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Living in Egypt

2008 Narrative Travel Writing Contest WinnerFirst Prize Writing Contest

Education from the Streets of Giza

"Where do you live, Hannah?" I asked.

"I live in Zamalek, but drop me off when we get to Sudan Street, if you don’t mind." I translated her request so the driver would understand and moments later the last student from the day’s excursion hopped out of the van and disappeared into the thick Cairo dusk. As the driver and I rode back to Haram, the sprawling district of Giza in which we lived, I paid him and stuck the rest of the money in my pocket. In a friendly, conversational tone, the driver asked me a question that had been on his mind the whole day: “Why did you come to Egypt?” Of course, there were plenty of reasons, but I always hated that question. I assured him that it was not to be a tour guide; I only did that to keep my finances afloat.

As we approached the intersection of Salah Hamza and Pyramids Street, I decided I wanted to walk for the last remaining bit to stretch my legs. Bidding farewell, I poured out of the van, legs weak from hours on the road, and checked my pockets to make sure I did not leave anything behind. Feeling the wad of cash in my left pocket reminded me how fruitful the day had been. A cool breeze picked up as I walked and I breathed deeply. The day’s earnings lent me a sense of relief; I should be set for another month, I thought.

With a bit more spring in my step, I crossed the street and entered the juice shop on the corner. 

"Assab?" the vendor asked, automatically. No, I did not feel like sugar cane tonight.

"Romon, low samaht," I responded. Tonight I preferred pomegranate juice. Sugar cane would be around all year but, with winters approach, pomegranates would soon give way to the warm, spicy, salsa-like Hummus Esham drink. The vendor slid a tall glass in my direction and a spoon to scoop the seeds.  I scarfed the seeds, dropped a half-pound on the counter, thanked the man, and sauntered out onto the street, satisfied.

Teleteeni Street, though narrow, unpaved, and ridden with potholes, hosts the neighborhood market, and one can safely assume that, at nearly any point during the day or night, there will be a traffic jam involving donkey-pulled carts, tuck-tucks (auto-rickshaws), bikers, pedestrians, and a Fiat or Peugeot. Surprisingly, this well-known fact does not avert traffic or entice pedestrians and motorists to use of any of the numerous connecting streets; Egyptians are too social and never seem to avoid a crowd. I too enjoyed the commotion because the sensory overload exhausted me and ensured that I would sleep soundly. 

Passing the local grill, where one could obtain delectable liver sandwiches prepared in the Alexandrian fashion served with a side pickled vegetables, I ran into one of the neighborhood kids to whom I tutored English. He was a bright and rather precocious fifth-grader, but he cared more about passing the excessively difficult standardized English exams than actually gaining any proficiency in the language itself. 

"Are you coming to my brother’s wedding tomorrow night?" he queried. I assured him I would see him there. Then he asked if I watched Ahly play tonight and laughed. He knew that Ahly, Cairo’s premier soccer team, won the evening’s match, to my chagrin. My team lost as little Ahmed stood before me and relished in my misery. 

 "Get out of here!" I barked in English, and laughed. He grinned broadly, beaming with satisfaction as he pedaled off on his well-worn bike. He did not understand the words, but I knew he got the message.

Ambling down the street, I passed a fruit stand and a spice stand and bid peace to the two vendors sitting in front of a small, black-and-white TV, watching highlights from the night’s game and sipping dust black tea. "Salaam wa baraketoh," the fruit vendor responded, sincerely. Further down the street I passed between a bakery and a café, walking deliberately slowly to devour the mélange of scents ruminating from baking breads and cakes, strong Turkish coffee, and the sweet mixture of molasses and tobacco smoked from water pipes. The aromas lingered in sweet harmony like the meandering melodies plucked from Hamza El-Din’s oud. 

A few yards further and to my right, the stench of decomposing trash and feral animal carcasses heaped in a mountain and left to rot waylaid me. I had been here awhile though, and could withstand such manifestations of the cutting contrasts that characterize Egypt. I soon reached the end of a dead-end dirt street and, before entering the apartment building to my right, I stuck my head through the small hole in the brick wall to catch a glimpse of the Great Pyramids. The light of the bold half-moon, reflected off the thick, ubiquitous smog that ensconced the jutting tombs, cast an iridescent luminescence that accentuated the pyramids’ ethereal quality. Peeling my eyes away after a few moments, I entered the building and rang the doorbell of the flat.

"Missaa ennour," Aya chirped in her welcoming, singsong voice. Though my host family gave me a key to the flat, I rang the doorbell during waking hours to warn the mother and sister that I had returned so they would have ample time to don their hijabs, or some other article that would completely hide their hair. In public, Aml, the mother, wore a niqab, gloves, and other traditional Islamic clothing that completely veiled her hair and skin and obscured her figure. They considered me family by now, and allowed me to see the married woman’s face, but I was always on guard against impropriety and took excessive precautions to avoid faux pas in a culture to which I was still fairly new.

Entering the living room, I greeted the family who, with the exception of the mother in the kitchen, was engrossed in an Egyptian soap opera. They welcomed me and Fathy asked if I was hungry and then if I had a good trip and made lots of money. I was grateful to him for the idea of organizing day trips for the foreign students at my Arabic school.

At first, I was nervous about leading the trips because it put quite a bit of responsibility on my shoulders and many of the destinations to which I would take tour groups were as new to me as they were to them. Also, if I could not entice one classmate to come home with me to meet my host family and eat a real Egyptian meal, as was the case, how could I convince them to spend a day or weekend under my guidance in the desert or at an oasis hundreds of miles away? Easily, it turned out, so long as I maintained the illusion of confidence. In the end, the arrangement worked out for everyone because I could stay in Egypt and study longer, Fathy could continue to draw rent from me, and the students could enjoy hassle-free sightseeing under the direction of a seemingly-adept guide.  Still, I did not understand the aversion that so many of my foreign friends had to venturing across town into the buzzing banlieue of south Giza. Soon I realized that many were fearful to tread in the impoverished and very un-Western suburbs in which I lived because, unlike the affluent districts of Cairo in which the foreign students lived, the English language and other foreigners were not to be found in this part of town. The irony of traveling to a country in order to understand the culture and language, only to live and commune with other foreigners, rather than natives, perplexed me.  Besides, I felt safer in the vigilante suburbs of Giza than I did in most American cities. My lack of sympathy for the unfounded fears of my fellow students estranged me from them, but that attitude also served me well as witnessed by the fact that, after six months, I was studying Arabic in classes alongside those who had been studying there for two years. Facing my initial fears of the unknown early proved to aid my cultural and linguistic education far more than I could have foreseen. It had not been easy but, as I thought of the family and friends I had made here, I was thankful for having found the strength to jump into the heart of a culture and country so alien to me.

Before dinner, I sat next to Fathy on a cushion on the floor and read a newspaper article aloud while he corrected my mispronunciations. Shortly thereafter, Aml set dishes of camel and peas in a tomato-garlic sauce and pita-like bread on a section of floor covered with newspapers.  Fathy sat on the floor stiffly and asked, "Do you remember, this was the first meal you ever ate with us?" Indeed, I remembered. I had met Fathy on the street the second day I was in Cairo while I was walking around with a tourist guidebook, searching for the big square, Midan Tahrir. Fathy approached to help because I was clearly lost and he informed me that I was actually standing in the middle of the Midan Tahrir. He showed me around downtown and invited me for lunch with his family the next day. I accepted and soon discovered that the family had an extra room in their flat.  They invited me to live with them and, though I was skeptical at first, Fathy’s happy family lent him significant credibility (much more than his pious Islamic rhetoric, sincere though it was) and allayed my fears to the point that I agreed to stay for a month and, if satisfied after that, to stay a full year.  Never have they given me a reason to want to leave them.

After dinner, as we were drinking tea, Fathy asked in an uncharacteristically diffident tone, "You will go to the farah with Adel tomorrow?" I had already told him we were going to the wedding party together. "Just take care of yourself," he warned.

I understood his concern about my close friendship with his boisterous nephew but Fathy equally understood that Adel taught me more about the street life and colloquial language of Egypt than any school or other individual. Only nine months earlier I had stepped off a plane, alone and practically helpless. 

Francis Bacon once wrote that travelers who have no entrance into the language of the country they are visiting go as students and not as travelers, but I felt more like an infant than a student. Facets of life that I considered mundane in America resurfaced as considerable obstacles in Egypt. I could not cross the street, given the absence of crosswalks and stoplights on eight-lane roads. Nor could I speak or read one word of Arabic. In a country with a tourist economy, no price tags, and no meters in taxis, one could lose a lot of money if he or she cannot haggle and one cannot haggle if he or she cannot speak Arabic. Thus, I wasted a lot of money at the beginning. I also did not know what I could or could not eat, what water I could drink, or what was in any of the dishes I came across. Nor had it been easy to live in silence for months with a group of peers with whom I could not communicate.  Eventually, though, I managed to break through the language barrier and, suddenly, it was all worth it. I had Adel to thank, in large part, for my success.

Adel had a huge heart, an empty wallet, and an uncommon vivacity, in addition to a taste for liquor and love of hashish. At first, I tried to admonish Adel about his reckless lifestyle, enthralling as it was. Still, I refrained from judging him too harshly because, clearly, I had not walked a mile in his shoes. Within a year preceding my arrival, Adel had lost his mother and his oldest, closest brother. Therefore, according to the dictate of custom, he married his deceased brother’s widow and together they raised the late brother’s child. Adel also had to care for his father who was elderly and in poor health. Further, they all lived in the same small flat because they had no money. Before this, Adel had served three years of compulsory military service wherein he earned a negligible salary and spent more than half of his tour in jail for refusing to stand guard at the Egyptian-Israeli border. At some earlier point, he had also been driving drunk and killed a pedestrian. This is surprisingly common in Cairo and, though his legal punishment was not severe, the memory haunted him relentlessly. 

As the following night settled in, I set out to meet Adel and his posse before heading uptown to the wedding party. Adel, Fady, and Mezzen were standing next to Mezzen’s brother’s shop, just outside of the dim light cast from the single street lamp on that block, passing around a couple of hand-rolled cigarettes and laughing at a punch line to a joke I missed.  Approaching, I greeted them with the customary kiss on both cheeks and the derogatory euphemisms that set the youth apart from their elders. Friends were very close here and always happy to be in one another’s company.

As we made our way to the Pyramids Street, where we would catch a taxi uptown, I struggled to keep up with Adel’s long stride but managed, nonetheless, to articulate a string of disparate words that I had heard throughout the day and for which I required a  translation.  Adel, eternally patient, attempted to explain the meaning of every word with his limited English and started every explanation with the same phrase: "Well actually there is no translation, but…" He would then explain the meaning until I understood or clouded over with bewilderment. 

Approaching the main avenue, we hailed a taxi and set off. We stopped at a liquor store on the way up town but, before Adel jumped out, he instructed the driver to stay out of reach of the shop window. Everyone knew if the vendor saw me, a pale foreigner, he would double or triple the price of the bottle. 

As soon as we pulled away, Adel cracked open the bottle of whiskey, took a hearty gulp, and passed the bottle over to the driver. We passed it around and shared it equally. Fifteen minutes later, I handed the nearly empty bottle to the driver who finished the last bit and chucked it out of his window onto the median while careening through heavy traffic. Abominable, perhaps, but I had to laugh at the other side of “cultural immersion”. "Smile," the old mantra goes, "you are in Egypt."

Pulling up to Menam Street, we jumped out and Adel paid the driver with a brown substance resembling a Tootsie Roll that he had hidden in his mouth. Together we stumbled through a maze of dirt streets until arriving at the bright, colorful lights and booming Arabic dance music that is the trademark of Egyptian wedding parties. I detected something faintly familiar about the area.   

The party was beautiful and the mood exuberant. Those involved had blocked off the street, filled it with sand because of the numerous mud puddles, and crafted intricate sand-sculptures that the entranced dancers promptly destroyed. Men danced together in one circle and, next to them, women danced in another.  An elderly lady passed around bottled soft drinks while two men tossed and twirled swords around another man who wielded a lighter and a can of hair spray.          

My friends were occupied with other acquaintances so I grabbed a seat across the table from an elderly man donning a traditional gallabeyah and a calm expression. The man smiled but did not speak so I greeted him in Arabic and his face illuminated. 

"I have seen you before but I did not know you spoke our language." At this, I suddenly realized why the place looked familiar. A few months earlier, I had attended a funeral on this same block. 

"Last time I had little opportunity or inclination to socialize," I responded.

"How is this occasion different?" the man asked. Had I understood the question correctly?

"A wedding is a celebration, a joyous occasion," I reasoned.

"Is a funeral not a celebration of life?" he countered. I had not thought of it that way before. 

He went on, "True, that boy died young, but life, no matter how long, is a blessing." He paused, then continued, "You have been blessed with two lives." What was he trying to say? 

"When you were young you learned to walk, to speak, and to function within the culture that surrounded you," he explained, "Did you not have to relearn the same basic skills in this country? And has the arduous process of adaptation not augmented your wisdom?" The old man hunched over a bit and continued softly, "Rejoice, you have grown up twice and still have your youth. Do with this opportunity what you can and, when the time comes, give those who survive you reason to celebrate your life. Your wisdom will assuredly outlast your youth." As I listened, it dawned upon me that this perfect stranger had succinctly answered the question for which I could never find a suitable response:

"Why did you come to Egypt?" I leaned back and absorbed the scene before me: families and neighbors dancing together, friends carrying on as usual, excited but nervous newlyweds with their parents who were even more excited and nervous, and a sagacious new friend seated across from me. Even parents of the deceased boy looked on with a comforting air of serenity. How such harmonious elements comprise the chaos that is Cairo!  Clearly, I beheld the reason I came to Egypt.