Sunday, August 26, 2012

Torn within


Long ago has the flight been booked and prezzies bought, only the luggage is left to get ready. But I delay packing because I do not really want to leave. I don’t want to leave from here where I live, where I am at home at present.

Although my journey brings me to the place, where I’m at home as well: to my homeland. There, where dear people are desperately waiting for me. There, where I know nature and landscape, where I am acquainted with the daily routine and procedures. And there as well, where my personal belongings are: furniture, photo albums, pictures, books, household stuff, winter clothes and lots of memories.

I’m not sure what to pack exactly, although I know exactly what climate will be there. Days before my departure I am tensed up and give testy replies to all kind of questions: How long do you stay? What are you doing there? Why do you go there? When do you come back? Will you come back for sure?

I suffer from bellyache. I’m nervous. I have to say farewell to the place where I live. Still can’t feel any joy at all about going “there”. Have to twist off the water, cut off the current and close the windows well. A last checking glance goes through the rooms: will everything be the same when I come back?

The drive to the airport is short, waiting for the take-off all the longer. While the airplane is climbing into the blue sky, I am looking down through the bubble window on the desert, on the uncoordinated accumulation of houses with swimming pools, fairy tale hotel resorts at the dark blue sea and the separated two-lane highways. The view provokes questions: what am I doing there? Why do I live there? What is it that makes me stay in this inhospitable, unpleasant landscape with people that belong to a completely different culture, religion and language? I get teary-eyed because nevertheless there is so much that locks me into my adopted country that is so different. It has won a piece of my heart – or should better say: I have conquered it piece after piece, accepted and become fond of it.

A flight of four and half hours and a train journey later, my temper is well balanced. The grief over the departure is being taken over by the joy of going “there”.


At home – this term has many meanings – the pleasure of the reunion is tremendous and again eyes get teary. The first couple of days serve acclimatisation and assimilation, there is so much to tell each other, then days full of activity follow and one notices that everything is as it has always been. Almost, at least: here and there is one building more or one less, has a place been embellished or the street system has been changed. The children have grown; grey hairs and wrinkles appear more numerous. All over, everything remains as it is. And very gently emerges – how strange – the drive for returning to the place which is also home.

Yet, a look into the eyes of the beloved ones provokes questions: How can you do this to them? How can you let them alone again for such a long time, those who love you and miss you? It’s a bitter taste, the lump in my throat enables me to breathe freely, and the heart is heavy…

Yet, they as well lead their own lives, pursue their own goals, carry into effect their own dreams and confront their own problems. Regardless an agonizing uncertainty remains in the heart – will we see each other again? Will they stay well? Saying farewell is hard every time although it has become routine and has been experienced many times. Thanks to internet the distances become shorter we hear us and communicate regularly – what a relief!

Coming back

Time passes slowly first and I ask myself what I should do here all the time. Unfortunately, return flights have to be booked long in advance. However, suddenly, everything goes too fast: I would still have wanted or should have done or had to do this, those or that… And I suffer from the same uneven temper as before my departure. At least during the flight over the Alps, I seriously question myself, why I leave this marvellous landscape again…. Why do I exchange stability, cleanliness and system, state of law, human rights and the well-known for instability, chaos, corruption, oppression and strangeness? Yet, as soon as the plane has landed and the salty desert wind reaches my nostrils, I rejoice: I’m back home again. Different, but also at home.

At home and at home

„I’m at home in two places“, says a friend when discussing this issue. She belongs to here and there, feels at ease in both places. Another friend tells me that before leaving, “she has built very close to the water”, meaning that tears come down easily for three or four weeks. This is the period she needs to settle down again.

I settle down faster. In the same way as I put off preparing my luggage, I also put off unpacking. It tortures me, I weep, I grief and ask myself why I am doing this to myself. Yet, as soon as the washing machine runs and I get ready to do some shopping so that I can have a Muesli for breakfast and internet access is activated, I feel home again – although a grain of sorrow always lingers around.

Many of my acquaintances consider their life abroad as their home – and nevertheless miss their original home country and go to see it whenever it is possible, minimum once a year.

No-one can share being torn within as long as he or she has not experienced it himself or herself. Life is not easier and nevertheless one stays. Everyone has its very personal reason to stay; for some it will unquestionably always be like this and for some it remains for some years only. Then they return to where they originally come from – and don’t match completely anymore. Sometime me too, I will return… certainly in order to go elsewhere again. Just torn within.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Simply tedious – but very normal

It’s ten minutes after nine and I am standing in front of the bank. But it’s closed. I know that during Ramadan, banks are open only until 1.30 pm. But I haven’t realized that they open only at half past nine.

So I wait. Not only twenty but even twenty-five minutes. First outside in the heat, then in the iced antechamber. The security is reading in the Qur’an and chatting. More and more clients join me. I see even Egyptians don’t know that the bank opens that late. One of them is checking his watch continuously while I am wondering. How can business life work when banks are open only for four hours daily? I remember that one of my students told me that banking business is anyway at a minimal level. I feel dizzy since I haven’t drunken enough; I left home right away after breakfast. I try to avoid drinking in public during Ramadan. I contemplate the waiting men and wonder if there is such a gentlemen who remembers that I came first.

No. When the door finally opens, I’m boiling inside. As usual, the men are pushing forward and, hardly being able to pull myself together, I remind the Egyptian gentlemen in English and aloud that I was first. Two of them deafly turn their back on me; another one asks me to step forward and apologizes.

It’s so tedious – but unfortunately so normal!

I want to withdraw Euros and change them into Pounds. The National Bank next door gives the best currency exchange rates. Then I return to my bank and deposit the Pounds. Actually, this is very silly in times of internet banking and eventually, I have to wait another twenty minutes in the National Bank. There are around twenty desks but only a single one is for currency exchange.

It’s just so tedious.

I get in a microbus because I have to go to the passport office. Just this bus does not go to the usual place and while I’m putting up with it, a passenger chats up and asks where I come from. This is unusual in a microbus and my steam boiler inside is about to explode. I get off the bus and take a taxi, telling the driver where to go. However, he gazes puzzled. I repeat passport office in Arabic and ask if he has understood – could be that today, my Arabic is not understandable. Yes, yes, he answers and at the next roundabout he asks a pedestrian. Oh, my steam boiler! I instruct the driver where to go. Being so happy he starts asking the usual questions: if I work here, if I am married, if to an Egyptian… “chalaass!” – enough, I said! I’m glad that we arrive at the passport office.

It’s just normal – but also rather tedious.

There, to my utmost displeasure, the lady tells me that I copied the wrong visa. I need a return-visa and for this I have to copy all kinds of stamps and the passport. So I take my papers and go outside in the blazing sun, and walk about 10 minutes to a small copy shop that makes copies for all the forgetful people like me. I think he is making a fortune. If the passport office was clever, they would also install a copy machine – would be worth it. On the way, I am passing by men of the central security forces. They are the ones in black, standing at check points and doing the filthy jobs at demonstrations. They lay or sit on the pavement in the shadow, in their troops vehicle, sleep or gawk at every passer-by. The windscreen is cracked, the vehicle itself in a lamentable condition – a picture of Egypt. 10 minutes to walk back in more heat and I hand over passport, copies and money. Only prepayment works.

The return-visa may be picked up at 1pm. I want to wait neither here nor somewhere else and much less do I wish to undertake the whole trip again. I’ll come tomorrow. „Mafiisch muschkilla“ replies the disgruntled looking lady. I’m glad.

Nevertheless, it’s tedious. I enjoy this task twice or thrice a year: upon visa extension and return-visas.

Another taxi: this time I only have to ask the driver to stop directly at the vegetable market. I quickly fetch some tomatoes and grapes and get in a microbus that heads towards home on the ring road. Sweat is running down my legs and with an angry gesticulation, I move away a boy’s knee since he doesn’t seem to realize that he touches me all the time. My steam boiler is cooling off, I feel sorry for the boy – Egyptians don’t know anything about a respectful distance to another human body. How should this boy know it? Soon I’m at home.

The entire trip lasted almost four hours, including, or rather because of the waiting time. And tomorrow I have to go again to the passport office in order to pick up my passport. It’s tedious, but very normal. I’m glad that I neither own real estate nor a car – because in that case I’d have to deal more frequently with public departments.

What for I need the visa? I’m flying home on Sunday.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Ibrahim – a PET collector like many

The compound is rectangular: in the middle, there are a swimming pool and a restaurant, and the apartment buildings are set around. The compound is well maintained and clean, at least considering the local conditions.

Outside of the compound, daily Egyptian routine prevails. There is a single trash barrel (some months ago, there were three) that should contain all our rubbish and our neighbour’s as well. That’s not possible of course, and late in the evenings, heaps of waist lay also beside the trash barrel. The wind eddies everything all over the place to where it does not belong. Once per day, the HEPCA guys come to empty the trash barrel.

But before, some others are interested in our remains. I always thought that they were only cats and dogs as well as poor adults who ransack the trash can. Several times per day, men and women living in the nearby shanties carefully ransack bag after bag to find anything usable. Although it is a daily view, I am shocked about it every time. The consequence of the ransacking is a big mess each time around the trash can.

Late at night something else is moving beside the trash can. Amidst of countless open plastic bags scattered around, there is a small boy sitting quietly. Not an adult man, no, a small boy with black curly hair. Due to a lump in my throat I can hardly articulate in Arabic asking what he was doing there. “I am gathering plastic bottles to earn money.”

In the following night, I walk along the uneven way that is lined with garbage and already from far do I see: there he is sitting again between opened garbage bags, calmly throwing used plastic bottles in a huge, strong bag. Again, I have a lump in my throat but after hesitating, I head towards the boy and talk to him.

 „What’s your name?“
„Ibrahim“, a clear child’s voice answers, like a well-educated pupil who answers his teachers questions assiduously.
„How old are you?“
„Thirteen and a half.“ I can hardly believe it.
„You’re so small! Where do you live?“
„Over there!“ and he points towards something in the dark that I can’t see. Over there, there are only bare brickworks and shanties.
“Do you still go to school?”
„Why not?“
„We don’t have the money for books“.

I tell Ibrahim that I might see him again the next night. But this night, I can’t find sleep for a long time – too many thoughts assail me, among them memories of other countries where I saw such misery.

Next morning, I call my Arabic teacher to whom I’ve already spoken about the boy. She meant that we foreigners as well as the better-off Egyptians usually believe that help can be brought to such a child and his family by offering food or money. She’s right: it’s the easiest way and silences the conscience, isn’t it?

Yet, it would be better to make it comprehensible to the child that it should fight for going to school; that it is worth to bite through it in order to get out of the misery and not to have to continue as an adult the life of a garbage collector; and to make him understand that he is able to achieve this. The expenses for the books are not the reason – the books in public schools do not cost a lot.

My Arabic is not good. But if I see Ibrahim again, I’ll try to talk to him about school and about life. Although he is only one of hundreds of thousands living in this misery.