Swept: An Expatriate in Egypt

The following essay was written a few years before the current events in Egypt. I left Egypt, with much regret, in the summer of 2010. My feelings about Egypt, and the way I have presented the country and its people, are in flux and continue to evolve since the writing of this essay.

The bus idles near an open segment in the bridge railing. Boys squat on the bridge, scooping up the dusty kernels of corn that have fallen from the back of a truck. They drop the kernels into a sack held open by a tall man who is smoking.

View of the Mosque of Mohammad Ali
and pollution from the Muqattam Cliffs
(Cairo, September 2006)
BY Amanda Fields

I look down where traffic merges, slow as a caterpillar, next to a row of shops and battered buildings. A toddler, wearing a gallabeya, wobbles on a median that separates a row of shops from haphazard lines of vehicles. In front of a garage, adolescent boys haul tires past a fat man, who sleeps on a chair with unsteady legs. Behind the fat man are more men in grease-splattered shirts, leaning into the guts of cars.

A few young women sway past the garage, wearing bright veils and tight denim skirts down to their ankles. Their arms locked, they whisper and giggle. A woman in niqab, toting an infant, and a couple of women with their hair free follow.

I watch the boys collecting corn. The kernels are familiar, the kind of kernels I would scoop and let fall through the gaps in my fingers on our farm in Illinois. When I was small, my father would warn me against entering the corncrib. A pile of corn can shift and suffocate with ease. I would stand at the bottom and let my toes sink into the cold pile, the kernels lacking the softness of dirt but not as sharp as pebbles. Corn is potent, like sand. From afar, it seems uniform. Close up, it is a myriad.

In Cairo, I live in a city of spills, of unfiltered corn and dust and cigarette butts and sand. When the pollution lifts, the Giza pyramids are visible from this bridge. But today it is polluted and hot, and we see nothing in the distance but the haze we breathe.

In Cairo, I live in a city of spills, of unfiltered corn and dust and cigarette butts and sand. When the pollution lifts, the Giza pyramids are visible from this bridge. But today it is polluted and hot, and we see nothing…

I’m riding a red, white, and blue charter bus from the American University, where I teach, back to Ma’adi, the old British neighborhood, filled with roundabouts and expatriates, where I live. The air conditioner has broken, and everyone is cranky. People try to busy themselves. An American student studies Arabic flashcards. An Egyptian boy flips the pages of the Qu’ran and murmurs, even though one of the recently posted bus rules is that people are not to read out loud. I wonder if it was a rule insisted upon by a foreign professor. The people on the bus text or talk on their mobiles, listen to music, grade papers, sleep, converse in numerous languages or a pidgin version of Arabic and English, rustle the campus newspaper. A few of them even read a book for pleasure.

I am usually one of those people with my nose in a book. I have often read, in vehicles, while the world passes by. There was a logistical consequence: when I got my driver’s license, I couldn’t find my way through town. It was a small town, a quiet town. On a weekend, we could cruise through it in ten minutes. We all had cars. There was enough room for all of us. We went from one end of town to the other, stopping at the mall, the gas station, the Pizza Hut — flirting and cranking up the music and burning up gas. The streets had been platted in logical squares; the lanes were wide. We paid attention to the streetlights, the signs, the signals, and, if we didn’t, it was because we had a great need to momentarily demonstrate our independence by half-breaking the rules.

For a while, I could not read in cars. It made me carsick. But I have re-learned car-reading in Cairo. I can read while bumping through the desert in a jeep. While my taxi driver screams and honks, while the school bus careens down the Ring Road that is also known as the Road of Death, I can focus on a familiar language, on well-trodden stories, on sensible narrative arcs. The longer I live in Cairo, the more I revert to the wall that reading affords if you know how to do it right.

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