Even before Facebook launched the #tenyearchallenge, I had been hoping to write a post here to talk about my own ten-year anniversary. I’m a few weeks late for my intended mark, but here it is:
On January 3rd, 2009, I landed in Cairo beginning what have become the most critical and formative years of my life. At twenty-two, I spoke nearly no Arabic, had nowhere to stay, and hadn’t the slightest idea what I was going to do for work. I was, however, brimming with hope, excitement, and enthusiasm for getting to better know Egypt and the Arabic language. Stepping off the airplane on that January evening and taking a cab to a hotel downtown, I couldn’t have known on what sort of journey I was embarking nor for how long it would last.
I studied abroad in Cairo in the summer of 2007. Then, like later, I was exceedingly excited for the prospect of visiting and exploring a new country, one which occupied my imagination since childhood but about which I knew very little in reality. I landed anticipating the old clichés: minarets and pyramids, camels and dust. I realize now how completely my expectations were colored with orientalist hues; some of which have been dislodged but admittedly many remain. The dust, however, was and is very real.
My summer was much more than seeking picturesque postcard backdrops. For the first time in my life, I was completely immersed in a cultural setting so unlike anything I had ever known. I was forced to confront my own biases and prejudices, reexamine my thinking, and resituate my own position within the broader world around me. And, critically, I was confronted with poverty for the first time in my life. That experience, perhaps more than anything, shook me. Much of what I have done since has been a consequence of that exposure.
Those months were filled with exploration and amazement, late nights and sweaty taxi rides, desert excursions and an extremely emotional mountain climb. I made friends with students from across the country and from Egypt as well. It was, in hindsight, perhaps the single most critical period in shaping the direction of my life. When I returned to DC for the start of the fall semester that year, I had a deep longing to get back to Egypt. I remember it feeling quite nearly like homesickness, except that Egypt was not yet my home. Sometime that fall, I decided that as soon as I graduated, I would move to Egypt, for at least a while, and see what more there was to learn; this would become the work of my life.
In spite of wanting to get on with it, the remaining year and a half of my undergraduate studies were my happiest in college. The friends I made then were and remain the most important of my time in DC. I got to know and love Washington most greatly during that time, but my desire to travel and leave never left me. So the day after Christmas 2008, I boarded a flight to London. I vividly remember walking to my gate at Dulles Airport. Unlike when I went to Egypt the previous time, there was no person waiting for me at the airport on arrival, no dorm to house me, and no prearranged program to keep me busy. I had no idea what I was doing; I was utterly terrified and completely exhilarated. I wrote in my journal during a sleepless transatlantic flight:
“I am totally certain of the necessity to set about on this coming journey, but what am I doing? I know fully well that no one really understands or believes in what I am doing. Can I blame them? I don’t really know for myself what it is that I’m hoping to accomplish and why I feel so compelled to take this course. Yet here it is. And as scared as I am, walking to the plane tonight, I have never felt so completely free in my choices for myself. There really aren’t any more expectations. I’ve done what everyone expects. Graduated high school, and finished my college studies. What lies ahead is entirely mine and mine alone. How awesome. Today is the first day of the rest of my life.”
I’m completely aware of the naiveté and triteness of these sentiments. But they were sincere and totally honest.
For the next week and a half, I visited Hampshire and London with an English friend, who I had met the previous year, and I generally attempted to work up the nerve for what was next. When I landed in Cairo, I began a whirlwind journey that ten years later lead me to the café in which I am writing this post. There is no point in describing here the details of the weeks that followed. I eventually found my footing. I got a job. I learned Arabic. And Egypt went from being a foreign land of curiosity to my home. After six months, I went home for my formal graduation. Everyone thought before I left, that if I made it to this point, my return home for commencement would be the end of the Egypt sojourn. But back I went. Weeks turned into months. Months became years. And now, a decade.
Along the way, there have been many transformative events. I do not hope to express them all in detail here. But some were so important to what has transpired and to explaining where I am now that I feel they merit description. I have learned a lot and sharing knowledge is a major part of who I am, so some of this is my hope to impart a bit of that as well. I realize how incredibly self-indulgent this entire exercise is, yet I also feel that as I would have written this for my own personal edification, that it is at least worth sharing. There are so many people that have asked me about my time here, what it is that I am doing and why, and why I continue to stay. For them, this might help to explain. There are many others that do understand. Some of them have been a part of this experience to varying degrees, and for them, I hope they can see a broader picture of the journey in which they have been a part. And for those who read my posts or come across this serendipitously, maybe this will give you a different view of what worlds and opportunities may come about if you take a leap of faith and risk it all.
During my first weeks in Egypt, I would regularly buy groceries at a little store on my street in Garden City. There, in the evenings, I slowly struck up a friendship with the elderly owner Aadil. I do not now know why we grew so fond for one another, but with his very few words of English and mine of Arabic, we would spend many evenings in each other’s company. Little by little, Aadil would have me do little jobs around the shop: opening boxes, carrying things for him, dusting the shelves. When things were slow, he would tell me the names of everything in his shop in Arabic. Sometimes, we would just sit, saying nothing, and watch old black-and-white movies on his little television. He would laugh at the shows much more often than I would, but slapstick humor crosses the language barrier and I’d frequently join in. In the months that passed and as my Arabic became functional, Aadil would have me run the shop’s register while he filled customers’ orders. I remain astounded at the trust he unnecessarily placed in me. I have been very fortunate to have many people help and believe in me throughout my life and especially in my youth. But more than any other, Aadil taught me the transformative effect that helping another with kindness and friendship can have.
Through a lucky and accidental connection that I made while studying abroad in 2007, I got my first job after my move to Cairo. Teaching English through an embassy program, I eventually came to mentor and befriend one of my students. Over the years that have passed since then, Peter and I have grown closer still. The brotherhood and bond we have formed has been the most important of my life until now. My time in Cairo has been marked by our friendship, and his steadying support and presence have sustained me in the most trying times that have passed. From the start, Peter has had big dreams for his education and future. I have tried my hardest to help those to come to fruition. But while I have shared in that journey with him, he has given me much more. Peter has taught me to be less suspicious and more trusting. He has taught me to have faith in others, and that even if sometimes misplaced, doing so can yield amazing results. Some of my closest friendships and relationships now would never have come about had Peter not pushed me to give others a chance. He has also taught me that forgiveness and persistence are sometimes, although not always, more important than justice and cutting one’s losses. In both, the chances I’ve given others, and him, have given me the greatest joys. Peter has also shared with me his family. From them, I have seen what it means to completely and utterly love others. The joy they share for one another’s company amazes me endlessly and is indescribable without seeing. In spite of my cynicism of religion, his mother has shown me how faith can be transfiguring and sustaining. His father has shown me how intelligence can often look differently given context, and that surroundings often shape the ability of talent to grow. His entire family has shown me how love transgresses culture and language and that to love someone completely is to accept others as they are.
Peter’s family has also taught me to appreciate my own. What I have undertaken and where I am would be utterly non-existent if not for the sacrifices, love, and support of my parents. I cannot imagine the stress and anxiety that they faced when Egypt underwent historic turmoil in the years following its January 25th uprising. But they trusted in me completely and have repeatedly accepted that I am better positioned to judge my own safety than their friends and acquaintances who repeatedly tell them to get me back home. Because of that trust, I have witnessed historic and tremendous events. I have been forced to trust in myself against all self-doubt and complete fear, and I have been infinitely rewarded for doing so. But through everything, momentous and mundane, I have always known they have my back. That certainty has been more comforting in continuing this journey than anything else. Whatever I am and have done has been because of them. I have also seen from them and other family members what it means to sacrifice and love. My parents and grandparents have given up countless days and moments with me in order that I be able to follow my own course. This is an immense sacrifice, especially as an only child. But it is truly the measure and extent of their love that they have willingly done so. It is perhaps because of that, and in spite of my distance, that my relationship with them is far greater than that of most of my friends with their own families. I appreciate my parents far more and respect the lives they’ve lived because of the immensity of their belief in me, the love they have shown, and the support they have given. The last ten years has also given me immense gratitude for my grandparents as well. The simple, quiet, and nurturing time I spend with my grandmother is among the most cherished I have. Her kindness, goodness, and love is overwhelming. With her and with one of my grandfathers, I have gotten to explore and appreciate my own family’s history, and in so doing, grown to more greatly appreciate who I am and the experiences and tribulations that others before me have taken in leading to the present moment. My father’s father was ceaselessly inquisitive and one of the brightest minds I have ever encountered. I had opportunities and experiences he could never have fathomed. Yet I got to be his eyes and vicariously share a world he longed to see and experience but never could. He taught me to be appreciative of what I was so fortunate to do and to ask good questions in seeking to know more. The hours he and I spent talking, until his death in 2017, were among the most formative in my intellectual growth. Yet where he had strength of mind till the last, my other grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s disease culminating in his death this past year. I could see better than most his mental disintegration because of the time elapsing between each time I would see him. But he showed me that love is deeper than a mental faculty, that it exists beyond our knowing of whom we love and why. And in this, Egypt also taught me a great lesson. While in the West we clinicize mental health and seek to categorize all human understanding, experiences in Egypt have helped me to see that his loss of mind was part of a natural process of aging. And far from being a sickness, as so many around him treated it, losing his mind was very human and part of our frail condition.
If you’re still with me, there are three last, but major things, Egypt has given and taught me.
In the upheaval, and sometimes chaos, that happened during the political and social events of Egypt’s revolution and subsequent reordering, I have learned how absolutely critical it is to keep an historical perspective. That regardless of how tremendous or turbulent a time may seem, it too will pass and life will go on. I think this is especially important for those who see direness in the West’s own political moment. We and the events in which we participate are small in the march of time. This in no way makes them less important. Our world is as it is for the fights we have and have not chosen to fight. But the swift march of time goes on and we with it. There were times during those two turbulent years that I couldn’t imagine life in Cairo would ever return to normal. And now that it has, sometimes I wish it had not. My own realities in Cairo, however, were nothing in comparison to those in the Square to whom it really mattered, to those at home worrying about their children’s futures, and to those who have struggled then and now to support their families in light of the country’s economic realities. I witnessed these events, but in the end, they were not my own. They were an historic moment to which I was a spectator but not really a participant.
Watching history in real time and thinking about it in the context of centuries and millennia is one of the greatest opportunities I have had in Cairo. It has shaped how I view history, the role I and others play within it, and the littleness of us all in its scope. Thinking about history is my prime preoccupation. Cairo shaped this more than anything else. Ten years ago, I would never have guessed that I would do first my master’s degree and now my PhD in history. In the early days, my interests in Cairo were nothing more than a hobby. As a child, I loved American history. In college, I sought to read about and know everything I could about the development and evolution of Washington, DC: the city where I lived. In the beginning, my love of Cairene history was nothing more than an extension of these earlier curiosities. But something about Cairo’s history spoke to me. It was in Cairo that I first felt the weight of history as oppressive and suffocating. There are constantly moments where I feel the realness of the past occupying the present. Walking through historic Cairo first brought on these experiences. With so many centuries of continuous occupation, I am always imagining the ghosts of former times as I move through the present. Did they see what I’m seeing? Did they notice that building or cliffside? What did they think about while sitting alongside the Nile? Were they annoyed by the crowdedness of this same market as I am now? Did they stand exactly where I’m standing? These feelings and a desire to sort them out and better understand bygone eras led my budding hobby of learning about history out of curiosity into a full-blown career. These thoughts and feelings preoccupy my time. While Cairo first awakened me to them, I think about them everywhere and always. When I’m in my university town in Germany, I imagine the knights of the landgrave charging up the Rittergasse or the peasants of outlying villages crossing back over the Lahn River homeward bound after a market day. Standing in Sarajevo, layers of the historic past came together in architecture and urban layout yielding a quaint medieval village, a bridge on which an assassin would set off a horrible global war, and the pockmarks of the longest siege of our times. In the harbor of Naples, I could not tear my eyes away from now-peaceful Mt. Vesuvius and imagine the horrors it wrought on those in its shadows. And when at home, in riding through the rural countryside, I think about those who have travelled the same roads as I and most certainly gazed upon the same mountains at the edge of our Cumberland Valley. Cairo cemented my preoccupation with history, and I have been infinitely rewarded for it. My life has taken the course it has taken because of this. Although neither I nor anyone will ever really understand or get to know the past as we would like, the frustrating process of attempting to do so is more than compensating in itself.
Finally, Cairo has given me friends and experiences beyond the particulars I have described. I have gotten to share my last ten years with amazing people. Some of whom have come and gone, others remain major forces in my life. With them I have had laughs and beers, cigarettes and late nights, long walks and beach trips, amazing meals and simple sandwiches. They have colored my life, and it is so much the richer because of them. We have laughed over coffees, slept on each other’s shoulders on bus rides, barbecued through teargas, shared in tragedies and celebrated in triumphs. Some of these friends I’ve watched get married, some have passed away. A few I’ve been reunited with in my travels abroad: a late night in Paris, an emotional reunion in Ghent, taking a ferry up the Bosporus, or walking a flat-tired bike through the suburbs of Boston. Others regularly come and go from Cairo and with them we catch up over coffee and reminisce about the past. With one person in particular, I cherish annual book-buying sprees throughout the markets of the city. A few still remain, although fewer and fewer with the passing of time. Among them is the funniest and most generous person I’ve ever met. Another, the smartest and most intellectually curious. These are the people with whom I’ve shared this ten year challenge and who have made it most worthwhile.
Cynical me says that Facebook’s ten-year challenge is probably nothing more than a gimmick to help the company recalibrate and improve its facial recognition AI. But I’ve learned to try to be more charitable in my thinking and more generous in my outlook. The outpouring of photos that people are sharing shows that this viral phenomenon, like so many others, has tapped into something real. We like looking back, seeing how we’ve changed, and reflecting on the time in between. Without a 2009/2019 photo comparison, this has been my #tenyearchallenge. Photos would show that I’m balder and chubbier, but what really has changed in ten years cannot be captured in photos and is poorly done in words. This was my attempt at doing so anyways.