Sitting in Arabesque with our whole crew, I was overcome with excitement, anticipation, and anxiety. The café was jam-packed with eager Egyptians awaiting the momentous announcement that would ensure one of two fates: angst and chaos among the hundreds of thousands of people in Tahrir Square, or elation and merriment. I could feel myself stirring, impatiently awaiting a name: Ahmed Shafiq or Mohammed Mursi, to be uttered from the lips of the head of the Supreme Court Farouk Sultan. As I tried to make sense of the Arabic swirling through the café, I was overcome by my emotions: with a Shafiq win, the country was sure to go up in flames with protests, violence, and pandemonium. Earlier in the day, Ustaad Lo and Taylor (our on-site coordinator), had attended evacuation training to ensure we were prepared for the worst. I certainly wasn’t ready to leave Egypt. My adventures and love affair with Cairo had just begun, and yet, I faced the incredibly real possibility of being on the next flight back to Indiana. I couldn’t come to terms with leaving Cairo so soon, but those thoughts clouded my mind as Sultan read page after page of voting results from each governorate.
Please, I thought, please let Mursi win. For my own selfish reasons, I couldn’t help but pray Mursi would come out on top; I thought we would stay in Cairo if this were the case. Ustaad Lo had texted us right before the result-reading extravaganza had begun: “Mursi got it, no worries :).” I’m not sure how Ustaad always seems to know these things, but I was foolish to doubt him. When the final tally was read and Mursi was announced as the new rais (president in Arabic), clapping, cheering, and horn-honking ensued. Throngs of people filled the streets, flashing peace signs and Egyptian flags as the city erupted with joy. I, too, could not stop smiling. We were safe, I thought, we’re staying! It’s an interesting dichotomy to note, though, that Mursi’s winning and the Ikhwan (Arabic for Muslim Brotherhood) coming to power may mean peace now, but the future is uncertain. Will a so-called Islamist president coming to power result in Egyptian society moving backward? Or will Egypt continue its ascent to a fully functioning democracy?
The election results did ensure one thing; for the past week and a half we had been on lockdown in Garden City. There is only so much to do on Qasr Al Ayny, where we live, and to be frank, we were all a bit stir crazy. While we may have been upset about not being able to explore Cairo, it did mean a significant break in working with our NGO’s and attending Arabic classes. The next day we were shocked back into reality: 8:00 AM wake up call, hour and a half nauseating bus ride to Ana El-Masry, 6 hours of teaching, then an equally tolling bus ride back to our apartments, followed by a two-hour teaching session at our secondary NGO’s.
Pulling into Ana-El Masry the first day after the election, a strange feeling came over me. We had discussed at Duke Engage academy that the first few weeks would be the honeymoon period: enthrallment with the culture, kids, and people we encounter on a daily basis. But they had assured us this would wear off. I don’t know if I didn’t believe it, or if I thought I had beat the dip in morale, but climbing out of the microbus that morning, it hit me all at once. I wanted to go home. I wanted America. I wanted it all to be over. It was so strange to feel this way after such a contradictory experience less than 24 hours before.
My mood certainly improved upon seeing the children and how much they missed us. Hugs and kisses were bestowed upon us, but the day seemed to last forever. I’ve been teaching music to the kids with Ryan, but attempting to sing English songs and teach the kids basic musical notation has proved infinitely more difficult than I imagined. Picture the controlled chaos, mix in the language barrier with children and staff, and it’s a recipe for serious frustration.
Not only had I begun to realize this frustration, but one of the children I’m particularly fond of, Hassan, had been complaining of a serious sore throat. His eyes welled as he explained in Arabic to me that he felt so tired and his throat hurt so bad he couldn’t talk, swallow, or eat. My heart ached as he broke down to tears. I took him in my arms as my own tears had begun to form, watching him in pain. I immediately wanted to take him to the doctor and get him medicine. I held his feverish body in my arms and wanted to take all his pain as he muttered Ana buhibak, Kishan (I love you, Kishan). I kissed his forehead and went to find Taylor to ask if we could take him to the doctor. She was, of course, sympathetic, but explained we couldn’t just take him to the doctor without a fairly extensive release process. As we left to return home, I thought of my habibi (sweetheart) Hassan, and prayed he would recover. I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed with emotion seeing him cry, but I couldn’t help myself.
We arrived back at the apartment with just a few minutes before we had to mobilize ourselves and head to Al Kayan to teach our English class. At this point my frustration and longing for home had returned. I was mentally and physically drained. Before the election, I had gotten into the groove of the schedule. But the break had allowed me to relax, almost too much. After two hours of English class, I was so excited to go back to the apartment and finally stop sweating (I feel like there is almost no time where I’m not sweating in Egypt unless I’m sitting in the apartment). But just when I thought our day was over, Ustaad Lo and Taylor informed us we would be going to dinner as a group for a reflection session. The day that never ended was about to get even longer.
Don’t get me wrong; I love the kids at Ana-El Masry and have absolutely loved being in Egypt. I would not trade anything for the experiences I’ve had thus far, and will always remember the work I’ve done, the people I’ve met, and the events I’ve witnessed. But this day…
We sat in a Yemeni restaurant and had great conversation over delicious food. I cannot praise Ustaad Lo enough. He always knows how I am feeling, even if I cannot put those feelings into words. I remember him telling me that what I was feeling was completely natural. He reassured me, and encouraged me. Spending just ten minutes with the man, I saw the day in a whole new light. The rollercoaster of emotions had returned to a peak.
Ustaad Lo always says that the cure to human interaction is human interaction. When I first heard these words, I believed them, but didn’t understand them. But talking to Ustaad, just having him to listen to how I was feeling and his reassurance and belief in what we are doing here in Egypt put everything back in perspective. Frustration is growth, longing for home fosters appreciation, and exhaustion means hard work and intense engagement in the tasks at hand. The never-ending day I then saw as a blessing. Everything I felt was exactly what I believe the personal growth that comes with Duke Engage is about.
We arrived home from the restaurant around midnight, and I was completely drained. You would think this would be the end of the story; but no, there was yet another mushkila (problem) that we encountered. Our flats are on the tenth floor of our apartment building, and there is just one functioning elevator. It was not working when we got home. With bags full of groceries in each of our arms and our first full day since lockdown behind us, this was the last thing we needed. But, oh well, what’s ten flights of stairs to work off dinner?
As we climbed the pitch-blacked, creepy staircase filled with bats, cats, and who knows what else, my legs and head began to ache. I needed sleep, badly. As we approached the tenth floor, we saw the door from the stairwell was locked. We tried our room keys to no avail. Now with heavy bags and heavy legs, we sat dejected in the dark stairwell. I wasn’t sure whether to scream, cry, or laugh. There was no way into our apartments short of breaking down the door, and no one to help us open it. To make a long story short, we sat and waited for help for around two hours (we were told it would be ten minutes, Arab Standard Time at its finest). When the bawab (door keeper) was finally able to jiggle open the locked door, and we entered our apartment, I burst into laughter. Was today a dream or real?
As I write this blog post, I am smiling to myself. I have made it so far; it hasn’t been easy, but I’m learning, growing, adapting, and definitely laughing along the way. I may be changing the lives of children, but my life is changing too. I see things like I have never seen them before. My appreciation for the world around me has grown immensely, and I don’t foresee this changing. Being in Cairo presents a new experience and opportunity every day, but it’s up to me to seize those opportunities. I still wake up some days and think, am I really here, during this historic time and with these incredible people? There are moments when I think khalas (enough), but I think without those days, the experience would be far too surreal. Before this day, I had only skimmed the surface of what Duke Engage and Cairo have to offer. But with each passing moment, I am digging deeper. By the end of the trip I expect to find whatever it is that is buried deep within this incredible place.