By the time you read this, I may already be in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I’ll definitely be in America, land of short shorts, democracy, and Chipotle burritos. There’s a good chance that I’m eating a Chipotle burrito (vegetarian, brown rice, extra guac) at this very moment, and/or weeping uncontrollably for no apparent reason. I’ve counted down to home since January, but despite my best efforts, I find myself absolutely unprepared for the mess of feelings that this transition brings.
Against my better judgment, I continue to say things like never—I have never been this tired—and always—why is change always so hard? The extremity of such statements seems fitting for the exaggerated scale of Cairene life. This city has gutted me, and made me like itself—beneath my calm Northern exterior lies raucous traffic of every imaginable variety: crumbling streets that converge into chaos, slim cats dodging families on motorbikes, plainclothes waiters with trays of coffee serving amorphous cafes that spill into the street. There is no shortage of noise or light or smell; there is overwhelming evidence of activity. One feels lost in it.
When I remember Cairo, I will smell car exhaust and garbage. I will think of mangy kittens winding around the chairs of omnipresent turbaned men. I will recall winter nights tucked under wool blankets with thick books or trite comedy television for company, or summer nights on the same bed, splayed across the sheets and thirsting for a breeze. I’m not sure when I can be most honest about my time here—I am, in fact, unsure what honesty would reveal. I know I will think differently of this place once I have irrevocably left it. Right now, I am almost salivating over the thought of craft beer and good Mexican food. I’m ready to go home.
But I’ll carry Cairo with me: in the scarves and sandals and souvenirs I’m toting in my luggage, in my bronchial tissue, in my potentially parasite-infested bowels and my more metaphorical guts. Every sentence I write these days is a string of pictures and dependent clauses—the aforementioned mess of feelings hasn’t settled into a story.
In the Bible, Egypt is a land of prosperity and refuge for Abraham, Joseph, the people of Israel, for the Holy Family. Egypt is also a place of oppression, suffering, and enslavement. A place of famine. A place of plenty. A foil for the Promised Land. It holds massive yet multi-faceted symbolic weight for God’s people collectively—and for me in particular. In Egypt, God provided for me. In Egypt, I experienced a profound sense of longing, both for the home I had left and for the land that God has promised me. I felt unduly blessed and absurdly limited. I have never been so hollow, so delighted, so angry. And I have a feeling it will always be hard to explain.
When I’m telling you the story of my year in Cairo over coffee or ice cream or beer or Chipotle burritos, remember that there is no single story. There is no single image I can offer of the country, the city, its people, my life there. Do not let me offer only one. Be patient with my strings of clauses and my incessant anecdotes. Do not allow me to share only one. I’ll need company in that mess of feelings, in the city that has taken up residence under my skin.
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.