Swept: An Expatriate in Egypt

For a while, Egypt was whimsical — I took Arabic lessons and had a million questions and was deferential to the culture and the people and my colleagues and traveled to gorgeous parts of the country. I learned to pretend that the negative qualities of the country weren’t quite real enough, that the duct-taped taxi oozing gas fumes while the driver smoked and swerved and honked was nothing to get in a tizzy about, if only because I couldn’t control it. I let myself go to it.

Rooftops in Islamic Cairo
(January 2010)
BY Gene Fields

When I think of my early time in Egypt, I remember a friend, Mike, who visited James. We took him out to the Sinai Peninsula, to a laid-back resort town called Dahab, which had been bombed the year before we moved to Egypt. We returned from Dahab in a minivan with a driver who offered to be James’ personal hash connection. We made one stop on the way back — a gas station with a clean Turkish restroom. There were only a few flies and no shit stains, and it looked as if someone made use of the dirty mop and bucket in the corner.

After the driver pulled into the station, he left the van running and began to pump the gas. I went inside, and the driver queried James, “She is your sister?”

When I came back, the driver nodded indirectly at me, and James told me about the conversation about whether or not I was available to be married. It wasn’t unusual, and it hadn’t started to get on our nerves yet. We laughed and glanced at Mike, our friend who had boldly chosen to sit in the front seat with the crazy driver. He was frozen in the van, nervous about the engine still running as the driver pumped gas.

You can’t generalize about expatriates — some have reasons, and some don’t; their stories are as varied as their backgrounds.

At the other pump, a group of men stood talking and laughing, all of them smoking. One of them was filling a container with gas. Since his hands were full, he held his cigarette between his lips. His cigarette continued to burn, creating a long unbroken ash that jiggled when he spoke. It was an ash to be proud of, except that it dangled directly over the mouth of the gas container.

Mike grumbled something about this. I could see him starting to sweat, his voice changing pitch, his eyes registering fear. “I’m getting out of here,” he said, opening the door.

We were afraid, too, but we laughed. “We wouldn’t be able to get far enough from the explosion!” I said gleefully.

It is 2008, my third year of teaching in Egypt. We live in a new neighborhood that is even more accommodating to expatriates than the previous one, yet my attitude is poor. I do things, for instance, like ask the imam to shut up on Fridays when he rants while Egyptian men prostrate on colorful rugs lined on the filthy street. Oh, I don’t do this directly, of course — I just say it in my apartment — to myself. I would have to cover my head and remove my shoes to enter that mosque and go all the way to the women’s secluded prayer room in order to say something like that, because it would be offensive if I didn’t, though I too find it offensive when I am hanging my laundry and must listen to the men in the open-air ablutions hall next door clear their nostrils of the devil.

I realize these are not the words of someone who wishes to be fair or who thinks of themselves as a guest who should abide by the ways of the host. I have been unfair. I am treated well in Egypt simply because I am an American. I have experienced for the first time what it means to be noticed and accommodated to simply because I am assumed to be rich. By the standards of most Egyptians, I am wealthy, and my standard of living is much higher than it would be in the U.S. Today, however, my attitude is wretched: I don’t find the ludicrous threat of death by cigarette ash in an isolated desert gas station to be funny. Worse, a sinus problem I had just begun to get over is returning, and I fear that it’s chronic, and I blame Cairo.

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