The thick fumes of gasoline swirled with the smell of deep-fried food. A wild, boisterous and seemingly endless racket comprised of beeping cars and zooming scooters, the shrill voices of scolding mothers, lofty claims from overzealous salesmen and the sweet sounds of Um Kulthoum and Abdulwahab singing love songs from yesteryear.
Never before have I witnessed such organized chaos than I have on the streets of Cairo. Taxi drivers weave in and out of roads as though there were lanes to guide them, expertly maneuvering around pedestrians, tram lines, street vendors, and a whole slew of other unwieldy obstacles on any given day. Microbuses swerve to the side of the street to onboard new passengers while they bid others farewell – all within a matter of seconds, mind you. Advertisements plastered alongside pollution-stained buildings inundate the highways, all fighting for your attention as you drive by with the windows rolled down. Inevitably, your eyes will land on an ostentatiously large billboard (or four), boasting luxurious developments by way of ill-advised slogans like “Spanish living: re-invented”.
Still, this country never ceases to amaze me. It’s a tired, rickety and not-so-well-oiled machine – but it is a machine nonetheless. No matter what misfortunes befall its people, they are the epitome of the age-old mantra of “the show must go on”. The characters you encounter on a daily basis are undoubtedly cynical, wildly colorful, bullishly headstrong and opinionated but more often than not, kind at heart.
The streets here are filled with soul, practically bursting at the seams with life. Sure, they may not be the best kept streets by any stretch of the imagination, but my God can you feel the city’s collective heartbeat at every twist and turn. It’s nothing short of electrifying, and like it or not, it does something for me that no other place in this world can. It lights a fire, somewhere deep, deep inside of me. Beyond the cookie-cutter GCC upbringing, beyond my flawless command of the English language and way underneath the layers upon layers of immersion in western pop-culture. This fire burns brighter than the spark of satisfaction I get from my well-to-do corporate job and my self-proclaimed healthy lifestyle. It turns everything on its head – and I still haven’t figured out just why yet.
This city pushes me to be the most unadulterated version of myself in every way. It’s almost as though all the energy I expended into concealing, watering down and apologizing for my Egyptian identity in years gone past has been reborn into this impermeable force of nature that drives me forward. All of the insecurities I’ve ever had about never being enough for here nor there melt away. Yes, I dress in an unmistakably Western fashion, my accented Arabic will be tainted forever by the fact that English is my first language, and there’s still so much I cannot grasp about the social fabric of this country – but none of that matters. I am flawed, but I am unapologetically me; a proud Egyptian, a third-culture-kid, and a citizen of the world.
Trivial worries and tribulations that burden me in my day-to-day life seem to dissipate when I’m here. I look at everything around me and I can’t help but feel inspired. Perhaps it’s the stark contrast to my perfectly pruned life or being around my parents; twin pillars that ooze unconditional love and support for me at every waking moment, but something about Egypt seems to reset my creative compass. I feel this drive to ideate, to create, to immerse myself in the passions and interests that I usually only allow myself to indulge in sparingly.
It feels cliché to say I feel I was put on this earth to fulfill a higher purpose – I mean, nowadays, doesn’t everybody feel that way? Aren’t we all just trying to “make an impact”?
The truth is, I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve the lofty ambitions I’ve set for myself. I don’t know if I’ll ever be the person, career woman, partner or mother I thought I’d be. I don’t know if I’ll measure up to my own impossible standards, or if I’ll end up disappointing the people who believed in me from the very beginning. What I do know, is this: life is far too short to lament what could’ve or should’ve been. I owe it to myself to live my life with unbridled passion and to create as often and as intensely as I feel like creating. As Reinhold Niebuhr once said: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, annd wisdom to know the difference.”
The next time I start to doubt any of this, I hope that I might find myself standing in the midst of a busy street in downtown Cairo. Breathing in the chaos and walking away with an overwhelming sense of calm which reminds me that everything will be okay.
After all, “the show must go on”, right?