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To Cairo, With Love

Posted on Jan 31, 2011 in Featured, Politics and Rants |

To Cairo, With Love

I’d been traveling about five months when I got to Cairo on a eerie late afternoon during Ramadan. Americans had been advised to avoid the mid-east region and I’d gotten out of a scary situation in Istambul just days after the USS Cole had been bombed in Yemen. I had chosen Cairo as a safe place to lay low until the high drama of the attack settled down. It also happened to be election time at home in the US and there was a lot of ridicule flinging around the media and streets. I’d heard that in Cairo, I’d be safe.

I landed in Cairo, and, as I walked through the airport, heard an American voice. As a rule traveling, I avoid Americans at all costs. It wasn’t until I walked by him that I realized the man was calling my name. I was, quite literally, shaking and just walked right past him. He stopped me, gave me his card and I kept walking. The card was white and crisp with dark blue writing. It was from the US Embassy in Cairo. They were waiting for me. I think. I’m sure they were there to help. I think. I’m sure they wanted to ensure my safety. I think. I’ll never know, because I bolted as fast as I could, making my way through a rough customs transition and into a parking lot where a man grabbed my backpack, offering a taxi and instead tried to ram his tongue down my throat. Even that didn’t convince me to turn back toward the American dude calling my name. Forget that. I was safer with the Egyptian French-kissing hoodlum.

I’d been sick for a few weeks with a parasite. It took me awhile to figure out that it was something I needed real medical care for and I chose to check in to the best hotel I could find. I loved traveling, but a girl’s got to get a bubble bath and a doctor every now and again. I found myself in the street during an insane rush hour in Cairo. In the middle of the street stood a tall, broad Egyptian man. To this day, I refer to him a “Abuud,” although I never knew his name. He took my backpack, wrapped himself protectively around me, screamed at cars between us, and walked me to the door of The Four Seasons hotel. Finally, I felt safe. Safe in Cairo.

Despite being the season of Ramadan, I was taken care of beautifully over the next several days. I went on a pre-arranged date with a very nice grad student, and despite the fact he took me to “TGI Fridays” on the Nile (no joke), I had a wonderful time. I received medical care from a serious doctor and her nurse. I walked the streets without fear, tried foods, bought goods and drank warm Coke. I laughed at the insanity of the cars bolting without order through the streets, and watched the  seemingly organized chaos between people in the stores and grand mall. I was not afraid of the military presence; I liked it. I wrapped myself in the beautiful sound of the call to Muslim prayer and the pure, unfaltering dedication to faith and fasting. I found Cario to be crazy, beautiful, western, eastern, unique.

southern egypt

Happy somewhere in southern Egypt

I traveled to the southernmost part of the country and up the Nile and was struck by the stench and dirtiness of the Nile. I asked about public service announcements that droned on and on — they were to warn Egyptians to not bathe or wash clothes in the Nile. The contamination was causing disease and death. The more remote, the sadder I became. I drove through rural desert,  often, with military stops ensuring my safety. This was not Cairo. Not so safe.  Area after area was filled with extraordinary history, mind-blowing artifacts and edifices,  combined with desolate poverty and signs for Internet cafes. It became confusing.

I had one moment in time where I became angry. I saw a man hitting his children after I’d given them pencils, candy and small Legos. I watched him beat two of them, throwing — literally throwing — one of his children into a makeshift house. The children had black in their mouths, ripped jeans, no shirts. They smelled. I made eye contact with a couple of kids and my adrenalin starting rushing. I saw a nearby white delivery van. I thought I’d steal the kids, throw them in the van, pay with my big American dollar bills, my jewelry, whatever and beg the driver to scram. I’d drive to the embassy and claim refugee status for the kids. I’d adopt them, bring them home and raise them with dental care, clothes and vows that in my home, there would be no beatings by a half-dressed uneducated man. But reality hit me as the van drove off –– it is not my place to force my reality onto those of anyone else.

It still isn’t.

I’ve been watching the destruction of Cairo and Alexandria for seven days — the images of places I’ve been, streets I walked, people that all look familiar. I watch the protests against their leader and against our own leader for not renouncing the Egyptian government and I can’t help but think of that day in Abu Simbel where I learned that my reality is not the reality of others. I know that everyone is awaiting what America will do for the Egyptian people, but the truth is the same today as it was for me in that small town: the Egyptian people must take care of their own reality and we must ensure we are doing our best to respect their quest without forcing our democratic style on them.

The good people, like my “Abuud,” will rise to the top. Those are not the looters, the burners of buildings. The true Egyptians are making human road blocks to protect their national treasures, their history, their culture and museums. The good people of Egypt are where I choose to focus my mind this week. As the city burns and the protests become uprisings and the government becomes uprooted, I am reminded how safe I felt in Egypt, how strong the people are, how full of faith and history the Egyptian youth are. I choose to remember my love of Egypt and how dearly I hold it in my heart today and hopefully, can show to my own children someday, in-tact, full of freedom and peace.