When I was a kid, I had a book with me everywhere I went. I read from the moment I shut the car door until my parents pulled into the parking lot or driveway of wherever we were going. Reluctantly, I would leave my book in the backseat of the car as we headed into Mass, or to my brother’s baseball game, or to the grocery store. If we were visiting a relative's house, I brought the book in, which seems rude in hindsight but felt as essential as breathing at the time. I read all day on the farm as if I were some privileged lady in a grimy tee-shirt and shorts, sitting in the air conditioning with my grandmother while my father and grandfather worked outside. I still have a book on hand almost everywhere I go, just in case, even if I know there won’t be a moment to read. Maybe it’s my safety blanket. It’s not as if I were a precocious child – I was far from that – my favorite books befit my age. But there was one major problem with this childhood habit, and I understood it when I received my driver’s license and couldn’t find my way around Galesburg. The only road I knew was the self-explanatory set of roads that got me to town. Throw in blocks and intersections, and nothing made sense. I had spent all that time reading, not looking out the window, not paying attention to anything but the voices in my head.
Now I find myself in a mode that reminds me of the embarrassment that came with my driving privileges. For the first year that we were in Egypt, I felt myself eagerly taking in the things I experienced, wide-eyed and astonished, constantly comparing the things I found in this new place to the things I knew and understood in my home culture, my home country. I tried to understand why people did the things they did, tried to politely respect these decisions of others if I could not wrap my mind around them. There were things that bothered me and still do, and I was not a model of politeness or anything, but I think I was more willing to bend my perceptions then. Never an optimist, I was surprised and pleased by my capacity to adapt.
I think there is a danger in refusing to look.
I remember our trip back from the Sinai. We had to have been going over 100 mph on an unkempt desert road with no concept of lanes, even around curves, with a dude who, with no prompting, offered to become J’s personal hash dealer and wanted to know if I was J’s sister. We bumped and swerved in the heat, and I slept like a baby, unbuckled, in the back of the van. This was a prelude to my current ability to read a book anywhere in Egypt – on the speeding bus, in a taxi, pressed against others in the Metro.
I was pretty impressed with myself until I realized that reading in these situations makes me miss things, things I would have felt were important to witness and consider earlier in our stay here. In some ways I have begun to shield myself from Egypt. It is easy to do these days, having moved to a neighborhood that is so expatriate (or American?)-friendly that we have a Subway (you know, the place with “sandwich artists”) down the street and a clean, techno-booming gym. And, while our university campus had always been a bubble in the middle of downtown Cairo, its new location does nothing but confirm its otherworldly status in Egypt. At least at the old campus, you could walk a block away and find a donkey and a ragged old woman selling tissues.
We are nearing the end of our third year here, and I am not pleased with the things that I see missing from my experience. I am building a cocoon. Small things nag at me, such as leaving my Arabic lessons. Just when I had begun to comprehend the rhythm of the language, to pick out a few simple phrases here and there that enlightened me to some basic meanings, I quit. Once I realized I would have to start studying, I said it was too much to do. I keep telling myself I’ll pick it up again, but will I? In our new neighborhood this year, when I try to say some small, simple thing in Arabic, my tongue sticks, and it is clear that the neighborhood Egyptians we have met – the fruit and veg guy, various vendors and shopkeepers, etc. – believe that I am just now tentatively stepping about with random phrases, that I may eventually improve but that I must have only just gotten here. I am now at the same comprehension level as J, who never took Arabic lessons but who is suddenly quicker than me at understanding numbers, for instance.
Yesterday was Friday prayer-time. The men line up on our street and spread the rugs diagonally toward Mecca and slip off their shoes. They fill up the outdoor foyer of the apartment building across from us. At one point during the hour-long session, I glanced outside to see a worried-looking Asian man standing with his briefcase just in front of one line of men and boys who were praying. He was trying to get into the building across the street. You could look at this two ways – first, the man didn’t need to stand right in front of them and keep glancing at his watch with a pained look on his face. He should have known that on Friday, mid-day, you’re bound to run into a cluster of Egyptian men meditating with God since mosques are ubiquitous. He should have known that, while Egypt is moderate in comparison with other Arab countries, this type of devotion is one thing that will not change. But the men were blocking the front entrance to the building – the Asian man would have had to step between them, on their prayer mats with his shoes on, to get through. Perhaps the assumption made by those blocking the entrance was that everybody should be praying right now. Who would need to get in? Focused on praising God, it was as if they couldn’t even see that man, who only wanted to get through.