Sunday, June 10, 2012

Back in Cairo, the City that Never Sleeps

The suns hot rays hit the humid air in what seemed to be an attempt to cook me alive as I ran back and forth from the Egyptian Consulate to my hostel in Eilat. I had arrived just in time for a wave of humidity. Back in the hostel, the thermometer read 90 degrees Fahrenheit, in the shade and relative comfort of the upstairs lobby. Walking back into the sun was like stepping into a microwave and putting the power level on high. Despite the heat I felt surprisingly comfortable in my tank top and shorts, baring my limbs for the first time in a while. It could have been 10 degree hotter and I would have been more comfortable than I had been walking around in 80 degree heat fully clothed. After I treated myself to a western omelette sandwich, salad and filtered coffee, I made my way to the border, splurging a little on a taxi, as my boss had given me additional money for travelling that I had not been expecting., much of which I still managed to save for Cairo anyway. As soon as I had gotten my exit stamp from Israel, after only a few awkward glances as they looked, I assume, at the notes next to my name, I threw on my Handala (symbol of Palestinian liberation) shirt  and got ready to cross through the final barrier between Israel and Egypt.

After wrestling my bags through the endless bureaucracies on both sides of the border between Israel and Egypt, I finally made it into the hot Egyptian sun—for some reason it felt hotter there than it had in Israel, but that was perhaps due to the additional clothing I had donned crossing the border. I knew the bus station was just a few kilometers down the road so I refused offers for a taxi, restarting my budget traveler mode. However, after about 200 meters, the hot sun and weight of my bags started to wear on me, and I had begun to wonder why I so quickly refused a 2 dollar ride to the station. Pride goeth before a fall. I did manage to make it there, and the extra time it took me was to my benefit in the end since I had a 2 hour wait before the bus to Cairo would come. I turned into the bus station--or outpost rather, as it was not much of a station—scarlet red, sweaty and probably panting. As I got closer to the waiting area and ticket stand, I noticed my audience and attempted to pull myself together. With what little energy I had I dragged my bags through the sand and one at a time and with as much dignity as is possible when a handful of men are staring at the spectacle I must have been, I lifted my bags onto the platform and bought my ticket. As I sat there in the shade waiting for the bus, my head pounded from the rays the sun had stung me with earlier, and although I had been drinking water, I was most likely dehydrated. I sipped my now hot water and waited for the pounding to subside. I heard the trees rustle and waited eagerly for a cool breeze, only to be smacked instead by a wave of heat, hotter than the air in the shade. I winced slightly each time the waves rolled in, and began planning my funeral for sometime this summer in Cairo, as I know it will only get hotter. There were a few moments where I wondered what had possessed me to move further south in the summer, but quickly concluded that the experience would be good for me and hopefully thin my blood a little.
When the bus finally pulled up I got on and prepared myself for the 7 hour ride, and ascended into the cool, air-conditioned bus. I have a lot of friends I haven’t seen in a while, a lot of best friends I haven’t seen in 8 months, so the prospect of getting to talk to and see one of them gave me an extra burst of positivity as I stared out the window at the shadows of the Sinai mountains. When the bus rolled up I got out and sat down with my bags, politely refusing help with my bags as I was in “I’m a strong woman, I can do it myself thank-you-very-much mode.” That mode quickly disappeared as soon as I was greeted by Bata and Hoss who quickly scooped up my bags and put them in the car. Driving through Cairo again filled me with a strange concoction of feelings and thoughts which swam around in my head circling like sharks about to feed. It’s been two weeks almost, and those feelings have much subsided.

I am currently living with Bata’s mom, Eman, who is an incredibly sweet and wonderful woman. She likes the company, and I have quickly felt right at home with her. The commute to work is tiresome: 45 minutes to an hour on crowded public transportation, but the area I live in is quiet and safe. The only real downside, besides the commute is that I can’t host events at my house, and getting back late at night can be tricky if I don’t have a friend with a car around. So far I’ve been lucky to always have a friend with a car to take me back at least part of the way. On the other hand, new friends from work have already generously offered up their places as crash pads, should I ever not be able to get home. We’ll see how it all pans out.
As previously stated I’ve been here nearly two weeks now. On the one hand, time has flown by and I haven’t been bored for a second; on the other hand it feels like I have been here for ages because I’ve so quickly adjusted to life here. No doubt I miss my friends and family in both Palestine and America, but at the same time, I feel very much at home here in Cairo for now. You know me though—I can’t seem to stay in the same place for all that long. I never fully unpacked in Palestine. I haven’t fully unpacked here. I think for me fully unpacking is a sign of commitment; commitment to a flat, a city, a country. Apparently that kind of marginal commitment is something I’m just not ready for. I’m interested to see if Cairo transcends the pattern or ends up another notch on my suitcase.

My internship is incredibly interesting and intense. Last week was training for 4 hours a day in the morning. It was by far the most I had sat still consecutively in about a year; since I graduated university. I have since conducted two solo intake interviews and my first follow up interview. I am currently handling three resettlement cases, and despite my previous knowledge that survivors of such unsettling circumstances would have shocking stories, nothing could have prepared me for the distress and desperation flowing through their words. Having to ask the hard questions and coax clients into revealing gruesome details of their past and current sufferings to the point where they break down into tears is something no amount of preparation can account for. A now single mother breaks down and tells me she has nothing, no way to care for her children, is one step away from camping out on the UNHCR steps because of imminent eviction, and all I can do is tell her that I will do my best in submitting her claim to UNHCR but ultimately it’s in their hands and the process takes months to years. Remind me to never complain about my life again. And I’ve only conducted three interviews thus far.

I’ll start teaching English classes at a center in a week or two to earn a little pocket money. The woman who organizes the classes is incredibly nice. I wasn’t looking forward to teaching again so soon, but with curriculum, materials and a potentially conversational-based class, I’m not so opposed.

On the other hand I’m having a blast here in Cairo. There are great evening venues, like the Jazz club where my friend Ahmad’s band played the other night. A bunch of my coworkers and I went and had a great time. When I’m not out experiencing live music or the like, I’m hanging out with new and old friends at cafes, on the street or in Cairo traffic. I miss Palestine, but I’m not going to lie; right now I’m really happy to be in Cairo. I just wish a certain group of ex-pats were here with me too (shout out to ol’ Nablus crew). 

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