An Egyptian Family Christmas

It was the morning of Christmas and my apartment smelled like cat piss. My refrigerator was painfully similar to that of a fraternity house – half a whiskey bottle, a couple of eggs, and some mushy apples. Scholarship applications rested unfinished somewhere on my Mac desktop, probably floating (sinking?) in my Chicago River screensaver. Worst of all, the meet and greet service guy who was supposed to pick up my parents in 12 hours still had not confirmed. But that was okay because all this stress meant that I would be with my family for the winter holidays, Egyptian border control be damned. 

It’s daunting to wake up knowing that you have all this stuff you must get done. Suddenly the world outside our bed just seems incredibly frightening. Nonetheless I dragged myself up and out the door to give my life and apartment a parent-friendly makeover. I started by waiting an hour for the Syrian pastry shop in Tahrir to open. Take note – almost nothing is open in Cairo before noon on Fridays. But the barista at the chain cafe across the street put a cute animal face in my cappuccino foam as I waited and apparently, that’s all it takes to brighten my day.

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I forgot to take a picture, but it looked as adorable as this one.

With a delicious assortment of honey drenched sweets in hand, I headed down to the jewellery stores in Maadi to pick out delicate silver bracelets for my mother, and to eat hearty Chinese dumplings with my Egyptian friend who made sure the meet and assist guy confirmed.

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Let it be known that the Chinese food in Cairo tastes better than most Chinese food in America.

By early evening I was back in my apartment and everything had turned out fine – I got the piss smell out of my apartment by thoroughly washing the litter box and throwing open all the windows. I even had time to whip up a quick dinner.

After a hasty hour of cleaning bathroom sinks and sweeping up mounds of cat hair, it was 8pm and I was in an uber on the way to Cairo International Airport. An hour ride later, and a half-hour of waiting outside later (for security reasons), I was in the arms of my mother and father. Just like that, after a six month absence, I was smelling my mom’s hair and kissing my dad’s cheek in the middle of the parking lot. It’s so weird.

We spent the last two hours of Christmas at my apartment unwrapping gifts and playing with the cat around my coffee table, spread with Syrian desserts and instant ramen. My dad had a cough for the past week and apparently all he ever felt like eating was instant ramen. As I watched my mom nibble at the kunafa, her shoulder hunched in that familiar slump- her mouth making circular motions as the chewed, I couldn’t stop thinking – one day, I will never sit across from my mom and watch her eat. Because one day she will die. Then I became obsessed with memorising the exact detail of how her face wrinkled and the color of her eyes and the movements of her hand as she tucked her hair behind her ear.

One day you feel infinite and then one day, you don’t. Over the past few months, I was so busy being annoyed at my parents and avoiding them that I overlooked their mortality. They’re getting older and it’s showing. Now everything seems like there’s a time limit, and I am fixated at counting the grains of sand I have left in the hourglass. Yes I know that that’s a rather morbid thought to end on, especially for a Christmas post, but it’s better to be aware of this now than to regret it when it’s too late. 

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I am not a foodie but I eat well

I am not the person to whip out my DSLR camera to snap food before consuming it. I am also not the person to seek out restaurants known for their hip, new-fangled way of preparing grilled cheese or tiramisu. But I love eating well and eating diverse. Cairo is an amazing city for trying cuisines from all over the world. My favorite restaurant in Cairo (and one I already frequented four times) is Mori Sushi, and I am constantly getting recommendations for Thai places, Indian restaurants, Yemeni joints, and Syrian bakeries.

So enjoy this collection of my screenshotted snapchats, poor quality photos sent over Facebook chat, and my trademark unimpressed selfie face (but with food). I think this presents a more accurate view of my Cairo life anyway. Hover and click for captions.

Favorite Food Places in Cairo —

The Post-Graduate Reading List

Many of my friends who have just graduated college are getting back into free reading. A few even joined book clubs. As a consequence, I’ve been asked by a lot of people for book recommendations. This makes me feel like a fraud – I actually don’t read as many books as my friends think I do. I’m much more an essay/short story/Aeon/New York Times person. Out of the recommendation list below, there’s only two full length novels – the rest are collections of short stories or a novella. I blame my impatience and/or inability to sift through long-winded allegory for meaning.

Anyway, the following are my favorite books that I’ve read after college graduation, listed in the order in which I read them.

Books and Novels

1. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by Milan Kundera

Honestly, The Unbearable Lightness of Being was much better. But to uphold the integrity of this post graduate reading list, I had to leave that Kundera novel off and replace it with this one instead. This book is a classic Kundera – set in communist-era Prague, with a bunch of cheating husbands and wives and spies scattered around. For those new to Kundera, he writes like a philosopher whose primary concern is to explain a concept. His focus is not in realistic character development or tantalizing plots. He’s perfect for those who dabble in existential crisis.

Buzzwords – orgy, horoscope, ostriches

2. Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto
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This is a very simple story about a girl and a boy and a mom persevering through life despite hardships. However, the context in which I read this book gave it incredible meaning to my life. I borrowed it from Angela to read during the five-hour ordeal that is college Commencement, and then I finished it on the plane to Beijing just two days later.  It’s one of those stories that soak up and illuminate the environment in which you read it. I bet if I reread it in less terrifying, less daunting circumstances, I would experience a different interpretation and mood.

Buzzwords – pineapple, katsudon, taxis

3. On Beauty, by Zadie Smith
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Zadie Smith is non-stop wit and satire in this novel. At its heart, this is a story about family relationships, but a mixed “modern” family with transatlantic roots, from England to New England. It does a wonderful job of depicting the diversity of experiences within black communities.  I especially recommend it to my college friends because it paints such a vivid picture of the pretentiousness and hypocrisy in elite higher education. Certain one-liners had me snickering out loud.

Buzzwords – slam poetry, aesthetics, Haiti

4. Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, by Vincent Lambloodletting-and-miraculous-cures

I recommend this collection for those who want more Asian characters in fiction but don’t want the entire plot to center around the struggles of being Asian and born in a non-Asian country. (God I wish this book took place in America so then I could have written Asian-American instead of writing that convoluted sentence, but it’s important to acknowledge the difference between the Asian-Canadian and Asian-American experience).

Buzzwords – premeds, purple birds, Canada

5. Graduates in Wonderland, by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-DaleGraduates_FINAL-cover

Coming clean here: I am still reading this. But I knew from page one that I had found the voice(s) of my generation. In this non-fiction memoir, two best friends keep in touch through detailed, charming emails about their new post-grad lives in Beijing, New York, Paris, and more. Of course, terrible dates and awful jobs are analyzed in detail. Quite a few of my friends have scattered across the world in search of adventure and work, and I know we all get pangs of loneliness from all the unfamiliar. Reading this is like reading emails from your best friend and being home again.

Buzzwords – Beijing bikini, beard brother, grad school

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I know, I know. Given that it’s been over four months since graduation, my book list is rather paltry. But since I’ve been abroad for that entire time, getting my hands on a physical copy of a good English-language book (I refuse to join the Kindle revolution) has proven difficult. The selection has been limited to discarded books from faculty and hostels. I made up for it by reading a lot of online short stories and essays sourced from my friends (many thanks to @thenarrowroad). I would just load them on my laptop for times when I had no wifi, which was way too often. Sometimes, I read an idea that actually changes my life. This happens more with short stories and essays than it does for full-length novels.  I think it’s because essays are more direct and to-the-point.  In times of distress, certain lines from an essay would pop into my head and I would repeat it like a mantra to calm down.  I love essays – they can save you. The best part about essays is that they can be easily shared with people for free over the internet.

The following pieces all introduced a new perspective to my life – my routines, purpose, relationships, etc.  Or I just found them to be fantastic writing that made me really feel something. I hope they do for you as well.

Short Stories

Essays

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And of course I’ve been a total basic bitch and reading quotes off of tumblr. But whatever. Words are words. Here’s the most recent:

“Sometimes we must undergo hardships, breakups, and narcissistic wounds, which shatter the flattering image that we had of ourselves, in order to discover two truths: that we are not who we thought we were; and that the loss of a cherished pleasure is not necessarily the loss of true happiness and well-being.” – Jean-Yves Leloup

Finally,  great books and stories spark unforgettable conversations with friends and loved ones in real life. So please let me know if you have read anything amazing recently. I would love to expand my reading list. Or if you also read any of the stuff listed above, in which case I want to pick your brain for your reaction and thoughts.

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#goals.

On Stone Ankles and Stolen Croissants: Luxor to Aswan, Egypt

Disclaimer: This post was originally published on the official AUC Presidential Internship Program tumblr. You can read that version here. However, this is a more bare, less politically-correct version that’s more my style but can’t be shared in an email to thousands of prospective interns. 

When I told my Egyptian co-workers that I was spending Eid on a four-day Nile cruise from Aswan to Luxor, I was met with praises for the region’s beauty and magnificence. Yet I also often met the follow-up remark “but you know, I’ve never visited.” I’m from Chicago, and when I hear this response, it reminds me of what Chicago natives always say about the Sears Tower (yes, Sears Tower) – it’s that world-famous cultural destination your pride never lets you visit because only the tourists go there.

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But sometimes the tourists get it right.

We’ve all learned about the ancient Egyptians in class, seen pictures of hieroglyphics – hell, my high school even had a real Egyptian mummy in the social science department office. But none of that prepared me for the liminal experience of actually being there.

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Friends with great photography skills are wonderful. I now have my RBF at Philae Temple documented for prosterity.

That feeling hit a little late at Philae temple in Aswan, a solid month into my time in Egypt  I had studied Egyptian art briefly in high school and before this trip I could tell you that bas-relief is a type of sculptural relief that projects slightly from the background. However, the figures carved into the temple columns and walls were much more three-dimensional than any of my art history books suggested. The anklebone of each figure’s feet was rendered extremely lifelike, that indention where the foot meets the leg curved perfectly. And because I was in Egypt and not the snooty Met Museum, I was able to run my fingers along the two thousand year old grooves and rest my body against the hefty columns crowned with stone fig leaves.

Fast-forward a day (or a few millennia) to a café in Luxor.  Against a brilliantly violet wall, we seven Presidential Interns squeeze onto a couch clearly designed to hold five. Soaring wooden stilts prop up a steeple metal roof. Long settled into their seats, groups of young Egyptian men huddle over low-lying wooden tables. The air is abuzz with colloquial Arabic, pierced by the click-clack of backgammon pieces. Soon enough, our own voices enter into the mix as we recount our long day – the colors decorating the tombs in Valley of the Kings, the heat that makes even your legs sweat, and Regie’s knack for using everything from napkins to empty toilet paper rolls to sneak croissants from the hotel breakfast buffet (college habits die hard).

If you were to glimpse us from across the room, you wouldn’t believe that less than a month ago we were complete strangers. We’re all pretty different, for sure. We got the entire spectrum going from me, the artsy hipster loner, to Abu Adventure (as we kindly call our sustainable desert irrigation intern), to our finance intern whose mind is organized as perfectly as the budget Excel sheets he sends out. But as it turns out, a program like PIP attracts a certain breed of fresh-faced American college graduates – a little restless, and a lot curious.

Midnight Naps at Ain Sohkna

I can recount four times since starting college, that I laid out under the night sky around midnight, basking in temperature so ideal you wouldn’t change a single fraction of a degree. The first night was first year, in the aftermath of a Summer Breeze party. Keerthi and I had plopped on the grass by Eckhart, moon gazing in silence, until some guy asked if we were ok. The second time was alone outside the front of the Reg, on one of the stone benches, while listening to One Republic’s All This Time. May 2nd, 2014 – freshly broken-up and so I wanted to do something dramatic. Third was under a tree crawling with spiders, on a bench in the very center of the quad, trying to feel the weight of the hours left before graduation, after which I could no longer lie around in random campus places inconspicuously. And finally, last night, sunk into my white plastic beach chair at a resort in Ain Sokhna, as the Red Sea inched closer.

Everything became crystal clear and every movement was registered. The slight breeze winding over the curve of my exposed stomach and tickling the hairs on my shins. The crunchy texture of my salt encrusted bangs. The grains of sand exfoliating the crevices between my toes as I wiggle them around, enjoying their freedom outside of Birkenstocks leather.The omnipotent presence of that odd, bulky military ship docked off shore with white and orange paint. Unlike any of my previous midnight sojourns, I could actually see the stars. 

On the bus ride out to Ain Sokhna, I read a Joan Didion essay in which she expressed the passage of her time in New York as walking through a revolving door at age twenty-two and emerging out the other side at thirty. When did being present become so difficult? Are we ever conscious of it? Can the passage of time be felt everyday, or does it only exist in retrospect? Grasping a moment, tying it down and wrestling it to the ground – that struggle tends to only happen before a longterm goodbye, and is not the most peaceful of feelings. I was never one for resort life, but the stillness at Ain Sokhna was powerful and oh so soothing.

New Cairo, Cairo, Cairo

During the first week of Janurary this year, I stumbled upon a job post in Cairo. I believe I was at the Reg first floor tables pouring over list hosts, scanning for anything with the words “international,” “politics,” and “health insurance included” in the description. After five days of frantic emailing for recommendations and multiple edits of personal essays, I somehow met the deadline. Another week later, I was scheduled to interview. Two weeks after that, I woke up to an email in my inbox telling me that I had gotten the position. And I guess now, eight months later I’m out on my second-floor balcony, feet propped up on a wicker chair, looking out at the dusty shades of sand covering every inch of New Cairo in Cairo Governorate, Egypt. And that’s just how life happens.

So hello hello from the American University in Cairo where I am part of the 2015-2016 cohort of the Presidential Internship Program. Even though it’s Cairo, even though I don’t speak Arabic (yet), and even though I don’t know a single person within thousands of miles (yet), this place radiates familiarity. Every university anywhere is bound to have a few things in common – a ton of extracurriculars, professors brimming with knowledge, truckloads of students my age bustling through classrooms, hallways, and the quad. Those just happen to be some of my most favorite things. I feel at home.

Not Farewell, but Another “See You Later,” 北京

Every morning, twenty-one million people wake up to tackle the third largest city in the world. Three millenia of history reflected in its tea houses and imperial gardens, bundled together by glass steel shopping malls and 15-lane freeways. A city housing 7,000 hutong alleys and 3,000 McDonald’s with 24-hour delivery service. Four kuai beer and five kuai jianbing. Miles of zhajianmiangallons of suanmeitang, a ton of spiced lamb skewered into yangrouchua’r

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I could eat jianbing for days. Straight.

…and yet I decided to spend the better part of the summer tethered to my Mac, bitching about Beijing’s smog to my friends back stateside.

Don’t get me wrong – they’re incredible support during a time of bewildering change, but there is such a thing as relying too much on Skype relationships. I can recount my cramped subway ride into a speaker and show off my new purchases over a screen, but no app can truly allow me to share Beijing with them viscerally. The result was a rather lonely, unfulfilling June and July.

After my refresher trip to Japan, I genuinely made an effort to reach out more to people I knew in Beijing. Man how I wish I did so earlier. With the company of friends, old and new, Beijing quickly transformed from a grey concrete expanse into a dazzling 热闹 metropolis. I found my grounding, and it turns out not to be the perfect cafe or park bench, but to be in people.

This got me thinking – how do we evaluate a city? Most people would tick off concrete fixtures. For Beijing, that sounds like “the subway system is so extensive” or “it’s such a bicycle-friendly city” or the ever popular “dude, clubbing is ridiculously cheap.” Convenient transport and affordable nightlife may set the scene, but my experience of any city is intensely colored by the people with whom I share the scene. After all, it’s our friend groups that decide how we spend the night out (seedy sports bar or upscale dance club?), and how we utilize top-notch metro transportation (oh you live just two stations away? Let’s get coffee more often)!

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Nightlife in Beijing is super….neon. Not here (Gulou) though! (PC: Michael Chen)

So thank you, to everyone I met in Beijing and who colored my experience with lively conversation and laughter. Without you guys, Beijing really would have been just the pollution and humidity. I didn’t expect to, but I am going to miss it here. Funny how that always happens.

Of course, there’s still a few things left on my Beijing checklist that I didn’t get around to this time, most notably climbing the Great Wall of China (lol). It’s like how Chicago natives never go up the Sears Tower (yes, Sears) or the Ferris Wheel. We always think that we’ll get around to it, if it’s even worth visiting.

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I have a feeling that the Great Wall is worth a visit, of course. (PC: Michael Chen)

Live update: I leave in four hours on a flight bound for Cairo, Egypt. Another city, another life (it seems).