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Stepping Into the Light
on finding my footing after moving to Egypt + Ramadan Kareem!
Hi friends, and happy first week of spring! It’s the most wonderful time of the year in Cairo. We’re in that moment of perfect in-between weather where we emerge from the chill and pollution of winter, but are not yet sweating under the ruthless summer sun. I mean, would you look at that bluer-than-blue sky and the flowers blooming around my neighborhood?
It’s also the first week of Ramadan, which brings tranquility as the majority of Egyptians fast and spend time at home with family. The roads are quiet, there are lanterns everywhere, and long iftar tables are set out in the middle of the streets in anticipation of breaking the fast at sundown. I was in California for the whole of Ramadan last year, so I’m looking forward to experiencing the magic for the first time.
I’ve been very active elsewhere in Substack land lately. Below, I’m reprinting an essay that I wrote for theSocial Club…but for those of you who saw that already, I have more fun stuff! I did an interview with where I talk about grocery shopping and cooking in Egypt, plus the things I always keep in my kitchen cupboard and my favorite weeknight dinners. I had a blast answering Rachel’s questions.
Last thing before getting to this week’s essay—thank you so much to my first paid subscribers,, , , Myles, and Lawson. You all are treasures. Next week, I’m sending out my first bonus newsletter for paid subscribers. Click below if you don’t want to miss it!
Have a wonderful weekend,
“Why are you here?”
It was meant as a conversation starter, but it echoed like an accusation. The instructor—a young man named Yehia with a baby face and wire-framed glasses—waited for my response. I looked around the sunken courtyard, an open-air art studio with ceramic tile flooring and salvaged doors propped against the walls, as a half dozen pairs of eyes left their easels and bore into me.
I had just burst into the class, late by a couple minutes. In my defense, I hadn’t expected we would start on time (hardly anything in Egypt does) and it had taken me awhile to find the place; Maadi, while calmer than other Cairo neighborhoods, is famous among them for its labyrinthine streets. I scanned the pile of paint tubes, turpentine, brushes and canvas paper, as if they might give me an answer to the question.
Why are you here?
“I’ve always enjoyed creative pursuits,” I said. “I’m a writer and I love to knit. I guess I’m just here to learn something new.”
It was a lie of omission. I was there because, after two months in this city, my life wasn’t turning out the way I wanted. I would be so far from home for so long that I had no choice but to reinvent myself, and I was failing. I had nothing real to hold on to in Cairo, and I thought, perhaps—in the absence of friends, a job, a community—a paint brush might do.
When I tell people back home where I live and why I’m here, my words have a romantic ring to them: my husband is a diplomat posted to Embassy Cairo. The sentence sounds exotic yet cosmopolitan, and long before we arrived in Egypt, it sparked a series of daydreams that I now recognize as tone-deaf, even unhinged.
I imagined browsing the souks, inhaling earthy spices and running my palm over cool, smooth alabaster vases; I would haggle brilliantly, becoming a renowned importer of sumptuous rugs and furniture inlaid in mother-of-pearl. I would embark on a career as an archeologist and excavate a new site in the Valley of the Kings, or perhaps I would run in the same circles as international arms dealers and go sailing on their yachts, like a femme fatale in a John Le Carré novel. I would be the queen of the expat wives, throwing dinner parties that would impress with their uncontrived elegance. I’d spend sunny afternoons horseback riding at the expansive, lush Gezira Club in Zamalek—a place of old-world glamor where all the chicest Cairenes are members—then reclining with a glass of lemonade handed to me by a server in a fez.
My first night in Egypt showed me just how out of touch with reality I was. It was a moonless night, the air thick with exhaust. The journey from D.C. had taken 24 hours, leaving me in a twilight state between excitement and fatigue as my husband and I were whisked from the airport in an armored van, sent courtesy of the State Department. The streetlights, which were few and far between, revealed vignettes of the city: packs of feral dogs, policemen sleeping in little shelters with hands slack over their Kalashnikovs, families of five piled into tuk tuks. The road was so high I could have reached out and pricked my finger on the minarets that lay just beyond the soundwall—that is, if it hadn’t been for the bulletproof windows, which didn’t roll down.
Our apartment wasn’t ready yet, so the van dropped us at a hotel near Tahrir Square. The reality of Cairo was so different from what I’d fancied that I didn’t know what to do with myself, and I spent much of the week on self-imposed house arrest. I slept in every day, staying in bed and listening to podcasts about ancient Egypt, emerging to lounge by the pool if I was feeling adventurous.
A couple days in I got cabin fever and resolved to take myself for a walk. I could stroll toward Zamalek, I thought, and stop into some shops, perhaps finally set eyes on the legendary Gezira Club I’d imagined so many times. I could start claiming the city as my own. So after gathering my courage, I stepped off the compound and into the fray, walking with purpose and dodging the jalopies that sped up and down the Nile corniche. I kept my chin up, attempting to project an air of unflappability, to conjure that woman from my daydreams who had the city at her feet.
For the first ten minutes, I felt free. It was a clear, sunny morning, and the river glimmered as I crossed the Qasr el Nil bridge toward Zamalek. This is more like it, I thought to myself. But no sooner had I reached the other side than a random man glommed onto me.
“Hello, my friend!” He called from across the street. “Welcome to Egypt! Do you speak English? Where are you from? Hello? Hello, my friend!”
I ignored him. He persisted. He followed me calling hello, hello, hello! until I accepted that feigning deaf, dumb, and blind was not going to work. I was forced to acknowledge him.
“Can I take you to an authentic Egyptian bazaar? Only open today,” he said. My ears perked up a bit. The word “bazaar” evoked visions of an outdoor market of local handicrafts, where I could play the expert haggler with the discerning eye. I had no business following a strange man to a second location, but I figured I could shake him when we arrived at the market. “Okay, let’s go,” I said.
I regretted it even as the words passed my lips. He led me through narrow streets lined with rubble and dirt and exposed wire, twisting and turning until we arrived at a storefront with EGYPTIAN BAZAAR in gold lettering across the front. My companion ushered me in, and just as I noticed there were no other shoppers inside, he slipped out. The shopkeeper descended on me. “Hello, my friend!” He said, eyes shining eagerly. “Where are you from?”
He offered me tea and began flipping through fake papyrus sheets screen-printed in tacky pharaonic motifs. Then he tried to tempt me with Chinese-made miniature pyramids and obelisks. “Which one you like best?” He asked, trying to entrap me into making a purchase. “They’re all nice,” I lied, eyeing the exit. Finally, he tried to rub perfume on my skin without asking, and I stomped to the door in a rage, throwing it open and letting it slam shut behind me. The man who’d brought me there was loitering outside.
“You didn’t buy anything?” He asked angrily.
“Of course not!” I yelled back, my cheeks reddening at the thought that I had let myself be hustled and waylaid. I was supposed to be smarter than that, more self-possessed.
The sky had turned gray. I didn’t know where I was. I realized I’d never be the glamorous woman with Cairo at her feet; I was little more than a tourist—a bumbling one at that—and I had no clue how to make the city mine.
“Today we’ll be working with light and dark,” Yehia said, squeezing two dollops of paint onto his palette and mixing them vigorously. “Color comes later. You have to learn to see value first.” Before putting anything on our canvases, Yehia had us make gradients, starting with the darkest blue and turning it into the palest by adding one tiny dot of white at a time. As I smooshed and scraped my palette knife to combine the oils, the woman next to me leaned over.
“I haven’t seen you around Maadi,” she said, smiling. She had sharp features, square glasses, a tightly wrapped headscarf.
“My husband and I are new here,” I said.
My companion introduced herself as Neem. She said she had lived in Cairo for years. I told Neem I’d moved to the neighborhood just two months prior—to an apartment with bare white walls and worn, standard-issue furniture—and was still learning my way around. By this time, I’d given up on becoming a glamorous lady of leisure. I had gotten sick immediately after settling into my new place, and I took it as a sign that Cairo simply didn’t agree with me.
But Neem gave me hope that I could make it my own. She told me which neighborhood cafés were the best, how Dahab had nicer beaches than Sharm el Sheikh. When my stomach rumbled, she handed me an individually wrapped stroopwafel from her backpack and told me which grocery store carried them. We sipped tea together as we sketched the outlines of trees and mountains, and suddenly I didn’t feel like such a foreigner.
Pushing the paint back and forth came easily to me. I made swooping outlines and I loosely stippled highlights, adding dimension where before there had been none. Neem’s teenage daughter appraised my canvas. “That’s really good,” she said. “Are you an artist?”
A reflexive “yes” rose up from my chest, then caught in my throat before it could escape. I looked at my paint strokes. I was no Monet, but it was good.
I admitted to Neem’s daughter that no, I had never painted before. Still, that yes reverberated between my ears. Maybe I would never be the woman I’d pictured before coming here, but I could be an artist. Maybe in failing to become who I wanted I’d found who I actually was. I looked around the courtyard—it was near dusk and perfectly still, no sound but the swishing of paintbrushes and the call of a lemon seller on the street above our heads—and I felt, for the first time since landing in Cairo, that I was home. I had an answer to Yehia’s question.
Why are you here? To step into the light.