“One hundred guinea” he said as I slapped two hundred onto the counter. I was too brain-dead to comprehend his words as he slid two fifties back at me with a quizzical look on his face. It wasn’t so much my fault. I had just gotten off a one-way plane from Moscow, Russia to Cairo, Egypt and was ready to slough off the freezing weather and begin a new chapter in my world travels. Luckily, this chapter involved distant family members whom I knew would warmly take me under their wing. Unluckily, I did not miss the country at all and had written it off as poor and dirty, albeit relaxing.
As I stepped into the dusty Cairo airport parking lot, I greeted my uncle and kissed him on both cheeks, as is customary there. It had been four years and a revolution since I last saw him. I was worried the recent rioting would delay our exit out of Cairo but it didn’t. My uncle, Amu Mohamed (Amu meaning uncle) is not actually a blood relative. He is my mom’s uncle’s widowed wife’s new husband. It is a mouth-full but it doesn’t matter, since to me he is like a second father—an Egyptian one. As I stare out of his old Peugot into the caliginous night, I notice how much Cairo has changed. It seems more urban, more alive, more modern. But it passes in a blur as we quickly escape into more rural lands with our destination in Zahra, a small rustic town about an hour away from Monsourah.
Two hours into our four hour drive I recognize the familiar scent of burning trash and I know I am close to “home.” The air is infinitely warmer than that of Moscow where I had just been and I am relieved to let the wind blow through the window and onto my face. Unfortunately, burnt plastic and assorted waste smell bad. Really bad. That’s one thing I hate about Egypt. People throw trash everywhere, mostly on the side of the road. These heaps of trash build up until they tumble down into the rivers, into the ditches, into the streets. Then there are these white vulture-like birds that somehow find a feast in these piles of garbage, ripping open bags with their long graceful beaks and toppling over diapers and bottles with their slender legs. Life must be good for them. Amu Mohamed asks me multiple times how I am, and behind my cough I muster up some broken Arabic and reassure him that I’m OK, thank God “ana kwayasa, alhemdulillah.”
He hands me a guava juice can and I am afraid to drink it. We still have two hours left in the car and I am worried I will have to use the bathroom before we get to his home. Using the bathroom is not a big deal in most parts of the world; but out in rural Egypt, a gas station toilet is analogous to a hole in the ground, over-flowing and with watery floors from a broken bidet. And, of course, no toilet paper. Maybe for a guy the dilemma is not so stark, but I do not have the luxury of standing safely away from a bio-hazardous toilet. With that in mind, I sip my guava juice cautiously, thirstily but temperedly.
Fortunately, we arrive in Zahra without having to stop for any bathroom breaks and I am surprised (not sure if pleasantly or disappointingly) to find everything exactly the same. There are still mules pulling carts around with fruits, hay or vegetables. It’s dark, though, and I can tell most places are closing shop (or closing fruit-stand to be more accurate). There are fields of green crops with irrigation lines in the soil and water buffalo and cows soundly asleep. The buildings are made of mud, brick, cement and sticks. Poverty-stricken is probably the best way to describe Zahra. It was only in the 70’s that they first got electricity throughout the 1,000-or-so person town and there are still some families that do not have it. There are no beggars; it’s assumed that everyone in the town is poor. But the rich, fertile land and proximity to a Nile-river offshoot is fortuitous for these people who eat well and show it. The vast majority of the inhabitants are overweight and draped in conservative clothes, turbans, galibeyas (gowns) and abayas (dresses). When a woman steps out of her home briefly to hang up some laundry or pour out some dirty water, she is likely in a pair of pajamas, a short sleeved gown with hearts or kittens printed on it.
As we pull up to my uncle’s home, I am both relieved and self-conscious to be walking into the nicest dwelling in the town. It is surrounded by an iron gate and locked from the outside. Inside there is his 3-story house that overlooks the beautiful crops and farm animals. He too has some animals; chickens, geese, ducks and sometimes a goat. He also has an annoying rooster that does not know dawn from dusk and cock-a-doodles randomly throughout the day and night. Once inside his house, I am comfortable. My uncle, a mechanical engineer, comes from a big family of seven siblings and worked tirelessly to rise up from poverty. His house is the fruit of decades of dedication to his job as a traveling engineer.
I hug my cousins and immediately go to the kitchen to find tomatoes, onions, scrambled eggs and French fries plastered over the counters. There is zibdah, butter, white as snow and I ask what it is as I do not remember seeing it from my last visit. My uncle says it’s from the gamoosa, water buffalo’s milk. I rip a piece of bread from fresh-baked pita (cooked in a clay furnace) and dip it into the zibdah. It is creamy and rich with a sour-cream consistency. They tell me to drizzle raw honey onto the butter. “Ahsan kidda”, it is better like this. I don’t protest as I shovel this delicious combination of creamy sweetness into my mouth.
It’s late now and I can hear Quranic recitations emanating from the mosques. It is past the time of prayer but sometimes, at least out in the country, the mosques will lull the town to sleep with the sweet words of prayers resonating in our ears. I step out onto the patio overlooking the backyard and vast crops beyond his gates. The stars are distant orbs, illuminating the stillness of rural Egypt. The moon is a crescent and the air, when it is clean, smells of dust and corn. Amu Mohamed changed the backyard; there are fewer cornstalks as they require too much labor to upkeep. Instead there is a lemon tree with swollen orange lemons (yes, orange lemons that look exactly like oranges), a loofa tree with what appear to be gigantic cucumbers filled with sponge material, and towering sugar canes. The sugar canes catch my desirous eye and I can feel my mouth salivating already. My uncle, kind and thoughtful, pre-empts my craving and has a pile of freshly cut sugar-canes on the wooden patio bench ready for consumption. They are juicy and stringy, impossible to swallow but perfect for casually chewing and sucking on. I pick one up and sink my teeth into it, slowly slurping out the delicious sugary juices. For a moment, I feel like I am truly at home. This foreign land has not graced me with its bounties but for a few months of my entire life; yet I am drawn back again and again.
My mother, an Egyptian, immigrated to America as a toddler and left all but her Egyptian blood behind. She cannot read or write in Arabic, though she speaks the language. She has only visited the country a few times since moving and I had not been here for the first time until I was a teenager. Being back again reminds me that this country is full of beauty and mystery. Its Arcadian charm bewitches me with wonder. It is so calm, so simple, so devoid of the stresses of daily urban life and I marvel at how I can seamlessly move from a first-world America to a rural Egypt without a problem. “They’re good for you” my uncle remarks in his heavily-accented English, noticing my complete contentment in devouring the sugar canes. I smile and scrunch my nose up just slightly. Being here in Egypt is good for me.
Sharia Mayfield, a recent graduate from Stanford University, received her BA in Creative Writing. Currently residing in her hometown of Portland, OR, she is a rising law student at the University of Oregon who enjoys writing in her free time. Her topics of interest hone mainly on civil liberties and Muslim-American relations, as well as debunking the so-called “clash of the civilizations” between the Western and Middle Eastern worlds. She has traveled to various countries including Russia, Egypt, Turkey and Chile and hopes that her travel experience can help foster a broader appreciation of other cultures and dispel ethnocentric mentalities.