Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Conclusion of Curfew and a Six Month Silence

It’s been an obscene amount of time since I last wrote. Since June 30th I have had a constant stream of relevant thoughts and messages I wanted to share and express as someone here in Egypt, witnessing everything with my own eyes; yet the required abstinence from politics that the organization I work for had laid out prohibits me from publicly discussing anything about the current situation. So while I completely agree with the reasons to remain publicly silent (private messaging is fine), I have since lost motivation to write; until now.

Before I begin, I would like to take a moment to say that I absolutely and undoubtedly love Egypt. I do have a complicated relationship with Cairo. We go through times of bitter fighting to times of blissful passion. Cairo is (when not under state of emergency imposed curfew, and really even then as well) the city that never sleeps. It’s exciting, bustling, chaotic and dirty; and riding in a taxi at night down the Nile’s cornice with the mesmerizing Om Kalthoum or Fayrouz serenading you in the background and the colorful lights reflecting on the lazy water is perhaps one of my favorite things and fills me with that unique sensation of recognizing I’m alive. On the other hand, the constant assault on your senses drains you; and therefore the key to living in Cairo is living in Egypt. A day trip outside the city to the nearby red sea, a weekend on the North coast, a week in the indescribably beautiful Sinai or an overnighter in the desert, and you’re golden. A moment to breathe fresh air, listen to silence and see green and blue again will keep you from tiring of the chaos as easily. I’ve been in Egypt for over a year and I’ve still only scratched the surface of what this incredible country has to offer.

Moving on, I returned to Cairo after three months in Istanbul and began my current job about 5 months ago, and I think a certain amount of written reflection is due. The work is intense; a lot more so than I expected. It’s not the same intensity of casework, where the daily horror stories chip away at your tolerance for humanity, but rather the intensity of trying to balance several roles and remember to tie all the never-ending loose ends. Some days I’ve worked extra long hours, barely remembering to eat; and other days I’ve had seemingly endless time and have stared into space trying to figure out what is the most efficient task to tackle at that moment. Now, five months in, I have--as much as is possible-- settled into my role and am trying to fulfill all my roles as best as possible. It’s been a whirlwind thus far, and Egypt’s waves of instability have truly taught me a lesson in flexibility. Whether it be volunteers cancelling, programs rescheduling due to insecurity, or other cogs falling out of the wheel; the unexpected problems I’ve had to work my way through have given me some invaluable work experience that I don’t think I could have gotten elsewhere.  

That being said, I don’t think management is for me in the long-run. I see myself as more of a coordinator, advocate, or most likely a counselor. I have begun looking into social work or counseling grad school programs, but am definitely a year or more away from applying. Moreover I’ve recently began to notice a gaping hole in my life where drama and art once were, and I am currently exploring ways in which I can reincorporate that into my life (aside of course from my frequent renditions of “Defying Gravity” in the empty main hall at work as I lock up).
And there’s just something so exhilarating about knowing that in 6-7 months, when your contract is up, the world is yours. I can stay and continue to develop the livelihoods aspect of the adult education program I run; and as I am just beginning to work on a new training program that I hope to expand and add on to each semester, I’d say renewing my contract is a very likely option.

However, I love knowing that I have the freedom to do anything and go anywhere—a freedom that had at first filled me with anxiety from being lost in uncertainty; but a freedom that has more and more become my most valued possession. I have a burner phone and I hand my landlord I wad of cash at the end of the month. I use my debit card only to pull money from my ever-dwindling savings, but rarely. Aside from the internet, I live off the grid, and I have no physical or financial ties anywhere. If it weren’t for my commitment to my job, I could book a ticket, pack my bags and leave within a day. It’s a unique and wonderful feeling, but one that hasn’t come without cost.

This freedom comes at the cost of certain relationships, a lot of hard work and low pay. I make enough to live comfortably on, but not enough to save. I don’t have money set aside for “the future.” At this point even if I wanted to consider having kids in the next 5 or so years I couldn’t afford to. Credit Scores? Pfhah! Retirement? Not a thing. I’m not sure I could even explain to you what a 401-K is. I get to make choices like: go to the dentist or go on a night out with my friends (although let’s be real: that’s what toothbrushes are for anyway, right?). So while I love my lifestyle, there is a less glamorous side most people don’t see and it involves sacrifices that are often difficult to make. It’s also not always exciting. I’m not a reporter or photographer, so when crazy things happen here, I’m not out in the trenches with my life on the line. I sit at home with friends, watch the news, eat, drink and stress over cancelling and rescheduling for work: again, not glamorous. That being said, I wouldn’t trade this concoction of good, bad and ugly for all the stability, sweet dreams and savings the world has to offer.

You see, one of the ultimate perks is the people you meet and the friendships you develop here in the Middle East. I’m incredibly fortunate to have such a large and diverse group of friends here (including those that have left but put in a reciprocal amount of effort to stay in touch) that keep me on my toes, join me in the aforementioned escapes outside Cairo and support me through the difficult times. The community here in Cairo is unique and strong. Egyptian, American, European, African; we are all bonded by the same strange draw that brought us to and keeps us in the hub of the Middle East. However, we’re not all the same, and we bring a myriad of stories and personalities to a rather oddly shaped table of fellowship that King Arthur couldn’t have rivaled (perhaps for more reason than one but let’s stick to the fairy-tale version for the purposes of this metaphor).

And it’s only after living here that I’ve fully developed a healthy self-confidence in who I am. For the first era in my life, I am always me without caring or considering what other people will think. I can sing and dance in front of anyone, embarrass myself publicly and make goofy faces without hiding in the shadows or worrying that people will think I’m weird (mostly because I accept that I am). So when me and one of my friends had the chance to go on an Egyptian reality tv show episode for a free trip as part of the show’s contestants’ challenge, I said  “why not” and made an absolute fool of myself on national television. I don’t think I could have done that even three years ago, much less do so without reservation and without hiding my often ridiculous quirks. 

Breaking free from the shackles of image has been the most liberating experience of my life, and I sincerely hope that everyone I love has or will experience this feeling at some point in their lives. Not that you have to come to Cairo or the Middle East to do so—but I think everyone needs to find that place where they can break free.


Red Sea


Day of Ridiculousness

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