Traveling Guard by Guard

I found myself wandering around the Zamalek neighborhood in Cairo today. I set the goals of:

  1. Learning to cross the street in Cairo,
  2. Finding the Episcopal Cathedral for the 7pm Arabic-language service,
  3. Doing something other than bemoaning my jet-lagged state.

Zamalek is a ritzy section of town. Many of the embassies are anchored there, and you know you’re in a certain section of a city when you find a cupcake shop. But even in Zamalek, Cairo’s ephemerality was clear: everywhere I walked, each block felt different. One block above the cupcake shop was an abandoned construction site with half-owned cats and one block below it were a dozen 2-meter-across-5-meters-back-no-walking-space shops full of clothes or cloth or spices and fruit or shoes.

It was hard to get my bearings. I would be hitting my stride in a crowded street with marble sidewalks and then a moment later I was one of half-a-dozen stepping over gaping holes in the cement. As far as I can tell, the sidewalks are privately owned, so if a shop owner wants marble, then for those two meters there is marble. I dressed up, since Cairo is a city anyone dressing like a complete tourist begs for unwanted attention, but even my black ballet flats had no trouble with the jaggedy sidewalk. Like a lot in Cairo, it looks worse than it is and it doesn’t even look that bad a second after you adjust.

In my trek from Tahrir Square (the closest Metro stop between where I’m staying and Zamalek) to the Cathedral, I asked probably 6 different policemen for directions. I remember when I first moved to Education City in Doha, Qatar, I found my classes by asking guards, each of whom was in line-of-site from another guard. I could navigate an entire building walking from one guard to another. E. L. Doctorow said of novel writing:

It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Doctorow’s willingness to give up on controlling his creative process is comforting for those of us for whom control would-be-very-nice-now-please. Moving around in Cairo, I had to give up a lot of control. Whether and how I got across a given street had nothing to do with stop-lights (there are none) and everything to do with the patience and spacing of speeding cars (they had a lot and they often were).

I felt like I was channeling my German international politics and science teacher from Georgetown every time I (internally) whinged about the non-intuitive street layout, the conversational horn-honking, or lack of sidewalks. I think I should be able to step back and enjoy the functioning chaos that is Cairo. I think about what Anne Lamott said about perfectionism:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

I don’t entirely buy this, mostly because to the best of my ability I’ve never been able to turn off my inner critic. But the goal of calming the shrilling sirens of unenforceable self-control is part of why I’m here. The Middle East challenges me in deep ways: the chaos, the gender assumptions and structures, the poverty (as I walked out of the Metro station an old and half-naked man lay in the middle of the sidewalk, begging), all of these are uncomfortable for me. But when I traveled to Qatar I realized that I would rather be uncomfortable and trying to get my head around our cultural differences than comfortable and unable to relate.

Tomorrow, I’ll have more about how to cross a street in Cairo. It’s really hard enough to require an entire post.

Inspirational Quote:

“I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me–that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”–Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith


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