Cairo has a population exceeding 18 million. EIGHTEEN MILLION. Yet every single time I leave the house I manage to bump into someone I know. I mean this in the most literal sense.
My work has taken me all over the world. As a journalist, I always set up interviews before I even set foot out of my country. I have attended conferences in many parts of the world and I have spoken at many. Every time there are people who know me and people whom I know at these events.
When I look back at my life, I realize it has taken me years and years of networking to get to this stage. It started when I was in university. I was part of the Muslim Brotherhood back then; a very large international community. I also had all my fellow students and friends who later went out into the world to work as medical doctors. I eventually started a career in journalism. I had colleagues at work and their families as friends, journalists around the world who wrote for me, and international journalism projects I became involved in. I knew people. Lots of them.
Yesterday I realized how blessed I have been and how much hard work that took.
Yesterday, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I found myself sitting in a room of 300 people where I knew absolutely nobody and absolutely nobody knew me. It was an event in Leeds in the United Kingdom, where I have started spending lots of time in the past few months. I was sitting at a table looking around the room, illogically expecting that I would find someone I knew. I ALWAYS do. I didn’t this time. And I wasn’t sure how to change that.
When I was a journalist attending conferences, it was so easy for me to go up to any person in the event, introduce myself and my position, and start engaging in conversation. I was a somebody. Perhaps I would find an interesting story in that person that I could write about for my publication. Perhaps there was a potential partnership that could be developed. I could see the possibilities and so could the person I was speaking with. It was worth both our whiles to interact.
Yesterday I was a nobody. I have no position to use as an introduction. I am Nadia. I am from Egypt. I am a journalist who has been on a break for nearly two years. I have no history with you, your organization, this city, or this country. We have almost nothing in common. **Awkward smile.**
How does a person develop a social network from scratch? Yesterday I felt that I had been ripped away from everything and everyone I knew and that I had to start all over again. I am in a city where I know no one. I have no job and so I have no colleagues to get to know or to introduce me to others. I have no family here. I have no friends. I have no vocation to use as an excuse to introduce myself to people. I have no common history. I go to a gym in Leeds and feel so out of connection with the women there. They all seem to be very nice women. But their conversations focus on their already formed social networks. Karla just bought a new house. Susan’s daughter Mindy had a big argument with Laura’s daughter Dara and they have all fallen out with each other. My head is back in my country, wondering how the next elections will go, whether my family and friends are safe, and when the next massive demonstrations will be.
I am, of course, not at a complete loss. I know how to do it. It is because I know how to do it that I can leave my house in Cairo and inevitably bump into people I know in such a large city.
I was, after all, invited to a large event here in Leeds. I got invited because I made an effort a few months ago and reached out to an anti-Islamophobia project run by a community center in Leeds. That got me onto their mailing list and hence an invitation to a large event that was celebrating community service in the city. The room was full of interesting people. My social networking joints were very rusty, however. And my overwhelming feeling of being a nobody made me wonder how to introduce myself in a way that would be interesting to other people in the room.
I was very lucky. Sitting at my table to my right was a man of Pakistani ethnicity who worked as a counter-terrorism policeman in Leeds. To my left was a woman of Asian ethnicity who ran a charity that provided help to women in need. I used my journalism skills to ask questions and learn about the wonderful and interesting work they were both doing.
It was a start. It was somewhere to begin. But oh how long this road will be, I realized. It is not an easy thing to gain like-minded friends. I have so many of those in Egypt and in many parts of the world. You think that once you have those, you are set for life. And then life-changing events happen and you are uprooted from all that. You have to start all over again.
I never realized how difficult it was to look for work, for example, without having a network of friends and acquaintances who know you and your work to help you in your search. Do you have any idea what it is like to be in a city where you know no one? You do not know the organizational landscape. You do not have people to ask where to start. You do not have friends to put in a good word for you where you need it.
I will make this work. I am not feeling sorry for myself. But I am finding it interesting how unexpectedly challenging this all is for me. Where do I start? How do I start? Where are my people? How do I find them? So many years ago I had started building my social network, not even knowing that this was what I was doing. Once it was created I simply added onto it year after year, again without realizing that this was what I was doing. Now I have to start all over again. ALL OVER AGAIN. This time I am much more conscious of its necessity. And I am much more conscious of all the hard work that goes into it.
God have mercy on my soul.