This past week, I’ve found my niche back in Egypt, after some uneven footing. On mornings when I don’t teach, I sometimes walk, sticking to the shady side of the street, saying hellos to those who meet my gaze, and finding shops to nose through when I reach the main road.
I like exploring bookshops the best. They’re usually air-conditioned and contain hours of entertainment. Also, many of the people who work there speak English.
In one, I met a young man name Ahmed, with the typical slicked-back hair, tight button-down shirt, and blue jeans. The store was empty, and he got me a coffee as I was looking at memoirs to burn away my 14-hour flight home next week.
“You like books?” he asked.
Well, I was in a bookstore, but I decided to be polite. “Yes,” I said.
“Many kinds,” I said.
Ahmed flashed me the seemingly universal you-can-trust-me (even when you can’t) Egyptian smile and handed me my coffee.
“I like philosophy, essays, and memoirs,” I said.
“Philosophy is very interesting,” he said.
I sat down, and welcomed him to sit nearby.
“Yes it is,” I continued. “What do you like to read?”
In alternating moments of coy reticence and loquacious openness—replete with dramatic Egyptian hand movements—Ahmed listed a few books, ranging from Arabic pop lit to the classics that sat on his parent’s bookshelf at home.
“I love The Great Gatsby,” he said.
We had more in common than I thought.
Ahmed had just finished his studies in computer science at The American University in Cairo and practiced his English as often as he could. Savvy and driven, he wanted to work for an American corporation, like IBM, and hopefully use it as leverage to move to America.
“At least, you know, at least for a time,” he said. “Until things get better.”
“Any luck with jobs?” I asked.
He held up his arms, showing the bookstore.
Ahmed’s position is normal—perhaps even a little lucky—for many young men in Egypt. Two years ago, the grim job market and the influx of unemployed college-educated helped spur the Jane. 25 Revolution. Now, the same young men face a similar job market: 13 percent unemployment. If anything, the continued stagnation has only worsened the situation.
A recent college grad myself, I’m always thinking about jobs. Society forces me to. Everyone wants to know what I’m doing, what my plans are. Now what?
Sitting across from Ahmed I couldn’t help but realize how different our worlds were. Random births, karma, or fate—whatever you believe—had flung us in utterly different circumstances. A recent grand, he’s a lot like me, but his options are diminished, and in a few days, another revolution may rupture his country once again.
Eventually, we finished talking. Ahmed took my cup, empty long ago, and I went back to the seminary for lunch. But I couldn’t stop thinking about him.
As I walked back, I took in the mangled sidewalks, the widows begging for lose change, the skinny cats picking at garbage, and the dusty, dented cars that dotted the road.
After a while, it all becomes background. But now and then, something hits you. Like Ahmed.
Living in Egypt is uncomfortable. The moment you get on the plane, you dive headfirst into a track of shifting time zones, language barriers, diarrhea, dust, and shifty taxi drivers—just to name a few “inconveniences.”
Still, like anywhere, you have good days. A breeze bounces up from the Nile, a taxi driver doesn’t need to negotiate a fair price, and a train leaves on time. But in a deeper sense, staying here can bring another comfort—one you can’t find much at home: a new perspective.
It’s the cliché of Peace Corps volunteers and far-flung missionaries as they return home, sunburned, wiry, and whiskered. I appreciate everything so much more, they say. It’s a simple phrase, but it can change everything. For some, it doesn’t. But others may take a weather-beaten bag, keep the beard, and roam Karoac-style across the country longing for simplicity again, or fall back into America’s efficient, ordered rhythms, still hearing echoes of another place in the white noise of the everyday.
At least that’s what happened to me. At first, I got depressed. I couldn’t feel grounded or “at home.” I realized that the buildings and the people were the same, but I wasn’t. Home had changed because I had changed.
Perhaps “home” is a physical place we go to, but it’s also a relationship of place, memory, emotion, longing, and self. We create home as much as home creates us. And since we’re always changing, our home is always changing.
Philosopher Martin Heidegger makes a point that history changes how we see the world, remaking new relationships for old things, finding new discoveries, or losing old traditions. We can’t be a knight these days, but no one in the Medieval ages could be a computer scientist.
Every time is a different place.
This past weekend, Dea, Michael, and I went to the Pyramids.
Built over 4,500 years ago for the Pharaoh Khufu–with the big pyramid–his son, and his grandson, the Pyramids of Giza are the tourist destination in Egypt. Paired with the sun, a blue sky, and a Bedouin on a camel, it’s a classic image for a kid’s book on Egypt or post card–even though the ancient Egyptians didn’t have camels.
The sheer scope, geometry, and age of the Pyramids still astounded me as we stood outside them. With the original casing, Khufu’s tomb used over 2.3 million blocks, making it a total of nearly 5.9 million tons, explained our guide. Over the centuries, people stole the limestone casing, exposing the inner blocks, which endured further weathering.
Assembled in an estimated 20 years with a well-ordered force of workers, artisans, and engineers with simple tools, the Pyramid remains a powerful testament to ancient engineering.
If anything, it’s still a wonder, even in the modern world.
Unfortunately, the postcards–available at the Pyramids if you want–don’t show the aggressive vendors, tourists, and encroaching city of Giza. Nor can you smell the camel dung through the glossy finish.
But I find this amazing, too. The Pyramids must conform to the modern world, nudged into an industry that would have been alien to ancient Egypt. Today, they form a backdrop behind the streets and block houses. There, they look unreal, like the setting for a new Blockbuster. Life continues for hundreds around their impenetrable silence.
The craggy remains of passed time, the Pyramids still manage to change and life goes on.
There’s something undeniably soul-searching and healing about living in a foreign city for a time–even if it’s only a month. Being a tourist, you see many of the sites, but you don’t have the same freedom to let the city cradle you. You try to make the days conform to your own schedule. That can be frustrating, especially in Egypt.
On Monday night, I joined a few of the other teachers, and we went to see the Dervishes perform in Cairo. They have a show every Monday and Wednesday. We left at 5:45 and got to the theater after an hour or so of stop-and-go traffic. The downtown itself was a flurry of traffic jams and vendors spilled across sidewalks and streets, as people pulsed past.
We waited for the ticket salesmen. When he got there, workers siphoned us outside through the door into a chaotic knot. Entering alongside an Egyptian I learned that her entry fee was only two pounds. Mine was thirty.The show started an hour late, as people gradually filled the steaming auditorium.
“It’s Egyptian time,” we joked.
Then, the lights darkened and traditional instruments blared from the stage. Performers spun and danced to the trace-like rhythms, whirling their colored clothes like kaleidoscopes. The two hours pounded by, awash with color.
We drove back, delayed further by traffic as cars lined up for gas, impeding the road. Still, I embraced it all as “Cairo time” and looked out my window, sometimes close enough to hug the drivers of the cars that wrangled in beside us.
I find myself caught up in Egypt’s tensions as my final week begins: old and new, ancient and modern, rich and poor, secular and religious–just to name a few. Many of these elements may collide these coming days.
Perhaps Ahmed will find a better future or if the Pyramids will get more tourists. Perhaps Morsi and the Brotherhood will overcome the opposition. Perhaps civil war will break out. Perhaps the military will step in and prevent any violence. Perhaps…
I don’t know.
For over 6,000 years people have called Egypt home. People will still call it home, no matter what happens, but it may not feel like home as it changes and they change. This is one danger, but I suppose it’s inevitable. In a heavily Islamic country that now uses a pagan tomb to import tourists, anything is possible.
But I suppose that I’ve gotten closer to what I’ve been looking for by coming back to Egypt. I can’t fully put it into words yet, but I can feel it.