The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect South Asia Scene’s editorial policy.
As an Arabic student from London, I along with a few class mates spent a year in Egypt for what is commonly labelled an “immersion year”. The purpose being to involve ourselves in the culture and daily life of the country, and as a product, hone in our language skills and perfect cultural nuance.
Contrary to the usual reaction members of the subcontinent receive in the Arab states however, here in Egypt we were hailed as celebrities. Ironically not for any reason other than our cultural heritage!
“Shahrukh Khan, Akshay Kumar!” they’d shout at our friends, and I admit I was rather chuffed to have been called Deepika Padukone once (albeit probably the only Indian name he knew).
Egypt’s long running obsession with the subcontinent and Bollywood in particular is fascinating. Ten years ago they’d shout “Musharraf”, or “Amitabh” depending on which side of the border you said you originated from. Egyptian expertise in the field has now grown and you’re called a name to which you MAY bear some resemblance.
Although various friends and family members visited us in Egypt, it was the more ‘visibly’ Indian members that attracted the most attention. My uncle’s mustache and the orange kurti donned by my aunty adequately resembled the Egyptian image of a Bollywood couple. I watched on as they were photographed by locals, and spoke as their ‘tour guide’ when they were interviewed by a tourism programme. Had I assimilated far enough for my celebrity status to have decreased? I never got to see where that programme ended up in fact. In hindsight, the reactions were quite similar to how a European looking man is received in the subcontinent.
Bangladesh was a country? Food item? Language?
Being an outsider and an infrequent one at that, had its advantages. However, the lack of exposure to the culture of the subcontinent is evident in the stereotypes that have formed, and the general ignorance about that region of the world. Bangladesh for example, was a country? Food item? Language? Most Egyptians had never heard of. Consequently by the end of the trip despite our different backgrounds, we were all labelled ‘Hindi‘ (Indian). The lack of exposure, while I wouldn’t consider it as having malicious intent, was very visible. Misconceptions around the religious diversity of the subcontinent were clear; the homogenisation of Hindu and Islamic customs was evident with the recurring question, “Do you worship cows?” The same can be said for racialised social stereotypes, as an Asian friend was misunderstood for a servant when helping a flatmate settle in.
This range of reactions begs the question however as to why Egypt, a nation so far removed culturally, linguistically and geographically from the subcontinent has such a fascination with the region. I put this down to the North Indian Film Industry. The unrealistic fantasies presented by the mainstream cinema deeply resonate with many global populations who themselves are struggling for the basics. In a particularly turbulent time in Egyptian politics, with an increasingly disillusioned youth, facing high unemployment and thus difficulties in getting married, it comes as no surprise that eternal love stories and ‘taxi driver becomes hero’ tales tug a chord!
Aside from the ‘scientific’ explanations of course however, it goes without saying that anyone can fall in love with a culture as rich as that of the subcontinent!
- Werisha Husaini