No, I don’t live in a pyramid, and, no, I don’t have a pet camel.
These were the answers I sometimes wished I could tattoo on my forehead as a child, given the inevitable barrage of silly questions that came every time I told someone my parents were from Egypt. Sure, it was cool to bring in papyrus drawings and little alabaster sphinxes for show-and-tell, but for most of my childhood being Egyptian felt like an annoyance bordering on a burden.
I secretly wished my parents were from the Upper Midwest and not Upper Egypt. I didn’t want to be “exotic” or “foreign.” I didn’t want to be different.
Most days, I didn’t feel very Egyptian until my parents came home. While at school or playing with friends, I could convince myself I was just as American as they were. Sure, I didn’t have that nice, shiny, straight hair, but I had Cabbage Patch Dolls and ate Twinkies just like everyone else.
Sundays, however, were a different story. We went to our Egyptian church for our hours (yes, plural!) long mass, then Sunday School, then out to lunch with our Egyptian friends, followed by and Egyptian dinner with our Egyptian family. I was torn between embracing the familiar sounds, smells and tastes of that world and craving the other. It was baklava vs. Barbies and the winner was unclear.
My mom was a university professor and since she had summers off we spent many of them in Egypt, with my brother and me complaining and whining most of the 10+ hour trip over. In our petulant tween and teenage years, we were simply not able to appreciate what an amazing opportunity it was. We wanted to swim in our backyard pool, not in the Red Sea. We preferred modern wonders (like Pong on the Atari) over ancient ruins. We just wanted to be like all our friends. We just wanted to be “normal.”
Somewhere between college and grad school I finally came to the conclusion that hailing from Egypt was actually kind of cool. I was fortunate enough to live and work in Europe for a time and took advantage of the proximity to visit the Motherland on my own on several occasions. But it was still just that: my mother’s (and father’s) land. Not mine.
I guess it ultimately took 37 years and an international geopolitical crisis for me to fully embrace Egypt as a piece of myself. As the protests began last week, I found myself simultaneously unable to turn away and yet scared to watch.
As I sit on my comfortable couch in my comfortable house watching the unrest (I love that word, it makes it sound like just a bad night’s sleep) unfold, it occurs to me that one decision on the part of my parents, one lucky move is all that separates me from the desperate, frustrated masses. With eyes that look just like mine, they are crying for what I have been fortunate enough to enjoy my entire life. I fear for my family there, for their safety, for their very survival, for the survival of the entire country. Will I ever be able to take my children there? Will my parents ever return to the place they loved enough to leave? It comes down to this: if Egypt is in crisis, then so am I.
One member of my family in Cairo says he’ll never leave. He says this is the moment to fight for his country, to fight for what he deserves. And he’s right — I just can’t wrap my brain around why I never had to fight. There but for the grace of God.
Egypt’s next chapter is being written before our eyes. I hope that when we look back on this period, it will one day be the country’s proudest hour. Until then, all I can do is pray in words from the Bible that have never made more sense:
“Blessed be Egypt, MY people.”
Mona Shand is a radio and TV news reporter, and the child of Egyptian immigrants. You can read more on her blog.