My life continues to truck forward, as long-term projects gain roots. I’m not a very
exciting person. On a scale from one to ten, I crop up somewhere in the middle. Right now, I’m living at home–yawn–researching philosophy PhD programs–super yawn–and brushing up on personal finance and fitness as I set out to join the “real world” with whatever jobs and internships can sustain me for a year–asleep yet?
But one week from today, I drive to the airport, battle through the baggage lines, and hit the air, sandwiched on a stuffy plane, on my second trip to Egypt to teach English.
I’m both nervous and excited.
Yesterday, I sorted through some old essays and reflections from my last month-long stay in Ma’adi, a fig-tree laden suburb of Cairo. Reading them spurred old memories, which I never fully lost sight of. The amber sky at evenings, the call of the muezzin for prayers, the parched expanses of desert–all these sights and sounds have remained on the edge of consciousness, grasping for a handhold in the world around me to surface once again.
They found it in those old essays from someone seeing a new world fan open for the first time, just like a child learning to see.
Something about Egypt has never left me. Jarred from my routine and thrown into an alien environment, I lived in a world where, for the first time, I didn’t look like anyone around me and didn’t recognize the words in air or the smells that surged from the streets. Around me, orange mimosa blossoms and white jasmine bloomed over the dilapidated walls and sidewalks of poverty-stricken neighborhoods and weathered estates lingering after the British left in 1922.
Age permeated the world, as if the years of shifting dynasties and cultures coming and going had left scar tissue on the fabric of everyday life: misplaced words like madam and monsieur, people buying groceries in the shadow of 3,000-year-old pyramids, beat-up Islamic tombs serving as homes, teenagers on donkeys using cell phones.
I laughed at their jokes, ate their food, and took walks around the neighborhood, greeting their waves and seeing pictures of their family.
Each day was a new wonder. But each day was also a hardship.
Long lines weaved into the dirt roads–devoid of traffic lights–as people waited for subsidized bread. Widows begged on the street. Stray cats and dogs picked through the garbage piled up on the sidewalk. Some Christians refused Muslim’s taxis. A Salafi extremist shot a young couple for holding hands. College-educated youths struggled to find menial jobs.
Continued violence still fills the news, mingled with the economic hardship and political uncertainty after Egypt’s election.
As I return, I’m conscious of all these things, like a low, quiet melody that has followed me this past year and continues to strum. In many ways, going back to Egypt is an escape from the “real world” and the preparations I’m making for that–like job searching and PhD preparation. It’s far away, filled with its own problems and beauties that I can’t fully understand. No one around me can fully grasp my thoughts. To them, it’s all second-hand. Things right here and right now are much more physical, more “real.”
But in some ways, Egypt feels more real.
For example, when I first came home last summer, I went to an ice cream parlor with my dad. It’s nearby our house, and we’ve been going there the past few years. Around me, young girls texted on their phones, knotted together in giggling circles as they talked about boyfriends and new T.V. series. Their parents, mostly middle-aged middle-class men with polo shirts and khaki shorts, swapped insults aimed at various politicians, laughing.
A scene that was once normal depressed me. I felt like a stranger. I couldn’t relate to this world, with its wealth and fast-paced technology. It felt too content, too distant from more basic problems, like housing, education, and justice.
I’ve readjusted, but the same discontent has followed me, too, along with a longing to see the desert again. I miss my students, too, and the nameless people I once watched riding donkeys selling melons, smoking shisha, and swerving through wild streets, as I lived in their culture for a month.
Whatever the “real world” is, I’m not sure. It’s flimsy and malleable, a mere turn-of-phrase. It smears together the individual stories that form it until they become an opaque “they,” with routine responsibilities and values. For every individual, something else is probably more real: where they came from, where they’ve gone, and what they believe.
For me, the tension between the two is an enduring challenge that I’m committed to explore.