I landed in Egypt in a manner similar to how I arrived… blind. I had an aisle seat and could not see the approaching terrain, beyond the heads of the window passengers… I didn’t know how high or how low.. all I knew is that I was on a plane, and eventually, without much warning, I would feel the vibrations of wheel and steel hitting concrete, with the jolt we feel as the plane, and our bodies absorb the shock of landing, followed by the applause of a safe arrival. Only then would I get the inkling that I was actually SOMEWHERE. In a similar manner… I’m here in Egypt, almost blind… not sure why I’m here to be honest. For the last 3 calendar years, my time off has been spent in East Africa, doing volunteer work, and while that is going to comprise a portion of my 2 week excursion… somehow I found myself booking a trip to Egypt first…
I am Egyptian…. Born in New York in 1978, to parents who had been in the USA almost 10 years already, with one uncle in Ohio. I’ve made two trips to Egypt to visit family…. in 1979 and 1981. My entire childhood was spent in Long Island growing up as almost a stranger, totally american, but totally not. My hair didn’t do the same thing as my peers did… my parents spoke a weird language, and my house always smelled like all kinds of foods that my friends couldn’t pronounce. Sitting in the car with my father, windows rolled down at a red light, I would beg my dad to not listen to his tapes of Om Kalthoum, as I would rather the society around me discovered that I listened to Z100… And despite all attempts to be as American as possible, I figured that if my mom stopped feeding me Egyptian food, I would somehow morph into something similar to those around me… but that didn’t quite happen… feta and pita was still on the menu. My parents barely spoke arabic to us, as they believed that when living in an English speaking country… do as the Romans do…. or something. My only real immersion in anything remotely Egyptian was on weekends… there were some trips to Brooklyn to buy blocks of feta and bag-fulls of olives from crowded, aromatic marketplaces, which caused more fear than familiarity in me, but most of all was the church community. Where on a weekly basis I was taught about what God wanted me to do, and what he didn’t want me to do… where I was told to sit, stand, kneel, repeat, and where I was asked on a weekly basis why I didn’t speak arabic.
I found more comfort and familiarity amongst my American peers in school and college than I did amongst the Coptic diaspora, until I bonded with a few guys who I am proud to call my true brothers. Noticed that even as I am in most ways, culturally, an American…. recognizing so many of the “brown people” sensibilities that I possess: a generous smile, a penchant to share my food with others at my table…. soup included, insistance that someone else go before me, standing up to shake your hand, jealousy, passion, and stubbornness… and the ability to laugh until I cry. I saw and embraced my Egyptian-ness….. But still Egypt itself, was off my conscious radar, but not off the radar of my spirit.
So here I am, 2007, my fourth trip in my lifetime, and my first trip as a conscious adult to visit my home, outside the comforts of a tour bus…. and I’m afraid. I hope to find some deep connection, but know I may not get it. My lack of fluency in the arabic language will already set me apart from my family, who are also primarily french speakers…. so why am I here? Why not.
It’s fitting that I read “Tuesdays With Morrie” on the flight over here, as in a way, I’m here for the same thing. I mentioned before that I had an uncle in Ohio. Last year he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and wasn’t supposed to make it past Christmas 2006. Somehow he is alive today and planned a trip to visit the family in Alexandria around the same time I was planning to go to Kenya…. This is the man that taught me many of the values I keep today. I see much of him in myself, and others have told me that…. He has been a constant support and source of love and affection for me and my family. “Prince Paul” is how he addresses me, as his belief that a child of God, who is a King, automatically makes me a Prince, and in my less zealous late 20s adult life, that still makes me smile. I decided to change my ticket and spend a few days talking with the man that gave so much of himself for me, in a land that he came from.
Was this the reason that Catherine bought me “Tuesdays With Morrie” for our 1 year anniversary, or was it that it came up randomly in conversation just a few weeks earlier with Chris and Jamie, my good friends… who knows? but the parallels are striking. I relate to Mitch in one very striking thing…. how he turned out way different than he was “supposed” to based on his teaching from his mentor. In many ways, if there is an area of discomfort, is realizing that I am not the kind of devout Christian that I was trained to be… and while I am a Christian still, my spiritual path has taken me places not easily found on the map… my ideas and values have been shaped because of and in spite of the culture and life I grew up experiencing. I won’t get too much into my beliefs here, but feel free to send me a shout, and we can definitely talk about it.
But I am willing to put myself and my differences bare before the man who had a part in shaping me into who I am, to spend some quality time with him, asking him questions about everything … anything and everything. I look forward to a few good arguments as well… the kind that only certain people can have, that seem so heated and abrasive, but have an undercurrent of love and bonding… I’ve had many of these lately, and have lead to some of the most wonderful expressions of love I’ve experienced so far in this lifetime.
I sit on a bus from Cairo to Alexandria. Briefly saw my cousin Maged, who once visited us when I was a child, on a greencard to see if he would like the US, and decided he loved Egypt much better. Now I’m on my way to see the whole clan.. My ILK if you will (look it up). I look out the window and I see people that look like me, and yet are so different. I see remnants of a culture that still remembers the value of male affection, that the west has long since forgotten…. it’s alive and well in this land. I look at other young men, and wonder if I was born and raised here, who would I be? How much of me would I be? I look out into the eyes of these strangers, and I wonder if I would be any more whole a person for the duration of my life, without the constant struggle to fit, to find, to change my diet, language, and radio statio…. I wonder who I would have been…
So I try to make peace, right here, and now, as I write this, with who I AM, where I’m from, as an Egyptian American… emphasis on American… and emphasis on Egyptian. I am one…. ask my friends…
So I sit on the bus, not sure where I am in my journey, but I have decided not to brace myself for impact, but to experience every moment along the way, and once I land…. I’ll have landed… ready to take on a new adventure.