I can hardly believe that it’s time to leave Egypt. The time has gone by so quickly. Last night I looked out our bedroom window for the first time since we got here and wondered, Why is it so hard to look around and really see a place until it’s time to leave? On our second to last day of Arabic classes, roughly seven weeks after arriving here, I noticed for the first time, that we’ve been walking past an ornate yellow mosque every day. And later on the same day, I discovered a sidewalk buried behind several layers of parked cars next to a madrasa. For the first time since we arrived, I looked closely at the chandeliers hanging in our living room/dining area (they need to be dusted and polished and three of the four lightbulbs are burnt out). And I noticed that the love seat is missing half a dust ruffle.
And last night, from our fourteenth floor window here in Cairo, I could see a view of the streets down below and a full horizon of cement apartment complexes just like ours that were blanketed partially in a thick gray haze of pollution. It was around 10:00 PM and the most striking aspect of the view was how dark and lifeless the windows looked in the numerous cement giants that make up the bulk of the city even at that early hour.
The dark windows were a mystery that I’d noted every time we traveled through the city at night by taxi last year. Apartment complex after apartment complex appeared to be unoccupied. Last year, John and I discussed the possible reasons why:
“Maybe they built too many apartment buildings and now there aren’t enough renters.”
“Maybe no one can afford to live in the apartments.”
“Maybe people are squatting in the apartments and because of that they don’t have electricity.”
It never occurred to us that perhaps the window shades were just super-thick to keep out the hot rays of sun in the summer. Many of the apartments look unoccupied but actually, they’ve just got some really effective window treatments. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Arabia after reading book after book about hijabs and veils, the evil eye, and camel culture is that Bedouins and their descendants are all about their curtains. Curtains to cover the women in the form of veils, curtains to separate the men from women inside the home, and curtains to protect beloved items from the evil eye. You can’t really understand Arabia if you don’t think of everything in terms of coverings and ways to hide things or disguise them as a form of protection. When the sun isn’t blasting a searing heat over the landscape, privacy is tantamount to protection. The Egyptians and other Middle Easterners pull the curtains on their lives to create boundaries, and when those boundaries are breached (by other tribes, for example), all hell breaks loose (thus the unrest in the region).
On our first trip to Cairo last year, we stayed in Nazlet al-Samaam, near the pyramids where the primary mode of transportation was the donkey and cart. Nighttime trips into the city led me to believe that perhaps all those apartments were uninhabited, but now I know that they’re probably full to the point of bursting. It’s taken quite a few weeks, though, for me to connect the dots and stop seeing the world outside our living room window as it is, rather than how it would be if I were in the United States.
It’s hard for me to look through a culturally unbiased lens at stuff like this. Where are the bars? Where are the dancehalls? Where’s the Village Inn? But the Middle East is about families more than individuals. Instead of the Village Inn, people go home and they eat decadent meals with their families (men first, and then the women with the women preparing and serving the meals to the men, but that’s a controversy for a different time–see John’s Big Bad Day). They stay up late together talking. People are used to being with others around the clock. The need for a 24-hour restaurant where waiters and waitresses can do light conversation and break up a bout of loneliness for American individualists is simply unnecessary in the Arab world. People spend every waking hour of their lives with other people, mostly family members.
Living rooms in the Middle East are arranged for active socialization rather than to provide an unobstructed view of the TV, which is different than in the states. Before we arrived, our vacation rental owner, Hesham, was really excited about having recently installed a flatscreen TV in our living room, though we cared more about things like cleanliness and the accessibility of grocery stores and the university. Hesham brought up the TV a number of times before we left for Egypt and I’m almost positive that he believes we rented this apartment because of the flatscreen TV (not true…we chose it because of it’s location and affordability). I can definitely understand why he’d believe such a thing, given that Americans are so TV-centric. In fact, I have to admit, that though our family doesn’t turn the TV on before 7:00 PM at night, we did rearrange the furniture in the living room so that we could all see the screen clearly. To arrange a living room in this way doesn’t seem strange to us in the U.S., but it seems strange here and I’m sure Hesham will be baffled by the new furniture configuration when he sees it after we leave.
And I suppose my American-ness is why it’s hard for me to look around and really see a place that’s totally foreign until it stops feeling foreign and I start to feel bored with it. Luckily, boredom often reveals another layer to reality; I see the mountain first, then the rock outcroppings, and after that the moss and lichens. Last year, when I looked out the window after sunset in Cairo, I saw empty apartments with darkened windows: a sad and lonely city of cement. Past sunset the streets were mostly quiet except for a few coffee houses that catered only to men. But this year, I know that when the Cairenes party they party mostly with their kin-folk and close neighbors and they close their heavy drapes around their private affairs. Instead of drinking alcohol and getting stupid, they drink coffee and talk politics into the wee hours of the morning. This year, I know that the heart of Cairo is overpopulated and though it’s a huge city crammed into a small space, most of the people on the streets recognize each other and know who’s related to whom. The dark windows and open sidewalks signify something other than emptiness because this is Egypt and not the U.S. I guess, sometimes, I have to squint and let the picture go blurry to see what’s right in front of me.