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Cairo cityscape, Photo: jaybergesen

Meeting an Egyptian during a visit to Cyprus causes Theresa Everline to consider what it means to represent her adopted city abroad.

“Egypt is wonderful,” I said. This was a lie.

Ten minutes prior, I had taken off my shoes and walked alone into a mosque.

The guidebook described the building as architecturally interesting, but it looked rather mundane. As was usually the case with mosques, the space was mostly empty. Rugs covered the floor. A few wires dangled across the ceiling, intersecting like depictions of two-lane highways on a map.

This mosque was in Cyprus, the Mediterranean island that’s been divided since 1974 between a Greek-speaking south and an internationally unrecognized Turkish-speaking north. A few weeks before my visit the northern government had made it easier to cross the Green Line, the desolate, frozen-in-time ribbon of land separating the two sides.

The idea of exploring this curious anteater-shaped island with the world’s only remaining divided capital seemed irresistible, so I booked a ticket.

Heshem explained that he tended the mosque and owned a shop where he sold Egyptian-made furniture. Then he offered me tea. In Arab culture, one can’t refuse tea..

One afternoon I headed north and wandered a country that according to most of the world, technically doesn’t exist. The rest of the time I spent in southern Cyprus, and along with meandering through mildly interesting museums and seeing other sights, I sought out the few mosques – the tiny buds of Islam that still survived in the Greek Orthodox Christian south.

One quite lovely historic mosque sat next to a salt lake where flamingos gathered like puffs of cotton candy against the landscape. But this mosque where I was standing was just another mosque, a white and hushed box.

Then a bearded man came in. He stopped short when he saw me. I smiled. Maybe he spoke Greek or Turkish, but we were standing in a mosque, so I made a quick calculation.

“Salaam alykum,” I said.

He quickly nodded his head. “Alykum wa salaam,” he answered.

I paused, then with a tilt of my head said, “Bittikallim Araby?”

His eyes showed surprise. A slight blond woman had just asked him if he spoke Arabic. His head poked forward inquisitively.

“Aiwa.” Yes. “Wa enta?” And you?

“Shweya,” I said with a shrug. A little. I’m from America, I continued in my bad Arabic, but I live in Cairo.

His eyes widened again, and he walked towards me. “Masr?” he said, using the Arabic word that refers to both the country of Egypt and its capital. “Ana men Masr!” he said triumphantly.

I had been living and working in Cairo for nine months – living fairly unhappily, to be honest. On a much-needed break from Egypt, I had managed to run into probably the only Egyptian in southern Cyprus.

It turned out that Heshem, as I’ll call him, spoke a little English, and along with my limited Arabic I managed to explain that I was visiting Cyprus for a few days. I left out the part about how Cyprus was the nearest country to Egypt that wasn’t Muslim, so it had bars, and those bars served alcohol, and I had been sitting in those bars every night, drinking their alcohol.

Egyptian tea, Photo: amangelo

Heshem explained that he tended the mosque and owned a shop where he sold Egyptian-made furniture. Then he offered me tea. In Arab culture, one can’t refuse tea.

Thus, we headed out of the mosque and I followed Heshem a few blocks to his cramped shop. Scattered around haphazardly were chairs, tables and knickknacks, ornate and elaborate in the fussy Egyptian style.

He made tea and brought it out on a silver tray, serving it the way it was always served in Egypt, in clear glasses without handles.

Then he asked, “How do you like Egypt?”

That ancient country packed with remarkable treasures could thrill me. Now and then.

But mostly my feelings toward the place came down to exasperation and annoyance. Cairo was a cluttered, unattractive city whose men constantly harassed and grabbed at me. Small wisps of the oldest parts of town were breathtakingly beautiful, but generally stout, half-finished concrete buildings sprouting rebar crammed the city.

Before I arrived, I assumed Cairo would be exotic, whatever that means. But it turned out to be a city of Stalinist-looking grey structures where I commuted to work in the women’s car of a crowded subway, consistently the object of stares. It got tiresome.

But facing Heshem, I realized what he saw at that moment: a connection to his home country. At that moment, remarkably, I represented Egypt.

And so I said, “Egypt is wonderful.”

Heshem hadn’t been back to Egypt in three years. I was returning there the next day.

“It must be difficult for you sometimes,” he acknowledged.

Yes, it was difficult. We ran through some other small talk and sipped tea.

Yes, I’d sailed on a felucca on the Nile. Yes, I had Egyptian friends. No, I was not a Muslim. It was the random, mildly awkward, effortful conversation of strangers trying hard to fill the silent gaps.

We finished our drinks and I thanked him. He was a kind man.

Egyptian mosque, Photo: ctsnow

After I left him, I lamented how all the fleeting sweetness I had experienced in Egypt over the last nine months was cancelled out by its dismaying aspects.

I felt bad that I had lied to Heshem. But then again, I had told the lie after meeting him in one of the mosques I had sought out in southern Cyprus because, on some level, mosques had taken on a sense of the familiar. Even the comfortable. Maybe I needed to stop treating Egypt like a nonexistent place within me.

The next day I landed at the Cairo airport and got in a taxi. As we were pulling out of the airport’s parking lot, the driver looked in the rearview mirror and crooned, “Hallooo!”

Immediately I cloaked myself in the leave-me-alone body language I wore in Egypt. Overly friendly cab drivers who turned nasty over fares, lumpy cab seats with no seatbelts despite harrowing traffic, hot and grimy air rushing in from a window that won’t close — none of it was wonderful.

But all of it I recognized.

Community Connection

What kind of complicated emotions have you felt living abroad? Share your experiences in the comments.

Expat Life


 

About The Author

Theresa Everline

A former editor of Egypt Today magazine, Theresa Everline is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. Her essays and reporting can be read at theresaeverline.com.

  • Eva Sandoval

    Terrific article, Theresa. There are so many disappointments and wonderful surprises about living abroad that people back home don’t understand; we expats deal with the “I hate you,” “You’re so lucky,” “What do you know? You’re on permanent vacation” nonsense but the truth is that any place, be it paradise or hell, has its ups and downs. Once the “honeymoon” is over, we’re just left with real life and sometimes, life is lame regardless of where you live.

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Lies and Reality About Expat Life in Cairo, Egypt -- Topsy.com

  • http://www.ashmenon.com Ash Menon

    Theresa, may I just say your article is impressive in its personalized viewpoint and reality. No airbrushing here, you say it like you mean it.

    Out of curiosity (and forgive me if I’m mistaken about this):
    a) isn’t it forbidden for a non-Muslim to enter a mosque?
    b) isn’t photography and illustration against Islamic beliefs?

    • Sam

      A) No, opinions obviously vary but non Muslims are welcome in most mosques as long as they respect the customs, dress conservatively, etc… same as churches essentially.

      B) No, neither photography and artwork are against Islamic beliefs. Again, obviously opinions vary but the only thing forbidden is depicting a prophet or God as to not facilitate in the worshiping of false idols.. ie. the picture/statue of the prophet in lieu of the prophet itself.

      And you can easily buy alcohol in Cairo/Egypt…

  • Brittany

    Love this.

    First- a great composition…much insight and elaboration revolving around a simple, concise interaction. Nicely structured!

    Very interesting experience as well…sometimes I’ve wondered whether or not I’ve “wasted my time” by being in places or situations abroad (for long periods) which aren’t always so happy or fun. I’ll remember certain periods, thinking “I’m not sure I want to repeat that experience again”, yet the memories are vivid, maybe some of my most vivid and meaningful. So there’s a mixture of comfort, longing, but also repulsion, and happiness that current circumstances are different.

    But that’s life I guess.

  • http://onceatraveler.com Turner

    Well done, Theresa. I thought your ending was particularly astute. I’m living in South Korea and haven’t been able to see the “exotic” for a long time.

    Should we be worried about all places getting tiresome after enough time? Even when living abroad?

  • Jon-Jamaal

    Another insincere cultural exchange. I’d rather hear about the time you broke down liberated female consciousness to a cab driver.
    You also deceive the reader. Cairo has plenty of chic bars and nightclubs in which to drink, dance and commiserate (though I imagine they’re shuttered this month).

    • http://theexceptioncatcher.com/blog Steve

      I agree with you… I was looking for content in this post… however there is none. There are vague complaints, acknowledgments that there exists a culture she doesn’t understand. The worst part about this article is that it appears that she has not learned much from travel. Travel helps one get over those “awkward moments” it should force the traveler to realize that people won’t prevent you from getting over awkward conversations… you have to do it yourself.

  • Mallika Henry

    Thank you for your candor, Theresa. I understand perfectly. I loved Paris when I didn’t live here, and now struggle to “appreciate” it—and certainly nobody sympathizes with someone who doesn’t “appreciate” Paris! But being on the ground is a great deal different from copy on the billion-dollar ad campaign the French wage each year. I have been exasperated by other “exotic” cities too. Thank you for taking us along with you—

    • Tina

      I hated Paris when I lived there, too. Everybody’s surprised to hear that, as if Paris was some magical city that is loved by everybody. It was just not my cuppa tea. :)

      • http://theexceptioncatcher.com/blog Steve

        I thought I was the only one that didn’t really like Paris. I’m not even convinced its a well rounded city. I’ve been twice, and it doesn’t seem to offer much for me.

  • http://photo-travel-blog.com Julia

    Thank you Teresa. These were very interesting impressions of Egypt and completely different from mine.
    But I was only visiting the country not living in it. And I felt very comfortable and still missing slow pace of life when nobody is in a hurry, noisy streets, over friendly Egyptian men. :)

  • http://www.dudetravelstogo.com Baxter Jackson

    I feel ya on this one, Teresa and it’s always so much easier to be in love with a country when you’re not in it, innit?

  • Thomas

    I visited Egypt with a blonde friend of mine (and she took the metro on the same car than us !), so I can understand your annoyance. But I strongly disagree on your view of Cairo. Not only I went to bars, with egyptian friends drinking (for some) alcohol, I also found most people really kind, and the city beautiful. A lot of buildings in central Cairo (around Tahrir, and the Khan el Khalili) are amazing, and the fact that most of the buildings are not in perfect shape, adds more to the charme of this old city.

    I loved the way streets are croweded with people and cars, lousy yet relaxing.

  • Amanda Patterson

    Reading this brought back exactly how living in Cairo was for me, but I loved it! I was supposed to be there a year, but I was unfortunately torn away after 6 months. Looking back, if it had been possible I would have stayed. I wanted to then and I wish I could have now.

    The vendors screaming about brooms and vegetables at 7AM on weekends that you can hear through your paper-thin walls and wake you from your slumber on your rock-hard bed, I didn’t mind it so much. I was there to learn Arabic and immerse myself in the culture, and I did. Even when that culture included men who thought it was okay to touch me.I hope that since you wrote this your experience (or attitude toward it?) has improved, because Cairo definitely can be enjoyed as an expat, even though it is definitely a difficult place to live.

  • Samuel

    You can really enjoy Egypt as an expat if you know where to go, there are many bars and there are also bars for American citizens only, you only need your American passport for membership

  • http://twitter.com/KLCYQ5 Kathlyn Clore

    Thanks for your essay. I’m 72 hours into a two-year stint in Cairo (my husband has a work assignment here) and I’m thankful to find someone writing what I’m thinking today.

  • Sherry King

    I just got back from Egypt and I am curious. I never did get a reasonable answer as to why there are so many of those stout, grey half-finished apartment buildings spouting rebar. What is the mystery behind these hideous brick boxes?

    • Tomáš El-Ron

      Well, Cairo is one of the most crowded places in the world, as I see it. With the population growing so fast and governmental experiments with some subsidies on housing, certain people could have gotten very rich by building houses. And, as we know, nothing works how it should in Egypt, they just do stuff and then leave it half-done. Solving canalization after u built the roads and things like this are pretty usual. Also I know there have been some great building projects done by the governments, those are the cities like 6th of october city. After they built it, they found out no1 wants to live there, money ran out and there were no schools, no shops there, and many othere basic stuff were missing, so it became this ugly suburb it is today. That’s my opinion concerning this matter:)

  • Zack E.

    All I can say to you is that Egypt is one of those countries, either you like it or hate it. I understand where you coming from. However once thing you haven’t noticed is that the good and the bad are right next door to each other. there are approximately 87 million Egyptians. My point is that for example when u stepped into that taxi with “Overly friendly cab drivers who turned nasty over fares” some other person got into a taxi with a normal and professional taxi who charged by the meter. this is just an example you can measure on it all the other nasty experiences that you had there. Also when you are travelling a country that is known for its massive variety of people experiences, backgrounds and education, you should have known that the poor their are really poor and haven’t seen much. so you can’t blame them for being exited to see a tourist and stare. however you on the other hand could spent the extra buck and treated yourself with a hired car with a fancy driver and tour guide to take you to the right places in the right times. so if you choose to go and figure it all out on your own and do it the hard way for the experience with its good and bad, then take the consequence and appreciate it for what it is.
    You started with one bad experience and focused all your energy on the bad side, you brought more of that bad to your trip. As they say “What you think about and thank about you bring about” so sorry to tell you, but you brought this to yourself dear. So build a bridge and get over it.

    huh . . . thats all :)

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