As soon as I stepped out of the airport, I remember gulping in the ancient air and instantaneously looking around. I absorbed everything in awe: the ground plastered with sand, the exhaust from the traffic of cars swirling up into the bright blue sky, the worn buildings, and copper-colored people rushing back and forth – their gestures imitating the feeling of every word tumbling out of their mouths. My initial reaction was simply, “Wow.” I was standing in a place that was strikingly beautiful. A treasure of a country with so much history and culture.
After gazing around, we were ushered into a van which took us to our new home, and that was when our new lives began. It took a while for me to officially refer to Egypt as home, quite honestly. I was shocked at how different it was from the states. The poverty in particular haunted me. Seeing mostly women and children on the streets selling tissue packets and trinkets, begging with tears in their eyes, really struck a cord inside me. I had no idea how to digest the normalcy of it. I didn’t want to experience it another time, however, stumbling upon a scene like this became unavoidable. As time passed, it caused me to become thankful for everything I had been gifted with. A part of me feeling as though I didn’t deserve all I had. My eyes opened up to the world and its realities.
At first, I found the school I was enrolled in, the peculiar habits people had, and the fast-paced dialect people spoke all to be strange. The kids in my ninth grade class were rowdy and were always laughing – they never seemed to have a bad day. They would play jokes on the teachers, and the teachers would respond with an even funnier joke, or signaled the student to the front of the class to embarrass them with a lighthearted whoopin’. The positive atmosphere of Egypt was refreshing, and I slowly but surely found my place. I came to realize that it wasn’t all that difficult to skip a few unimportant classes and cause a bit of trouble. My days went quickly from sporadically crying alone in the bathroom stall, to filling up plastic bags with (questionable) brownish water and tossing them on the ground floor from the highest floors of the building with my new friends. We were only caught once, because we quickly became experts at finding places to hide in the six-floored labyrinth that was my school.
I became known as “the girl from America”, and my classmates would crowd around me to hear my American accent. When the teacher left the classroom during the English final exam (no supervision needed I suppose), I was bombarded with questions about what the difference was between desert and dessert. The kids I spoke to taught me Egyptian Arabic words, and in my head I tried to make sense between the new words that easily danced on tongue, and the classical Arabic I was learning at home with our very hilarious but serious teacher.
I felt so free. We would indulge in freshly baked bread from the market in our neighborhood, explore various cities with my mom on vans that were always filled to the brink with very sweaty and very insistent people, and binge-watch Nicholas Cage movies with Arabic subtitles – as per our Arabic teacher’s request, as he insisted that it would help us learn the language quicker.
During Ramadan, Egypt became a place that never slept. My siblings and I happily stuffed our faces with McArabia (the Arab version of a Big Mac) in the latest hours of the night, and woke up to the Fajr adhan ringing in our ears. Fridays became an adventure, as we would discover new mosques with our friends – each one adorning even more beautiful architectural designs than the first.
I gradually became accustomed to my new home. Living here, I realized Egypt wasn’t just all pyramids and pharaohs. It was the Egyptian people who made it the treasure that it was – the Mother of All Countries. To this day, I miss it.
Sometimes when I’m feeling nostalgic, I reminisce those early mornings when our teachers would shout for us to quiet down, straighten out our lines, and all at once our voices would lace together to carry the tune of the country’s anthem:
“Bilady, bilady, bilady laki ḥubbī wa-fu’ādī…”
“My homeland, my homeland, my homeland you have my love and my heart…”