How’s Business: Tarek Wazef

Language instructor, Al-Azhar University, Cairo

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Photograph by Babak Radboy

I studied Chinese at Al-Azhar University the first year the language was offered. That was 2001. I thought it would help me get a job. Very few of the Chinese in Egypt speak any Arabic. Some Chinese Muslims speak a little, mostly Uighurs. And then there are those encouraged by the government to learn Arabic so they can work in the Foreign Service… but that’s another story.

Of course, very few Egyptians speak Chinese, either. It’s very hard. I think Chinese is harder than any other language, mostly because of the pronunciation. Try saying “Jang ju Gwao.” Just try! It’s hard. If a European or American comes to Egypt for a long time, they’ll learn Egyptian like a native. But I still don’t speak Chinese like a native. I never will. I’ve met people who’ve spent twenty years in China and still can’t master the pronunciation.

It took me four years of hard study to get to where I am. I was the top student in a class of twenty-five, and I started working immediately after graduating in 2005. With Chinese there are two fields one can go into, translation and tourism. I have done some of both.

There’s a lot of work for a translator — these days Egypt imports Chinese machines and products. Along with the machines, we get Chinese technical assistants. They need translators, too. The Chinese have long arms, they work everywhere. They work with oil in the Sudan, with mining in Niger. Do you know this place, “Chocolate City,” in Guangzhou? It’s like 6th of October City in Cairo, but in China — full of African workers. Hundreds. It’s black China. Anyway, China needs raw materials, and Africa has them. China has established relations with every country in Africa. It’s as simple as that.

I also teach Chinese to about twenty students at Al-Azhar University. There are about six teachers; one of them is Chinese. There are more students studying Chinese now than ever before. There is a Chinese cultural center in Giza. But I don’t really go there. Just to Al-Azhar and on my various work tours.

It takes years to become a tour guide. You can take a two- or four-year training course. Or you can take the Zahi Hawass, an oral exam given by the Ministry of Tourism. Covering five thousand years of Egyptian history! There’s almost no way to prepare. Some people hire private tutors, but there are no books, no study guides. There are all the books in all the bookshops that cover Egyptian history. But which ones to buy? You can’t buy them all.

Different kinds of tourists require different kinds of tours. The Russians just want to go to the Red Sea and have a good time, if you know what I mean. They don’t need to learn much about Egypt. The next easiest are the Spanish. The Germans think they are the best in the world. But the Japanese are just annoying — always waiting for you to make a mistake. It’s like they want to punish you.

The Chinese who come to Egypt are among the better travelled. Most likely they’re younger, born after 1979, after economic liberalization. They tend to be better educated and are often supported by their parents. They’re children of the “Open Door Policy.” They want to see the world. Usually they start in Asia — Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, or Macau — to gamble, play cards. When they get bored of that, they seek out new places. If they can, they go to Europe or America — that’s proof that you have a lot of money.

Of course, there are some older Chinese tourists in Egypt. They just want to eat Chinese food all the time — they’re not as open-minded. Younger Chinese tourists eat Egyptian food, European food, American food. But not koshary. They never eat koshary.

I have to say, when we work with Chinese people, it’s a bit like working in a school. You have to be really prepared, and you have to be ready to deal with children. One time we were at the pyramids, and I was telling them about the pharaohs and so on, and I gave them some time to take photos. One of them received a phone call, and I heard him say, “No, I am not in China.” He looked up at the pyramids and declared, “I am in Turkey!” Another time I took a group to the Red Sea, and one tourist wanted to fight with me because I had cheated him — the sea was not red. Can you believe it?

When the financial crisis hit, the Chinese were afraid to go abroad. But the Chinese are always working and always making money, so there wasn’t a huge dip. It wasn’t too long before they started coming again in large numbers. February is a good month for Chinese tourists in Egypt — they get to go on holiday around Chinese New Year.

I think I will always work in the field of Sinomania, but not always as a tour guide. That work is hard.

I’ve been to China twice, three weeks each time. It’s an amazing place, but it’s not for everyone. They have a great ancient civilization, the mother of Japan and Korea. I like some Chinese people, but not all of them. China was a good and safe place to live in the 1950s, like Egypt was. Chinese people don’t want to harm you. They are village people, from an undeveloped area, and even if they grow rich, they keep a village dweller’s way of life.

The Chinese people are ghalban — they have a restricted style of life. But at root they are good people. They have jokes, but they are not like Egyptians, telling jokes all the time. They have monologues. Even the young people don’t really tell jokes.

I wouldn’t want to live in China. I don’t want to live anywhere but Egypt, in fact. I don’t approve of the kind of Egyptian who gets up and leaves. But I am thinking about going to China this year to study for my master’s. The cultures are so different. Egyptian food is much better. Living in China is so strange. Once at about 9:30pm I wanted to buy something to eat, but everything was closed! All the Chinese people were sleeping! Anyway, I learned to eat with chopsticks here in Egypt. I like to say I am half a Chinese person.