Six Months In
I am that American you heard about, the one who moved to Cairo six months ago to live permanently as I start this new, exciting chapter of the post-marriage-and-children book of my life. You’ve probably seen the highlight reel and reveled in the exotic moments right along with me these past few months, and my excitement about all the newness was always genuine and childlike. Now, however, I can report that the honeymoon is over and I can finally tell you the rest of the story.
It’s incredibly hard to live abroad.
It’s particularly difficult to move from a place of abundance and equality to a place of mild first-world depravity and deeply-ingrained gender roles inclusive of a lifestyle shift so enormous that it rattles and upends at times. Culture shock is a very, very real thing and I am smack in the middle of its trenches right now.
There’s so much to tell someone who is interested in learning about this kind of experience, so I think I’ll begin where my day begins. I wake to the sound of the Muslim Call to Prayer in the dark hours of every early morning. An imam’s deep, ominous voice bellows through the open windows of my apartment in a sad song of worship that I have learned to completely tune out. In my first few months I kind of enjoyed it, the exoticness of how devout and faithful it sounds, but now I can just turn it off like a mom can turn off her whining children. The same goes for the honking horns that never go quiet for more than a second at a time. City sounds. Dogs barking, motorcycles speeding, people screaming angry Arabic profanities at each other in the street. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fall asleep to the sound of silence, or crickets, or waves crashing, ever again. It would be too quiet. I would think something terrible was about to happen if everything were too still. Cat rape is now my lullaby.
I remember moving my own suitcases into my first apartment. I was met by a servant, a bawab, who rushed over to shoo me away so he could lift and carry my things inside for me. The rushing and shooing has not stopped since. It still feels strange at the grocery store when the check-out clerks meet me in the aisle to carry and empty my basket for me periodically throughout my shopping, and then they ask again and again – in charades – to let them carry my groceries all the way to my apartment for me, and finally I’ve had to learn to just let them. It keeps the world in order. I have to force myself to let them. It is hard to come from a country where official female empowerment was first born, where equality for women has rendered us needless of any assistance, where women are cheered for being able to do everything for themselves and usually men don’t even try to intervene anymore, to now live in a place where men are constantly scrambling to help me do everything. It’s awkward, because these are not the rules I was raised following. With that, however, comes another facet of Middle Eastern masculinity…a dark and controlling version, and while I enjoy the chivalry of having four different men scramble to move my plants for me, there has also been more than one instance where a man offered me unwanted advice or admonishments carefully disguised as protectiveness. It makes them feel awkward to be near a woman who is self-expressive in dress and language, or one who is aggressively independent. The men here don’t like it when I refuse their help, and they are chafed when I tell them to mind their own business when they are being judgmental of my choices.
They don’t know what to do with themselves if a woman is doing for herself, and if they’re ever left standing idly by while I take out my own garbage, it confuses their understanding of the world.
This is especially true regarding someone whose job it is to be a servant. There is a caste system here with deeply entrenched social layers separating the haves from the have-nots, and I have been coached into accepting the normalcy of being catered to like a visiting celebrity or a foreign diplomat. It makes them feel irritated when I don’t play my role properly and yet I hate doing it; it damages our understanding of one another when I don’t. It damages our friendships, too, sadly.
One of my beloved drivers (yes, I have a driver, almost every foreigner does) spent every day of a month trying to convince me that I needed to marry him, not because he was in love with me, but because he said it was not appropriate that I didn’t have a husband. It’s noteworthy to mention that he was already married but in Egyptian culture, Muslim men are permitted to marry four wives and one of them is allowed to be a Christian. So I was the lucky lady. He asked me on our drive home many times if I would I ever convert to Islam. Absolutely not. Then, would I ever wear my hair covered in a scarf. No, never. But in his opinion, which he shared with me every day, my difficult adjustment to this strange, new life (which I often shared with him) would be made so much easier if I did a better job at conforming. He was a good friend and, among other things, he taught me a great deal of the Arabic that I now know how to speak. But once he started pointing out that my skirts sometimes inappropriately showed my knees, it was time for us to part ways. Now, remembering his advice, I simply wear a fake wedding ring and this seems to keep the unwanted attention at bay.
Not all of the men in Egypt are devout admirers of the quiet, covered woman.
In fact, Egypt is full of men who reject the young, pre-arranged marriages that are expected of them, and they put off having their children until after their thirties. This is unusual behavior, for sure, and it is harder than any Westerner can imagine to date regularly, and successfully, in this old-fashioned mega-conservative culture. Couples marry very young here because it’s the only real way they can get to know each other properly. It is against the law for an unmarried Egyptian person to get a hotel room with someone from the opposite sex and many landlords will not permit their tenants to have company of the opposite sex in an apartment, certainly not overnight. On the one hand, my inbox gets no rest from the incessant pings of eager young 20-something-year-olds who proclaim to think I am beautiful and want to have coffee. They proudly chase older women, and their goals certainly seem to involve bagging that elusive blonde. They are confident and aggressive and way more hypersexual than I thought any Middle Easterner could be. The problem is, men in the Middle East live at home until they are married, which means that a single man of any age probably still lives with his parents. Worse, to meet a man my age, you can certainly assume that the most you can ever hope for is to be Mistress, or Wife Number 2 or Wife Number 3, because by 40, an unmarried man is suspiciously abnormal. But guess what? I found one once. Believe it or not, I met someone who was much closer to my age than to my son’s, and he had never been married or had children (so he said…). As we grew closer, I wondered why the progression of our relationship never picked up steam like it should. The answer was again partly found in cultural expectations, and for the first time in my life, I realized that I was the kind of woman that most Egyptian families would never accept. I wouldn’t have, in all of my life, imagined that I would one day be hidden from a man’s family and friends out of shame. I was too old, too already-been-married, too divorced, too already-has-children, too Christian and too foreign to ever be considered proper partner material for an Egyptian prince, no matter how old he was and no matter how amazing I was. In this culture, the men want to sleep with Americans (and we can’t blame them, can we ladies?), but they will marry Egyptian virgins. Period. It feels normal for an American woman to be appalled by this at first, but then I must admit, I can understand how they feel, having a son myself. We want what we want for our baby boys.
There is good news. I’ve lost my American weight living in the Middle East.
The locals would tell you they have the most delicious food in the world, but I am not a fan. Egyptian food is heavy on the carbs. I’ve been hungry for most of the time I’ve lived here, in one way because this is not a culture of cars and drive-throughs and in another way because I simply can’t find the things I need to cook the foods I love myself. I bought all the ingredients for a winter pot of chili once, and then discovered that chili powder as I know it does not exist here. The kind of chili powder they sell in Egypt would kill a white person. Most days I live on salads and cheese sandwiches while I fantasize about my mother’s pot roast and potatoes. Dinner for one at a restaurant is often my only option, so I almost always pass on the sadness of eating out alone. Instead, I have made a habit of skipping meals altogether and taking long walks instead. The streets of a big city cry out to be explored, so most afternoons I strap on my earbuds and walk a few miles around the island of Zamalek where I live, all by myself, thinking hard about whether or not I love (or hate) living in absolutely anonymity. I never see anyone I know and nobody knows me either, which is what I keep reminding myself about as the locals gawk and stare at the inappropriateness of my Nike leggings. It can be very lonely and also very liberating, at the same time. I still don’t know some days how I feel about it all, but walking three miles a day instead of eating three meals a day has made me stronger and leaner. After ten years of trying to lose twenty pounds, it has turned out to be very simple and effortless to do here, where the whole world does not revolve around food, and so I try to focus on the positive. Plus, the Ramadan fast is coming, and I am pretty pumped about that.
What is not surprising is what I miss the most, and that’s my people back home.
I have a community of foreigners here with me, people who are all in the same boat as I am, who cope with these experiences too. We lean on each other to survive. There is always someone who is also having a lonely day, and when they call and say “I’m coming over!” I am always happy they thought of me first. I have an impressive international circle of girlfriends that I am also very proud of, Europeans and Middle Easterners alike, so I am not at a loss for regular company or friends. Quite the opposite. But these friends are not the ones who love me, who miss me, who think about me and how I’m really doing over here. They are not the people who live down the street, the ones who will come over and walk right in my front door, they are not the friends who have known me my whole life. They are not part of my history.
They are not like talking to my child on the phone, for example. There is nothing in this hemisphere that compares to hearing my son’s voice on the other end of the line, even one that has a terrible connection.
On a day when I am enduring the frustrating third-world internet I have grown accustomed to, I feel the pangs of homesickness when they are at their most brutal. Social media is my lifeline, and I cannot imagine the generations of people who have in the past done what I am doing now who didn’t have those instant tethers of connectivity to home. I would go insane if I could not log on and see what you guys are doing back home everyday.
I think I read somewhere, a million somewheres probably, that happiness doesn’t come find you and sit neatly in your lap for you to enjoy. You have to create it for yourself. You have to go out into the world and intentionally make the moves that line up a life that makes you happy. And I do try. It’s work, just like a job, and it’s hard, so much harder than I thought. Still, I wake up everyday and say prayers of thanks for the blessings I have been given and what this move to Egypt has enabled me to do for myself… financially, romantically, professionally, spiritually, and psychologically. It’s not a question of whether I need to be here or not. I know I do; this is my home and I do love it. There is something about every day here that makes me smile and feel gratefulness. There are beautiful things all around me that the people I know and love most in the world will never get to see, and I get to see them all the time. For this, I am deeply thankful. Sometimes, though, like this morning, when I made my pot of coffee with my very expensive imported Mr. Coffee machine, but then settled for a just-okay cup of coffee because I cannot get my favorite International Delight Sweet Cream here, I really just wanted to cry and get in my Jeep and go get a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Instead, I went for another long walk along the River Nile, and I must tell you, it was amazing.