The Egypt Thing

Graphic by Natalie Schultz-Henry

“M A L A K.”

Say it at Starbucks and they’ll spell it wrong every time, introduce myself in a loud place with music and I’ll be a combination of “Alec” and “Alex” forever. It invites the next natural question.

“So where are you from?”

Long sigh from me. “Guess.”

The guessing game is fun and a real crowd-pleaser. My name and my coloring betray that I am foreign, despite my undeniable lack of accent and decently eloquent grasp on the English language. It’s a welcome consequence to my years of marathoning Western television shows and hearing my father speaking to Important Business Associates. People make a thrilling game of guessing my roots and I go along with it playfully, smirking and laughing when a string of Latin American countries are named before anyone even edges towards the Middle East. I usually end up telling people I am in fact from Egypt. I prepare myself for the subsequent series of semi-serious questions, about whether or not I lived in a pyramid, rode a camel to school or am fluent in hieroglyphics. Everyone’s a comedian. I have made being entirely foreign but Westernized to an almost comical degree my “thing.”

The me that left Egypt behind was full to the brim with angst and entirely unprepared for change of any kind. She was accustomed to knowing what was to come, to residing in a bubble far away from the realities around her until those realities became bigger realities and those realities were on the news. They were using words like “revolution” and “coup d’etat.” She had to reevaluate.

I left Cairo behind at the end of my sophomore year of high school and completed the latter half of high school in London. I know some schools just stick “international” in the name, but this one truly was incredibly international—my grade of 55 students represented a grand total of 29 nationalities. Only two students in our entire grade were British. In a sea of different accents and backgrounds, I blended in decently, but the big exception was the timing of my move. I can’t even tell you the number of times I was asked if I protested in “that square.” But eventually, as CNN moved on from the whole revolution thing, so did my friends. But never really from the Egypt thing. The simultaneously great and unfortunate fact about a real international school is that everyone is identified by, and so self-identifies by their nationality. The French boys chain-smoke cigarettes and swear in vulgar slang words, the British are posh and talk like David Attenborough, and the Italians make exactly the hand gestures you’d expect them to. In my case, that meant I developed a repertoire of easy and snappy “Egypt jokes,” zingers to respond to the string of ignorant questions I’d inevitably receive. I’d joke about riding camels to school and shrug if a pop culture reference went over my head. If anything, it added a dimension to my sense of humor.

I had decided when I was very young that I was going to go to college in America. That sounds comical because you’re picturing a little girl watching TV on the couch wide-eyed, glued to American Pie or some other movie featuring red cups and fraternities, a view of the pyramids outside my window. And it’s not entirely incorrect. When I made it to Yale, those eyes of mine were very wide and only widened when, on my first night out at a real fraternity—grimy Greek letters and all—a red cup was shoved into my hand with beer from a real keg. Get at me, America. I even did a keg stand by the end of the night.

I remember having “HAGS” (Have A Good Summer) and “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out) explained to me, and learning that everyone knew the words to certain anthems I had never heard before (“Closing Time” by Semisonic, anyone?) and being completely clueless during the Harvard-Yale football game. I pronounced aluminum wrong and didn’t know what (or who) an Arnold Palmer was. I had the longest flight home of all my friends for every school break. But other than that I didn’t stand out in any major ways. Often my friends would forget I was foreign at all. I’ve been invited on trips to get spray tans despite not needing it whatsoever. I have had several of my closest friends ask if we can one day PLEASE sit down and talk about the revolution because they never remembered to ask what it was really like. We’ve never gotten around to it.

But occasionally, every now and then, I get serious questions. Where do you consider home? Do you think you’ll ever live in Egypt when you’re older? Does it feel the same when you go back? Questions I don’t take enough time to consider because I’m too busy joking about how denial is more than just a river in Egypt. I don’t face the reality that often I don’t really know what home is, that going back to Egypt feels uncomfortably different because it used to be all I knew and now when I go back nothing’s the same. I speak fluent Arabic and Egypt is largely responsible for shaping me into the person I am today. Nothing I see will ever compare to the view of the Nile from the window from my childhood bedroom and I feel a sense of pride when I can tell people I meet that my field trips when I was a kid included Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. But I don’t really talk about this.

Instead, I add #foreign to things I text sometimes and make jokes about how I need a Visa for literally every country because those are fun too. It’s my thing—not the only thing about me, not just a comical part of who I am.

I remind myself that because of bridging two cultures I am better at becoming acclimated to change. I am more patient when I am asked if I live in a pyramid by someone who thinks they’re being original. I learn to say that Egypt remains home. I continue to push away the thought that I may never live there again. Denial is more than just a river in Egypt.

One Response

  1. Hamuda says:

    nice article but I was wondering if your mates in London and Murica wouldn’t ask you about religion

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