by Sister A. N.
Several times I've gone to Egypt in search of myself,
I first landed in Cairo in October of 1990. I was all of 21 years old, a blushing bride who'd never before left North America. Though I knew a couple of words in Arabic, I certainly couldn't string them together enough to come up with an intelligent sentence. Two months earlier, Saddam Hussain had marched into Kuwait, no doubt marking what history will one day view as the beginning of the 21st century's Cold War. I stepped off of the plane and into an oven. I'd never known the earth could get so hot. I maneuvered my way through customs and lost luggage, and finally arrived outside, surrounded by a sea of people awaiting their friends and loved ones. I was immediately struck by the fact that I looked like these people. My mother is German Canadian and my father African American, so I'd spent my whole life as an exotic outsider. It was only in this place, on the other side of the world, that I first felt that I looked like 'the girl next door'. The next three months, spent in Cairo and then Khartoum Sudan, would change my life, one inch at a time.
I returned four years later, now a mother of three. My spouse and I had mutually agreed that our marriage had reached a point where a three month break might be the best solution to an increasingly intolerable match. I'd put a lot of effort into raising my mini-UN (German Canadian/African American/ Egyptian/ Sudanese) with a strong sense of being first and foremost Muslim, and with a healthy understanding of their Arabic roots. This seemed a perfect opportunity to show them first-hand the source of these things. As I gazed through their eyes at the pyramids, the Nile, the donkey carts and the labaan (milk man), I felt each experience again with renewed awe.
In such a personally painful time, wrestling with issues I felt better kept private, I constantly had the sense that those around me felt my pain and indecision without needing to hear me explain why and that they responded with the love and compassion that it seems must only come from a culture so secure in the knowledge of itself and humanity - a knowledge born of millennia spent in this one place. For years, I'd lived in Toronto, Canada. Toronto is well-known for encompassing every possible nation in one city. During this trip, it struck me that Cairo encompasses every possible era all in one place. From the pyramids to the cell phones, the ancient masjids to the internet cafes - all of history can be found in this one location.
I returned again in May of 1998. This time, it was to accept a job and to accept my 'naseeb'. Our marriage had ended and, somehow, returning to the place I had come to know as home seemed the best way to grieve and, hopefully, to grow.
I'd been warned several times over that, no matter how much I thought I loved Egypt, the bloom would wear off the rose as soon as I had to actually live there as a resident rather than a tourist. Now, on this point, I won't lie .the kids and I definitely had the rare pleasure of knowing what it means to be eaten alive by mosquitoes and to share the apartment with a variety of roommates who showed no apparent interest in sharing in the rent. (To be fair to these freeloaders, it seems the unemployment rate for rodents and 6-inch cockroaches is unspeakably high.) I've also had the pleasure of being an employee in an all-Egyptian establishment. For the record - I've never worked so hard in my life. I, too, have known the wonders of the previously undiscovered internal workings of the Mugamma (Cairo's central registry of all things beauracratic). And in due time, we came to simply accept the fact that living in a fifth-floor walkup means no water on Friday mornings, and that no amount of pleading, threatening or cajoling the bowab (doorman) will change the situation.
Yet, dear reader, I've lived to tell the tale. And in the process, I've heard the adhan gently rouse the city for fajr prayer. I've learned how it feels to have a stranger in a city of 16 million people ask how I'm doing today - and wait to hear the answer. I've known the true joy of sharing life and breaking bread with a people who know Allah (SWT) and know what it means to love unconditionally. I've experienced the truth of the hadith that tells us living with a people for a year makes you one of them.
In July of 1999, I gave up the apartment, left the cat in safe keeping with a friend and, with tears all around, I returned to Canada. My intention was to finish up loose ends and to return 'home' within three months. Well, as we all know, I plan and you plan, but Allah is the greatest of planners. Three years have passed, life has gone on, taking its various twists and turns. I am more settled and appreciative of Canada than I ever have been, and certainly more at ease with being a Muslim Canadian. Though I never found the 'Muslim' part hard, the earnestness of someone in their 20s frequently left me feeling that mixing these two identifies amounted to some form of fence-sitting betrayal.
Though I've kept in regularl contact, and kept myself updated with online news and satellite broadcasts, I've not been back to Egypt. Now, suddenly, that has changed. I will, insha'Allah, be returning to Egypt for an extended stay beginning this fall, to study Arabic and Islam. I've grown and changed a lot over the past thirteen years, as has the world in which we live. The shy new bride who'd only recently embraced Islam has evolved into a wiser woman, albeit one who struggles with the uncertainties of life and with the battle to maintain a healthy balance between the dunya and the akhera in a post-911 world.
I have a need to return. I need to mend the rift between the 'western' me and the 'eastern' me. I need to sit quietly at the Felfela in Ma'adi, and watch the sun set gently over the Nile. I need to return to a place where being Muslim is the rule, not the exception. I make no claim that Egypt (or any other country) is an ideal Muslim state, and I am fully aware of the revitalization of Islam and the Ummah that must be credited to Muslims living in intellectual and religious freedom in our diaspora. I also know that Allah (SWT) gave Islam to the whole world, not just a specific region or people. However, how can one truly appreciate the shade of the tree unless one knows the roots? We live in tenuous times, and I feel the need to check on the roots before I can enjoy the shade.
As I write this, my heart literally pounds with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. In as much as no one of us knows what their path holds, I have no idea what will be the outcome of this trip. Could it be that Egypt will be home, or will it turn out that Egypt is only almost home?
A.N. has spent a lot of time in Egypt and considers herself an 'immigrant' rather than a tourist. Her ties are not only personal, but professional and familial as well. Through her column she will explore many aspects of life in Egypt.
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