Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Starting Over

In the four months since I left Egypt and moved to Abu Dhabi, I've been surprised at how much I can miss a place that at times was anything but good to me. Every day in Cairo brought new challenges, small and large, from trying to figure out where to buy coat hangers (and how to say "coat hangers" in Arabic) to being harassed by my doorman each morning, afternoon, and evening as I passed in and out of my apartment building. My monthly salary was less than my monthly rent, so that I grew to consider eating red meat, going to the cinema, and buying new clothes to be luxuries I could seldom afford. As the Middle East's largest city, Cairo can be a downright unpleasant place to live. The streets are dirty; the cab drivers are crazy; the food can make you sick. The noise is unrelenting. The lack of organization is astonishing. Yesterday an Emirati acquaintance of mine told me he'd never visited Egypt and never wanted to. "It's dirty, and nothing works there," he said. "The people have a sense of humor but you can't trust them."

And yet I miss Egypt so much at times it's almost painful. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I feel this way. When I returned to the U.S. after six months of studying in Cairo in 2006, I spent hours staring at photos of the places and people I'd left behind, babbled endlessly about my so-called experiences abroad in an attempt to keep them from slipping away, and whispered the Arabic phrases I had learned over and over to myself like cherished prayers. This second parting should have been easier. Abu Dhabi is only a four-hour flight away from Cairo, and my chances of returning there either for pleasure or for business while I'm living in the UAE are high. So why has it been so much more difficult than it was two years ago?

Cairo: an evening in late spring.

I think the answer lies in Abu Dhabi. Everything here reminds me of Cairo, from the shisha cafes to the Arabic on the street signs. And yet it is not Cairo. I hail cabs that are nearly as shoddy and beat-up as any in Cairo, but when I try to talk to the drivers in Arabic they only shake their heads and look apologetic because they are Urdu-speaking Pakistanis, not Arabs. I walk into smoky, higgledy-piggledy little shops armed with my best bargaining skills and discover that in these shops, everything has a price tag. Fruit juices, which I used to chug by the freshly squeezed glassfull while leaning on the counter of a juice stand and chatting amiably with the stand's proprietor, is just as good here (and probably cleaner, too) but seems to be available only in shopping malls. Where's the charm in a shopping mall?

After months of feeling tricked, disappointed, and taken for a fool by Abu Dhabi, I have come to resent it. But to be honest, it's my own fault. I've been too busy making comparisons between this city and Cairo to confront Abu Dhabi on its own terms. Frankly--unfairly--I haven't given the place a chance.

So how can I change this? I can try to start appreciating Abu Dhabi for what it does have to offer, which includes beautiful beaches to go to all year long, a rich heritage of Arab traditions dating back to before the time of the Prophet Muhammad (tribalism, burqas, and whole roast camels, among others), a diverse society encompassing people and cuisines from all continents of the world, and of course, like any new place, a smorgasbord of new haunts to discover and new people to meet once I stop pining for Cairo enough to take an interest in them.

So this is my resolution. And this blog is the first step.

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