Tuesday, January 16, 2007

In Cairo you can get a big ol’ satellite on the trash-strewn roof of your apartment building and start watching the Cartoon Network that very day. Super-fast wireless. Microscopic mobiles. In Heliopolis there’s a huge new mall with bomb-sniffing dogs that beats the pants off the Mall of America, and Starbucks is opening soon, so watch out, KFC. You can get yourself a Hummer with flashing lights in the ceiling. (When I saw that ludicrous yellow Hummer I am referring to, J and I were riding in a Peugeot with an Egyptian friend, who glanced at the gas-guzzler and muttered, with disgust, “Saudis.”) You can shop at a supermarket (“subar-market”), and they will deliver your groceries, and you can’t be offended if someone with a head of cabbage takes a look at your loaded trolley and decides to butt in front of you before you can suggest it. When I say “you,” I mean someone specific, of course. The experience is tailored – as if we’re on a two year safari and are paid up, so everything will be taken care of.

When I say that I feel safe in Egypt, as safe as I do at home in terms of the relative risk of being “terrorized,” I’m not sure that I am believed. One day at the university, I mentioned to an Egyptian colleague how safe I feel walking on the streets in Cairo (at least the ones I frequent). She smiled. “That’s because you’re a foreigner,” she said. “Those soldiers are here to protect you, not me.”

I don't entirely believe her claim, since I have no connections, can't get into the front door of the U.S. Embassy unless I have a damned good reason, and have been serenaded and whistled at by many a bored soldier (in the choice between resting your eyesocket over the barrel of your gun or chattering at a passing woman, what would you do?), but I think I see her point.

My particular foreignness means that I don’t have to see what I don’t want to see. Well, that’s not exactly true. You can’t spit (and spitting is rampant, by the way) without running into a beggar. You can’t cross a crowded street without seeing children missing limbs. We’ve mentioned the polluted air, the dangerous driving (there are no rules – only instincts), and other effects of the infrastructure. But my heart has not yet broken – not at scruffy children who clamor for pens and piasters, not at camels and donkeys beaten by sticks, not at the leper who hunches in Tahrir Square, not at the peanut-selling kid with hands already as large and calloused as my grandfather’s were after a lifetime of farming. (By the way, I cannot speak for J on this front because he is always generous to people on the streets.) As I ready to return to Egypt, I wonder what I have really seen, what I have truly felt. I’ll have to reflect on the fact that I haggled with that sturdy-handed kid over a sack of peanuts, and the fact that he was amused by me, and called me "Madam," and laughed when I cut the nominal cost in half.



Mom said...

Great thoughts.
J's Mom

Anonymous said...

It appears you see much more than the average eye--you see it, you think about it, you remember it, and you share it. And we get to feel your experience without leaving our chairs. It's been great having you home--I'll miss you--and at the same time look forward to reading your adventures. Love, mom

Kanaba said...

By chance I had the chance to read your reflections on cairo, my beloved city despite all the ugly things about it (you mentioned some; polution ..etc) I am in love with it and I m all hope that we- the active egyptians- can make it a better place one day even if not in our life time. I just wanted to say that it is so nice to see my city in the eye of a foreigner living in it. Thanks for your reflections and feedback and I wish you safe and happy stay in Cairo and to be able to see and appreciate it more whenever possible :)

moonlight ambulette said...

i love this: "there are no rules – only instincts." that's so going to be the tagline in the trailer for the movie.

can't you just see it? amanda and james clutching one another in a windstorm, or some such, and the voice-over: "In Cairo, there are no rules – only instincts."

it's going to be good.

Karen said...

I am really digging this post. Also, the picture of that poor, tired donkey above. Yipes.