From Egypt to Switzerland

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My life took a considerable turn on many fronts when I moved to Switzerland in a small village on the lake of Zurich.

Those early years in Switzerland brought me to confront many aspects of my ‘self’ and my culture in a new light. I had to constantly mobilize what Daniel Kahneman[1] refers to as the rational and slow cognitive process by which we think (System 2).  That is because the intuitive and fast process (System 1 according to Kahneman), which was the default mode, was calibrated according to different settings of my formative years in Egypt. So much around me seemed to be counter intuitive. To make sense of this new environment, my antennas were raised for a substantial chunk of my waking time, making my everyday a constant effort to function, which is typical of the migration experience.

I faced a cultural adaptation I was not entirely expecting nor prepared for. I was more equipped than many others to face the cultural challenge to adapt. I had more internal and external resources than most people who had to deal with this challenge. (For instance, I learnt German fairly quickly and easily and I also had the financial means to pursue various ways to support my integration).

Yet I struggled.

I first clashed with my host culture like many do when facing new surroundings which reflect an unfamiliar image of oneself. Also an unfamiliar image of the world. I also faced an identity crisis especially after having our first child. But that led me to reflect on my identity and my role in the world.

Being the ‘other’

I realized that I was the ‘other’ most of my life, depending on the context. (The Christian among Muslims, the Egyptian among the Swiss and Europeans, even when I chose physics in university, I was the only female in most of my classes).  This has forced me to know quite early in my life, that mine is not the only legitimate worldview. But I never truly realized how much it influenced my perceptions. Being in that place at that time in my life, also made me more aware of my numerous privileges. Going back and forth to Egypt observing the differences in the lives of people, and in the way they construct the world, which among other factors depended on where they were born, has raised many questions in my mind as to how and why things are the way they are.

I stayed home by choice to raise our two boys. I maintained a strong connection with my family and friends in Egypt, built a social network of Egyptians and expats here in Switzerland and had to gradually learn to inhabit different cultural spheres – with their distinct meanings, standards, and norms –  and got very used to switching between them continuously.

Reflecting on my perception of the world versus that of people surrounding me and noting the difference between those two fueled my curiosity about the various ways culture shapes us. It drove me to question a lot of my assumptions, assumptions that formed the overall structure of my view of the world.

Some of my interactions in my earlier years here in Switzerland were negative, and triggered questions about modes of communication that go beyond the idea of language codes and word meanings. I realized that these strange interactions I had, these awkward moments and struggles had something to do with Switzerland. Not everything. Not nothing. But something. A few rather sporadic experiences mark the birth of each cultural question that remained a submerged source of inquiry throughout my journey.

It was also then that I realized that a mix of privilege and guilt dominated my feelings and governed my behaviour for most of my life. When you grow up like I did, a subtle consciousness emerges within you of the arbitrariness of those lines and coordinates that separate you from others less privileged around you. In my case, this awareness created a subliminal feeling of guilt.

I felt guilty for being in a privileged position in whichever context I found myself in (even because I learnt German relatively easy though I worked hard)– as if I took more than my share. I was all too aware that I never did anything to deserve it – I had these skills that helped me. And my privileged perspective of the world is as much the result of that arbitrariness, as are the perspectives of others a result of theirs, in the grand lottery of birth. This mixed thread of privilege and guilt coloured my worldview and impacted my interactions with the environment in almost all aspects of my daily life. I carried it within me throughout my entire experience. Furthermore, the cultural diversity in which I found myself constantly living motivated me to dig deeper into the roots of cultural conditioning.

Studying further

This curiosity about culture and the urge to understand it more led me to pursue a Masters of Advanced Studies in Intercultural Communication (MIC) at the Università della Svizzera italiana. I wanted to capitalize on my personal journey and enhance my understanding of the ever more complex inter-cultural context I found myself in. It was almost an imperative based on my experience.

Looking for answers to these questions, I also became interested in reading about evolutionary psychology, social psychology, cognition, science of morality and several related fields. These readings helped me frame my questions and inform my reflections. As I learnt German and Spanish, even more doors were opened for me to understand cultural differences.

During my studies, I gradually became able to make sense of my experiences and create meaning out of my feelings of privilege and guilt. I also came to believe that it is not where, how and when you were born that defines you but what you make of it – what you become. And I don’t mean success –I mean who you become- what type of a person. It is how you extract meaning and purpose from your life; which values you embrace and define yourself with.

My journey has also helped me define a complex relationship with my roots in Egypt, and cultivate a deeper and meaningful connection with them. I learnt to reconcile my privileges and guilt with my values and compassion. I also learnt that nationalities and passports are not experience; That labels are not real. You cannot create meaning out of them.

Culture became a central theme in my life

A new reality gradually unfolded. Defining my role in it as a woman, a mother, and an individual did not come naturally or easily. At first, it required a constant state of mindfulness until I reached that privileged point where I realized that this role – that identity –  no one culture has to ascribe to me; I construct it with my own unique set of experiences as I go. I became liberated this way. I also felt empowered.

Most importantly, I learnt that culture is very real. Culture influences us in variable and deep ways. It does not inherently limit us, nor inherently liberate us; the choice is ours. It is up to us what we make of it. That is perhaps the strongest and most valuable lesson I learnt: Culture can certainly constrain us BUT it can equally empower us. We choose.

I came to look at my adaptation to my new life in Switzerland in a different way; As a journey of introspection and reflection which was evoked by my sudden immersion in a culture that goes by different implicits and assumptions. You only truly know yourself when you experience an ‘other’. That journey of introspection led to a profound cultural awareness where I became an avid inquirer and believer in the powerful impact of culture in shaping us.

I am still acutely aware that I belong to a privileged few. I cannot change that. But I can use it.

And the privileged opportunity I have had of seeing the world from different perspectives pushed me to  share the lessons I have learnt. It gave me insight, humility and a sense of obligation.

In my earlier years, I was full of convictions and certainties and slowly I learnt to identify the inherent fallacies of a narrow view of the world. When I left Egypt, full of prejudices, I was a staunch critic of our culture; I was critical of all the ways by which we were socialized and in awe of Western ideals. Living in Switzerland and confronting many aspects of this culture opened my eyes and shattered a lot of naïve romanticized views I had held and I suddenly appreciated my cultural background and rejected almost all other.  Over time, I reached an equilibrium state where I now have a critical view of my upbringing and education; skeptical somehow but understanding that most people are strongly shaped by the culture in which they were born and unaware of the paradigms governing their views. I learnt how to be critical of both cultures all the while not missing the idea that it is a mixed bag. I still have prejudices but I am more and more aware of many of them.

Most importantly, I believe everyone wants to be good and once we assume that, we can try to understand motivations better and conceptualise our disagreements and divisions more truthfully. We can come to view our differences more as a non-alignment of a hierarchy of values rather than colliding values. Values we all share.


September 9th, 2017

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[1] Author of bestseller „Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow” and recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences 2002