I find in Egypt a challenge to self unlike I have found in any of the other cross-cultural experiences I have lived. My nature involves the bestowal of unconditional love upon all people simply for their humanity, unless given a reason to doubt their individual goodness. I believe people in general have the same ultimate desires in life: security, family, happiness; and that it is only the form of these basic desires that changes from person to person and society to society. I feel people across the world to be united through these common desires, through our common humanity. It is structures placed on top of this shared base that divide us and cause us to work at cross-purposes. For indeed viewed through the lense of our common humanity, and with these basic human desires in mind, there are no irresolvable disputes or differences.
I have a very chameleon-like nature. I adapt and blend in and become a part of what surrounds me. So why place myself in this setting where such a things is utterly impossible for me. Where stares, “compliments”, and commentary attach themselves to me like a bad smell. Where even if cover my hair my complexion and the color of my eyebrows and lashes bely what is underneath. The truth is I loathe the the demeanor of most Egyptian men with women on the street. It makes me angry like very little else in my life has been able to. I resist the urge on a daily basis to flip them off, to turn and scream at them, to scold and shout and make them recognize their lowliness and my dignity. This is an unparalleled test of my soul, my belief in nonviolence and my true acceptence of the flaws of my fellow human beings. But I hold back contenting myself, only partially, with a glare, a scowl, a look of disgust.
So again I ask, why do I subject myself to this? On a personal level it is a challenge which I feel in my soul I must conquer. My heart knew this to be the case before my mind, it is the only explaination for why I stayed here during my first visit and let myself establish roots here like a plants in the desert: deep thick cords that are capable of drawing sustence from the far reaches of the earth. The test to my person is to be in the center of attention, obvious, conspicuous, unyeilding. This forces me to exist in a part of myself which is reluctant to emerge. It requires me to be unapologetically content with myself, confident of my actions, and happy with who I am.
On a professional and academic level this experience has revealed to me that I am deeply committed to contributing to the understanding between this world I am living in: the Arab; and the one where I come from: that of the United States and Europe. A mission to reconcile these two realities, to merge them into a conceptual sphere where it is possible to comprehend the other from within our own perception, is undeniably a large goal and indeed the aspiration of our time. Perhaps it will require the creation of entire new paradigms to allow us to meet, with out fear and with respect for our common humanity.
I have witnessed such beauty and worth in the Arab people, the family, the culture and society, Islam. I yearn to bridge the gap that exists between our societies and share this beauty with those know only the world where they and I come from. To allow us to appreciate each other’s societies as different but rightful manifestations of humanity. To be able to see the value of the good in the other and to help remedy the faults. No doubt there exist strengths and weaknesses in each, human grace and human suffering, differently experienced but equally present. Can we not use our knowledge of and relationship with each other to better ourselves and heal our own wounds instead of opening more deeply the wounds of the other?
It is for these reasons that I am dedicated to working in the Arab world or with Arab communities in Europe and the United States. I see immigration as a opportunity for positive exchange and a possible force of mutual understanding, which is too often lost in fear and mistreatment. As it is our humanity which we ultimately have in common, human rights should be the foundation from which we can begin to reach toward each other. Instead their abuse is the source of cultural misunderstanding and dissolutionment, especially within the context of migration. Development is an inextricable part of this picture because of the demographic reality that immigrants usually comprise a large percentage of the disenfranchised and poor. It is in the treatment of these, the weakest among us, that individuals and society reveal their true colors.
Yesterday I got up on the right side of the bed. I woke with gumption seeping out of my veins and feeling vigorous like I haven’t felt since I returned from the desert. To celebrate I decided to finally venture to find the closest supermarket and finally stock up on some basic food stuffs.
After dutifully mapping its location I set off in my best day off slacker clothes, or at least the only ones fit for Cairo where wearing faded paint-stained sweatpants would make people think I’d broken out of the loony bin. Stepping outside my buildings front door I rejoiced to find sunlight streaming over the tops of the buildings across the street.
You see, we had had the khamseen for three days before which not only brings with it the sands of the very nearby Sahara but also whips up all of the dust and dirt of Cairo (of which there are a lot) blotting out the sun and making life miserable, especially when added to the frigid cold and heat less, open buildings.
Soon my proudly sported Ecole hoody seemed a bit overkill, but cozy and comforting after a week of chills and a head cold. After stopping briefly for a glass of asab, the sugarcane juice which is sustaining my existence these days, and wading through a sea of boys just released from school, I turned a corner to find Metro market in front of me. But not before noticing the inconspicuous plant nursery tucked into the center of the block and getting excited about buying plants for my balcony there, since getting them home from well-known plant shops in Maadi would be a tad difficult on the metro.
Entering the supermarket I felt that except for the Arabic packaging and signage I could be in any supermarket in Europe (not the States because they are all too big there). I spent a long time examining the shelves and noting all the options at hand. At the entrance there is a large wall on the left full of every kind of European chocolate and biscuits (cookies for my American English folks). I choose a Russian dark chocolate because it was half the price of Lindt and went on to find all kinds of foreign offerings such as nutella, peanut butter, breakfast cereal, etc. The funny thing is that these are the only items in the store that I can’t get on my street, more simply, directly and cheaply from the various shops dedicated to particular genres of goods. I had felt as though I was missing something, but as I stood there looking at the shelves full of pasta and jam and the freezer full of prepared appetizers and frozen pizzas I realized that I didn’t want any of it. The fact is that it’s all there, but its all just not quite the same and so I am not enchanted.
I came away with the bar of chocolate, a small piece of blue cheese, a 500 gram pot of yogurt, a can of coconut milk, and a 500 gram canister of oatmeal for just under 50 pounds. I proceeded to the Arab style dry goods shop – with burlap sacks of grains and spices adorning its steps – and bought: a kilo of rice, a half kilo of red lentils, 125 grams of black ground pepper, a quarter kilo of cashews, a half kilo of yellow raisins, and 8 boxes of matches for a total of 46.50 EGP. On my way back to my flat I walk Soliman Gohar street, the street I walk every day back and forth from the metro, which delightfully and conveniently happens to be the souk. I bought from my favorite vegetable ladies whose very rustic stand is under the trees on the first block of the street: a bunch of fresh cilantro, one of dill, and a half kilo each of cucumbers and tomatos… 4 pounds.
By the time a arrive to my little side street Mahmoud Amin, I have added to the haul a kilo of bananas and a half kilo of a succulent orangey red fruit that looks like overgrown rose hips. The taste is also similar, jettisoning me back to the coasts of my childhood. I arrive home having spent less than 20 dollars on worthy purchases all, a reality that after shopping gives me an intense feeling of victory.
What can I say about the streets Cairo? The streets of Cairo are not a built environment in the way we would normally conceive of one. There is nothing finite or permanent about them. They are as organic and alive as a beating heart. The daily rhythm creating an expansion and contraction that sweeps matter in all forms along in its wake, as breath entering and exiting the most powerful lungs. So many purposes co inhabit this space, yet they find themselves here not at cross purposes but occupying parallel paths on the way to accomplish their diverse aims, in no way isolated from each other and with no consciousness of the precedence of one over another.
The streets here you see, are as much for people (alone on the way from work, mother with child perched straddling one shoulder, friends joking, talking on mobiles, pulling carts piled with roasted sweet potatoes, carrying plastic sacks of groceries, with cardboard parcels tied with string or racks of fresh pita bread balanced on their heads) as they are for wheeled transport (donkey-pulled carts pulling loads of fodder or garbage, horse-pulled carts vending fresh vegetables, bicycles, buses with passengers dangling like Christmas ornaments, minibuses with the doors wide open, passenger cars, and the ever present taxi urging the whole mess onwards). You see the people who are contending with this mass of organic and metal movement have chosen this route over the sidewalks as the path of, well, lesser resistance. The reasons for this choice are abundant and include (from my favorites to the less romantic): cafes whose domination of the sidewalk fluxes with the weather, time of day, clientele, and football schedule; vegetable, fruit, and bread stands; next the entrepreneurial individuals who claim a piece of pavement and manifest a livelihood from it by selling any number of incidentals from tissues to watches to slipper to pens; then there are the mechanics whose patients take up residence for any length of time in various states of disrepair; finally there are the more coarse and transitory invading forces of construction, parking, and garbage.
Life dominates here. This means that the unfortunate and misguided soul who wants to GET somewhere… is relegated to the street, a much more efficient route, though riskier of life and limb.