Swept: An Expatriate in Egypt

The following essay was written a few years before the current events in Egypt. I left Egypt, with much regret, in the summer of 2010. My feelings about Egypt, and the way I have presented the country and its people, are in flux and continue to evolve since the writing of this essay.

The bus idles near an open segment in the bridge railing. Boys squat on the bridge, scooping up the dusty kernels of corn that have fallen from the back of a truck. They drop the kernels into a sack held open by a tall man who is smoking.

View of the Mosque of Mohammad Ali
and pollution from the Muqattam Cliffs
(Cairo, September 2006)
BY Amanda Fields

I look down where traffic merges, slow as a caterpillar, next to a row of shops and battered buildings. A toddler, wearing a gallabeya, wobbles on a median that separates a row of shops from haphazard lines of vehicles. In front of a garage, adolescent boys haul tires past a fat man, who sleeps on a chair with unsteady legs. Behind the fat man are more men in grease-splattered shirts, leaning into the guts of cars.

A few young women sway past the garage, wearing bright veils and tight denim skirts down to their ankles. Their arms locked, they whisper and giggle. A woman in niqab, toting an infant, and a couple of women with their hair free follow.

I watch the boys collecting corn. The kernels are familiar, the kind of kernels I would scoop and let fall through the gaps in my fingers on our farm in Illinois. When I was small, my father would warn me against entering the corncrib. A pile of corn can shift and suffocate with ease. I would stand at the bottom and let my toes sink into the cold pile, the kernels lacking the softness of dirt but not as sharp as pebbles. Corn is potent, like sand. From afar, it seems uniform. Close up, it is a myriad.

In Cairo, I live in a city of spills, of unfiltered corn and dust and cigarette butts and sand. When the pollution lifts, the Giza pyramids are visible from this bridge. But today it is polluted and hot, and we see nothing in the distance but the haze we breathe.

In Cairo, I live in a city of spills, of unfiltered corn and dust and cigarette butts and sand. When the pollution lifts, the Giza pyramids are visible from this bridge. But today it is polluted and hot, and we see nothing…

I’m riding a red, white, and blue charter bus from the American University, where I teach, back to Ma’adi, the old British neighborhood, filled with roundabouts and expatriates, where I live. The air conditioner has broken, and everyone is cranky. People try to busy themselves. An American student studies Arabic flashcards. An Egyptian boy flips the pages of the Qu’ran and murmurs, even though one of the recently posted bus rules is that people are not to read out loud. I wonder if it was a rule insisted upon by a foreign professor. The people on the bus text or talk on their mobiles, listen to music, grade papers, sleep, converse in numerous languages or a pidgin version of Arabic and English, rustle the campus newspaper. A few of them even read a book for pleasure.

I am usually one of those people with my nose in a book. I have often read, in vehicles, while the world passes by. There was a logistical consequence: when I got my driver’s license, I couldn’t find my way through town. It was a small town, a quiet town. On a weekend, we could cruise through it in ten minutes. We all had cars. There was enough room for all of us. We went from one end of town to the other, stopping at the mall, the gas station, the Pizza Hut — flirting and cranking up the music and burning up gas. The streets had been platted in logical squares; the lanes were wide. We paid attention to the streetlights, the signs, the signals, and, if we didn’t, it was because we had a great need to momentarily demonstrate our independence by half-breaking the rules.

For a while, I could not read in cars. It made me carsick. But I have re-learned car-reading in Cairo. I can read while bumping through the desert in a jeep. While my taxi driver screams and honks, while the school bus careens down the Ring Road that is also known as the Road of Death, I can focus on a familiar language, on well-trodden stories, on sensible narrative arcs. The longer I live in Cairo, the more I revert to the wall that reading affords if you know how to do it right.

James and I moved to Egypt in 2006 to teach writing at the American University in Cairo. It was the best job we could find. We had been living together in Minneapolis, a city with a glut of educated people. Our choices were adjunct teaching and temping. We were unhappy with each other, too — this colored everything. And we applied for everything. We applied to a job in Egypt and forgot about it amidst a pile of desperate applications. Then we found ourselves moving from the Midwest to the Middle East, with no grand initial notions about studying the region or language or culture. We just wanted a decent job, and Cairo was the only place we found it.

It is beautiful, this Nile. When you sail on it, the noises of the city drop, hushed, perhaps, by the ancient pulse of the water.

Until recently, The American University was located in downtown Cairo. The administration building, an old palace, stands in view of Midan Tahrir, or Liberation Square, where protests are quashed before they can begin. The main campus sat near numerous posh hotels and the Mugamma, a foreboding government building where documents go to be bureaucratized to death. Across the square is the salmon-colored Egyptian museum, whose stock in the basement is sinking into the earth; it will have to be re-excavated when a new museum is built closer to the pyramids.

The downtown streets are filled with people and cars. Women with swollen feet and tattered black abeyas peddle tissues for one Egyptian pound, in view of boys who put fingers to their mouths and give you the practiced eyes of the destitute. These boys do not want your food. They cannot take that to their mothers who are waiting across the street for bills and coins. Once, when I gave a bag of peanuts to a boy, his mother angrily snatched it out of his hands and ate it herself. I am not sure now that she was his mother.

Felucca and Egyptian flag on the Nile
(Cairo, January 2010)
BY Gene Fields

The old campus was a few minutes walk from the Nile, surrounded by posh hotels and the calls of men who would like to give you a very good price for a ride on a felucca, the sailboats that crisscross and creak on windy days. It is beautiful, this Nile. When you sail on it, the noises of the city drop, hushed, perhaps, by the ancient pulse of the water. It is beautiful in spite of the garbage that is shamelessly dumped into it. It seems to have always been beautiful in spite.

Get turned around when navigating through the chaotic traffic speeding by the old university campus, and you would end up, as I have done, in another world, where there are no more tourists or Egyptian students with gold-plated mobile phones. No one will come smiling out of a store and ask, “How can I take your money, Macgyver?” No one really understands why you are there, but they will help you get out if you ask. There are steaming vats of fuul, balls of falafel, shisha cafes where men with potbellies drink tea and play chess. There are skinny donkeys leading carts of produce. There is Coke and Marlboros. You will be lost for a while, and then you will find your way back.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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