The colliding stories of Egypt and Argentina

As horrible as this may sound, today (and sometimes other days) I blame my father.

I blame my father for what often seems to me an illogical attachment to country and people.

I blame my father for instilling in me (I’m certain it was deliberate) a very strong sense of national identity, long before I ever even visited the country.

I’ve been reading a book about Argentina’s desaparecidos – the thousands who disappeared during the country’s military rule from 1976 to 1983. It’s a heart-wrenching narrative of real events through fictional characters. And it pains me to my very core that I can relate in some ways to the events and the characters in this book.

I don’t know if I’ll ever come to terms with what has happened in Egypt in the past few years. I’m one of the extremely fortunate who have managed to come out of it unscathed, if not for an expected amount of post-traumatic stress disorder. My family is all safe for now. The vast majority of my friends are also safe, although I have a few who are very dear to me who are in jail; one with a death sentence on his head.

So many of my friends have left the country, a few literally fleeing it. I left for many reasons, mainly because of my personal family circumstances. But underneath those obvious reasons I know that part of me just can’t deal with what Egypt has become. And another small part of me fears it.

It pains me to have the luxury of sitting comfortably in a nice little house in northern England, drinking my tea and blogging about my all-so-important feelings, while there are so many people back home in Egypt who want to leave but can’t – either because they don’t have the means or because they are literally incarcerated. But because I’m the center of my own world, what probably pains me even more is that I am this fortunate yet I still have an illogical longing and pain for a country and a people now so far away. 

My father left Egypt when he was very young (if I recall the stories correctly he was 19) never to return to live in it until after he retired (after the age of 70) and was ready to die. He left Egypt to study for a doctoral degree in chemistry in the US but couldn’t return to it for years because of his political stance against then-president Abdel-Nasser. Another Egyptian(s) informed on him to the embassy, giving them the details of my father’s political views. He was ordered to return to the country, where he most certainly would have faced imprisonment. So he remained in the US for many years, where he married and had his children. He first returned to Egypt for a visit when it had become safe, many years later when I was a young girl in grade school. It was so important to my father that his children grew up with a love for Egypt. Egypt was such a magical land in my childhood mind that I was completely surprised to discover, when I first visited it, that it wasn’t purple like I had imagined. But even though I learned it wasn’t purple, Egypt has always managed to keep me under its magical spell…or curse.

My father sent me to Cairo to live and study at university at the age of 17. He remained for the rest of his working life in Saudi Arabia. My theoretical attachment to Egypt grew into a physical one. It was the first time I ever felt truly at home. I blame my father for that. I could just as well have felt an attachment to the US, where I was born and grew up. But I never did. We were always moving around from house to house and city to city. My father never bought a house in the US because he never planned to stay. I grew up knowing – because this is what I was taught in a variety of ways – that these people here in the US were not my people and this place here was not my place. My people and my place were in Egypt. It was something I simply took for granted and never ever questioned; especially once I finally arrived home.

Until now.

How different might things have been had I been raised to make my own decisions about self-identity? How different might things have been had I remained in the US and had only a tentative attachment to the land of my forefathers? How different might things have been had I not gotten involved in the political and religious movements of Egypt’s 1980s? Had I not gotten to know so many people so closely? Had I merely watched the events of January and February 2011 along with millions of others rather than participate in them?

How different would I have felt while reading a book about Argentina’s disappeared?

Why are there such cruel and evil people in this world? How is it that there are enough of them that they have such a huge impact on the lives of so many good people? Why is the world like this? What does it mean?

Why can’t people in Egypt and elsewhere live happy, prosperous, productive lives without being fearful of people in places of power?

Why do I have to care so much? Why can’t I just teach myself to be happy and settled in a new, safe country? Would things have been different if I didn’t still have family in Egypt? Would things have been different if I knew all my friends were safe? Would things have been different if I wasn’t living in constant fear that the minute I arrive in Cairo’s airport on a visit that I’ll be taken by the police for something silly I might have said on Facebook? I’m a nobody when it comes to political activism. I barely voice my views. But that hasn’t held Egypt’s police back from imprisoning and torturing other nobodies just like me.

Would things have been different had my father raised me differently?

The stories of Egypt and Argentina are very different but have many parallels. Two peoples with very different cultures, religions, and histories, yet I, as an Egyptian, can relate to much of the Argentinian story. I wish that were not the case, especially since I feel so desperately helpless in the midst of it all.

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