Egypt of my Youth

Nadia 1996 clr jpeg
Nadia H Sabry

Nadia H Sabry is currently studying Science at McGill University in Montreal. She is the proud recipient of the 1997 International Essay Contest presented by The Society of Plastics Engineers. In her High School years she was active in the debating, Federal Provincial simulation, and many other extra curricular activities. She spent a year in France with the Rotary Exchange Youth Program. She speaks three languages

Egypt of my Youth
Vol 7 1998

Just like the tangerines that grew in the front yard of the house I once called my home, my memories of Egypt have an attractive bitter sweet taste to them. Ah . . . the summer beauty of the thirsty grass as it sways gently in the hot breeze, the shadows of the overhanging leaves of a hibiscus tree tracing intricate patterns upon it. From everywhere in the lazy dry air come the sounds of insects buzzing in unison, and as dusk nears, the haunting call of the Stone Curlew rings out over the tall pine trees.

What natural beauty is to be found in a country often characterized by the unnatural and the phenomenal. But as the well-experienced traveller knows, it is often the country unknown to the tourist that is the most interesting, the most intimate. And just as the Egypt that tourists come to know with its ancient ruins and rich history is contrasted to the Masr (Egypt in Egyptian) that is the ordinary home of some fifty-eight million people, the Egypt I knew is itself a land full of contrasting images I can describe only through my senses ….

For above all, Egypt is a land not just to be visited, but rather experienced for all its timeless charm.

I see images of bright sunlight and comforting shade. I see a group of boys at the local sporting club playing football (soccer) in their team outfits, sweat drenching their dark little heads as the coach yells “yalla, yalla” (lets go). I see the young boys who regularly wash windows at traffic jams enthusiastically running barefoot around an impoverished soccer field on a little used street, dabsh (broken pieces of rock or cement from the never completed renovation) serving as the goal posts – reluctantly moving aside as a passing car interrupts what could have been the greatest play ever. I see the cars laden as Cairenes take off to the coasts for the summer vacation, away from the heat of ‘Masr’ (for as every Egyptian admits, the common name for Cairo is not Qahira, but rather the name of Egypt itself: Masr).

I see the azure waters of the Mediterranean sea at the traditional summering city of Alexandria, and I dive underwater and see the world renowned breathtaking coral reefs at the less traditional summer spots of Hurgada & Sharm El Sheikh on the Red Sea Coast. As I pass the farmland in the Delta, I spy the conical mud huts housing colonies of white pigeons, towering into the sky as high as the date trees which encompass them with the rich greenery of foliage that can only exist for plants that are truly well nourished.

I taste the sweetness of the sugar laden lamonata (lime juice) then I taste the bitter torchy (a spicy-hot medley of pickles). I smell the perfumes and colognes of the pedestrians as I make my way through a crowded street, alertly holding my mother’s hand, then I smell the stench of the remains of the fruits and vegetables that had been offered for sale in the earlier morning market, now left for the stray dogs and cats to sniff through.

On the Corniche (the avenue running alongside the Nile in Cairo or along the sea in Alexandria, depending on which city you originate from), my nose is offered the smell of the corn roasting as street vendors endeavour to keep the coal burning, fanning it with an impromptu piece of wood or cardboard while calling out to passers-by in a sing-song monotone.

I hear the loud hearty laughs of two friends in a store as they bargain and make some trademark Egyptian joke, characterized by its simplistic ending, yet elaborate and involved recounting – the elaboration arising from the rich linguistic traditions of the culture, a taste for the simplistic arising out of the complicated reality of everyday politics … then I hear the beautiful melodic, almost chant-like readings of a Soura of the Koran performed by a Sheikh (pronounced sh-eh-kh) broadcast over a radio in some café, where older men play ‘Tawla’ (backgammon) and wile the time away as they sip their water pipes. I hear the horns of cars as the drivers deftly manoeuvre down a five lane avenue which in reality has but three lanes – until I was seven, I thought the object of driving was to center one’s car over the dashed lines (!). Then, at home I hear the silence of the afternoon hours as the heat becomes quite unbearable, and all succumb to the promising comfort of a nap.

I feel the chill of the oncoming winter as the temperatures dip to the annual late December lows of 10̊C, for in a country whose homes are built to retard heat and keep them as cool as possible, a low of 10̊C outside is a low of 10̊ C inside. I bundle up and I think of distant countries that have snow and wonder what such a creamy-looking substance tasted like.

I do not have much time to wonder for school beckons and as I stand silently at attention in the courtyard of my school as the national anthem is sung, awaiting my class’s turn to be dismissed and start the day, I nervously wonder whether I am ready for the upcoming test in fourth grade history. I had spent the last week memorizing the names, dates and deeds of the dynasties of Mamluke rulers in one of the countless eras in Egyptian history when Egypt was being ruled by outsiders .. who eventually assumed Egyptian ways while adding of their own to the rich cultural heritage of this country.

I only realized after coming to Canada that my friends’ backgrounds had ranged from Armenian to Italian to Greek to Sudanese .. while in Egypt I was never made aware of, or cared less, what anyone’s ancestry had been. My family was relatively new to Egypt – only about two hundred years compared to Egypt’s six thousand or so years. I myself am a mixture of Circassian, Albanian, Greek and Turkish, with a touch of Egyptian … but back to my test. I was worried, for in Egypt, school performance was a direct gauge of future potential. The competition, though stressful, served to educate us to the ways of real life, and we strived to do our best. Woe be the shame on the pupil who disgraced him or herself to their family by obtaining low grades.

The short six months of school represented a period of challenge, intensive learning, and naturally, the courteous discipline which is taken for granted there. In reference to the latter, when I initially came to Canada, I was astounded by the lack of this respectful discipline and the informal attitude in class, which of course I later came to love.

My attempt to describe the Egypt I knew as a child may serve to clarify, through the dense fog of western myth and illusions, a multi-dimensional topic .. Tangerine trees, mangoes, beautiful sand beaches and a constant interplay of bright sunlight and shadows. Growing up in Egypt until the age of ten has left me with many sun filled memories and bitter-sweet dreams of what once was home. Now, at the age of twenty-one, I can but wonder how much those conceptions would have changed had I grown up there; but I wonder not too much, for I am just thankful to my parents as I forge ahead into my future