Swept: An Expatriate in Egypt

There are foreigners who have lived here for years – people you wouldn’t expect to be in Egypt. You can’t generalize about expatriates — some have reasons, and some don’t; their stories are as varied as their backgrounds. Before I became one, my impressions of expatriates were gleaned from literature classes, for there were always writers — Langston Hughes, Paul Bowles, Bharati Mukherjee — forsaking their homelands, and this part of their story helped us analyze their work. I always thought of an expatriate as someone exiled (sometimes by personal choice) from his or her home country, but this is an archaic perception for many of us, particularly Americans who live abroad. Many of us can go back, even if there are problems we are running from. Many of us have the means and the passports to do it. Many of us are not refugees, like the Iraqis and Sudanese and Eritreans in Cairo. We are able to go from a farm in the Midwest to the Middle East and back in very little time. I am an expatriate only by virtue of living in a foreign country. I didn’t come here with any grander ideas than that. I wonder if I will leave here with a similar outlook. Usually, I let myself go to the foreignness of this culture, but its idiosyncrasies are a burden on days like this, and it is on days like this that I wonder if I have learned one single thing about what it means to be a foreigner. Other people might take this sense of burden and feel responsible for it, and they would be noble or condescending, depending on the way you looked at it.

Cairo rests in a depression, a valley angling toward the Nile River. The city was shrouded
in black, a tangible net, and I realized how fully I had been breathing that shroud and living in its folds.

At the moment, on this bus, I deeply feel the foreignness of my situation, and I connect it all to these sinuses. This sinus thing has plagued me for over a year. It creeps in me; it has crept; it lurks. The word “sinus” is so sniveling; I’ve discovered these are powerful things. It’s a pulsing above my left eyebrow, at times so painful it feels like a hole, some festering round button of hurt with jagged edges that can force my left eye to a squint. My eyes shrink under this pain; sometimes they look pinched on the sides. I have visited doctors and taken decongestants and antihistamines and used sprays. Over the course of a desperate few weeks, I started having a shot of Egyptian Auld Stag whiskey (its label depicting Bambi’s detached father) every night before bed, as my otherwise teetotaler grandfather might have prescribed. For a while, I quit the medications after the Dutch, Sufi homeopathist from my department told me that the pain was coming from a psychological stress that I need to identify. Then he told me about a natural saltwater spray imported from France. I considered what inner stress my sinuses might be alerting me to, ignored the resulting glimmers of psychological awareness, and then went to the pharmacy to get my saltwater spray. After a few weeks, things started moving. There is no need to delineate my mucus — it’s just that I was so pleased to find out that I had some in me. Apparently there had been a knotted jam of it up in my forehead. In short, I felt I was cleaning Cairo out of me.

I watch the boys collecting the corn. I wonder if they are thinking about the proximity of their fingers and feet and young bodies to tires steered by people who seem indifferent to their efforts, and I can feel the pulsing in my head just beginning, the jam making a comeback.

It was on the Muqattam Hills that I got my first panoramic view of Cairo. The hills are the speculated source of much of the limestone used for ancient sites such as the pyramids, and they have been in the news for the rockslides that have killed several people and destroyed homes in the slums below. On the hills, it hit me that Cairo rests in a depression, a valley angling toward the Nile River. The city was shrouded in black, a tangible net, and I realized how fully I had been breathing that shroud and living in its folds.

Now, as my eyes twitch, I am reaping the disadvantages. I am angry with my body for not painlessly expelling the waste I breathe, for letting it rest in me, poison me; I am angry with my mind for letting Cairo get to me. I am angry at my intolerance. I imagine someone asking, “Why don’t you leave, then? Why don’t you just get out of our country?” I have heard a few Egyptians say things like this, but with nowhere near the frequency or viciousness that I have heard Americans say it. Perhaps I suffer from a lack of imagination, an inability to see anything that is not tainted with the superiority complex of the “West.” Surely someone would say this to me, right now. Surely it would be grounds for dismissal.

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