As I stood among the cab drivers and baby-toting families that were crowding at the mouth of the Cairo airport Arrivals gate, I sent my mother a message.
“Mom I know I’m going to be soso excited to see you but let’s try not to scream when we do, ok?”
I was already being sized up by the locals for being a white, hijab-less woman standing alone in the terminal, and I could just picture my parents striding out with their oversized bags, fresh off an AirFrance flight from Paris, my mother squealing loudly and turning bright red as she usually does when we first see each other after a long time. A woman with a carful of babies asked me where my husband was, and her frown at my response turned to a bewildered smile as my parents bowled down the other passengers and swept me into an ostentatious, squealing hug. Later, in the hotel, my mother would check her phone and say that she would definitely try not to scream, next time.
Since arriving in Egypt I have thought about the time when my parents would come to visit. Almost every day as I walked down the street I would think, I wonder how they will look walking down this street? If I took to inhabiting a particular spot I would vow to show it to them, if I discovered a new type of food I liked I would imagine us eating it together. In one sense this was probably my brain trying to figure out how the American in me was reacting to new experiences, but in another sense I was just missing home and excited for their November visit. Plus, it was sometimes funny; I might walk down a street populated entirely by hijab-wearing women, and picturing my mother’s curly red hair bouncing through down the road proved good for a laugh.
But I was also apprehensive. A friend’s parents had come to visit a few weeks before and she reported that while in Cairo they pretty much decided to stay in their hotel. I knew my parents were adventurous and did not shy from adversity, but I also knew that they probably had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
When they began to pack for the trip I sent them an email explaining the appropriate attire, especially for women—long skirts, scarves, cap sleeves or longer. No shorts for men. As I did so I tried to also provide some cultural context, (to which they replied that I should’ve written that in a blog). I tried to impress upon them that they were coming to the Arab world, the third world, a world unlike most they had ever seen before. Indeed, as they were first introduced to Cairo my mother kept commenting that this place reminded her of Puerto Rico or Mexico. She said it was because of the tropical temperatures, but I knew it was because those places were the closest to the developing world she’d ever visited. They had no schema to build this in to.
That fact hit us right as we exited the airport. My father had insisted that it wasn’t necessary for me to come pick them up, but I knew better. Not only did I want to be there to receive them, I knew they could never navigate the exasperating cab system that assaults the arrival terminal. After an impatient twenty minutes in which I tried to find a cab that wouldn’t rip us off, guiding my confused parents around the maze of cabs and their unshakable drivers, we loaded into a car and I immediately alerted my parents to the fact that driving was not quite the same here.
This was somewhat of an understatement: my mother clung to my father’s arm as she does on planes or during tense sporting events as the car lurched through traffic, riding along the white lane lines, using his horn rather than his signal to pass other cars and, worst of all, dodging pedestrians who cross whenever they see a two-second traffic gap. Such were my New York parents shoved head first into the Middle East.
When we arrived at our beautiful hotel with its breathtaking view of the Nile, I was worried that my parents would want to stay there for the rest of the trip. To my relief, they wanted no such thing, despite the unnerving introduction to the world they’d entered. The alarm went off bright an early the next morning and up they popped, guide book and camera at the ready. As we toured the Pyramids, museums, mosques and churches of Cairo they kept their eyes and minds open, trying not to squint in the sun or cough in the smog. They admired the Nile, which sparkled and welcomed us as we sailed down in with a toothless felucca driver named Mohammed. Still, Cairo is not a very lovable city; you won’t find any I ♥ Cairo shirts here. Most Egyptians that I’ve asked prefer not to live in Cairo, although so many do. As we drove through the outskirts of the city towards the pyramids on the first day, my mother had already formed her opinion.
“I said to Dad, if there were one thing I would change about Paris, it’d be the smoking. And if there were one thing I’d change about Cairo, what would it be?
Truly, it’s impossible not to notice overpopulated Cairo’s most populous population, outnumbering people and cats: garbage. It lines every street and piles in every corner. But garbage was not the only thing to sully the streets on this somewhat unfortunately timed visit.
Tip Toe through the Lamb’s Blood
My parents arrived on the very first day of Eid al’Adha, a holiday that celebrates the time of Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, in the Muslim calendar. The visit was planned this way because that was when I had a break from classes. I did not, however, consider the cultural practices of this holiday when planning their visit. Eid al’Adha brings not only throngs of people to the city (who disappear completely into their homes and hotels during the day) but cattle to the streets. To be slaughtered. On Eid al’Adha every family sacrifices a sheep or goat, or even a cow to give thanks for their blessings, and then 1/3 of the meat goes to charity, 1/3 to extended family and friends (who are probably also slaughtered their own animal), and the rest to the family themselves. The idea of sharing is wonderful, in my opinion, but slaughtering in the streets is rather hard to stomach. Cattle go by in herds and on cars, live, for days, and you look into their pathetic, watery eyes and wonder whether they know what’s in store. My parents were really good about walking in trash strewn streets without comment, but when we found ourselves walking through a sticky red section of street between mosque visits, we hailed a cab.
Nubia on the Nile
After two days, we abandoned Cairo for Luxor and Aswan. I had insisted we fly to the south of Egypt despite our limited time, and after our Cairo experience we weren’t sorry we’d planned to leave. The air in Luxor was immediately cleaner. The people were immediately friendlier. But my mother was immediately sick. In my pre-trip email I had mentioned that my parents should anticipate illness, that an upset stomach in Egypt was as common as a full one on Thanksgiving. Almost no one in our Middlebury group has avoided indigestion at one point or another, and for many it is a recurring phenomenon. Still, I had hoped it wouldn’t happen to my parents.
Ever the trooper, my mother insisted on coming out with us to tour but it quickly became clear she could not sustain the oppressive sand and sun in her state, and reverted back to the hotel. A part of me felt guilty for having brought my parents to such a precarious place, where car rides, culture shock and illness threatened them at every turn. They kept saying they never would have come here except to see me. But part of me felt that, well, since they came to see what my life was like here, then this was just part of that package. I told them that a mantra I had come to live by was one a girl on the program shared at the beginning: There is no growth in comfort, and there is no comfort in growth. I really hoped that this would be a growing experience for my parents, like it’s been for me, as it certainly wasn’t a comfortable one.
Of course, there were many pretty parts of the Egyptian package, too. The Nile, for one, which I don’t see much of in my Medteranean Sea-side home town, sparkled at every point we met it. Although the Pagan system in which Egyptians used to worship the Nile has long gone out of fashion, the inhabitants of its banks have never ceased to respect the river, and its banks and waters are always refreshingly free of filth. We met the river in the supposed spot that bore Moses to shore, in the place where Joseph may have lived, in the north and the south and on the east and west banks, and in every place it struck me as, somewhat ironically, the cleanest and prettiest river I’d ever seen.
There was also treasure buried in cultural exchange. My inquisitive parents always had me translate political and sociological questions into Arabic, and responses into English during cab rides, delving into topics such as why everyone who heard we were American said “Obama!” with a big grin (because he is not Bush), or whether the upcoming elections would bring positive change to the country, (they didn’t think so).
In Aswan we were delighted by the welcoming attitude and intriguing traditions of Nubian culture, as my father had, with considerable difficulty, booked us a hotel in a small village outside Aswan that was something of a homestay. They served us tasty home-cooked food and included us in the evenings “show”, filling the night with drum beats and the low, river-like ramble of men singing in unison. At one point they brought the three of us up to “volunteer” and a man in a grass skirt and African beads made us parrot high pitched trills and clucks and clown-like dance motions. I almost collapsed laughing as my dad imitated the man’s chicken dance and squeaky “beeeeebabaweeeeeewa!”, realizing simultaneously that trying to act like an Egyptian was almost as ridiculous and foreign an act for him. When the performer finally released us we collapsed into couches by the side of the Nile, wishing never to move again.
Long Night’s Journey into Alex
But move we did, after one heartbreakingly short day in Aswan, to Alexandria. In the cab ride there I sighed, “We have a long journey ahead of us.” We took a car to the tiny Aswan airport, where we phoned a driver we knew to later take us to the train station. My father gave my mother sedatives before the plane to Cairo. We enjoyed a mercifully smooth flight, but it all went down hill from there; the airport lost one of our bags and kept us waiting for over an hour, causing us to anger the delayed driver who then attempted to massively rip us off once we were packed into his cab, thereby delivering us very late to the train station, where we found that, as it happened to be the last day of Eid, the next train was sold out, and while debating whether to take a train leaving in two hours, it sold out too.
Stuck but not yet panicked, we asked the kindly policeman that had been following us, the harrowed looking tourists, whether he knew of any drivers who could take us to Alexandria. He led us to a tourist bureau where another policeman claimed that he could have a driver for us in five minutes. An hour of constantly-prompting-the-policeman-where-the-driver-was-later, we got in the car for a three hour ride to the hotel, where the concierge promptly discovered that we had three and not two people, and called for a spare bed. Having waited for our bag, waited for a car, and waded through the mess and muddle of non-American transportation, our mood rocketed from mad to madder. My mother, coming off the sedatives and never the most patient of New York women, did not hesitate to pick up the phone and let reception know how she felt about waiting for the bed, about every five minutes. Then, just moments before a bed finally arrived, (not a cot on wheels but a full fledged mattress and frame which they had carried from a proximal hotel), my mother was found hollering into the phone for the umpteenth time, “Forget it. No send bed. We no sleep in bed. We sleep on floor!”
At that moment a harassed looking porter struggled into the room under the weight of an enormous mattress, and I, in my pajamas, was indeed on the floor—in a pile of hysterics.
In circumstances like those of living in Egypt, you often have to be there to get it. That being the case, I am thankful this Thanksgiving that my incredibly giving and infallible parents came to visit me in this foreign locus of learning. And surely, this Thanksgiving, they are more thankful than ever to be living in the United States.