On Cairo, Change, and Staying the Same

View from Tree Trunk Restaurant in Heliopolis. Photo by author.

No sooner had I landed in Cairo after four long years of absence than I discovered my watch broke. 

It seemed oddly fitting — for me, Cairo was always a place outside time, a corner of the universe that beat to its own tempo. “Man fears time, and time fears the pyramids,” the old adage went, repeated to hordes of sweaty photo-snapping tourists around the city, rushed onto buses and cruising from mastabas to minarets so many times older than any of us would ever get to be. Though Cairo seemed like an ineffable and inevitable part of my life, nothing had ever been more untrue: I was just a very small, very insignificant part of its life. Even as I made my way to one of Heliopolis’ enormous American-style malls — colloquially known as “Shitty Stars,” presumably a modern day cutting edge temple to consumerism — all I could think of was how same it was. And how different I was.

The first time I’d ever laid eyes on Cairo, I was eight years old. I came to Egypt on holiday with my older sister, and there’s no more cheesy or more true way to describe my experience than to say I fell in love. It was dirty and loud and incredibly important to me. I continued coming — driven by the I-don’t-know-what of it all; five or six times, I lose track — until I finally managed to convince my university to let me study abroad there, in the spring of 2015. It was then that I met the curly-haired girl I was currently hooking my arms around and jumping up and down with, screaming in unison at our reunion. It was then that I meet the boy who greeted me in his office two days later by blasting the Serbian national anthem (I didn’t recognize it) before laughing and laughing at his own joke. I’d sat with these two beautiful people for hours and hours in the spring of 2015, surrounded by books and flashcards on the relative artistic styles of the various Amenhoteps; and with these two beautiful people I sat on a warm November day at the decade’s end, surrounded by books and articles on the various linguistic determinatives employed with the Egyptian word for “afterlife.” 

“Do we seem different to you?” My friend asked me, gesturing to my two interlocutors. I like to imagine he was twirling the stem of his sheesha at the time for artistic emphasis (statistically, this is probable, as we had a different flavor of tobacco almost every day that I was there), but I cannot say with certainty that is the case. 

The answer was yes and no. No, they didn’t seem different to me, because even after four years (four years!) of my absence, we could still sit surrounded by much the same piles of Egyptological lore and talk freely and fluidly, like scarcely a week had passed since our last meeting. We could see eye to eye, and talk face to face, and understand each other perfectly. And yet I knew myself to be nowhere near the person I was four years ago, and so yes, they must be different, since I have moved and yet I felt no distance between us. I felt we had grown in unison, and I was immensely grateful for this: there are few things as painful as growing in a different direction than a friend, particularly an important friend. 

Several times, I sat in the back of taxis taking the same route as the bus which used to take me from my dorm to university. There was the occasional hole where a building once stood, and the occasional building where there was a hole before, but overall the ride looked exactly the same. I fancied that the same billboards which went un-rented years ago still sported the same black stallion over fire logo with the sign “Your billboard here!,” though this seemed extremely unlikely. I felt as though I could just hop off and walk into my old dorm room to find my tattered old luggage and my roommate singing to herself. I went to campus twice and got extremely lost in the same building I used to get moderately lost in, picked grapefruit of the trees I also thought were oranges 4 years ago, bought coffee from the same stand that kept me going through the end of my finals. I bought the same brand of mango juice at the store, and even listened to some of the same music albums I was obsessed with then. 

I walked in my own footsteps and remembered someone I no longer entirely was, but someone who was still a part of me. I felt the unbearable weight and complete insignificance of the four years that had whizzed by without so much as an apology or sound to announce their passing. I thought about the relationships I had formed and the friends I no longer spoke to, and the slang I used to use, and how terrible my Arabic has gotten. I even thought about how different the shape of my glasses was then and now only moments before I sat on my frames and broke them. As I write this, I think about the third shape of glasses currently perched on my face. (I hate choosing new glasses frames; it’s sort of like choosing a new facial feature, purchasing a new nose. It’s a big commitment for the basic ability to see.)

As stalwart and immutable as Cairo is in my mind, so I am malleable and incoherent. As there are structures within Cairo’s walls that have stood for millennia, so I’ve had almost half a decade fly by while barely realizing it’s happening. I tried to appeal to the me from those years ago, wondering if she would be proud or confused or surprised to see me as I am now. I wanted that me — the Cairene me, the me from the happiest period of my life — to tell me that I was doing well, or what I was doing wrong, or what to do and how to dress. In moments of complete delusion, I essentially attempted to reproduce the Fleabag confessional scene with a past version of myself, in the place where I last got to be that self. 

To be perfectly honest, my entire life can be decomposed in terms of Fleabag gifs.
I’ll give you one guess on who I was for Halloween. source: Tumblr.com

Of course, this is silly at best and melodramatic at worst. Of course, there is no such quick resolution. There is no quorum of independent past selves to judge and guide my current self. But there are friends to talk with and smoke with. There is the little voice in my head, saying write more, research interdisciplinary topics more, practice languages more. And there is Cairo, ever just a plane ride away, as happy to continue without me as it is to remind me to prioritize things that I know to be priorities. 

The poet in me wants to say that it took breaking my watch and my glasses to remind me to take jealous possession of my time and to prioritize my outlook and my vision over what I “should” do. If I am to do that, I must also acknowledge that I broke my laptop as soon as I got back — perhaps a metaphorical reminder to evolve the way I think, more likely a testament to my clumsiness and my computer’s age.

In any case, I prepare to enter the Twenties different — with new glasses, a new watch, a new computer, even a new haircut now — with the hope that I have learned a deeper lesson about change, and outlook, and time. And if these are the lofty resolutions I abandon before I claw my way to February of next year, I’m left with one clear, executable resolution: return to Cairo more often. 


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