Talk of Two Cities

“Life is a foreign language. All men mispronounce it.” — Christopher Morley, 1890–1957, US novelist, journalist, poet.

I left Cairo at the end of August, packing lightly and, thanks to terrorists who had plotted to bomb transatlantic flights from London, leaving most of my toiletries behind.

My last days in Cairo were strange. It was terribly hot — that ruthless Cairo heat that blooms early in the morning and strikes you like a slap the moment you step outside. I spent most of my time indoors, and a good part of the daylight hours sleeping. Apparently, a lot of Cairenes were on the same schedule: there were massive traffic jams at midnight, when half the city headed out for a breath of Nile breeze.

When I did get out, it was mostly to say goodbye to friends, and also to places, a hundred silent goodbyes to Cairo. I said goodbye to Kasr Al Aini, the big avenue by my apartment, chocked and ringing with traffic during the day, swept by wind and lone, speeding cars by night. I said goodbye to the ahwa (café) where I went regularly with a stack of Arabic newspapers –more indicative of my good intentions than my abilities — for a water pipe and Turkish coffee. I said goodbye to Mahrouz, the best fool (baked beans) stand in town; to the crumbling wooden villa on the nearby corner, sprouting bougainvillea from its abandoned balconies; and to my doorman, Salama, whose family had come up from the village for the summer and were all sleeping, somehow, in his closet-sized room under the building’s stairwell. They spent most of their time sitting outside the building, turning the cracked pavement into their living-room.

I said goodbye to Adel, who taught me Arabic over the last two years, and to his small office, where the smoke of his last cigarette always hung in the air, and piles of his books and newspapers always tumbled off the sofa (they’d long filled the shelves); where he shared with me his admirable knowledge with even more admirable humour and generosity. I said goodbye to the two rundown offices where we scrambled late into the night to put together the magazines I worked at. I said goodbye to the high-ceilinged apartments, with their peeling paint and old wooden floors, where many a Cairo house party lasted too late into the night, and many a conversation on the Middle East went in maddening, exciting circles. I said goodbye to the underfed soldiers stationed at every other intersection, to the American embassy barricaded behind its walls, to the intersections downtown where I’d seen demonstrators and activists chant and clap and run away from the blows of the police.

Now I’m in graduate school in New York. This city is beautiful, rich, calm (there’s nothing like Cairo’s clamorous 16 million citizens and lawless traffic to put such things in perspective) and slightly unreal to me. Even beggars here seem luckier, more demanding and significant, than beggars in Cairo.

I think I’m experiencing reverse culture shock. I’m used to stickers in the subway that say “Remember not to forget God”, not ads for beer and plastic surgery. I’m used to a shisha (water pipe) costing about a dollar, but at one of the new fashionable Arab cafes in Manhattan it’s $15! I’m used to hearing the call to prayer, and am still surprised when the church bells near my house ring. I’m used to downtown Cairo’s loitering crowds, pairs of boys and girls walking arm-in-arm, whole families out for the evening, everyone taking their time, checking out shop windows and each other, maybe capping a night-long outing with the treat of an ice cream cone or a Coke. In the New York streets, most people are clearly on their way somewhere, single and fast-moving entities carrying shopping bags with contents that cost the equivalent of an Egyptian’s monthly salary.

I’m also used to, in Egypt, always struggling to understand. One thing that’s been amazing about coming home to the States has been the way everything became suddenly intelligible. I’d almost forgotten what that was like. Most of the conversations going on around me in Cairo were only half comprehensible: transmissions on a static-laden channel, understandable only in snatches. Now I listen with glee to New Yorkers’ conversations, amazed by my crystal clear reception.

“Let’s do it man! Let’s start a band!” “I just want to know what the fuck you thought you were doing talking to that motherfucker.” “She just doesn’t get it that it’s, like, New York?” Every day I collect snatches of conversations, and it almost seems to me that every conversation you could ever have is going on somewhere in New York, that the city is above all one giant, unending talk, going over the same inexhaustible themes: love, money, family, problems at work. I suppose this is what being at home means. Everything speaks to you — not just the people around you but menus, ads, graffiti in the subway and tattoos on a man’s arm.

Meanwhile, people ask me if I miss Cairo and I don’t know the answer. The truth is that perhaps all great cities, like families, feel inevitable when you live in them, and hard to fathom when you leave them behind. When I was in Cairo, it was difficult to imagine that anything much existed outside of Cairo; the city seemed to stretch to the horizon. Now it’s hard for Cairo not to recede, in the face of New York’s perfect self-sufficiency. What is there to long for? What kind of masochist would miss Cairo’s crowds, its cracked sidewalks, its careening taxis, its hazy, lead-ridden skies?

But, even though (maybe because) it was such a challenge living there, I do miss talking to people in Cairo. I miss, paradoxically, how easy it was to at least start a conversation, with anyone, anywhere. I miss the common and predictable expressions, proverbs, and religious invocations that are used again and again to reassert the commonality of everyone’s experience. I miss how passionate people there were about politics, how local and regional events got dissected with the vivacity and interest of good gossip. I miss how every conversation had the potential to include more people, how there was no boundary between the two people talking and the people surrounding them, how easily strangers were called upon to agree, confirm, bear witness. I miss Egyptian gestures, Egyptian jokes, and Egyptian laughter. William Golding wrote in An Egyptian Journal: “Nothing is so impenetrable as laughter in a language you don’t understand.” I’ve always felt, on the contrary, caught up and included in the laughter even if I hadn’t been able to follow the joke.

And even though here in the States I can understand every word of what’s being said and written around me, the conversation sometimes leaves me at a loss.

I left the States five years ago, a week after 9/11 happened. I departed from a San Francisco airport that was as empty and calm as a provincial train station (few people were flying that week). This year I arrived in New York in time to go to Ground Zero on the five-year anniversary. I heard the sound of wives and mothers reading names of the departed over the loudspeakers, their voices catching and faltering. I also met “9/11 deniers”, people who think there’s been a government conspiracy to cover up what really happened. They were out in force, wearing T-shirts and carrying posters (“The US Government Did This”), ready to argue with bystanders. For me, there was something exciting about seeing them — I’ll take my freedom of expression anywhere I can get it these days — but also so depressing. Listening to them, I heard such inchoate anger, such passionate mistrust. September 11 has turned into a symbol, for many of us, of how we’ve been manipulated. The date marks our anger and confusion.

This is what coming home also means: unresolved fights, topics to be avoided, uncomfortable silences. For all its chattering, there are some things New York doesn’t seem to be talking about that much: the fact that we’re at war, the fact that our country is legalizing torture, what’s happening every day to Egyptians, Palestinians, Lebanese and Iraqis.

Or if we talk about these things here, the terms of the debate are new and strange to me. I moved from the city where one of the 9/11 hijackers was from, where much of the ideology that those hijackers followed supposedly originated, to the city that bore its brunt. I moved back across what feels like an ever-widening canyon, from the receiving to the delivering end of the “war on terror”. At the end of August, I took a trans-Atlantic flight through the looking glass, and now everything is the inverse of what I’m used to.

While in Egypt, Islam is an automatically positive concept, synonymous with justice and honesty (“This wouldn’t have happened if this country had true Islam!”, I heard a man exclaim after one national disaster). In the US, Islam is so automatically suspicious, so inherently problematic, that according to a recent Gallup Poll 39 percent of Americans think US Muslims should have to carry special ID. While in Egypt, the focus of concern are Iraqi and Palestinian civilians. Here, the debate revolves around Israeli and American security, military and political strategies. While in Egypt, I spent a good deal of my time trying to pick up Arabic (and being vastly rewarded by Egyptians for my efforts to do so). Here, wearing a t-shirt with Arabic script is apparently almost a crime (See “Arabic T-shirt sparks airport row“, And Egypt, which has been the center of my world for the last four years, is now just some far-off country, an unimportant and marginal place that rarely makes the US news, that has no impact and no claim on the US public — a country of Muslims and Arabs, probably of terrorists and religious fanatics, with pyramids, and deserts, and a government that’s not that good but also not our problem.

But for me Cairo is there, a formidably real place with heart-breakingly real people. The personal is political, the saying goes, and I’m proof of it. Because I moved to Cairo by chance four years ago, I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to figure out the Middle East. This, my last column — a file entitled “goodbye to Cairo” that has been sitting on my desktop for months now — has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to write. I can’t say goodbye to Cairo. All this talk of goodbyes and all this wondering whether I miss Egypt is beside the point. Who am I kidding? I’m going back.

Egypt has gotten under my skin, like the little Nile river snail that crawls under swimmers’ toes and gives them a debilitating disease called bilharzia. That may seem like a terrible metaphor, but the truth is sometimes I’m sick of Egypt, and often I’m sick at heart over Egypt. How not to be sickened, when you’ve come to care about this country, by its poverty, its corruption, its hopeless state? How not to feel queasy when I read about the latest blogger arrested (see, the latest act of policy brutality (see Demaghmak.Blogspot), the latest rigged student election (Lsee, the latest harassment of women (see, and the ongoing plans to replace the country’s elderly presidential dictator with his scheming son?

And how to talk about these things as an American, right now? The novelist Rebecca West once said: “There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.” When contemplating the dialogue between the US and Egypt, between the West and Middle East, it often feels that way, although Egypt, given current power dynamics, is much more attentive to what the US is saying than vice versa. Both sides may not be very good at understanding each other these days, but it’s here in the US that I feel there is little effort being made to talk to Arab people. There is only talk at them — telling them what is ‘wrong’ with them, tell them how they should be. It’s significant that the majority of self-styled experts on terrorism, Islam or the Middle East, don’t even speak a word of Arabic. And our government (which is also woefully short on Arabic fluency) seems to have decided that the only language it’s interested in practicing in the Middle East is violence.

That may be changing. At my university, Arabic language classes are packed. I’m going to be studying more Arabic myself over the next two or three years. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” said Ludwig Wittgenstein. My world has been expanded, by chance and by force, to include Egypt, and now my language has to expand to deal with that. I want to understand Egypt better, and to understand what role I and my country can play there, and I want, more than anything, for the two places to understand each other. I’m not saying most Americans should pick up Arabic (I’ve been made well aware in the last few years of what an endeavour that is). But it would be nice if the people who formulate our foreign policy picked up a bit more humility and curiosity. Cairo and New York — it seems improbable these days — but what a great conversation these two cities could have.