[youtube width=”800″ height=”400″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gu-Pc0uoDEU[/youtube]
First thing’s first: I’m back in the States. I moved from IFSA housing the day my family arrived in Alexandria, spent three days or so in a hotel, then flew back to the States, into the waiting arms of family in Illinois (عمي + عمتي = عميني؟). Spending a night with those relatives, we drove back to the farm, where another aunt and uncle had already arrived for our Christmas gathering. Over the next three days, more family trickled in until Dec. 30, when everyone began leaving, New Year’s Eve took my brother to his flights home; the next day we visited my grandfather (و زوجته), and Jan 2nd I drove north to Minnesota to spend two days with my best friend. Needless to say, I’ve been welcomed back to America with substantial support from family and to a new house filled with family and food. In time away from family, I realize that my Christmas break was far shorter than I’d assumed – life moves on!
The accompanying video contains material from my stay post-IFSA. My parents, brother (Drew), and maternal grandmother arrived in Egypt on the first Saturday Egypt voted on the Constitution, Dec. 15. Leading up to their arrival, and the vote, US media portrayed Egypt as if all people were involved in demonstrations – on a personal level, I found new graffiti on the Corniche while my family pondered putting a contingency plan (going to Germany instead) in action. Due to stress coming from IFSA to decide whether we needed to leave early, I Skyped my family everyday leading up to their departure, including the day they boarded a plane. Before their arrival in Alexandria, they spent time in Cairo and Luxor. To the despair of their guides, Mom and Drew even snuck peeks around Tahrir Square! (Drew reported there wasn’t much going on, though there were tents. I responded in typical sisterly fashion: “I told you so!”) While they were on a guided tour of the cities, they were afforded different opportunities than I – they saw a banana plantation and alabaster workshop. They also met with an employee of the US Embassy, one whose brother had worked for my parents. (Who says that wasta – connections, واسطة – are only for the Egyptians?!)
Our hotel in Alexandria was in the district known as Ramlh Station. Before I met my family, I turned on a TV for the first time in months to watch news. There was a demonstration that turned violent about three blocks from my hotel – which you couldn’t tell by the demeanor of the people in the street. People throwing rocks, running up on statues to wave flags, police forming and reforming human barriers, even a couple city buses burned. Later that evening, we walked around the area to get to a restaurant for supper, and almost turned down a street filled with demonstrators. While I kept fielding calls from Moutaz and Dr. Mohamed, I felt completely safe walking around, and the hotel’s guards thought nothing of me going out. This was an experience new to my family, and they were very surprised that this set of circumstances was the reality of what I’d explained to them – the real picture of Egypt, not the sensationalized media. Dr.s Heba and Naglaa in Politics and Social Media class had impressed us with the effect media has: misconstruing ground reality as completely conflict-filled; visiting Alexandria brought this realization to my family. (Today, seeing my grandfather, he had the same realization as well!)
While the family was in Alex, we trammed a lot – to Montaza Palace, the Bibliotheca (twice, as I dropped off my phone for the next semester of IFSA students), and to Ft. Qaitbey. We also visited the restaurant Bamboo (where friends took me out for my birthday), the Alexandria National Museum, a tasty schwerma shop, the used bookseller strip, several fruit juice vendors, and many Alexandrian mosaics (I’ve been taking their beauty for granted), and met Brannon, his girlfriend Sarah, and Radwa for supper. I had to adjust to bargaining for two taxis while trying to hustle family away from harassment inherent in being non-Egyptian. I also had to adjust to the fact that, while I had no classes, I wasn’t in charge of my free time; the family’s priorities were my priorities, and I had to give up slacklining with Brannon and Sarah one last time. Also, I adjusted to moseying with my grandmother and parents, who didn’t have the physical endurance to walk at my normal pace, an endurance built from living in Egypt for four months. Honestly, though, while we didn’t walk around Manshiya or visit an ahwa in the evening, I really enjoyed sleeping on the same schedule as my exhausted family.
I admit, I was excited to have family around – these are people who are completely willing to engage in deeper conversations I’ve been missing, who are completely agreeable, trusting, and supportive, reciprocating care and communicating in ways I completely understand and to which I instinctively react. Also, having family in Egypt signaled the end of my sojourn here, an end I am and am not sorry to see. (The food and welcome from every family member was probably the most perfect way of welcoming me back to the States.) Part of my personal release around family meant I could complain more than I’ve allowed myself – I found myself presenting a skeptical and cynical and jaded version of my experience to the people most deserving of the truth. For example, I found myself condemning the street treatment of single women more viciously than I ever minded being catcalled.
All in all, as fun as it was to show off my very small achievements: two friends, a tiny Arabic, a touch of knowledge of the “system,” I wasn’t totally comfortable. (Examples of working the system: I got Drew, who is a full-time engineer, into Ft. Qaitbey under a student ticket. Later, I got the whole family into the Bibliotheca as students. Bureaucracy only exists, as far as I’m concerned, for people to use it to their advantage – can you tell I’m not a fan of bureaucracy?) I was suddenly a tourist in a city in which I’ve lived, yet I still thought of myself as a resident – the two are treated by Egyptians, including Alexandrians, in very different ways. Immediately I began losing the Arabic I’d worked to gain, as I conversed, thought, and was intellectually stimulated in the English of my home. And the people around me frequently made Orientalist statements that were difficult for me to unpack and de-Orientalize. The city I’d worked to partially understand in the face of roommate drama and time and safety restrictions slipped away like a disappointed vendor. I don’t know that I have better words than these to explain.