Swept: An Expatriate in Egypt

The farm seems so far away now. All semester I’ve ridden this bus, wedged in with faculty, staff, and students. Those who don’t have i-pod buds jammed in their ears hear complaints about students mingling with whines about assignments and professors, watch teary-eyed girls fret about GPAs, observe middle-aged veiled women (who work the bureaucracy so you had better well be nice to them) saving seats, listen to faculty members exchange pedigrees, or catch an earful of naïve sarcasm from American exchange students. The conversations are one part of a ride on a dangerous highway where the poor are transported in various truck beds or carts, men crossing to the other side dart fearlessly between cars, and more and more billboards for exurban compounds display happy, abnormally white, blonde families breathing pure air on a lush lawn.

View of Cairo from the Citadel
(Cairo, March 2007)
BY Amanda Fields

The air conditioner broke just a few minutes after we left campus. Some of the Egyptian women fretted and freaked, opened and closed windows, and complained to the driver as he navigated the Ring Road, distracting him from his job of moving us through the speeding, no-lane, death-defying traffic. We became hothouse flowers, flaunting delicate sensibilities. The shimmering desert heat annoyed everyone. Even the green polyester curtains flapping outside in the hot wind irked us.

We are stuck fast now on the curved bridge where the boys are scooping kernels of corn and dust into bags. In Cairo, I am often stuck on a bridge, and I never fail to think of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis, which collapsed the year after we left. We used to live a few blocks from it. Here I am on this bridge with a car-sized gap in its side, surrounded by pale-green Isuzu trucks, their beds packed with yams, or crates of tomatoes, or men. Some men nestle for naps into piles of onions. BMWs idle inches from Peugeots, and a thin donkey pulls an empty cart. Boxes of tissue, the Qu’ran, and furry rugs perch on many of the dashboards. Prayer beads hang from mirrors. Everyone is on a mobile phone, even the guys who travel in the beds of trucks. We would die if this bridge collapsed, and we would crush everyone below us. We would crush the toddler on the median, provided he hasn’t already fallen into the street. We would all die. It would be so easy.

…It is the classic mistake of the expatriate — to assume that one is removed, that one doesn’t belong, and, thus, to assume that one’s actions and feelings have no real impact.

I don’t have thoughts such as this very often in Cairo, and I think it is because this myriad of details, rather than overwhelming me, has caused me to cultivate a sense of removal from this place. It is the classic mistake of the expatriate — to assume that one is removed, that one doesn’t belong, and, thus, to assume that one’s actions and feelings have no real impact.

The infamous black cloud — made up of anything from leaded gasoline fumes to burning rice fields to burning trash — is fading for the day. I should be enjoying the prospect of fresher air and sunshine, considering that everyone else in my family is bundled up for winter in the Midwest. As we sit here, though, my right eyelid twitches tightly. Exhaust pipes are leaking blackness, and particles blast through the open windows. I can feel my sinuses blocking up, again. This is the kind of day when I want out.

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