Swept: An Expatriate in Egypt

James and I moved to Egypt in 2006 to teach writing at the American University in Cairo. It was the best job we could find. We had been living together in Minneapolis, a city with a glut of educated people. Our choices were adjunct teaching and temping. We were unhappy with each other, too — this colored everything. And we applied for everything. We applied to a job in Egypt and forgot about it amidst a pile of desperate applications. Then we found ourselves moving from the Midwest to the Middle East, with no grand initial notions about studying the region or language or culture. We just wanted a decent job, and Cairo was the only place we found it.

It is beautiful, this Nile. When you sail on it, the noises of the city drop, hushed, perhaps, by the ancient pulse of the water.

Until recently, The American University was located in downtown Cairo. The administration building, an old palace, stands in view of Midan Tahrir, or Liberation Square, where protests are quashed before they can begin. The main campus sat near numerous posh hotels and the Mugamma, a foreboding government building where documents go to be bureaucratized to death. Across the square is the salmon-colored Egyptian museum, whose stock in the basement is sinking into the earth; it will have to be re-excavated when a new museum is built closer to the pyramids.

The downtown streets are filled with people and cars. Women with swollen feet and tattered black abeyas peddle tissues for one Egyptian pound, in view of boys who put fingers to their mouths and give you the practiced eyes of the destitute. These boys do not want your food. They cannot take that to their mothers who are waiting across the street for bills and coins. Once, when I gave a bag of peanuts to a boy, his mother angrily snatched it out of his hands and ate it herself. I am not sure now that she was his mother.

Felucca and Egyptian flag on the Nile
(Cairo, January 2010)
BY Gene Fields

The old campus was a few minutes walk from the Nile, surrounded by posh hotels and the calls of men who would like to give you a very good price for a ride on a felucca, the sailboats that crisscross and creak on windy days. It is beautiful, this Nile. When you sail on it, the noises of the city drop, hushed, perhaps, by the ancient pulse of the water. It is beautiful in spite of the garbage that is shamelessly dumped into it. It seems to have always been beautiful in spite.

Get turned around when navigating through the chaotic traffic speeding by the old university campus, and you would end up, as I have done, in another world, where there are no more tourists or Egyptian students with gold-plated mobile phones. No one will come smiling out of a store and ask, “How can I take your money, Macgyver?” No one really understands why you are there, but they will help you get out if you ask. There are steaming vats of fuul, balls of falafel, shisha cafes where men with potbellies drink tea and play chess. There are skinny donkeys leading carts of produce. There is Coke and Marlboros. You will be lost for a while, and then you will find your way back.

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