I have a picture of myself and my sister sitting outside of the Cairo museum, its red walls and reed-filled gardens a rather stunning backdrop to our full-on late-’80s Duran-Duran hair and our travel companion, my then-beloved Palestinian-Israeli boyfriend Ali.
We had gone to Cairo for a few days, in spite of the fact that none of us had any money to spare, because my sister had come to visit me in Israel — and dude: Egypt’s right there! — and also because only by leaving the country could Ali and I be together 24/7 without fear of being caught by someone he knew. I was a secret (a poorly kept one, as it turned out), and we wanted desperately to feel some kind of normal.
The entire trip was wonderful, even bearing in mind that our 3-star hotel had serious plumbing issues (remind me: When one flushes a toilet, it’s not supposed to come back up the shower drain – right?) and that with Ali at my side, I could confirm what I had suspected on my earlier trips to the city: Many Egyptian men do not think much of American women. Moreover, they feel free to express these opinions loudly, because: Arabic. (The irony here was that poor Ali — thrilled to be finally visiting an Arab country — was constantly thought to be American [even when not by our side] likely because of his height and pale skin [indeed, the further irony was that he could have passed for a Jew]. Men would say nasty things about us, and he would surprise them by cursing them out in Arabic. In its way, that was actually kind of awesome).
It was wonderful because — even with the dirt, the nasty remarks, and the nastier plumbing — there was that same thing in Cairo that I had always found there, a kind of warmth and vivacity that I’ve rarely seen in other cities. The Cairo I visited was full of surprises, smiling faces, offers of tea, crazy (by which I mean: almost insurmountably insane) traffic, snatches of intense beauty, and antiquities so antique as to make the heart lodge in the throat. You try to visit the Pyramids — the actual-factual Pyramids — while your sister teaches your Palestinian boyfriend to whistle the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show and tell me it won’t be awesome. Just try! Also: Buying lunch in a down-at-heel Egyptian grocery store, turning the corner, and bam! The Sphinx.
Even more than the Pyramids or the Sphinx, though, walking the halls of the Cairo Museum was for me nearly a pilgrimage, a chance to get to within inches of the touch of human hands so far in the past that I genuinely cannot comprehend what their humanity entailed. I remember standing before a glass case holding a statue of a scribe (who I came to think of as “my scribe”) and willing myself to take in the knowledge that the paint around his eyes, the nails on his fingers, the black of his hair — all of it had been touched by someone who had lived and died some 4,500 years before me. I bought a poster of my scribe and he long hung over my desk, the closest I’ve ever come to a patron saint of writing (how that house-sitter managed to ruin it remains a mystery to me, to this day).
So as I obsess about the uprising in Egypt, I’m seeing in my mind’s eye a jumble of memories from three different trips: the halls of the museum (and thank you, brave Egyptians, for protecting it from those who would plunder your history), the tiny shop just outside the Pyramid-Sphinx complex, the pharmacist who helped me out when I had to explain that I needed “tampons,” the hole-in-the-wall restaurant where I brought Ali and my sister for “Egyptian pancakes” (not at all like pancakes, if only because they are a meat dish), the Nile — by boat, from the shore, from another shore, from a bridge, from another bridge — the lovely American University campus, and the people of the City of the Dead, coming out of the homes they’d been forced to build for themselves in and between a sprawling cemetery’s mausoleums, to offer, from the nothing they had, tea.
But the truth is that my obsession with, my hunger for, the news out of Egypt — for good news, for news of freedom and justice and hope — goes beyond the understandable voyeurism of a woman who was there for a minute, a few times.
Aside from anything else, I’m also an Israeli, an Israeli who has struggled for peace and justice for a quarter of a century. I know that the Egyptians don’t love the peace that Sadat signed with us. I know that they hate the occupation, distrust Israel and the US because of it, are prone to believing mildly (and not-so-mildly) anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. I know that the Magen David, the Star of David, the symbol of my faith, is often used by them as a symbol of evil. I know these things.
But in my heart, they are my people, too. I understand their anger, and I think the hatred can be fixed. And I am so hungry for justice to be served in the part of the world to which I gave my heart so many years ago, that all I can do is watch, and hope, and pray that the Egyptians succeed where so many have failed — that they will be able to wrest justice from the hands of tyranny, and find the way through to true freedom.
I wish I could be on the streets with them.