Swept: An Expatriate in Egypt

People honk with more vigor as it becomes clear that we won’t move for a long while, as if the honking might somehow swell and lift us home. Such pointless honking is typical here. Beside the bus, men in a truck bed wave cigarettes and laugh and stare up at me. My eyebrows tense like muscles, begging me not to breathe until I get home to the giant air purifier we purchased from Radio Shack in downtown Cairo. I wish I could comply, eyebrows. No one else on this bus seems angry about the quality of the air they are breathing; they are angrier about the flapping curtains and the broken air conditioner, the inconvenience of being trapped in traffic. No one else seems to be worried about the toll of breathing. Is the wavy, stinky, dizzy, almost-blankness I am feeling simply a mirage? Do others have this feeling, as if ungracious inhabitants were tunneling above their eyes, not only marring the landscape but piercing it?

Traffic Jam on the Ring Road
(Cairo, May 2010)
BY Amanda Fields

It must be that I am the hothouse flower, not the others. It’s just a sinus problem. Many people have them. Perhaps I am being melodramatic. I am being very, very American and should get out a giant bottle of antibacterial soap and squirt a gooey protective layer over my body. All I have to do is take a drive around Cairo to see more than enough people with worse problems — amputated limbs, malnutrition, weird eye and joint issues — problems that are generally preventable, problems associated with poverty. All I have to do is look at my maid’s bare feet, swollen from diabetes, as she sweeps the floor. Shut up, you, I think, and my eyebrows, though skeptical, agree.

I close my eyes, and I am envisioning cornfields — contrived squares of green and platted maps. Even the British were impressed by the plenitude of America when they were plundering it during the Revolution. I am starting to feel like an American patriot, all of a sudden. It helps to have a hip, practical President, to still be riding high on his election. I dream about clear rules and certain standards of cleanliness and a culture I am used to, a culture with its own problems that I can understand even if I can’t control them.

I don’t believe I am a lifelong expatriate. There are plenty of those around me, and I don’t know if I can fully decipher what makes them so. I don’t think I need to. There are compelling reasons to stay and compelling reasons not to. The homeopathist was right — my body has sent its own compelling message. It is a confused message, laden with shame. My complaints are social; my complaints are my choice. I sacrifice a few conveniences for other conveniences I cannot have in the U.S. I know that I will experience culture shock when I return home, that I will balk at rent prices and the lack of delivery services and my inability to afford a maid. There is a spiritual toll, once you take the step from merely surveying the disparities around you to becoming overwhelmed by them. Some people would dive right into it, wade through the muck, help, help, help. I have never been one of those people. Today, it doesn’t seem as if I will start.

I don’t believe I am a lifelong expatriate. There are plenty of those around me, and I don’t know if I can fully decipher what makes them so. I don’t think I need to. There are compelling reasons to stay and compelling reasons not to.

I look at the boys, fingernails crusted with dirt, studiously bearing handfuls of corn into the sack. What purpose do they have? And why is that man who is holding the sack allowing them to scurry in traffic as if they were playing in a meadow? Is he their father, their uncle, some sort of food pimp? The toddler is still on the median, and the fat man in the wobbly chair by the garage has awakened. He smiles as if the child were merely taking his first steps. This is normalcy.

Down by the median, a street-cleaner appears. He wears a green and orange jumpsuit, his head covered by a turban. He ignores the toddler. My sinuses clench — I can feel the soft pop, pop of air in my nasal passages fighting to get through. I watch the man sweep with a wide straw broom, inches from tires. He sweeps the ubiquitous dust. He sweeps the wrappers, the cigarette butts, half-eaten sandwiches thrown from windows. He has left a green cart down the street that holds a green plastic garbage can. I don’t know how he will get the piles into the bin, for he doesn’t appear to have a dustpan. Sometimes he pauses and leans on the broom, and everything he has arduously swept begins to scatter and escape. And again he sweeps whatever is left into a mound, and again it dissipates.

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