Living in Egypt: The Real Deal with Heather Ashamalla
Interested in living in Egypt? Here, Heather Ashmalla shares the highlights and challenges, as well as her tips for an amazing experience abroad.
Tell us about yourself! What do you do when you’re not traveling the world? Where are you from? Where do you currently live?
I’m an arts and crafts enthusiast, a news junkie, a freelance proofreader, and the creator of My Visa Coach, a website that helps people apply for US family-based visas.
I live outside of Pittsburgh with my husband Ramy, although we spend a few weeks per year in Egypt with his family.
What made you decide to move abroad? How long did you live there for? Tell us about how you spent your time in your new destination — whether you worked, studied, traveled, or did something else.
I got involved with teaching English to international students during my college years, and that sparked an interest in traveling and experiencing new cultures. I wanted to study Arabic abroad, but the expense was too much. So I began researching a more affordable way to go abroad, and I found a website that connected international families with American au pairs. I had a few Skype interviews and accepted an offer from an Egyptian family with four energetic boys.
My task was to be a nanny and an overgrown playmate for these cuties. It was the most eye-opening and awesomely fun experience. The job was for three months, but while I was there, I totally fell in love with Egypt. I also fell in love with a local while I was there. So I’ve been there for extensive trips several more times, including an eight-month stint spent living there after we were married.
What were some of the biggest challenges you experienced while living abroad? What were some of the greatest highlights?
The greatest challenge was the frustration that I felt over the language barrier and the cultural differences that made it more difficult for me to do everyday tasks like shopping, ordering at a restaurant, going to see a doctor, using public transportation, and even properly greeting people. I lived in an area where most people did not speak English, so I often had to rely on my billingual husband and friends a little more than I liked.
But the greatest highlights were the relationships I was able to develop with the most amazing people, despite our difficulty in communicating. A combination of gesturing, drawing pictures, acting things out, using rudimentary Arabic nouns, and the locals’ basic English, created a lot of tremendously funny moments that I’ll never forget. They liked me and accepted me even though I pronounced every Arabic word I tried to use wrong and usually looked like a complete fool.
I also treasure the memories of interacting with local children. For them, English and Americans are the two coolest things in the world. I loved that my husband’s nieces would run into their rooms to get their English homework and read it to me. One time, I visited a youth group at a church and sat down on a bench in the playground. Suddenly, 30 or so children under 12 surrounded me and asked me in their best English, “What’s your name,” and, “Where are you from?,” and then started pointing out, “That’s a fan,” and “That’s a car.” They would beam as I tried to answer them in Arabic and offered me portions of their snacks.
On a totally different note, there was one last thing that was totally amazing and I will never forget: I was in Egypt during both Egyptian revolutions, the one overthrowing Mubarak and the one overthrowing Morsi. People marched down the streets literally right outside of my apartment. It was incredible. Needless to say, my parents wanted me to come home. But I survived! And I gained a unique perspective on the heart of the Egyptian people.
What do you wish you knew before you moved?
I certainly wish I knew more Arabic the first time I went! I wish I could have had deeper discussions and a deeper relationship with my Arabic friends.
I also wish I knew that Egypt has real seasons! It is certainly hot in the summer and public transportation is never air-conditioned, so sweating will be a daily thing. But the winter is another story. It may never snow there, but it does get to below 40 degrees, and homes there just aren’t built to keep heat in. I ended up having to buy a coat. I was kicking myself, because I’m from the Northeast and I had five at home!
Any favorite restaurants/events/sites that you’d like to recommend? Tell us what made them great!
I’ve lived extensively in Cairo, Alexandria, Hurghada, El Minya, and a resort town called El Gouna. Every town has its own unique flavor and something special to offer, but my two favorite places were Cairo and El Gouna, for completely different reasons.
Cairo is the heart and soul of Egypt. It’s a multicultural hub. You’ll find the most unique mash-up of ancient Egypt with modern Egypt, traditional and conservative with free-thinking and liberal people. It’s amazing. There is so much to do and experience. People there are also very used to seeing foreigners, and so, you’ll get a taste of the “real” Egypt while at the same time, you’ll fit in and find it easy to make friends.
El Gouna, on the other hand, is a natural gem, displaying one of Egypt’s modern natural wonders: the Red Sea. It is a tourist destination, but if you go during the off-season, there will be a lot of Egyptians there. The sea and beaches are breathtaking, and every day is bright and sunny and windy. You’ll enjoy boating, snorkeling over coral, windsurfing, island-hopping, water skiing, and more. It’s basically heaven on earth.
Are there any tips you’d give someone else considering a similar move?
If you’re going to study a little conversational Arabic before you go, which I definitely recommend, be careful, because many Arabic textbooks teach Modern Standard Arabic. This is written Arabic, and never spoken. You have to look a little harder to find Arabic that is colloquial. I’d recommend starting with Lonely Planet’s Egyptian Arabic Phrasebook.
Another tip — the food is amazing, but it may make you sick. A lot of foreigners struggle with stomach issues the first few months. I know I did. I could hardly keep anything down. It all tasted so amazing, but I’d have to deal with stomach aches for hours after eating. The solution? Go to a local pharmacy, called a “Side-o-Lee-ah,” and buy something called “Fa-waar.” It’s amazing. It’s basically a packet of sodium bicarbonate with a fruity flavor. Drink it in water shortly after eating or any time your stomach is feeling iffy, and problem solved. It works almost instantly!
Lastly, the water is very hard and the shampoos and soaps are very harsh, even the ones that have recognizable “American” brand names. They are made with a different formula than what we are used to. My hair started falling out after a few months there! I definitely recommend bringing your own soap and shampoo if you’re going to be there for a long time–which will also be a much cheaper option than buying them in Egypt. If you want to make some fast friends, bring extras to give away to the women you meet. They’ll love you!
Is there anything that women specifically should know before they move to your destination?
Yes! Egypt is a traditional culture in that it still enforces rules against women traveling with men who are not their husbands. You will probably not be able to book a hotel room or rent an apartment without proving that you are married. I’ve heard that in some touristy areas, you might get away with it if you are both foreigners. But if one of you is an Egyptian or even Arab, forget it.
I was never able to stay in a hotel with my fiance at the time, and once we were married, we did once but we had to show our marriage certificate. My fiance was even questioned about who I was when we traveled by charter bus.
Also, if you wish to be respectful of the culture and the locals, you should dress modestly. That means covering your arms and legs in entirety. A long skirt or trousers/jeans and a three-quarter-sleeve shirt is fine. Don’t wear anything too low-cut, and I mean just a few inches below your collarbone, or wear a scarf to cover up.
You will see foreigners walking around dressed like they are at a beach in California, but they get bad looks from the local women, face harassment, and are not taken seriously by people. Even if you don’t get harassed, it’s still not respectful. Egyptian women will wear Western-style clothing (for example, low-cut shirts that bare their arms) at weddings, and some will wear bathing suits at beaches, but not in everyday life.
Top photo credit: Ramy Alaa