Why am I writing about Egypt? Because, once upon a time, I lived there — and had the time of my life. A year after Mubarek had ascended to power. And 30 years later, Egyptians are reclaiming their destiny. During the past week, memories of that time have flooded back with enormous pride for Egypt and its people.
I’d always been fascinated with “Ancient Egypt.” As a child, I’d had alters to Anubis and Ra, and was clearly some distant reincarnation of Nefertiti (even adorned in satin sheets one Halloween to honor her legacy). I might be her White version, for all I knew.
My youthful fantasies of becoming an ancient Egyptian archeologist were revived again my junior year in college when I decided I wanted to be a Middle East envoy for the State Department. I’d discovered a Lebanese professor (Leila Fawaz) who somehow managed to teach the whole history of the Arab world (after Mohammed) in a semester, and I was hooked. Then came the Arabic classes, politics of the Middle East, history of Ancient Egypt, studies of hieroglyphics and a brilliant idea to spend my senior fall semester abroad at the American University in Cairo.
Somehow, my parents acquiesced. I suppose they were actually somewhat terrified, sending me to a distant 3rd world country on my very first international excursion. I had a list of “rules” to abide by (which included no bare shoulders or skirts above the knees). So I was packed and ready to go with my olive green potato sack dress, a thirst for adventure and promises not to fall in love.
The final TWA leg of my flight from Athens to Cairo was one I’ll never forget…a few chickens running in the aisles, and an effervescent Egyptian Grandmother inviting me to her home for Sunday dinner with her 15 distant relatives somewhere in the teeming metropolis of Cairo. I was soon to find out about Egyptian hospitality, which has been unsurpassed in my travels since.
And the “rules” went out the door when I landed in Cairo Airport, jetlagged from a never-ending flight and overwhelmed masses of humanity. In about 5 minutes, I met another Blond American debarking the plane also attending AUC (She had on slinky clothes! No potato sack! Of course, she’d lived in the Arab world much of her life). That initial insanity of arrival, combined with the smells and sounds, and honking horns and millions of people…no space anywhere, was just…utterly awesome. I dove right in.
And I did fall in love. With an amazing man who I met on a felukka (Egyptian sailboat) in the middle of the Nile my first week of school “orientation.” He was a rebel, of sorts, and we became inseparable. Kate (my alter Blond with her diplomatic passport) and I would crash the American Embassy’s Thursday night Happy Hours (with the Marines and as many of our Egyptian friends we could drag in), went on excursions together — to a relatively deserted Sinai Peninsula (just after Israel had given up occupation), Thanksgiving in Fayum (mmmm….raw cow liver marinated in lemon – a true delicacy or the Bedouin test of White Woman’s courage?), riding horseback at sunset at the Pyramids, the Awe of Ancientness (Valley of the Kings, Karnak), kids scrambling for “baksheesh,” the long political conversations with my Arab brethren in the AUC gardens, wandering the streets aimlessly testing my guttural attempts at conversational Arabic in the Khan Khalili (Cairo Bazaar), dust storms and mud pouring off the trees in the first rains, Americans who couldn’t make the culture shift (and went home), and the pride of the people.
Sure, the place was also incredibly aggravating (always long lines for food and cigarettes, no privacy, a crumbling infrastructure, and very strict social mores—threat of being arrested for traveling with my Egyptian boyfriend, yikes!), but it was one of those early life experiences that taught me to love cultural diversity, to see the beauty through the dust, and to adore people who had so little, but lived so fully. My Egyptian friends lived with vigor and passion and the place taught me about open minds and open hearts. At the time, they had great enthusiasm for the potential of the new Mubarek regime.
And now they’re changing the course of history for themselves and, by proxy, the Middle East.
Witnessing the recent events in Egypt unfold has been overwhelming — millions of people taking back their own destiny in a generally self-moderating way, for a new order (despite the pro-Mubarek thugs). It is a massive movement occurring in the name of social (and economic) justice. Who says people can’t co-create their own future, and change history in a matter of a few days? The Pharaohs would be proud.
As for the future, who knows? What matters is now. And I trust that the good people of Egypt will find their way to what is right for them — if they are part of the co-creation of their future.
As they would say, Inshah’Allah إن شاء الله