Erika O’Neill was only 19 when she landed a house sitting gig in Cairo, Egypt that changed her life forever. When the house’s Scottish owner went back to his summer home in the damp, cool climes of bonny Scotland, Erika moved in and found her bliss. Not in a man – but in a culture and a language that made her feel totally alive.
I was 19 the summer my life changed forever and I fell madly in love. Not with a man, but with a country-with Egypt, and all things Egyptian. And with that love came a passion that, though faded and distant, still has the power, 12 years later, to keep me awake at night.
My ardor for Egypt had begun the previous summer, when my family vacationed in Cairo with some friends in the foreign service. During that first trip to Egypt, we visited the sites that any tourists would-the pyramids of Giza, the al Azhar mosque, the Egyptian Museum, the Valley of the Kings-and my curiosity about this country so different from my own, these people so different from myself became aroused.
When we left Cairo that summer, I cried. I had never cried over a boy, but now, as our plane rose over the desert, I wept like a woman who’s been forced to leave her beloved behind. That fall I entered my Ivy League college as one of only a handful of freshmen who had already chosen a major: Middle East Languages and Cultures. I spent Sunday evenings hunched over Arabic translations, thumbing through my Arabic/English dictionary, and carefully tracing the intricate script from right to left across my looseleaf pages.
In my free time I read the memoirs of Jehan Sadat and Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. I walked countless city blocks to find the best hummus and I hunted down Arabic newspapers at busy newsstands, just for extra practice. Eventually, this determination paid off. I was accepted into the American Univ. in Cairo’s Intensive Arabic program the following summer. All I could think was, ‘I’m going back to Egypt.’
A few weeks later I arrived in the Cairo airport, alone with my duffel bag, my guidebook, and the straw hat my mother had insisted upon. I had returned to this hot, dusty country, where astonishing wealth and abject poverty, East and West, Islam and Christianity, ancient wonders and modern technology all comingled as a matter of course. In my innocence and ignorance, I could not have been more thrilled.
Within a week I’d I settled into my new surroundings and into my life in Cairo. I’d landed a house-sitting position for a Scottish expatriate who returned each summer to his cool, damp country. Each morning, after hailing a cab and holding on for dear life as we navigated the narrow, twisted streets of downtown Cairo, zooming past donkey carts and occasional cows in the road, I’d arrive breathlessly at the university. Making my way to the cool, shaded courtyard in which hundreds of students from around the world congregated each day, I’d find myself in an oasis, detached from the clamour and commotion outside. Here we’d drink coffee on tables inlaid with intricate geometric patterns; we’d laugh about our teachers, read our mail, and make plans for the evening in the shade of the trees that hung drowsily overhead.
Then it was off to school. For those of us in the intensive Arabic program, it was six hours of classes each day. After class, I’d make my way home across town, my head stuffed with Arabic vocabulary. Along the way I’d indulge myself, picking up one or two of the luxuries that cost just pennies in this strange and wonderful land. In the heat of the afternoons, I’d lounge lazily in the rooms adorned with embroidered silks and handwoven tapestries, putting off my homework as long as possible and daydreaming instead of the life I’d make here.
But best of all were the evenings. After sunset I’d walk onto the balcony and gaze out over the Nile. Feluccas slowly drifted back and forth, while local families gathered on blankets at the water’s edge. Vendors roasted ears of corn over makeshift grills in the street, and pairs of men strolled up and down laughing with one another. In the distance, green lights shone through the darkness from the minarets of the mosques, and everywhere in the cool air was the sweet scent of night-blooming jasmine.
That summer it was easy to believe that anything was possible. Like any girl who’s ever fallen madly, deeply in love, I felt-and was-alive, in a way I’d never been before.
Every smell and sound and sight seemed new and beautiful to me. Somehow even the poverty, the instability, and the clash of religions fit into this kaleidoscope, and I wanted nothing more than to see it all and immerse myself in it. In the few pictures I still have from that time my head is held high, my cheeks glowing.
On hot weekend nights my friends and I would go dancing at local discos. Or we’d rent horses and canter far off into the desert sand. One night an Egyptian friend took me to the pyramids, where we sat for hours under the stars. Another time another Egyptian friend took me to Marsa Matruh. By night in this remote seaside town we strolled down the corniche, me wearing a necklace made of jasmine blossoms while the cool ocean breeze curled over our sun-browned skin. Through all of these times I recall moving with a confidence and lack of inhibition I’ve rarely felt since then.
It was August when I received the letter that would alter my life for good. My parents were getting divorced, it said, and in that moment everything changed. The home I’d always counted on, my anchor, was gone. Without warning, everything seemed louder, hotter, and more congested to me. The air seemed more polluted now, the poverty more oppressive. The glorious sights and smells and sounds lost all their radiance.
A few days later, a second blow came when Iraq invaded Kuwait. It was impossible not to notice the change that came over the Egyptian people as anxiety and insecurity took over their lives. Among the Egyptian students there developed an air of restlessness, and everywhere Egyptian men whispered excitedly in Arabic too fast for me to catch. Americans were urged to leave as quickly as they could.
It’s been 12 years now since I spent the night at the airport and flew out of Cairo on stand-by, 12 years since I gave up my Middle East studies and the Arabic language I loved. I’m a mother of two young children now and have little interest in the complexities of an Egypt that once made me feel so alive. Now I only want to know that my children are safe and to celebrate holidays with my family without fearing another attack.
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