Egypt

When the universe winks [or: Wagon Wheel]

eternally nostalgic

There have been times in my work with communities affected by conflict when I have longed for a stronger belief in a supernatural deity. I have been compelled to pray, to hope that someone out there is listening. At this stage in my life, my imagination of that "supernatural something" that resides outside of ourselves does not take the form of a deity. Rather, my belief can be summarized in the following phrase: The universe is winking.

You know the moments I am describing: In the face of adversity or great irony, of what seems like undue strife, something happens to reassure you that you are not alone, that the world is not laughing in your face, that life unfolds on a continuum and the narratives of joy and heartbreak exist side-by-side. And, if recent experiences with fragility have been any indication, the universe winking at me comes with a soundtrack---Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel."

The song appeared in my life during a relationship that may never have happened had it not been for grief, fragility, and emotional confusion in the first place. As Joan Didion advises in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, "we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not" and, in that vein, I need to extend compassion to the self who thought she could drown grief in affection and be blind to the traits that would make the affection shallow and the grief immutable. He hated my music. That should have been a clue. Anyone who hates the company that Cat Power and Brandi Carlile and Rachael Yamagata keep, anyone who cannot reconcile himself with my army of women singer-songwriters, is dancing on a different sheet of music than the one in which I live. So he made me a CD. [Pause for nostalgic indulgence in the quaintness of making someone a CD, not a Spotify playlist.]

Of all the tracks on it, Wagon Wheel jumped out. Even after that budding relationship withered, Wagon Wheel lingered as the soundtrack to a segment of life for which I never quite found the words.

***

Second day in Cairo. I met the girls on an email list of foreigners in Egypt looking for roommates. I met the boys on a sailboat on the Nile the night before, on my first day. Coincidentally also the first day of Ramadan, the first of many firsts. We are in the boys' apartment and I am alive with the exhilaration of belonging, with the relief of how quickly one belongs when she is a foreigner among foreigners, a stranger among strangers---all of whom wish to throw out that label and slide over to best friends already. One of the boys picks up his guitar. Wagon Wheel is the first song he plays.

That song came with me to Uganda... Sudan... Colombia... Guatemala... Jerusalem. "Points South" of all that. Now Boston. So did the guitar. And so did the boy.

***

Katherine's birthday party. Budding friendship, united by parallel narratives which---defying all laws of geometry---intersect as they unravel. The kind of friendship that fills your sails with gratitude, that makes you feel like the universe can wink simply by putting someone in your path. Her friend brought his guitar. Barenaked Ladies. The Beatles. Leaving on a jet plane. Hallelujah, Jeff Buckley.

And then, inevitably, Wagon Wheel. A room full of people singing the words along. The universe winked extra pointedly that night, to make sure I knew I was home.

***

My love for the song is immaterial. This is not the kind of song that one feels was written for her. I have never been to Johnson City, Tennessee, never picked a banjo. This is not a lyrical attachment. Rather, Wagon Wheel is my clue to pay attention. It is the way that I know that, even if I am trudging through the mud right now, somewhere out there the universe is winking. It is the music that plays, almost invisibly, to make sure that I am listening.

When Memories Collide

eternally nostalgic

You could have fit five people in the front of this car. In Alexandria, maybe even eight.

In the early days of knowing one another, before love, we crammed into a 6-person van to see the other side of the Mediterranean. Having grown up in Thessaloniki, Greece, the Mediterranean always faced south of me. Watching the waves crash with an awareness that more sea lay north was a sight I needed to behold. Accomplishing that involved cramming 11 foreigners in a car that was designed for 6. My first glimpse of Alexandria took place while I was sitting on a woman's lap with my head bumping up against a sticker of Hannah Montana. Next to me, there were two men in the driver's seat. One of them was holding the door open. Or closed. Whichever way you look at it.

Those early days of Hannah Montana and two drivers and a stranger on your lap set the precedent for our driving excursions in the years to come. There was that one car we rented with an engine so loud that we would have to shout directions to one another to be heard. There was that other car-like vehicle with seats so small that our fingertips touched as he steered and I unfolded the map.

***

And now we are sitting in a car named Valor. A car with front seats so wide that you could fit our whole Egyptian clan between him, the driver, and me, the recently-arrived passenger.

"It feels strange to have you so far away," I tell him, aware of the irony that he feels far one seat away from me when we have just spent two months of summer a continent and a half away from one another.

"I know," he responds. "It's not a rental car if we are not practically sitting in each other's laps."

This is the kind of car that lets you plug in your iDevice of choice to fill the space with music. I fumble with the cables and remember driving through Kentucky with a car that only accepted cassette tapes, through Israel with the car that would not read CDs, through a desert with a car that would only broadcast Galgaalatz FM.

"Beit Habubot!" I scroll through his iPhone and find the music that provided the soundtrack to our last road trip, to what we had then nicknamed The Farewell Tour. Music pours out of Valor's sound system and all I hear is the sound of waterfalls in May, all I see is a green scarf tied around my hair and droplets forming on his forehead as we hike. Higher. Onward.

***

Beit Habubot continues to play in the background and I struggle to catch my breath as he drives through Harvard Square. I am not used to experiencing this space from behind a windshield. There are no one-way streets on foot for foreign freshmen walking to get their first burrito, or for sophomores slipping on ice, or juniors getting their heels caught in the cobblestone. By senior year, I had driven a U-Haul through here. I had already put a layer between myself and the site of memories, reinforced by the rage Boston driving inspires and the need to shelter oneself from cold and farewells.

In a minute, Harvard Square is behind us. We are past it. It is neither our final destination nor our shared one. This was Home for me before I had ever heard of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Before "home is wherever I'm with you." Before him, and us, and love. Redrawing this memory to carve out space for him, and us, and a car named Valor feels like worlds colliding.

***

We park in front of a falafel shop in Davis Square. If Beit Habubot was the soundtrack of our shared explorations in the Middle East, then falafel was certainly the culinary backdrop. I had a favorite "falafel guy", he had a favorite "kebab man", and both of them made us promise that we would come back to Jerusalem in the future. My return to a former home well-loved is accountable to mashed chickpeas.

This falafel shop is hip. The walls are bright red. There are certificates of cleanliness on the wall, and of Not Being a Fire Hazard, and of being Allergen-Aware, and so many certificates that my head hurts with propriety. More typed signs, more instructions on how to make a falafel sandwich. Instructions on how to eat. Instructions on avoiding the garlic sauce. In the back, a woman is sculpting the mashed chickpeas into the perfect falafel ball. I can feel my falafel man cringing a continent away.

***

We take our falafel to go and Valor soon smells of the Middle East. Right by the checkout counter, we picked up a flyer about falafel. More instructions. More information. I read outloud to him in an homage to all the times I read out from a Lonely Planet or an incomplete map. "Falafel was a mid-1962 discovery for coca farmers in remote Colombia."

He does not let me finish the sentence. That is too much for both of us. We can deal with the transposition of Beit Habubot from Zefat to Harvard Square. We can wrap our minds around the slow shift from the overpacked van with Hannah Montana stickers on its ceiling to the Kias and tiny Fiats to the Valor. But Colombian falafel is where we draw the line.

"You know I love Colombia. You know just how much I love it," I offer. "Wouldn't it be convenient if falafel were from there?"

He does not need to respond. We have both born witness to Egyptians and Jordanians and Lebanese and Israelis lay claim to falafel as their national food. We have participated in the taste tests. We were even willing to carve out some room for it in our new home, to let it be part of a new story. Secretly, we may have even been hoping we could draw out a falafel man with his cart on these cobble stone streets. Colombian falafel, however, is too much of a stretch, too much of a collision of memories.

We drive back through Harvard Square in silence. Tamacun by Rodrigo y Gabriela is playing in the background. I picture him making pancakes in our Beer Sheva home and me getting in the way of the ladle with my kitchen dancing. We have each arrived in Boston with two-ish suitcases, but the hidden load is that of the memories of all the Elsewheres we have loved. We do not quite know how to be here. We were not quite ready for this collision of falafel and Colombia and Beit Habubot and Valor, of my Harvard Square and his driving, of his guitar in the corner and my baggage. Neither of us has unpacked. In a sense, we do not need to. There are memories spilling out of everything, slowly filling the empty space.

The trips that weren't

eternally nostalgic

What they do not tell you about the Pyramids is that, grand as the monuments may be, the surrounding area smells profoundly of camel piss. I arrived in Cairo ungrounded: no apartment, no friends, no Arabic, not even my own luggage. I was anchorless to the point of adrift---weightless to the point of exhilarated. Over time, Cairo became filled with the buoyancy of firsts and the gravity of love. It was the first place where I worked with the United Nations and, in many ways, where my passion for gender advocacy and conflict management came alive. Cairo marked my first attempt to live mindfully in the present, an endeavor that ran counter to my inclination to wander in the memory of the past or anticipation of the future. And on the first day of Ramadan that year, I met someone on a boat on the Nile in the kind of way that will make it impossible for me not to consider the river blessed, the city magical, and my time there transformative.

We drank strawberry juice in a street alley across from his apartment building. Pronouncing "Mumkin asir faroula?" became a small victory. The strawberry juice gave way to tea and to coffee and to domino and when we ran out of non-alcoholic drinks and board games, he would deposit me into a taxi and I would employ the only other Arabic I spoke at the time: "Five pounds. The fare is supposed to be five pounds." The driver would argue, I would say no emphatically, habiiiiibiiii would bellow from the radio, we'd run a red light or five, and my head would hit the pillow just as the first call to prayer of the day echoed from the nearby mosques. The realm for a public romance was limited and filled with mines, so our budding love was rife with the kind of companionship that prepares you well for retirement: conversation, domino and tea.

And I had yet to see the Pyramids.

This was a point of contention among my friends. It did not matter that I was filling their inboxes with the cautious enthusiasm of a young love. Everyone would write back asking how Cairo is and "have you seen the Pyramids yet?" "No, but there's this little alley that I love . . ." stopped cutting it as an answer.

Four months of alleys and domino later, I had eight hours before I had to be on a plane to Uganda. I asked the cab driver to take me to Giza for the trip that almost wasn't: the pilgrimage to the Pyramids. The postcards create an impression that the Pyramids exist in a vacuum. They do not tell you that there are apartment buildings poking the air around the area of the Pyramids. The guidebooks do not mention the all-piercing smell of camel piss.

They also do not mention that great memories are not always made in the shadow of historical grandeur. Future travelers should take note of the unmarked alley off the map (which, to be fair, also occasionally reeks of urine). After standing in awe in front of the Pyramids for a few minutes, and waving off the salesmen asking me to buy papyrus, I went back to my alley, for one last whiff of nargileh smoke, sip of strawberry juice, and exhale of gratitude for the memories that were.

In Guatemala, I failed to make it to Lake Atitlan. In Colombia, I never saw Villa de Leyva. In Uganda, I missed Murchison Falls. This was neither my criminal inability to traipse to remarkable places nor a snobbish rejection of the kinds of experiences that inspire universal awe. Rather, I learned in Cairo to allow myself to be attached to the alley---and, like Hansel and Gretel in the fairy tale, to leave a trail of crumbs to come back to. "The trips that weren't" give me an anchor in a home that once was. They supply a reason to retrace the steps to a self I left behind. Seventeen conflict and post-conflict zones after Egypt, I favored the sites of memories over those in the Lonely Planet, saving the latter as collateral to the promise that I would return.

Jerusalem was meant to be the last stop for a while. After my work there, I would fly across the ocean to the United States to return to an academic study of gender and conflict. I would unpack the bags and own what is gratuitous simply for the sake of not worrying about how to pack it for the next trip. I would own wine glasses and more than one pair of sheets and I would get excited about things like latte art and permanence. This time, I was not interested in leaving any item unchecked. A month before our departure, I made The List: walks, food, experiences to have before we leave. We ate nostalgia for four weeks, stuffing our stomachs with all the food we thought we would miss and our days with itineraries. I thought we did a good job this time, that we did so much and saw so much and felt so much that we would leave Jerusalem with a sense of satiation---as though that could vaccinate us against future nostalgia.

Two hours before we had to hail a cab to the airport, we lit a coal for our nargileh and breathed apple-flavored smoke into the street. We had recreated the alley. Everything else may have shifted, but it was still him and I and the apple-flavored smoke. We looked over The List and realized that "the trips that weren't" had become the trips that were. I was afraid that we had done it all, that there would be no more Jerusalem to discover in the future. We had crossed off the items.

All except one: The YMCA was his favorite building in town. It became mine as well. We never made it to the top.