This past week, I’ve found my niche back in Egypt, after some uneven footing. On mornings when I don’t teach, I sometimes walk, sticking to the shady side of the street, saying hellos to those who meet my gaze, and finding shops to nose through when I reach the main road.
I like exploring bookshops the best. They’re usually air-conditioned and contain hours of entertainment. Also, many of the people who work there speak English.
In one, I met a young man name Ahmed, with the typical slicked-back hair, tight button-down shirt, and blue jeans. The store was empty, and he got me a coffee as I was looking at memoirs to burn away my 14-hour flight home next week.
“You like books?” he asked.
Well, I was in a bookstore, but I decided to be polite. “Yes,” I said.
“Many kinds,” I said.
Ahmed flashed me the seemingly universal you-can-trust-me (even when you can’t) Egyptian smile and handed me my coffee.
“I like philosophy, essays, and memoirs,” I said.
“Philosophy is very interesting,” he said.
I sat down, and welcomed him to sit nearby.
“Yes it is,” I continued. “What do you like to read?”
In alternating moments of coy reticence and loquacious openness—replete with dramatic Egyptian hand movements—Ahmed listed a few books, ranging from Arabic pop lit to the classics that sat on his parent’s bookshelf at home.
“I love The Great Gatsby,” he said.
We had more in common than I thought.
Ahmed had just finished his studies in computer science at The American University in Cairo and practiced his English as often as he could. Savvy and driven, he wanted to work for an American corporation, like IBM, and hopefully use it as leverage to move to America.
“At least, you know, at least for a time,” he said. “Until things get better.”
“Any luck with jobs?” I asked.
He held up his arms, showing the bookstore.
Ahmed’s position is normal—perhaps even a little lucky—for many young men in Egypt. Two years ago, the grim job market and the influx of unemployed college-educated helped spur the Jane. 25 Revolution. Now, the same young men face a similar job market: 13 percent unemployment. If anything, the continued stagnation has only worsened the situation.
A recent college grad myself, I’m always thinking about jobs. Society forces me to. Everyone wants to know what I’m doing, what my plans are. Now what?
Sitting across from Ahmed I couldn’t help but realize how different our worlds were. Random births, karma, or fate—whatever you believe—had flung us in utterly different circumstances. A recent grand, he’s a lot like me, but his options are diminished, and in a few days, another revolution may rupture his country once again.
Eventually, we finished talking. Ahmed took my cup, empty long ago, and I went back to the seminary for lunch. But I couldn’t stop thinking about him.
As I walked back, I took in the mangled sidewalks, the widows begging for lose change, the skinny cats picking at garbage, and the dusty, dented cars that dotted the road.
After a while, it all becomes background. But now and then, something hits you. Like Ahmed.
Continue reading “Egypt, week 3”