I had culture shock all over again when I landed in Washington, D.C. on Friday afternoon. Uber felt unnecessarily complicated, I couldn’t find my way out of the terminal, and Georgetown was disturbingly posh. I thought again how differently streets function in this country than in Cairo: no pretzel stands on the median, no donkey carts on the shoulder, no veiled women selling kleenex on the sidewalk, no trash anywhere. D.C. and Cairo look nothing alike. I wondered, again, how both cities can exist on this planet just a plane ride apart.
I was in the District for wedding of dear friends, but I had the morning to myself. Another friend of the bride and I trotted off to a warm little cafe on L street, where I had intended to write this post. Instead, we talked about inner city public schools in Lexington, Kentucky. She said that in her second grade class only four students had two parents at home; most were raised by grandparents younger than my mom and dad. Some were crack babies. Many were the children of prisoners. More than 90 percent were on free or reduced lunch. The deck was stacked against them. It was an uphill battle, an uneven playing field; they’d been dealt a bad hand or a poor lot in life… every phrase that represents the desperately unfair situation of a group of second graders with no second chances.
As my companion described her classroom, I thought of Cairo, of the refugee kids I met, the illiterate mothers, the desperately poor. And I stopped her to ask earnestly, “Where do you find hope?”
She paused to consider. “Well, some kids do break the cycle. Maybe one gets out and comes back and helps two more. And I see improvements. But Virginia’s getting married today. And for me, that’s hopeful.”
A few hours later at the reception, over paella and exquisite Spanish wine, I heard friend after cousin after sibling stand up and say just that: this marriage gives me hope. These people love with vivacity and endurance. They pursue justice, show mercy, think carefully, care deeply, all with a humility and generosity that inspires us. They are our role models, teachers, true friends. Their marriage is good. Their marriage brings joy.
It doesn’t make sense for Cairo and D.C. to coexist. It doesn’t make sense for inner city Lexington schools, George Washington University, and Egyptian education to be part of the same world. I don’t know how to sip sangria in Georgetown after drinking tea in the suburban slums of Cairo. The contrasts and their consequences leave me with little faith in humanity. But I have faith in Brian and Virginia. I have faith in the friends and family celebrating with them, in all those who have welcomed me in Zamalek and Grand Rapids and Philly and D.C., who facebook and text and snapchat and email and phone me to share their lives and say they care. Refugees flee war and disaster worldwide, climate change is devastating our oceans, urban poverty traps Kentucky schoolkids and Donald Trump is running for president. But Brian and Virginia are married, so the world is a bit brighter today than it was before. I’m holding to that.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.