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 my fellow window-seated passengers. I didn’t know how high or how low we were, 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 one feels, as the plane (and our bodies) absorb the shock of hitting tarmac, followed by the cheeky applause of a safe arrival. I refuse to participate in such things. But it was only in that moment, would I get the inkling that I was actually somewhere. In a similar manner as I arrived, I’m here in Egypt, almost blind… not sure exactly 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. While this trip is going to comprise a portion of my yearly leave, 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 (my mom’s brother) 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, feeling slightly as a stranger in his own home-town: Totally American, but kind-of not. My parents spoke a different 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, he would blast tapes of Om Kalthoum, and I would beg him to put on the radio (100.3 FM, Z-100, to be exact). I didn’t want the society around me to discover how Egyptian I was. 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 consistently on the menu. While my dad would proclaim his love for the tunes of his youth, my parents barely spoke Arabic to us, as in a brave and well-intentioned effort, they believed that when living in an English speaking country, one should do as the Romans do…. or something. My only real immersion in anything remotely Egyptian was on weekends when we would take trips to Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, 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. It was at church, where on on a weekly basis I was taught about what God wanted me to do, and what he didn’t want me to do. I was told when to sit, when to 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 than I did amongst the Coptic diaspora, until I started to find some real and true friends there, did I begin to integrate these broad and far reaching sides of my identity. I 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 stubbornnes, and of course.: 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, the 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 honestly, I’m hesitant. I hope to find some deep connection, some sort of love that may not be reciprocated. My lack of fluency in the Arabic language, I fear may be a barrier in connecting with a family I love so much, even though I’ve barely spent time with them in my life.
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 survive 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 they recognize this as well). 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 my good friends Chris and Jamie? Who knows? But the parallels are striking. I relate to Mitch in one very important manner: how he turned out way different than he was “supposed” to be, 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. 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 trust. 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. Now I’m on my way to see the whole clan. I look out the window and I see people that look like me, and yet are so different. I look at other young men my age, 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 a culturally integrated person for the duration of my life, without the early struggle to fit-in. 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… check out my dinner table.
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.