Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Things I’ll Miss About Egypt #4: Feeling Strange

My brother and certain other people might argue that I’m an odd duck, but one thing I’ve noticed whenever I come back to the U.S. is how invisible I feel. Nobody really looks or seems a bit curious about me in a place where I’m assumed to be like everybody else, whatever that means. I get stared at for pretty obvious reasons in Egypt, and it’s not that I really love it, but there is something to be said for feeling strange.

Today I went with a brown-suited man from my university to a branch of the Ministry of Agriculture in order to get the right paperwork for the cat I will be bringing back to the U.S. I had expected that we would be going to one of the fancy buildings in Cairo that are faux-ancient temples, and I was kind of excited at the prospect of going into these swamps of red tape I’ve heard so much about.

Instead, I found myself in Fustat, one of my favorite areas of Cairo. The old city, the first capital of the Arabs. Here you can find the oldest mosque in Africa and Egypt’s oldest synagogue. But these are just buildings, at least to me. It’s the people and the bustle that are endlessly fascinating. The place we needed was off a gravel/mud/dirt road that curved around garbage, donkeys pulling carts, coffeeshops, and all matter of small enterprises, from the selling of juice to the stacking and binding of feedbags.

I lugged my 80% reformed street cat in his smart and suburban-ridiculous red travel bag into the ministry branch. We sat in a room with a window that looked onto a slum house and listened to a rooster crowing as a farash brought us glass bottles of cold Pepsi and a man behind a desk handwrote a letter to the main Ministry office confirming that the cat was real and healthy. On the wall was a framed and faded poster, the glass cracked, of different cuts of veal. A ceiling fan rotated, scattering my papers across the man's desk. The man left with his letter.

Occasionally, people entered and wondered if there was a dog in the bag, and when I said, “Ota” (cat), they would say, “Kibir!” (Big!). He’s a big tom, but also he’s fed with regularity. He looks like a giant when he goes out on the street to bully his starving compatriots. Compared to the obese cats I've seen in the U.S., though, he's right trim.

Over the hour that we waited for the man to return, Mr. Yasser of the brown suit and I talked. I started with small talk, something I’m terrible at. I told Mr. Yasser I was leaving Egypt and would miss it. And he said to me that the staff would miss me. I was confused. What staff? Staff know me? Most professors don't even know me, some in my own department. I thought he was just exaggerating, which is common around here. He said, “You are too kindly and never make a problem for anyone.” (Often people here say “too” when they mean “so.”) Then he said he remembered me from 4-5 years ago and that it was too bad that I was leaving. "Four years you make no problems," he said, shaking his head.

And I suddenly remembered who Mr. Yasser was. The first time I had to have my annual HIV test (which all foreigners who work in Egypt must have in order to get a work visa) in 2006, it was Mr. Yasser who led me to the certified government worker who would take my blood.

In memory, he wears a black suit and dark sunglasses and looks like a secret service agent. In memory, he scares me a little. In memory, he does not speak to me as he leads me across the street I dread to cross and through the overcrowded medical clinic, and I sit on a dingy chair surrounded by other patients, and there are no lights on in the room, and there are children singing patriotic songs at the French school next door, and I watch a needle go into my arm and then get placed in an open trash can full of used needles. In memory, I am wondering what the hell I am doing in Africa; I have been naively navigating through each initial day, initial week, initial month. In memory, I feel foolish and diffident, not understanding anything anyone is saying and wondering if I will ever get the hang of this place. Everything seems strange, in memory.

Today I talked with Yasser about his children, about the curtain store with the spiral stairway that he enjoys in Old Cairo, about the way he loves this neighborhood, Fustat, because it is the old city, and the people are the old, the real, Egyptians. And the pyramids (the continued revisions to the grounds, the way it’s marketed, etc.), the new university campus in the midst of the desert – none of this feels real to him, and he is grateful that he was able to stay in the few offices left on the old university campus. "At new campus, no one knows me," he said. “It is too far. Where is it? What would you do if the bus broke down from new campus? There is nothing. Nothing. Even men – what would they do?”

The man from the ministry returned with a small pink square of paper. Mr. Yasser put it into a folder with my passport and the cat’s records, and he said that without this slip of paper he would never be able to get this done at the Ministry. (I should probably mention that this is one of the perks I have with this job – people wade through bureaucracy for me for a small sum, which is why someone else has my passport now.)

We left with our paperwork. Mr. Yasser would be headed to the Ministry, and I would be headed la-de-da back to my big flat. There weren’t any empty taxis coming down the dirt road, so Mr. Yasser and I walked back the way we had come. Past men in coffeeshops, smoking sheesha, playing backgammon, observing the street, laughing, chatting. Past women buying and selling vegetables, walking with arms interlocked, sometimes pausing to look at me and smile. Past platters of homemade potato chips on steel counters. Past mounds of garbage and a burned-out car straight out of Mad Max. Flies plagued all of us.

I realized the red bag on my shoulder with the intermittently struggling cat was conspicuous. Yet somehow this relaxed me. I felt a contradictory sense of belonging on this street, walking beside this man in the brown suit on a dusty road, feeling the other men look at me, feeling their curious glances, hearing the tinny recordings of Qu'ran out various windows and radios. Maybe it was a feeling that at least I was somehow in on the joke (this is the question, though, isn’t it – can an expat ever be in on the joke?). My point is that in this situation I felt just fine, and I felt like conveying to Mr. Yasser the reason for this feeling. So I said, “I must look pretty strange walking down the street with a cat in a bag."

He laughed gleefully and said, “Yes! It is too strange!”

We walked down the street and laughed together, and I smiled at any person who was looking at me.

“I guess I’m used to feeling strange by now,” I said, and shook his hand, and hailed a cab.



siobhan curious said...

This is familiar, if not in the detail, in the overall experience. When I left Japan I was both relieved and unmoored to find myself able to walk down the street or into a restaurant or government building without attracting attention. I don't remember that attention fondly, but I'm glad I experienced what it's like to be constantly visible - it helps me understand other people who live with that reality every day and can't just pick up and go home to escape it. This is a wonderful story.

who said...

This style of story voice, it's one of my favorites by far. Have you ever "heard" the feeling or voice that is specific to the kind of story being told?

All stories have a voice when I read them. This has the fond memory voice. The kind that you don't have to consciously think of to remember. They get triggered by something external like the unmistakable and unique sound of the crreeiiik of your first car with a damaged front door. It may have bugged you when you lived those days, but now you heard it and do a double take.

then whether you want to remember or not there is no stopping the few drip drops of the past that rapidly begin fall. A cascade over you, through you and a warm flood cresting over and passing out through the tips of your fingers and toes.

the fond memories

HONK!!! HONK!!! as if you passed out you suddenly come too and realize you had paused in the middle of the street as you crossed it and your not sure for how long except long enough that it took a car horn to snap you back.

That's what your story did to me. I almost got hit by a car while reading blogs from my phone! I guess I got a little lost and the guy that honked also shouted obscenities.

but I was still smiling. I love reading this voice. It triggers all kinds of fond memories

American_in_Cairo said...

Thanks, who!