“What do you want for Egypt?”
I cannot resist asking.
He stops mid-stride and spins to face me, his eyes meeting mine in an unflinching gaze. There is no pause before his response, no hesitation within his words; he immediately knows his answer.
“I want democracy. Democracy for my country. Just like your country.”
I watch him analysing my features for my opinion, but I am careful not to give myself away. I want his response, not a reflection of mine, nor what he thinks I wish to hear.
“And you? What do you want for my country?”
When I give no sign of relenting on my neutral stance, my own question is fired back at me.
It has been one of those mornings in which Egypt invades every inch of my personal space; a battering on all of the senses, serving as a reminder that I am still new to this land.
It has also been one of the best mornings in a long while, and a reminder of why I moved here in the first place.
Awakening at 5am to seek out Birqash Camel Market, I scramble onto a beaten up train as the sun begins its ascent above the city. We roll out of Cairo’s urban sprawl into another world of chaos. Fields of farmland gradually replace the city’s outskirts, the new terrain becoming more defined as the pink haze disappears in the sun’s increasing strength. So many eyes upon me, curious of my escape from the maze of narrow streets. It really is another world, confirmed when I am finally released from the packed train carriage onto a crumbling platform on which a vaguely familiar Arabic name is scrawled.
Five minutes later, I am hauling myself into the back of a pickup truck whose driver insists he is going my way through mimed gestures. And we’re bumping through villages as groups of schoolgirls call after me, giggling and shrieking with excitement as I return their waves.
The rest of the morning is spent dodging camels that sneak up to my turned back surprisingly quietly, only making their presence known when the temptation to nibble on my hair becomes too much. I wander amongst Egyptian men clothed in the traditional, grey galabeyas, their manner inquisitive yet their gestures warm. “Welcome to Egypt!” fills my ears and I return the curious smiles with ease.
The morning certainly does not disappoint as Birqash easily becomes one of my favourite markets. However, the train journey there and back is just as satisfying as the market itself: the snippets of conversation that come when surrounded by Egyptian people eager to speak English, to understand why I chose their country, to question my love for this place.
Hands pull me into the centre of the Cairo-bound carriage as soon as I step on board, phone cameras obscure my vision, the “hallo” “hallo” “hallo” feels a little overwhelming in this small space. However, minutes later the commotion has subsided and I’m talking with a young Egyptian woman. Only her eyes show, but they are more than hospitable. They crease with laughter when I shout in the camera owner’s face, much to his surprise; more peals of laughter come when she asks my opinion of Egypt and in that moment “wonderful but crazy” seems an appropriate response. She recounts how she is training to be a teacher and we swap classroom stories until the train finally pulls into Cairo.
It is here that I find myself walking out of the train station with this man who is eager to know my wishes for his country. The fact that I met him only ten minutes ago seems irrelevant, as he freely expresses his political views alongside his frustrations as a journalist in a country that restricts the voice of the media.
He is still waiting for my answer.
“I want democracy for your country too.”
I finally say, but my answer holds a hesitation that his lacked.
His face still breaks into a huge smile at my words. He beams at me, and I cannot help but return the grin. He is hopeful, inspired and passionate; it radiates from him and draws out my smile before I can stop it.
Yet, as I finally walk away from this man, I wonder why I was so hesitant to agree.
I do not disagree with democracy within Egypt; of course I want its people to be fairly represented by a government in which they elect. But it was the manner in which this man expressed his yearning for this developmental, political and social system. His words painted democracy as the brightest star in the night sky. A beacon of hope in the face of turmoil. It brings to mind the neighbouring countries that have been turned upside down in the name of “democracy”. Despite my belief that democracy has little to do with the modern colonial intervention in the Middle Eastern region, I realise that the political system has been tarnished in my mind. Furthermore, his words “just like your country” stir uneasiness within me. I certainly do not believe that the United Kingdom is a role model for displaying this system of government; Egypt can most certainly aspire to something more democratic than the current British political situation.
Just as the ‘western world’ perceives the Middle East through tinted shades that highlight the turbulence, the violence, the war, the various Cairenes that I have drawn into conversation seem to wear those shades in turn when looking west. Only, contrastingly, this is a veil that casts a golden hue over my home nation, concealing the cracks and creating a flawless, yet non-existent, land.
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