A month ago, I returned to Egypt after a five-year hiatus. Merely a few hours in, I felt that I had come home.
I don’t know anything about living in Egypt. Not really. In my whole life, I’ve spent perhaps six months there. I speak the language with slow deliberateness and can scarcely read and write it. As an Egyptian-Australian, I am geographically isolated from my country of origin. Yet I miss Egypt deeply.
It’s a dangerous thing waxing lyrical about this, singing Egypt’s praises without regard for its faults, which are numerous and substantial. Yet Egypt’s warm, powerful embrace, and its ability to bring strangers in and make them stay forever or break their hearts upon leaving, is real and unique.
For five years I have heard, “It’s not safe, It’s not the time to go, hold on, wait, not yet, not now.” The revolution, and stories of police torture, imprisonment, violence and the constant state of political uncertainty, delayed my eagerness and set me back.
But then I saw it with my own eyes; it shone all around me, a great big, dirty, honking metropolis. I breathed in its filthy air; I relaxed into it, as one does a warm bath after a long day. I was amazed that I had made it here, and I was angry with myself for not having come sooner.
It looked much the same as I remembered in 2010.
Novelist Ahdaf Soueif, in ‘Cairo, My City, Our Revolution,’ explains:
“…the city was disintegrating. Part through neglect, and part, I felt, on purpose. Streets were dug up and left unpaved. Sidewalks vanished…Street lights dimmed. Nothing was maintained or mended. Old houses were torn down and monstrous towers built in their place.”
“…through it all I loved her and loved her more. Millions of us did…We told her we loved her anyway, told her we’re staying.”
It isn’t clean, or pretty, but it is magical. Egypt hits you like a slap in the face. There is Islamic Cairo with its splendor and holiness, the breathtaking Fatimid citadels, the oriental opulence of the residence of Egypt’s former monarch and the household of Muhammad Ali Pasha. There’s also the aggressive blaring noise of Shubra, its street stalls, and endless rows of shops, interspersed with historic landmarks, like the Cathedral of St Teresa, large, splendid, frozen in time and in the odour of sanctity.
There’s the faded glory of Downtown Cairo where Tahrir Square is located. Its dusty, grimy colonial buildings a living testament to a time when the city looked more like Paris or Rome, travel agents still lining the streets and pointing Egyptians outwards.
There’s Zamalek on the Nile, full of Egypt’s foreigners, and Misr El Jadidah and Medinat Nasser for its natives, with kiosks and endless rows of dusty, dilapidated apartments. Now, new apartment blocks are constructed in what journalist Magdi Abdelahdi describes as an “imitation of colonial style buildings — a mix of baroque and neoclassical features.”
Upper Egypt, with its heritage of Coptic monasteries, is where the Holy Family are said to have stayed during their exile. Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh on the Red Sea, with its gated, spectacular resorts towns, is a far cry from life for most Egyptians. Alexandria too, rich in history and culture, which this time I couldn’t visit. And everywhere, the endless blaring car horns and ceaseless cries of the Muezzin.
The outrageous spectacle is all around you: babies dangling from their mothers who sit casually, carelessly astride the back of speeding motorcycles, ageing old hands who still dress up to meet in places like Café Riche, and the perpetual symphony of Backgammon being played, water pipes bubbling and tea being poured. Hordes of bleary eyed youth join the fray, gathering in cafes all over the city at 11pm, 2am and 5am.
Yet, in spite of all of this chaos, there is something familiar about Egypt. It takes you in its arms, and says, “Welcome home.”
For an Egyptian abroad, an Egyptian-Australian like myself, that aching feeling of nostalgia, of a country inherited but not inhabited, of a culture passed down but maddeningly unknown, is even more painful.
For generations, my ancestors toiled in Egypt’s sun, planted seed, grew crops, lived and died on the banks of the Nile.
With ancient memory, as though from within my own body, even when I sometimes forget her, Egypt calls to me, saying:
“Sojourner, long have I loved you.
Even now, I await your return.”