Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Today is my last day in Egypt.

I leave here with so much love in my heart.

It is never easy to leave J. But, instead of sinking into the sadness of absence, I leave Egypt feeling more lifted than ever.

I leave with a love that is much tougher than distance.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

To live by

"Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper." --Ray Bradbury

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

six hours forward (4)

Here are some things I'm getting used to here:

By afternoon the water comes out of the faucet very warm, even if you only turn the Cold dial. You can step out of the shower dripping and be dry by the time you make it down the hall to the bedroom.

Walking in the street. Between the every-now-and-then cat poop pile and the constant dripping of air conditioners, it makes more sense to walk in the street. I am also getting used to the double parked cars and hectic nature of traffic. During my first visit I walked quite defensively, a bit frightened by the close proximity between my body and the passing vehicles. Now I navigate more calmly.

Ramadan. Many places are closed til sundown. Some keep specific day hours(opening late) and/or Ramadan-specific menus. I am used to not consuming food outside unless in a restaurant until the sun sets. Used to the energy that blooms once darkness falls.

The language. I have yet to take a taxi out of Zamalek by myself but I can order food and turn down beggars politely. Very small victories, as any new language is complicated and takes time. Spending time here is definitely sharpening my skills. Slow but sure.

When possible, have small bills. A lot of establishments/delivery men do not have change for larger bills. Smaller bills are often coveted, rare things.

Air conditioning is your friend. I've always been one who prefers fresh air to the canned stuff, but in Egypt summer you don't have a choice. It is your refuge, your destination and resting spot. Getting used to air conditioning means you also become acquainted with brown outs--frequent short-term power outages due to all the machined cold running. We've been fortunate the last few days--the power has stayed on strong.

The time difference. Aiwa, the days still seem to pass too quickly, but I am sleeping better and waking easier. Jet lag departed with little fanfare.

Call to prayer. Funny to think I'm getting used to the frequent calls echoing through the streets. I never want to get used to such a beautiful thing, but there are days here when I only note the one signifying Iftar. It is a part of my world and my life now.

Being with J. After 3+ months of being apart, I am welcoming the routine of our mornings--catching up on the news over breakfast, our walks seeking coffee. I am getting used to a hand on my leg as we fall asleep, getting used to the echoes of our silly songs throughout the flat. I am becoming familiar with the ring on my finger. I am getting used to the normalcy this trip is creating between us, and even now writing this I cannot bear to think about leaving next week. I am typing these words at the coffee shop alone with tears totally owning my eyes. To think of being on my way home in the airports alone...my heart breaks and dams on my saline fail, it all spills. It is too soon, always too soon.

Long distance requires a person to be torn and remain torn. Torn between always arriving or departing. Torn between time zones. Torn within our hearts--I miss my family and look forward to returning to their every day presence, but doing so means leaving my love. And this sort of thing is no one's fault--circumstance is circumstance. I am forever proud of J and his career--I support what drives him and I root for him no matter where he goes. He has already made compromises for us by turning down opportunities that have come his way. You love who you love, you fall when you fall.

One of J's colleagues, upon hearing we went to high school together, asked if we considered ourselves "high school sweethearts." We looked at each other and in unison said no. Because we weren't. We were good friends, and we kissed once. We bonded over our shared feeling of not belonging in the small town from which we came. Over the years we fell out of touch, an email here or there checking in. We each had our loves and losses. His career took him out of the country, and I remember getting the news and writing to congratulate him. For whatever reason, great distance was required for our hearts to connect. We both had to live an awful lot before returning to each other, and I wonder if this is a magical thing, or simply how things are and have to be. Life is full of lessons and tragedy and victory. I believe all connections serve their purpose, and perhaps some are so important they require much living in order to truly flourish, cause current.

Long distance means being torn. Certain tears can benefit us. A tear can bring flexibility, less rigidness. A tear can mean exposure to space. Long distance is everything about space. You learn to live in the tear. You learn to sew and solder the edges. You learn to swim the moat; you learn both sides. If you are smart, and careful, and live beyond the limitations of circumstance, you will survive being torn. If you let in the hopeless, if you glare at the jagged and never see beyond it, then you risk more tearing. You risk being torn in two.

Long distance love requires a level of maturity, and I don't claim to always have that, true. I do, however, have a heart full of love. Full of trust. Full of commitment. Long distance brings a patience both fierce and fragile--it is a patience beyond anything else I've ever known. It is something that grants me a new sort of confidence but it will also bring me right up to my breaking point. J and I have both wanted to throw our phones through the wall at times--we have both felt the rage of separation and clenched teeth til they cracked...wanted or not, we found our limits(or maybe our limits found us).

I am blessed to have my use of words, my constant urge to express my heart. I am blessed to have a partner who welcomes/accepts that--a partner who uses the same tool of expression. I daydream of a day when our correspondence will be yellowed and shared with our little ones. A day when distance will be this thing we overcame and remember, an obstacle squashed. I look forward to more of our normalcy, and it will be ours because it will never be "normal"(whatever that is anyway). It will be ours because we lived and fought for it.

This is why a true home can never be a city, a building, a location outside of the body. To find home, you must crack open the ribs with bare hands, maybe teeth. Home is a chaos of vein, a red so red it's blue so blue it's black. We carry it around open doored, both vulnerable and protected. This is why my family is my home, and J is my home, all my connections are home, and the page and pen are home. Everything in my heart is the roof over my head.

And I'll come to the table every time as a soldier knowing that.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

six hours forward (3)

Pardon the radio silence--J and I were taking a little vacation in Dhahab at one of our favorite places on the Red Sea. Internet connection was sparse at best and we were busy being on vacation. We boarded the plane back to Cairo happily tired, with potential sun poisoning, and newly engaged.

But that particular story is reserved for my habibi and me, at least for the time being. There was a big moon, a shooting star, and Mohamed Barakat's theme song stuck in my head. كمال.

Today it is Saturday and I am exhausted. For the majority of this trip thus far my body has betrayed me. The night before our Dhahab departure I accidentally ate meat(I've been vegetarian since...well...for a long time now, at least thirteen years). The meat was hidden under a delicious slab of salmon and a bed of lentils. I stretched a full fork of it to J. Why does this taste SO good I asked. He took a bite, looked at me with an affirmative nod and gave me one word: bacon.

Of course. BACON.

So that wrecked my guts for the next few days. Yesterday the painful gut returned along with the dull throb of head pain that refuses to ever really, truly leave. I haven't been sleeping that great unless I take a sleep aid, which renders me useless and sluggish the next morning. Once again normalcy becomes some far fetched luxury. I'm used to the guilt and anxiety that comes with the chronic pain, but I was hoping that travel might magically free me of those woes. My body, however, appears to have a death grip on discomfort. Here is hoping I can climb that mountain at some point today.

Yesterday J and I ventured to Tahrir Square. During my last visit the area was blocked off by tanks, soldiers, and barbed wire. This time we walked right through and stared out over the square as traffic flowed busily around its center. A simple yet intense moment for me here. I hold quite dear to me the images of Tahrir during the revolution. And there we were, where it all happened, yet nothing really remained. There is the vandalized memorial in the center of the circle, and nearby some sawhorses tangled with barbed wire, at the ready to block off he road if shit should indeed go down again. J explained that it is one of if not the most important traffic hub in the city. She was, in fact, busy with busses and taxis.

There is something to be said about that feeling/moment of disconnect and connect--when there is one place, a single location, that has witnessed so much. I suppose it is history itself that I'm trying to express/explain here. It is not just the square but also what is around it--the Egyptian Museum, for example. The ultimate history--mummified remains and gifts of pharoahs. The burned out remains of Mubarak's headquarters stands here as well. A shell with scars of black smoke riding its sides, empty squares in place of busted glass. This is a standing ghost, a testament of the 2011 revolution. It is a powerful thing to see.

2011 wasn't the beginning of Tahrir's exposure to the peoples energy. In 1977: the Egyptian Bread Riots(uprising to protest Mandated termination of state subsidies on basic foods). In 2003: mass protests against the war in Iraq. In January of 2011, over 50,000 people occupied the square in protest of then-president Mubarak. By the beginning of February, over 300,000 people occupied the area. The revolt lasted nearly three weeks until Mubarak stepped down. I recall watching all of this unfold at work in Pittsburgh--each day I turned on the live stream to Tahrir, compelled to follow this revolution for reasons I still don't quite understand(an eerie bit of foreshadowing to me being here perhaps, as J and I weren't together then and he wasn't working here yet anyway).

Tahrir Square during the 2011 revolution

I could not turn away from it, crying daily over reports of protestors in clashes with police, and oh my tears at the footage of celebration which followed Mubarak's official announcement to step down. All of this of course followed with the events of June 2013--when thousands of Egyptians gathered in the square again to oust new president Morsi. This is when J started working here.

I felt overwhelmed standing there looking over the square yesterday. I though of so many Egyptians who must pass this area daily, who might have lost a loved one during police clashes...who may have themselves stayed there night after night screaming voices raw for their people. And there we stood on a Friday afternoon under strong sun and normal traffic flow.

normal flow of Tahrir

I asked J if it was safe to take a picture and he shook his head sadly no. Not there. Police were surely on the watch for such things.

I pause here to say there are many times when I want to take a picture--many, many times, especially in Zamalek where I am staying. I want to show loved ones back home the intricacies of the island neighborhood--the signs of various business, the buckled sidewalks and double/triple parked cars along the street. I want to take pictures of the beautiful dust-covered buildings, the sag of overloaded laundry lines, the insanity that is Egyptian traffic. But Zamalek hosts many international embassies, all guarded by soldiers, and taking photos might raise unnecessary suspicion.

During my visit, there has been evidence of the police stepping up there game a bit, being more police-like. When we returned from Dhahab, a policeman confronted our driver and seized his papers, due to where he was parked and that it appeared he was picking up tourists(us). J had to go with the driver to show proof of residency so the driver could have his card back. I stayed in the car, doors locked. Just this morning, all cars double parked on our street were being booted by police. On our walk to Cairo Kitchen for lunch we counted nearly ten of them. You aren't really allowed to double park but most people do. An odd sight to see. I always make sure to affirm with J what exactly I should do if a policeman asks to see my I.D or doesn't give it back, or if I am grabbed on the street(this hasn't happened but I like to be aware).

Ramadan continues, and is nearing its end. I have enjoyed being in Egypt during this time--I knew very little about this religious observance before arriving. During our time in Dhahab I enjoyed a few of the Ramadan drama/soaps, especially Mohamed Barakat's show(I will most likely have his theme song stuck in my head until the end of time).

I have ten days left in Egypt. My time here continues to be amazing, despite a sour stomach and growling head. Small potatoes compared to the presence of my love. Long distance suuuuuuuuuuuucks(u's have been added in attempt to express the true crappiness of said distance). We have done well apart but we are most certainly better together. When one of us dare mentions the upcoming departure the other one immediately shuts us up. In honor of that I'll stop speaking about it. Right now I am here, and thankful for it. As my life continues and grows and becomes more, I realize that I have many homes, many places to call it. How proud I am that Egypt is one of them.

More soon. Fatigue is wrapping its burly arms around me.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Six hours forward (2)

It's 6:17 am and I'm on J's balcony with a full cup of coffee already. I've been waking up at 2 and 3 am without fail. Jet lag hasn't left me yet. Today will be 100 degrees(yesterday we topped out at 109), so this early morning balcony moment is both a small and grand pleasure. Soon this slight breeze will turn unforgiving so I'll enjoy it while I can.

Buildings drip up and down the streets, a chorus line of air conditioners and cooling systems. Yesterday, shortly after I posted here, the power went out again and J and I felt the main room turn from cool to oppressive in a matter of minutes. She kicked back on just as we were about to leave for dinner. Our original plan was to eat at Trattoria, a beautiful Italian restaurant within walking distance, but when we arrived the staff was standing outside and the lights inside were off. Power outage. We slipped into a coffee shop to discuss plan B.

Timing is everything during Ramadan. We were two hours from sunset. J explained to me that dining out options might be limited because a lot of places close right before Iftar(the evening meal when Muslims break their fast). Ordering in can be just as tricky. The Thai place down the street from the flat was open, and the call to prayer signifying Iftar started as we were finishing dinner. From above we watched men gather on the floor of a mobile phone store to break bread. One sat outside lighting a cigarette as a card table was unfolded in front of him. A group of women walked by with bags of McDonalds in their hands. Breaking fast happens quite suddenly(which makes sense considering individuals have been fasting since sunrise). Also worth noting: a few hours before sunrise, you might hear someone in the streets banging pots and pans as a warning to others that fasting will begin soon so you better get that grub on.

After dinner we stopped at the Flamenco to have a drink. J and his coworkers frequent the establishment and the staff there love him. As soon as they see him they coo "Habibi!" and kiss both his cheeks. It's pretty darn adorable.

We will try Trattoria again tonight, and tomorrow we leave for Dhahab! We're staying on the Red Sea for a few days. I can't wait to search for shells and play soccer on the beach. More soon.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

six hours forward (1)

I was homesick before the plane took off. I started sobbing when I clicked the seat belt in place and held my small travel pillow to my mouth as J tried his best to comfort me while trying not to get offended as I hiccuped out I want to go home I don't want to be here. I am infamously terrible with departures, big and small--to the grocery store or to another country. They leave me wading in sadness and worry. I fret leaving, I fret returning. I am not sure where this comes from but I've struggled with departure all my life, and there I was thirty-three and imploding on a plane still grounded.

We entered the sky without incident. I grew calm under a cloud of gin and tonic, eventually letting go and finding fitful sleep.

It was a long, long time of traveling. Direct flight from Cincinnati to Paris. We found pockets of sleep, watched movies when we couldn't. In Paris we took the RER into the city, and I stood beneath the Eiffel Tower in a cool 53 degrees. We were there early, before the tourists arrived. I was surprised at the size of it, the color of the girders. J and I had Americanos nearby as the downpour began. I was soon covered in flaky bits from the complementary croissants on our table. We eavesdropped on the older American couple nearby struggling to order what sounded like one of everything on the menu. Their voices were pure Long Island.

The rain and fatigue hustled us back to Charles De Galle early. I was so tired I could barely see, despite the coffee. On the train we leaned into each other. I kept glancing at other passengers, thinking about how most of them were in the midst of their daily routine, how that morning might be another blank one in the bucket, easily forgotten. And we were there on a new adventure, how that day to us would be significant and remembered. We're basically ghosts, I said to J. I spent a long time staring out the window, trying to memorize the graffiti, the trash, the emergence and descent of the train's path, the way we swayed in place and passed stop after stop of bored passengers, beautiful women and perfectly tailored suits.

Our plane to Cairo was quite full, four hours in length. Try as I might I couldn't sleep. I dozed and woke up to turbulence, which brought the tears again. I choked down the in-flight pasta and drank coffee I could not taste nor feel the effects of.

And then we landed. We had fifty degrees in Paris, but in Egypt the air screamed 100. Like walking into a hair dryer. Multiple flights landed at once, stretching the passport lines to their limit. A sweet little girl named Sofia danced around in front of us with a bag of chocolate, terrorizing her mother every time she grabbed her Chanel bag with melted fingertips. We watched a policeman in his summer whites bring juice boxes to people in line as call to prayer announced the sun setting and the end of the day's fasting(it's Ramadan). I nudged J to point out the man's dark polka dotted briefs, easily seen through his uniform white pants. It was a brief chaos finding our bags, getting shoved aside as I tried to keep up with J through the crowd. Our driver greeted us with a smile and scooped our bags from us. Our drive home was quite quick due to lack of traffic. Most people were busy eating at home or pulled over to the side of the road for communal feasts.

After a shower I slept for 17 hours, my longest stretch of shut-eye yet. I woke up with a headache and spent the remaining seven on the couch with a wet wash cloth.

Today I managed to get up shortly after J left for work. I even worked out, showered, and made it to the coffee shop. After yesterday's nonexistenence, this feels like quite a victory.

The streets are mostly quiet during the day here. Most Egyptians are at home laying low, sleeping. They come back to life once they break fast, after sundown. There are specific tv shows(some like soap operas) that play during Ramadan--some only air late in the night when most people are still awake. It's an interesting time to be here. Since I do not observe Ramadan, I am staying as respectful as possible. This means no eating or drinking outside during daylight hours. Places are still open--I can have a coffee inside the Coffee Bean(as I am doing now) as long as I drink it inside.

A lot of people back home have asked me questions about being here--mainly regarding what I can or cannot do as a female foreigner. I'm still learning myself, as this is only my second visit. As an American, there are situations where I might get preferential treatment--during my last visit, for example, J and I watched a taxi pass up an Egyptian businessman to scoop us first. Some drivers try the old "meter's broken" trick to try and get a larger fare but this is usually thwarted by J once he starts speaking Arabic to them.

If I am with J, most likely I will not be addressed--he will be spoken to first. To be honest this put me off a bit during my first visit, but it isn't too big of a deal. His landlord, for instance, would not look at me directly when J introduced us. And by directly I mean at all. Have you ever been introduced to someone, face to face, and have them not look at you? It made me feel all kinds of awkward. J explained that it was because I was a female with her head uncovered. It wasn't so much of a head scratcher once I was told the reason, though still a little strange.

Which brings me to what people back home tend to ask me the most. Do I, as a female, have to be covered? The answer is yes and no. I do not have to keep my head covered here in Zamalek. In other parts of the country, yes I might have to. It depends where you are. I keep a long scarf with me at all times, just in case. I do have to keep my legs covered. I also keep my tattoos covered--I don't have to, but it is respectful to do so, and it prevents any unnecessary trouble or unwanted questions/attention. I don't mind--most of my ink is on my back and upper arms, so I stay well stocked in long scarves. This is my first experience with summer in the desert, so I'm trying to be creative with my attire in effort to stay cool. In two days here I've already learned: it ain't easy, and there's a point where you just have to grin, bear it, and let the sweat beads down the back roll. Today I'm in a long dress and gauze scarf. I bobby pinned the scarf to the front of my dress so I won't risk unnecessary exposure. I left the flat with wet hair, which helped. The sun is also incredibly intense so sunglasses are a must.

We are going to a resort in Dhahab in a few days, and while I'm there I can wear a bikini and shorts(a nice reprieve). There are a few club/hotel pools here in Cairo that I can go to and wear a bikini as well.

The heat is indeed intense. I'm being as careful as I can with it, because of my migraines, but you can only avoid so much of it. J has air conditioning in the living room and bedroom of his flat, but the hallway and kitchen are hot hot hot, and the power will go out at least once a day. You get through it though. It isn't impossible. If the power goes out and it becomes unbearable, I can seek refuge in the Hotel Flamenco across the street.

I'm still quite tired, but happy. It is a reward, being here. Long distance relationships are no joke, especially when the distance involves 7 time zones. And one is naïve to think that all problems are solved once in person. After 3+ months apart, I found myself feeling awkward around my own partner. It's a little disorienting to go from loving someone far away to being face to face--to go from no one in your personal space to someone being there. It takes a bit of relearning. There is an emerging shyness I thought was long gone. But love, the real thing, remains familiar and present--with or without the mileage. It is nice to once again finish some sentences with facial expressions alone instead of relying on the limitations of emails or brief Skype sessions. No matter how advanced technology gets, it will never replace a heartbeat under palm. The in-person energy cannot be replicated. Simply put, it means a lot to be here. I hope I can do my experiences here justice with my words in the coming weeks.