Estranged from My Own Heritage
by Mariem Amer
A visit back to my country was long overdue by then; my family and I made our way to my home city, Alexandria, for the summer of 2012. I experienced the last few days of Ramadan and the following Eid Al-Fitr for the first (conscious) time in my life in Egypt. It was not as exciting as I had hoped – not as vibrant, jovial, and warm. I was, technically speaking, at “home”, and yet it didn’t feel like home. I was not greeted by a large, welcoming family, nor did I have any friends there. I was lonely. But most of all, I was experiencing culture shock in my own country; I was seeing first-hand what I had theoretically learned about – my supposed culture.
A few weeks went by. We had to visit the capital to which I had only been twice in my life. Cairo wasn’t so bad – sure, it was crowded, noisy, and polluted; but people there didn’t stare at me as much, or at all. I had yet to figure out the secret formula to blending in.
As we waited for the train in a traditional coffeehouse, I spoke to my mother in English for privacy reasons. But it only seemed to intrigue eavesdroppers more. Will people ever stop staring?
After the errands were run and our stay at the hotel ended, we decided to stay a while longer for sight-seeing. “It’s a great opportunity for the kids to learn more about their national history”, remarked my father. We rented an apartment. It was too small; there was no air conditioning, poor facilities, and rough beds. We made do.
We first visited the National Museum. Pharaonic history; Egypt at its greatest – ninety million people today are eternally nostalgic of those times. Then it was time for “Islamic” heritage – so, we visited the famous Muizz Street in Old Cairo. About five mosques later, I arrived at my great-great-great-great grandfather’s architectural masterpiece: Sabil-Kuttab Emir ‘Abdel Rahman Katkhuda. It was a fork in the road, literally. I felt the eerie feeling one gets when they enter a beautiful place that was once bustling with life but is now empty, yet serene. Déjà vu. The sabil (water trough) is chained – no one drinks from it anymore. The kuttab’s (literacy school for children) cabinets locked – no one recites the Qur’an there anymore. But the blue ceiling calmed my soul and the mihrab (prayer niche) with the Qur’anic verse from Surat Mariam – my name – were enough to move my already burdened heart. There, I first felt the connection. May God (Exalted and Almighty) have mercy on his soul.
We ended the day by praying maghrib at Al-Azhar Mosque. The courtyard was spacious and the columns beautiful. There was a gentle, almost spiritual, breeze. The ladies’ prayer hall overlooked the courtyard. I rested my back against the wall and stared outside. A couple of cats entered the room, but although I suffer ailurophobia, I did not move. I was at peace. My great grandfather is buried there; he built himself a mausoleum before he died. We wanted to have a look at it after prayer. So, we asked around. But the man with the key from the Awqaf Authority (religious endowments) only comes to pray during the day; it was night-time now. We could come back tomorrow morning, our guide mentioned, but we were too tired to stay. The door to my ancestor was locked. I sat on the staircase of Bab al-Muzayinīn (Gate of the Barbers) and broke down. I cried in the taxi back to the apartment, and cried myself to sleep. Maybe Cairo isn’t so bad after all.
Everybody knows Katkhuda. Everybody knows his buildings. Other Egyptian expats know Egypt better than me; they know more people; they know how to get around. But I don’t. People have been passing the sabil-kuttab for more than three centuries. Tourist guides know its story. Architects and Islamic heritage students learn his history. But I don’t. I’m a tourist in my own country; a stranger to my own family legacy. I don’t know if I will ever feel that sense of belonging one feels towards home. I speak the language, I understand the general values, but I know I will never be fully-integrated into the culture. I’ll always be the outsider looking in.
Nonetheless, I haven’t given up trying to learn about my so-called “home”, and I won’t, until the door to my heritage – and Katkhuda’s mausoleum – is unlocked to me someday. And when I enter, I will no longer be a tourist; I will be a citizen.
Mariem A. Amer is an Egyptian alumnus who majored in International Studies with a focus on International Relations, and a double minor in Philosophy and Middle East Studies. She hopes to develop through a balance of further studies and professional experience. Mariem is also an ardent feminist who enjoys singing, particularly in choirs.