Your father is an immigrant. Your father is an Egyptian immigrant, to be more precise. He likes to take trips to visit his home country, and sometime soon he will ask you if you would like to visit it with him. You will feel excited about this, but you may also feel nervous. After all, Egypt isn’t your home country. Sure, half of your family lives there, but you have never been able to call Egypt a place of your own.
When the plane touches Egyptian soil and you step out, first take a minute to adjust to the hot, dry air. It will hit you in the face, taking the breath out of your lungs, but after a few minutes it will be tolerable. It’s amazing how fast the human body can adjust to climates that it has never experienced before. After you collect your bags, you will follow your father through the Cairo airport into passenger pickup. You may have already taken a second to look at the airport signs. All of them are written in Arabic (a language you can only vaguely understand). As you make your way out of baggage claim, the sound of honking cars and the smell of smog will wash over you. You will soon see one of your cousins smiling and ushering you into his car. He will take you and your family back to the apartment you are staying at. When you get there, set your bags down immediately and make your way to the small convenience store sandwiched between your apartment building and a line of crowded clothing stores. You are going to need plenty of black tea and mango ice cream to serve all of your relatives when they visit that night.
When your relatives arrive at the apartment, make sure to greet them properly. When you hug them, you will have to judge how many cheek kisses to give. Some like two, others like three; you will have to figure it out in the moment. You might feel overwhelmed by the number of people squeezing into the small, stuffy living room. You probably won’t know everyone’s name or even their relation to you. Many of them will try to converse with you in Arabic, and you can try to answer back with your limited knowledge of the language. When in doubt, smile and nod. When you get sufficiently flustered from doing that, you can excuse yourself to the kitchen to start boiling the tea and scooping out the ice cream. Your relatives will thank you profusely as you serve them the refreshments, and you will sit and listen to them have animated conversations in Arabic as you try to piece together what they are discussing. Eventually, when it’s well past midnight, they will see your eyes starting to droop and leave for the night.
Maybe five days into your trip, your family will want to visit Khan el-Khalili, a colorful bazaar in the heart of Cairo. Here’s a rundown of some things you can expect to see there: uneven sidewalks, fruit stands, tents filled with gold, silver, and papyrus sets, donkeys, tapestries exploding with color, smiling faces, people praying on the street, stray cats, and shop owners beckoning you to buy from them. If by chance you get hooked into bargaining with one of these shop owners, do not by any means speak English in front of them. Your father will warn you of this beforehand. If you do speak English, the shop owner will assume that you are American and therefore that you are rich, so they will raise the price. You can probably tell that this would put a damper on your father’s bargaining pursuits.
“A leather journal for twenty-five pounds? A seller just down the street is selling the same one for fifteen!” he will say to the shop owner in Arabic.
Before you leave, stop by the cafe that has been open since 1797, El-Fishawy. There, you will learn about how philosophers and writers used to come and debate each other while drinking tea and coffee. As you sip your own tea, you may find yourself thinking about the rich history of Egypt that you still know so little about. You might tear up in the moment, thinking about how the one paragraph about Egypt in your history textbook did no justice for the beauty you are seeing now.
Throughout your stay, you will have many dinner invitations from your relatives. All of your aunts and cousins will make enough food to feed an entire banquet hall, so come hungry. When the food is served, make note of the speed that you are eating at. Don’t eat too fast, or they will pile the entire dish onto your plate and expect you to eat it all. You shouldn’t eat too slow either, or they will assume that you don’t like their food. You need to find the perfect balance, but don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to perfect your eating speed since you will have some twenty dinner parties to attend during your vacation.
At this point, your visit is likely coming to an end, and you will find the idea of leaving Egypt difficult to think about. The same cousin that picked you up from the airport will drop you off on the morning of your departure, except the car ride will be filled with a sad silence instead of eager excitement. A wave of emotion will wash over you; a sense of Egyptian heritage and culture that is somewhere deeply-rooted within you. You will wonder why you were so worried about the trip in the first place.
As you stare out the window when the plane takes off, watching the dry landscape fade away into the clouds, you will finally feel content in calling Egypt a place of your own.