Thursday, October 1, 2009

A number of things occurred to me as I took the cleaner of the two metro lines from Mohamed Naguib station to Doqqi for dinner and on the way back (I returned on foot): one, I haven't written a particularly personal entry related to my experiences here lately; two, a lot of the way I see Egypt has been colored by my struggles with anxiety rather than Egypt itself; and three, Yemeni food is delicious.
Though during my scholarship period I attempted to keep my entries upbeat and look for the silver lining, I'm sure there were more than a few that revealed some, shall we say, acerbic sentiments about my host country and its people. It reached the point where I could see nothing but chaos and filth, dishonesty and decay, corruption and inefficiency. I saw my return home and to Europe for the summer as something of a prison break and harbored a deep resentment of Egypt that fed an utter dread of returning.
When I did return, I sought refuge in my air-conditioned room, seldom went out and blocked out Cairo with my iPod and a determination to be bothered by no one. I tried to live in Egypt without actually living here (which is essentially what Egypt's upper class does by retreating to desert compounds and gated communities). There's something to be said for preserving one's sanity, but what I was doing wasn't healthy either. I carried this feeling to Turkey, constantly pointing out Egypt's shortcomings in comparison (i.e. my last entry).
Last night though, something shifted. Walking down Tahrir in the direction of Abdin Palace, I forced myself to ask the question, "Is Egypt really how I think it is?" I wiped the standard dour, standoffish expression of my face and descended into the metro station. On the train, I didn't recoil dramatically or sigh loudly with exaggerated exasperation every time I got jostled. One man turned to talk to me and I tensed up. I didn't understand his Arabic and another passenger translated "Are you getting off at the next stop?" I replied in broken Arabic that I wasn't and realized that they were making sure I was close enough to the door to be able to maneuver through my fellow sardines. The rest of the evening was filled with equally mundane little attempts to recognize and respond positively to the good things I'd convinced myself didn't exist here: instead of scowling at a little kid who yelled "hello," I turned and smiled, etc. etc. Perhaps the most significant indicator happened this morning, however. My landlord, he who inspired near panic-attacks and sleepless nights before, came to collect rent. Already calm from the evening, I went to bed without worrying about what the morning would bring too much, but when the doorbell rang sometime before 11, I felt my stomach lurch and my stress level rise. I was ready to fight over anything. Restraining the force within that almost caused Mohamed not to renew our contract, I allowed for the possibility that maybe he wasn't the evil, weasely man I'd always assumed (by association with his brother, mostly). Lo and behold, our brief meeting was more than pleasant. He apologized that the rubbish collector had been harassing Cynthia and told us he would take care of it and that, instead of us paying the man directly, Mohamed's relative upstairs would take care of it for us.
I realize this is all very minor-sounding, but being able to take into account that the lens through which I view my surroundings makes all the difference is priceless. Demonizing or idealizing serves no one's interests, I don't think. So, dear Egypt, sorry for the bad rap I've given you in some circles. Here's to hoping the Cairene chapter of my life story will end happily.

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