For the Love of Arabs
Cairo lumbers out of bed under protest and intensifies as the morning progresses, teeming by lunchtime into a crescendo of gridlock. In the process, the nerves of the city coalesce in a jitter that trembles the afternoons on the precipice of chaos for hours, until, in a twist of magic around dusk, everything calms down and life morphs into a symphony of surrender on the banks of the Nile. At night the city wanders through the smoke of sheesha pipes toward the wee hours, eventually collapsing back into bed too late for anything but a flicker of respite, which is over before it began. And at once the cycle starts up all over again.
Through it all, the metropolis plays in a movie upon the windows of the taxi cabs ~~ projecting a mish-mash of small buildings next to tall ones, modern edifices adjacent to remnants of French colonialism and Art Deco, crowds of people wearing hijab and galibiya and dress suits punctuated by someone in a miniskirt or a sand-covered ex-patriate, mixed together in a cauldron boiling up with reactions that occur when the East and the West are combined. Cairo pounds with tradition and innovation and donkey carts carrying propane on busy streets and fast food joints and alleyways leading to the bellies of cafés hidden away; plucked by the present, the city vibrates history in a string of civilization that extends back to the genesis of time beneath the dust that arrives on wind from the desert in tons by the day.
But all those cab rides and conversations happened later on. I arrived in Egypt for the first time on one of the summer nights I would come to love, as Cairo came to life after grumbling through another long and sultry day. With the window down and the warm air on my face, my eyes drank in each sight on the drive from the airport to the hotel downtown where I spent my virgin night, the Cleopatra in Tahrir Square ~~ the square where, 15 years later, there would be political demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak, and then against President Mohamed Morsi two years after that, neither of which spectacle could have been imagined when I arrived in 1996.
Oh, the people here live in buildings too, just like back home.
The thought sounds trite, I know, but there is a story behind it. I was studying dramatic writing at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (NYU), and my lofty linguistic-philosophical ambitions had led me to believe that learning a totally different foreign language from the ground up would illuminate English for me in a way that would make me a better writer. I narrowed the choices down to the most widely spoken languages to which I had had no exposure: Russian, Mandarin or Arabic.
Which one seemed interesting? Russian threatened to be dull, despite my love of Russian literature ~~ The Brothers Karamazov was the first grown-up book I read; it had kept me up nights on a trip to visit family in Nebraska when I was 15 ~~ because the Cold War was over. That error in judgment, which I chalk up to the folly of youth to which we are all entitled for a while, was mistake number one.
Mandarin was out because I figured China was innocuous. That interpretation was based on nothing, really, except having been torn to emotional shreds by the actress Gong Li in Raise the Red Lantern and Farewell My Concubine ~~ which I realize makes no sense. It didn’t then either. Mistake number two.
But Arabic? I knew little about Arabs or their culture, and surely their perspective presented a mystery. I was ignorant about the Middle East save that Lawrence of Arabia was a good read, if an elusive one, and that Peter O’Toole seemed made for David Lean’s rendition of the book; and that, at some point west of where Lawrence of Arabia was set, you’d run into the writer Paul Bowles ensconced in Tangiers, turning over rocks beneath the human soul in a way that inspired Bernardo Bertolucci to make a film version of Bowles’s first novel The Sheltering Sky. The film mesmerized me with its cinematography just as much as did Bowles’s turns of phrase into moral depravity.
I recognized that my view of the Middle East was formed, at best, by the corrosion of Orientalism that the cultural critic Edward Said had written about, a phenomenon which I decried while falling prey to it ~~ so I figured I should learn Arabic and go live among the Arabs for a while. The decision turned my first two mistakes into the best choice I have ever made.
I remember no period of my life to date as vividly as the semester I spent studying abroad at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Even now, whenever I pass by a hookah bar in New York or Los Angeles and inhale the smoke from sheesha tobacco ~~ those distinctively flavored leaves that, to me, smell like dew-covered flowers formed of bark ~~ I am right back on the streets of Wasat al-Balad, downtown Cairo.
I close my eyes and see what feels like every minute of those four months in Egypt. If my uncle’s kick in the ass in Guatemala had started me on a journey to see the world as a solo traveler, those initial months in Um ad-Doonya, the Mother of the World, opened me up to the exaltation of independence while exploring the earth, the depths of isolation in being far, far away from home, and everything in between, with the understanding that home would henceforth be everywhere and anywhere, and nowhere at once: memory.
The idea of living in an AUC dorm seemed an anathema to the reasons why I had gone abroad in the first place. So I ended up in a flat downtown with a young American named Bruce, a gangly fellow who had bright blue eyes and wavy brown hair, and no real reason for being in Cairo so far as I could tell.
We lived in Wasat al-Balad, the center of the city, not far from Maydan Talaat Harb, a square which remains home to Café Groppi, a chocolatier’s shop where the ghosts of Old Cairo Hands inhabit the walls, and the Yacoubian Building, a yellowish-cream-colored Art Deco creation with green shutters that has sunk from magnificence in the Golden Era of 1930s and 1940s Cairo into Egyptian history.
Our flat, with its tall ceilings which were home to hordes of mosquitos that devoured us nightly, managed to be rambling, though small, most likely due to the lifetimes of stories concealed beneath a veneer of charm. The shopkeeper at a kiosk downstairs watched over us. We would alert him whenever we needed more propane for the stove, after which another tank would appear in the netherworld of dust that comprised the airshaft in the center of the building. There was also a tiny, centuries-old man known as a “bawab,” which I guess would translate to “doorman,” albeit clumsily, since the Arabic word more properly refers to the gentlemen around Egypt who keep an eye on things, greet people, and manage the unfathomable car parking situation in Cairo.
“Alhamdullillah,” our ancient bawab squealed every time he saw us, rolling around on his bony butt atop a small bench in the dark lobby where the very, very old elevator took building inhabitants up and down in voyages of faith.
Hovering in the shadows of the building’s interior, our bawab seemed less like a man than a jinn, the term in Islamic theology that refers to creatures made from smokeless fire, who inhabit the world around us. Jinn are sometimes good and sometimes bad; they flit about becoming involved in the affairs of others, stirring up trouble or helping out, and just basically confounding human beings.
“Alhamdulillah,” squealed our bawab, beaming with a near-toothless grin.
My weekend first trip was to Siwa, a desert oasis near the border with Libya. To get to Siwa, I had to take a micro-bus from Cairo to Alexandria, a city storied in my mind by Alexander Durrell’s series of novels The Alexandria Quartet, which had whisked me back in the 20th Century night after night as I smoked Egyptian cigarettes and nibbled chocolate cake from Groppi’s; and then along the Mediterranean Sea to Marsa Matruh, a coastal town 150 miles west of Alexandria, where the German Commander Erwin Rommel had led a weak force to defeat the Allied defensive line during World War II; and finally down another stretch of road for six hours through the desert.
Home to about 25,000 people, Siwa is around 600 square miles in size. Its main town is famed for an old neighborhood of mud houses that have lasted through the decades, and perhaps centuries, since rain is so rare. I could not wait to explore it. I would miss the experience until I came back years later, however, due to what happened next.
As was my wont, I arrived and immediately decided to get on a bicycle and go as far in any random direction as I could. I rode along a dirt path through vegetation that appeared to sprout from the terrestrial plane of another planet. The dusty leaves of palm trees eventually gave way to the Temple of Amun, where Alexander the Great had ventured centuries ago, legend goes, to consult the oracle of the deity of the same name. There I wandered through a bit of antiquity that had survived in lore far from the march of time.
The next thing I knew I was on a road that stretched across a giant salt lake toward a horizon searing in the distance. And then I was at a spring encircled with stone, jumping into the water with a bunch of Siwan boys who were fending off the heat of late afternoon with a swim.
At sunset I decided to climb a mountain nearby. It was near the top that I knew the end was nigh: all of a sudden I was stricken with nausea, and, within minutes, I was expelling body fluids from multiple orifices, and sweating. This episode of food poisoning was a composite of all my fears come true, and the fire of it ravaged me for several minutes straight. I sat down and squinted through the dwindling light at my bicycle down below.
Good Lord, I thought, I’ve made it this far and now I’m going to perish in the sand.
It would be years before I’d make it back to Siwa ~~ travelers always return, I read somewhere once ~~ to wander through the old city and swim in a pond in the middle of dunes outside the oasis proper. That first visit with the food poisoning was a test of will; unable to keep anything down as my fever raged in the middle of the desert, I stuffed myself with suppositories of acetaminophen, stumbled onto a series of micro-buses in the opposite direction from which I had come, and somehow made it back to Cairo alive.
Weekends that followed, I tossed myself around Cairo by catching a variety of buses around the city. Those buses never really stop. People just jump on and off when the vehicles are stuck among traffic, or as the driver is pretending to slow down for a turn. The first time I tried to dismount one I landed flat on my face, until I watched other people do it and realized that I needed to compensate for the momentum of the moving bus by leaning backward so that the force of being thrown forward would result in an upright position.
These excursions led to the City of the Dead, a cemetery where people transform the mausoleums of wealthy families into homes; the ages-old hilltop Citadel; Masjid al-Rafa’i, a mosque where the Iranian Shah Reza Pahlavi is buried, a fact that would reveal its significance to me years later; the Pyramids, of course; the bustling, winding old souq called Khan al-Khalili that comprises the living museum of Islamic Cairo, where I scrutinized buildings that I learned about in an Islamic Art and Architecture class at AUC; and wherever else I ended up when I got on a bus without a destination in mind, and rode.
Sometimes I stowed a guidebook in my backpack, a holdover from Guatemala that was falling apart but somehow still zipped closed. But I did not have a guidebook most of the time ~~ for example, when I met dashing young Hamdi or the burly boat drivers (plural) or any of the other Egyptian boyfriends who came home with me, scandalizing Bruce; or the afternoon when I walked down the street gnawing on a skewered chicken, looked down into a trunk full of antiques for sale, and saw a dusty old gas mask that, in my memory, matches what came up just now when I Googled “gas mask World War II.”
Or the day I happened upon a garbage dump in Helwan, a city in the southern part of Greater Cairo, where a young man greeted me with a grin and welcomed me inside his home ~~ a single domed room carved into a mound of trash. From underneath a dining table in the center, as I stood there beneath a ceiling just high enough to accommodate standing, he withdrew a handful of gunk that he plopped on the table. He flitted his fingers about in space and seconds later there was a menagerie of tiny clay animals that he had fashioned on whim. Laughing, he splatted this miniature zoo with his palm, then re-formed it into the product that formed a portion of his livelihood: the clay bowls that held coals for hookah pipes around the country.
When I wasn’t exploring, I spent nights at home reading the Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz. His descriptions of Islamic Cairo in the early to mid-20th Century decorated my imagination in arabesques. Mahfouz’s work mirrored the reality that hypnotized me whenever I circled back to the district during the day. I also read, for some reason, Henry James.
Bruce kept on trying to convince me to accompany him to the fancy hotel bars where he and an Iranian friend who loved Madonna would hang out.
“Schopenhauer will be here when you get back,” he said.
“I’m not reading Schopenhauer, I’m reading The Portrait of a Lady.”
“That’ll be here too.”
Bruce, the Iranian, and I had a lot of conversations seated within the belly of our apartment, especially as the days progressed toward winter and night came sooner. The Iranian would do this thing where he’d strike a match and then hold it in front of his cigarette as he talked, right up until the flame came within a millimeter of his finger. The Iranian’s obsession with Madonna was such that he would find an opportunity to mention her every time we spoke. For his part, Bruce wanted to “slip through the cracks” and disappear unnoticed, and to my knowledge that is what he did.
But he left me a memento of conversation: during one of our heart-to-hearts he told me that I was a “searcher.” He said I searched harder than anyone he’d ever known.
I took the overnight train to Upper Egypt, which is in the southern portion of the country but is deemed “upper” because the Nile flows north. In Luxor ~~ Ibtasim, anta fil Uqsar, a sign outside the city said, Smile, you’re in Luxor ~~ I rented a bicycle, took the ferry across the river to the west bank, and rode and rode, with every intention of reaching the Valley of the Kings. Instead, I ended up in a village on the other side of the mountains that the renowned tombs are carved into. The desert beckoned me, so I locked my bike to a light pole beside a tiny mosque ~~ a room about four feet by five feet, complete with a mihrab, a curve in the wall that indicated the direction of Mecca for prayer ~~ and I headed into the hills.
No matter how many peaks I climbed, each time believing I’d reach the top, there was another. Eventually I sat down, put Peter Gabriel’s Passion on my discman, and began to cry. I cried, I think, for the same reason that I most often do: the beauty of the world overtook me by surprise. There wasn’t a sound.
The silence increased in waves ~~ until I heard footsteps in the sand approaching behind me. A shadow cast itself to my side, and I looked up. There was an old man wearing a long white galibiya that shone pristine next to my dusty clothes. I removed my headphones but he held up his hand and said, in English, “Take your time.”
Shudders ran down my spine as I recalled Bruce’s voice: searcher. It would take years for me to slow down and appreciate life; I’m still learning.
My reverie was broken as the man unfolded his dark brown wrinkled hands, revealing several little trinkets. I wanted to believe he was a jinn sent to provide a catalyst for personal growth, but he had just materialized to sell me faux artifacts.
I knew all along it was just a matter of time before my gastro-intestinal system got the better of me again. Sure enough, I was struck by an attack of diarrhea after the mysterious old man disappeared. Mercifully, the experience in Siwa had taught me to carry toilet paper just in case. In most instances, I must learn by repetitions of trial and error; that lesson only took once.
When I got back to the miniature mosque, I realized that the key to my bike lock must have fallen out of my shorts pocket when I was squatting down in the sand. The ferry back to the other side of the river ~~ and my hotel ~~ was miles and miles away, and night had begun to fall.
I tried jiggling the lock and shimmying the bike up the light post. The noise I made shaking everything around apparently reached the village; within moments women and children were peering out their windows and turning out on their roofs to watch. There was a sentry post atop a nearby hill, and, the next thing I knew, a soldier was running down toward me in a cloud of dust, screaming, “Liss!! Liss!!” ~~ Arabic for thief.
A little boy appeared at my waist and looked at me with his big brown eyes. I glanced back up the hill at the approaching sentry. I searched through my Guatemalan backpack, this time for the keys to my flat in Cairo. The elevator key was just small enough; I shoved it into the bicycle lock and turned. Wouldn’t you know it, the fucking thing opened.
“Alhamdullilah,” I said.
“Alhamdullilah,” the boy replied with a smile, his big brown eyes glistening in the setting sun.
This piece is excerpted from my book There Is Room for You: Tales from a Transgender Defender’s Heart and re-published here in response to the anti-Muslim and anti-Arab policies of the new United States government.