Out on My Own in Cairo

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When I first began visiting in Egypt in 2014, I never went anywhere unless it was with my husband. Even if I wanted to, I didn’t know any Arabic, and I had no clue how things work in Egypt realistically. It would’ve been impossible.

The more I learned about Egyptian transportation protocols over the ensuing years, the more intimidating it became. It’s complex, disorganized, and confusing on its own. But that wasn’t the only factor. I was married to a highly conservative, traditional Arab man, and that meant never traveling anywhere alone for the sake of principle and honor. The two factors created in me a monster of fear that I could never move independently in Egypt. Even if I had the know-how, I was at risk for being seen and treated as a dishonorable woman if I adopted such a lifestyle. And nothing has been more important for me than being clearly known as a chaste, virtuous woman. That’s been true since I was a teenager.

Anyway, things had to shift somewhat after I moved here permanently last spring. I still, for the most part, never traveled alone. But when my children arrived for last summer’s visit, my ex allowed me to go with them in Uber to places that were roughly around 10-15 minutes away.  But they definitely had to be with me. One time, after my daughter left and my son had started school here, he missed the bus. I took him in an Uber to drop him at school, but naturally had to ride home alone. My ex was out of town so he couldn’t have gone with me. I got in trouble for that. So the parameters were always burning their presence into my mind.

After I split up with my ex earlier this year, I was working a job that was 45 mins from home. By then, my 16 year old had arrived. Every day he would accompany me to work in Uber, sit around at cafes in the neighborhood until I got off, and we would ride home together. His sole purpose was to be my mahram escort. I was not married during those months, but I was so keen to keep my dignity and honor clear to everyone. So I stuck to what I had been doing and knew.

Eventually I met another man for a brief period. He lived on the other side of Cairo in Madinat Nasr. During Ramadan we met often for iftar or even suhoor. Many times he would travel to October to see me, but other times I traveled to him (again, in Uber, because I didn’t have a clue about anything else). Eventually my son, being a typical teenager, balked at having to be the third wheel all the time. By this time my daughter was here again, so I took her with me the majority of the time. But sometimes I just wanted to be out on my own. So on a few occasions I actually left my kids home and ventured out in Uber by myself, even during the late nights of Ramadan.

No one bothered me or treated me differently. Nobody gave me any looks of shame. And since moving around on my own had been not even worth a thought in my former American life, I began to ease about the idea altogether. I know what is ideal Islamically, and I still highly value that. But I was becoming less willing to cut out other important parts of my life just to secure my piety. I began to question if even Allah expected that sort of sacrifice at all.

Then, I reunited with my ex, and all the same restrictions were re-implemented. I didn’t really mind them until we moved to the more remote city of Banha, which lies 40 km north of Cairo. Being in Banha for the past 6 months and limited to only going out accompanied had become more and more of a strain. I didn’t see other Egyptian women living like this, as far as, never going out. Not to say that they were all going out alone in private cars with men, either. They were taking public transportation. And public transportation was the Rubik’s Cube of autonomy to me.

So when my ex and I recently divorced, he agreed to start teaching me how to get around the public transportation. Here, it has many layers. First, there are trains, like real trains, that travel from city to city from upper Egypt to the North Coast. Then of course in Cairo there is a metro, an underground network of train lines with stations throughout the city. Of course there are public bus lines as well, but these tend to be very limited in their route distribution. The prevailing mode of public transportation here in Egypt is the minibus/microbus system, which consists of multi-passenger vans that run along designated routes. There are countless mawwafs, or bus-stops, where these microbuses  congregate so routes can be transferred.  This system is completely informal, and that means that the mawwafs  can be put anywhere and everywhere. I am not even sure who decides how a spot is a good one for a mawwaf. The routes are determined based on need, and are being created and modified constantly. Like a city bus line, each microbus route has stops along the way until the end of the course is reached. So using the microbus system means knowing which mawwaf you need to get on the microbus that is going where you want. That might mean simply the microbus that goes to another mawwaf to change to another one, that ultimately takes you to your destination. Whenever you are on the microbus you need, you need to recognize which stop you want. So if you don’t know what the stops are, what the routes are, where the mawwafs are or how to get to them, then you’re basically screwed to use this method. And that was me.

Desperation and isolation made me fed up and I continued to pressure my ex about teaching me this system. A few nights ago he took me around Banha and explained the different areas of town that indicate “lines” (routes) that each microbus goes to. He showed me the two mawwafs that offer microbuses to the main Banha mawwaf that has lines to Cairo. This is what I most wanted to know. How can I get myself to Cairo….there’s not a whole lot to do in Banha.

So after getting that much clear, I ventured out on my own the next day (yesterday) to Cairo by myself with Shukurah.  My ex was kind enough to drop me at the big mawwaf to catch a ride to Cairo. The van seats 15, and as soon as I settle into a seat next to a young woman, I see here offering a part of her sandwich to my daughter (who embarrassingly refused it). Here in Egypt people are so generous, and being offered food by a stranger is common. I had a lady Uber driver offer to share her dinner with me she had been waiting to eat after fasting all day, but I encouraged her to enjoy it for herself. This particular lady asked me (in Arabic) if I was Egyptian, and I told her I was American, but she said I seemed I could be Egyptian. These sorts of compliments really make me feel proud of myself!

So we were off, the entire ride costing 7 pounds per seat. Microbus drivers drive like I used to in Atlanta, haha: weaving lanes, speeding, and playing loud music. That afternoon’s selection was some man singing his heart out about something romantic. Most Arabic music is devastatingly romantic, with lyrics that far surpass Western songs in complexity and imagery. While most Americans would probably feel they are in a death trap in a microbus like that, I trust Egyptian drivers because they know how to react well and don’t get as distracted with their phones like Americans seem to do. As a matter of fact, not a day passed in Atlanta when it seemed like I was driving by a major wreck on the interstate. Here, I’ve barely seen any like that.

My stop on this line (destination Shubra) was the kobri el metro- or the bridge that links to the underground metro station. After I got off the microbus I had to pick my way through a small side street to the stairway that led to the elevated walkway which passed over the highway to the metro station on the other side. Along the entire bridge were street vendors sitting along the sides selling everything from socks and clothes to snacks and hair accessories. With a little poking around I finally found the way in to the station itself, then bought a ticket (my daughter was free) to the station I intended to exit at. 5 pounds. I headed toward the Giza line.

When the train arrived it was packed- mostly with men. I was trying to work out how I would fit myself in with them and avoid any unwanted advances. Fortunately, when the doors opened, most everyone left. I went in and found a small bench away from the few other men who had come in the car. As the train traveled south, more passengers got on (again, mostly men), but no one bothered me. No one spoke to me or even, from what I could tell, looked at me for more than a split second. For all the horror stories I heard about the sexual harassment here being worst in the metro, I was shocked. To be honest, everyone was quiet, keeping to themselves, and going on with the business of life. It was actually a more positive experience than I would say I lived in Atlanta, when it came to riding Marta there.

I got off at Sadat station because I had to switch to the Helwan line. There was not really anything tricky about this, and fortunately from that point I could stay in the “women only” cars. I only had two stops to travel on that line before I reached the station I wanted to exit through: Sayeda Zainab. There were two exits out of the station and I was not sure which one I should take. So I randomly chose one and even though it was only 6 pm, was very dark, and there were no immediately visible signs of a lively street life. I was feeling a bit more wary at this point and going my way much more alert, and totally ready to try to kick someone’s ass if anyone tried to bother me. I looked for any direction of bright lights, because that would mean a well populated street with stores and safety in numbers. It only took me a few minutes to get to such an area (in Cairo these are rarely far away). I planted myself on the sidewalk in front of a medical supply store staffed with a lady, and ordered an uber. It was a safe place to wait, and ubering in Egypt usually means at least a 10-15 minute wait. This time was no different.

I didn’t have a proper address for my destination so I called the place I was trying to reach and they explained to the driver where to go. So at that point, I was in an area of Cairo called Qasr Al Aini that I was totally unfamiliar with and never had been to before, and I was going to a place in Mokattam where I had also never been before. Mokattam, as we arrived to it, was clearly in a remote desert region, with high sand and rock hills all around. The main street we came through, called street 9, had a lot of decent shops and restaurants, looked solidly middle-upper class, and was well lit. I felt encouraged about that, because I had heard negative things about Mokattam and imagined a run down ghetto. It was not that…at least not that part.

Past street 9 we turned into a residential area with expensive villas. I was going to a place called the Fegi House, to check out a potential room to rent. We found the address of the house and waited outside while the landlord came to open the gate, which was secured with a keypad lock. That uber trip (including a 20 LE discount promo), ended up costing 46 pounds.

I spent 25 minutes or so talking to the landlord about the particulars of the room and lifestyle of the house itself. My main questions were about how transportation works, because clearly uber would not be a cost efficient way to travel if I stayed there. The villa neighborhood didn’t seem close to any microbus lines. The landlord explained that there was another street in the compound that goes directly back to street 9, and there are microbus stops on that road. I expected to uber back to the station like I had come, but the landlord was nice enough to drop me at the Syeda Aisha mawwaf on his way to maadi.

Now, since all this microbus/mawwaf stuff was brand new to me, the last thing I had planned or expected was to be taking any in Cairo that night. I was mostly focused on familiarizing myself with the metro lines. Nevertheless, this was going to be the only way to get home. So as advised, I went into the mawwaf and asked for the microbus to Tahrir metro. Found that no problem, and the ride was only 1.50 each for my daughter and I- 3 pounds.

Once I got to Tahrir I entered the metro again, and got a ticket to koliyet el zahraa, which is situated right next to the mawwaf for the cars that return to Banha. 3 Pounds. I had been to that particular mawwaf many times with my ex, so I knew exactly where to find the Banha cars. By 8 PM I was already on my way back home.

But then the car had trouble about halfway there. The driver ended up pulling into a benzene station and tried to fix it himself, but couldn’t. some of the passengers went to the road to try to flag down another microbus. But after some time the driver himself found another microbus with space to take us remaining passengers back to Banha.

Once in Banha I got in a Suzuki. In Banha there are two types of Suzuki: the private kind, like a taxi, and the public kind, that run on lines like a microbus. I took the public one for the Ishara line, and got off at nagda stop so I could take my daughter to McDonald’s. After being so good with all that unfamiliar traveling, she earned that much!

I feel much more confident about figuring out the rest of what I don’t know now. I feel more empowered, Alhamdulillah. And that’s not small because there are some potential new developments coming my way soon. But I won’t write about that until next time….

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Too Much

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I over-think things. I believe I over-feel them, too. And in days like these, when a lot is uncertain, both are going on at max levels.

I keep telling myself that the details won’t matter, in the scheme of things. I remind myself how many details sifted through my obsessions before, and never mattered in the end. The bottom line always is: life goes on. It goes on in spite of missed marks, scars, and indecision. It goes on in spite of things that felt unbearable, or things that seemed guaranteed. It just keeps going and going.

My heart doesn’t understand this always. Sometimes my mind doesn’t, either. And so they sit and meditate on what makes sense to them both, and sometimes they both agree to fear what may come, like partners in a plan for an apocalypse.

And that’s where I have to leave it for now, I can go no further this time. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week. After some time passes and convinces these other two to chill out.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

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I’m not going to talk about the song, haha. Literally, winter is on in Egypt. I haven’t been out on the balcony in a while, and right now I could use it. But it’s too dang cold.

There is no central heat in Egypt. What that means is, the same thick cement walls that absorb heat in summer, also absorb the cold of winter. There were days last year when I actually found it a few degrees warmer outside than it was in my apartment.

Some homes keep space heaters. But mostly we survive it by dressing in layers. Right now I am wearing a long nightgown with pants underneath, and a fleece pullover on top. I am wearing fluffy thick socks within my fluffy hi-top slippers. At night, the more blankets, the better.

The same oven heat from Taita’s cooking that I dreaded in summer, I am now always anticipating. And don’t think that going out to places will bring a change of temperature- too many cars seem to have broken heaters along with their broken A/C. And if businesses like cafes are equipped with a heating source, chances are the cost of living is preventing them from using it generously.

Egyptian cold discomfort isn’t really about the temperature. I grew up in mountains with snow where it was much colder in temperature than here. But when you stay in moderate cold weather 24/7, it starts to settle into your entire body, and stays with you all day and night. It’s an entirely different feeling than the exposure to cold one gets when just briefly passing through it from one warm environment to the next.

I sent my two long winter coats to be cleaned and pressed after being stuffed in bags under the bed for long months. Taita is giving me something called a “dafeya”- a thicker sheet to put on top of the mattress sheet to add extra warmth- as well as some heavier blankets. After my own coats come back, I’ll be taking my daughter to buy a new, thick one for herself, in shaa Allah. The coat she arrived with has since been outgrown, and isn’t quite sturdy enough for this weather. She also needs more socks and cotton undershirts.

In a strange way, managing the cold offers a diversion from the occasional pain and sentimentality following my recent divorce. It reminds me that each day has its tasks, its plan for survival and comfort. Day after day will pass, and seasons will change, eventually with new tests and discomforts of their own. Before I know it, winter will be ending, and scenes will be changing. I will remain patient, in shaa Allah.

Another Maghreb

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Another sun setting, releasing the cold Egyptian night to push at the shuttered windows. Another dinner made by Taita with Bismillah and Alhamdulillah. This time it’s a pizza with a crust made with mashed potatoes, but I am physically drained so I wait to get a plate.

It’s just another night, but it’s the last night of my marriage in shaa Allah. Ya Allah, You alone know what I need. You alone know what I’ve carried as a suffering, and what I must release as a comfort. You alone know how powerless I am, how small in this world and in this land. You alone know every intention I made with every release of what I had, and with every reach toward what I did not have.

Oh Allah I am needing You so much. I am in need of any and every good You can bring to me. I try, and I plan, and I make effort…but only You can make the ways, ya Allah. Only You can make the successes happen and bring to an empty hand what is needed to fill it. Only You can bring to a broken heart what can heal it. Only You can bring to me what I need most and wish for deeply.

Help me, ya Allah. Without Your help, I can do nothing. Help me be patient, if that’s what it takes. Help me be proactive, if that’s what it takes. Help me work hard, if that’s what it takes. Help me be brave, if that’s what it takes. Help me trust, if that’s what it takes. Help me be cautious, if that’s what it takes. Help me choose well, ya Allah- help me always see clearly in every moment, what that moment takes.

What Comes in December

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I just had a brief chat with my husband. He told me that he plans to divorce me no later than December 31. He said he is giving the time between now and then to me as sadaqa to a friend, to enjoy who I am as a person and so on. But, beyond that, he “wouldn’t go one more day in this marriage”. Those were his words.

We have been doing well as “friends”. But I didn’t feel it that harshly, that I myself couldn’t go “one more day in this marriage”. To me the necessary and pending conclusion of it has been enough, so that stung to hear. But in general I have no desire to continue the marriage as well.

The original plan was that I would get that divorce as soon as I leave to take my daughter back to her father. That process has been upheld while I waited for a renewed passport to be issued, which I now have. At this point, we are just waiting from her father’s side for the flight booking, and I can’t predict whether the travel will be in a week or two, or after the new year.

In any case, I’m out of cash. Even if my departure took a little longer, I didn’t imagine waiting any part of it out while divorced. I am waiting for a few hundred from some amended state tax returns I filed a month ago, but I can’t predict when I will get that, either. I’ve been living in my husband’s family home in Banha, and while I am welcome to do so for as long as needed (even as a divorced woman), it’s been difficult in many ways and I would rather be somewhere else if it were possible.

If I returned to America to stay at the time of this upcoming trip for my daughter, I would be going with really no cash. The tax return I am expecting is not enough to go very far, and I would have no car. So I thought to come back to Egypt on the return ticket and just stay here a couple months while I await my bigger 2018 tax return. The few hundred I am expecting soon would be enough to live here comfortably for that much time, and give me a much needed break before digging into the hard work that awaits me when I go to America to rebuild my life again. I’ve been through a lot this year. Not to mention that ever since I moved here, some one of my kids (or more) have been with me, and I haven’t been at luxury to just look after myself.  It would be a nice way to say goodbye to my home, until I am able to return with everything I need to never have to say goodbye to it again.

But the reality is, if those few hundred don’t come through by the time my daughter-dropping happens, coming back here will mean coming back to the home of an ex. I really can’t see myself doing that. Some of my friends have offered alternative suggestions of rooms I can rent and places I can work, so maybe that’s something to explore…I could definitely use an option like that if my flight gets booked in January.

I’ll try to take things one day at a time. It’s not easy and I don’t need to burden myself. As long as I stay within my comfort zone and doing what I believe in most, I’ll be fine in shaa Allah.

 

 

 

 

Backwards and Forwards

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I was reading my entries here from my trip to California in January 2013. I was a little saddened to feel that the quality of my descriptive writing had diminished since then. I felt like a part of me, the part of me that had the momentum then to write vivaciously, had died. But I am not fully dead, because I’m still writing, still trying.

Similar to now, I wrote then during a time in my life where a relationship was ending and I was exploring a new life path ahead. The main themes at that time seemed to be conquering loneliness and discovering who I am, or at least defining myself. In one entry, I wrote that I will find what I am seeking in those areas by following Allah. And it’s true, that has happened.

It’s been nearly 6 years since then. In those years I found a true home in Egypt. I have found purpose and comfort in the vision and experience of a life here as a Muslim woman. Along the way, I realized who I was. I realized who I was when I was asked to give myself up, and I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. What I am not willing to change, or let go of in myself, that’s who I really am. That is the soul inside me which I find so valuable to hang on to.

And somehow, I found a way not to be terrified of loneliness. In Egypt, it’s impossible to be alone- it’s just too crowded. And knowing Egypt is always there for me, I could be anywhere in the world and find solace in knowing I have love and connection available to me here.

So despite the pains I’ve meandered through, despite the sacrifices and gains that have passed through my hands, despite the euphoria and heartbreak of love that has patterned itself through my recent years, I have achieved something that I saw I needed in my life back in 2013. What I have been through, no matter how painful at times, gave something back. Everything that happened, it mattered, and it bore fruit. And that’s how I can know now that whatever is coming next in my life, I can make the most of both the hardship and the ease.

Everything is Made From Parts

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I found an old document I pulled off the internet about a decade ago, while I was at work. It was titled “reinvention template”. It contained several introspective questions to help someone clarify their desires and goals to move forward into a new direction when stuck. I had started answering the questions, but never finished. Nor had I looked at that document again until now.

I was startled by the amount of insight I seemed to have then. Why do I see things with so much more complexity now? But what I read refreshed me, and reminded me that the way to any success is one step at a time. Or as I put it then, “one contraction at a time, one court date at a time”.

Everything I want right now is achievable, I believe. I even got tired today of trying to figure out what I want, because I want many things that seem to be in opposite directions. So I just said screw it, I want it all. I will try to do it all!

I want a home in Egypt. I also want financial stability. I will go for both. They are both things that will take time, but they are both important to me. I will create a life for myself both in the United States (again) and then in Egypt when I can. I will have and keep both.

And for that matter, I will never again get rid of anything that I like and that is important to me. Not for anyone or anything. I am tired of regretting what I’ve given up, only to find myself trying to regain it again after the sacrifice didn’t play out as I’d hoped. I’ve worked hard, all my life, for all the things I achieved. I should’ve remembered that hard work I already gave, more than the dreams I want to chase. The key to those dreams being realized is more hard work, not sacrificing what all the hard work brought me!

The other recent realization I came to is that it takes a little more than stability to have a peaceful and fulfilling life. It also takes mercy. Why? Because we never do things truly on our own, and usually the only people who are willing to step in to help, to lift, to support…are those with mercy in their hearts. Everyone knows a stable but unmerciful person- they look like a scrooge, don’t they? Meanwhile a merciful person who is not stable, isn’t able to offer much to others. When I was at my most stable, I showed mercy to others. I still would and will and do. But I need mercy now, myself. And I need to be the first person to give it to myself, by dismantling the obstacles I keep thinking are around me. That happens ONE BARRIER AT A TIME.