friday in cairo sends egyptians to mosque, leaves their vehicles napping, and finds the city’s expats wondering how to reclaim the quiet day. i say reclaim because that’s what americans seem to do with the final day of the american week, the first day of the muslim weekend, as though it feels especially theirs, a stillness wedged between calendars of east and west. for some, fridays are permission to wander out (“walk across islamic cairo!” one expat urges me to take advantage of the tame day); for others, friday is excuse to hole up (“fridays are for shutting out the world,” shares a friend who stays in pajamas). on fridays there are american-style brunches at five-star hotels; on fridays there are weekend services at christian churches; on fridays every expat club in cairo hosts some outing, some potluck, some mysterious desert voyage for “runners with a drinking problem.” i’m stressed; i have just four fridays in cairo; i want to take back my fridays in all the bizarre and predictable ways americans here do. i tell myself to calm down, make a calendar, and start with baseball.
the first borough in cairo to be fashioned as a suburb is a place called maadi. in maadi, villas stand behind gates, street names are numbers (“road 9″), and greenery is a hard-fought campaign (at most intersections you can buy twiggy bougainvillea in a tin can). maadi is cairo lite. it’s also where the “cairo nomads” are playing the “foul balls” friday at noon. i walk through the sun-drenched parking lot of victoria field, where brawny dads and little sons race remote control cars and the smack of baseballs in mits can be heard before diplomats and oil execs in matching caps and jerseys come into view. the Cairo Nomads versus the Foul Balls: i have grossly underestimated the organization of this expat league. i take a seat on the bleachers and thank heavens no one but me knows that i came expecting to play some ball. i settle in and notice the team captains, the team sponsors, the thick-necked referee with a tattoo. he’s smoking a cigar and underscoring what i should have known: this is a dude’s affair. a separate women’s game ensues on a nearby game, looking just as serious. “good dee!” call the men in the dug-out. “good dee!” echo the wives beside me. a nearby sign thanks the oil company BP for its ongoing support. another nearby sign reminds us that no alcohol is allowed on the premises. and from the far corner of the field, where only a home-run ball can reach, the outline of a minaret matches the sound of a crackly sermon. good dee, good dee. can i ask a question? do you know where you are?
i fall into conversation with a little boy, one of the player’s sons, who tells me all about queen nefertiti and king tut and a place called oasis with gleaming pools and waterslides where everyone goes on the last day of school. when the american school in maadi lets out, he tells me, everyone goes to oasis. oasis, i think to myself, another place in cairo that lets you forget about cairo. another baseball diamond in the desert. it’s worth bearing in mind that for every egyptologist who knew his destiny abroad by the age of nine, there are a few dozen embassy people and engineers for shell oil who never longed for a life in the dusty megacity. cairo is a hell of a place to be placed. i bear this in mind whenever people bring up “the bubble.” expats love to pick on other expats for living in a bubble. they do this everywhere, not just cairo, but nowhere quite like cairo: a city often described as “in your face,” where noise pollution is as vexing as air pollution. ‘a term I’ve learned from some of my friends here is ‘my bubble,’ writes a female columnist in an expat magazine, ‘surround yourself with your favorite things that are familiar to you, things that make you feel safe, comfortable, and cocooned.’ sid calls our apartment a haven; i call it my sensory deprivation chamber. he watches liverpool soccer; i wash and lotion my feet. come friday, there’s nothing that would feel healthier than staying right here, speaking not once. come friday, there are prayer rugs stretching outside the city’s mosques where the faithful gather to hear the word of god, while the city’s nomads seal themselves in bubbles, engross themselves in rituals, rituals that aren’t sacred, just vital. when the game is over, i join the cairo nomads for a bbq at a player’s home. many hours, a few beers, and one deep taco dip later, i get up to thank the hosts. other guests do the same. the woman ahead of me praises the food and company, summing up our friday together in one remark: “this was such a nice escape.”
i hear about a lecture in cairo, hosted by german archeologists; all the you-know-who’s will be there. i show up late, of course, because I get lost, naturally, so end up standing on the edge of a dark room of men in tweed coats. a stalker in the shadows of egyptology. the thick german accent of a speaker i can’t even see makes it impossible to pay attention. “the” becomes “zee,” “this” is “zis,” and the word conservation is repeated eighty nine times. bored, i notice the predilection for tweed; i notice the predominance of men; and finally, i notice a man who’s bored enough to pick his nose. he embarks on a great dig. a short while later, a loud snore rips through the room. it’s nasally, the snore, and it’s him: the digger. i take detailed notes on all of this in the shadows, because what else is a journalist, denied access to the egyptology community, to do? bar me from zee real digs, i’ll cover zee nose digs.
i have a friend who doesn’t believe in god but says she’s most tempted to whenever she falls down. picking herself up, she thinks, someone must have seen that. such a wipe-out could not have gone unwitnessed. the morning i wipe out in cairo, wipe out so hard that i’ll find cuts as far north as my eyebrow, bruises all down my shin, and a wound on my elbow that attracts flies all day, i don’t think about god. i think about all the people who just saw me wipe out. because you can’t do anything in cairo without being seen and also because if i’m a spectacle while walking, i’m certainly a spectacle while falling. i think next about a dust. my jeans are the color of the sahara. my arms look like a porcelain doll’s. except that’s not porcelain. that’s filth. as i beat the dust out of my jeans, it occurs to me that i could just call it a day. it would be perfectly valid for me to call it a day, go straight home, hide. the only problem is that it’s 8:15 in the morning. there’s too much of the day left. a man appears behind me with a plastic chair and insists that i sit. he fishes my cell phone out from underneath a car with a broom. he’s a custodian and lets me wash off my elbow in his sink. he’s the reason i walk back into my day and not home. and so much happens that day, so much i would have missed. for one thing, i meet an american who converted to islam years ago and changed his name from mark to abdullah. he surprises me by asking in the middle of our interview whether i believe in god. “i can’t say yes,” i tell him. “but you can’t say no,” he tells me. here’s what i can say by the close of a day that began on the filthy floor of cairo: i believe in the generosity of total strangers, people who come from nowhere and disappear just as quickly, as a force that transmits life. not that i was about to die on the sidewalk in cairo, but i wasn’t about to resurrect myself either, not all the way, not until tomorrow. ”there are lots of guardian angels around here,” an american woman tells me, later that same week. she starts analyzing life in cairo in a way i’ve heard many people break it down: foreigners, placed in this extreme environment, tend to perceive things in extreme ways. that’s why you hear so many opposite takes on the same moment, the same social reality, why one american will mention all the dead donkeys in the sakkara canal while another points out the crayfish that thrive in those same murky waters. don’t need to collect more examples; i can read the city two ways myself. in the shadows of any street, i can see packs of men waiting to jeer and also a custodian stepping out to hand me back the day of life i almost let drop.
Walk like an Egyptian
i’m pulling that sly trick of following an egyptian across the street, in the hopes of passing through traffic with my life intact. i happen to choose, though, an egyptian who knows this trick. he must see me in the corner of his eye, timing my death wish with his, because once we’ve reached the median, he decides to make me pay for services rendered. he peppers me with dumb questions, knowing perfectly well that unless i have the courage to step into five lanes of dense traffic, i have no choice but to stand there and chat. “what, are we crossing?” i blurt out. we: i just said “we,” admitting to my abductor that i consider us some sort of team. fantastic. i hate my abductor more with every passing second, every passing taxi, and most of all when he guesses that i’ve been in cairo one week. i loathe him enough now to step off the median as though i’m about to make a break for it, which my abductor buys, heading first into traffic and charting a helpful course. another man watching from across the street yells, “WALK LIKE AN EGYPTIAN!” i just did, i think. well almost. two parts courage, one part cunning = walking like an egyptian. my ratio’s off, but i’ve got the key ingredients.
“do you know how to crop?” the photographer keeps asking me, during our impromptu shoot on his rooftop in maadi. he’s worried about cropping because he’s taking portrait shots (the ones i need to break into the movies) and the cityscape behind me is anything but picturesque. maadi, you may recall, is cairo’s wealthy suburb. maadi is where diplomats and oil execs and expats with real money settle. maadi is where you’ll find sushi restaurants and scuba shops and a leather boutique called “walk like an italian.” maadi is where a year at the american school can cost $20,000 per kid. maadi concentrates more wealth than i enjoy imagining. and yet, from the rooftop of the home of this expat photographer, whose utmost concern is cropping, maadi blends right in to the rest of cairo: a slum and a construction set, shoved together and powdered over with dust.
the answer to mike’s question is yes, i know how to crop. but can i really crop out a hundred dusty satellite dishes crowding the horizon? what about the boxy windows and sagging air-conditioner? how do you crop out rooftops that contain junkyards, junkyards that grow rust and rubble piles? and can the color problem, the cairo monotone, something we can box out? what about those walls the desert winds blanched or maybe never wore paint in the first place? of course i can crop, but what would be left of cairo?
i’ve traveled to many places where the walls on the street say nothing about the homes behind them; the interior might be a mansion, but you’d never know by standing at the door. the more i travel, in fact, the more i realize that the premium americans put on exteriors is what’s rare. few would agree that outside must announce what’s inside. cairo, though, has given up on appearances to a degree that’s staggering. daily, i approach the homes of expats that look like distressed tenements. the building where i live is no exception. i’m sure cairo’s resignation to grit is due in part to the desert and the dust it routinely sends through every borough. the city wears a cloak of grit, and i just don’t see anyone trying to break through it, to show off a shinier face. i find myself puzzling over this most in maadi, the wealthy suburb, because i have to believe that the expats who pay top dollar to live there would like the wealth to show. the above photo was taken in maadi, from the rooftop of the expat photographer; the previous two photos were not. “cropping #1″ is a rooftop view in downtown cairo. “cropping #2″ is a garbage picking settlement on the city margins. i’m going to go out on a limb to say neither view differs, all that drastically, from the maadi horizon. to make that evident, i’ve done some cropping.
i meet an american for a drink at a bar where a brawl is underway. what begins with shouting soon gives way to the throwing of wooden chairs and beer steins. maryum looks over her shoulder; i look over maryum’s shoulder; we watch the brawlers get pried apart then resume our interview. what, i ask maryum, do you think it takes to thrive here? this is the question of the week. i’ve been asking it ever since remembering the way gringos in mexico would comment, “mexico isn’t for everyone, you know,” let’s say when another retiree finds san miguel too sleepy and drives back to america. if mexico isn’t for everyone, then cairo is for almost no one. just a few weeks in this outrageous habitat and i’m ready to call the american who thrives here the rarest of creatures. “you can’t let anything bother you…” maryum muses, as wooden chairs and beers steins begin once again to fly through the nearby air. people are now coming in off the street to see the brawl. i search the face of this american i’ve known for all of twenty minutes and wonder whether she’s about to suggest we find another bar. i usually defer to my interviewees in moments like these, and in this particular moment i’m way too tired, having been awake since the 5am call to prayer, to take any sort of lead. maryum doesn’t move, and since she’s the one closest to the air-bound furniture and glass objects, i figure i should calm down and carry on. what, i ask, does it take to thrive in cairo? only when maryum repeats her answer do i realize i’ve repeated my question. “you just have to let things slide off your back…” so we’re distracted. so i’m tired. too distracted and too tired to theorize about the magic trait that enables a foreigner handle the sound-sand-shout-car-person storm called cairo, we turn around and quit pretending we don’t have front row seats to a brutal and fascinating fight.
i’ve also been asking americans in cairo my usual question: explain why you live in a foreign country, and not your native country, in a single word. it was in mexico that i began phrasing it that way, imposing a word limit, in the hopes of getting more original answers to the giant why? it worked; gringos quit theorizing about other gringos and told me about their own yearnings. i heard everything from love to change to food to self-awareness to discount to bush. in cairo, though, i’m collecting different versions of the same answer. i’m hearing that cairo is a curiosity shop, an hour-by-hour adventure, a stimulation guarantee. in cairo, people cheat, needing a couple words to negate boredom: “to not be bored.” another cheater: “i’m never bored here.” one person tells me he always “feels a certain flatness in America” (“sort of like you feel in rehab”). deep in a café crowded with egyptians smoking water pipes, i find a blue-eyed westerner who admits this: “i like chaos.” trips back home are bound to disappoint him, underwhelm, make him pine for the “hurly burly” of cairo. americans who love cairo call it a chaotic jungle, a pandora’s box of surprises, the world’s largest open-air insane asylum. “cairo was never boring,” explains an american who first came here in 1977. “it never is boring,” he corrects his tense. thirty years in the megacity and cairo remains “a total blitz.”
it’s been brought to my attention that all the people i write about are women. here’s what i have to say to that accusation: fair. i’ve noticed the same myself. not since attending all-girls catholic school has my social life been this crowded with young ladies. the other day i was headed to a dinner party and the egyptian man i’d been hanging out with asked, “so is this dinner a girl’s night?” what a strange assumption, i thought, having told him nothing about the gathering—i knew only that the host was a german woman. upon arriving, i saw he was right. i was in for a girl’s night. and it usually is, i’m finding, a girl’s night in cairo. peer into any cafe and look for a mixed table. you may see couples, but co-ed groups of friends almost never. the other day, passing one of these cafes, i amused myself by thinking about a new york times article describing “the man date”: a trend among american men who craved some one-on-one time with a fellow dude. tickled me to think about single-sex socializing as rare, let alone newsworthy. i digress: yes, my blog has a gender bias, and yes i’m doing my best to fix that. you have my word that there are plenty of stories about men are in the pipe. in the mean time, humor me for one more ride on the women’s-only car?
i never have to look hard for the women’s car section. there’s always a huddle of veils, bright flags halfway down the platform, beckoning the non-men. tonight, something’s wrong. tonight, there’s are no flags. not a single egyptian woman awaits the last train of the night. i do the following: choose an empty slab of wall, lean my back against it, and stare hard at the first page of a book called cairo: a city victorious. my intention is to keep my head down, but without meaning to i keep looking up, hoping for a flag. i see instead a man, every time, and he’s staring. staring with all the usual permission, and then some. permission to glare: the sort of permission you take with people in magazines because people in magazines can’t look back; they’re stuck. i’m stuck looking down, way too outnumbered to lift my head. and i don’t need to lift my head to see what a mistake this was, a mistake i won’t repeat; what matters now is boarding the right train and reaching the place where i live and my goal is to do both of those things without crying. it helps to stare at words on any page of cairo: a city victorious. i wonder what it means, whether it means anything, that i’m reading a book. i wonder how i can know so few rules. i wonder if those are marshmallows the boys just threw at me. i wonder if the boys actually buy that a woman could be so engrossed by a book at midnight on a friday that she wouldn’t even look down at the white puffs by her feet. weeks later, weeks that elapse as months and feel boot camps, i meet the author of cairo: a city victorious. an american named max. i really should thank him but by then it’s hard to remember how a ride on the subway could have felt that much like a battle, why a history book would end up in my hand as a shield. and how exactly it was supposed to defense my honor on the midnight train to dokki. besides, max has lived in egypt most of his life. he’s also a man. this man surprises me, though, as we chat about cairo over lunch. he calls it, with no intended irony, “a very defeating city.” for that, i want to pay my thanks.
defeating, but not lonely. do you see how hard it would be to feel lonely in a place like this? cairo will assault, taunt, exasperate, but it leaves so little space for loneliness to grow. i feel qualified to say this because I’ve lived in many places, big and tiny, cosmopolitan and boondock, and felt lonely in most of them. and also because i move through the world knowing that what could send me home, quick as malaria, is feeling alone on the road. in cairo, it’s simply a non-issue. the street asks too much of me, requires too much courage and feigned calm and constant alertness, to feel anything but self-satisfied at the close of a day. the night i got assaulted by marshmallows and smutty glances on the subway, here’s what i did when i reached home: fell into sleep like an anchor into sea. there was my bed, my reward, my finish line. i keep thinking of a friend in iowa city who confided once that she loved the process of moving. there we were, packing up our apartments in the summer heat, scrambling to find boxes and recycling bins and people to adopt our pets, driving into very uncertain futures, and my friend liked it, liked having lists of errands and boxes to seal with tape. “i feel capable,” she said. this word, capable, comes so often to mind in the fury of my days in cairo. i appreciate what this city lays out like an obstacle course before me every morning. i appreciate that i’m in touch, every day, with people who see in cairo the very same obstacle course, physical and psychological challenges that a newcomer can only shrug at, before giving it a go. “welcome to cairo,” chuckles the journalist to whom i make a wisecrack about how little i’ve accomplished since our last conversation. “if you can get one thing done here, you call it a day.” cross the street and count yourself capable.
there’s a certain look i wear in cairo and i’ve just figured out that it reminds me of childhood. it’s the look of a kid who’s been sent to her room. a touch righteous, a touch pouty. it’s that look for blowing past your disapprovers, to make the point that you’re not apologizing; for the record: you don’t believe you’ve done anything wrong. you’re going to your room only because you’ve been told you must (this is not your house, after all; you don’t write the rules); you’ll speak to no one en route; you’ll walk with conviction in your steps; you’ll shut the door with just enough force to show your defiance, not enough to worsen the punishment. whenever i take the subway to dokki after dark, when i walk back down a dim soliman gohar, past the men selling guavas in the lamp light, past the men smoking water pipes, past the people sitting outside the agouza police station waiting for god knows who and staring in the meantime at you know who, i make it by wearing this self-defense across my face.
mother of the world.
“how can you imagine 5,000 years?” maryanne asks. i write down her question because i can’t hazard an answer. we’re talking about the span of egyptian history and my mind can’t hold that. five millennia: sounds like the preface to a book about dinosaurs. egypt has her ways of elongating a person’s sense of time, though, whispering questions that nudge the imagination back, back, back, to grasp this country’s astonishing age. “this palace,” an egyptian tells me, while sipping a beer on the patio of the cairo marriot, “is older than america.” i look up at the olive green and gold archways and am, for a moment, awed; in a few days, i’ll be asking what isn’t? what, in cairo, isn’t older than america? egypt is teaching me that my nation was just born. egypt is humbling me just as she’s humbled travelers for thousands of years: by her head start on the rest of the world. fourteen centuries ago, when arab invaders first came to egypt, they were stunned by “the vast size of this city and its great age.” in 1326, a traveler was flabbergasted by the city’s “throngs of folk” and a boundless “profusion of buildings.” in 1481, another foreign guest had this to say: “i swear that if it were possible to put rome, venice, milan, padua, florence and four more cities together, they would not equal in wealth and population half that of cairo.” in the year 1998, when a foreigner was commissioned to shoehorn the history of cairo into one book, he made use of such transitions as, “jump forward a millennium or two.” and finally, in 2010, when an egyptian received a foreigner at the airport, a traveler who’d never set foot in this part of the world, who’d never tried to imagine 5,000 years, he situated her at the beginning, invoking a phrase old enough to appear in arabian nights, where travelers sit around and swap stories about a place, um al-dunya, that had to be seen to believed. “we call egypt,’” he said, “‘the mother of the world.’”
your elevator looks like a 1920’s phone booth, dangling on a wire. your balcony began chipping circa WWII. you inherited in your flat a chandelier that no one has dusted since nasser ruled egypt. i’m phrasing these sentences to make clear my penchant for all things old. i think i whimpered in agreement the other day when i read that mahfouz, egypt’s nobel laureate, said that cairo was like meeting a great love in old age. to put in check these romantic notions, i’ve begun asking americans what it actually means to them, on a daily basis, to live in a place so layered with history. i’m prepared to hear complaints about repair bills and grit. patrick, rather than answer my question directly, talks me through a walk in his neighborhood. “i live in a building made in 1925,” he says. “i look out over a ministry that was built in 1898 in islamic style.” finally, he adds, “i walk to work past a WWII era building.” patrick and i are sitting in the booth of a restaurant, his choice, that a friend described as “stuck in the 1950′s”; clearly, cairo’s many layers of history are not lost on patrick. nor alex, for that matter, who lives on the fifth floor of stately old apartment building downtown. she apologizes on behalf of her elevator, which can carry me up but not down. she looks, however, pretty charmed by that museum piece; maybe she can tell i am, too. others, when describing their apartments in cairo, often mention high-ceilings or molding; they tend to know dates of construction by heart. “there’s a certain richness,” someone mused. one way to feel rich is to buy new things. the american way is to buy new things. cairo, for a handful of americans, is a chance to luxuriate daily in the shabby, weathered texture of age-old things.
“many years later, when i was eating dinner with che guevarra…” i’m at the feet of a beat generation american and he’s telling me stories, Stories with a capital S, stories he wants on the record, or at least in my notebook. “i can’t believe you didn’t write that down,” marc halts, looking at me in disbelief. “i can’t believe you didn’t write that down,” i open my notebook and write that down. “many years later, when i was eating dinner with che guevarra…” many years after marc ate dinner with che guevarra, he had me over for tea in cairo, to talk about forty years of life as an expat in the middle east. mark is, for starters, tall. i forgot people can be as tall as marc schleifer. he towers over the egyptian woman who welcomes me in the door and makes us tea. when marc describes himself, though, he talks about temperature, not height. “i’m the type of person you’d describe as hot,” he says, “i generate intensity.” he tells me about the time another expat, upon hearing that marc was muslim, exclaimed, “you gave up alcohol for islam?” marc said no: “i gave up cocaine for islam.” it was intensity that repelled marc from america and what he calls “a soul-less society.” there was a circuit, he tells me, among the beats: “if you felt a certain dissatisfaction with what you were supposed to do, you just got on the road.” the road led from new york, to san francisco, to mexico city and finally to tangiers. i can’t recount with clarity mark’s path on this road, because it was recounted to me with great intensity and no chronology. what i do know is that tangiers, in 1960, was a crossroads for marc. tangiers was where he had a bad trip (“a vision of hell that lasted six weeks,” according to an account i read online). it rattled him, as did the drug overdoses of close friends, fellow Beats. marc opened the koran, began to read, and one day walked into mosque in brooklyn, where he took a pledge and converted. changing countries is one way to start over. converting, though, was a way for marc to say with even greater conviction, “okay, i’m entering a new life.” in his new life, he went by the name abdallah.
abdallah schleifer is the name of a well-known foreign correspondent in cairo. people know the name, not for its curious jewish-muslim hybrid, but because it was for many years the byline of NBC news out of cairo. when stories broke in the middle east, abdullah was the bureau chief on the ground. having heard this man call himself “a raving radical,” i’m surprised to learn that he was employed by network news in america. the more he recounts his years flitting around the middle east, however, sneaking across borders in disguise and hopping on planes to reach aman in time (abdullah’s stories from the field, much like kapuscinski essays, feel fueled by this deep need to watch history as it happens, incurring any risk, paying any cost; the new story filed, in both their cases, sounds like an afterthought, a comedown, a period at the end of long and wild sentence), i can see what an valuable correspondent he must have been. abdallah had his ear to the ground, he spoke the language, even practiced the religion, felt the intensity of the place, took its temperature. when he mentions “the arab street,” i have to pause him; i don’t know what that means. he repeats the phrase, impatiently; i must have heard it before: “the arab street?” it means rumor, public opinion, comments in cafés, murmurs of newspaper readers. i nod; i get it. abdallah’s beat. getting to know the arab street, this ex-beatnik poet carved out a career in news. his intensity, though, created some challenges. “television exaggerates intensity,” abdullah explains. the crew would have to do “like 18 takes” to get a segment they could broadcast. even then, abdallah came across so severely that his own parents struggled to recognize their son on the nightly news. a couple times, abdallah tuned in to watch the american on the arab street. “i scared myself.”
is this the sort of intensity that makes someone a natural fit for cairo? i suspect so, but abdallah surprises me by saying cairo doesn’t suit him. not anymore. “i get really put off by the noise, the crowds, the arguments,” he runs through the standard gripes. “much of what attracted me 55 years ago has changed,” he says. i can’t resist pointing out where abdallah lives: “new cairo.” to arrive at his doorstep, i rode past mile after mile of housing developments: an eerie half-completed set that brings to mind the very word abdallah used to characterize the beatnik’s forsaken america: “soulless.” i regret intimating that abdallah’s address makes him some kind of sell-out when he clarifies, sounding defensive, that new cairo is only a temporary home. while recovering from a surgery, he needs to stay close to the university. leaning on a cane, he brings over a glossy magazine and opens it to a photo portfolio that’s been paper-clipped. it’s a feature about his home in fayyum, an oasis in the desert, a house he calls “a medieval arab house with running water and electricity.” it’s gorgeous: vaulted ceilings, archways, divans with silk pillows, so easy to imagine a sultan ensconced upon. “in fayyum,” he explains, “i’ve recreated the aesthetic experience of tangiers.” never having been to morocco, i have to take abdallah’s word that to walk into tangiers is to step back in time. i page through the magazine, slowly, admiring aloud this man’s home, this answer to modern cairo in egypt’s biggest oasis, where abdallah feels “one with the environment.”
my conversation with abdallah is not something i control. we jump from che guevarra to pope john paul II to henry kissinger to sufi mystics. we’re on pilgrimage to mecca, covering a coup in north africa, sweeping through iraq when liquor flowed, returning to cairo when it felt like the bronx but without the knives. have i asked this man a single question? no: far too busy jotting down dates/summits/uprisings and keeping the claws of his siamese cat, the one he inherited from a persian belly dancer, from piercing my jeans. “keep in mind i’m 74 and on sedatives,” he tells me during one pause, as though that thing about his intensity might have sounded far-fetched. i bear this in mind when he asks whether i believe in god and whether i know the history of the croissant, catapulting us a few centuries back in history and headlong into theology. an hour has gone by and i’m about to give up on questions, my usual stock questions about life abroad, as well as the question tailored for abdallah, about the day sadat was assassinated (there’s a rumor, not on the arab street but in expat circles, that abdallah was nowhere to be found in the critical moment, on october 6, 1981, when egypt’s president was killed), because if rumor is correct, i’m not sure i want to invoke october 6th. besides, the more i think about the arab street, the very notion of an arab street, the one abdallah was impatient for me to grasp, i’m reminded why a woman wouldn’t know about the arab street: she has no place there. not in the cafes, not the markets, nowhere that people read the news or talk politics do women have a seat, a place, a pass. i want abdallah to talk about that. if i sound confrontational here, i promise in the moment i made an effort not to. i took a deep breath and fumbled for a sincere chord, and finding it, told abdullah that egypt was a hard place for me, as a woman, to be. i asked him to tell me how he’d reconciled himself to the place of women in egypt. i have my doubts that i phrased the question fairly, but i do know that abdallah heard the intensity in my voice, the heat beneath the question. i know because he answered in kind.
my notes, at this point, become hard to read. they’re rushed; they’re fragments, hot fragments dropped to catch hotter fragments. the word THUNDERING is unmistakable, though; i’ve drawn a box around it (to remember, i suppose, that abdallah–pumping his arms back and forth above his head like a man trying to loosen the bars of a cage–thundered at me). he thunders about westerners who put him off when they come here and judge egypt when back in the west everything is being sold by naked women. he’s generating heat and I’m catching it; i can feel in my cheeks a thick scarlet flush. i bet you get your bottom pinched three times a day. i bet i’ll want those words, that complete sentence, intact, later, once i’ve cooled. i keep my head down and jot. the picture is not as grim as it would appear to you. he’s trying to make the case that women in egypt don’t have it so bad. he makes the case that women in america not so long ago had it bad. he mentions some grandmother who wore a full-body bathing suit and i don’t write that down because i have no use for it. i have no use for looking backwards in american history to find women covered from head to toe and warned not to look seducing; i see no point, in this moment of trying to understand egypt, in remembering that american women were until recently wives of husbands and mothers of kids and little else. there are good reasons to take a long view of history; patience with the inferior status of women is not one of them. written at a hurried slant, underlined twice, is this question: why are we rewinding?
everything this man has told me about romanticizing the past, about the “medieval core” of old cities he adores, is tainted once i learn that he’s comfortable with the position of women in the arab world. the man i envision inside that dim house in fayyum, propped up on the silk pillows of a long divan, has the imperious look of a sultan. “how many wives have you had?” i ask abdullah as we wind up the conversation. over the past hour, he has mentioned a lot of wives. “i’ve had a lot,” he dodges. silence like a chill between us. earlier though, he mentioned an african wife, the granddaughter of a sudanese sultan. this wife had a “traditional aspect” that abdallah loved. what upset him was how she balked about accompanying him to events at the university, even when he was receiving awards. “as an american,” he said, “that would bother me. especially in the moments of glory.” i think about this african wife and her american husband many times during my stay in egypt. they come to mind whenever i meet a certain kind of egyptian man who’s been educated abroad and seems to try, like abdallah, to ride the line between east and west, cherry-picking from the best both have to offer them. later, when i go back into my notes to decode the scribbles and reconsider fayyum, here’s what i want to say back to the american man on the arab street: there’s no such thing as a medieval house with running water and electricity. cairo might let us see history’s every layer at once, but there’s no magic way to inhabit more than one.
there are stories about egyptians who think americans have sex in the streets. there are stories about egyptians who ask americans how they can be sure who fathers their babies. there are stories of americans who promise egyptians that the bold and the beautiful says nothing about life in america, that their friends are nothing like lifeguards on baywatch. these are the stories passed around among expats, from old-timers to newcomers, from those-who-know to those-who-don’t-yet-believe. at parties, stories spur on stories, people toss in what they’ve heard, whether its second-hand or eleventh hand, until it’s the legend hour. i excuse myself to the bathroom and write a couple down: the one about the girl on the subway whose bra strap showed and earned reprimand, the one about the girl whose landlord blacked out her windows to protect the neighbors, the one about the girl whose skirt got slashed with a knife, the one about the girl who came back after a night away from her apartment to the word “whore” on her door, the one about the girl who had an overnight guest and the very next day answered the knock of a man her doorman sent up for sex. what can I tell you about the stories of these girls? not that they’re true, not that they’re false, only that they’re swapped, back and forth, when foreigners get together to breathe deep in cairo, turning this place into the stuff of legends, keeping their first home real.
getting back to show biz. should be easier, shouldn’t it, now that i’ve given up on the appearance of virtue, as well as the crack of dawn in cairo. late one day, i get a call from ahmed, ahmed the director (though not until he has proposed we meet someplace other than mcdonalds, can i safely rule out that i’m on the phone with a sweating 19-year-old, planning our next ice cream date). ahmed’s studio is tastefully decorated: sleek furniture and lime green walls. a television plays at the far end of his office. he asks me questions, scribbles down my age in pencil, then begins calling around cairo, to find out who’s casting. on his laptop screen, i notice a tab, “coolen writer,” and panic. my website, i think; he knows. but there’s no reason to panic; ahmed knows, coolen = writer because i told him. i did this realizing it was rather gratuitous for a person like me to create a false identity. i tend to puzzle people by my answers to the questions, what do you do, and where do you live, and how about tomorrow. i bet myself that within my own slippery story, without telling any lies at all, i could make my case to ahmed: i’m a freelance writer (true) who moves around often (true) and most recently to cairo (true), very open to new things (true), including work in film (true), and right away (preferably today). “do you love cairo?” ahmed startles me by asking. “do i love cairo.” do i love cairo? “i’m having an amazing time in cairo.” his real question is whether i plan to stay. after a pause, he asks it. “i have a flat for a month,” i say. “beyond that, who knows.” for once, the who-knows tune of my life plays to my advantage. the question marks i’m in the habit of hanging with apology and self-doubt go up now with a cheery shrug. anything could happen, ahmed. give me some reason to stay
if rolling my belly in front of aleya’s mirror was humiliating, then introducing myself as a wannabe actress to a video camera, with a live audience of egyptian dudes, brings me across a new frontier of social pain. i spend the day visiting one casting studio after another, shaking hands with dudes, walking through rooms with dudes, dudes, dudes, taking their cues on how to charm some imagined audience of egyptian dudes. turn to the left (profile!), now to the camera, smile at the camera (hey!), turn right (profile!), another smile (heyyy!), now tell the camera, coolen, about your hobbies. first, let me tell you, blog, why this project seems to have worked thus far: every day, i step a bit further outside of myself. i do things (ie, row at 6am with teenage boys, cold-call archeologists, carouse in cabarets) that i wouldn’t normally do. however, this casting video prompt is not calling for another step. i will not survive the next ten seconds without a leap, a headlong and desperate leap into the mind and body a dimple-cheeked cheerleader. i am not colleen; i’m not even cooolen; i’m candace. i’m chipper and plastic and i love this shit. i will now say with perfect posture and gusto: “i like swimming, jogging, and taking pictures!” and i can die now. i can now die, humiliated by my manic month of immersion journalism in cairo. the casting dudes say thanks and tell me to be ready for a call. a woman who looks just like naomi campbell, but egyptian, is going to call to arrange my beauty lessons. “is that an insult?” asks a friend, when i tell her about beauty boot camp and the egyptian naomi campbell. an insult, perhaps. a start, let’s hope.
i almost didn’t come to cairo. i keep wanting to say that, and with a certain photo of a camel, before resuming another thread of the story. it feels important that whoever’s reading knows that the journey itself was not a certain one, not even a likely one, perhaps best called a whim. there were many reasons not to board a plane, to instead stay put, worry about money, write until i made some. i’d just unloaded the pieces of my last home in mexico in my parents’ basement and as much as i knew that was the right move, certainty did nothing with the sadness. mexico wasn’t home and yet i was homesick. my sister turned on a travel show and the sight of a blue-corn tortilla sizzling made me whimper. i was sleeping in the room where i’d slept from age two to age twelve, waking up startled by the thick gray sky. my mood was a thickening gray sky. did that happen when i was younger? what was happening now? twice, i fainted and ended up in the ER; both times, i left without clarity about why. the lady at the medicaid desk asked page after page of questions about my living situation for which i had no straightforward answers. her pen hovered and she left fields blank while I sat on the other side of the desk and felt like a person who’d neglected to lay a framework she’d need to live inside. i could not fill out forms. i was losing consciousness. a person who loses consciousness at random must able to fill out forms. home address, monthly income, primary care physician: i had to get those things. all of those things? some of those things? i only knew i couldn’t move forward with none of those things. my twenties were ending and that made them feel over. one night, my sister chose the movie grey gardens and i told her midway through, with a cat on my lap and a portable heater blowing in my face, that i was going to cry if drew barrymore didn’t get out of that house. it was a saturday night in february and buffalo looked briefly like a place i might never leave. then a miracle called medicaid swept away thousands of dollars of bills in a letter mailed to my parents’ address. pretty lucky, my mother clucked at me, like she wasn’t sure i deserved all that luck. here was my luck: i could think again about what i wanted. i could get out of this winter not by following the rope of need or fear, but yearning. march was open. i had to be in new hampshire by april, but march came first, and march was blank. i wanted new stories, to give this book a shot; i had just enough money to rent a flat in a cheap city. cairo was cheap and cairo had a craigslist. i hadn’t fainted in a while. feel the momentum? i could mention more momentum-making factors (sisters who listen, parents who lend space in their basements and suitcases from their attic, a camera for christmas), but ultimately, what my choice came down to was a home: not having one of my own. i’d stayed in other peoples’ homes and didn’t want to do that any longer. so much can happen in a month. you can overstay a welcome in a month. you can wander the middle east for a month. you can fall in love in a month. you can do all of the above in less than a month. i bought a ticket on credit. i said aloud that i was flying to cairo on sunday. “this sunday?” i woke up on monday to the call to prayer and a tiny glimpse of the nile from eleven stories up. do we cup with two hands the moments we almost gave up looking for? do we look harder at the people we nearly routed right around? do we open ourselves more to the places whose borders we balked on, the wide unknowns we thought we could live without knowing, or just know some other time? everyone values what they lose, as soon as its gone, but what about what we almost lost, once we have it in hand, once we know it, plumb it, look straight into it? every day i spend in cairo I think at least once about the month i would have spent laying low, in a practical limbo, back in the states. i can’t see anything that matters happening in that month. maybe it would have; of course it could have. but how could it possibly contain what cairo has? i’m not about to claim that egypt has changed my life. what i wake up to here, however, the way i fill my days here and push my mind and press my courage in cairo reminds me what’s worth training my life towards. i want a home; i want answers to questions that hospitals ask and strangers ask, but i also want cairos. i want months with this kind of fury, months that feel like an education and a trial and a tour through rare lives with protagonists i’ll have no choice but to remember and write about. very recently, i couldn’t have told you that. i couldn’t see that, under the haze of winter and anxieties about the columns of things i did not have. i couldn’t even tell you that i was fainting because the state of my life so panicked me. i guess it still amazes me that these two seasons fell one after another, that a winter about feeling weak in every way, could stand right alongside a moment of feeling everything come together. one move, and i had my finger on life as i wanted it. one move, and i was awake. the move wasn’t even powered by inspiration, the move was about staying on the move, securing my own space, even if it meant changing continents. when I say i almost didn’t come to cairo, i’m telling you i nearly kept asleep. in this story about nomads in a city of unmatched intensity, take that as one more layer, one more spark, one more hot body in rage of traffic and the teeming crowd.
it’s official: my photos are pissing people off. the other day a bread vendor leapt up and shouted when i knelt down to take a picture of a minaret that included his pitas. he was furious, or so it seemed. a friend translated: the bread man didn’t want bad luck. a photo was some sort of curse? was i spreading bad luck through cairo? the police, however, couldn’t be freaking out on the same grounds: i was photographing the nile when they barked at me soon after. exasperated, i ask maryanne: what’s the deal with photography here? why am I causing such an outcry? “what really pisses people off,” she explains, “is when foreigners take photos and pretend egyptians aren’t even there.” i know these photos; i’ve taken my share of these photos, pretending it’s about the pile of watermelons, and not the man beside them. however: i also like piles of watermelons. piles of rice, piles of glasses, piles of vintage dolls. can any of those things be photographed in cairo, a city that packs in 300,000 people per mile in some areas, without a cairene in the frame? maryanne assures me the solution is simple: two words, “mumkin sura?” photo possible? once i’ve written down the words, repeated them, rehearsed a bit, how reasonable it sounds: to look in the eye of the person in the frame and ask permission. can i take you? (even if what i really want, what i’m actually after, is the late-day light in those water glasses).
the glass door of a bookcase swings open and three americans stare at a line of ragged book spines. “so tall,” i say what strikes me first: a few of the tomes could reach my ribs if set on the floor. they won’t be set on the floor, or touched for that matter; i can tell from the way we’re frozen (steve the librarian and his two guests) like people cordoned off, admiring the original description de l’egypte, commissioned by napoleon and composed by over a hundred savants who took his orders to sketch every obelisk, map every temple, transcribe the hieroglyphs on tomb walls. it’s meticulous and gorgeous: a multi-volume mapping of egypt in 1798. nowadays, it’s hard to pass by a touristy site (an obelisk, a temple, a tomb) without also passing a postcard rack with reproductions of the description. you can see in those etchings the compulsion foreigners bring to this ancient land: to document what’s in stone, before it turns to sand. you can see the very same compulsion in this library, en route to the special-access room where the description is locked behind glass: in bottles marked “DOCUMENT CLEANER,” in special creams and sprays that keep scrolls looking their youngest, in work stations where foreign librarians test out the latest anti-aging potions on books. this library houses some of the rarest books in egypt, and the staff is largely foreign. ”expats in paris get into food and wine,” an american told me the other day, setting up her comparison with cairo, where expats find more to geek out over in the way of ancient relics and pharonic trivia. recently, at a happy hour with professors at the american university in cairo, i noted the word “sexy” used in a sentence about the discovery of king tut’s tomb. a few beers later, i heard caddy gossip about the head of the supreme council of antiquities, an archeologist named zahi, about whom every american in cairo has an opinion. but getting back to the description de l’egypt: steve is about to reach over the imaginary cordon of awe and close the glass door, sealing the first complete portrait of egypt back in its cupboard. i won’t get to stroke a single page. both as a compulsive documenter (i fill a notebook a week as a traveler and a writer in cairo) and as someone who wishes “old books” were a candle scent, i lament that. though i’ve geeked out on ancient egypt enough by now to consider myself lucky: standing an arm’s length away, in this room that’s closely guarded and climate-controlled by an unbroken relay of foreign librarians is pretty fucking sexy.
helen makes small talk with librarians by the elevator, asking the question everyone around here asks: how is the new building? everyone’s asking because everything is new, new, new on the american university in cairo’s second campus, fashioned in razor sharp contrast to the original one: the historic college nestled in the heart of downtown cairo, ringed with turn-of-the-century buildings and pumped with pedestrians by a subway stop where just about everyone stops: SADAT. stopping there on my first morning in cairo was how i stumbled upon the old AUC . it was a mistake, and yet what a fitting place to begin. if there’s a center of gravity for americans in the middle east, it’s the AUC. americans who want to learn arabic, who crave familiarity with the muslim world, have for decades passed through the downtown campus gate. i wasn’t allowed to pass through without ID, so instead wandered along the campus wall, pausing at a dry and flattened black mass on the sidewalk that i almost didn’t recognize as a dead cat. when people in cairo talk about a city burdened by history, layered with the refuse of too many millions, crushed by the weight of its past, i think about streets where a dead cat could lay in the sun long enough to desiccate into a neat paddy. the AUC was hemmed in by such streets, until, that is, just a few years ago when they began to build egypt’s preeminent college from scratch. that couldn’t be done without a move. a huge, 400-million-dollar move. the new AUC straddles the edge of the city, where cairo fades into desert. to get there, i boarded a bus with college students who napped as we crept through the megacity’s morning traffic, napped as pedestrians disappeared and housing complexes sprouted, napped as we passed a monstrosity called “FUTURE UNIVERSITY” (nicknamed “the roman coliseum”). had someone told me that the only people inside future university were telemarketers calling around the middle east for the students of tomorrow, i’d have nodded, easily imagining the laminated scripts at phone bank stations. soon enough, i found helen at the new AUC. helen actually found me, wandering around a foyer that was either handsome or corporate; i was taking photos to later make that call. and when we found shade on the back veranda, i was once again at a loss to read the horizon: was that smog or nothing? i’d never stared straight into desert, considered what it voids. what to make of this college of the future? that was the question, as foreign librarians unpacked ancient books onto gleaming shelves, as new students squinted through courtyards that might just be too bright, lacking the smudge and age that puts light in check elsewhere in cairo. the librarians took their time mulling over helen’s question, as we waited for the elevator. how about that new building? finally, as the elevator gave a ding, an egyptian man spoke up. we were speaking in english, but i suspect from the way he phrased his verdict that it was composed first in another language, his native language, the language of intuition: “it doesn’t have its spirit yet.”
i consider that spirit, the missing spirit, on my ride back to cairo, passing a CHILI’S restaurant alongside an ABU SHAKIR, passing a PRICEWATERHOUSECOOPERS without cars in the parking lot. there are swaths of cairo that are nothing but concrete and glass, that have no discernible face yet, whose style is an unruly amalgam of every style cairo has ever been, ever wanted to try on, from roman classic to american suburban. it’s these stretches, this “NEW CAIRO,” that helps me understand everything i’ve heard about dubai, qatar, all the young hubs of the gulf, where money pumps faster than people can plan. i thought about living in the UAE for a while; dubai seemed an obvious chapter in a book about expats. once when i read about “education city,” a surreal complex of american colleges that sprouted up quick as weeds in the middle of the desert in oil-rich qatar, i kept tabs on their job postings, too. having now seen new cairo, i can playback conversations with Dubai expats, people i’ve met on the road and peppered with questions, trying to leach some sense of their particular expat experience: what was it like? i get it now: why my question never earned much, why people would, in lieu of adjectives or scenes or even stories, just say the name of the place like a code i should know: dubai, you know dubai, i mean it’s dubai, after all. americans who lived in dubai couldn’t tell me what it was like to live in a foreign country because they didn’t quite feel as though they had. dubai, dubai, dubai. they lived in a place whose meaning was a work in progress.
have and mercy are the words, the only words, in my mind as i cross the street in cairo. i glare at the windshields of oncoming cars and hope that just behind that shining plate of glass is a driver who’d prefer not to take a life today. i’m following kate’s advice: “trust that no one wants to kill you.” i’m trusting; i’m trying; i’m feeling the need to underscore here that all we’re talking about is crossing the street, reaching the other bank of a plain old stream of traffic. just in case anyone (say, a mother) has lost track of the fact that i’m neither jumping off a clip nor wading across the amazon. i am crossing the street in cairo and i’m begging for mercy. sometimes, i raise one hand towards the hoods of cars like a priest, like my sacred palm could halt a vehicle. i learned that from watching abby, who may or may not have learned it from getting hit and landing in a hospital bed. i have not, for the record, died yet. and i think a few drivers have tapped their brakes, reading in my hard gaze or hard jaw or outstretched palm, a clear petition for my life.
“there’s no such thing as a stupid question from someone who’s been in this country ten minutes,” answers the american i ask permission to ask a stupid question. kate’s being kind; i’ve been here for weeks; still, i could fill a book with stupid questions. this stupid question is special; it’s the one i’ll recall, later, to appreciate how much this city flummoxed me. “i keep walking by men who are clearing their throats and spitting…” i ask kate if they’re aiming, well, for me. she laughs, “a lot of crazy things happen here,” but not that. western woman get hit on, picked on, frowned on, but not phlegmed on. before i can blush much kate insists this is my role in cairo, for now, at least: asker of dumb questions, enacter of stupid mistakes, clown in the crowd of veiled chucklers. when i ask kate what it takes to adjust well to cairo, she says humility first, humor next, and last, a willingness to make a fool out of yourself. i feel so often like i’m stepping into scenarios that require public idiocy (example: you can’t figure out how to place an order at the tameya joint without first giving the thirteen dudes behind the counter cause to snicker, to send a joke in arabic ricocheting through the kitchen). if you’re not making a fool out of yourself at least once a day, i’m promised. you’re doing something wrong in cairo. heavens, how i need that promise.
i often ask americans to tell me a word in their second language they’re fond of, a phrase they’d drag right over into english conversations or other contexts if they had their druthers. “buen provecho,” was a common response in mexico: the pleasantry of feasting, what you chime when it’s time to eat, when everyone’s mouth in the room is about to fill with spice and sustenance, provecho precedes mmmmm, saying provecho is something like saying grace, and a person who’s lived in spanish will feel its absence, perhaps like a person raised with grace who no longer prays, in english-speaking spheres. the sound of merengue and beat of bachatta transport me to the dominican republic but so does walking through a room of people eating, wishing i could just bless the feast as i would in santiago de los caballeros: provecho a todos. americans everywhere seem fond of foreign phrases that shrug off things that would cause migraines back home. “ni modo,” in mexico. “no es facil,” in cuba. “malish,” in egypt. oh well; so it sucks; let’s sigh and say something to let it go. in cairo, when i met the american who translates the works of egypt’s nobel laureate, a master inter-language wordsmith, i tailored my question. i asked raymond whether there was a word, when he rolled up his sleeves to knead arabic into english that gave him trouble, a stubborn lump in the dough, in retelling mahfouz’s stories. he sent me a look like i’d just defined his profession as a translator. he smiled, though, recalling the word doholl. it means stupid and idiotic and also gulliable and also deranged and sometimes out of control. raymond quit five synonyms in. i wouldn’t get it. “it’s indescribable.” doholl. i speak not a lick of arabic and yet how much i could tell raymond stock about the word doholl, all the ways i knew to be an idiot in cairo. though really, it a lot about context. some stories are better left where they happened. doubt you’d get it, anyways.
i often get the feeling that the americans i’m meeting would hate the other americans i’m meeting. i have that feeling as i sip the last of my beer at a happy hour with sociology and political science professors in a shabby café in downtown cairo and realize it’s about time i headed to the officers’ club party in maadi. i wait for a lull in the conversation about pan-arab politics so i can go meet up with the trailing spouse of an oil executive who promised me it’s always a rager when the navy guys open their bar. i hop between these worlds, treat them like subway stops on my blitz through cairo, having yet to make any tough calls about who i’ll feature in my chapter, instead gathering any/all stories. i flit between worlds that feel like double lives and, like a person leading a double life, take no one with me. kate, a chatty magazine editor who speaks fluent arabic and could tell scheherazade’s 1,0001 tales to a brick wall, reminds me why. we’re swiping at the last of the baba ghanoush when she announces to everyone at our table that i’m headed off “to hang out with the jarheads.” chuckles and raised eyebrows from the tweedy profs: these people hate those people. having no comeback (and some sensitivity about my ability to flit between these parties and those parties, entertained at both) i tease kate that she’s coming along with me. kate surprises by standing up, ready to party with people she calls jar heads and oilies. is it curiosity? or does this seemingly prickly lady like hanging out with me more than she lets on? i get a clue later in the night, when kate describes life abroad as a gray zone. “in a fixed place, everything is black and white,” she explains. in a fixed place, people get very good at making judgments. changing places changes that; boxes are blasted open and the people penned up inside them get to mix. i remember a gay man in mexico city praising life abroad as a kind of gray zone; mexico wasn’t an especially gay-friendly place but what mattered was that no one there could type him (he was a “foreigner” of course; but that meant different by definition, that meant license to move through any circles he pleased). so maybe that was it: the spirit of our bipolar night in cairo. perhaps kate was just exercising her right as a gray zoner to take leave of another left-leaning political roundtable and walk into a bar with a disco ball to the tune of country music where a kansas sargeant named bull hollered to us in welcome, “GIT-ER-DONE!”
so many rules are broken in the gray zone. the rule about not pulling down your pants to show strangers a new tattoo. the rule about not pulling up your shirt to show strangers an old tattoo. the rule about not pulling women half your age onto the dance floor and pressing them against your paunch. the rule about not speaking so close to a person’s face that said person feels heat. i’m beginning to miss, or at least see the value in the hard-and-fast rules of black-and-white places (the lines between ages, for ex, the distinctions married and unmarried, and so on) after a couple hours in this gray zone. i shouldn’t know who has texas blue bells tattooed in her crotch. i shouldn’t know who’s got a mermaid on her boob. i really should not have danced with both their husbands. and they really shouldn’t have insisted that hard, prying my fingers from around a plastic cup that cracked from the force of my not wanting to country dance with an oilie. “i’m never forgiving you for that,” I tell kate, returning from the dance floor to pick up my splintered cup. “you threw me under a bus,” i add, as though her resistance could have prevented my country-line misery. kate redeems herself as wing woman later, yanking me away from a sloshed texan. (“see all those bottles?” he asked, turning me to face the bar, breathing down my neck while drawing up a simile: all that alcohol was the world’s petroleum. pour out one bottle, and that’s the oil you can tap in america. he lived in the middle east to tap the full bar). kate interrupts with some bogus story about me losing my house key; gotta get this girl home… she and i ride a slow elevator and all I can do is shake my head. there’s a fake tattoo on my shoulder; bull applied it. sargeant bull. with an ice cube. i continue to shake my head; what’s to be said? the elevator is glass and engraved with gaudy hieroglyphics. kate finds something to say: “gotta love pharonic kitsch.” with that, another day’s blitz through cairo comes to an end. if nothing else binds us all together–oilies, jarheads, journo’s –we all look up at the same walls, festooned with pharonic kitsch.
“CROSS,” kate commands, stepping off the curb into an onslaught of traffic. she doesn’t preface with let’s, doesn’t encourage with c’mon, just: CROSS. meet KATE. of course you’ve already met kate (happy-houring with profs/line-dancing with oilies) but perhaps you’re craving, as i did, some time alone with the woman who anoints her fellow expats with pet names, who coins terms like “creep-dar” (radar for creeps), who calls the city’s most clogged traffic circle the “inshallah midan” (the one you make it across when god wills). i adore this woman’s wit, her turns of phrase, both of which are flourishes for an outlook on egypt that’s nuanced and infectiously positive (“all that beeping you hear is just cars talking”). we pause on the median of the road; i’m breathless, still chuckling.”cross?” i echo back her command. “what?” kate shrugs, “if i’d said another word we’d have missed our chance.” she’s right; traffic is that tight today. besides, we’re in the part of cairo where i’m most helpless to cross the road: maadi. that’s right: leafy, expatty, notably less frenetic, maadi. if downtown, in the raging heart of cairo, i now accept as fact that i must insert myself into bumper-to-bumper traffic, that fact gets all screwed up by the neat curbs, the shopping centers, the HARDEES restaurants out here in the egyptian burbs. maadi looks way too much like america to embark on suicide missions. i can’t step into traffic without anticipating that the drivers of these SUVs will slam their brakes and whiplash the necks of buckled-up kids and we’ll end up in court or in heaven or on the phone with insurance. for that reason, i appreciate the blunt commands of this cairene from america. where, in america, is kate from? “seven different states,” i overheard her reply to an oilie’s question the other night. i don’t bother to pose the question again myself, once kate and i make it across the road (god willed it) and sit down for dinner, because kate orients me at fort bragg, north carolina. to get to the middle east, kate joined the military first. she served as an arabic translator during the gulf war, stationed in saudi arabia. according to kate, she did more swatting flies than anything else. nonetheless, saudi arabia was the beginning of a life abroad. i’m too fond of kate-speak to put the story of that life abroad in anything other than the custom-coined terms of ms. durham herself.
on fate: “i told my mom when i was a kid that i wanted to go to egg-eete.”
on america: “i never bought into the american dream.”
example: “i don’t like going into debt.”
on money: “ain’t never going to be rich.”
on savings: “i don’t think my bank account will ever see six figures.”
on expectation: “that doesn’t bother me at all.”
on haggling: “i hate haggling.”
on getting ripped off: “i had my gone-with-the-wind moment at the pyramids.”
gone-with-the-wind moment: “when you say, as god is my witness, i’ll never let that happen…”
on moving abroad: “my plan for failure was to hope i didn’t.”
on first impressions: “egypt felt like home.”
on second thought: “not home-home. but comfortable from the moment i arrived.”
on contrasts: “i’m snobby about the history of new york city. It’s so…shiny.”
on expats in cairo: “there are two degrees of separation between every foreigner here.”
on expats who bitch about cairo: “if you’re not ready to be a guest, stay the fuck home.”
on feminism: “i don’t really consider myself a feminist, except when i’m here.”
on standing out: “your hair might as well be platinum.”
on harassment: “you learn to trust your creep-dar.”
on arabic: “what most people view as fluent is actually highly functional.”
on arabic among expats: “we have this linguistic pecking order. everyone steps back, and you say, okay, i guess i’m the poppa now…”
on religion: “religion is not a block of a person’s life. it’s so integrally woven into a person. it’s who they are.”
on east meeting west by the nile: “this country is in between two flavors of ice cream.”
on culture shock: “it’s never about the big things. it’s the gradual realization that things work differently, and you don’t understand how they work.”
on advanced stages of culture shock: “it culminates in meltdown.”
on melting down: “i kept bumping into people on the sidewalk.”
on why: shrug.
on dealing: “i asked myself, ‘can i live in a place that i don’t fully understand?”
the answer: “yes.”
kate leads me through the back alleys of her neighborhood, and it looks almost like a normal place. i said almost. i’ve somehow got two perceptions running in tandem, twin reels, two cairos, absurdistan and home, on the night kate tours me by her home. very soon, cairo will strike me as livable; the word “insane” won’t resound through my mind every time i look out the window at the storm of cars and donkeys and boys on bicycles carrying racks of bread. or if i do–call this city insane–i’ll do it in a voice that’s matter-of-fact, less incredulous. that’s precisely what i feel myself about to lose: incredulity. now, for a limited time only, allow me to report what makes kate’s block, at eleven PM on a wednesday, outlandish: hundreds of people on a street that’s half mud; hundreds of people on a street with a couple women; a carnival of old and young men smoking water pipes and viewing soccer as though all their sole duty in this world is to create din, unbroken man-to-man din, well into the night, until morning vendors lug their carts through the half-mud lane and take the baton of noise. is there any place in the world with noise as layered and ceaseless as cairo? hear that? incredulity. i still need kate’s help to see the home in absurdistan. “so do you recognize people around here?” i ask, wondering whether there are such things as casual run-ins, familiar faces, in a place this densely populated. kate would know; she’s lived in egypt for long enough to have an “egyptian momma,” a neighbor she mentions often and checks in with weekly. “i’m not one of them,” kate clarifies whenever we discuss the foreigner’s position in egypt, “i’m one of theirs.” i take this to mean she feels accepted on these half-mud streets teeming with men, rumbling with commercial noise, social noise, incessant noise. however, kate dismisses my hypothetical—she can’t recognize people on the street—sounding startled by own her honest answer: “i don’t really look people in the eye.” with that, this woman fast-forwards me through many seasons of life abroad in cairo, through years of studying arabic, making friends, making inroads, watching and adjusting and allowing my western perspectives to shift due east. still, here in my neighborhood, the most trodden block of my dear absurdistan, i’d look no one in the eye. much of what i needed to figure out about cairo is answered with that. kate and i walk pass the cafe where men watching soccer spill out onto the sidewalk and my stride does its usual stiffening. “ever go to that cafe?” i ask kate. she doesn’t slow down and just sends me a look over her shoulder. i realize i’ve just asked the woman who once promised me there was no such thing as a stupid question in cairo a question we both know full well is stupid. “no way,” kate laughs and walks me to the subway, just in time to catch the last women-only car of the night.
“i don’t have at all.”
“i’m not from here.”
“i need help here.”
“this belongs to me.”
“this is dangerous.”
“this is my turn.”
“this is wrong.”
“where is my place.”
-english phrases translated into arabic, on the “useful phrases” page of the maadi messenger, a magazine geared for expat women in cairo.
“at first, the city just seems chaotic,” notes leila, an american belly dancer in cairo. “there’s no rhyme or reason for things.” i’d insert some examples, but this blog is an archive of examples. chaos is the attribute no visitor to cairo can miss, stepping into the eye of a storm of dust and noise, honks and harassers, men and veils. we guests get used to shaking our habits, lazy uses of the word crazy. expats who stay and live long-term, though, insist there’s a design, discernible to anyone who squints hard enough through the storm. “there are patterns for things that seem pattern-less,” leila assures me. “there’s a pattern to the chaos.” she keeps using the word patterns; i keep taking pictures of patterns. i look for patterns in cairo, wonder whether you can create a sense of home, call a place familiar without repetition, rhyme, reason, wallpaper, without a handle on the logic keeping a city from anarchy, the rules that keep a people from squashing each other. i squint to see patterns in cairo; with the help of my sources, i can make out a couple things. i can see what kate means: that cars honking are cars talking; it’s not road rage in cairo, but a conversation. and i can appreciate susan’s point: that people driving outside of the lines are not being assholes; they’re moving as cairo traffic moves best: like a herd. i can see in these patterns, patterns of traffic, patterns of behavior, a certain pattern of thinking without which it’d be hard to stay long in this megacity. it’s about reading actions that appear aggressive (what we in america call rude, brushes with strangers that trigger our middle finger) as something else entirely: the using of precious space, for example, or survival.
“there’s no separation between the cars and the people,” exclaims my american friend visiting cairo for the weekend, like she’s finally put her finger on the reason she’s been gawking out the window of every cab. it’s not until dara visits and i catch myself handling her on our walk down soliman gohar street (in that same overbearing way my male mexican friends used to handle me, tugging at the elbow, veering my gait towards the shoulder of the road, assuming martyr’s position closer to traffic) do i realize the separation between cars and people has ceased to mean much to me. there’s a sidewalk on soliman gohar and i’m leading dara straight down the street instead. since when do i perambulate among cabs and trucks? i honestly don’t know when i joined the vehicle herd; it wasn’t a conscious choice. i must have begun to see some patterns, figure out how the cars handle the people and bikes and carts that merge in, seize a right of way. i guess something began to feel predictable out here on the pavement, then navigable. meanwhile the sidewalk, with its uneven planks, its cross-armed shopkeepers, its racks of bread and baskets of fruit, was a chute of potential obstructions, sheer variables. i’m pretty good now at training my ear on the sound of engines at my back. besides, i trust any cairo driver, just before running me over, to pipe up, “about to run you over!” with a honk of the horn. i have just enough time to step aside.
it all feels vaguely like a kidnapping. i’m on the floor of a rusty van and so are other people. one of them passes me a bag of sunflower seeds. i take a handful, realizing it was a mistake to skip lunch. “where are we?” i ask anyone. the people on the floor, eating seeds and smearing on sunscreen, know we’re headed for the desert, but not much else. “the red sea is that way,” one guy offers, pointing over my head through a window. the red sea is that way: i’m used to feeling disoriented in cairo, but i might as well be blindfolded on the friday afternoon i join cairo’s HASH HOUSE HARRIERS. i ask ken (the guy who knows where we are in relation to the red sea) who the HASH HOUSE HARRIERS are. if you’re wondering why i didn’t find out prior to crawling into a rickety van; i challenge you to find that out. read event bulletins, ask around, you’ll hear/read, again and again, the same tongue-in-cheek definition of the HHH: “drinkers with a running problem” (one event listing adds, “sense of humor necessary!”). i brought my sense of humor and my camera and the expectation of running and drinking, in some combination, in the desert. what comes first, the running or the drinking, i have to imagine the running. what bears greater emphasis, i suppose the drinking. the van door opens, finally, like a curtain drawn back on the desert. vast, monochrome, desert. the only building in view is a cement factory, billowing out smoke. “HASH VIRGINS!” a woman in running shorts summons us to a car where a sign-in sheet is taped against a side window. we’re to sign in with cell phone numbers, “just in case you get lost in the desert.” this concerns me. so do the names of the non-virgins; they’ve signed in as “fedsex” and “pussy galore.” runners with a drinking problem and porn names. i’m willing to bet they haze their virgins. this might not be a kidnapping, but the virgins all got a ride with fedsex. we have little choice but to do as we’re told and join hash.
the trail is marked with red lentil beans. they’re faint like confetti and appear every fifteen steps or so. hard not to think of hansel and gretel as we scan the desert sand for scant specks of coral. a handful of runners take off jogging, with fancy water bottles piping out of tiny backpacks, while the rest of us pair off and mosey. i fall into step with a ukranian backpacker. he’s just arrived in cairo and happened to hear about the hash. he went along because he’s on one of those trips, those mid-twenties, interrogate-your-life-by-wandering-very-far-from-it trips. the desert probably sounded like a good place to start. is the desert distorting my perception or are the people ahead of us now a mile away? the ukranian walks slowly, asks big questions, craves intensity and truth and connection with another nomad on the road. i can relate to that appetite; i usually have it. today, though, i’m concerned with the present: this hash, these harriers, this strange desert voyage that foreigners take every friday afternoon, while cairo’s native millions go to mosque. i’m also concerned about the punishment that might be meted out to virgin harriers who fall behind. i turn around and see no one, only the cement factory. “we’re coming in last,” i say. “who cares,” says the ukranian. the people ahead climb a mesa and look like ants at the top. i crouch down to take a photo and hear the click of the ukranian’s vintage camera. he’s taking another picture of me taking another picture of the hash house harriers. “i don’t want to come in last,” i repeat, imagining punitive keg stands. maybe what i should say is that i’m not 25, that i’m not into skinny guys, that the hipster look has grown dull. two people from different hemispheres who meet in the desert should surprise each other more than andres and i. our conversation could be overheard on the L-train approaching brooklyn. that’s sort of cool but a lot more disappointing. we reach the mesa, finally: our turn to look like ants. i spot a guy with a cane: our chance to not come in last! we say to hell with red lentils and trail blaze in the direction of what looks like a tailgate, dropped in the desert.
“SAND IN YOUR BALLS!” one person calls out. “SAND IN YOUR VAGINA!” someone answers. we’re standing in a circle: runners, about to nourish that drinking problem. all the hash virgins are wrangled into a circle and given beer with the instructions to drink some and pour the rest over our heads. there’s a master of ceremonies who makes us state our names and whether we’re single. there’s a song master who breaks into song every time someone happens to say the word ‘head.’ we’re told to sing along. the song is about fucking in trees. there are no trees in sight and i have a hard time believing the people here sleep with each other. they are school teachers in visors and oil men in khaki shorts. they get silly about sexual things, but probably not laid. “COLLEEN!” an irishman yells across the circle. “stop taking notes for your article!” busted (otherwise, you’d be reading here the lyrics of that song about fucking in trees). andres leans back against the grill of someone’s car with clear disdain. he came to cairo for intensity and everyone else came here to escape it. the HHH is an international club; there are chapters all over the world, but i doubt any other chapter could win the bawdy award over cairo’s. “COLLEEN!” the irish guy calls me into the center of the circle, on account of having an irish name. i pour some beer down the hatch, more beer over my head, and return to edge of this circle in the desert, where none of the strangers who stare at us every day like freaks and infidels in cairo are witness to just how freakish and immodest we can be. so there you have it: the hidden purpose of the friday hash. sand in your balls. sand in your vagina. why not close with that.