Like Santa Monica Without the Water
We‘d been living in Berlin for five years when my dad told me we were moving to Cairo. This wasn’t a huge surprise; journalists got rotated to new foreign bureaus every few years. But I was skeptical. We had gone to Egypt once for vacation years before. Everyone got food poisoning. My brother wouldn’t take his shoes off at a mosque because he was certain they’d be stolen. We learned that 3-star hotels in Cairo are very different from 3-star hotels in Europe. My memories of Cairo at that time were how most Westerners probably picture it today: Crowded, hot, dirty, and uncomfortable.
After calling it home for six years, my memories of Cairo today tell a different story.
It was just me and my dad those first few weeks. My mom was in America, dropping my brother off at college for his freshman year, I was just starting 11th grade. I remember our furniture and boxes hadn’t arrived from Berlin yet, so we’d get Quiznos and sit on a tiny, rickety two-seater couch in the middle of the big empty living room right in front of the TV and eat our sandwiches, watching reruns of anything in English. His office was in our apartment so it was like watching a play sometimes; his assistant would enter stage left, our driver would exit stage right, and Hassan the internet guy would come in and out. End scene.
I was fragile then. Things would be fine one minute and then there’d be a roach in the kitchen, a lightbulb would shatter when you turned on a lamp, the power would go out for a day, or my dad would suggest we take the crowded subway instead of a cab, and I would crumble, cry, and ask why we had to move here. My parents bent over backwards to make me happy. I visited Berlin six times in 18 months, we got a kitten named Lulu, and my mom promised if I still hated Cairo by Christmas, she’d move back to Berlin with me. I tried my hardest not to fall in love with it. But that never works, does it?
Other times, though, it was more than roaches and lightbulbs. Men followed you home, sometimes worse. There wasn’t enough loose change in the world to help every poor person you walked by. We had Ahmed over for lunch every day but he was still a teenager sleeping on the street, selling wicker baskets with no family in town.
Coming from Berlin, one of the most liberal cities in the world, to Cairo, where short-sleeves are frowned upon, was hard. And my dad knew it would be. So when I asked him before we moved what our new neighborhood, Maadi, was like, he said to picture it “like Santa Monica without the water.” We laugh about it today because Cairo wasn’t like Santa Monica without the water. At all. It was better.
As I remember bits and pieces of growing up lately, my mind gravitates to Cairo. Like when I think about why I still don’t have a driver’s license. I didn’t need one in Berlin, and in Cairo we had our driver Sayed. Everyone I knew had a driver. As Sayed got older, his eyes got worse. His knee got worse. Sometimes my dad would actually drive him home after a work day. He was kind and wore wooly sweaters in 90-degree heat. When we’d pass men selling watermelons on the side of the road, he’d start talking about fruits and vegetables to make conversation. It was nice. He said ‘coo-coo-cumbers’ for ‘cucumbers’. He could tell I loved Cairo and its magical chaos, and that made him happy. Lots of Americans didn’t.
Sayed took me and my friends to prom. It was at the Intercontinental in Zamalek, right on the Nile. We sang whatever was on the radio that summer at the top of our lungs and Sayed laughed with us. I got my prom dress made from scratch by a seamstress working out of his apartment in a town I can’t remember the name of. My friend took me to the fabric district and I sketched stick figures to show the seamstress what I wanted. He was Muslim and always insisted on a higher neckline. I was 19 and insisted on strapless.
My prom date stood me up. But it wasn’t his fault. I did something stupid and probably wouldn’t have gone to prom with me either. We had a big friend group and it was high school so, there was no shortage of drama. But we stayed close and we’d go to shisha after school to talk it out. They called us the Barbies. I think it was meant to be an insult but we embraced it. There were five of us, we all moved across the world a few times before we got to where we were. We still see each other a few times a year.
There were parts of the city where it seemed like time didn’t pass. The dust, the garbage, the faded billboards, the pyramids just close enough to see them from the highway. It was like the whole city was on a Sepia filter. Men wore gallabeas and would sell watermelons off of donkey carts on the side of the road. Cairo felt biblical at times. It’d make you stop and remind yourself how small you are. I miss that now that I’m in America, how ancient the rest of the world is. How much we took it for granted. On graduation day, we threw our caps in the air right in front of the pyramids and then hopped in our SUVs where champagne was waiting for us at the after parties.
Oh, the parties. Sometimes when I’m in an Uber at night riding along the Charles River, if I squint my eyes a little, it looks just like the Nile did late at night when the Barbies and I were piled into a rickety taxi racing to the clubs downtown. That’s where the Egyptians went out. Americans usually stayed in Maadi; our parents were stricter and downtown meant late nights, fast cars, and free vodka.
And when I say Egyptians I mean the ones I went to school with. The ones whose drivers waited for them while they were at school all day. The ones who moved to London, Montreal, or Paris after we graduated. Not the millions who lived in shanty towns, the City of the Dead, on the streets, or in worn-down apartments across town. The gap between the two was a desert. But they share something: Egyptians make you feel at home wherever you are. A family living in a cardboard house will invite you in for tea. And wealthy Egyptians will go out of their way to make you feel like family, even if you don’t know them very well. I think that’s why Egypt still feels like home after all these years. It’s not just Egypt, it’s that the people who call it home truly want you to do the same.
Then the Revolution happened. Or is happening. I was in Boston at college when my dad said he was going down to Tahrir Square because there was talk of a protest. He didn’t think it’d end up being too crazy but had to be there to cover it just in case. A month later it was my birthday and they called me on a satellite phone because the government had cut off the internet and phone lines. They were suppose to move to Kenya that summer; they’d even gone to Nairobi to look at apartments. But the Revolution kept going and my parents kept covering it. I was scared but they said it wasn’t as bad as it looked on TV. One of the Barbies and I hadn’t spoken in awhile because of some boy drama. She called me to tell me she had spoken to her parents who said my parents were okay. Some things are bigger than boys.
I hear Cairo’s different now. Expat families are leaving, drivers are out of jobs, Westerners are afraid to visit, the word “terrorist” is making headlines, and hope is harder to come by. I think that’s what makes me miss it more and more as time goes on. It’s not like missing a place or a person. It’s a feeling that you’re never at home where you are because home was a moment in time.
When people ask me what it was like living in Cairo, I tell them the truth: I loved it. Somewhere between the power outages, speeding taxis, boys selling baskets, Quiznos, and blurry nights on the Nile, Cairo became my home. But it’s hard to describe what it felt like, what it was like to be in that place at that time. I guess like a well-timed joke, you kind of just had to be there. Because my Egypt is ancient Egypt now.