their rental apartments closer to downtown were dingy and depressing.

Are there many other expats in your area?

Although we lived in the upscale “Rushdy” or “Roshdy” district (I think!),which was purported to be for “expats,” I don’t recall ever meeting or seeing any other people who seemed to be expats in my neighborhood. My usual routine was to walk down our street to the main road, to catch a taxi, and in those walks although a lot of people stared at me and some tried to talk to me, I didn’t really have any friends amongst the neighbors. So far as I could tell they were all Egyptians, not Americans or other foreigners.

I did see many Americans at work at the ACC, and sometimes we socialized together at the Marine House or in other parts of the city. I would have liked to live closer to other Americans, as I think it would have made daily life a bit easier if my boyfriend and I were not so unusual everywhere we went.

What is your relationship like with the locals?

I was lucky in that a friend at the ACC was engaged to a local man – one of her former students. His family could not have been more kind and welcoming to me and my boyfriend, and because of them we got to know a little of the real Alexandria. Other students occasionally invited us to their homes, too, and that was very kind of them, but we didn’t really have an ongoing relationship with many students or with many Egyptians. We both tutored English, and for those tutoring sessions we would go to private homes, but I did not make friends with the families I tutored for.

If I had not known that one family, I would have had very little contact with Egyptian people other than as people who worked for me (taxi drivers, cook, cleaner, etc.), and that would have been quite distressing. In retrospect, I wish I had worked harder at getting to know more of my students, and socializing with them more. Also I wish I’d made more efforts to learn Arabic.

However, I will add that I often found it quite stressful to be at parties or out in public in Alexandria. It seemed to me that Egyptian people – especially the men – spoke very loudly and almost seemed to be yelling a lot of the time. That was exhausting. Also, the streets and many public areas were very, very loud.

The Egyptian women who were my students often sort of hid behind their husbands. I don’t recall very many women students reaching out to me, though sometimes they were friendly if their husbands wanted to socialize with me and my boyfriend. Some women on the streets wore veils and a few even hid their faces and eyes under long, black chadors and sunglasses.

What do you like about life where you are?

I liked the work of teaching EFL, and I liked some but not all of my students. I liked visiting the museums and the many historical sites of Alexandria, and I liked the food. I really appreciated and enjoyed the friendship of the one Egyptian family that I got close to.

But mostly, I have to admit that I most enjoyed the luxuries of being paid in US dollars and being able to afford a lifestyle I would not have had at home (taxis, cook and cleaner, restaurant meals, etc.). That was not ultimately enough to sustain me – luxury isn’t as good as freedom and conversation – and I did not live there for more than about 8 months. After part of a winter, one spring, and a bit of a summer, I returned to America.

What do you dislike about your expat life?

I disliked it that my then-boyfriend, an American man with whom I was living in Alexandria, was so negative about the local people and the country as a whole. I don’t blame him for my own experiences, but I would have had a better time if I’d been on my own, or if I’d lived with someone who was more familiar with and/or more positive about the place we were living. I’d recommend that anyone who moves there try to make local friends, as soon as possible, and learn as much Arabic as possible! If I’d had an opportunity to live with, or even near, an Egyptian family, I think I’d have adjusted much better and had a better time.

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

Try to find a host family, or at least a few good friends who know and like the area where you will be living. Egyptian people tend to be extremely friendly, and though that can be overwhelming at times and you might need some downtime or quiet space of your own, I think there’s no substitute for being shown around or welcomed into their home by a local. I’d say to be wary of spending all your free time with Americans or other ex-pats: to get to know a place well, learn the language as best you can and spend time with the local people.

Also, for women: for going into public, wear skirts or dresses if you can stand it, and cover your hair with a scarf, and always wear sunglasses!

What are your plans for the future?

I don’t know if I’ll go back to Egypt anytime soon. I’m always curious about it, but it seems the political situation is fraught right now for everyone. I’m curious to know if women have more, or less, freedom than when I was there, and I wonder about my former students’ lives. I wish I had stayed in touch with them.

One day, I’d love to be able to find my one student who came from Sudan, a young man called Bannydhuro who took classes at the ACC. He was the best student I had in Egypt, and one of the best I’ve ever had in my life. I believe there are organizations that help Americans find refugees from the Sudanese war, but I’m not very hopeful about finding him based on just on an approximate age and a first name.

I’m glad to say that I’m still a little bit in touch with the American-Egyptian couple who befriended me in Egypt. They moved to the USA some years after I left, and they have been good friends, especially when I lived near them in California. It is because of that one family that I feel I know anything at all about Egypt and Muslim culture; without their friendship I’d have taken very little from my time in Alexandria except memories of living the high life overseas – not a very worthwhile pursuit.

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