Rooming with Egyptians and Misreading cross-cultural cues


I was going to blog about Christian Egypt… but Gazelle needs to let off steam.  I am a little annoyed right now, with my living situation, well, not really but I have been reflecting on something… cross-cultural interactions that is, especially in the context of living with an Egyptian roommate.

I won’t go into super details about the side-story, but needless to say, another Egyptian roommate was caught/proven to be stealing money from her American roommates and as such was given the boot.  Of course, the money was the last straw, but this girl had been going through her roommates personal property and taking things, nothing big but little things from their drawers and closets since we got here. In addition to other things that need not be mentioned.

This girl’s story is not just pertinent because it happened in our program, but because I have experienced something similar, albeit on a much smaaaaaaaaaaaaller scale.  My roommate is actually nice, and especially when I compare her to the girl who got the boot, I am grateful.  But (and yet there is always a but)

the fact that I too find things missing (well, not really things, food items for the most part) annoys me quite a bit at times.  Is there anything more annoying than thinking you have a a piece of pie, or a few slices of pizza or conditioner only to discover that its’ not there at the very moment that you need it?   well, this has been a recurring theme in my apartment since I’ve been here.

It started out with oil… I bought a 3 liter bottle which is more than enough for me for a year.  I put in my cupboard, not in common space.  somehow, within two months the entire bottle was gone!  (I had probably used at the most half a liter, and I am being very generous in my estimation of oil use).  Then it was my cereal. AT least twice, I would buy cereal, eat it for a few days, and when I would come back to open the box a week or a few days later, there would literally only be like three little cocoa puffs!  Once morning in particular I was so mad at the discovery of my disappearing cereal (because I was really hungry and knew that I was in for a long day and had 5 minutes to eat before I caught the tram for class) that I threw the empty box on the floor with a thud and stormed out of the apartment.

I’ve since kept my cereal in my room, but it’s annoying to have to do so.  What’s worse is that incidents like these just keep on happening, the straw that broke the camel’s back was my pizza.  Egyptian pizza does not have tomato sauce, so when I want pizza that tastes like home, I go to Dominoes, order a bunch and put them in bowls, three or four slices per container and place them in the freezer for those days when I don’t feel like cooking.  Well, just as it happened in the case of my cereal, someone ate my pizza and left only one slice in my bowl in the freezer!  I was livid…

Not because of a few slices of pizza, but because taking things without asking is just considered rude (to me at least).  And this stuff just seemed to keep happening, even before the pizza incident, other things like my hamburgers or chicken burgers, mayonnaise heck probably other stuff I didn’t realize as well, would go missing.  But I never said anything to my Egyptian roomate (well I did ask about the pizza, but she flatly denied it).

Sometimes, a little taste of home, is all you need

At this point, I must note that my American roommate is a vegetarian, uses a particular brand of conditioner, uses non-fat mayonnaise and only olive oil. My Egyptian roommate, like many of the  Egyptian I know here, survives on a diet of fried things, friend things and things cooked in lots of fat and butter.. and carbs…. so when things like burgers, and meat pizzas, my conditioner and mayonnaise go missing, it’s pretty easy to tell who the culprit is (not surprisingly my veggies never go missing…lol).

What’s bothersome, is that I buy things that are as close to the quality I have at home in the States that I can find here.  So, I essentially pay US prices for my food… making it all the more frustrating when it goes missing..

Needless to say the whole thing was driving me mad.  I didn’t know how to broach the the subject with her because I wasn’t sure that she considered what she was doing wrong.  I didn’t know if she knew that taking things from your roommate without asking (funnily enough she doesn’t do this to the other roommate, at all… why me?) is in effect, stealing.  Egyptians are a lot more communal than people in the States are, and I  thought, so maybe she takes my things because she feels like I am more than welcome to take any food item of hers (she said so on more than one occasion, but our palettes are different, but, not different enough, though 😦

I wanted to tread softly, because on the one hand I didn’t want to be simplified into the screaming angry black woman (yes, I struggle with that as well here, but that is for another post… needless to say, no matter what I do or say, people try to read so much more into it than it is, if I disagree with someone in class and make my point, then people talk about how I “jumped” on someone or “put them in their place” while imitating me with head shakes and finger movements that I didn’t make… I have started calling people out on this now, but like I said, another posts… I have digressed)… I didn’t want to be made out to be the petty girl who is crying over pizza or a bowl of cereal.  I also know that the Egyptians affiliated with the program for the most part, are her best friends.  And didn’t want the issue to get any bigger.

As a sort of compromise and out of frustration I have since been putting notes on food items that are important to me (dear friend, I would prefer that you ask me before taking my food, thanks— Gazelle). I figure you won’t read the letter unless you are purposely in a bag/container of food that does not belong to you… The culprit would know that I notice my stuff going missing and would perhaps be shamed into leaving my stuff alone. Too early to tell if it works though.

But the news of this girl who stole money gave me courage to ask an Egyptian if taking people’s food, and other personal items ok in the Egyptian context?  I explained to her the weird situation that we hav ebeen placed in, you never know why people do certain things, and you don’t want to offend anyone’s culture. She told me NO, even in my context it’s stealing and a reflection of the perpetrators bad character (her words, not mine…lol) especially since I am not family.  So there we have it… Egyptians do not have some sort of disparate definition of stealing or roommate boundaries, not when it comes to personal property…

The yolk has been lifted!

On a side, but very much related note, I think my roommate discovered my note on my pack of burgers (which I had not touched in 2 months and is somehow half-way gone!)… hopefully she will get the message. The funny thing is, I don’t even like that particular brand, noticed that she does, and was thinking of asking her if she wanted them, but hey, she’s already helped herself… and I know if I asked her she would deny it…it’s the principle, for me I suppose.

I think I will continue to write little notes on the food items that I don’t want anyone else using… it’s my right. Although I wish I didn’t have to do so.  But there’s just three months to go before I’m outta here.  Living here has truly been something else.

I guess weird roommates are indeed an international phenomenon

6 thoughts on “Rooming with Egyptians and Misreading cross-cultural cues

  1. KG

    That’s really obnoxious! Of course, this problem isn’t limited to your Arabic program–remember all the food that would go missing in the communal fridges in college? Too bad you’re not a biology major; then you could do what one of our friends did and write, “Biological experiment–do not eat,” on some of her food.

    I think the evidence suggests that it’s your Egyptian roommate that’s stealing, but are you certain that’s the case? For example, how long has your American roommate been a vegetarian? Maybe if it’s a recent choice, she still gets cravings for meat?

    The entire time I was reading your post I was thinking about the site, and specifically, this picture:

    So it’s kind of funny to me that you started leaving notes (but that’s probably the best thing to do in this scenario, anyway). Although if you start leaving notes like this (also from then we’ll have a problem! (Apparently it means, “Buy some toilet paper!”)

    • gazelledusahara

      oh yes, I’ve gone back and forth in my mind about it… and after living with both people for this long… I am 99% sure the culprit is who I think it is… or at least most instances have been her…. the American girl has been vegetarian for years, and asks me before she takes anything of mine (and I her) she honestly doesn’t like the taste of meat… plus there was an instance of conditioner being all used up as well (I found a certain rooomate’s hair on my almost empty bottle (that I had only used once!…lol)… we all have very different strands/types of hair) besides, I think when you live with people and are observant you know who likes what and does what…

      ha, ha, my notes are not on the outside like the fridge picture… if I want to protect something I put it inside a plastic bag and put the note on top of the food, face-up. Then I tie the bag and put it in the freezer. If it’s something that comes in a box, the note is faceup in the box, but again, you would have to open the box to see it.

  2. rebtez

    Gazelle, just tell her to stop takin’ yo stuff. There doesn’t have to be any yelling or anything angry involved. Tell her, you are not mad, but disappointed that you cannot trust her. I know you are mad, but to maintain healthy relational interaction for the next three months, take it down a few notches. I might guilt trip her and tell her she has given you a bad impression of her people, although you realize she does not stand in the stead of an entire nation. Tell her that her behavior is making your experience very negative and that you hope that she can be more honest about her needs, if for example she has no food. Notes won’t help much I think. Confrontation will. This is just one of those moments where you have to be your full 27 year old self and look her eye to eye in the kindest possible way and challenge her character as a person of integrity. Integrity is far more valid in the actions no one ever sees us take. Her secret actions reflect weak integrity. Point blank.

    Love you much sister!
    Con muuuuuucho carino,

    • gazelledusahara

      ha, ha, too bad we’re not in the USA, if it were the States, yes I could tell her point-blank, but we’re not. People here communicate differently. Besides, I know her well enough to know that she can take subtle but firm hints… we once (well still kind of do) had a problem with cleaning… I suggested to her that we make list so “one person is stuck cleaning all the time” she got the hint and cleaned up her act, literally.

      I think the notes will do… if I try to talk to her face to face (which is what I wanted to do with the pizza incident, it was really the last straw…lol.) she will just look at me in the face and say she didn’t do it… I don’t want to stuck in that kind of argument. With the note, I am not accusing anyone… but if you read the note, it means you went somewhere and got into something you were not supposed to…lol.

      Besides, this girl getting the boot might make people realize that yeah, you can’t just do whatever the heck you want, there are consequences and they will kick you out in a heartbeat.

  3. rebtez


    please do get around to blogging about Christian egypt. I would be very interested to know your perspective.

    Un abrazo fuerte,

  4. Hah, yeah, totally not Egyptian! I’ve had roommates that were friends eat my food, use my things without asking…and I wouldn’t notice, until…for example, one roommate used my laundry detergent and it got stolen because she left it in the laundry room.

    Then she complained about the cost of replacing it! You gonna be cheap, use your own stuff!

    That same roommate ate some chicken I had prepared when she returned home drunk one day and then complained that it was nasty. Umm, it wasn’t for you.

    These roommates would ask for an item once, and think it gave them license to use it forever afterwards. I felt like I was living with children!

    I find that other people have a lot less impulse control. As one of my former roommates described it, “You see something, you just do it.” I’m like, really? And a lot less home training!

    As I was reading this, I could tell you it’s definitely not culture, just spoiled bratish, and behavior I more often see in people who are youngest children at home. That’s why, no more roommates for me until husband and children, iA! Can’t handle spoiled people!

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