Over the summer, I ran into my high school French teacher and some old colleagues at the bookstore. I inquired about my previous place of employment and they asked about Egypt and whether I was apprehensive about returning. I gave what was then my standard response (wide eyes, cringe, shrug) and then mentioned that I was excited to be switching schools and working at a more established institution.
“Is your new school in Cairo?”
“Yes. It’s actually in Giza, out by the pyramids.”
“Out by the pyramids. We’re around the corner from a Dunkin Donuts and you’re out by the pyramids.”
I’m not mentioning this to condescend; it was a juxtaposition that, for me, cemented the many reasons why I enjoy teaching overseas.
This morning, as our bus traversed a multicolored bridge over the Nile, I gazed down at the hazy stands of palm trees along the murky riverbanks and thought My daily commute takes me over the Nile. And moments later, when the faint outlines of the pyramids pressed earnestly against the balmy smog ahead, I relished the fact that even after two years, they never get old. Last year, toward the end of our daily hour-long commute, the pyramids were often visible against the horizon for a fleeting second and every time I saw them, the realization that I live and work in Egypt struck me with renewed awe.
Life in Cairo can often be a tangible embodiment of the “pathetic fallacy”: the pitilessly dry weather, the niggling persistence with which dirt and sand cling to your body and follow you home, the tireless beam of sun – it all begins to reflect in even the most seasoned denizens of Cairo. The heat is exhausting; you become exhausted. The air is parched and lifeless; you find yourself entering many an afternoon similarly parched and lifeless. But a glimpse of the pyramids in the distance or even the Sphinx decked out in tacky light show lasers is enough to instill a calm sense of timelessness and majesty in a place that is currently tangled in a Gordian knot of revolution, instability, and three years of unrest.
For the majority of my time here, evidence of instability was largely invisible where I live, marginalized and confined to public squares and outside of courthouses. Now, tributaries of activity have begun to trickle into the quiet suburbs. Last week at rugby practice, with about a half an hour left to go, we were suddenly inundated with the sound of drums, horns honking, and people chanting while flags waved in the distance. A march had begun just outside the stadium.
Regardless of how peaceful the march was intended to be, I still worried. Last night after practice, we all packed into cars to head off to a post-game session at the pub. As soon as we turned onto the main road, we stopped. Traffic was backed up to the midan, where Moustafa explained that protesters were congregating. The four of us had nothing to do but sit in the car and chat. Around us, impatient cab drivers and tuktuk drivers laid into their horns. Vexed men sprung from their cars and ambled through traffic to investigate.
When we finally reached the midan, we saw it was cluttered with protesters holding up their hands to signify the number four, a number that, in Arabic, shares its name with a mosque where dozens of Morsi supporters were murdered a few weeks ago. No one appeared angry, no one was chanting; instead, they just stood there, drawing attention to their cause. It wasn’t even the crowds that had stopped traffic; on approach, we saw that a string of microbuses and cabs had stubbornly turned out of the traffic circle and were now driving the wrong way down the street, in our direction. Moustafa pointed out animated men who had taken it upon themselves to direct traffic – and were doing a decent job of it, circumstances considered.
We managed to swing out of the traffic jam and head down a series of dark side streets. I offered to attempt a go at the map feature on my iPhone, but JT, my tall, bearded, French rugby pal, spoke up from the back, “No, don’t take the fun out of it. This will be an adventure.”
Marie was also in the back and promised to act as a human GPS, confidently identifying the direction in which we were traveling at any given moment. We arrived at the pub at 9:45; we’d left practice at ten past nine. This was a journey that usually lasted ten minutes at most, drawn out to over thirty. The pub was closed.
The rugby team had relocated at a popular bar down the road, open after curfew and offering expensive beer, burgers, and 20% off of women on Sunday nights, as its recent ad proclaims. Afterward, Moustafa drove us home and we sat in his car talking until eleven.
It was one of those nights mired in spontaneity, unpredictability, and the strange sense of calm that follows. I have searched for that comfortable niche I usually occupy here in Cairo, and last night brought me back to it.