By **Ann Marie Awad**
I’m a first-generation Egyptian-American, and since I was born in the U.S. in a city where there weren’t other Egyptians and where my parents were exhausted working professionals with three other kids, I have always felt culturally distant from Egypt. It ’s been a piece of background information for me, something that confuses me when I fill out job applications that ask about my ethnicity. But it struck a chord when I read the news about the lootings, the protests, and the name Mubarak, another piece of my peripheral knowledge of Egypt.
Although I am first generation, I often feel like I’m fourth or fifth. Egypt is a place from which I feel so removed, so foreign. I have known Egypt when it’s been on my plate, or when it’s been wailing through the television speakers of my parents’ home in the form of Arabic soap operas, but some times I’m still startled when my parents speak Arabic, as though I forget it’s there. Yet, during the ebb and tide of the breaking news from there, I have felt closer and closer, by tiny increments, to a place I haven’t ever seen.
Hosni Mubarak came into power shortly after my parents had individually left Egypt (they first met in a church in New Jersey). My father has often told me stories about how families were paid a pittance at the beginning of every month, and that the next week his father would have to beg the neighbors for money. When his father died, they had to borrow the money to bury him, and my father evaded the draft by being the only male left in a family of five sisters and his widowed mother. This was a little over forty years ago.
From what I gather, nothing much has changed.
Two of my brothers went to visit when I was in high school, and when they got back they told us all about soldiers who were paid the equivalent of a couple of dollars a month to stand around, how any stranger would instantly synthesize a friendship with you, invite you into their home, and give you unreasonable amounts of food that probably cost more than they make in a month.
My mother has no family left in Egypt that she’s aware of. But most of my father’s is still there. He made all the calls to make sure they were alright.
January 30th was my cousin Sally’s wedding. My brothers and I drove down to New Jersey to attend, and thanks to the ballsy Egypt Air’s continued service between there and the United States, most, if not all of my relatives were in attendance to yip and cheer at the ceremony.
Afterward, the reception was tinged with worry. My cousin Wagdi and his wife Neven were scared because they had to leave their daughters with Wagdi’s mother while all of this was happening. The day before, he had heard that prisoners in Cairo had all been released, and he rushed to the phone to call his mother.
Other family members were scared to go back. Worried that the revolution would fail in no time and that Mubarak would be back on his feet and ready to make Egypt pay for even trying to change things. Despite this, the consensus was that he needed to be out, that it was about time. After the preliminary catching up, this was practically all anyone talked about.
Here in America, where our government has been fairly fixed in its place for as long as I’ve been alive, a revolution is as distant of an idea to me as my own heritage. We bust with pride in grade school when we read about the revolution of our Founding Fathers, but we have only ever really experienced normalcy ourselves.
So why then does a revolution draw me just a tiny bit closer to a country I’ve never known? Why do I now feel that I have a greater sense of Egyptian—ness now when the country is in chaos, than a month or two ago?
I think forward a year or two to my own pilgrimage to Egypt, when I will lay eyes on a place that will not be the Egypt of my parents, nor will it be the Egypt that my brothers laid eyes on just a few years ago. I don’t know what kind of Egypt it will be.
Although in some way, I feel like whatever Egypt it turns out to be will no longer be the distant Egypt I have grown up a stranger to; it will be something new, with more room for me this time.
Copyright 2011 Ann Marie Awad
Ann Marie Awad is an intern at Guernica.