Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Bye Bye, Egypt

The night we left Egypt, we were met at the front entrance to our apartment by university driver Hossam, the same young man who had whisked us away to the Western Desert in the waning days of last fall’s Ramadan. “Hossam!” I said, and he smiled back at me. I’m not sure if he recognized me or simply thought, “Look, a whitey.” In any event, he was as affable as our language barrier would allow for, even saying “bye bye, Egypt,” as we sped away from Zamalek and downtown and began the fast and winding drive to Heliopolis and the airport, where we were deposited, for the first time, at Terminal 1, the much more modern facility that was constructed, naturally, after Terminal 2. This terminal was strange because, well, it was a full-on modern facility, cavernous, windowed, the floors shiny, organized lines of people shuffling through the security line to the ticket counter, where they expertly got my bags sent to Dublin and M’s to Chicago, even though we were checking in at the same time and departing on the same flight to Amsterdam. Another odd thing: at this point it’s around 2:30 in the morning and, but for a late afternoon nap, I had been awake since ten in the morning. This wouldn’t be my first all-nighter.

We departed Egypt around 4:30 am. M fell asleep before the plane even took off and remained that way, slack-jawed, for most of the flight. Me, I had burst through that unfortunate boundary where fatigue turns to bleary-eyed wakefulness, so I sat there with my eyes half-closed for half the flight, watching a Diane Keaton movie on the screen. And damn, those KLM 747’s haven’t changed much since I flew on them in the late 1990’s. Even the stewardesses’ electric blue flight uniforms haven’t changed a lick.

Something else that kept we awake was the rollicking travel over continental Europe. Takeoff was fine and dandy, but as soon as I saw the first glimmerings of the horizon through the windows to my left, we also entered a thick soup of fog that reached up to our 41,000 feet of altitude and made for a rollicking adventure. So I spent a lot of time watching the horizon dip below and rise above the wing, and being pissed that I couldn’t get my speakers to work, so I had no idea what Diane Keaton was teaching Mandy Moore about life and such. When we landed, some armed security guards checked everybody’s passport before allowing us into the airport. They only gave ours a cursory glance, but the Arabs sure got a lot of attention. Isn’t that strange?

We said goodbye to one another in that suddenly hasty way that seems specific to airports: we trudge through the very long airport at Amsterdam, arrive at my gate, find it boarding, M realizes her flight to Chicago will board in another 10-15 minutes…and suddenly there are public hugs and kisses, which seemed strange to me after a year in Egypt, where we didn’t even hold hands in public. Then I was aboard the much smaller and green plane taking me to Dublin. It was aboard this plane that I was reminded of the friendliness of the Irish, thanks to a guy named Patty, who had spent the weekend in Amsterdam playing in a football league and was returning to Sligo on the west coast of Ireland, where he lived with his four children. Beside Patty was Dublin Ken, who ordered two cans of Heineken about twenty minutes into the hour-long flight and managed to finish them both, although I don’t actually remember him taking a drink. WE descended into Dublin on a partly cloudy day, but to me the sky was brilliantly blue, the waters or the Irish Sea as we coasted over it pristine, the shoreline lush, so so green, and the air clearer than it ever is in Cairo. Patty tried grumbling about this, I believe because the Irish are still attached to their downtrodden identity of not-so-long-ago. The truth is that Ireland is thriving these days and a bunch of ugly, soulless, pre-fab buildings are replacing the cool older ones that help make Ireland such an appealing destination in the first place.

I caught the bus to Monaghan town an hour after passing through passport control, and I only 90 minutes I was in CO. Monaghan, the northernmost county in the Republic of Ireland. That fast, to go from east coast to northernmost! That’s like traveling from the Atlantic seaboard to Minnesota in the same period of time. I spent the night in Monaghan town, at the Hillgrove Hotel, where I napped heavily, enjoyed their pool, steam room, sauna and hot tub, and hung out with my pasty-skinned brethren. It was curious to hang with people who look so much like me. Where I live, I am conspicuous. Nobody looks at me and thinks (in Arabaic), “That is one light-skinned Egyptian.” In Ireland, everybody assumed I was Irish until I opened my mouth and spoke. The typical response: “You’re not from around here?” No, I say, and then I explain how I am from America but I had started that morning in Egypt, my country of residence. This got their attention. Question: “Is it safe there?” To which I say, in one way or another: I’m as white as you are, and nothing bad has happened to me yet.

The next morning I arrived at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, an artist’s retreat in rural Co. Monaghan, about 5 miles from the nearest village of Newbliss. What can I say of the place? I had a remarkable time. I found myself slipping into an insular, quiet life, hardly social (and even this small place had its modest social society), days built around writing my 1,000 daily words, walking the grounds and encountering friendly dogs who became my closest pals for 4 weeks, napping (a lot), reading, cycling to Newbliss for groceries, beer and the butcher: salmon and chicken every day. I was still plagued by the strange feeling that I was not doing enough writing, since, after all, I found plenty of time to nap, drink beer, and watching movies and TV shows stored on my laptop. Why not two large per day, or three? I also found myself thinking about taking photography classes, which I have long meant to do but never had the time. I thought about owning a dog of my own some day, or learning how to cycle, really and truly learning about it, the strategies and the best way to use the gear shifts…all these small things leaked into my life, looming large. I spent a sunny afternoon photographing the exotic flowers and thought I should learn to identify them (I kept myself plenty busy identifying all the birds). I think this is what happens when you push teaching aside, push aside your personal life as you know it. All these small things you might have momentarily considered learning, perhaps late at night of during a particularly restful weekend, when spaces emerge and respites seem best filled with some activity that will turn you into the more-interesting person you still envision yourself becoming, someday. Anyway, four relatively carefree weeks passed in this way, and lonesomeness did not really bother me until that last week, which was also my least-productive week of writing.

This was followed by two days in Dublin. Perhaps more on this another time.

Bye bye, Ireland.

Then I came back here, to America. On the flight in, Tom Ridge appeared on our television sets to tell the foreigners on the flight how happy the US is to welcome them in, but we’ll need their fingerprints, an optic scan and a vial of still-warm blood to make sure they don’t want to do a jihad on us. He also listed the number of countries whose citizens can enter the US without benefit of a visa. I noticed, unhappily, that most of these countries are predominantly white. Isn’t that funny?

Since I’ve been back, I find that I have taken a lot of interest in things American. Visiting the Waffle House seems like a cultural experience. So, too, does taking in a baseball game on July 4. Here you see me taking a picture of Ken Griffey Jr. as he lines a foul ball down the right field line.

Otherwise, it’s interesting to be back in the land of Jesus Christ. In Egypt and in all Muslim countries, it’s against Islam to depict images of the Prophet Mohammed, since an image is considered an imitation, and why imitate that who is transcendent? America is a little different. You can’t spit without hitting an image of our handome, European-looking religious transcendent. Sometimes you can’t even drive down I-75 without seeing a 62-foot high scultpture of Him reaching up from the man-made lake before the Solid Rock Church. Sometimes.