I look outside the window. The snow is picturesque. In Canada, the cold has a tendency to get into your bones, but inside, in a warm and well-heated building, the white blanket covering the world is deceivingly beautiful. Canada in general is a beautiful country. In the summer, it feels as gorgeous as it looks outside. In many ways, it’s the perfect setting. But I am far from a perfect man. I do not refer to my faults, though they be many. I refer to the homesickness from which I suffer. I close my eyes, and I’m in Egypt, driving on the Sixth of October Bridge. It’s Friday before prayer, so the drive is oddly serene. It’s hot, but I’m well hydrated. There’s a breeze blowing in my hair as I drive over the River Nile with my air conditioning off and my windows down. The sun kisses my face. At this point an idiot would normally break into my lane without signalling and maybe throw off my zen but I’m too homesick to imagine that right now. Maybe later.
I open my eyes. The world is gorgeous white snow from a warm room with a spectacular view. True privilege. I love what I see. I love where I am. For a perfect man, that much love might just be enough. But I am far from a perfect man. I close my eyes. I’m back in Egypt. In Dahab this time. South Sinai. I’m lying on my favourite beach there, with mountains to my back and to the right, and the inviting calm sea to my front. An impossible array of blue. Five different shades. I know them, those shades! They’re not an illusion or a trick of the light. Each and every one is a real shade that remains that colour when you swim into its expanse. I go in for a dip. By which I mean two hours. I swim the length of the beach. Go in deep. Look into the beautiful blue drop below. Lie on my back in the water and stare at the mountains hugging the sea in my upside-down state. Stare at the palm trees on the other end of the beach. I get salt water up my nose and I come upright. But once I shake it off, I lie on my back in the water again. I open my eyes. I love where I live. I do. But I am far from a perfect man.
I close my eyes. I’m in Zamalek, at a table in Sufi with my friends. The conversation is flowing. The vibe is perfect. Everybody’s laughing. For a bookstore café, we’re a little loud, but nobody cares. The tables next to us are all the same. I look at the books around me, I look at my friends faces, and I don’t think about when we won’t all be here, at this table. I don’t know it at the time, but the spirit of these moments is something I take with me forever. Were things perfect at the time? I don’t know. Something might have been up. Then again, it might not have. I’m too homesick to remember. The antique shop across the hallway was rather unique. Set in an apartment, furnished in an odd combination of flat and antique store. But that wasn’t what set it apart. Those are a dime a dozen in Cairo. This one had its own cat. The door was open, and yet there was only one cat. Sitting on a sofa as though it owned the furniture. I remember trying to pet the thing before it scratched me. If I believed in reincarnation I would have thought that cat owned the place in a previous life. Coming back to haunt it.
I open my eyes. I consider everything around me. Here in Canada there’s ALOT to be thankful for. But here in Canada, things are different. For better or for worse, things are different. And yes, in many respects, for better. And I am grateful. I am thankful for it. But I am far from a perfect man.
I close my eyes. I am in Old Cairo. The tourist section. I walk by the ancient mosques. I wonder what those building it must have thought. I wonder what their first preachers were thinking. I look at the architecture. I wonder if there were some sort of true spiritual experiences that inspired it or if the architecture was in and of itself what inspired spiritual thoughts. Is it merely the cultural affiliation or do those edges and arches really seem to promise the alluring gift of spiritual truth? I go into an alleyway. No ancient architecture here. Some alleyways have them. Some alleyways don’t. This one doesn’t. Everything is modern. Well. Maybe modern’s too strong a word for this neighbourhood. Contemporary. The buildings, the workshops, the local brandless coffee shop that sells almost as much tobacco as it does beverages. All of them contemporary. And yet the feel of old Cairo doesn’t disappear. Something of the past has stayed here. Even when everything it ever looked like went away.
I make my way to other tourist sections. Moez Street. Shops, shrines, architecture. The shouting, the suffocatingly huge crowds walking, the salesmen brazenly asking what they can do to get your money. I drink it all in like a stranger. Every wooden door at a mosque has a story to tell here. If the stones in that street could talk, the world would be much richer in memories. I wander again through old Cairo. I make my way to Khan El Khalili. More of the same. But there are places here very few people really know anything about. Places that sell products most mainstream tourists never thought to buy. Not on the main streets. Deeper inside. So deep inside you get lost. Those always sell the most interesting wares. I take a look at some of them. A white cloth banner hanging with intricate black calligraphy making a shape. An antique dagger. Nothing like the mass produced brass stuff being sold on the outer streets. I’d love to buy it but it’s too rich for my blood. I guess I’ll never know who owned it. Maybe a foreign merchant from centuries past. Maybe a Mameluke prince. The shop keeper isn’t talking much. Unlike most of the other shopkeepers there.
I open my eyes. No one is shouting here. The place is calm, quiet and ordered. My soul should be as well. And often… it is. Though not always. Perpetuity may sometimes be a function of perfection. But I am far from a perfect man.
I close my eyes. I wake up in my home in the Sheraton District. A relatively quiet corner of Cairo. Relatively being the operative word here. The area was named in relation to its proximity to the old five star Sheraton hotel a little ways from the airport. A few years ago, the Fairmont chain had taken the giant building over but the name stuck. No one calls it The Fairmont District. I wake up to the sound of some guy shouting unintelligibly in the street. I’m unsure at first if he’s buying junk or selling gas tanks until he starts banging on one of the gas tanks with a wrench. I briefly consider murdering him. The love we bear our fellow countrymen.
I’m back on the streets of Zamalek but only for a moment. I enjoy the look of the faded glory of its buildings in the daylight. I enjoyed that look more downtown but I heard they renewed it recently. No more faded glory. Well, maybe a little. They didn’t get all of them. I remember standing in Talaat Harb square by myself once. 3 or 4 am. Must have been past 3 because I was literally alone there. Or was there a lone cop on duty that night? Poor guy. I parked my car to the side of the square and just stood there, in front of Madbouly’s bookstore and said goodbye. Just me and Cairo. I was leaving for Canada soon and I stood in the very beating heart of Cairo when there was no one there but me, and I said goodbye.
I’m in Boulak. They say it was originally named in French. Beau Lac du Caire. Now known as Boulak El Dakrour. The streets are shattered asphalt, the cars drive almost exclusively nose to tail at about 8 cm/hr, and there’s not a place to put your foot on the ground. Guys in motorbikes and Toktoks are somehow trying to wind their way through threads of people, people are cussing each other out, and throughout the noise, and shouting and suffocating heat, somehow (with the exception of a few guys settling their differences with chairs to the head, next to an oddly parked car to the side of the road) none of us are trying to kill each other. Some guy leans out of his car window to yell at the car in front of him. Ok it was me. I was yelling at the car in front of me.
The memory takes me back to my last night in Egypt. I was driving through Haram street, going to see my aunt before I leave and for some reason everyone seemed to think it was international drive like a jackass day. Unconsciously I found myself channelling the spirit of Mortada Mansour. I hurled abuse at no less than 30 drivers that day. Cairo’s way of saying goodbye.
I open my eyes. I don’t just like Canada. I love Canada. This is a place to build a life. A good life. For some maybe, a perfect life. But perfection is only as perfect as those who perceive it. And I am far from a perfect man.
I close my eyes.