When I left my hometown, Menouf in 2007, I had a big plan. My plan included my budget, possible places for accommodation, and a list of people who might help me find a job.
As my plan went wrong in so many unimaginable ways I considered alternative plans for each part of my life. In doing so I failed to notice one of the biggest problems: I had a place of residence that didn’t feel like home.
It has been almost eight years since I moved to Cairo. I changed jobs and moved to different houses several times. With every change I couldn’t help but wonder about what is it that makes a place feel like home.
Menouf, 60 km north of Cairo, had always been my favorite place. As a child I loved walking to Sunday school on Thursday nights because it was the best time of the week (and I didn’t have to go to school on Friday!). I had had life-long friendships with my church buddies. There had been challenging times but we loved each other. We had so much in common even some body language and manner of speech. We didn’t need to use too many words to communicate. I missed them dearly.
However, Menouf, as I had known it was rapidly vanishing. Our church had to be rebuilt and expanded. The process entailed using our old playground as a means of adding up to the space. Green spaces that had distinct imprint on our memories were eliminated in similar processes. Our almost empty streets were increasingly occupied with cars, taxis, motorcycles, on top of humans and animals. Every change felt like a threat to my memories of home. I found myself recalling stories from my childhood with minute details. I repeatedly told my friends boring stories from the far past. It seemed like a desperate attempt to keep my memories alive. My visits to Menouf became painful because I wanted my home back. Home became a memory and memories exist only as a precarious part of our minds.
Maadi was frighteningly different. Walking through road 9 in Maadi I would find these words resonating through me: ‘You don’t belong here’. I would hear someone saying excitedly, ‘There is a new waffle shop’ and I’d think, ‘What are waffles, anyway. Why do people expect everyone to know what waffles are?!’ I was a stranger and nothing could change that: not even speaking English. I explained my sense of alienation through some simple inconveniences such as not understanding a menu in a restaurant because items are mostly non-Egyptian. At other times, I told myself that Maadi was too westernized and it was impossible to reconcile the world of my childhood to my present life. But something was still missing.
Recently, I reconsidered my old question. Now I feel at home because I have good friends (one of them even has a waffle maker). The answer has always been there, simple and obvious. Humans are always the most important element of our feelings of belonging. Buildings, food, and languages are peripheral – they are byproducts. They do not decide how we should feel or behave: we do. Life proved to be easier than expected. At least in one respect. If you want to feel at home, find people who you can love, sit anywhere you like, drink anything you like, speak any language you can, and you will find yourself at home.
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