monk cellLeaving the U.S. is always harder than it looks at first and then, suddenly, easier than it seems. On the plane, the Royal Jordanian Air flight attendant grabbed my ticket, scratched out one number and wrote in another. Then, stone-faced, he pointed to the right. I had just been unceremoniously bumped up to first class.

I was seated in the very first row, next to one of the two other white people on the plane. Khalil, my seat partner, happened to be a New Jerseyite who had just returned from a one year stint at a madrasa in Yemen, and was en route back to the Hadramout for four more. When Khalil set his prayer beads aside we discussed our awesome fully reclineable seats, Yemeni food, anti-muslim discrimination in the U.S., and the fact that he had gone to high school in Winter Park in Florida, not far from where I attended elementary and middle school. He seemed like a decent guy and as we had 12 hours to kill I learned quite a bit about Yemen, or at least his experience in Yemen, which seemed fairly limited but interesting nonetheless. For example: according to Khalil, the town where he stayed last year was known as sort of a hippie town. There were a large number of people who claimed to be descendents of the Prophet Muhammed living there and people were proud of their reputation for honor and kindness. He described how he was chased down by a shopkeeper once because he had overpaid for a meal.

In Amman, Khalil and I parted ways. I arrived in Cairo around 7 pm. My driver was waiting amidst the crowds with a big sign with my name on it and he told me (in Masri, which I hadn’t spoken in three years, and even then, badly) that I had been lost, but now I was found. Someone had screwed up the arrival information, it turns out.  Perhaps due to this confusion, I managed to convince him that I was Jordanian for the first five minutes – a miracle I may never understand, let alone be able to recreate. Once we reached downtown (Wust al Balad), he pointed out a few interesting sights – the presidential palace, an old synagogue, and some crowded coffee shops in alleyways where men and women sat smoking shisha, spilling out into the streets. Eventually, he yelled the name of the hostel at a few men loitering on street corners, who directed us to the right place.

Once arrived, I dragged my suitcases up to the hostel on the roof and met Katrina, my future roommate. We had (possibly?) met briefly a few years ago in Alexandria, we had a few friends in common, and we are around the same age, which all seemed like as good reasons as any to live with someone. After handing off my spare toothbrush to another Casawiyy (thanks, again, to Royal Jordanian Air) I finally retired to my monk cell, which was actually the $15 a night luxury special. There was one sheet on my bed and a useless thick wool blanket. Outside my window, people were setting off fireworks. I was struck with that excitement that comes from being in a country outside of one’s own. I couldn’t sleep.

When the sky lightened, I took a few pictures of Cairo out of my window. First impression after being gone for three years: there is something both attractive and mournful about the city.  As I was still waiting for sleep, I was reminded of Auden’s poem Lullaby:  “mortal, guilty, but to me, the entirely beautiful.”

Cairo at dawn



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