City on Fire

Summer is encroaching on Cairo. Gone are the short days when I would leave my house in the hazy grey morning, and then leave work to a setting sun. The darker, cooler days of winter and spring used to be especially depressing in Chicago, when the wind picks up and nails you straight through the heart.

However, summer’s arrival in Cairo is not the same breath of relief as it is in Chicago. Summer in Cairo means a constant ray of solar heat penetrating every window, every shaded tree, every inch of exposed skin already sticky with sweat and sunscreen. Summer in Cairo renders the entire city low key catatonic, the heat whisking away any ounce of energy within us to do anything but sit and drink chai. It’s also the pollution. That potent cocktail of chemicals combined with dehydration has me, more often than not, a walking zombie roaming the streets. Dazed. Confused. Nauseous.

Thankfully, Cairo seems to experience a high frequency of magical cotton candy twilights during the warmer months. I have no knowledge of the processes that create such saturated colors and swirling designs in the sky, but I do have pictures!

I am T-minus five days from leaving Cairo permanently. My plane ticket is taking me and my two suitcases back to the lake waters of Chicago for the summer. After a year away from my dear home, I am more than ready for food fairs, music festivals, and familiar souls.

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Unavoidably Immersed

“Every page seems to have a light covering of mist. The obstacles stimulate me. Every new construction seems a marvel. Every unknown word a jewel.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, on learning the Italian language

There’s no way around it – Arabic is a daunting language for English-speakers to learn. When I practice, sounds come from places in my throat I never even knew existed. The script, while beautiful, blends into one long strand of arabesque.  Unlike most of the other interns, I had never studied Arabic before. I literally looked up how to say “Hello” and “Thank you” while sitting in my airplane seat en route to Cairo. Thankfully, my new friends and co-workers at AUC have enthusiastically helped me grow my vocabulary over the past three months. But no one has been as encouraging and influential as my Arabic tutor, Arwa.

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All interns receive six hours a week of private Arabic tutoring as part of our program. For me, this meant spending the first month learning the alphabet, the number system, and simple greetings. Now, after almost six months, I have graduated to directing taxi drivers and exclaiming my excitement for various food items. Arwa is an amazingly patient teacher. During our lessons, she repeats words and phrases many times over until their sounds became familiar to my ears.

Eventually, we’ve also started to take our meetings outside of the AUC campus. Once, I learned how to order Koshary – a quintessential food staple of Egyptians – at a Koshary shop near Tahrir Square aptly named Koshary El Tahrir. Koshary is a quick, easy, cheap fill-‘er-upper consisting of pasta, rice, vermicelli, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions and topped with hot sauce, tomato sauce, and tangy vinaigrette. Inside the store, Arwa refused to say a word as the waiter came around to our table, forcing me to slowly choke out the Arabic equivalent of “Koshary. Small. Extra onions. Thank you.” It is quite easy to resort to English and get by in Cairo, so I very much appreciate Arwa persistently urging me to speak Arabic.

koshari

Perhaps most empowering is the freedom that comes along with speaking Arabic. Even armed with just four months of lessons, I feel more assured to explore Cairo by myself. It has been a gateway to the city because now I know that if a taxi driver does not speak English, I can navigate. If I believe I am being overcharged, I can bargain down. Furthermore, I have been able to strengthen relationships at the workplace with my co-workers. Taking a genuine interest in the language, and by extension, culture of any country not your own demonstrates to others one’s assertiveness, curiosity, and open-minded nature – all of which helps in making new connections in a foreign place. So even though Arabic is difficult and the learning curve is low, I am encouraged to putter through it because knowing those words means freedom and understanding.

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My new oyster.

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.

coffee art bear

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. 

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 —

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.