Egypt, a Figment of my Imagination?

Maadi Cairo Egypt

Walking down the dusty streets of Maadi, Cairo I spotted a rare bouquet of sunflowers. Was it a mirage? My imagination began to run wild and carelessly, as I fondly envisioned all the beautiful fields of sunflowers I’d seen throughout the world.

I remembered the ones I had longed to run in, although my “manners” got the best of me; or perhaps it was the fact that I couldn’t quite possibly escape the moving vehicle that I was in?

Even though my mind was elsewhere, my heart was beginning to tangle in unfathomable knots, the arteries squeezing themselves together as I imagined bandaging my inner organ until it was so tight that a single cell couldn’t escape it.

That unexpected night in Maadi was a dervish blur, as my friend Acom and I happily stuffed ourselves with decadent Chinese food and the tastiest of apple shisha’s. I felt as if I were in an overheated Limbo, not knowing what would await the weeks to come.

I, along with the rest of Egypt, felt the nervous tension that was lashing out from every porous fiber of the country. I felt overly anxious, asphyxiated, and heartache. Again, I found myself away from my beloved and hated the monstrous wrath that both extremist religious and political sides were brewing, but there was nothing I could do.

The feeling of helplessness and despair was overwhelming as I realized that Egypt was no longer my second home, and it had not been for quite sometime. Everything that I loved about this country was disappearing before my bewildered green eyes.

I, along with the rest of Egypt, felt the nervous tension that was lashing out from every porous fiber of the country. I felt overly anxious, asphyxiated, and heartache.

I didn’t want to accept it. I refused. Even the flower stands with those bright yellow, silly flowers I loved the most, were dwindling in the smoldering, revolutionary heat. They became a figment of my imagination, as I could no longer wander the streets as I pleased.

Obviously, most things are more important than flowers, and perhaps even more beautiful. Some of my favorites?

Love, the unexpected kind, from an Egyptian stranger in the form of an old, toothy crooked smile. Especially when the stranger offered you free dates or lemon juice because the Egyptian sun had been relentless and unkind that day.

Happiness, the greatest kind, from my one month old Egyptian godson that stole my heart in an airport. 10 seconds, that’s all it took.

Wisdom, whether it’s wanted or not, from a mother and mentors who answered my international phone calls from Cairo (generally around 2 a.m. Tennessee time).

I didn’t want to accept it. I refused. Even the flower stands with those bright yellow, silly flowers I loved the most, were dwindling in the smoldering, revolutionary heat. They became a figment of my imagination, as I could no longer wander the streets as I pleased.

Anguish, the most gentle kind, in the form of tears fighting to break free from a beloved Egyptian sister, who took me into her home when I had nowhere else to go.

Egypt Nile

I realized all of this, long before, while driving by Meedan Tahrir and the ever-majestic Nile at night. I told myself, “Just one ‘last’ time.” I had to see her steel grey, frothy waves lapping up against the boats at night; the bewitching Nile that caused me to fall absolutely in stupid-love with Cairo the years before.

Though I tried to tell my friends and family hundreds of times why I love Egypt, no one would ever be able to understand until they could see this river for themselves, and try to imagine the change, turmoil and victories the nation has overcome for hundreds of years.

It’s certainly true that I have an intense love-hate relationship, resembling a Shakespearian drama, with this country. However, Egypt is a miraculous place where someone can take their dreams and turn them into something incredible, and perhaps unexpected.

You can see it along the streets in the form of a gourmet ice cream shop, a Western style boutique with Egyptian flair, in Khan where men have owned their shops for several generations, and where young bawabs (doormen) are sometimes able to receive some kind of small education.

Your tired soul, body and spirit will come to life here. You’ll challenge yourself, you’ll break down, and you will pick yourself back up. Your bones will ache until you’re able to return again. The Egyptian people are intelligent, fierce, and extremely proud of their country; even in the midst of such violence and confusion. They have hope, they want better lives, and they deserve to live in a country which embraces freedom of expression.

I couldn’t help but hold my staggering breath as I let the unbelievable memories pulsate through every single molecule of my shaking, exhausted body. I had fought with myself for at least one week, knowing that the messages from the U.S. Embassy, the Cairo Warden and my university were just the beginning. The news was maddening, full of bigotry and hatred in many aspects. I would have to leave Egypt, but was I ready?

You’ll challenge yourself, you’ll break down, and you will pick yourself back up. Your bones will ache until you’re able to return again. The Egyptian people are intelligent, fierce, and extremely proud of their country; even in the midst of such violence and confusion.

Then God said, “Whitney, ready or not?” [Insert the most emotional, traumatic, completely outrageous evacuation experience you can think of; complete with missing an international flight, being harassed by the airport staff, and not eating for six hours.] Before I could even think about replying, without unleashing every obscenity that I knew, I was on a plane to Germany.

I have had to hold my breath and pinch my skin a few times. I’ve said, “It’s true, don’t forget. You really have experienced all of that in your beloved Egypt the past years. Yes, you did hitch hike from Israel to get back home and you did go sand boarding in the most magical desert on earth.

Egypt Sisi

You did celebrate Ramadan with a group of strangers in Khan El Khalili, and you were led to a “safe shopping street” in Alexandria by a small family who treated you to lemon juice along the way. You met many friends who kept you out of trouble, some who dragged you in, and you wouldn’t have had it any other way.

You bellydanced,  haggled,  filed a few late night police reports, and ate wara aneb until you were drunk with happiness. You had all of your things stolen in Luxor, but had the time of your life and saw the Valley of Kings. Your loved ones in Egypt have watched over you like angels. See? Remember? Feel? It wasn’t just a figment of your wild imagination.”

اغنية يا المدان

Whitney Buchanan

Whitney Buchanan

Middle East Collective Founder

Whitney Buchanan is an American analyst on Gender Issues and MENA Affairs, currently based between Cairo and Berlin. She is also the founder of the Middle East Collective.

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