Often, on the ride back from Ana el-Masri, I look out the windows of the van. While everyone is asleep or absorbed in conversation, I see a moving picture of sorts. A series of frames linking me to the life of Egyptians.
I see roofs littered with trash. Trash everywhere. Dust. Forever-dirty feet. Stray cats and kittens. Cars and chaos.
And often, I find myself seeing not what is there, but what I want to see.
Instead of seeing streets littered with trash and stray animals, I see well-paved, well-kept roads and sidewalks. Instead of seeing chaotic traffic that makes me cringe when walking on the street or when in the car, I imagine orderly cars that obey the traffic laws I grew up with. Instead of run-down towering apartment buildings littered with satellite dishes, I see new or remodeled, tall, strong, clean structures.
I see a Cairo that fits my tastes. A Cairo that is comfortable. A Cairo that is clean, organized, and, well, not really Cairo.
I soon came to realize that Cairo will never be what I want it to be. Indeed, these “imperfections” are part of what defines it, what makes it beautiful.
Once, when walking through a crowded (as if that needs stating) area, I flicked a piece of plastic from my water bottle into the street. I had a strange sense that in doing so I was contributing to the essence of Cairo. Giving my share to the city—leaving my mark, like carvings we make on walls or trees and wish beyond logical reasoning that they will last forever.
When cautiously strolling through the roads of Garbage City, nose plugged, eyes holding a blank stare intending to mask the bewilderment doing laps in my mind circuits, I struggled to take it all in. The filth, the trash, the fact that people lived there. But Garbage City also had the most beautiful church I have ever seen—a truly divine structure that appeared to be carved out of a giant mountain by the hand of Him himself. I remember thinking that the church was made so much more beautiful by the fact that it existed next to the City of Garbage.
Once, in a half-awake daze at Ana el-Masri, my conscious mind was delivered a sudden epiphaneal thought—I reached to the nearest paper on which I had been doodling, and jotted down with a green color pencil we had recently purchased : all the beautiful things about the world are the ones that ruin us. But they are also the things that define us.
Love and hate. Identity. Division. Ambition. Fear. Desire.
“Everything is brown. We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
This is the first sentence I wrote in my journal upon landing in Cairo. This observation was derived from the view outside my airplane window. Since, I have begun to see that the plethora of brown and sand makes those pink flowers on the highway, deep water of the Nile, and the red of my students’ nail polish, that much more visible.
It has allowed me to see the true color in this place, far past my initial visions.