Finding a new place to call home
a story of integration in the Egyptian countryside
How do Western foreigners integrate when they travel and settle in other countries like Egypt?
At a time when the topic of migration is at the center of debate, it is usual to take under scrutiny how foreigners coming to Western countries integrate. Do they learn the language of the host country? Do they open themselves to the local communities? Do they adapt to new customs and traditions?
On the contrary, the same questions are rarely posed when it comes to discussing how Westerners travel and settle in other countries in the world. Particularly in the so-called “developing countries” like Egypt, it is easier for foreigners to stay in their own bubble, preserving their Western lifestyle without opening up to the local culture.
Nonetheless, during my stay in Egypt, I came across a number of people who have travelled and then settled here using a different approach. From Cairo to Alexandria, Dahab, and many other cities, it is possible to find inspiring stories of people who have built a new life in Egypt, driven by a strong desire to integrate with this culture, language, and society.
Meet Maryanne Stroud Gabbani
It was 1977 when Maryanne Stroud Gabbani first stepped on the land of Egypt.
Originally from California, USA, a strange combination of events, people, and interests led Maryanne to Egypt. From an unknown place with which she had no previous natural connection, Egypt now represents for her ‘a real home.’
Already in her early childhood, Maryanne was fascinated by ancient Egyptian history. While completing her graduate studies in Social Psychology in Canada, she met an Egyptian student of Chemical Engineering who would later become her husband. After a first visit to Egypt in 1977 and the wedding in Canada, the couple decided to move out to Egypt with their two kids.
Maryanne’s stay in Egypt has involved a variety of experiences, including exploring the countryside and meeting different kinds of communities beyond the typical urban environment of Cairo to which foreigners are usually exposed.
She first spent five years in Alexandria and then moved to Cairo, where she stayed from 1993 to 2003. During this time, Maryanne was regularly visiting the Egyptian countryside while getting used to the new language and culture.
In 2000, Maryanne’s Egyptian husband died after 20 years of marriage. This year was a decisive point for Maryanne’s integration in the country.
Moved by a strong determination to continue living in Egypt, Maryanne was able to face the several bureaucratic challenges deriving from living in this country without her Egyptian husband. She, therefore, finalised the residency permit, she expanded her network of contacts all over the country and then moved on her own to the more quiet countryside of Saqqara.
Al-Sorat farm: a space to bridge people
With an eclectic background, including studies in Social Psychology and personal readings about History, Philosophy, and Arts, Maryanne turned her attention to farming, animals, and nature. In the quiet area of Saqqara, she started building al-Sorat Farm, an educational and recreational center that is in constant evolution up until now.
At the centre of that project was a desire to settle in a peaceful environment and then invite people to come and connect with the earth and animals. Throughout these years, the farm has rapidly expanded with activities involving breeding goats and sheep to help improve the bloodstock for local farmers, practising organic farming, offering horseback riding lessons and trail riding,lessons in local cooking and cheese making. Above all, al-Sorat Farm also aimed to host school trips where children can have a direct experience of contact with nature, animals, and local farmers.
Considering the numerous barriers dividing people from the countryside and the city, Marianne has been directing her efforts to establish a bridge between these two realities. As a result, al-Sorat Farm now represents a unique place of multicultural coexistence, where people from different backgrounds come together and interact with each other.
Spreading the love for Egypt
Since her very first arrival, Maryanne has been deeply appreciating the country of Egypt. “I have always loved Egypt,” she enthusiastically affirms while explaining her relationship with this land. “I just felt at home here, probably even more than my Egyptian husband did,” she adds.
Despite acknowledging the several problems that living in Egypt implies, Maryanne has never stopped looking at the positive aspects that distinguish this country.
“There is a kindness to the craziness of Egypt,” she clarifies. She then started listing essential elements that have contributed to reaffirm her love for that country over time. “I find that it is more welcoming than Europe and part of North America where people are a bit colder,” she explains. “Moreover, here in Egypt, old ladies are respected. I’d rather be here where people care about me rather than in Europe or North America where nobody cares.” She then continues: “If my neighbours do not hear from me very often, somebody comes to see me and check if I’m ok.”
Maryanne has always been eager to share with her friends and the entire world her positive reflections on Egypt. For that reason, Maryanne has also created the blog “Living in Egypt”(http://miloflamingo.blogspot.com/ ) in an attempt to provide a different image of that country from the one appearing in the media. A rapid look through “Living in Egypt” blog nicely offers an alternative picture of the country in its innumerable -and sometimes contradictory- aspects beyond the classical discourse of the dangers of life in Egypt. In a post on December 20, 2017, Maryanne writes:
“Fifteen years ago I started writing Living in Egypt because friends of mine in Europe and North America were worried about my safety and well-being in the “dangerous” Middle East. I wanted to tell them all the ways that Egypt really was no different from anywhere else so that they might be reassured.”
A never-ending process of integration
While sipping a cup of tea under the shade of the big gazebo covering the green garden of al-Sorat Farm, Marianne recalls the different stages of her story in Egypt.
Undoubtedly, learning the language represented a major challenge. Nonetheless, Maryanne fearlessly engaged in that learning process, willing to immerse herself completely in the local language. Without recurring to systematic Arabic classes, she learnt from everyday life conversations with locals. After little time, she was able to communicate, and she now comfortably speaks in Arabic to any Egyptian she encounters.
Maryanne’s integration in the country is not limited to her ability to speak the local language. Certainly, her ever-evolving knowledge of Egyptian history and culture proves a great desire to delve into the discovery of this country.
In addition, Maryanne has developed a huge network of contacts throughout these years, including foreigners as well as locals. “I have good friends all over Egypt, from Alexandria to Aswan,” she proudly states.Now, everyone in the Saqqara area knows “Sayida Maryanne” and greatly admires her project as well as her friendly personality.
Maryanne’s story represents an exceptional example of integration in a new country coming from a Western background Her determination to learn the language, to open herself to the new culture and to interact with the local communities might inspire many other foreigners in their process of approaching the very much interesting as well as surprising country of Egypt.