CAIRO: Three months ago, Elisa Freni was at home in Italy clubbing at hot spots, meeting her friends for lattes, and telemarketing to make some quick cash.
Now she lives alone in Sohag, Upper Egypt.
There she spends her days visiting an orphanage after work, chatting with local vendors (who all know her by name), and going to church – something she had never really done before.
“Time seems never-ending there; you have to occupy yourself or you go crazy.
Elisa arrived in Sohag three months ago to intern at a women’s rights project with an Italian NGO.
“At first, they [locals] didn’t like me, she says.
Not knowing a word of Arabic before arriving, the beginning for her was “like a nightmare. At times there was literally no one for her to speak to, plaguing her with loneliness and depression. Sohag does not see many expats or tourists so Elisa says she felt so out of place it was like she was “from Mars. Just walking down the street caused everyone to stare and talk to her.
While they still do so to some extent, Elisa says she is used to it now and in any case, many of the townspeople have since become friends and acquaintances. In private, many of her new friends even ask her about taboo subjects they wouldn’t dare ask each other. Publicly though, things are quite conservative and she was once chastised by friends for simply saying “shisha loudly in the street.
In contrast, citizens of her hometown Turin do not chat or even look at each other in the street. Northern Italians are known for being cold, she explains.
While her Arabic still makes everything a struggle, she has picked up a considerable amount. Some she has learned from the Italian-speaking priest, who insists on teaching her fusha (classical Arabic) though all she wants to learn is colloquial, but mostly she has learned from friends at the orphanage.
“You cannot imagine: When I play with the children I am happy. I forget about everything else … We are a family for each other.
Indeed, her parents were pleasantly surprised when they visited from Italy. They had been opposed to the idea – both the job and her living in a developing country and a rural community. “They were scared about everything.
“When they visited Sohag, they felt that I was not alone. I was part of a community . they understood why I wanted to do this job. They are not worried anymore.
These days Elisa is far more comfortable in small, “serene Sohag than in big cities like Cairo.
“People are more authentic there even if they don’t share my mentality. They are more transparent than in Cairo .
She is even anticipating a “big shock when she visits home next month.
“It changes a lot about you, she says, explaining how her views and perceptions about life have changed. She admits she used to be more superficial but now she lives life “in a different way.
“They have inner peace, she says, “because they have a simpler life, with none of the “unnecessary things. “They focus on the real, important things, like family . and their relationships with other people.
She finds the Cairo lifestyle of some of her peers too luxurious now.
“I feel richer there than when I am [in Cairo].
Many of her Egyptian acquaintances know nothing about Upper Egypt. “They ask stupid questions like if there’s electricity there. The answer is yes.
The project Elisa works on is run by Italian NGO MAIS (Movement for Empowerment Interchange and Solidarity), under the auspices of the European Union. It works in the field of international cooperation and development and, in Sohag, focuses mostly on advancing women’s rights with regards to domestic violence and female genital mutilation (FGM). The project works almost entirely with local leaders and staff.
Project Manager Nada Ziwawi has been with the project since its inception over two years ago, though the women’s rights project is just six months old.
Though it’s still early to tell, she believes progress has been made in the governorate with regards to the opening up of taboo topics. While she says FGM is likely still common practice in Sohag – even after a law passed last year forbidding it – she believes MAIS, the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, UNICEF, and Caritas have started making it okay to talk about it.
While she thinks the law was an important change, she believes the hype and campaigns surrounding the law also created a negative reaction because people were “fed up with [hearing about] it and associated the Mufti with the government as a result of his fatwa against FGM.
Older women, she says, are the most adamant about the practice while men are less attached because of the effects on women’s desire for intercourse with their husbands.
Ziwawi says local men and women have been overwhelmingly welcoming and supportive of the project. “They really want to hear, to listen and to talk.
Sohag governorate, which has a population of over 3.5 million, is part of Upper Egypt and is among the poorest and least developed governorates in the country. Sohag city has a population of about 200,000.
“It’s another life, says Elisa. “But in the end, I can tell you that I like it.