Monday, October 1, 2007

Insider from Outside

Before I discovered a love for travel and geographic wandering, Cairo was the first to claim my heart. I was born in Egypt and spent the early part of my childhood here. For the fall, I’ve returned to study abroad in the country of my nationality while writing back home to the U.S. where I’m becoming naturalized.

At first glance Cairo appears weary with crowding throngs, poverty, and an overhanging smog. At its heart, however, the city is captivating. The overwhelming hospitality, serenity of the Nile, self-affirming sense of history, and throbbing street life have strung me along visit to visit during summer breaks. It is this vibrant intensity that lured me back to Cairo for a semester - to forge a relationship with the city for the first time in my adult life.

I’ve chosen to live in Old Cairo in the apartment where my father grew up - the first place I ever knew to call my family home. The most vivid of my childhood memories here now lurk as shadows in the emptiness. Weekday afternoons I sit at the dining room table to do my homework. Sometimes when the light falls through the wooden balcony slats just right, the glass surface reflects old times - Friday dinners with all the family overflowing the table and spilling into the living room. Evenings I sink into the couch indentions worn by three generations gathered on weekends and holidays. If I listen hard enough, I can still hear the rhythmic click of the slide projector flashing old photos on the living room wall.

The widest bed that used to hold four or five siblings and cousins at summer slumber parties I now have all to myself. With no giggles and whispers late into the night, I am grateful for the fan blades to drown out the silence. A journal entry from my first week reads, “Without the life, the joy and the stories the house is an empty shell. This house hasn’t been loved in years; it is neglected and lonely.” The walls, the chairs, the kitchen, they miss my grandmother – and so do I.

That was six weeks ago. Now, the walls are repainted, the plumbing fixed, the beds made up with new sheets and the clutter packed away. It will never be the same, but slowly a different joy is coming into the house and I am finding a new sense of place.

While hanging laundry out to dry, I dropped an obnoxiously cartooned sock through the laundry lines. I ran down three flights of stairs and knocked on the first floor apartment. The door swung open and a jolly woman welcomed me in, “You must be Aisha - you look just like your grandmother!” After karkadeh [hibiscus] juice, tea, baklava, and an hour of chatting, Tant Amaal’s curiosity was caught up enough with family updates to merit retrieval of my sock.

Judging by my awkward laundry skills I think we’ll become good friends.

More than ever I am gaining a contextual sense of my own history. At a Ramadan Iftar [dinner] last week I met childhood friends of my father, colleagues of my mother from AUC, great aunts, second and third cousins, and family friends twice removed.

After dinner I stood chatting with Ahmad and Yasmeen – my older second cousins who used to live near my family in Maadi neighborhood. Mid conversation Ahmad suddenly ran outside to his car and returned with a coy smile. “Remember when we were younger and you used to come to our house and we used to come to yours all the time?” He asked. “Of course!” I exclaimed. He grinned widely holding out a miniature toy car. “Remember the gold Jeep? You gave it to me when you moved away and said I could keep it until you moved back. It’s taken a while, but I guess it’s yours now.” He handed me the metal Jeep with white interior and doors that really open. It had been the gold standard among our shared toys; to entrust Ahmad with it was sure collateral for my return.

I really did come back; I’m meeting the neighbors, catching up on contemporary slang, becoming a regular at the corner grocery, and floating through the city from line to line of transportation. Despite the characteristic adventures and discoveries, this is not a typical study abroad set-up.

My past travels abroad have been defined by the classic subject/object relationship. As a foreigner visiting a new culture I’m ready to absorb, adapt, assimilate, embrace and return home to share the novelty of a new experience. This time, however, I came to Cairo with the approach of a native and that made for a complex and somewhat rocky start. Though my roots originated in Egypt, my perceptions come through the lens of an American-raised ideology.

Through my posts I hope to share that duality in my experience as I’m learning to make sense of it as the insider from outside.