This evening my friend and I ate at a fish restaurant in the Istanbul neighborhood of Beşiktaş flanked by collages of Atatürk and businessmen downing small curved glasses of rakı. We are both new – and temporary – to Istanbul, she staying hardly a week and I only for the summer. Inevitably, perhaps, we have both tumbled into a casual romance with this city. But over grilled octopus and Efes, our conversation turned to the other foreign places we have known longer and in more complicated ways – and to the people who are synonymous with them.
Rarely do we glimpse the personal relationships behind scholars’ work. Sometimes oblique hints lie buried in acknowledgments, but more often the emotional dimensions of what we study and why are hidden. Perhaps they seem embarrassing or unprofessional. But it is these ties that bind many of us to the places we study at some point or another. At other times they may push us away, as we look to distance ourselves from guilt or heartbreak.
As we spoke, I remembered a short essay I wrote three years ago, shortly after returning from Egypt. It captures a fleeting moment at the very end of my time there when the personal and the political collided in a sentimental supernova.
Below is the essay as I wrote it in 2013. I’ve changed names to provide a bit of anonymity.
“You’re not expressing yourself,” Camelia scolded me in an Eastern European accent. She peered disappointedly over half-moon glasses. “Touching your neck shows a lack of trust.” I quickly pulled my hand down. I didn’t want Hamdi to know I had no faith in Camelia’s magic crystals. From behind a counter lined with semi-precious stones, she produced a sheet of paper explaining their special properties.
“This one’s pretty!” I said brightly, pointing to a smooth blue stone. Hamdi handed it to Camelia, who wore neon pink stretch pants and worried aloud about the emotional effects of the full moon. She placed the stone into a brass pot and whisked a stick around the rim, making it hum. “Every stone gives and takes many energies on its journey from the mine to you,” she explained. “Some are good, some bad. I am extracting the bad.”
I slipped the stone into my purse as we left the shop. Hamdi placed a gray fedora over the buzzed mohawk he had been made to grow for an acting part, and clasped his hands behind his back. It was mid-June in Cairo, and night had barely eclipsed the thick heat of the day. We wandered into a coffee shop.
When we sat down, he leaned across the table and said: “Tell me your love stories.”
A few nights later I went to his apartment. He was editing a short film with a friend and wanted me to see it, he said. A light breeze drifted in from the Nile. I perched on the couch, playing with his massive dog. Then I heard his voice behind me. “Ta’aly,” he said softly – “Come.”
When he kissed me, I felt months of Cairo dirt and sweat rushing from my pores.
“The truth is, I can’t remember the last time I was this happy,” he texted me that night.
Soon after, he invited me to the late-night filming of a TV drama he was acting in. The studio stood alongside an irrigation canal on the outskirts of Giza, the beginning of the rich farmland of the Nile Delta. In a tent meant to imitate a poor urban wedding, hundreds of local extras in ill-fitting suits or robe-like galabeyyas sat poised at tables on which fake hashish and empty beer bottles had been artfully arranged.
Hamdi slipped my hand into his and walked me through the crowd to meet the other actors. He introduced me as his girlfriend.
I sat beside the tent, watching the scene unfold on the director’s screen. All eyes were on Hamdi as he bounded across the frame in silent fury. He vowed to ruin the wedding of the girl he loved to another man. The camera rolled through the tent, capturing its careful artifice.
The next day was June 30. I climbed onto the ledge outside a friend’s window and watched hundreds of thousands of people stream past on their way to Tahrir Square. No one was directing the crowd: Even the neighborhood policemen were standing on the roof of the station, waving their shirts above their heads and cheering the protesters. The air fluttered red, white, and black.
The energy of the streets was infectious, but I was decidedly not a part of it. Hamdi passed by that evening to pick me up. “We’re making a fruit salad,” he told me with impish excitement as we drove to his apartment to meet his friends. I was relieved to do something so normal.
Plums, apricots, apples, and mangos appeared before me. Hamdi washed and the rest of us chopped, filling a giant wooden bowl.
“Fasheekha!” he pronounced it at last.
In his boxers and tank top, necklaces of crystals dangling from his neck, he held me on his lap and sang into my ear. He inserted his nickname for me into an old pop song.
“Don’t forget,” I told him, “You promised we’d take a picnic to Orman.” Orman was the royal botanical garden, thirsty and overgrown behind wrought iron gates. It embodied the tragic beauty of old Cairo, sagging beneath the grime of modernity.
“We’ll go after the revolution,” he promised.
The next day the military issued the president a forty-eight-hour ultimatum. Would there be a coup? I wondered. The giddiness of what my friends assured me was impending victory was tempered with a vague dread of what might come next.
“The only direction we can go is Left,” Hamdi reassured me. “We’ve tried everything else.” The autocracy, the army, the Muslim Brotherhood – all had failed. Yet I felt uneasy as the countdown began and the din of the squares wound its way through the streets and burst from our televisions. Another Egyptian friend, a lawyer, e-mailed a brief warning as tensions rose: “Don’t tell anyone you’re American these days.”
On July 3, the coup came. I knew it that morning, as I walked past an armored personnel carrier to catch a microbus in Galaa Square. The streets were much quieter than usual, and the passengers didn’t push or yell. Flags hung from windows and the owners of the villa across from my apartment building had unfurled a trio of airbrushed portraits of General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi across its façade. Hours passed; I ordered pizza with my roommates and refreshed Twitter. When the general finally gave his speech, we stood at the window and watched fireworks erupt over the Nile. Should we celebrate? Weep? Pack our bags?
“How do you feel?” I wrote to Hamdi, sensing I should acknowledge that something big had happened.
“I cried and I cried,” he wrote back. They were happy tears. I told him my friends were being evacuated. “It’s a U.S. conspiracy to prevent the American people from sympathizing with the Egyptian people!” He cursed a purported secret relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the American government. I suddenly felt lonelier and more foreign than I ever had before. When I hung up, I cried, too.
After my roommates left, he invited me to stay with him for a few days. That night, we brought his parents a platter of sticky, sweet basbosa. After dinner, his mother unveiled a cake printed with the Egyptian flag and his father held court from the living room sofa in his galabeyya, taking long, sideways drags from a shisha pipe. We went to stand on the balcony, which looked out at Tora Prison. Somewhere inside was the waxy face of Hosni Mubarak, and I imagined him still laid out in dark glasses on the stretcher that had brought him to trial two years before. He seemed a mere footnote to the grainy TV footage of bloody clashes on the 6 October Bridge that played over and over.
That night, I could not block out the sound of the army’s jets. They flew low, in formation, sometimes drawing hearts of smoke in the sky. Their cold menace made me shudder. And yet, they were a reminder that we were living an extraordinary moment.
Rising over the thrum of the planes, the voice of the Lebanese singer Fairuz followed us from the living room into the kitchen as we washed our dishes: I loved you in the summer; I waited for you in winter. And our reunion, my love, is beyond the summer and beyond the winter.
In Hamdi’s windowless room, I clung to a happiness tinged with the melancholy of knowing it would soon fade. Egypt was changing; I didn’t know how. And after fourteen months in Cairo, I was waiting on a job offer back home. It would come any day.
“This isn’t a one-night stand, ya Koko,” he assured me. “We like each other.” Using his thumb, he wiped traces of makeup from my face.
By day I watched the news; by night we crossed the city to his place along the Nile. One night we encountered neighborhood vigilantes patrolling the entrance to Manial Island. They were checking for beards — Islamists. Hamdi said they had killed a local man. A few days earlier the Muslim Brotherhood was running the country; now they were the enemy.
In Hamdi’s apartment, there was no coup. We ate smoked salmon and watched an avant-garde French movie that neither of us understood. We stayed up all night and lay in bed all day. We held hands as he wrote his screenplay and I scribbled translations. We scrubbed his kitchen and fed the dog.
Then Ramadan began and TV dramas replaced the clashes on the bridge. We clicked through the channels until we found Hamdi’s own face on the screen. He played a poor man who sold flags at demonstrations. The show had been filmed months earlier, but the scenes were once again familiar. Demonstrations had become a way of life, a means of conjuring nostalgia for the revolution that inspired the world.
Early one morning, Hamdi’s friend Ali invited us to the martial arts school he had opened in a villa in Giza. Five of us spread out on the grass, the tip of the Great Pyramid peeking over the wall. I felt a welcome calm settle over me, insulating me from the chaos of the street and the questions I hesitated to ask. We readied ourselves for the Five Animal qigong routine. I contorted myself into the snake pose, crouching on the ground with my arms twisted sideways over my head. The absurdity of that moment filled me with sudden joy. What did anyone do in the midst of a coup? I hadn’t imagined it was this.
We sat down afterward in rattan lawn chairs and I wiggled my feet in the grass. The tickle of fresh grass was something I had seldom felt since I moved to Cairo, a reminder of a home to which I would soon return. Hamdi and his friends scrolled silently through their iPhones. Then someone murmured that fifty people had been killed at the Republican Guard headquarters overnight. For the first time since their second revolution, death clouded the air. After a while, we got up and busied ourselves to go because there was nothing anyone wanted to say.
That afternoon, I received an e-mail congratulating me on my new job in Atlanta. I had to move immediately. How would I tell Hamdi? Leaving Cairo was synonymous with leaving him. He embodied the city that I loved despite all the parts of it I hated. That city had changed starkly in the last few weeks, but our private world preserved a fantasy of the place as I wished to remember it.
I hardly stopped to think that for him things might not be the same.
“I want to write,” he said one night, folding his hands behind his head. His eyes were open and his thoughts elsewhere.
The next day, he began cleaning.
“It’s a ritual,” he told me. It took hours. I sat on the low, sagging sofa in a pink nightgown, also writing, as he scrubbed the floors, the windows, the tabletops. An eternal stream of cars rumbled past on the Corniche below. I felt an impulse to describe the pieces of the room – the pair of African statues Hamdi said had “no energy,” the French films stacked under the TV, the palm tree in its too-small pot — as if they would be washed away by the buckets of water he sloshed on the floor.
In fact, they had already begun to disappear, and Hamdi with them. Edith Piaf was singing “La Vie en Rose” and a breeze from the Nile tousled the sheets on the balcony.
“I thought I loved you,” he wrote me a few days before I left, “or that I would love you. But I found in the end that my feelings toward you were just ordinary.”
I packed alone. My month with Hamdi, and with it my year in Cairo, suddenly seemed to fade to a flicker. Like all foreigners who arrive in a new place to live and come to love it, I was just passing through.