I started traveling last Thursday at 5:15 a.m. Since then, life has been hectic: teaching, traveling, and finding my niche again in a completely different culture. Writing has been difficult. I’ve kept a journal, but little else.
I’ve been waiting to really pull and dig at travels so far and sort through the anxieties and joys.
I guess this is the first chance I’ve gotten to do so.
Last week, I traveled with two others on a hot, stuffy plane for eleven hours–the typical airplane annoyances. After our breakfast of three different breads and a thin layer of yogurt in a tray, the three of us landed, got our bags at the Egypt Air terminal, and bought our visas for $15, as an overly helpful man offered us taxis that we didn’t need.
A driver and a former student picked us up from airport to take us to the seminary where we’re staying–the same one as last year. We drove past the same rock-strewn strip of highway that led into Cairo.
Arabic pop crooned through the radio of our squat Suzuki as we raced along the road. The city sailed past, its beat-up apartments colored by drying clothes streaming on the lines. Billboards promised new malls and city centers. The hot air blew on my face, and cars honked as people dashed across the road.
I felt a surge of joy—a sense of homecoming, even—and swallowed back a few tears as I stared out the window. For the past year since I’ve been away, Cairo has followed me. It dug under my skin last summer, and especially on warm evenings, when I walked home after class, I missed it. I’m not sure what I missed exactly—the changed rhythms of everyday life, the people, the weather, the age, the chance to be away. I suppose that’s the main reason I’ve come back: to articulate what hit me so hard last summer and try to find it again.
So far, it remains a mystery.
As we drove down the highway, the scene felt familiar but different. Fewer cars dotted the road than last summer, fewer billboards advertised, and fewer banners with Western images billowed in the wind.
At the seminary, my two other travelers and I secured a few basics–like money and snacks–and returned to our rooms to finish unpacking as evening came.
Like clockwork, the sun’s orange fire stained Cairo’s haze, turning it into a molten film that bathed the city. Everything glowed. Meanwhile, a breeze blew through the open windows and dissolved the heat leftover inside from the day.
As we ate a simple dinner together of olives, dates, and cheese, the sunlight receded. A crisp night settled over the city, revealing nearby houselights and the gaudy, neon green of a mosque beyond the seminary walls.
I suppose missed this magic moment more than anything else. My last year here, even on my first day, when I heard the call to prayer, evening felt important. Almost mystical. The city transitions then, cooling enough for the people to open their shutters and walk outside. The call to prayer echoes through the city, the old men puff shisha into the air as they sip tea, and the young people chatter as they walk the street and congregate on sidewalks and car hoods–a parade only at twilight.
Exhausted from travel, I fell asleep with the steady drone of car horns and conversation. My fan clattered and hummed as it blew away the balmy air.
The next day, the three of us visited Islamic Cairo and Khan al- Khalili. By eight, we hit the highway and the guide, Mohammed, filled us in on the political situation, mingling it with the history of Egypt.
Things haven’t improved much. Power outages are common, most of the streets are still dirty, and people remain unhappy. On Jun. 30th, the anniversary of Morsi’s election, he said, the people plan on gathering in front of the presidential palace and holding up a red card.
“You know, like football,” he said.
As if on cue, we passed a gas station, with lines of cars sprawling into the street, waiting for fuel, people raising their hands, their shouts muted by the Cairo traffic.
Since we’ve gotten here, we’ve had outages every night, except one.
Soon we also passed Cairo’s vast necropolis, called the “City of the Dead,” where many poor people live, caring for the tombs of wealthy families in exchange for housing and utilities. The tomb walls honeycombed the valley below the highway. Roofs of tarp, cardboard, and wood checkered the low stretch. The whole place looked deserted.
As we passed the Citadel, one of the main tourist spots of Cairo, Muhammad pointed to the side of the road, where a wall of sand-colored stone led to a hill. Beyond stood “Garbage City,” he said. There, the city of Cairo collects and sorts its waste. Many people live there, and nearby, a few mosques built into the rock house hefty congregations.
We passed further into Cairo. Faded posters about the revolution promised a better Egypt that still hasn’t come for most. In one, a hopeful girl with her face lined with black, red, and white like the Egyptian flag stared at the viewer. I wondered what two years of stop-and-go stagnation had done to Egypt’s people since the revolution. So far, it didn’t look good.
The driver dropped the four of us off in front of Bab al-Nasr, the “New Gate” at the north of Islamic Cairo that once marked the edge of the city during the Middle Ages. Artificial stalactites—also called muqarnas—draped from the gate’s terraced corners, and a small boarder of images hung over the entrance. In it, Stars of David and crosses mingled with Muslim geometry, reflecting the western craftsmen.
Many early pieces of Islamic art reflect this cultural blend. Since Islam arose in a region of simple cities and nomadic tribes, other religions already had a monopoly on artists and architects. The Dome of the Rock, for example, reflects many elements from Byzantine Christians, as many of the artisans and architects were Byzantine. Later on, Christians borrowed Islamic elements: Medieval paintings reveal the furnishings of royalty that included carpets and curtains with Islamic-inspired design.
Thus, the mixed images on Bab al-Nasr are not unusual.
Unfortunately, the religious tension of Egypt remains strong. An article I read before I left detailed some violence from both sides: forced conversions, fights in the streets, families and communities ruptured. One described Muslims attacking one church after a Muslim girl converted to Christianity to be closer to her boyfriend.
As time goes on, conflict doesn’t soften.
At the gate, the Cairo traffic surged and a hot, hot sun reflected off the stones around us. The smell of garbage and petrol tinged the air. As one teacher said two years ago, “Cairo is a benign assault on all the senses.”
It was all coming back to me.
We entered the gate and visited al-Hakim, a mosque remaining from the Fatimids. The Fatimids were Shia, unlike most modern Egyptians and most Muslims in general, who are Sunni.
Through the simple gate, a few pious gatekeepers took our shoes. Instantly, the turmoil of the city vanished, replaced by the silent fluttering of the large green curtains and the thrush of wings as birds flitted through the rafters. A vast courtyard of marble reflected the sunlight in a white blaze.
Al-Hakm, like many of the old mosques, feel timeless. Going through the door and entering the courtyard, you’re unstuck from everyday life. In Cairo, this is rare.
We continued down a walking road that Mubarak had installed, passing many shops and mosques tucked along the narrow sides. Scooters and small cars wedged themselves between the people.
The road lead us to Khan al-Khalili, where there merchants were setting up souqs, lugging their leather cushions alabaster jars, perfume, and spices into the street. Those who were open called to us. We continued through a market where many of the locals shop: a web of colorful clothing, including scarves for higabs, Micky Mouse T-shirts, and belly dancing costumes that the Muslim Brotherhood would not approve of.
The people were just as varied. Boys carried glasses of hot tea on oval trays. Young men hoisted pallets of bread as they rode their bike with one hand. Some women wore niqabs, the full body covering, including the mask and gloves, while others dressed in sleek tops and blue jeans, covering their head in ornate scarves. Some men wore galabiyas, a traditional robe, while others wore weastern clothes.
Throughout the trip to Cairo, the sheer texture of people, smells, and sites hit me again. Perhaps this was one thing I missed about Egypt: the raw variety of things.
Many things in America feel deluded and uniform. Sometimes this is good: we stamp out bad smells with deodorant and proper waste management and generally concentrate commerce in well regulated stores with quality control and stable prices. But other things are not so good, like the long strips of retail stores and chain restaurants that copy and past themselves from city to city.
The day concluded with a final walk through Al-Azhar park. In 2005, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture transformed a vast dumping ground into one of the top parks in Egypt. Fountains, gardens, restaurants and trees cover a wide expanse, and from the edge of the hilltop where the park stands, one get beautiful views of the city, including the Citadel.
Despite the intense heat–probably in the 100s–the park proved beautiful. Couples and families sat in the shade of tall palms and walked along the paths, as children jumped and sprinted into the fountains.
Afterward, we drove home.
Almost done with my first week here, I feel many oppositions: homesick and grounded, hopeful and saddened, curious and cautious. Each day races by, but as evening hits, I always try to figure it out. Hit by so many images–some uplifting, others sad–I’m not sure where I stand or what I believe. Even when I pin my thoughts down in writing, they don’t get any clearer
Perhaps some clarity may come. Perhaps some healing for Egypt will come. For now, I am merely an observer, working with my own experience and my own cultural vocabulary.
I don’t know why I returned or what I hope to gain by returning, but sometimes one must merely go, following the urges from some deep place. Hoping to “gain” something only cheapens the experience. So for now, I’ll keep an open mind and an open heart.