Monday, December 1, 2008

Return to Egypt

From the moment our plane touched down on the runway of the Cairo International Airport, it was impossible not to notice that we were back in Egypt. As the aircraft rushed toward the terminal, wheels squealing on the tarmac, row after row of passengers sprang to their feet in anticipation. A mixture of young men in tight jeans and faux-leather jackets and older men in galabiyas spilled into the aisles, prying open the overhead compartments to retrieve bags and suitcases with one hand and clutching their ringing cell phones to their ears with the other. The concerned hostess implored them over the PA system in both English and Arabic to stay in their seats until the plane stopped moving, but their excitement at being home seemed too great to contain. Each brandishing an oversized green passport like a proud symbol of their shared national identity, the Egyptians on our flight pushed past us and surged into the airport as if this homecoming were a thing too precious to delay for even one more instant.

As I hurried down the crowded, dingy corridor to passport control, my own feelings about returning to Egypt were not so simple. I had looked forward to this visit for months, imagining how I would reacquaint myself with the friends and places I had left behind, reviewing my favorite Egyptian Arabic phrases in my head, and making a mental itinerary for each day we would spend in Cairo--I had offered to play tour guide for my boyfriend's parents on their first trip to Egypt, and I intended to do it right. Yet as we approached the creaking conveyor belt where our luggage would hopefully soon appear--if it hadn't already been tossed aside into one of the many piles of unclaimed belongings littering the floor--I felt a rush of misgivings. What if our bags had gotten lost? What if I had to fight tooth and nail to obtain a reasonable taxi fare into the city? Would I be able to find our hotel, which was on a street I'd often walked before but whose exact location relative to the airport I couldn't quite remember? Most of all, what would my guests think of this chaotic, dirty, noisy, but ultimately supremely lovable (at least to me) place?

The four days we spent in Cairo sped by, crammed with sightseeing and expensive dinners, a felucca ride and a day at the pyramids, shopping and drinking local beer and snapping hundreds of pictures. My feelings about being back remained complicated. I vacillated between exultation when things went smoothly and a sort of desperate anxiety when they didn't. I thrilled at each compliment my visitors paid to the city; I despaired each time we fought with a taxi driver or were accosted by hustlers, afraid that Cairo was making a bad impression. I felt like each interaction that my guests had with the place reflected on me personally, not just because of my responsibilities as tour leader but because of how entangled my identity is with the city's own.

This trip back to Egypt after six months away was a homecoming for me just as it was for the Egyptians on the plane. I have come to define who I am as a person in part by my relationship to this country, by what I have taken from it and what it has taken from me over the past three years. Like any home, its continued existence--even in absentia--validates mine. Like any home, my feelings for it encompass both love and hate.

No comments: