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.

Batatis batatis

I live in a side street of a side street of a side street, in an area with very little high rise and even less traffic, and yet my street is really only quiet on Friday mornings. All other days I can tell the time by the sounds that come up to my third-floor apartment.

First it’s the vegetable guy with his younger brother and their horse-drawn vegetable cart. They have voices like I’ve only once heard before, in Yemen. Potatoes! Tomatoes! Cauliflowers! More potatoes! Even if you weren’t in the market for some fresh greens, you almost want to run down to get some just to get them to stop screaming.

An hour or so later, it’s an old man uttering a loud string of religious words, as per the holy book in his one hand, alternated with a cry about the lemons in his other hand. No one in my house has ever been able to really understand him – I’m not sure if he’s cursing or blessing us, or if that depends on whether or not he sells any lemons (if indeed they are for sale).

For a while it’s just the usual soundscape of dogs barking, cars honking, the whizzing of the neighbor’s water pump and the occasional clacking of horse or donkey hooves pulling carts with squeaky wheels. Sometimes, if the rest of the world is quiet enough, I can hear the little bells that decorate their bridles.

Then the old lady arrives. She’s probably not taller than a meter and a half, and takes her about 20 minutes to get from one end of the street to the other, all the while moaning and wailing incomprehensible ahhhs and ooohss. She carries towels over her right arm, of different sizes, and it may be that she sells them, too.

 Fresh garlic vendor (picture taken in spring). Dokki, Giza/Cairo.

Fresh garlic vendor (picture taken in spring). Dokki, Giza/Cairo.

In the afternoon, the vegetable man and his brother reappear. This time, their voices often clash with those of the men on old cargo bikes who collect used goods like broken chairs, furniture and appliances, making their presence known by screaming ‘roba vecchia’ – the Italian term for ‘old stuff’, as far as I’ve understood (although many of them don’t seem to know what they’re saying either).

By now, it’s time for the children to come home. They’ll quietly do their homework on the hood of a parked car until it’s dark. Dark is when playtime starts. Their football teams battle until late at night, and I often go to sleep by the sound of their disputes about goals scored (or not).

I don’t mind the noise. I know the potato-guy will wake me up on time the next morning.

Sometimes I wish I was invisible

Yesterday a friend (Egyptian, woman, veiled, in her twenties) told me she doesn’t know if she could live in Europe or the USA because she’s afraid she’ll stand out too much. I told her there are many areas of Amsterdam where she’ll stand out less than I do here. Yes, she said, but you are white, so standing out here only gets you better treatment, isn’t it? White people always get treated better in Egypt, right?


Well, I said. Sometimes we do, but sometimes we don’t. On the benign side of it, standing out means I always get overcharged. A lot, and shamelessly. I get pointed at, whispered about, and stared at, always and everywhere.
On the more vicious side, I get stones thrown at me. I get punched in the stomach. I have had supposedly feminist Egyptian women tell me that it’s less bad when a white woman gets raped, because she has sex all the time anyway.

My friend was shocked. Why do I never hear about this? She asked.

I don’t know.

Part of it is the knowledge that I do have it better (at least financially) than most Egyptians. Part of it is the fact that other people who stand out face worse as a result of their difference. And part of it is the ultimate argument: then why don’t you leave. The hideousness of this argument is that it presents the consequences of standing out as being my choice. I choose to live in Egypt = I choose to live with people spitting and screaming at me for my skin color. This is not true, and comes dangerously close to victim-blaming. The truth in this argument is that the difference is indeed that I can leave, even if I don’t want to, and many others can’t. So ultimately, I won’t complain, but I would love to have a chance to be invisible sometimes.


i no longer wait
for the better times
midnight blue sky above us
silver stars upon it
hand in hand with you
along the river
trees right and left
desire in their branches
hope in my heart

i straighten up my room
i light a candle
i paint a poem

i no longer kiss my way
down your body
through your navel
into your dreams
my love in your mouth
your fire in my lap
pearls of sweat on my skin

i dress myself warmly
i paint my lips red
i talk to the flowers

i no longer listen
for a sign from you
take out your letters
look at your pictures
conversation with you
till midnight
visions between us
children smiling at us

i open the window wide
i tie my shoes tight
i get my hat

i no longer dream
in lonely hours
your face into time
your shadow is only
a cold figure

i pack the memories up
i blow the candle out
i open the door

i no longer wait
for the better times
i go out into the street
scent of flowers on my skin
umbrella in my hand
along the river
midnight blue sky above me
silver stars upon it
left and right
desire in their branches
hope in my heart

i love you
i wait no longer


May Amin (1960-1996), Afro-German poet
translated by Tina Campt