I moved to Egypt in 2003, intent on recapturing the magic of a year I spent in Alexandria during a study year abroad. The study year abroad, and the decision to learn Arabic was itself guided by memories of the year I spent living in Egypt as a kid; the hours at the swimming pool with my cousins, the smell of wet dust when the sprinklers were turned on at dusk – almost always outside, never alone.
Most people were supportive of the decision because they thought it wouldn’t last long. Also I was moving from Croydon, which made the decision far more understandable.
As one year turned into 2, and then 3 and then 8 I found myself assailed more and more frequently with questions about why the hell I would choose to live in Egypt when I have a European passport.
People were particularly flummoxed by my quest to get the Egyptian nationality in 2004 when a law was passed giving Egyptian women married to non-Egyptians (other than Palestinians) the right to confer nationality on their children. I was thrilled when I got my first green passport. Possibly the only Egyptian in history to experience such feelings, if a sample of my network is anything to go by. In addition to it being worthless, having the Egyptian nationality makes you more vulnerable they told me. It undermines the protection offered by my British passport, they said.
It got exhausting having to defend myself, again and again, particularly in response to the favourite argument of “you don’t fully understand Egypt, you don’t see its bad side, you haven’t lived here long enough, you’re not properly Egyptian and aren’t fucked over by the country like we are”.
Everyone’s Egypt is different. My experience hasn’t all been perfect. My work has exposed me to the very ugliest aspects of Mubarak’s Egypt, and everyday life is frequently a series of needless and nonsensical battles. There is much darkness here. Live here long enough and it becomes unavoidable.
But I have stayed, and the thought of leaving always made me depressed. A friend (a doctor from Assiut who himself emigrated to the US, partly in despair at his future prospects in Egypt and strongly advised me to also get out) once challenged me to write a list of good things in Egypt. I tried, but they all seemed too personal, and stupid, or impossible to put in words. How do you describe indefatigable joy? How do you capture and convey spirit, spirit even in the cruelest sadness?
I’ve written on this blog about Egypt for five years now and I much of it is descriptions of injustice and tragedy, but I hope some of it has been the love letter to Egypt I meant it to be.
Tonight I watched Wael Ghoneim in a heart-breaking interview about his role in the uprising and the 12 days he spent in state security detention, and I felt vindicated. To be more accurate, I felt vindicated mid-afternoon on January 25th when thousands of us broke through security cordons and flooded into Tahrir Square and everything changed forever. And then again on Friday 28th when protestors fought and beat security bodies prepared to open fire on them while they were praying. And again last Wednesday, when protestors defended Tahrir Square from attacks by government-sponsored thugs for hours.
And I feel vindicated every time I enter Tahrir Square and find all the good in Egypt concentrated in one place. The day before yesterday I was standing on the wall which runs the perimeter of Tahrir’s grassy island watching men sing and dance. It was a tight squeeze and I was standing dead close to a middle-aged lady clapping and singing. She tapped me on the shoulder, I thought she wanted to say something to me so I leant over. She kissed me on the cheek and went back to watching.