I must have been a sight, limping around Cairo Airport in my too-narrow, too-high black pumps, my dog walking confusedly beside me. I was tempted to take the shoes off, but my feet were so swollen from the flight that I was afraid I’d never get the damned things back on. Atef had been taken aside by some soldiers, and was trying to explain something about his passport in the jovial, get-over Arabic he used to get himself out of trouble with Arabs (he had an English version for the times when he was in trouble with Americans). He later told me that the problem had something to do with his refusal to fight the Israelis with the Egyptian army in 1973, but Atef was a man of many stories, and most of them were untrue.
So there I was, a punchy American girl in a short-sleeved floral dress (it hadn’t occurred to me that bare arms might be a Moslem faux pas) and silly shoes, with a problematic Egyptian boyfriend and a still-somewhat-sedated dog who, after twelve hours in cargo, really needed to go outside. In my own slangy, entirely inadequate Arabic I was trying to ask the smirking baggage handlers if there was a place where I could take the dog for a minute while I waited for my “husband”. (It’s possible that I was saying “qualb” instead of “quelb”, and therefore asking if I could take my soul outside.) Someone finally pointed to a nearby service door that led out to a little grassy area; Holly did what she needed to do and I had one less thing to worry about.
Eventually Atef explained whatever he needed to explain to the soldiers’ satisfaction, and we got out of the airport. His brother, Gamel, was waiting outside for us and, after introductions and much brotherly embracing, drove us to Maadi Gedida.
We’d gotten Egypt Air’s $600 standby fare from Kennedy to Cairo. It was a great deal; we’d have to fly standby going out of New York, but we’d have guaranteed seats on the way back. I wasn’t sure when I was coming home, but it was comforting to know that I’d be able to do it when I was ready.
The only problem was that the money in my bank account wasn’t available on the day of our flight. It wasn’t unusual for me to have, um, cash flow difficulties – it was pretty much the norm – but this time it was a disaster. Everything was packed, Holly was as ready as she’d ever be, and I’d already checked out of the lousy rooming house where I’d been staying since the lease on our apartment ran out. Atef, no doubt, would leave with or without me, but he told me that if I came to the airport he might be able to work things out.
And he did. There were five or six very serious-looking Egyptian men in leather coats standing near the ticket counter at Kennedy, and I waited with Holly and the bags while Atef spoke to them in the earnest, man-to-man Arabic he used when he was trying to get something from Arabs. They kept looking over at me – disapprovingly, I thought – as he talked. I don’t know if he knew them or if he appealed to them as countrymen, but after ten or fifteen minutes I had a ticket to Cairo.
By the time we got to the gate I was already exhausted from anxiety, and I still had no idea what to expect from Egypt or from Atef’s family. I was, at least, relatively certain that my mother’s enlightened prediction that I’d be sold to Bedouins, or simply disappear, was wrong.
Egypt Air doesn’t serve alcohol on its flights, but just outside the plane door there were little bottles of wine that passengers could take on board if they really had to. I didn’t understand the logic, but I grabbed a couple of bottles and got on the plane with Atef.
The shoes, which I’d owned for at least ten years and worn about as many times, really started to hurt an hour or two into the flight. I’d had some notion that I should arrive in Egypt looking like a polished American woman in spiffy shoes, but I hadn’t considered that being unable to walk properly might mar the image. Once I’d finished off the wine, I decided that comfort was more important than style, at least while I was in the air. I changed into my little disposable Egypt Air slippers and took a walk, hoping to find people whom I could impress with my unimpressive Arabic.
The plane had an upper level, which was no doubt reserved for passengers who hadn’t gotten their tickets by harassing Egyptian men at the airport. Curious, I started to go up, but a flight attendant stopped me.
“You can’t go upstairs,” she said. “There are V.I.P.’s up there.” From her hushed, protective tone I gathered that either Mubarak or Madonna was flying with us.
Another passenger beckoned to me and whispered with great authority that the V.I.P’s were stars from “Knot’s Landing”. It was 1992, and I’m pretty sure the show was already off the air in the U.S., but it was still a huge hit in Egypt. Unfortunately, many Egyptians also believed that Mack, Abby, Gary, and Karen were typical Americans. This, I think, would partly account for America’s image problem in the Middle East.
I must have had some interaction with Atef during the flight, but I don’t recall. I do remember descending over the desert as we neared Cairo, and thinking that it looked like an enormous construction site. I’d been expecting something more – I don’t know – Egyptian-looking. White dunes, palm-shaded oases, caravans. As we flew over the city I could see the Pyramids in the distance, and that made me feel better. God, already I was being so American.
It was a long drive from the airport to Maadi Gedida, where Atef’s parents lived. I was in the back seat with Holly, feeling increasingly peevish because I found nothing that I saw pretty, or even picturesque. Along the roads were dense clusters of sand-colored and gray apartment buildings, which were all obviously occupied but looked as if they’d been abandoned by their builders about three-quarters of the way through construction.
We passed a maze of ancient-looking stone cubicles. There were people in them, standing over fires, walking, sitting. These I found intriguing enough to ask Gamel about.
Atef answered for his brother. “Zey are cemeteries,” he told me. “Haumless lives in zem” (Atef actually spoke English pretty well, but I think he thought that the accent was cute). In New York, Atef had been fascinated by “haumless”. This had been useful when he worked as a van driver for a social service agency that served meals to the homeless, but not useful enough to keep him from getting fired.
Gamel kept asking me how I liked Egypt so far. It was obvious that he wanted me to love it. I wanted to love it, too. Maybe I was just tired.
By the time we got to Maadi Gedida it was late afternoon. We were in a complex of more sand-colored apartment buildings that were scattered around in no obvious pattern, but these looked finished and had a reasonable amount of space between them. We followed one of the paths that ran between the buildings, passing magnolia and mimosa trees, and patches of long, untended grass. Wild dogs, undoubtedly appalled by the sight of the prissy, now more-than-awake American dog on a leash, showed up from all directions to follow us, barking indignantly.
Three little girls appeared on the path, shooed the dogs, and took some of our bags. They were all tawny, delicate, and very pretty. The two older girls, who looked about twelve, told me that their names were Dahlia and Dina, and chattered to me in Arabic, French, and English. The third girl was smaller and much quieter, and carried one of the heaviest suitcases.
“Ismak eh?” I asked her as we dragged the bags up the stairwell in Atef’s parents’ building. I realized later that I’d asked her what her name was using the masculine form of the question, but I was damned proud to be able to ask anything at all.
“Sabreen,” she said.
Dahlia and Dina were Atef’s nieces, but Sabreen was a felajh – a country girl, from Upper Egypt who’d been sent by her family to live with, work for, and be fed by Atef’s parents. She looked like a little gypsy, and spoke only Arabic, but I ended up being closer to her than I was to any of the other children.
Atef’s homecoming, and the arrival of his American “wife” (I was, thank God, not actually his wife, but it was expedient to lie), brought the entire family, a few friends, and some curious neighbors whom no one actually knew to the apartment that day. It was almost as if Donna Mills herself was making a personal appearance.
I have never met such alarmingly hospitable people. Atef’s mother and sisters had cooked us an enormous meal (this, actually, wasn’t unusual; eating was an almost continuous pastime there), and were unfazed when I told them that I was a vegetarian and couldn’t eat the meat, which would have been expensive for them. Even Holly was given a bowl of meat scraps, rice, and vegetables (if dog food was sold anywhere in Cairo, we never found it, and by the time Holly left Egypt she was fat, shiny, and spoiled silly).
Someone had gone out and rented an American movie so that I could feel more at home. It was “Home Alone”, which I’d never seen. It was impossible to convince them that all Americans did not, in fact, live in big white houses (or cul-de-sacs) and have a tendency to be so distracted by their extravagant lifestyles that they’d forget about their own children. I could have told them about MacCauley Culkin’s real family, but that would have complicated the issue.
They were tireless in their graciousness. Even later, when I lost my mind and became increasingly determined to thwart them in their evil scheme to make me happy, they wouldn’t give up. It was exhausting.
Maadi Gedida (New Maadi) is a suburb of a suburb of Cairo. I had the impression that Cairo kept expanding, chaotically, further and further out into the desert, wherever there was space. Maadi Gedida was one of the newer settlements, and was therefore at the desert’s edge. At night one could walk beyond the apartment buildings and little shuttered houses and look out at a vast, silent, absolute blackness. It was like the ocean on a moonless night–peaceful, boundless, and terrifying.
During the day, on the other hand, everything looked gray-white and shimmered in the heat. There was always a fine white dust in the air which, toward evening, took on the blood orange color of the setting sun.
Atef’s parents had moved there a few months before we arrived. They’d bought their apartment for about three thousand dollars, which is probably a good deal less than the monthly rent would have been for a comparable apartment in Manhattan, and they were very proud of it. By my New York-social worker-with-an-intermittently-employed-boyfriend standards, the place was immense. It had two or three big bedrooms, two bathrooms, two balconies, and a kitchen and living room large enough to easily accommodate the dozen or more people who were often there.
There were, however, some problems with the place that wouldn’t have gone over at all well in the New York real estate market. First, during the day, there was no water. I don’t mean that there was no hot water (there was never any of that); I mean that there was none whatsoever. Sometimes there was none at night either. When, at the end of the day, the unseen hand of some recalcitrant water god would finally let the stuff loose, we filled every sink, tub, pot, and bottle in the house with it. At home, only something along the lines of a house fire would prevent me from having coffee and a shower in the morning, and I wasn’t about to change my ways just because I was staying in an impoverished Middle Eastern country where running water was a luxury. Every morning I would heat two big pots of it on the stove, drag them down the hall into the bathroom, mix in some cold water from the tub, lather up with olive oil soap, and stand over the drain pouring cupfuls over my head. The whole process took about an hour, and entertained Atef’s mother and sisters a great deal. (It was, I should say, possible to heat the water in the bathroom using a propane tank, but, although it didn’t seem to bother anyone else, doing this in a small closed room and breathing in the leaking gas seemed unwise to me).
The other – shall we say – inconvenience was that if one forgot to wear her ship-ship (a particularly charming word for slippers, I thought) in the bathroom and flipped the lightswitch, she ran the risk of dying a Thomas Merton-style death by electrocution, or at least getting a bone-vibrating shock. I very often forgot to wear my ship-ship in the bathroom, usually because I was so preoccupied with the damned water.
In the living room, above the couch, there was a portrait of Atef’s oldest brother, who had drunk a bottle of bleach or something like it and died in an emergency room while the family screamed. Atef had been a teenager at the time. His mother, Soneya, tried to tell me about it, but she spoke no English and couldn’t explain what watching her son die had been like in any kind of Arabic that I could understand.
This had happened in Imbaba, where Atef had grown up. It was one of Cairo’s poorer suburbs, and Atef’s description of it made it sound like an Egyptian version of Bensonhurst, except that Bensonhurst can’t boast a weekly camel market. It was a tough neighborhood, apparently, and Atef was proud of the street-smarts he’d developed there. Back in New York, the street-smarts had also facilitated his increasingly frequent crack-buying trips to Long Island City, which was why I thought that a long vacation in a crackless country, in the company of devout Moslems, might be a good idea.
Atef had two sisters, who were smart, funny, and mischievous, and two remaining brothers, who were nice enough but needed some get-off-your-tiz-and-get-your-own-glass-of-tea-type straightening-out. (Atef, to his credit, disdained the traditional you-work-we-sit attitude of the men, which was good, because that was usually my attitude too.)
A few days after we arrived, Adel took me aside to make sure that I understood my role as the wife of a Moslem man. In New York, my role had recently been to hide the rent money from the Moslem man and try to find him a suitable rehab, but I had just met Adel so I smiled acquiescently and said nothing. A month or so later, though, Gamel made the mistake of telling me to get him something to eat. I was well over being polite at that point. “Get it yourself,” I snapped, and walked away.
Atef’s older sister, Saida, was Dahlia and Dina’s mother, and one of the most serene people I’d ever met. Her husband was away, working in Saudi Arabia or the Persian Gulf, and she spent most of her days in the apartment with her mother, eating, cooking, talking, shelling big bowls of peanuts, and drinking tea. I rarely saw her, or her mother, wearing anything other than a robe and ship-ship. I told her that she had the face of an Egyptian queen, and she was delighted – I don’t think that anyone had even commented on her appearance for a long time. Every so often she’d point to her face and say, “Nefertiti, yes, Nancy?”
Soad was the little sister. She lived a little way down the rock-and-dust road from the apartment, in a one-family house. Her husband, whose name I don’t remember, was a hairdresser and worked out of a little shop on the first floor of the house. They seemed relatively well-off, which I thought strange because the beauty parlor seemed to have only about one customer a day, and the customer was often Soad.
Soad wasn’t the type to wear a robe and ship-ship around the house all day. She still had a teenager’s vanity and liked to get dressed up, often in clothes that she’d made herself. She loved to laugh and have a good time, but there was, I thought, something a little sad and childlike about her. On her roof she kept chickens, and she’d often bring a little chick downstairs so that she and I could pet it while Atef and What’s-his-name talked about whatever it is that drug addicts and hairdressers talk to each other about.
Apparently What’s-his-name used to beat Soad when they were first married, but he saw the error of his ways when her father and brothers threatened to kill him.
The father was dying. In a room in the center of the house he lay all day and night, wrapped in white sheets, tugging at his prayer beads. I was in Egypt for two months and never saw him out of bed. Soneya brought him meals of tea, rice, aish (the ubiquitous flat brown bread with the consistency of course sand), and honey on a little tray, and often sat with him, quietly talking about the day. Every so often, usually when Atef and I were on our way out somewhere, I’d go in to say hello. He’d smile and wave and mutter a few things in Arabic, and occasionally mention very politely that my dress or my sleeves should be longer if I was going out in public (this was preferable to having strange women follow us in downtown Cairo, croaking at Atef that his wife was dressed like a sharmuta).
Atef told me that when his father had been a tough son-of-a-bitch when he was younger, and that they’d fought all the time. Atef seemed to blame his father for his brother’s suicide, but I never found out why.
He died a few months after we left Egypt. Atef was distraught that he hadn’t been there.
My initial disappointment that Egypt wasn’t what I expected – whatever, exactly, that was – gradually became a sullen refusal to do much of anything that might let the country reveal itself to me so that I might enjoy it as it was.
The family argued almost every day over who would have the increasingly dubious pleasure of escorting me around the city. Almost every morning someone would show up to take me to Khan al Khalily, or the Pyramids, or the place where Sadat had been assassinated, or a building site out in the desert where someone was buying an apartment. When I wanted to buy a cartouche for my mother, Gamel, Adel, Saida, and Soad took me to just about every gold jewelry shop in Cairo (the equivalent in the U.S. would be to take someone to every Gap and Starbuck’s in Manhattan). They wanted to make sure that I got a good one, and didn’t pay too much.
Sometimes Atef and I got out on our own. We never really did much; we’d take the bus downtown and wander around in the streets, occasionally stopping to buy a gift for someone or eat in a restaurant. At the end of the day we’d wait in Tahrir Square for our bus back to Maadi Gedida (the buses ran on no discernable schedule; it was tempting, when ours came, to crawl in through the windows with the other passengers to make sure that we got a seat).
I’d always thought of myself as a citizen of the world, intrepid, adventurous, and culturally sensitive. It had been easier to pass myself off as such in Hoboken than it was in Cairo. I smirked at the cowlike American tourists being herded onto their tourbuses in front of the big hotels, yet I usually wanted to have lunch at the Cairo Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Maadi – the suburb of which Maadi Gedida is a suburb – became my favorite place to hang out. It’s a pretty, old, affluent, very European town, with big, Westchester-style houses, expensive little shops and a more-or-less Italian restaurant. (There was also a decidedly Egyptian farmer’s market there. I did love going there at night, when vendors squatted over fires and we wandered among them, filling our bags with oranges, figs, pomegranates, and garlic. This, I thought, was what Egypt should be like.)
My favorite time of day was early evening, when the white glare of day softened into orange and pink and the dust seemed to settle and the muezzin would intone the hypnotic, second-to-the-last call to prayer from mosques all around us (I had an idea for a “Battle of the Muezzin” game show; the family thought that it was an interesting idea but suspected that it might be a hard sell in Egypt).
Later, after dark, Atef, Holly, four or five children, and I would walk to the nearby bodega-like store for cigarettes and sodas, scaring off the wild dogs with small stones so that they wouldn’t eat Holly. The streets didn’t exactly have lanes, so when the headlights of cars came at us it was a matter of guesswork to avoid being run over.
Back at the apartment, everyone would sit on the floor and eat shrimp, pomegranate seeds soaked in sugared water, halewah, and oranges. When it was on, we’d watch “Knot’s Landing”. It really was a pretty entertaining show, when you got into it.
I was frightened only twice in Cairo. One night, in Khan al Khalily, Atef and I were stopped by a police officer, who ordered us to come with him (Atef, at first, wasn’t convinced that he really was a policeman, but we were afraid to resist). He led us down an alley to a small, fluorescent-lit office with a desk and a few chairs in it. We were somewhat relieved that the place was a police station, but we didn’t know what we’d done wrong, and I had misgivings about how the Egyptian police might deal with perpetrators of whatever we were suspected of perpetrating.
Another man, presumably the Chief, told us to sit down, and started talking to Atef in rough, accusing Arabic, most of which I didn’t understand. Every so often he’d gesture to me as he spoke, and Atef would say something in the jovial, get-over Arabic, etc., so I was sure that we were in big trouble.
This went on for a long time. I smoked cigarettes and waited. Finally the Chief turned to me and spoke in English.
“How do you know this man?” he asked.
“He’s, um, my husband.”
This set him off at another harangue at Atef, who turned to me and told me that the Chief already knew that we weren’t married. The Chief nodded and spoke to me (I was now a confirmed liar, and something of a sharmuta) again.
“How do you know this man?”
“We live together.”
“New York…well, it’s actually New Jersey. America. Hoboken.” I knew that I sounded guiltier every time I opened my mouth, but I still had no idea what I was guilty of.
The Chief wanted to know if I had proof. I really doubted that I did, but I rooted desperately through my bag.
Atef finally clued me in. “He sinks I pick you up to robber you or somesing else.” Not in Egypt, anyway, I thought.
I have no idea why it was there (except that once something goes into my bag, it tends not to come out), but near the bottom of my bag I found an old, probably unpaid, PSE&G electric bill with both of our names on it.
The Chief became more polite, but not exactly apologetic. He explained that American women walking through Cairo alone were often approached and taken advantage of by Egyptian men. I suppose that I should have appreciated their concern, but I was too humiliated to feel grateful.
The other thing that frightened me would probably have seemed more ominous now, in 2005, than it did thirteen years ago, but it unnerved me nevertheless. Atef and I had had dinner in Helwan, with Adel and his family. We’d taken the train to get there, but for some reason we were taking a bus back to Maadi. There was a group of young men at the back of the bus, talking, it first seemed, as young men at the backs of buses do. The ride was a long one, and we must have been driving through desert or farmland, because beyond the windows there was mostly blackness. The young men kept moving closer to where we were sitting, their voices becoming louder. I started to pay attention to what they were saying, and it became clear that they were talking about the American girl with the Egyptian, and that they found nothing charming about it. Atef watched them and said nothing, which was alarming in and of itself. They became more hostile, more direct, and I began to think that it might be better to step off of the bus into the darkness.
Eventually the bus stopped in Maadi, and we got out. The little European shops were still open and bright with warm incandescent light, the streets were full of foreigners and well-to-do Egyptians who couldn’t care less about us, and we could easily hail a taxi to take us the rest of the way to Maadi Gedida.
By the time we’d been there a month I was utterly impossible to please. For a long time I was sick (it took a while for my stomach to adjust to food eaten from plates that had been washed in cold Egyptian water), but that wasn’t it. I was depressed, I was resentful, I was contemptuous of anything that didn’t fit into my own personal idea of what Egypt should be. I was undoubtedly the most heinous bitch ever to set foot in the dusty streets of Maadi Gedida. And still Atef’s family treated me as a treasured guest.
I liked falafel; they made me falafel – at dawn, so that I could have it for breakfast. Basboosa was my favorite cake, so they made it for me all the time and even bought me basboosa mix so that I could try to make it myself when I got home. When they learned that I liked shrimp, they’d drive me at least once a week to a take-out restaurant about a half an hour away from the apartment, because the place had the best fried shrimp in the city. And I sulked.
Soad was the most determined. Almost every night she’d invite Atef and me to dinner, and she’d usually make shrimp, falafel, or basboosa. She and What’s-hi-name rented videos for us to watch. (The two that I remember were a movie version of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, which I’d read and loved, and a BBC documentary about King Farouq. It was very important to all of them that I become familiar with their version of modern Egyptian history: Farouq was an eccentric spendthrift whose name was fun to say, Nasser took people’s land, Sadat was a hero and a martyr, and Mubarak was a dumb military thug whom they suspected of having something to do with Sadat’s murder. This was more than I knew about most American presidents.)
Soad even made me a dress, for God’s sake.
Even Atef tried. He took me by train to Alexandria, where his brothers had helped him rent an elegant old apartment on the Corniche, overlooking the Mediterranean, for a few days (Holly stayed behind to lounge around and make sure that no food was wasted). It was a change of scenery, and it was relaxing not to be in a house full of people who were determined to make me happy, but Alexandria is fairly deserted in November and the city didn’t seem to live up to the magic of its name. I’d also, perhaps, read too much Lawrence Durrell.
I thought that there should have been more color – the vivid, jewel-like, exotic, colors of mosaics and tapestries. In Cairo, the dust and the sun’s glare had seemed to mute and flatten out the few things that were not the color of sand. Alexandria didn’t seem so dusty, but I remember it for the most part as winter-gray. There is, in fact, only one image that I remember clearly from the trip: an old couple selling roasted corn on the Corniche, at twilight. The sea behind them was dark blue, and the sky, the sand, the sidewalks, and the couple’s white clothes were washed in rich orange beachlight.
My imagination, which had often seemed alarmingly vivid in the familiar landscape of home, had gone dead dry.
The children worked as hard as everyone else to keep me happy, and came closest to succeeding. There were always at least a few of them around. For some reason – possibly because their names all seemed to be some permutation of Mohammed and I never quite sorted them out – I don’t remember the boys as well as I do the girls.
During the day, Dahlia and Dina went to school, where they learned the French and English that they loved to practice with me at home (as if I knew French worth a damn). They were thrilled, poor things, to have me there, and they paraded me through the streets and shops of the neighborhood, showing me off. Anything that belonged to me, or had anything to do with America, fascinated them.
A few days after Atef and I got back from Alexandria, I got really sick. I’d had the expected gastrointestinal problems since we’d arrived in Egypt, and I’d also picked up a dry, unshakeable cough (I’d almost O.D.’d one night on some cough syrup that I’d bought in Alexandria and that made the prescription codeine mixture available in the U.S. seem about as potent as Flintstone vitamins). One morning, though, I woke up with a fever that was higher than I’d ever had, and that had me in bed watching the walls for signs of movement. For some reason everyone had gone out that day except for Dahlia and Dina.
They were amazing. All day they fixed my pillows, put on or removed blankets, swabbed my forehead with wet cloths, made me tea, brought me oranges. Late in the afternoon, when the fever had subsided somewhat, they escorted me with great excitement and pride into the kitchen, where they’d prepared the closest thing to an honest-to-God spaghetti dinner that I’d had in months.
Sabreen didn’t go to school. For the most part she stayed around the apartment, cleaning, helping with the cooking, and running out to the market. It was a strange relationship that she had with the rest of the family; she would play with the other children in the afternoon and evening just as if she were their sister or cousin, but there always came a point when Soneya would interrupt and send her off to do some chore. No one ever spoke to her unkindly, but her place among them was clear, and I think that the family resented my friendship with her.
Atef liked her too. He’d tease her and call her “fellaheen“, which was the Egyptian way of calling someone a country bumpkin. Sabreen, though, was a sharp little kid, and probably would have been just fine if she’d been dropped off in the middle of Manhattan with a few piasters in one of her tiny birdclaw hands. We took her to Maadi with us one day to shop. The girl was a fierce haggler, and had the fruit vendors at her mercy. When we stopped to look in a chic little jewelry store, where the least expensive item cost more money than she’d ever see in her life, this skinny little urchin in a kerchief and housedress looked straight into the eyes of the saleswoman, pointed to some earrings, and demanded, “Bekaam di?” like a bored Greenwich matron with an American Express Platinum card.
We seriously considered smuggling her out of the country and taking her back to the States with us, but something happened. One night I’d lent her a pair of earrings that she loved. They were just cheap little dangly things, with glass balls that looked like raspberries on the ends, and I meant to surprise her by letting her keep them. When we woke up the next morning she was gone. Soneya told us that she’d been homesick, and that she’d gotten up at dawn to go back to her family in Upper Egypt. I never figured out exactly what happened. She’d never seemed homesick to me, but then she was just a little kid.
When I was in Cairo, I bought a guidebook, written for foreigners living in Egypt, called Cairo: A Practical Guide. I never read much of it at the time, but a few weeks ago I was flipping through it and came upon this passage:
Sociologists have observed that there is an adjustment period of at least six months for the average newcomer. The period of adjustment includes a phase of alienation, a phase of rejection, a period of wanting to go home, and ultimately, acceptance and enjoyment.
I doubt that any sociologist ever observed a more maladjusted, alienated, rejecting, homesick mess than I was during my last few weeks in Cairo. I moped, I sobbed, I screamed at Atef to take me home. Any sensible family with a guest like me would have smothered me in my sleep and fed me to the wild dogs.
Soneya, who had never spoken a cross word to me (even when she found a bottle of wine that I’d bought downtown and hidden under our bed), lost her temper only once. “Malik enti (What’s the matter with you)?” she asked. It was an excellent question, but I had no answer.
Sweet Soad, and What’s-his-name, invited us to dinner the night before I left (without Atef) for home. In the English that she’d been struggling to learn since I arrived in Egypt, she asked me if I’d ever come back.
“Lah-uh,” I answered, emphatically, rudely and with no explanation.
The flight back to New York was turbulent and long. There was an Egyptian man in the seat next to mine, and he spent most of the flight lighting one cigarette after another for me. When I ran out, he gave me more. These people never give up, I thought.
I’d managed – I don’t remember how – to arrange to have an apartment to come back to when I got home. As soon as I got there, I went out and bought myself some pizza and beer. I watched stupid sitcoms and smoked and trembled and did something that the Citizen of the World never thought she’d do – I thanked God that I was back in America. Yet my mind had been so small and unbalanced, and my heart so resistant to Egypt, that I might as well never have been there at all.
I haven’t seen Atef in about twelve years. He came back from Egypt a few weeks after I did, and the weekly crackbuying trips became, as crackbuying trips tend to do, more frequent. His occasional mild volatility, which I’d always been able to vanquish with my own, became a violent, near-constant psychosis. He could find money hidden anywhere.
I called Soneya, Saida, and Soad every so often for a few months, but once I’d kicked Atef out of the apartment I had to stop. I didn’t know how to say “restraining order” in Arabic, and I didn’t want them to worry about something that neither I nor they could do anything about.
Some day I’ll go back to Egypt with my husband and my son, and see if the country will give me another chance to be the kind of guest that it and Atef’s family deserved.