California-based CairoScene columnist Mona Shadia looks back at her last visit to the motherland; a place of history, hope and, sometimes, heartbreak.
Cairo has a way of teaching me about life — a way of healing me, a way of breaking my heart.
I visited my hometown in January. It was my third time since I moved to California nearly 17 years ago. And this time around I was counting down the days and minutes to my departure.
I was looking forward to seeing and spending time with Uncle Beautiful, my mum's brother to whom I am very close. I was looking forward to our dramatic and intellectually-charged conversations.
I was looking forward to shenanigans with my cousins — to taking over Cairo's streets like a gang, to staying up all night, snacking on sunflower seeds, getting drunk on sugar cane juice, eating the kinds of food that is the essence of my Egypt and laughing till it hurts over nonsense.
I was looking forward to exploring Cairo in ways I never had before — to seeing its old and new, its ugly and beautiful, its grandeur, its sunsets and sunrises. I was looking forward to hearing its calls to prayers, church bells and its ages-old singers echoing from every corner of its walls.
And above all, I was overjoyed about my plans to meet a man I had known for about five years. Known is probably the wrong word. We first became acquainted on an online dating website and he immediately confessed his interest in me. And I immediately confessed the opposite. A surgeon in Cairo, he seemed to have no interest in living in the United States and I had absolutely no interest in moving back to Cairo. As far as I was concerned that was the end of it.
We lost touch. But months later, right around the time of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, he found me on Facebook. And on and off for the next few years he would present and argue his case in favor of us, using that classic Egyptian wit and sense of humor. When it all fails, he would say, "You're too beautiful to be in America. I need to preserve Egypt's beauty in Egypt and it's why I should marry you and bring you back to Cairo. Do you see how much I love her?"
I'd laugh and call him magnoon.
But all joking and flirting aside, we bonded over our deep desire for a free and prosperous Egypt, and that made us friends. During the revolution, he provided me with the most real experience from Tahrir Square. We would chat while he was there. We congratulated each other for every milestone, every little victory for us Egyptians and our freedom.
And when Tahrir hit roadblocks, he confided in me his frustrations and sadness. The day he told me he cried at Tahrir was the day my respect for him was engraved in my heart.
Late last year, after more attempts on his part, we decided to be open to all the possibilities of being together, the possibilities of living in Cairo or in America. And if that didn't work out for both of us, we could always move to Dubai or London.
What if we didn't like each other in person? "Just be open to the possibilities," he said.
We decided to meet when I was in Cairo, just a few weeks away, and go from there. And in those few weeks, we naturally transitioned from friends to more than friends.
I was terrified.
Terrified because this move was a risk to our friendship, something I cherished and expected to last forever.
I was beaming. My soul was soaring with joy and my heart intoxicated with hope. Here I was, waiting and praying for what felt like forever to meet and be with the man of my dreams. And it was quite possible that he was right in front of me all along.
And there were red flags. Serious ones even. I noticed them and pondered over them. But I went against them. I didn't want to risk being wrong and miss out on something so great, something that would have possibly brought me closer to realizing my dreams.
I came down with a cold three days before I left to Cairo. By the time I crossed the Atlantic, it was bronchitis and a lung infection.
Something else shifted by the time I got to Cairo: my friend, and potential love, had disappeared.
It enraged every fibre of my being.
It also shattered my heart to pieces. That pain in my chest as a result of my bronchitis and lung infection was much more bearable. Medications couldn't stop what seemed like constant stabbing to an already wounded heart. And that he is from my country, the country we love, left me even more broken.
Three days before I left Cairo, and after several attempts on my part to reach him, I heard from him.
He said he was not interested.
Yep, just like that — not interested.
I couldn't hide in my bed crying all day. I was in my beloved Cairo, with my family and my favourite cousins. I needed to appear happy, enjoying myself and my vacation.
And I did. Life is about the choices we make, the routes we take.
I swayed with the wind at the top of the Cairo Tower and took deep breaths. I gazed into the Nile. I lifted my head up high looking at the Great Pyramids with pride and wondered how many defeated souls had the Wonder of the Ancient World witnessed. I walked the narrow alleys of Khan el-Khalili and got lost in old Cairo. I channeled my late grandma at the Gold District and indulged in gold, silver, costume jewellery and artwork. I sat at the historic coffee shop of Naguib Mahfouz, the celebrated Egyptian author, and had a deep desire to write. I ate amazing food; closed my eyes with every sip of Turkish coffee. I laughed and posed for photos with my uncle and cousins. They hugged me, as if attempting to squeeze out all the pain that consumed me.
I watched Aida at the Cairo Opera.
I wondered how many people were walking around me, just like me, laughing, joking, engaging with others and going about life, but felt defeated, betrayed and heartbroken on the inside.
I wondered about their stories — the stories of those who built the pyramids, the historic mosques, the palaces and the grand structures of the city of a thousand minarets. What tears were they concealing, what battles were they defeating yet managed to emerge poised, dignified and resilient? What hope had they lost yet how capable they were of building a glorious civilization that stands triumphant beyond the ages? I still wonder.
I couldn't help but also wonder about him and his battles in life. I still do.
Life is about the choices we make, the routes we take. They shape our stories.
And our story is not different from the story of Egypt, the country he and I love. It is a story of pursuit. The long, difficult, thrilling and costly pursuit of freedom. Only to let her slip away.