T(ea) for Tourist
27 December, 2012
Perhaps one of the most important aspects that shape a country’s essence is tourism. Hospitality is an art that every nation’s people should master. It is how a country welcomes a foreigner that really reflects its image back to the world. Being a native Georgian, I never had a chance to experience what it is like to be a tourist in Tbilisi. I did however live in Egypt for sixteen years before moving to the United States. This is a
recollection of my last day in Egypt, before I headed off to a different world. I was a tourist in Cairo, and am a tourist now as well. I’ve been a tourist for my entire life.
“Shay?” The old lady startled me.
“Yes, please. Thank you.” I said. After sixteen years of living here, I knew better than to say no to tea. Offering tea was a well-known Egyptian gesture of hospitality. Refusing the offer was a phenomenon that almost never happened. I didn’t know this when I first came here. My first dinner at my neighbors’ spacious apartment was a quite a memorable experience. I remember being a little confused with the overwhelming amount of gold-coated furniture, the oriental prints on the wall, roughly a hundred hands of Fatima hanging almost everywhere, the Bedouin rugs, the strong smell of herbs and incense…I could go on forever. When I said I didn’t want any tea, their kind eyes widened in surprise, their mouth gaped like they would at the dentist’s. Oh, how could I? How could I say no to tea? So there I was, years later having my last dinner with my neighbors who were now my family, in their apartment that was now my home.
I thought about how I’d remember this. I’d remember how they tilted their heads when they laughed, how they waved their hands around in hurricane-like motion when they talked, the way they oiled the gears of my heart with their weird kind of humor. They taught me how to be thankful. Thankful for the food on my spoon. I listened to them oohing-and-aahing about each other’s culinary skills. I looked down at my Sahlab, a traditional Egyptian dessert – tepid milk cream with walnuts, fruits and chocolate. I oohed-and-aahed with them too.
I had starved myself for this dinner. Everyone at the table was expected to eat a lot, and add more food on their plate even before it was clear. And when I had filled and re-filled my plate, my hosts still badgered me to have some more. “But you’ve hardly eaten anything, habibty!” Habibty literally meant “my lover” but Egyptians threw the word around at everyone. We were all each other’s lovers. I responded by resorting to the famous Winnie the Pooh saying (translated in arabic of course), “When having a smackerel of something with a friend, don’t eat so much that you get stuck in the doorway trying to get out.”
They would know what I was talking about.
Everyone knew Winnie the Pooh. This was something the American culture finger-painted everywhere. Winnie the Pooh school bags, Winnie the Pooh t-shirts, Winnie the Pooh this, Winnie the Pooh that. Rooted in America. Made in China.
Religion was a common topic of discussion at the table. Years later, I still felt left out.
A ten year old girl pulled a chair and sat next to me. “Why do you not cover your hair?” She asked, cuddling with her stuffed toy. Winnie the Pooh again. Great.
“Because I’m not a Muslim, Amina.” I replied.
“Why are you not a Muslim?”
“Because I …” At this point everyone was staring at me. I was thinking about how to make it easy for a ten-year-old to understand. Maybe I wished I had a Winnie the Pooh quote for that. I tried to use simple language. “Because I have different ideas about what is right and what is wrong.”
“But how? God tells you what is halal and what is haram.” Halal, in Arabic, means what religion deems appropriate, and haram is all that’s sinful.
“I’d like to think I can form my own beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong.”
“But if you form your own beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong, then anything can be right and anything can be wrong.” The words poured from her mouth like unformed hot lava, but with a highly disciplined skill.
“Yes, you are right. Maalesh,” That is what they say when things don’t go as expected. And things in Cairo usually went wrong more often than not. I didn’t want to crush her expectations. I decided not to argue, but I thought about what she said all evening. I thought about those married men staring down my shirt and the way I was greeted every day with cat-calls in the streets. All the ass-grabbing and the eyeballing. The repeated episodes of sexual assault. Men would eyeball me from crest to toe then come up and ask me what time it was, just to get into a conversation (even when they could barely speak a word in English). And as I walked away, they would reach out and casually grab my backside. They would sprint away like a bullet before I would even have a chance to yell at them. The policeman standing nearby would burst out laughing. It happened all the time, at least once to every woman.
I think those men formed their own beliefs about right and wrong too.
After dinner, I decided to take a walk before I would head off to the airport. It would be my last chance to absorb it all, to cram as much information as I could like I would thirty minutes before an exam. I’d miss it. The boasting sun eating away at the grass, and what was left of the greenery. I’d miss the feeling of the pounding pavements of the City’s streets underneath my feet. I walked on the aisles of memories that hung like paintings in a museum. The political slogans, the towering minarets, the misspelled English sign of a local supermarket, the presence of this newly attained freedom ushered by an occasional light breeze.
In that sticky beastly heat that almost flayed me to the bone, I finally decided I was ready. I waved my hand at a taxi.
“Welcome to Egypt! Pyramids?” He asked in awful English. After all, nothing really screams “tourist” as a foreigner clutching a suitcase. He then made a triangular shape with his hands (as if I didn’t know what the pyramids were).
This time I wished that had been the case. We took a last picture together like a bunch of tourists who had just arrived. “Of course.” Maybe. I wasn’t sure. “So we’ll see you soon, right?” Waiting for me long before I even got there. A faint smile pulled the corner of their lips up when they saw me. I hugged them, not short enough to imply I wouldn’t miss them and not long enough to suggest I wasn’t coming back. My friends. And there they were. I made my way into the Airport, a place that would link me to this other alien part of world. I would wait, wait and wait some more in limbo for more than eighteen hours. Exhausting. He cleared his throat and stretched out a cupped hand, long before he pulled up in front of the airport. I rolled my eyes and gave him his sixty pounds. He kissed both sides of the paper bills, thanked God for the generous offerings of the kind foreigner, and drove away. “Sure.” I would have argued, but I didn’t want to distract him. A driver in Cairo should never take his eyes off of the road, for if they do, someone will surely hurdle the car, or jump right in front of it. It was a zoo of people. Gridlocked traffic. No rules. No meters, no set fares. Taxis in Cairo were like hungry mechanical sharks, waiting for wallets to devour. “Sixty?”“That’s too much.”“How about seventy?”“Fine, is fifty pounds okay?”“No, Madam! You tell me! How much do you want to pay? I’ll be happy with whatever you give me.” He flashed a boisterous smile.  “How much do you want?” “Okay, so how much are you going to pay?” He helped me load my suitcase into his trunk. It wasn’t too heavy. I didn’t want to take everything I owned with me. Maybe I wanted to leave something behind. Maybe I wanted a reason to come back. “No, the Airport.” I replied in Arabic, hating the fact that despite living in Egypt for years, I was still trapped under the label of a “tourist”.