A new day begins with a warm, citrus tint cast above the city. I can see it clearly with all its lurid delights. The soo’q (market) is busy with mothers bargaining for lower prices on cabbages and eggplants while children stray further down the marketplace, toward the livestock.
They race one another to handle furs and feathers of all kinds: chicken, rabbit, sheep, goat, dove and the occasional camel. A short way before them is a man advertising tean (figs), assuring me his are the best in all of Egypt and specifying how much he charges per kilo.
As a young woman — in a hijab — I encounter things I never thought I would experience: on streets, in apartments, within buses. I see 70-year-old women sitting on sidewalks with their granddaughters, selling napkins for change. There is an unimaginable level of indifference and apathy that walks among the city dwellers and storekeepers.
And, as a young woman — dressed fully and modestly — at the same time that I am comparing the figures of fruits among vendors, they are comparing my figure. Their eyes unhesitantly peer in every direction in which my hands stretch for the ripest of the batch, my back straightening horizontally and hips swaying upward for balance. B’kam? (How much?) Gesturing to weigh the plastic bag I have filled, I cannot seem to dismiss his blank stare and refocus his attention the first time. So I ask again, How much?
And, as a young woman — gracious and respectful — I hand the vendor more than he stated. He refuses the additional sum, nodding and taking offense. Then, keeping the correct pay tightly in hand, he kisses it once and aims it toward the heavens. Alhamdulilah, all praise to the Most High. His gaze is now to the floor, and the exchange is complete. I carry the bag and begin walking to the main road for a ride home.
And, as a young woman — patient and reluctant — I refuse the taxis full of passengers whose drivers still approach me to say, I’ll give you a ride anywhere, beautiful. All at once, 13 years of being called terrorist and camelback return to me in a single moment and seem less threatening somehow. I wonder if it is because they are the ones most familiar to me. Stepping backward, I signal a smile of gratitude and apologize for having to decline. Not once do I mean it.
Returning to Egypt during the summer of 2018 after a 13-year hiatus, I was seeking ease. Instead, I discover the United States’ tribulations in another landscape. I hear men whistle and catcall, but I have already known these to be global sports. I see young Black boys being dragged and kicked in bazaars for something they did not do, and then I remember Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin. It did not take many days to learn that I had returned home to not find it at all.
My aunts say I am the Egypt before the revolutions, two in a span of five years. They say it is as if I had remained with them all those years but was entirely unfazed by their chaos. Little do they know of our longing and wanting, our sorrowing and praying in the United States. I couldn’t tell them of our carpet-beds the first year after immigrating or of the ends-meet months shortly followed by eviction papers. There is no doubt in my heart that we could not reveal to them that every passing day we would still question if it was the right decision. I now know the answer cannot be confessed, either.
Three weeks pass, and I board the airplane once again to leave Egypt like in 2005. My memory returns to being a 7-year-old who arrived in a strange land, bombarded with questions: What’s your name? Are you enjoying recess? Want to be friends? And since the one word in English I knew how to say correctly at the time was No, I did not make any.
Amid the 13 years that followed, I often thought of my extended family who remained in Egypt as a constant reminder of how lucky I am — from arriving to a new land with no knowledge of its language to attending its globally top-ranked public university. Though I still reminisce much about what has been and once was, I am content at sea between two lands, one as foreign as the other.
Menat El Attma is a junior studying English at UC Berkeley.