My Life in Cairo

“But you’re coming back again, right?”  The tone in Mona’s voice reflected the look of sadness in her eyes. “Yes, yes!  Of course I am.  How could I not?”  My efforts at comforting her were genuine, but they only moderately succeeded in changing her demeanor.  Since the revolution began she’d seen so many of her friends, Egyptians and foreigners alike, make the decision to travel outside of Egypt and not return. 

"My rights have not been returned!"  Graffiti on the walls of the presidential palace, Cairo, fall 2012

It’s been almost two years since the infamous date of Jan 25 sparked a momentous shift in Egyptian life. My choice to live and work in this Middle Eastern country had always generated curiosity, not just from loved ones in the US but also from all of the friends and families I have grown so close to over my 12 years in Cairo. Since the revolution began so many residents of this country, Egyptians and expats alike, have made the decision to travel outside of Egypt and not return.  The curiosity about my choices has firmly shifted from the straightforward “Why did you move to Egypt?” into the much more challenging, “Why are you staying?”

Christmas with Mona and her girls, 2012

Admittedly, there’ve been moments when I hesitated in my response, not quite sure of how to explain.  There have also been times in which I questioned my own resolve.  I’ve had the opportunity recently to travel extensively in other countries and so the question is faced frequently.  The near constant eruptions of protests and targeted violence seem to erase the effects of the quieter, return-to-daily life phases in between.  The grounds for relocating are strong.  And yet, I still come back, time and again, to this hotbed of discontent and hominess. 

My favorite class for hugs!  Grade 1A, 2006

I arrived in Cairo with no plan to stay beyond my contracted teaching year.  While my original intent in moving to Egypt was adventure in an exotic land, I kept discovering reasons to stay “just one more year”.  More than a decade on, the life I’ve made here can no longer be described as an accumulation of excuses for not leaving.   Somewhere along the line, I shifted from visitor to resident, and it had nothing to do with the visa in my passport. 

Excavating mummified dogs, Abydos 2009

Why have I stayed?  What has made this swath of sand and stone my home?  How is it, that in spite of all the chaos, the violence, the confusion, the instability….I look to this country with a sense of pride and responsibility?  I have no clear answer for that.  Or rather, I have hundreds of answers that change constantly.  Some days it’s the phenomenal history that I now feel a part of.  Others it might be the fact that the fruit vendor on my street missed me when I skipped a few days of shopping.  I’ve worked as an educator in schools across the major cities so I’m invested in the country’s future.  I’ve been employed as an archeologist at sites that explore Egypt’s ancient past so I’m dedicated to highlighting the details of its history.  I am daily shaken by events connected to the ongoing revolutionary movement. 

Sunrise swimming in Alexandria, Eid Kabir, 2012

I’ve cried at funerals and births, attended many weddings, invited and hosted hundreds of international students, camped at desert destinations, celebrated holidays, found and lost love, purchased my own appliances, gone through many phases and shifts of careers, been treated in hospitals and attempted to bake my first soufflé.   In short, I’ve been living a life.  I happen to be living it in an extraordinary community full of extreme beauties and tribulations, and one that currently is undergoing tremendous upheaval.

My Alexandrian family, growing fast and furiously!

I think most of us have a family member who defies explanation, someone who requires a lot of extra patience and often induces eyeball rolling or knowing glances between the rest of us.  Yet their presence, however quirky, ultimately rounds off the dynamic that defines our community of relatives.  For many expats in Egypt, this is how we love the place.  Even at its best Egypt is a chaotic jumble of inconsistencies, unclear objectives and curmudgeonly charm.  And lately, one could argue that Egypt is not at its best. 

Baking holiday cookies with kids I cradled in my arms as babes.  

My loyalty to the community that I’ve developed in Egypt is fierce and full of mixed emotions, especially these days.  When I’m asked by my Egyptian friends if I’m returning when I travel, I do respond in the affirmative, but cautiously.   When I explain to my American family that I am staying in Cairo, I’m forced to validate my choice.  When I read the abundance of online articles touting the ‘amazing price discounts’ now available on Egypt packages and encouraging travelers to take advantage of the current ‘short lines’, I cringe.  And then I write lengthy replies highlighting the need to be fully aware of the security issues.

Planting pomegranates, definitely thinking long-term.  Imagine Farm, Alexandria

If asked directly about the safety and stability of Egypt today, I have to pause and gather my thoughts before proceeding.  This saddens me.  For years I’ve been one of this country’s most ardent recruiter of travelers.  I have a vested interest in Egypt’s success and I long for a return to the days where I can eagerly and without hesitation encourage journeys to this incredible place.  For now, I take the opportunity to promote caution, beyond-the-surface research, and above all greater awareness of the intricacies.  Short lines and discount packages do have their advantages, but they also have their good reasons.

Safety is still a substantial concern of the day-to-day living in all parts of Egypt.  Tourists and the traditional destinations they seek are still targets of politically motivated extremists.  The media still over and under exaggerates events.  And Egypt is still an amazing place to explore.  My heart is full of it.  My life is full of it.  

(Originally published on Examiner, Dec 18, 2012)