Stories from Afar & Up Close

Writing about Egypt

It’s been almost three years since I moved to Egypt, and I still can’t write about it like I used to write about Lebanon. When living in Beirut, it felt like life just kept presenting me with scenes, images, stories that could represent bigger things that were going on in the country. I could also write about little things that were not necessarily representative, but at least in some ways typical or extreme versions of usual occurrences. In Egypt, I hesitate to take anything that happens and write it up to highlight a bigger underlying issue. I live my daily life in Cairo, I encounter people and situations like I would anywhere else, and yet I come home and nothing stands out enough to be able to use to it explain or illustrate any description of Egyptian life. And I wonder: why is this?

With great regularity, Lebanese people would tell me to give up trying to understand their country and society, because I would never be able to. I never felt like that was true. Sure, I probably misunderstood some (or many) things, or have explained or interpreted things in ways that many Lebanese would not agree with, but that just makes me human - it doesn’t mean that there is something inherently incomprehensible about Lebanese society. It helped that I was mostly hanging out with thoughtful, analytical people, who weren’t generally fazed by my many questions as to why, why, why certain things are done a certain way (and not another). It also seemed that even if different groups in society completely opposed each other’s (political) views, they were never baffled that anyone could, in fact, hold such views. It was as if their differences were on the extreme end of the same plane, somehow.

In Egypt, no one has ever told me it is impossible to understand Egyptian society, but many have shaken their head at my attempts to do so. My questions have been met with sighs and ‘well, I don’t understand it either.’ Sometimes I feel it’s a matter of scale – can you ever truly feel you understand a country of 80 million people, a society where people are as baffled by each other as they are with things they see on National Geographic? With a country of this magnitude also comes a tremendous variety in terms of language, traditions, ways of living and positions in society that make it hard to take anything as a vignette for the rest.
But even if I take ‘just’ Cairo and leave regional differences aside, there is still something else at play. It has something to do with the way Egyptian society can be overwhelming and intrusive in its massiveness that makes every encounter with it disappear into a blur after it’s over. Its noise, the way it demands your attention at all times (a short bike-ride is 50% tiring because of the physical effort required and 50% because of the constant barrage of words and cars and honking horns and scooters and stares, for example), that makes it so that nothing particularly stands out once you retreat from it. A retreat that is only partial, because even in a beautiful apartment on the third floor in a relatively quiet neighborhood, the soundscape of daily life still enters, and that makes it hard to step back and analyze it.

I’m forcing myself to try though, this month. Maybe I’ll be a little wiser by the end of it.