In my first post, I was concerned about the familiar and the unfamiliar of this trip, largely in the context of my expectations (or lack thereof). Now my problem is the opposite one – I seem to have acquired too many competing issues, duties, activities, lessons, and relationships to possibly deal with and reflect on. My apologies in advance for the very long post – it represents my best attempt to make sense of the hectic five days we’ve spent here.
Easily the first thing that comes to mind when considering my time in Cairo so far is my rapid and dramatic deterioration in health. The first day or two was fine, but after that briefly glorious honeymoon period, my body apparently realized just what a foreign environment in which it had arrived. Since then, I’ve been dealing with traveler’s diarrhea, a host of bizarre cold symptoms (likely a recurrence of a recent minor illness), and constricted breathing (as a result of the smog, sand, and secondhand smoke in the city). Everything, even walking, is exhausting – and the 12-15 hour days we’ve been spending out in the city haven’t helped either.
But for every moment of sheer exhaustion, there has been one of incredible, transcendent beauty. The sunset on the Nile river. Catching a first brief glimpse of the seemingly endless sprawl of khaki buildings as our plane descended over Cairo. Seeing the peace and learning at the oldest institute of higher education in the entire world, Al-Azhar. Noticing some unbelievably massive pyramids peek over the skyline on our way to Ana al-Masry for the first time. Grinning at the antics of hyper kids in Garden City.
Whether for good or ill, this all constitutes the extraordinary as far as I’m concerned. The language (my first local dialect lesson is tomorrow), the food, the cultural attitude towards personal interaction; it’s all brand new. I envy people like Ustazth Lo, who can effortlessly navigate the streets and reliably predict the behavior of the people. It’s difficult to fully engage while both struggling with the physical unfamiliarity of the situation and gawking tourist-like at the beautiful landmarks.
Over the last two days, though, I’ve encountered two distinct situations that took me out of this “uncomfort zone.” They made me stop and think that this country might not be so alien after all, when it comes to the things that matter in the deepest sense.
A couple days ago, I had my first Modern Standard Arabic lesson at al-Diwan, a local language institute. The first two hours or so of the class went much as expected – going through a textbook, reviewing grammar, and picking up some vocab. At the end, though, we shifted from linguistics to more practical conversational skills. The four of us discussed the Egyptian Revolution and upcoming election with the teacher in entirely Arabic for over an hour.
Our professor was a typical, soft-spoken Egyptian man with a stable family and nice home in Cairo. But when it came to the welfare of his country, he was all passion and insuperable energy. He encouraged us to visit Tahrir and spoke of its beauty. He taught us some new Arabic words to describe Mubarak, since the ones we knew weren’t strong enough insults (سارق = thief, ظالم = a nasty cross between tryant and racist). He argued in favor of Mohamed Morsi until he felt we were convinced. His specific political views aren’t the main point – I was moved by his restless determination to make his country the best it could be. That kind of fire is what kicked off the Arab Spring.
An entirely different, but equally powerful, brand of focus was displayed today during our first day at Ana al-Masry, our primary service partner in Egypt (Stephanie posted a great summary of their work the other day). From the minute we showed up at the compound, we were surrounded by children of all ages who wanted nothing more than to be our best friends. The center boasts a fantastic staff of talented teachers, musicians, and psychologists who give up their lives to help these kids. We did our best to meet in the middle of our broken Arabic and their broken English, but I don’t need words to communicate the sheer goodness, the basic humanity of these children and the adults who hold them so dear.
It was lots of fun to be around such hyper good-naturedness, but I was expecting that from my crazy little brothers at home. It is truly inspiring how the children maintain such overwhelmingly positive energy despite all the hardship and pain they have experienced. Their lives have been turned around, and I wish I could replicate in everyone their willingness to learn. The same inspiration can be drawn from the willingness of the institute’s employees to carry on despite the intense difficulty they face every day. A key principle of the program is that human development and societal integration are central to a sustainable future for Egypt. One of the leaders at the center told us, “Each child is his own story.” They believe that, and it shows in the passion, personal attention, and dedication with which they try to secure a better future for their nation’s youth.
Despite how vehemently my body might disagree with me, I know this place; I know all these people. They’re the ones from my family, from Duke, and from around the world who can bounce back from any tragedy and aren’t afraid to put themselves at risk to pursue a greater cause.
It has long been said that our greatest heroes are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Now that’s a cultural language that I feel I can navigate as effortlessly as a native Egyptian crosses the crazy streets. I just hope I can live up to it, by finding their familiar example among the unfamiliar sights of Cairo.
Photo credit: Kishan Shah, Stephanie Egeler, Sarah Haas, and Ryan Gaylord