I grew up in the United States as a child and a young teenager. Even so, Egypt grew in my heart with me. My father constantly told us glorious stories of his youth, growing up in the village, living through the 1952 Revolution (although quite young at the time), and protesting against President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. He told us how Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together peacefully and how a person’s religion was almost irrelevant. Before I ever visited Egypt as a youngster, I recall seeing my father, with my five-year-old eyes, watching the news from Egypt very closely in October 1973. I had no comprehension of the war going on between Egypt and Israel at the time. Even so, I have a clear memory in my head of my father weeping with joy in front of the television set on October 6, 1973, when the Egyptian army successfully crossed Israel’s Barlev Line.
The Egypt of my youth was one of wonderful summer holidays. It was an Egypt where sheep roamed freely with people on the streets of Cairo. It was an Egypt of sun, warmth, lots of good food, neighborhood children to play with, walking along the main street of Roksy with its flashy shoe stores and then eating the best shawerma in the whole world, riding on camels in front of the Pyramids, streets with few cars, doting grandparents and uncles and aunts and extended family members who were all also called uncle and aunt…
I finally settled in Cairo in 1986 to start university at the age of 17. It was so exciting for me. I discovered an Egypt where people stood at the bus stop and joked with strangers as if they were dear friends. It was an Egypt in which I felt safe and at home. As a young woman, I could stay out for as long as I wanted at night and never fear for my safety. It was an Egypt in which we were taught that if anything bad ever happened to you on the street, just shout out and one hundred people will gather to help you out. It was an Egypt where Cairenes travelled en masse for some summer fun in Alexandria only to return back to Cairo en masse at the end of the school holidays. It was an Egypt in which, no matter where you were, you would clearly hear the call for prayers five times a day, echoing from one minaret to the next; one of the most beautiful sounds your ears could ever hear.
And Cairo. Oh so wondrous and crazy Cairo. The city that never sleeps. The city of lights. The city of shops that never close. The city where the theater never starts before 10pm and never ends before 2 am. The city where music is the food of its people. The city that would only shut down just after the call for the sunset prayer during the holy month of Ramadan, not to re-open until Nelly’s Fawazeer show was over on TV, approximately two hours later.
My Egypt is the Egypt of kunafa, that sugar-sweet dish of shredded dough. It is the Egypt of lovers walking hand in hand along the Nile’s corniche. It is the Egypt of molokhiya (a green-leaf soup) with rabbits. It is the Egypt in which extended families absolutely must gather every Friday afternoon to eat a huge meal together. It is the Egypt of diving in the Red Sea, and hiking the mountains of Sinai where prophets roamed, and cycling along its busy highways. My Egypt is spending a night under the stars, listening to the hilarious stories of an elderly Bedouin sheikh. It is the Egypt in which I spent evenings listening to my grandmother repeat for the zillionth time the story of her 50-year-old feud with her youngest brother. It is the Egypt in which my grandfather would wake the whole house up at 3 am as he shuffled towards the bathroom, grunting, “Ahh! Ahh! Ahh!” the whole way there and back while us kids giggled under the sheets. My Egypt is the Egypt where a night never goes by without something amazing happening in Cairo that I can take part in. It is the Egypt of women suddenly breaking out into a belly dance the second music is played. It is the Egypt of drums and cymbals. It is the Egypt of spices. It is the Egypt of thousands of years of history. My Egypt is the Egypt that revolted against a tyrant, our hands holding each others’, our tears blending, our hearts beating together, our pride causing us to raise our heads high.
Today I do not see that Egypt. And I do not see the Egyptians I knew so well. I feel as if I am a stranger amongst my own countrymen. I look and all I see is hate, vindictiveness, and craziness.
Ever since the 2011 Revolution, there have been minor warnings from foreign analysts and observers about the possibility of Egypt descending into a civil war. I thought it a ludicrous idea. We had no real factions in Egypt as many of the surrounding countries do. Egyptians were Egyptians; a single “tissue” as we so commonly say in our country.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines civil war as “a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country.” I’ve always understood civil war to happen when there are clear lines of distinction between these different groups. Because of this understanding of mine, I believe what Egypt is headed for is far worse than a civil war. We have no clear factions fighting against one another. There are no real “sides” to take. No real stances to defend. We are a country descending into anarchy in which he with the most gun power rules. Egypt has become a country in which it is unsafe to walk during the light of day. A country in which you shout for help only to find yourself in an even worse situation. A country in which the police are your aggressors and in which judges are the source of injustice. Egypt has become a country in which your neighbor jumps for joy at the news of your death. It is a country in which friends have turned on one another. It is a country of ugliness.
I do not know what the future holds for me and for my country or whether our futures will even be together. I do know that at this point in time, my “fear, flight, and fright” instincts are in full gear. I need to protect the lives of my children and my family. I need to keep them alive. I can no longer prioritize their education when their basic safety is at risk.
My beautiful Egypt is slipping through my fingers like the sands of its Western Desert. What I had once known is disappearing and something atrociously ugly is appearing in its place.
I will keep my Egypt alive in my memories. Perhaps one day we can bring her to life again.