Before leaving for Cairo, my Arabic professor told me a story: A man dies and his soul meets inevitable judgment at the gates of heaven. The angel at the door says, “well Alexander, you have lived a decent life, I will give you the choice between heaven and hell. I will let you pass one day in each world and then you will decide.” Alexander felt the angel’s deal to be fair, so he agreed, spending the first day in heaven. “My,” he said, “heaven is more beautiful then I ever expected. There are birds of every color in trees that never lose their green. There is singing from the sky that is soothing and sweet. There are valleys and rivers and the stillness intoxicates. I think I like heaven very much.” Alexander left heaven with his decision already made, but the angel insisted he see hell first. So on the second day Alexander entered hell. “My,” he said, “hell is not frightening at all. There is plenty to eat and drink. The women are beautiful and want me to sit with them. The air smells of sugar and tastes of spice.” When the angel asked Alexander his decision he responded, “Heaven was pleasant, but in hell I can really enjoy myself. I choose to go to hell.”Very well,” replied the angel, opening the door for Alexander. When he entered, there was nothing but fire and dust, violence and pain. Flames rose from a pit in the floor and a slave from the depths of a blinding darkness chained his hands. “Angel,” cried Alexander, “what is this? Where are the women? Where is the food? Let my nostrils breathe sugar and my lips taste spice.”Alexander,” said the angel calmly, “you were hasty to decide, seeing only one part of hell, forgetting it is only a piece of the whole.” Alexander hunched his shoulders in acceptance, hanging his head with the weight of his shortsightedness and the finality of his choice.

Egypt came to me in the same romantic fragments that led Alexander astray. Cities veiled in the golden dust of sand, palm trees in an oasis far from lights and life, music rising in sharp notes to fall down again, a woman’s eyes – dark, lined with coal and hidden by modesty. It was a pride, a love for this endless beauty that kept me clinging to my Egyptian half as I lived within the images remembered, but never within the city walls themselves. I could not capture my experiences with words, with phrases, with pages in a book. I saw only pictures reflecting the fragments of this ever-moving city – a film reel rolling with the current of the Nile. In coming to live in Egypt, I opened my own door of first impressions – the familiar smells and abundant pleasures peeking through the cracks, calling me to a dream.

But the reality of Cairo strikes in violent contrast against all previous visits here. I thought I would be immune to the initial uneasiness a complete change of life and culture brings. Instead, adjustment has been difficult as native eyes watch me, a foreigner walking through unfamiliar streets that I arrogantly considered my own. “Hello,” they say. “Hello,” repeated slowly and accent heavy. Why are they so eager to use broken English when their own language is sung instead of spoken? Ahlan wa sahlan rolls off their tongues in a single breath to welcome its listener in a single rhyme. The underlining meaning, “you are in your family on a ground without stumbling stones,” embraces without choking, welcomes without reservation. It is this kindness that is alluring, charming, a siren call off the coast of an island. Come too close and it is those same people that will take advantage of the unsuspecting newcomer. My cousin explained, “you have found the people nice, yes? Good. But be careful of the people.”

How do I remain loyal to childhood remembrances – the honesty behind a stranger’s smile – without letting my guard, acquired with age and cultivated by fear, down? Cairo will push me over so that it may pick me up again, thriving on the contradictions that unceasingly boil beneath its surface. It is merciless and forgiving, violent and docile – a blanket woven with braids of cashmere and wool.

Every time we return to Cairo, my mother comments that the city never changes – Egyptians, customs, buildings untouched within the constant push and pull of one million motions. And it doesn’t change, as time continues slowly here in the thickness of a sun-baked heat. I have been baptized in the fire of this experience with the broken words of my broken language to help me. In Cairo I have rediscovered home and family; I have been welcomed with the same rhyming phrase everyday by stranger and friend alike. But life here, in its everyday simple complexities, will not be without shaken ground and stumbling stones.

Yasmine Noujaim is a junior in the College currently studying abroad at the American University in Cairo. Salamat appears every other Friday.

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