Retracing the steps of an exodus

by Mishka Moujabber Mourani

Cairo, January 3, 2002; United Press International
© United Press International 2002 -2022

It is difficult to describe the anticipation and apprehension I felt at the prospect of visiting Egypt for the first time after 37 years. Egypt: a place I often referred to, every time I filled out a form requiring date and place of birth, but never really thought about otherwise. And yet, I have not had the luxury of not having to think about who I am in terms of identity.

I realize that we are more than the sum of our parts. The issue does not trouble me now as much as it intrigues me.

A wave of emotion overtook me when the plane departed for Cairo. As we left Beirut behind, I felt a rush of feeling for this country to which we ran away after Gamal Abdel Nasser took power in Egypt in 1952, and evicted our ilk shortly thereafter.

I never really thought about this forced emigration. Egypt was my place of birth and that of both of my parents. And yet, we had remained foreigners: my father of Lebanese stock, my mother Greek. Nevertheless, their forced departure, along with hundreds of thousands of others like them, was traumatic. They may not have been Egyptians, but in many ways, and to the extent that your environment molds you, they were. In fact what they had not been is foreigners. Geography forms you in ways of which you are not aware. We were Laurence Durrell's Levantines without the glamour and mystique.

Although I was going to Cairo for a business meeting, I decided to extend my trip an extra day to visit Alexandria. I wanted to see 180 Rue de Thebes -- my first home and that of my first memories.

Sixteen million people come to Cairo every day. The streets are crowded all the time. It seems like most of the taxis are left over from when I was last in Egypt 37 years ago. The state of disrepair of these cars is difficult to believe, but they are cheap and easily available.

Shortly after arriving, I walked into the center of town seeking a supermarket to buy a toothbrush and possibly a shop where I could find some nightclothes: my suitcase had not materialized at the airport. Perhaps the fact that I shared the Egyptair flight with 188 Egyptian day laborers who were coming home for the holidays had something to do with it. About 10 other passengers were in the same predicament. It took three days and four trips to the airport to finally find my suitcase. It arrived at dawn of the day I was due to leave.

Walking in the streets of Cairo's Zamalek neighborhood was like stepping into an Egyptian movie. It hit me that what the movies depict are not stereotypes! What you see is the real thing: a boy carrying "shay," - tea - to the baqqal (grocer) who sells everything from milk to shoe laces to phone cards.

The child emerges from the little qahwa, which is filled with men drinking tea and smoking sheeshas, nonchalantly swinging a copper tray bearing a glass, some loose sugar in a little plate, and a tin teapot while a customer calls out to him: "gebli nara ya walad!" (bring me a light, boy!).

In the typical badly asphalted street a 1965 model Fiat of indeterminate color breaks down. People rush over to help push the car and one of them calls out: "elleh bihheb e'nnabi yizoq!" (Will those who love the Prophet push!).

Cairo is a fascinating city. Opulent in places but with its edges frayed. You walk into the Metro Center, a mall-style complex and are faced with the ubiquitous coffee shop, its walls bare but for a picture of the "Rayyes," as they call President Hosni Mubarak.

Men, some wearing "galabiyyahs," (ankle-length robes) lounge about playing "tawla" (backgammon) on rickety straw chairs and tables that wobble. Um Kulthum, Egypt's favorite diva, sings faintly in the smoky background. You could be in the 1940s - time seems to have stood still. The coffee shop is flanked by a high tech 24-hour Internet café that serves no coffee, where a couple of young men in stylish Western clothes are using the computers. The man who runs it is well dressed and speaks perfect English. You have just moved forward 70 years.

A walk down the stairs to the Metro supermarket, which occupies the whole floor, offers a gritty staircase filled with grime, trash and cigarette butts. I saw the very same thing in the modern and exclusive office block near Tahreer square that houses, among others, the Cairo headquarters of Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, American Life Insurance Company and the American University of Cairo Social Research Center where our meetings were held.

The toilets on the AUCSRC floor are out of order. Things often are out of order in Cairo. You have to climb down one floor to use the facilities there. Pieces of wood, a bucket and some brushes are piled in one corner of the landing. The walls are poorly finished and the haphazardly painted doorframe fits badly. When you step through the door you enter the plush corporate world of ALICO and OAPEC.

A big dark woman in a starched white uniform was standing near the entrance talking to two men in overalls who seemed to have nothing to do. I saw them in the same spot everyday for three days. Inside the restrooms were impeccably clean, but there was no tissue paper, soap or towels to be seen. I stepped back out and found the woman looking expectantly at me. "There is no soap or paper," I said. She quickly produced a full bar of soap from her apron pocket and then walked over to a small cupboard and pulled out a roll of tissue paper.

People are warm in Cairo. Big smiles that seem to hide bigger hearts come readily to these colorful people. I felt like I was wrapped in one of those multi-hued shawls my grandmother used to crochet whenever she had wool left over.

I am now on the way to Alexandria from Cairo by train. The city is endless. A taxi drove my uncle and me from Ramses Street to the train station - a ride that took exactly 80 seconds! Like every other taxi I have ridden in since arriving here, the door handles don't function, the plastic upholstery is either worn or torn, and all around you is aging grime. The taxi driver had to step out of the car to open the passenger door, not out of courtesy, but because he had to affect a complicated maneuver with a small piece of metal on a non-existent lock.

The first class two-way ticket cost a mere 32 pounds - about $8. A woman with her son and daughter sat across the aisle from me. Behind her is a "methaggeba" - a woman wearing a cream colored head scarf over a brown floor length coat. Unlike their Saudi sisters, Egyptian women dress in every possible array of color, length of sleeve or skirt and head covering.

The woman across the aisle cradled the boy in her arms and told him a "haddouta," a story. He was about 3 years old and clamored for another story as soon as she finished the first. The boy drank a bottle of Sprite, which brought back one of many flashes of memory, a common but disconcerting experience on this trip.

How much I had loved the sweet, red soft drink called 'Synalco.' Nothing has ever been quite so perfect or so red since. And the large thin, round, flat honeyed wafers that were such a treat when my parents would take us to walk along the Corniche in Alexandria.

The gamousa or water buffalo and the donkeys are the most frequent sight along the train ride. It is a most serene journey, as lush as it is peaceful. If I were to choose one word to qualify Egypt it would be this one: imperturbable.

The train now travels in darkness. We pass mud and brick houses. One has the front door wide open with a television set placed in the field outside the house. The "moussalssal" (Egyptian soap opera) of the day flickers brightly in the night. "Eylet el Hagg Metwalli" has stirred much controversy in Egypt and is watched by nearly everyone during this month of Ramadan. It presents an idyllic picture of a polygamous man and his wives, upsetting many who resent the manipulation of public opinion and generating much discussion about the rights of women and other socio-economic issues.

We pass a town. Bare-faced buildings sprout from the surrounding dust. Little is painted and what is appears to have been left exactly as it had been since getting its first coat. The patina of grime is everywhere.

We approach Alexandria and suddenly lights are everywhere. I am met by my cousin Anne-Marie and her husband Hani. The last time I saw her she was a few months old.

During the few hours I spent in Alexandria, I managed to visit my first home at 180 Rue de Thebes, and my first school -- the Sacred Heart School. They were very emotional journeys for me. Neither place had changed. They looked exactly as I remembered them. Only the people had changed. Our neighbors were all gone, and at the school only two nuns, one Irish the other American, were left.

They received me enthusiastically and my heart could not stop pounding as I toured the school. Even the desks were the same. In Alexandria you feel the essence of Egypt's combined beauty and ugliness. It is a city of 3 million people - as grimy, dusty, shabby, and garbage-filled as Cairo. But here, there is the Mediterranean Sea, which takes your breath away.

Egypt is as dirty and unkempt in its public spaces as it is orderly and clean in its private places. Dust is the most prominent feature of Egypt's public spaces. The building facades are varying shades of grey and beige. Even the buildings in populous areas that were once garishly painted in turquoise or orange manage to hide behind a coat of patchy grey.

An effort is being made to clean up the streets, but litter has a mind of its own in Egypt. While the streets were generally swept, every nook and cranny of buildings, streets, lanes and shopping centers seems to have a private cache of cigarette stubs, tissue paper, chocolate wrappers and other debris. Nowhere have I seen public spaces stand in such stark contrast to private areas.

My profound emotional reaction at seeing Alexandria tells me just how traumatic our eviction from Egypt must have been. As my uncle Johnny said, "You lost your home when you left Egypt, and then when you left Lebanon, and then when you left Australia to return to a Lebanon that was subsequently destroyed."

Seeing Alexandria as it had been when I left it reminded me just how much we have lost in Lebanon. My memories in Alexandria are intact- I do not have to doubt them any longer. I saw concrete evidence in the buildings, our old street, my school, even in shop signs. My memories of Lebanon will remain at best self-referenced and as such unreliable and open to the contestation of others' memories. The war did not only destroy our present, it ravaged our past.

It took 24 hours for my Egyptian to come back in all its strength. I realized that I had never forgotten Egyptian. Lebanese was superimposed on it.

So what is identity? I was a 'shamiyya' (literally a Syrian, but a term Egyptians used to refer to people from Lebanon as well) who was half Greek the first 10 years of my life.

When we arrived from our home in Egypt in an unknown Lebanon, I was considered Egyptian. With time I became known as an ex-Egyptian. Ex-Egyptians, in Lebanon as in Greece, were a breed apart in their countries of origin. They spoke multiple languages, claimed multiple origins, and were generally well educated and worldly. They were rarely liked by the indigenous population. Those who spoke French had a very special accent and a charming lilt which, though less pronounced, was nevertheless there among English speakers.

My family went to Australia in 1969, as a result of two developments: a new law that stipulated that all Lebanese citizens needed to sit for the Baccalaureate exam to be admitted to university; and the disquieting events involving Palestinian and Israeli activity in Lebanon. I could not sit for the Baccalaureate as my classical Arabic - acquired only when we came to Lebanon (I had gone to an American school in Egypt) -- was not up to par.

My parents judged me too young to go to school abroad and decided to emigrate either to Canada or to Australia. We received the Australian acceptance first.

Ironically, it was when we got to Australia that I realized I was firmly Lebanese. Being an Arab was not viewed as having particular value in Sydney in the 1970s (I doubt that has changed.) In fact, I was urged by friends, who were impressed by my French-speaking ability, to claim I hailed from France! My best friend, Robbie, refused to say he was Egyptian. He tried so hard to become Australian as a child that he purposefully took on a very broad "Strine" accent. He only spoke French, Arabic and Italian at home, when he was safely out of the earshot of his friends.

Faced with these choices, I made one of my own: I was Lebanese. Though born in Egypt, as were both my parents, my grandfather was from Ehmej, in Lebanon. We had lost our home in Egypt and found it in Lebanon, only to lose it once again. I clung to that identity, which I had participated in forging and which was rooted in the origins of my family. That my maternal grandparents came from Chios and my paternal grandmother from Aleppo only enriched and never diminished my Lebanese-ness.

So what determines identity is a choice, and our choices are not always mutually exclusive.

Secure in finally knowing who I was I could have continued living in Australia. So could my father. My parents were making a very good living and we had bought a lovely home. But my mother was unhappy. She missed her friends - other ex-Egyptians - and yearned to return to Lebanon. Although she spoke kitchen Arabic, she too had decided she belonged in Lebanon. Neither she nor my father fit in Australia.

Two years after we arrived in Sydney, my mother and sister returned to Beirut. It took my father another year and a half to sell the house and all the beautiful furniture he had so carefully shipped from Alexandria and again from Beirut at exorbitant cost. It would have cost too much to ship back. My father was heartbroken.

Meanwhile, I finished high school and my first year at Sydney University. By 1974, I was back where I had chosen to belong, but I was also now an Australian citizen. Even my name had undergone several changes: from Mogabert in Egypt - a fluke resulting from my grandfather serving as a civilian with the French early in the century - we reverted to the Lebanese Moujabber. The hard 'g' sound of the Arabic word for a bone setter was pronounced with a soft 'g', hence the 'j'. When we emigrated to Australia we were required to used our birth certificate spellings, so my family name once again became Mogabert.

So it was as Marie-Christine Mogabert that I entered Egypt. I found out that it would have taken several days to get a visa as a Lebanese. As an Australian, I got a visa instantaneously at Cairo airport for $16. Such is Arab brotherhood. Nasser changed our lives, but some things are as imperturbable as his Egypt.

Mishka Moujabber Mourani is Senior Vice President of International College in Beirut

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