Margins, islands, and homes

I recently moved from downtown to Zamalek, which feels increasingly like an island playground/food court. Running errands, I elbow my way through crowds of preppy young people standing around in brightly colored shorts, waiting for a table at a café or a burger from one of the half dozen new burger places. Past some designer jewelry and furniture stores, I am waiting to cross a busy intersection when a woman sitting on the sidewalk and begging for money grabs onto my leg, pleading with me for change.

Anywhere else in the world this might alarm me; instead all I feel is a deep shame. Because all I can do is give a few pounds to this woman whose baby is crawling over her shoulder, his small face smudged with dirt, in an almost unbearably typified scene. Because I know that afterwards I will go and buy overpriced food and sit at my overpriced laptop and go about my day.

Cairo does this to me all the time; it hits me with my own privilege, constantly reminding me of how big the city’s cracks are, and how many people live in them. It’s an experience I recall having as far back as childhood visits to the city.

My recent apartment move brings up memories of my first move to Cairo, more than ten years ago now. Seventeen and about to start university, I moved into the student dorms on Maraashly Street. My university experience would be turbulent, as I pushed against my family and the restrictions of social conservatism, and struggled to find real engagement in a student body that seemed overwhelmingly vapid to me. In both areas, I reacted by distancing myself, dismissing entire groups of people and situations, convinced I had nothing to learn, nothing to gain. I thought I would just have to operate according to my own code, owing nothing to anyone outside of my immediate inner circle.

Despite this very adolescent self-insulation, I fell in love with Cairo, distinctly and unmistakably. Eventually I grew up a little and opened up to the world around me. The city charmed me with its vastness, its intimacy, and with how it could sometimes be so forthcoming and revealing, and at the same time, mean none of what it reveals.

Throughout, however, there was a lingering, mostly peripheral sensation that I did not belong here. Part of this has to do with possessing a female body; this in itself means that just being on the street is always some kind of battle, let alone being able to feel any inclusion in or ownership over it. But that is a whole other topic for a whole other post, career, or lifetime. Beyond femaleness, I had grown up elsewhere, my first language was English, and, importantly for many: I had another passport. I could leave at any time and go to any place that I wanted. I think this gives the impression that one has less at stake in a place, and cares less about it.

To say that the revolution removed this unease would be inaccurate. I think what it did was show me how the structures of political and cultural oppression that ran the country – the security state, patriarchy, deep classism, religious prejudice, racism, economic corruption – marginalized everyone in one way or other. The very concept of citizenship was legally and philosophically absent.

It also showed me communities of people who were working for everyone’s inclusion, who had opened up their lives to unknown change, and this made me less afraid to do the same. It showed me how impossible it was to be away from moments of transformation here, or even just moments of loss.

There was a lot of loss this past summer. There is a new struggle against marginalization, as we are all hounded by messages that Egypt is a homogenous, male, strong state and anyone who says otherwise is a traitor. It’s a struggle not to feel muted by ubiquitous expressions of support for the generals. But then I remember that people don’t always mean what they say, and that we are quite skilled at performing. And this one is an easy jig, with a catchy song to go along with it. More deeply, I think that supporting the military allows people to see Egypt the way they always wanted to: strong, united, and robust. Simultaneously, they can blame the Muslim Brotherhood for everything that they hate about our reality: corruption, poverty, bankruptcy, violence. It is a perfect delusion, and one that cannot last long past the honeymoon.

These days I walk around the island, between its begging women and the iPhones and hormones of its teenagers, and I think about choices. Choice of neighborhood, choice of city. It mostly feels like I am here by default  – how could I not be? Where else would I be? But the truth is I have chosen Cairo over and over again. I’ve learned not to care whether it would choose me, sincerity not being a strong quality of any megalopolis. It is home, from whatever margin. 

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