I know the names of all the hotel staff that I have seen or spoken to except for one man, from whom I have yet to extract a single word. (As a side note, I find it interesting that all of the cleaners and waiters the hotel deploys are male, whereas the only women are stationed as receptionists. The opposite arrangement usually prevails in the States.) The hotel employs a single janitor: a lean, smallish man with a Dalian mustache and sinewy figure. If he—hereafter named Frederic Henry :)— weren’t stooped by stress and solitude, I would conjecture he is at most 30 years of age, but circumstance has granted him the features of one who is 40. Of course I am but one observer, but I have neither heard nor seen Frederic speak to anyone in my two weeks here, as he is always alone while the other staff banter in Arabic. That is why, this evening when I rose at a brisk rap on my door, and found an expressionless Frederic perched outside, I thrilled that I might finally be able to penetrate the silence that had enveloped this figure for so long. “Masaa el kheer! [Good evening!]” I piped up. But without a word, Frederic took my greeting as a sign to sweep past me and deposit on my bed two bags of folded laundry that he had been clutching under his arm. “Laundry?” I asked. Frederic turned, yielded a grunt, and hastened out of the room—no eye contact, no word, nothing. As a young girl in Egypt, I have grown used to being the one to avert the eyes and chasten the tongue with strangers, but I have yet to receive and observe such behavior. This interaction therefore was just weird for me; but another incident yesterday makes me wonder if it is a common occurrence, or even an expectation, that persons such as Frederic comport themselves in this way: I was eating lunch with some coworkers in the office when some cheese from my Egyptian pancake dripped onto the table. I blurted out a sorry and reached for a tissue to clean the desk, but a colleague stopped me: “That’s the office boy’s job, you don’t worry,” he stated somewhat firmly, then laughed. I do not know if his words should have affected me but they made me feel guilty, and I immediately wiped the cheese from the table. Encounters such as these consistently disquiet me; but rather than evade them, I usually try to understand their cultural underpinnings and respect both the local lifestyle and my own beliefs. In the process, I tend both to observe quietly and to ask tons of questions endlessly. Sometimes, the answers only plunge me into further bewilderment: there are certain subjects that are simply taboo, and I silence myself quickly— would you persist in probing?—as soon as I feel the hard bud of incipient tension forming. In this case, I am not sure if I will ever uncover Frederic’s real name, but I would like to still try, anyway.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Me: Can I have a water bottle?
Waiter: [scrunches up face into a perplexed frown]
Me: Water bottle?
Me: Water. Bottle. Water. [drawing shapes in the air]. Bottle.
OHHHHHHhhhhHHH. VOTR BOUTL! VOTR BOUTL!
Waiter: Ahhhhh. [smiles] Votr Boutl! Okay miss, have a seat.
Mate3rafsh Leh by Elissa
I love this song. My first week in Egypt has already stimulated a blossoming appreciation for Arabic music and its rich variety of melodies and styles. Something about the songs’ husky tones and rhythms, many of which do not exist in Western music, is haunting and irresistibly moving. I listen to the songs of Elissa, Mounir, Amro Diab, and Shereen in the company car every day and never fail to be simultaneously soothed and stirred by their beauty.
How do you know when to stop listening to and accepting another’s ideas in order to preserve your own autonomy? Or, how do you know when you have indeed reached that stage, at which your thought processes are being manipulated—not necessarily intentionally or even consciously—but consistently in some way being shaped and sculpted and guided excessively by one person? Should it concern you, that you might be too much influenced by another? What if this person is someone you admire, respect, trust, and confide in? What if you agree with what they say, even if their assertions belie your original assumptions?— Is it then healthy to adopt their perspectives, or is there a point at which you must irrefutably cut your connection to those thoughts and allow your own to mature more independently, until they are robust and cohesive enough to stand firmly on their own?
I have been pondering these questions now that I am somewhat on my own here in Cairo. And I’m wondering, even more generally, if life lessons—risks, experiences, consequences, the sweet fruits of indulgence and the dangers of temptation—should be independently discovered, or be allowed to be taught and imparted predominantly by a few trusted people. By sharing in, even willingly, too many of a peer’s or a parent’s perspectives, do we risk losing our capacity for creativity and, by extension, our independence and individuality? What does “autonomy” mean, and how important is it?
It is 2 a.m., and I just returned to the hotel from a scheduled dinner downtown. It is a Wednesday night, but blaring cars and pedestrians still crowd the streets and the neighboring grocery store bulges with families, children and seniors alike. My hotel room feels like a sanctuary with the raging chaos outside. This city never sleeps.
“Be not the slave of your own past. Plunge into the divine seas, dive deep and swim far, so that you shall come back with self-respect, with new power, with advanced experiences that shall explain and overlook the old.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
I wish I were a better person— a better daughter, a better student, a better friend, a better citizen of this world. A better role model. But what does “better” mean? I am still struggling to define this term for myself. My entire life, I have challenged myself to become the “best” at whatever I pursued— to this day, I cherish grandiose dreams for my future and my career. But more frequently and more intensely now, my dreams seem elusive and unfounded: In retrospect, I realize I never deeply understood the breadth of my own goal. My interpretation of “best” was capricious— feeble: shattered or reconstructed with a single confident word of another person, a criticism by a mentor, a momentous achievement by a peer. In other words, I defined my potential and my erstwhile success chiefly through the eyes and opinions of other people, shifting the critical process of self-discovery from my own control to the unfeeling cradle of the world around me.
I thought I was strong, even sometimes headstrong to the point of being bullheaded, but recent events in my life have proven me sorely wrong. I am impressionable, naive, and indecisive. My ignorance of most subjects there are to explore is overwhelming— I’ve realized I know not even a fraction of what there is to know— and of what I formerly considered myself expert in. My consistent failure to meet expectations frustrates me endlessly. I want to improve, but then I realize that I have thought these thoughts and brooded over my flaws and pronounced courageous plans for their correction multiple times, but then always haplessly plunged myself into the same downward spiral of regression. Stretches of sloth punctuated by brief spasms of compunction. Is this my life? I don’t know. But now separated by my travels from my daily regimen and social life back home, I am able to judge my actions and behavior more independently and impartially. And I am not pleased.
I need to figure out what I want in life, and then commit myself to those goals. I need to trust fully those who love me most, because at the end of it all, those people will support me whether I succeed or fail. And I need to stop saying, “I need to” do something and just do it. It is foolish to make plans and promises if I do not materialize them. I guess the first step in this process is not giving up on my abilities; that will be a feat in itself. Wish me luck.
My Freshman 15 will be gained this summer. A single day has not passed on which I did not voraciously devour some new delectable Egyptian food: The sweets basbousa and konafa must be my favorites, but I have also sampled um ali; rice pudding; puddings galore of rainbow colors; the famous yoghurt drink with strawberry, mango, and honey; crème caramel cake; baklavas; and fresh strawberry, mango, guava, tamarind, and melon juice. I have also had koshary, an eclectic carb-lover’s dish of pasta, rice, dried lentils, fried onions, and garbanzo beans, three times in the past week, and yet my list of foods to taste and explore keeps growing longer. In most cases, I have tried these foods at the lively encouragement of my Egyptian friends, who with their customary warmth and geniality urge me to taste the best of every dish and drink while I can. So every time I am offered something, I do not refuse, but finish what I am given completely. Eating what is offered me, and, more importantly, eating it together with those who offered it to me, builds a bond of trust and empathy that only grows stronger with every shared meal. If I am comfortable enough to eat in front of them and with them, I am their friend and equal. If I am not, then that distance will not be bridged and relationship not formed. I have found that sampling and sharing food is the best way to make friends here, so I try to do it as often as I can. And I suppose it’s okay to indulge once in a while, anyway.