I sometimes write about my travels, which is of course ironic because I am not a traveler, in fact, when I do travel its always a pleasant surprise.
When I was a kid, I watched the famous 34-minute short by French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse titled “Le Ballon Rouge”. It follows the adventures of a young boy and a mute red balloon. Since then, I have always fantasized about being the red balloon, so free, so beautiful and so red.
When I travel I am le ballon rouge.
Before Egypt, I had never travelled on my own. It was totally understandable given that I come from a culturally sensitive family that finds it foreign to send their kids on travel journeys on their own. I was 23 at the time, which was also unthinkable for my father who still believed I couldn’t be trusted with my passport on my own. Another issue was the passport, you see being an Iraqi was never easy; having the Iraqi passport is another story. With almost no proper government present to solve simple issues of immigration and belonging, losing an Iraqi passport is basically the shortest road any to political suicide. It was almost a shock for me to see my friend at some point with her passport in her suitcase and not locked in a safe somewhere where nobody could ever find it.
It was in August 2005 that one of our distant relatives who live in Egypt suggested I come to Egypt and spend some quality time with his daughter who is a good friend of mine. My father hesitated at first, rejected later. But only when my visa to Egypt came the next month, he got over excited with the fact that I actually got a visa that he couldn’t resist the temptation of accepting the offer.
When I packed my bags the second day my mother was almost crying in the next room, scared of the idea of me being on a plane with strangers alone. She was super excited that I was going, but also fearful that the plane will crash, I will be lost in Cairo Airport or that my bags get lost. Another thing to understand about my family is that we fear many things that we cannot suppress, repress and master. We are and will forever be in love with situations that are within our control.
The day came that I had to travel, and my father coyly suggested to take permission from Dubai airport’s security team to drop me to the gates. I refused begging him to let me experience the standing in line, and the humiliation that usually comes from traveling from one country to the other on my own. I told him ” baba I am not going to Amreeka!” He nodded with disapproval but only managed to accompany me to the security checkpoint.
After I saw him disappear into the crowds, I choked on my tears a little and was very disappointed that I didn’t live up to my expected independence and strength. It was only when I reached the duty-free shops at the airport that I felt this rushing sensation of freedom taking its toll on me. I couldn’t explain it at first, but I realised it soon after, I was free, and I had to have coffee. I waited in line for my drink, so proud of my suitcases and my organisational skills as I looked at my watch with 40 minutes to spare until take-off time.
I lost track of time standing in line, gazing at travellers and trying to find young liberated souls like mine. I got my coffee and decided to sit on one of the benches and pretend to read a book like all those interesting travellers I used to see before. As I attempted to get my book, I heard them calling for my flight, saying it was the last call. I panicked scared that I would miss my flight; the gate was at least 10 minutes away. I didn’t understand the concept of final calls. I remember panicking, and running with one hand carrying a hot cup of latte and another trying to balance my backpack on my body. Coffee stained me, burnt me and the bag opened its mouth suddenly to scatter my life as I knew it on the airport floor.
I was sure at this point that I had missed my flight and so scared of my parents’ disappointment when they find out. I heard my dad’s voice telling my mother confidently that is why he doesn’t send us on trips on our own, all while packing my scattered belongings into one tiny bag.
I managed to reach the gate only to find that people were still checking in, they were relaxed and so was I at that moment.
By the time I reached my seat on the plane, I was emotionally exhausted. I fastened my seat belt and prayed a little to find myself 4 hours later waking up to what was not a smooth landing at all.
As I walked towards Immigration at the airport, I realised I was already embracing a new culture. Loud people, very loud chaotic people going through customs and passport control without hesitation, without a pause. I embraced that culture quickly and found myself standing impatiently as well and cursing secretly at the “system” like they did. When my turn came up, the officer looked at my passport and asked me to step aside. I sat on a wooden bench next to a very angry woman, one look at her, and I knew I was in trouble. I sat there for almost an hour trying to put logic into why the “other” Arab, English, the American and the French were admitted into Cairo with a smile. I didn’t understand it then like I don’t understand it now. Why? Did I not speak their language? Do I not share their culture ? Isn’t Iraq the country that welcomed millions of Egyptians in the 80′s? At that point, I really did not want to understand.
To my luck, and as a testament of how nice the Egyptian people are (regardless of what rules govern them) a young officer approached me and finalised my papers in no time. He flirted a little, which did not bother me because he was really funny.
Note: Egyptians are funny.
I left the airport to see my relative waiting for me. I walked to his car trying to grasp as much as possible from the city. First shock: no 4×4 cars.
Driving to Masr Al Jdeeda, I started noticing how vibrant Cairo was. Full of life and screams out revolution and resistance, that city was something else.
The trip was short and somehow surreal. I spent it being less like a tourist and more like an Egyptian, thanks to Dina my friend there who managed to quickly give me a crash course on education, political system, traffic, infrastructure and football in Egypt.
I don’t remember much, but I remember fondly the times I spent in Korba, that almost European part of Cairo that was filled with people who seem to belong to one age group ( 15 – 30). I remember also the time I spent at Ayn Shams University with Dina, and to my luck it was on the same day the infamous Zamalek and Ahli were playing, so needless to say it was epic!
The Pyramids of course were beautiful and huge to the say the least, but I was more interested in just walking Cairo and trying to understand the city that dominates most of our popular culture in the Arab world. I wanted to visit Maa’adi, Zamalek, Hilmya, and other areas that I remember from famous soap operas I watched as a kid. I wanted to see the Nile, and test the famous saying that if you drink from its waters you are bound to come back. ( That didn’t happen yet, Visa issues as always).
Egypt was a turning point in my life to say the least, it was the trip that opened the door to other destinations for me. A trip that taught me that Arabs outside of the Gulf region are very different from the ones living in it. It made me realise that the so-called common culture Arabs pride themselves with could possibly be a myth today, it wasn’t the same for me. Young men and women sat on dinner tables like us, in franchised restaurants we often visit here but discussed issues we did not acknowledge back then. It was foreign to me then to sit through dinner and hear conversations about bridges that are almost collapsing, the tyranny of a government, the audacity of a president and the threat of poverty that they all feared. Young men and women below 25 were worried about poverty; I felt spoiled rotten.
I don’t recall much of this trip because of my failure to document on paper what I experienced on a daily basis. The only memories that come to mind are the ones in the airport and that day I sat for dinner and left hungry for life.