Swept: An Expatriate in Egypt

The university moved to the outskirts of Cairo in 2008, on a new campus built in the desert where many upper class Cairenes seem to be fleeing. I remember taking a tour of the building site in 2006, certain that I would leave Egypt for a new job before I would need to commute to that place. We were wearing hardhats and sweltering in the main corridor of campus, which at that point looked only like sculpted concrete and sand. There was nothing out there. It was barren, hot. I knew then that I hated the desert.

In the middle of the tour, a professor had raised her hand and asked just where all the water for this pristine campus was going to come from. Our guide talked about the innovative irrigation system that would run below campus, efficiently utilizing the water from the Nile.

Efficiency is not the forte of modern Egypt. And I wasn’t right about leaving. Three degrees in English don’t do much in the U.S., particularly when the economy is spiraling. So I found myself commuting to the desert.

Plants at the American University in Cairo
(Cairo, April 2010)
BY Amanda Fields

During the first few weeks of the semester on the new campus, there wasn’t much water to be found at all, and the only functional toilets were in the library. There was one food outlet, which engaged in serious price gouging for the cans of Sprite that would ward off dehydration. The lauded irrigation system wasn’t impressive: workers in green jumpsuits kept shoving plants into sand lined with black hoses spouting water, and the plants kept dying.

The campus move has encouraged development and a departure from the heart of Cairo. Billboards for gated communities have been planted before wastelands of sand, and people are buying. Sand is blasted to make pits from which plain rectangular buildings rise, ever so slowly, in the desert, further and further from the Nile. The buildings are still skeletons when the plants go in, and poor men water these plants, leaving the hoses dripping all day in the hopes that the confused grass will stay green. They sleep next to the hoses. They hike up their gallabeyas to piss in the bushes. As the buildings rise, poor men keep watch, living in shacks made from palm fronds in front of the empty structures, installing satellite dishes on poles and building fires to warm up food.

There is a rumor that the Egyptian government pressured the university’s move, for many of our students and their families are the wealthiest people in the country. If the American University moved, others would, too. The city would be recreated out here, and every sign would be in English.

I feel a sort of pride in saying I grew up on a farm, as if I, like my brother, had to castrate hogs instead of sitting indoors eating cake with my grandmother.

Some of my students are connected to a kind of wealth that is difficult for me to comprehend. My inability to relate to them extends beyond culture — it is laden with my discomfort with the rich. I don’t get them. Or, rather, I have a chip on my shoulder about most of them. I grew up on a farm. Actually, I grew up in an underground house less than a mile from the farm on which my grandparents lived. Once, an Egyptian colleague told me that I should avoid telling my students I grew up on a farm, that they might think less of me. I make sure to slip in this fact every semester. I want to believe that it is American of me to want my students to know that my family was not rich, that someone like me can grow up in a town that was once dubbed “Kluxville” in the 1990s, end up in the Middle East five years after the events of September 11th, and not experience the ignorant fear of Arabs or Muslims common to too many Americans. It’s not that I think it’s special to have done this. I have colleagues from diverse backgrounds, some not so different from mine, many much broader and more cosmopolitan than mine will ever be. I wasn’t poor. I didn’t have an outhouse like my mother did growing up. I didn’t have to do anything on the farm, really. It was never expected that I would live a farming life, just as it was never on the docket to live in Egypt. Nonetheless, I feel a sort of pride in saying I grew up on a farm, as if I, like my brother, had to castrate hogs instead of sitting indoors eating cake with my grandmother.

Page 3 of 7 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 View All

Printed from Cerise Press: http://www.cerisepress.com

Permalink URL: http://www.cerisepress.com/02/06/swept-an-expatriate-in-egypt

Page 3 of 7 was printed. Select View All pagination to print all pages.