I write this from the green, rainy, spacious land of Minnesota, in my parents’ lovely home in the suburbs of the Twin Cities. I’ve been up since 5 AM– thank you jet lag. I left Egypt five days ago and it feels more like I’ve crossed galaxies than time zones. This world is just so completely different! I’ve arrived just in time for the great Minnesotan tradition of grad party season, so I’ve spent the last five days going from house to house, congratulating high school graduates I sort of know, eating finger foods and attempting to answer the token question, “how was Egypt?” in the four seconds I have before I lose the asker’s attention.
My answer usually goes something like this: “It was so great! Worked for a newspaper, blah blah, learned Egyptian Arabic blah blah, went to the pyramids blah blah.” This will occasionally be followed up with some sort of question about Egypt’s security, but then the conversation shifts to the weather (“mmm, yes, I heard you had a snowstorm in May, this hail must not seem so bad”) or the person’s plans for the summer (“a mission’s trip to northern Minnesota, that’s really wonderful!”) or the food I’m eating (“great brownies”). But on the rare occasion when I can tell that someone actually wants to know about my time in Egypt, this is what I tell them.
My time in Egypt was a crazy ride. Some parts of it tested the limits of my toughness and tenacity and took me well outside my comfort zone. Others were just sheer fun. And still others were sobering, saddening and downright disheartening. I did a lot of growing up these last four months. And Egypt taught me many things.
It taught me that any place can be beautiful if you see it through the right eyes. My first few months in Cairo, I had written it off as an ugly, cramped, chaotic city. I was loving my time there, but I saw Cairo as a sore I had to put up with in order to enjoy all the adventures and experiences it held for me. I lamented the lack of color, the constant haze that hung over the city, the hours I had to spend sitting in traffic every day. But then a co-worker rebuked me and challenged me to give Cairo a second look. He took me to his balcony and he pointed out the way the light reflected off the thousands of satellite dishes, or the way his neighbor had managed to make a garden grow on her small balcony in the middle of the city– just a few of the many ways that the Egyptian people have adapted themselves to the chaos of Cairo. That’s beautiful, he said emphatically. And I saw that he was right. There was beauty in Cairo; there had been all along. I just hadn’t had the eyes to see it.
Egypt taught me a good deal about democracy and its shortcomings. America preaches the gospel of democracy as the be-all-end-all of governmental systems, but I have long questioned whether it is truly transposable into all circumstances (I for one grew up in a pretty strict authoritarian monarchy and am none the worse for it). And what my time in Egypt has shown me is that democracy– or at least America’s version of it– has some pretty specific prerequisites to it. The fact of the matter is that America was built as a democracy from the ground up. The founding fathers had the unique chance to start from scratch and put into place all the cogs they thought would be necessary to power the democratic machine: education, freedom of the press, systems of checks and balances. And even with two hundred years of groundwork, American democracy is far from perfect. It is therefore absurd to think that putting a different end piece on the machine in Egypt (or Iraq or Uganda…) will make it suddenly start cranking out democracy. It takes a lot more than a ballot box to make a democratic government. It is unrealistic for anyone to expect Egypt to be able to do in two years what the US has been working on for two hundred. And I maintain that I am not all too sure that America ought to be the gold standard for governments anyway. This does not mean that I think Egypt cannot do any better than what it had under Mubarak– but I don’t think Egypt can ever have an American-style (or even French-style) democracy and they should stop holding out for one. If there is one thing I have learned about Egyptians it is that they are highly intelligent, tenacious, resourceful people and I have no doubt that they will continue to sort themselves out a great government. But it will take a long time to rebuild their machine and in the meantime, it should come as no surprise when it breaks down, bursts into flames or cranks out a dysfunctional product.
Egypt also taught me a few things about myself. It taught me that I am a lot tougher than I thought I was. People have always told me I’m a “sweet little girl” and I’ve always seen myself as such. But this semester, I taught myself a new language and used it to interview political figures, I survived a grievous head wound, I traveled across the country by public transport, I was teargassed and shot at… And with each new experience, I learned that I am much more than a “sweet little girl.” I can fend for myself and do pretty much anything I set my mind to. And for me, that was huge.
And finally, Egypt taught me that the Middle East/North Africa is my natural habitat. At the age of 20, I have lived in five countries and moved nine times. And if there is one thing I have become sure of it is that I do not belong to any one place or people. But boy, did I feel right when I was in Egypt, just as I feel right when I am in Morocco. It’s odd I know, because I do not look as though I fit in in the sea of olive skin and dark, curly hair, and I’d be kidding myself if I thought I ever truly could. But regardless of how they view me, I feel most at ease when I am surrounded by the gutteral utterances of Arabic, colorful hijabs, and sharp smells of the Middle East. This is where I thrive. Even though Egypt had almost nothing in common with Morocco and there was much I had to learn, I knew how to learn it and I was completely in my element as I did. There was a tension that rolled off my shoulders the minute I stepped off the plane into the wave of heat at the Cairo airport– and that has inevitably returned since my homecoming to the US. I can’t put my finger on what it is exactly, but against all odds, this very scandinavian-looking girl belongs in the Arab world more than she belongs anywhere else. I see that now.
I don’t know what this next chapter holds for me, but I do know that I will always look back on Egypt and my semester there as its opening paragraphs.