Dumplings in the Desert: Reflections from Cairo’s Chinese Community, from AC4 Fellow, Sophia Antoun
After three weeks in Cairo, I have developed a quiet affection for this place. Maybe it’s being in one of the most ancient societies in the world that has left me a bit star-struck, or maybe it’s the fact that the city itself requires a certain amount of infatuation to avoid constant infuriation with dangerous roads and insufferable heat. Either way, my impressions of Egypt aren’t nearly as interesting as what’s going on here. My stay thus far has been focused on discovering the growing Chinese community in the Cairo neighborhoods of Ma’adi and Abbasia. There is a rough estimate of around 10,000 Chinese living in Egypt, and while that number may seem minute compared to other immigrant populations in the country, the Chinese community is building a presence here that cannot be ignored.
My research is intended to explore a side of Egypt that many do not see. The world sees a country post revolution, one that perhaps attempted a democratic process with the election of Mohammed Morsi, but whose efforts were usurped by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military coup. Many foreigners have left Egypt since 2011 due to political instability, sectarian conflict, and general economic decline. In short, Egypt’s revolution is often unfairly depicted as a disappointment, and this disappointment is what the world is shown of the country. We are not shown, however, the thousands of Chinese immigrants that move to Egypt each year seeking employment and starting businesses of their own throughout the country.
The Sino-Egyptian relationship is growing stronger, not just on a political level, but on the grassroots level as well. Cultural exposure and integration via Chinese-owned businesses are encouraging the two communities to interact and become interested in one another’s ways of life. The interview questions I asked both Egyptians and Chinese focused on their impressions of cultural diversity in Egypt and the role that the Chinese community plays in diversifying the country. Their answers suggest that Chinese-owned businesses play a key role in this process.
My research focused on Chinese-owned restaurants in Cairo. These restaurants offer diners a small example of the Chinese cultural experience, and as such, Chinese-owned restaurants are acting as unofficial ambassadors throughout Cairo’s budding Chinatowns. Interviewing restaurant owners, and both Chinese and Egyptian patrons has illuminated the cross-cultural friendships, influences, challenges, and successes that occur between the Chinese and Egyptian communities over plates of Chinese food and cups of Green tea.
Interviewing participants consistently for the past three weeks has given me the chance to reflect on the nature of research itself. Research gives us the opportunity to ask questions we would normally withhold in any other circumstance. The guise of researcher somehow opens a door of communication for both interviewer and interviewee alike, allowing details to peek through the usual drudge of friendly conversation. This project is yet another example for me of how important relationships are in communication. Without relationships, communication is limited to the conventions of etiquette and propriety. Relationships not only allow our research to be more robust, but they also magnify the human experience and encourage free and open communication. Research trains us to build relationships at lightning speed, and as researchers we are in a never-ending position of graciousness to our participants for engaging in and upholding these brief but significant interactions.
With a few more days in Cairo and several more restaurants to visit, I look forward to the new people I will meet and the relationships that will be built over that most universal of connectors: food.
Author: Sophia Antoun is in the International Education Development Masters Program at Teachers College, conducting research within Cairo’s growing Chinatowns where native Egyptian and immigrant Chinese communities are engaging in informal cultural exchange. By collecting both Egyptian and Chinese narratives via interviewing, this research seeks to explore if and how a peaceful integration process between the two communities is occurring amidst the otherwise politically unstable and deeply sectarian environment of post-revolution Egypt.
Images: Photos from fieldwork, provided by author.