During our recent visit to the States to see friends and family, we were asked many times, “Do you like it in Egypt?” I always answered yes, which is 100% true. Sometimes, though, its hard to explain just why I do like it. A friend, also an expat who arrived just a few days after us last summer, is writing an article about expat life in Cairo. We spent a good chunk of a dinner conversation trying to explain just what it is.
Cairo is loud. It’s dirty and crowded. Things rarely work as planned and people are perpetually late. You are never entirely certain if you’re getting a straight answer from someone. Arabic is hard, and though mine is coming along, I still get frustrated by the language barrier more often than not.
Both of us have been beyond blessed by amazingly smart, talented, funny, and interesting colleagues. We have met people from many walks of life, and from many places, who have enriched our own stories by sharing theirs with us. And at the end of the day, it’s the people who allow me to say, without hesitation, that I love it here.
We returned from our home leave at the very end of Ramadan. On the last work night of the month, StARS hosted an Iftar dinner for staff and friends of StARS. In preparation for over one hundred people attending, several staff members worked to set up chairs and tables in the courtyard. As sunset approached, the tables were set with bottles of water, dates, and salads. Food started to come in from a number of staff members and friends of StARS. Huge bowls of rice, massive trays of bread. Chicken and meat. Eggplant stuffed with meat. Yemini, Iraqi, Eritrean, Sudanese. At 6:54, the sun officially set and the feasting began. Muslims who had abstained from food and drink all day guzzled down water. The line represented our community–refugees and expats, Muslims and Christians–all together, laughing, chatting, looking forward to the feast we were about to share.
As we walked through the line, our plates grew heavier and heavier with food. My Arabic tutor told me it’s not uncommon for people to gain five kilograms during Ramadan (about 11 pounds) because even though they fast during the day, they make up for it at night. After eating the meal we ate that night, I believe it! We each had a piece of Yemeni bread, which is a huge flat bread (think BIG lefse griddle size for all you midwest Norwegian readers!), sort of like naan. About halfway through the meal, I realized that I had been using bread to scoop up the various meat dishes and hadn’t even touched the rice that was hiding under it. I made a valiant effort, but still couldn’t finish everything. We all ate until we were stuffed (and then some) and no one went away hungry. Anyone who wanted to take home leftovers could, and did.
And while the food was delicious, it was the conversation and laughter that made the evening so satisfying. People sat around, chatting, sharing jokes, telling stories, speaking in several languages. Kids ran around and played. Our resident DJ played music and people danced. At one point, a favorite Sudanese song came on and several Sudanese staff members rushed to the makeshift dance floor (a clear spot in the courtyard) to dance, pulling along friends from Eritrea, Somalia, the Netherlands, and the States to dance with them.
About a week later, we gathered once again, this time in the Guild Hall (built in 1920 with funds from the Scottish Presbyterian Women’s Guild), for the wedding celebration for one of the StARS staff. Again, we laughed, we danced, we shared stories. Babies were passed around. Cake was shared. The couple was welcomed and congratulated. The groom beamed. Once again, our resident DJ was on hand to provide music. The joy was palpable in the air. It was an absolutely delightful evening. We returned home, after having helped to clean up, exhausted, but with overwhelmingly happy hearts.
These are the things that keep us going. These people who make us laugh and pull us up to dance and allow their stories to become interwined with ours; these experiences that remind us that inspite of all the darkness and despair, there is still a lot of happiness and a lot of hope. There are still a lot of things that bring us together–music, and dancing, and weddings, and food. Though there are differences, there are more things that unite us. And is this unity, this sharing, that keeps smiles on our faces, in spite of the layers of dust and sweat. It’s the joy that makes our hearts happy, even as we collapse exhausted on the sofa. It’s the warmth of community that makes up for the warmth of the air.
Why do I love Cairo? For the same reason I love Chicago or Madison or Portland or New York or Stewartville or Vincennes or any of the other places I love to be. Because Cairo is where my people are. The people who make me smile and laugh and might even convince me to dance. And with people like that, its hard not to love the city they’re in.