Life in the crowded Egyptian capital never stops, even during a pandemic. I was living in Cairo as an exchange student studying Arabic through late March. But suddenly my cohort, like thousands of American exchange students elsewhere, received word that we were being “kicked out” by our program administrator, as Cairo airport was imminently closing down. What would I say to Ahmed, an Egyptian journalist who had become one of my best friends? The holy month of Ramadan was coming up, and we had planned many meals together after the long day of fasting. “It is probably best that you go home. God willing, you’ll be back,” he said, to which I forced a smile.
I wasn't so sure; Coronavirus wasn't the only thing complicating my relationship with Egypt. Although I am a journalist and have lived and reported in Jordan, Kosovo and Lebanon; during the eight months I lived in Egypt, I was merely a student, suppressing all traces of my identity as a journalist. Two days before I took off, I attended a musical called We Live in Cairo with my mom in a small Cambridge, MA theatre. It was an intimate production portraying the ebbs and flows of the Arab Spring with a notorious ending: the Egyptian military violently seized power in a coup in 2013. The repression has grown worse over the years, as the President of Egypt, who Trump called “his favorite dictator,” has imprisoned and tortured thousands of journalists and human rights activists. After the show, I vowed to my mom as she wiped tears from her eyes that I would not report in Egypt.
Once there, I quickly came to embrace my identity as a student with an almost defensive fervor—so much so that whenever a taxi driver asked what I was doing in the country, I’d respond “I’m a student,” and briskly change subjects. I did not contact any of the few critical Egyptian journalists or writers not languishing in prison. But one day my impulses led me to meet Ahmed, an Egyptian reporter who had recently wrote a story about the mysterious prison death of the first democratically elected President Muhammad Morsi, who came to power after the 2011 uprisings. Over a plate of shawarma, he told me that foreigners who visit Egypt are of two types: they either hate it, or love it, “drink from the Nile, and always end up coming back” he advised.
"On multiple occasions, I was stopped by Cairo police, had my Facebook page searched, and was seriously interrogated. I wore my student identity as a shield"– On Egypt’s fear of journalists and foreigners.
During my eight months in Egypt, I came to believe I was of the type who loved Egypt and would always come back. In Cairo, I woke up every day with purpose. I was getting paid to go to class and then spend my afternoons in antique cafes with an Arabic book surrounded by old men gurgling hookahs amidst the backdrop of Qur’an recordings. Most places knew my order, a Turkish coffee with milk and sugar, and I took on the different name of “Fareed,” after the virtuoso Lebanese oud player and actor who immigrated to Egypt. Moreover, the abject poverty and crackdowns on freedom of expression, while apparent, did not affect my daily life much. Most days, I was in utter bliss, and I kept planning my future adventures in Egypt with friends.
Every Monday, Ahmed and I would go running in Zamalek’s sports club, an affluent neighborhood located on a narrow island in the Nile river. It was on these runs together that we could honestly confide our fears and dreams to one another, for we had come to believe that unlike other walls along Cairo, the ones on this track didn't have ears.
I knew saying goodbye to this newfound brother and home would be challenging, but I thought I had months to mentally prepare. I lied to myself, saying, maybe I will find a job and stay, but my concerns about government repression were growing. On multiple occasions, I had been stopped by police officers, had my Facebook page searched, and was seriously interrogated. I wore my student identity as a shield. Being stopped became commonplace for many of my friends, both Egyptian and foreign, in the wake of some small anti-government protests when officers would routinely make the rounds of Cairo apartments.
When the reality of COVID-19 struck Egypt, it felt like watching a sickening, waking nightmare unfold. At first, we had the option to leave or stay, and I called my mom and firmly told her, I’m not coming home. Then, we had no choice. By 5:00 AM a week later, I was surrounded by hundreds of strangers wearing masks inside the JFK airport Dunkin Donuts—it felt like I was trapped inside a Jackson Pollock painting at what had become the epicenter of COVID-19.
I have been home for nine weeks now. My fear of contracting the virus through travel was confirmed, and I tested positive on Tuesday, March 31. For weeks afterward, I woke up wired, then, I immediately crashed after spending mornings frustrated by technological issues interrupting my intensive Arabic classes, now online. I have trouble breathing, and still feel moribund after two cups of coffee. Perhaps worse, I’m deeply frustrated by misguided early assumptions that the U.S. would somehow be better equipped to handle this global health crisis than developing countries when we have watched the exact opposite unfold.
Ahmed checks in on me regularly asking how my health is, but I feel like I should be the one checking up on him. From my faraway Boston suburb, I am no longer living the near-utopian life as a mere student. But being home, where I am protected from arrest and surveillance, has also allowed me to see more clearly the more repressive facets of life in Egypt. As I write, I think about Ahmed and the Egyptian journalists who don’t have this luxury. Just this past week, Lina Attalah, the editor-in-chief of Mada Masr, Egypt’s last independent news outlet, was arrested as part of a concerted state effort to intimidate journalists. It seems to have worked, as Ahmed told me, “There’s a lot of arrests lately, and I’m being careful, but she put herself at huge risk by interviewing in front of the prison.” I am planning to leave as soon as possible, back to report somewhere else in the Middle East, but now Ahmed understands when I tell him: I never really did drink from the Nile, so I probably won’t be back.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Raseef22