To Egypt, At Long Last

Saturday, January 26, 2019 | Cairo, Egypt

Andrew and Nina at Abu Simbel, December 2017 (photo: M. Farrand)
For years, I resisted all attempts to drag me to Egypt.

Of late, the place just sounded like a mess, wracked by the throes of its post-Arab Spring upheavals, its economy in shambles. But even before the revolution, friends—including the most hardened of travelers—returned from Egypt with horror stories of the street harassment, the aggressive touts at every tourist site, the filthy streets and smog-filled air, the overcrowding and poverty. And even before I knew about all that, I was just another young over-achiever in Arabic class at Georgetown, looking to spend a semester or two in the Arab world honing my language skills and experiencing the culture firsthand. What destination could be more obvious than Cairo—epicenter of the Arab world, the city where nearly every aspiring Arabist had cut their teeth? But, ever the contrarian, I opted—precisely because the choice was so clear—to leave Cairo to my classmates, and instead head off alone to Damascus and Amman.

After the Levant, life led me back to DC, then to North Africa. And that's where I met Nina.

Though German by birth, Nina spent her whole childhood in Cairo, attending
elementary school in the downtown neighborhood of Dokki, learning to swim at the Sakkara Country Club pool, touring the Christmas decorations at Cairo's shopping malls, and spending her weekends riding horses around the pyramids. Since the first day I met her, I heard nonstop about these memories, and understandably so. All the home movies of Nina's childhood, all the gap-toothed photos of her and her older brother, they were all shot there. (And if her memories were vivid, her parents' and brother's proved even more so.) Even after many return visits and a semester in Cairo back in college, nothing could sate her nostalgia.

Back in summer 2017, Nina was invited for a work conference in Cairo, and prevailed upon me to tag along—and finally take the Egypt plunge.

* * *
Nina poses with Bussi, the beloved Arabian circus horse she began riding two decades earlier.
It's hard to express by just how far Egypt surpassed my expectations (which, to be fair, had remained rock-bottom, in defiance of Nina's romanticism). But in my next few articles here, I will attempt to convey some of what moved, awed, frustrated, and amused me about the place—for it is a country untouched by moderation, and replete with extremes of the highest and lowest sorts.

In perhaps the most telling measure of my appreciation for Egypt, I returned as quickly as possible. Rarely do I retrace my steps when traveling (there's a whole world out there to explore!), and almost never without allowing some time to pass, changing the place and thus warranting a return visit. But after my first taste of Egypt, I immediately wanted more. As soon as we returned to Algiers from our July trip, I began plotting a second visit, and that Christmas we brought both our families—Nina's parents and my mother and sister—to Egypt for a second tour.

On those two trips I asked Nina to marry me, saw some of mankind's greatest creations, racked up countless peculiar and unpredictable interactions with Egyptians, and generally enjoyed the hell out of the place. And on top of all that, I shot nearly 60 rolls of film—and might have shot more if the dust and heat and many miles hadn't so overtaxed my antique Rolleiflex that it gave out on me in the final days.

It has taken me many months to process all my reflections, memories, and photos from both trips, but all that is coming up next.

Daily life in Cairo's Khan El-Khalili market

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