The Middle Kingdom in the Land of the Pyramids

Updated: 2012-07-09 08:58

By Wen Yi in Cairo and Chen Xiaorong in Beijing (China Daily)

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The Middle Kingdom in the Land of the Pyramids

Abbas Sayed gives a lecture to primary school students in Cairo's Chinese Culture Center. Wen Yi / China Daily

Related: China goes to the world

Not far from Egypt's pyramids and sphinx, a group of Egyptians are discovering China without leaving their homeland.

At the Culture Hut of the Chinese Culture Center in Cairo, primary school students are listening to a lecture by the director's assistant, Abbas Sayed.

After a brief introduction to China, Abbas takes the students to a classroom to screen a film and then teaches them basic Mandarin expressions, such as the words for "hello" and "thank you".

"Unexpectedly, after the class, some kids expressed a wish to learn Chinese and Chinese martial arts," Abbas says, in fluent Chinese.

Abbas hosts the open day twice a month and spends the rest of his time organizing cultural activities, hosting delegations and communicating with partners.

He says his work with the center over the past two years has been transformative.

"This feeling can be described as, 'I've found myself'," he says.

Abbas often makes analogies between Egyptian and Chinese cultures.

"Introducing Chinese culture to kids requires understanding how they think," he says.

"I try to say what they want to hear. For example, I first ask them what the famous festivals in Egypt are. After they've called out five, I tell them to remember the most celebrated Chinese festival - Spring Festival."

Abbas lectures the elderly differently. He explains the differences between lifestyles of both countries' senior citizens.

"I sing different songs on different mountains," he says, quoting a Chinese saying.

The center employs eight locals, including two informal staffers. The center's executive director Liu Shiping explains the local dialect is different from the standard Arabic Chinese students learn.

"The local employees speak it better and know more about the local situation. So, they communicate better with Egyptians," Liu says.

They also enable the flow of culture to work both ways. Abbas worked as a tour guide for Chinese visitors for about five years before taking his post at the center.

"As a tour guide, leaving the whole tour group with good memories of Egypt is enough," he says.

"But when I came to the center, I found my work of introducing Chinese culture is aimed at all Egyptians. I always think about what I can do for my own country while working here. China is developing fast. Here, I can learn what the Chinese think."

He has come to understand the idea of efficiency in Chinese culture and says he believes he can gradually learn more about Chinese ideas and introduce them to his compatriots. These include working from the heart, cherishing time and the Chinese food culture that highlights health.

Abbas says he's grateful the center respects local customs.

"They've made us a special prayer area," he says.

"They consider our religion. I'd love to learn from a lecture on Chinese Buddhism, if they organized one."

Abbas plans to write a book entitled Harmony with Diversity.

"I firmly believe this idea after working here," he says.

"It means we're all the same, even though we're different. The cultures are different and sometimes clash. But if you understand the differences, you accept them with tolerance."