Monday, June 4, 2007

turning egyptian

November 6, 1998

Something came over me on the way back from Ramses Station. Cairo felt different. I felt different walking through it. Arriving in Cairo a second time from Alexandria I was seeing it anew, though everything I saw I had seen before, which can only mean that it has thrown the hem of its robe over me so I see it from the inside. Hold out my hand and it is not the same hand, there is a hue of Egypt on it, the robe colors the light. Egypt has started to remake me. If I had left before today it would have meant nothing to me, there would have been no loss because Egypt would have been merely a scroll of quaint pictures instead of the monumental being suffering alive for millennia. Leaving Egypt I would have left nothing of myself, but now it is inside of me. Leave it and I suffer amputation, as I suffer for those other places as impossible to forget as loved faces, old and still odd, but known. . .

It is I that have changed, and not it. It has gone inside me like a disease whose symptoms are bouts of forgetfulness of home, bouts of euphoria, delusions of understanding. Retracing my path of yesterday toward the statue of Mestafa Kemal I walked surely. My feet were as steady as stones and my eyes as light and fast as hawks. In my new bondage I was freer. I saw the city in its impossible collage of dusty dilapidation and bright pastel. Past the quirky kitsch and cheer of shoe stores and bakeries, past the French style buildings ornamented with dingy plaster wreaths and cornucopias I saw the peach colored Cosmos Cinema. I looked up and saw the sign on the eight floor, “New Palace Hotel,” where I had stayed my first night.

I slowed passing the run-down cafeteria where I had sat with David that night, the wonder and disbelief alternating with forebodings of psychic collapse and disintegration which got stronger as he shook my hand and got in the taxi, leaving me. I saw my face in the glass, this different Egyptianized face. I passed on, remembering the very stretch of sidewalk where, the morning after, I shakily steadied myself, setting my mental sights on the gates of the American University, yet making myself take in each old man, tissue vendor, Baladi woman in black, Peugot taxis one by one – to consider each one in such a way that the unfathomable alienness of Egypt as a whole would not drown me – send my fragile mind crying, shivering for refuge where there simply was no refuge.

I remembered that night and that morning – before sleeping I had opened the small photo album that was perhaps the only refuge I had, and looked at pictures of my family, friends, pictures of other places already inside me. I looked at them so as to be able to lie down in the darkness without tumbling away – panicking – before sleep saved me. As it was, I started writing a sentence but could not finish; closing my eyes I felt my feet slippery on the edge, had to open my eyes on the dim ceiling a few times to remember I was not falling, even though the sight of it reminded me of the strange place I was trapped. And it was the kind of trapped whereby to run outside was even worse. I held on because I had to. Sleep came, and the next day I found my first friend, Ntoko, video game-loving Cameroonian.

September 9, 1999
Frozen here, I’m caught and want to be caught and held while I struggle. . . feel I could walk for weeks and still be in Cairo’s embrace of dusty baroque stone and facades of joviality and indifference and roughness on every side – facades over repressed passion, a passion like mine. But the tactility of walking the streets is powerful, one’s bare skin brushed by arms of people shouldering by, by the closeness of their eyes, by the bus fumes unrepentant, by the unrelinquished roughness of shops and old men’s bristly jaws, by the loud debate and assertion, by the mad scent of guava from the juice bars, and one’s mind cannot flee the impossibility of flight from humans. So if you walk, on and on, a hopeless assertion of mobility, you can reach spiritual orgasm, an exertion and a letting go of self, a release of defensive posture, a lying slack for invasion by sensuality both rough and sweet – in sound and noise, scent and stink, clutter and coziness, caress and slap. People hate Cairo and love it, sunk in it. It will never be what anyone wants it to be, yet it barks out what it is anyhow, it brands you indelibly with what it is, it is what it is, and I give in, yes: held like a fly in honey.

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