Two weeks. Fourteen days. Three hundred and thirty-six hours. That’s all I have left. That’s all I can think about. No matter what I’m doing; eating, sleeping, walking, playing with the kids, or sitting in a café, the constant voice in my head reminds me that the end of a trip I’ve barely started to process will come to an abrupt halt soon. Even as I write, images ingrained in my mind from the past 6 weeks are flashing through my head, and I can hardly find the words to say what this entire trip has meant to me.
When I came here, I expected to get very close to the children, and be extremely sad when we had to say our goodbyes to them in broken Arabic. I don’t know how I’ll explain to them why we’re leaving and what they mean to me now. They’re beautiful little faces full of hope hide pain that I cannot fathom. They have evoked so many emotions in me: frustration, sadness, joy, and love. But in two weeks time, I have to accept the fact that they may just become memories.
What I didn’t expect when I came to Cairo was to meet Egyptian friends. I had no idea how close I would grow to the mid-20 year olds whom we teach English to at our secondary NGOs. My relationships with these incredibly hard-working and caring people have developed into friendships that I hope will continue well into the future. They work their butts off at jobs most of them are not happy with, and still dedicate 4 to 5 plus hours (travel time, classroom time, and after-class hang out time included) of their time to learning English in order to volunteer at Al-Kayan. They’re barely older than me, they act a lot like me, and yet, I feel as though they are miles ahead of me in maturity. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the way they live.
By befriending these Egyptians, I have gotten the opportunity to step into their shoes, and experience aspects of Egyptian culture the average tourist does not. Their generosity to us is astounding; and they’re genuine interest in helping us experience Egypt to the fullest has added so much to my experience here.
For example, one of my friends, Ahmed, invited Desmond, Dylan, and me to an Egyptian bachelor party of sorts. Now in America, this is completely unheard of; you don’t just take random tourists you meet to a friend’s wedding event. And to be honest, I don’t know if it’s that common in Egypt. But I had expressed interest in going to a wedding, and Ahmed made sure I was going to get that opportunity.
He helped us travel about 2 hours outside of our home in Cairo to a small town in Giza where his family and many, many, many cousins live. He introduced us to all his family: his brothers, cousins, father, and friends. They showered us with attention: endless bowls of meat, rice, bread, salad, fruits, and sweets were brought to us on command. They brought us perfectly sweetened chai, freshly pulped and chilled mango juice, shishas, and cigars. They “made” us (secretly we all wanted to) dance with the groom in a huge circle with music blaring, fireworks bursting through the air, and the crown chanting for the newlyweds. This was my first taste of Egyptian culture away from our Duke Engage bubble, and boy was it sweet.
Ahmed and his family welcomed us with open arms, and I couldn’t help but think to myself, would I ever do this for someone I had known for a month? As much as I wanted to say yes, I knew the real answer. What is it about Egyptian culture that makes them so generous? In America, this generosity to strangers is quickly dwindling. Maybe, I thought, Ahmed is just an exception to the rule of normal Egyptians.
But the next afternoon, three of our friends from Kayan invited the volunteers to their home in Giza for “lunch” (yeah, more like a feast for the pharaohs). They came all the way to Garden City (about an hour away) to pick us up, and assure we got to their home safely. Upon arrival, we were given tea, juices, and snacks. I was frankly astonished at how kind their family was to absolute strangers. I noticed the Egyptian generosity again, and started to believe that the two experiences were far from a coincidence.
After stuffing our faces with delicious chicken, sambousek, rice, spiced potatoes, meat, and countless other delicious treats, all of us began dancing, laughing, and conversing in half-English, half-Arabic. As I sat and listened to their father and mother talk about how lucky and honored they were to have us in their home, something hit me.
These people don’t have a lot. They work hard for everything they own, and, yet, they are so willing to give to others because it’s simply the way both their culture and religion are. They are in many ways similar to us: they want to find jobs they love, they want to get married, have children, raise families, and just achieve happiness. But in some ways they are so far from how I see myself and a majority of Americans: many of us work hard, but we see that hard work as ours to keep, not to share with strangers.
Egyptians seem to see a true value in spreading their infectiously happy and bighearted personas; something that America is badly lacking. In an earlier post, I had written about how I saw a huge disconnect between Egypt and the U.S. where the U.S. has a clear edge. But this is a complete 180. The Egyptian people are living more fulfilling lives because they find joy in little things, like opening their homes and taking time out of their days to do things for others, more often than Americans do.
I will be depressed to leave both the children and my incredible Egyptian friends. I will be even more distraught that I probably will never have the opportunity to give them in America what they gave to me in Egypt. But to them, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they gave me experiences I will never, ever forget. They gave me something much bigger than a tangible gift. For that, I will always remember them, and will constantly be reminded of them when I’m back home. I will strive to be more like Egyptians: to ignore the little inconveniences to me in order to give people memories and experiences they won’t forget. Americans: take note. The Egyptians got us beat on this one.