Friday, October 20, 2006
Over the past week, the weather has started to cool. It’s breezier, too, and at night, the wind contains the faintest hint of a genuine chill. Everything is less oppressive; even the sunlight, halogen-like during our initial weeks, has softened, bronze during the day, golden in the evenings. The skies are much clearer now that they have finished burning off the rice fields around the city, and my recent struggles with sore throats and mild sinus infections have disappeared. If this is a taste of winter in Cairo, I’ll have two helpings, please.
Some nights I’ll return late from campus on the Zamalek shuttle, which lets off at the dormitory, a five minute walk from our apartment. I walk up Marashli St. and turn right onto Bahgat Ali, past the Chinese Embassy and the guards who know my face by now. From above, there comes wailing laughter, a high-pitched, mocking call that begins someplace behind me and zooms past, over my head and on down Bahgat Ali. Even though it’s dark, I look up, because I look up when I hear the call of a bird, any bird, much less the chilling cry of this particular bird, which, like many birds here in North Africa, I have not seen or heard before (although the House Sparrow is exactly the same here as one I’ve seen at birdfeeders in Iowa, California, Minnesota and Ohio). But it is dark and the bird flies safely past, mocking the entire way down the block and past earshot, without my seeing it, and I am left to gaze at the wondrous maze of tree branches that meet above the road. They form a thick nexus; the trees themselves emerge from the sidewalks on both sides, leaning out slightly over the road and over me. I think it’s a beautiful sight, but when I first encountered this stretch of Bahgat Ali St., something else tugged at me…a faint recognition, a memory. A likeness to these trees elsewhere. At some point—while falling asleep or waking up, showering, teaching, perhaps during a student conference or a grade-norming session—the memory emerges from behind whatever boulder I have situated in front of it, and I am transported into a brown sedan—although, perhaps my memory does not serve the facts specifically, and I am superimposing my grandfather’s brown sedan from another memory, possibly those times when I would wake for school and he would be there, having risen at his customary 4 am and driven two hours on state routes to have coffee with my mother. His brown sedan in our driveway. What I know is that I am in a car, and he is there, and so is my grandmother. This memory is dislodged from any context and it occurs to me as perfectly distilled. There is nothing in my adult perspective to sully it or diminish it, and isn’t that so often the price of adulthood? There is no past or future action that connects this memory to any other thing. We are driving along a narrow, curvy country road in Kentucky. I know it’s Kentucky because we have crossed the Ohio River into Maysville and left that little city behind. We are surrounded on all sides by a great forest. It is vast. The trees are unlike the trees on Bahgat Ali—they are large, overgrown, wild and untamed. Occasionally a gap will appear in them, and I can look out to one side at the world I have been shielded from, and what I see is empty space. It’s easy to forget the embankment leading down to the Ohio River is just a few dozen feet from the edge of the road. Manchester blinks its blackened eye at us—and is gone. And I forgot about Manchester, just like I forget about the world. All is green and I am protected—from what I don’t know. That’s what I would like to remember. Safety implies danger. Why did I feel so safe?
I’m there now, in that world. I’m standing in the middle of the street and just an instant has passed. I don’t have any declarations to make. I’d like to sit in the back seat with myself while my grandparents drive us through the Kentucky woods and tell myself, whisper it, really, that it’s not so bad. It’s even a good thing, out there beyond the canopy of trees spanning from one side of the road to the other.