[TRADING PLACES] Bringing the Miracle on the Han to the Nile

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[TRADING PLACES] Bringing the Miracle on the Han to the Nile


From left, Nehal Selim, wife of Egyptian Ambassador to Korea Hany Selim; Soh Cheol-min, a Korean who can speak Egyptian Arabic and had experienced the Arab Spring up close and personal; Ambassador Selim; and Samy Rashad, the Egyptian TV personality on JTBC’s Non Summit (2014), pose next to a replica of an ancient Egyptian obelisk at the Egyptian Embassy in central Seoul on July 7. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Though civilization existed in Egypt more than two millenniums before the first signs of a kingdom emerged in Korea, the pharaohs and ancient kings of Korea may have hit it off well in dinner conversation if they ever could have been invited to the same party.

One topic of conversation could be their passion for language and communication - while the Egyptians invented one of the first forms of writing, Egyptian hieroglyphs, a Korean king dedicated his time to inventing a new language for the commoners, hangul.

Another could be the spirit of charity found in the people of both countries.

“Charity has long been part of the mindset of many people in Egypt, but it seems that many people want to give here as well,” said Nehal Selim, wife of Egyptian Ambassador to Korea Hany Selim. The Ambassadors Spouses Association in Seoul, where Mrs. Selim is the president, raised 50 million won ($44,262) for the Korea Down Syndrome Society at a gala two months ago.

“When I go around Seoul, I see many crosses, I don’t know whether these signify churches or not, but I mean, if there are so many churches in Korea, then maybe that’s the reason why there is so much charity here,” said Ambassador Selim. “When the religion is there, charity is there.”

As the ambassador, his wife and guests sat together at the residence on July 7 surrounded by a gilded statue of the goddess Selket and figures of Tutankhamun and Bastet, there was another factor that brought them together - a yearning to learn.

Soh Cheol-min had grown up without a hint of exposure to Arabic, but he ended up in Egypt a few years ago because he wanted to learn the Egyptian dialect of Arabic. Samy Rashad, who speaks fluently in Korean, was not familiar with the language until a summer language program in Seoul when he was 19.

Mrs. Selim has been giving lectures on Egypt as an honorary professor at Sookmyung Women’s University for three semesters.

“I am impressed by the way the Korean education focuses on enrichment of knowledge of young adults on cultures of other countries,” she said. “And I am very grateful to Korea because I learned a lot myself about various cultures and history of Egypt while teaching the course.”


The miracle of the Nile

Throughout the conversation at the residence, the ambassador excused himself politely whenever needs arose at his office. With just a few months to go before he concludes his tenure here, Selim said that he has become somewhat famous among his Korean counterparts.

“Most of the Korean authorities are not very happy with me,” he said, “because I keep bombarding them every month, asking to visit them and seeking updates.”

He was talking about the 17 memorandum of understandings signed by the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during his visit to Korea in March last year, on bilateral projects including reconstructing metro lines and LG’s seawater desalinization project in Egypt.

“The instruction of the president before he left was, ‘I don’t care about what I signed. I care about how you are going to follow up to make sure that what I signed will be put into action,’” Selim said. “And we have been working hard since then. Two weeks ago we signed with Korea International Cooperation Agency [KOICA] an agreement to establish an Egyptian-Korean faculty for science and technology in Upper Egypt, beside the Samsung factory.”

But some of these projects did not need the nudge from the ambassador to get going.

Hany Selim: A few months after starting my tenure as ambassador, I had a wonderful chance to meet one of the key founders of the Han River Miracle. I was dumbfounded when this great man talked to me about a dream he had in Egypt 30 years ago, about establishing a Silicon Valley in Sinai. However, due political, economic, domestic and regional transformations at the time, that project never saw the light. Then, when he heard about a plan in Egypt to establish a new corridor in Suez Canal and an international logistics and tourist hub from Port Said to Suez, he came to talk to me about resurrecting his project.

Hany Selim: To say the truth, although I admired his fidelity and sincerity, I was not equally enthusiastic after the project lost all momentum. I communicated to Cairo his wish to draw our attention to that project once more. To my surprise, the man didn’t wait for a reply but found the authority I communicated with and invited one of its experts to Korea to let him swim deep in the ocean of documents, files, reports, studies and even the maquettes of the project, with the hope of reviving it. The Egyptian official took the materials back to Cairo and they’re working on it as we speak.

Hany Selim: Such spirit tells me a lot about why Korea became what it is now, and why it will become better in the future.

What the ambassador calls “Korean resilience” is a quality he seems to embody as well, as he was recently recognized for his resilient attitude in approaching work in Egypt and Korea.

Hany Selim: I celebrated this last year of my tenure in Seoul with the best reward any ambassador would expect. I gained a prize of “Best Ambassador Accredited in Korea” [from the NDN News] in 2016. I consider this the crown of my tenure.


Left: Soh Cheol-min, second from front right, and his friend Mohamed Galal, fourth from front right, pose together in Cairo after a game of bowling in March 2012. Right: Samy Rashad, far right in the second row, poses with members of his team, Gapyeong FS, where he played as the goalkeeper last season. [SOH CHEOL-MIN, SAMy RASHAD]

Happily ever after

Samy Rashad, the witty Egyptian TV personality on JTBC’s Non Summit (2014), may not have made a name at all in Korea, for it seemed at a time that manpower, and sometimes even natural forces at work, were against his entrance to the country.

“I remember the date, August 18, 2012, because there was a huge typhoon,” Rashad said. “I was transferring at Dubai to get to Korea, and my plane was delayed 12 hours. Most flights to Korea at the time were cancelled because of the typhoon.”

Typhoon Bolaven killed more than 20 in Korea that summer.

The plane from Dubai to Incheon took off, and everyone on it could feel the currents changing as they approached the peninsula.

“The plane started shaking uncontrollably, and we could tell the situation was bad because the flight attendant sitting at the front of the plane was crying,” Rashad said. “My eyes met with those of a passenger from Yemen across the aisle. So we began to talk, and much of our conversation was on how this might really be the last moment of our lives.

“We prayed together and the purpose of our prayer was not to ask God to deliver us safely onto land, because that prospect seemed pretty low, but to ask God to please accept us into heaven.”

Rashad’s plane miraculously landed at the Incheon International Airport that night. But it wasn’t the first time that his entrance into the country was interrupted.

The first time Rashad came to Korea in 2009, the security at the Cairo Airport had stopped him from passing through the customs for not having a document from the Egyptian defense ministry exempting him from mandatory military conscription because he was still in school.

But since his miraculous landing in Korea five years ago, there was no telling when he would leave for home.

Samy Rashad: Life in Korea worked out for me better than I thought it would. I stayed in Busan but people kept telling me to go to Seoul. All roads lead to Seoul, they would say.

And so it did for Rashad. His first appearance on the Non Summit show was made possible because a Korean person he had met for the first time at a language exchange group in Seoul submitted his application to the show without telling him.

Rashad: I had no idea that he had submitted an application for me, until one day I got a phone call for a job interview. I only realized it was for JTBC when I arrived at the building.

Though Rashad has stood in front of cameras countless times since then, he doesn’t consider himself a star. Rather, he dreams of an ordinary life as a happy husband to a happily-wed wife here.

Rashad: Actually, I don’t consider myself as a star. It’s not my dream and even if it is, it doesn’t come true as one wishes. And since I’ve come out on TV actually, it’s become harder to make friends, as more people see me as a TV personality before anything else.

Rashad: But I can picture myself as a married man here, because the two countries share many sides of life. Just like in Egypt, many women here like to focus on married life, it seems, and there is a social taboo here also against having sex before marriage. Family man, that’s what I have in mind as one possible future for me here.

Out of the fire, into the frying pan

Soh Cheol-min, who picked Arabic as his major in university because “it seemed a fun thing to learn,” landed in Egypt in the middle of the Arab Spring in 2011.

“I spent a year studying Arabic after I completed my military service,” Soh said. “And then I went to Egypt to only to find a real military situation there. Tanks were rolling about and gunshots could be heard at night.”

Soh Cheol-min: My Arabic classes were canceled due to the protests, and the government declared curfew hours. I have only read about the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement in the books, and here I was living in a movement of today’s time.

Within two months of trying to fend for himself in Cairo, Soh decided to postpone his studies in Egypt until next year. But leaving the country wasn’t easy.

Soh: The landlord refused to give me back my deposit for the house. I returned without receiving it. But the same thing happened the second time I went back to Cairo the next year. After finishing my studies, I asked the landlord, a different person from the first, to give me back my deposit. He refused, at which point Mohamed Galal, one of my first friends in Egypt, fought on my behalf. To Galal, I could just be a Korean person he may never see again in his life, yet he was so committed to helping me get my deposit back. That’s when I first saw that Egyptians have a lot of jeong, or compassion, too.

Coming back to Seoul in 2013, Soh brought a bit of Egypt back with him - Galal, whose first Korean student was Soh, now teaches Arabic to Koreans here.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

Egyptian Ambassador Hany Selim and Nehal Selim

Appointed as the Egyptian ambassador to Korea in October 2013, Hany Selim’s diplomatic career began in 1987. The top envoy was the deputy chief of the mission in Beijing prior to his post in Seoul. An avid reader, Selim says Kyobo Bookstore is his favorite bookstore in Korea and that he frequently consults the weekly culture page of the Korea JoongAng Daily as a guide to new books. The ambassador’s wife, Nehal Selim, studied pharmacy at Cairo University, and has been involved with charity projects throughout her husband’s postings. She is the president of the Ambassadors Spouses’ Association in Seoul and an honorary professor at Sookmyung Women’s University.

Samy Rashad

A master’s candidate in Korean language and literature at Seoul National University in southern Seoul, Samy Rashad first came to Korea in 2009 to study Korean at Kyung Hee University in eastern Seoul. Graduating from Ain Shams University in Cairo in 2011, Rashad has been living in Korea since 2012, and has been back to Egypt only twice. Outside of his classes, he teaches Arabic, translates and interprets, represents Egypt in Korean media and plays futsal.

Soh Cheol-min

Graduating from Chosun University in Gwangju, Soh Cheol-min went to study Arabic in Cairo in January of 2011, but came back by March due to the Arab Spring movement. He returned the next year and upon finishing his studies in the summer of 2013, worked at the immigration center in Gwangju. He is enrolled in the Korean-Arabic program of the Graduate School of Interpretation and Translation at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in eastern Seoul.
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