Maa salama, Egypt!

10 Jun

Melissa has charged with summing up the end of our Egyptian adventure. Since I had charged her with singlehandedly buying a house, I think it’s a fair tradeoff.

Our time in Egypt ended as it began – strange and wonderful and foreign and familiar.

I never made a grand announcement to my students that I was leaving, but word got out, and over the past few weeks a number of them expressed their regrets. I chalk some of it up to Egyptian sentimentality – that is one thing that took me a bit by surprise, how sentimental the culture is, but in general it’s a nice thing. I was really touched by the outpouring of appreciation they showed me. I got lots of good feedback from students about how much they enjoyed and learned from my classes, and I left Cairo feeling like I made a difference with my teaching. Frankly, if and when I go back to teaching US history in an American classroom, I’m afraid it will be a bit of a letdown, since teaching American history to Arabs (mostly Muslims) was such a challenging and unique and stimulating opportunity. Some of my students were really sweet, preparing me an oversized card that they made look like the Constitution (“We the People…” in fancy letters), with handwritten notes from several students and faculty members about the impact I made. I’m not a sentimental guy, but I sort of teared up in my office as I read it. Of all the things I’ll miss about Egypt (and there are a few), I’ll miss my students the most (followed closely by fresh mango juice…mmm, mango). I took the job believing it would be a fun and enlightening thing for me to teach American history in the Middle East, but as often happens, I came out of it having gained much more than I gave.

Before leaving, I asked my students to write me a note saying what they would like me to tell people back in the US about Egypt. There were a range of answers, but most of them came down to the common theme of wanting to be seen as ordinary human beings just like everyone else. They said things like, “We don’t ride camels to school,” “We’re not all terrorists,” “We don’t want to be bullied or told what to do,” “Islam is a religion of peace,” and “Egyptian food is the best in the world.” I can honestly agree with everything they said…well, except the part about Egyptian food.

Even if in the end we’re all the same, cultures are still different, and Egypt is still Egypt. It just wouldn’t have been right to leave Egypt without the requisite Egyptian experiences. Fortunately, the culture (as it always did) obliged:

The vultures are circling. I don’t think I’d ever felt quite so much like rotting carrion than in the weeks leading up to leaving. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “I’m so sorry you’re leaving – are you leaving anything behind that I can have?” This came from our housekeeper, the people who packed our things, the guy from AUC housing, the guy at the fruit stand. On her last day, our housekeeper went from room to room accumulating a pile of goods that she could take. She had a forlorn look every time I told her such-and-such belonged to the university, and I practically had to wrestle the shower curtain out of her hands. I didn’t really begrudge the process, knowing that she (and they) need the stuff more than we do, and we were leaving most of it behind anyhow, but I felt a bit disemboweled by the end.

No dollars here. Before getting on the plane to leave Cairo, I went to the currency exchange counter in the airport to get rid of all my valuable Egyptian pounds (it never really stopped looking like Monopoly money to me). The one guy “working” there was lazing around in the back before he bothered to saunter up the window after I had stood there staring at him for several moments. I told him I wanted to exchange my pounds for US dollars. “Sorry, we don’t have any US dollars.” I gave him my “Are you serious?” look, perfected after two years in Egypt, and said, “So you’re telling me that you’re in the business of exchanging money, but you don’t have any of the most common currency in the world?” In one of my proudest moments, I won the stare-down, as he finally asked for my pounds, then opened the door right next to where he was standing, revealing a cache of dollars. I took my money feeling like I had beat Egypt.

Not so fast, my friend. Of course, Egypt would not let me win so easily. As I swaggered toward the gate to get on the plane and leave Egypt with all its maddening (and sometimes charming) quirks behind, I had to pass through one more security point. They flagged my carry-on bag and asked me to step aside so they could search it. Standard procedure, nothing to worry about, I thought. Then the underworked and underpaid guard found my bag of batteries. Our overseas shipment couldn’t have any batteries in it, so I had pulled the batteries out of every possible thing in the house, and put them all in one bag. I didn’t want it to add to the weight of my already-backbreaking checked baggage, so I put the Ziploc of batteries, probably $50 worth, in my carry-on. The guard pulled it out, looked at it, and said, “No batteries.” I gave him the same “Are you serious?” look I had triumphed with just moments earlier, and said, “That’s crazy – almost every single person on that plane has batteries,” but he wasn’t going for it. A guy from the airline tried to intervene on my behalf, but it wasn’t going to happen. So the guard ended up with the bag, which I’m sure he’ll take home and power all his gadgets with for the next ten years. I chose to laugh rather than cry, and chalked it up to my final offering of baksheesh to Egypt.

Since then, we’ve been comfortably relaxing here in Utah with my parents and family. We’re still getting the paperwork together for our mortgage – a tedious process if there ever was one – but other than that we’ve done as little as possible. The whole Mason clan got together this past weekend at some really nice condos up in Park City, which was a lot of fun. We even took a family picture that looks half-decent, a major accomplishment given the Mason brothers’ extreme aversion to cameras and photographers. We’re here for another couple days, then fly to Texas on Saturday. We’ll be there a little over a week, then load up the truck and drive to South Bend, hoping to arrive the day before we close on the house, on June 26.

Thanks to everyone for following our Egyptian adventures these past two years. We’ll keep updating the blog, although our lives will certainly become a bit more banal. I think I can speak for both of us in saying that we wouldn’t trade our Egyptian experience for anything, but we’re also very glad to be back home.


4 Responses to “Maa salama, Egypt!”

  1. Nancy June 11, 2009 at 5:51 am #

    I love the money story! That is so typical.

    The food here is not the best, I certainly agree with that.

    Thanks for all the stuff you gave to us. 🙂 I feel so Egyptian to be part of the “vultures.” Weird that no locals wanted your Christmas tree (which is going to the House family).

    You actually aren’t supposed to take extra batteries on the plane…or in your carry on. They can spark on random pieces of metal in your suitcase, causing a fire hazard, especially if their polarities are jumbled in packing. Usually unopened packages are okay (no + or – sides of batteries are touching and there is a layer of plastic between the battery and any metal) but self-packaged batteries sometimes don’t follow those requirements.

    I think the risk is minimal, but it’s a true story. You might have gotten away with 3 or 4 batteries, but not $50 worth. 🙂 At least the Egyptians were actually doing their job (unlike the money-exchanger)! That’s almost a miracle right there!

  2. Nancy June 11, 2009 at 5:55 am #

    PS. We totally miss you guys. We went to Ain Sokhna and Rachel was POSITIVE that Finn was going to be there. We got in the van to drive out there and she was like, “Finn?” We told her he wasn’t there. We got to the condo and she said, “Finn?!” and ran to the bedroom you guys stayed in last time.

    Man alive, was she disappointed!

  3. Melissa June 11, 2009 at 7:38 am #

    That’s so sad!! I think if Finn saw Rachel again, he’d pee his pants, he’d be so thrilled. Not that that’s unusual for him…

  4. Kay June 13, 2009 at 4:07 pm #

    We are so, so happy to have you back safe and sound. I totally think if you would’ve had Finn with you there wouldn’t have been any problems with the batteries–rule or no rule!

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