Refugees I’ve Known: Mokhtar’s Cairo

I rarely felt comfortable in the streets of Cairo, and I quickly came to associate this feeling with an Egyptian word: khawaaga. It described how I felt when I walked down my street, Tahrir Street, an important thoroughfare linking my Bab-al-Luq neighborhood in Cairo proper with Giza across the Nile. Lined with tourist traps from restaurants to souvenir shops, walking down my street was a gauntlet of leers and come-ons from shopkeepers, street vendors, beggars and young men in search of a good time. I always went armored with big sunglasses and one earbud in — still able to listen to my surroundings, but enough of a distraction to keep my angry inner monologue from spiraling out of control.

My apartment on Tahrir Street was a refuge, with a revolving door of expat roommates. There was Pip from Australia, doing a gap year internship before law school, and her friend Sylvia, an Italian journalist who crashed briefly on our couch. Then Pip took off for some extended vacations to Ethiopia and across Europe, and while she was gone, Mokhtar stayed in her room.

Tall, slender, soft-spoken, he had come to the United States with his mother and several siblings as refugees from the Somali famine in the early 1990s. Now he was a Fulbright Scholar, studying food and agricultural politics in Egypt and the Horn of Africa. In the months before he moved in, Pip, Mokhtar and I spent quite a few nights at a little street café on tiny pedestrian Al Mahrani Street a couple blocks from the apartment, sipping little cups of coffee or glasses of tea with mint, balanced on rickety little metal tables, he and she puffing away at a sheesha.

We were often joined by friends of his, other Fulbright Scholars and Egyptian university students and young journalists. They would point at other unsteady little tables and tell about this well-known leftist and that provocative artist who were also sipping tea and sheesha with their friends.

* * *

Whenever traversing the city offered me the opportunity to cut through the nearby neighborhood of Garden City, I took it. Flanked by five star hotels, it was closed to all but local traffic by concrete barriers and metal bars across the streets that swung up at the discretion of police in their ill-fitting summer whites or soldiers with automatic rifles. The curvilinear streets were shaded by enormous trees, their verdant branches woven into each other’s canopies.

The streets of Cairo were never quiet, but at night under the trees of Garden City, there was only the urgent rustle of bat wings overhead. I was often curious for a glimpse into the big houses and their walled gardens, the lives of the rich and foreign, but there were no first or second story windows. Except for my favorite Lebanese restaurant and the best fuul iskanderi sandwiches in Cairo, there were no commercial businesses in Garden City, no young men stepping onto the sidewalks ahead of me, aggressively flirting and hawking their wares, commercial or personal. I could let my guard down and stroll comfortably in the cool shade on an impossibly hot desert day.

Garden City was a place out of time and place, known by a khawaaga name because it was a living remnant of Italian mercantilism and British colonialism. In 1905, on a piece of land where two caravanserai and a palace of the Khedive Ismail had stood, the Italian engineer Beyerly was commissioned to plan Cairo’s newest neighborhood. He designed its curving streets according to his Art Nouveau sensibilities, carving the land between into spacious lots for villas with private gardens in the grand Continental style. The Vatican became the primary landlord, drawing up plans for a convent that was never built. Only Cairo’s richest elite could afford to call it home.

Today, this neighborhood is where the most security conscious Western powers have their embassies. The big three — America, Great Britain and Canada — are fortresses, smaller than the sprawling “Castle America,” as cab drivers called the embassy in Amman, but no less intimidating and fortified. They are all guarded by their own military personnel as well as Egyptians. The American blockade extended for two blocks in every direction, long before there was even a whiff of revolution anywhere in the Arab world. These walls and guns were evidence of a much older mistrust, the fear of another Tehran hostage crisis or Beirut bombing. The revolutions of 2011 only confirmed the fear that Hosni Mubarak had been stoking all those years: Support his presidency and his cabal of generals, ignoring any graft, corruption or human rights abuses, or else the Muslim Brotherhood would win and Egypt would become Iran on the Nile.

* * *

It was walking through Garden City with Mokhtar and our mutual friends when I began to understand more deeply the lingering implications of the neighborhood’s history, and its present militarization.

We were walking back from another neighborhood, down the broad sidewalk of the Nile Corniche. Mokhtar wanted to keep to the Corniche until we came to the Tahrir Street bridge. Pip and Sylvia wanted to cut the corner by walking through Garden City. Mokhtar reluctantly followed our lead, but as we walked through the neighborhood, he said, “If you weren’t all with me, and especially if I were walking with Egyptians, I wouldn’t be able to go this way.”

After a moment, he said, “Once, when I first came to Cairo, I was walking through here by myself. The Egyptian police came at me, looking like they were going to hurt me. ‘What are you doing here?’ and ‘You can’t be here.’ Then they started demanding to see my ID. I always carry my passport on me for this kind of thing.”

I thought, I never carry my passport with me. I had my American University ID, my Jordanian ID, my Maine drivers license, but I left my passport at home, afraid to lose it or have it stolen.

“So, I showed them my passport,” continued Mokhtar, “but they didn’t believe that I was American. ‘You don’t look like an American,’ they kept saying.” Remembering some of his other stories, I suddenly realized that Egyptians said this to Mokhtar a lot. “Eventually, they let me go, and I got out of there as fast as I could. I’ve talked to a lot of Egyptians who say the same thing about Garden City.”

* * *

I continued to cut through the cool quiet of Garden City, but now always with the niggling disquiet of Mokhtar’s reality on my mind. I would walk down that same gentle bend in the street and hear him quietly tell his story again, the memory pressing on the persistent bruise of my khawaaga.

That label was the source and symbol of everything I hated about Cairo—the ogling, occasionally even groping, and especially the calculated looks that followed me in every public space. While I had always recognized it on some level, it was becoming impossible to ignore that khawaaga enabled many of my small pleasures in Egypt, too. A quiet neighborhood, a nice restaurant, a seaside vacation on a clean beach, chatting in the courtyards of American University, a drink with friends on a rooftop bar. All of these escapes were khawaaga, too.

* * *

I had not yet learned terms like “white privilege,” but I felt my privilege as a shield and a prison. I knew it held me apart, kept me an observer. As an introvert, I am usually comfortable in the role of observer, but it began to chafe in new ways.

It is because of my white middle class privilege that the cops sitting in their cruiser in the center of Bushwick’s Maria Hernandez Park barely look up from their paperwork as I walk past. It is the same privilege that keeps me from ever being stopped, questioned and frisked, while my students at the old Canarsie High School risk such indignity daily, just for walking home from school while black.

I know that khawaaga isn’t the same as being Black or Latinx or Muslim or queer or trans or disabled in America. I thought of khawaaga as a prison, but I knew it could also be a shield, and I always knew that my khawaaga was temporary. My white privilege is by definition always a shield, and it is permanent, just as the oppression of those other minority identities is constant and permanent.

My experience of khawaaga did, however, open something of a side door into understanding privilege and oppression. I had seen my white privilege magnified into American privilege in my travels abroad, the advantages it gave me so pronounced that I couldn’t fail to see them. At the same time, I also knew what it felt like to live under calculating scrutiny, knowing there are always eyes on you, waiting for their chance. In Cairo, I had felt like a mark for the color of my skin, and I know that to be a Person of Color in America is also to be a mark for bigots, law enforcement, legislators….

My privilege is much more subtle here than it felt in Egypt, or in Jordan before that. In New York City, I have to remind myself of my privilege. Nevertheless, I know the feeling all too well.

More Refugees I’ve Known

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