It is slightly past 5:30 am when the first call to prayer begins, echoing from minaret to minaret across the ancient and sprawling city of Cairo. This is the time when I usually wake up. It is not faith or the low hymn that stirs me. I am simply an early riser. I wake with the birds, the cantors and the boabs – with the spinning tapes of anxious inner dialogue and take a few moments alone before the rest of my family emerges from their slumber.
I live in an Egypt now. I say ‘an’ Egypt, because I believe there are many – I have at least two Egypts in my own life. And there are certainly others. I am not the first person to see the pyramids, to float the Nile, and to leave only to mysteriously return again.
There was the Egypt I knew as a teenager - bustling dirt roads, excitement, loud haggling, and dangerous trips to the desert with suicidal friends. I don’t know where I put the photographs from that Egypt – of that skinny kid, playing adventurer. I can’t even find the building where we lived. It has been lost in a maze of new construction.
I also have several versions of Texas. In the dark moments of my present Egyptian experience, Texas is a perfect hill country spring river. I am totally and blissfully submerged in cold, pure water on a hot day. I am sharing a delicious pale ale with my best friends. Or bringing the whole family together for another perfectly executed Thanksgiving Day feast on my beloved car port in San Marcos. In this Texas I am dazzling people with my keen wit – never missing a beat. I am camping under the stars and understanding everything and everyone I meet. I am in Texas, a Texan but also a foreigner who says ‘yawl’ without sounding stupid. I take my hat off when I go inside, even if the other cowboys never learned that it is the proper thing to do. If I am eccentric, I am also competent in this Texas. But it is just one part of the story.
My new Egypt is dirtier. It is louder, more confounding. And even this new Egypt is not just one place with one mind. This Egypt has no agenda. It is constant motion and sound. It is all the cars that almost run me over when I walk to school in the morning. But it is also each car that never actually does run me over. Sometimes I laugh. Other times I want to yell out, “Just goddamn run me down if your going to!! Would you people shit or get off the pot already!!” Garbage blows past the ugly American with fists clenched, screaming at the waves and hoping to calm an ocean. It is the throng of desperate peddlers at the pyramids who lie and pull and take what I would have just given anyway if they hadn’t been so obnoxious. But it is also the stranger who chases me down two blocks to return the debit card that I stupidly left in the flashing ATM machine. It is a language that sometimes sounds like every word is a curse. But when my mood is right, I can hear the poetry in each throaty syllable. There is gentleness here amid the chaos. But I am almost always confused, and all too frequently frustrated.
The last stanza of the call to prayer fades. Mr. Zaki, the boab who lives in the construction site next door is rising from his bedroll. I am suddenly seven thousand miles away in a pet store next to an interstate in another Texas – the one I always try to leave. Mr. Zaki washes his face, his head, his hands. This pet store occupies at least 8,500 square feet. Mr. Zaki neatly lays out his prayer mat and kneels to worship. His hands are old and rough, but he has cleaned them carefully. There are three aisles of cat toys, including several brands that are hypoallergenic (for sensitive kitties). Mr. Zaki rises, creaky from a long cold night. A woman outside the store is adopting a dog, and I can donate a dollar or just stand gawking at bags of lamb and rice kibbles that are stacked twenty feet high. Mr. Zaki throws a couple of pieces of treated lumber on a small fire. Acrid smoke pushes away the morning chill. I am dumbfounded, considering the variety of dog cushions before me. Zaki pours two cups of tea from a dented aluminum kettle. There is an on site veterinarian and even a book to help you name your new pup. Zaki coughs once, sits back on the sand, and smiles. It dawns on me that I have absolutely no idea where I am.