An American in Cairo

by Lauren on August 10, 2015

My dear friend Maria gets it.  She always has.

To some people, it’s difficult to explain what it means to live a life of travel. Many are comfortable to spend an odd weekend away on a beach. Others exist to experience cultures at a deeper level. Their lives are made up of little travel vignettes, with several months spent in one country, several years spent in another.

Maria has lived in Africa, in the United States, Spain, and she’s traveled extensively through Western Europe and Asia. All with the intent to broaden her horizons, to get behind the proverbial lens of her camera, and to inspire young people through her passionate teaching.

She is the subject of this post. And a source of inspiration when I ask myself, “Well, should I keep traveling? Should I settle for a while?” The inevitable answer is that I keep going. As does she.

I met Maria on the set of The Perfect Goosey’s, an award-winning short film by writer/director Andrew Mudge, an inspired traveler in his own right. Working on the film, Maria made key business decisions regarding budget and production timelines. I made extras spit out their gum.

Years later, Maria would use film as a way to empower young people. As a profound influencer of students at inner-city schools in New York, Maria’s ideas were novel. I remember her excitement when she outfitted her students with video cameras, so that they could film their own day-in-the-life, as they struggled to come to terms with young love and acne.

It was around the time that demonstrations were heating up in Tahrir Square when Maria announced her next destination: “I’ve been assigned to teach in Cairo!” came the enthusiastic voice over cell phone.

So Maria flew to Cairo, where she is now thriving. Watching daily riots on international news can be unnerving, especially in instances where you know a friend is nearby. However, we soon received news of Maria’s welcome to the city. When meeting her fellow Egyptian teachers, mostly women, all Muslim, she wrote “There’s one woman who wears the burqua. I could see her smiling at me from underneath… I could tell in her eyes.”

As someone with an innate appreciation of the artistic, Maria draws on out-of-the-way locales for inspiration. In order to grasp the bigger educational picture of her students’ world, she searched for other classrooms, outside of hers. She found one in an unlikely place.

Surrounded by garbage.

Outside of Cairo sits a village of tens of thousands, whose residents recycle Cairo’s waste for a living. Cairo has no sanitation system, despite being a huge city. The garbage people, or Zaballeen, are Cairo’s answer. For more, see the documentary film Garbage Dreams, on PBS. Maria toured the region, revealing shy smiles that emerged from behind chain-link fences.

At times I wonder where Maria gets her resilience and curious nature. It all made sense — when she recently sent photos of her mother’s visit. Women who fly across oceans to explore the world never cease to inspire me. Maria’s mother is no exception, flying solo from New England to see her daughter. She sought to experience the world through her daughter’s eyes.

How bold, yet tender.

Together with her mother, Maria tapped into their adventurous sides to seek out the richly colorful sights of Cairo. One particular vibrant street pays homage to lives lost in the Egyptian revolution. On Mohamed Mahmoud street, young Egyptians use graffiti in remembrance, on a street where violent clashes led to catastrophic results.

In Cairo one can find the static, man-made beauty of painted walls. They represent a modern history, in constant evolution. Not far away, near Farafra, Egypt, Maria discovered another place in evolution. In nature.

The White Desert is stark, desolate. Its white formations are said to be formed by years of sandstorms, and appear as if they were calcified protrusions of the earth. Limestone chalk stands in stark contrast to a Middle-Eastern blue sky.

Whether carved by the wind, or made by man, Egypt’s monuments are from a bygone era. In the burial ground of Saqqara, which is approximately 20 miles South of Cairo, many were laid to rest, from pharoahs to animals. It was common for pyramids in this area, enclosed by ancient walls, to serve as multi-acre villages of sorts. Within the walls were numerous chapels and courtyards, such as at the famed Step Pyramid of Doser.

It’s difficult to describe the soul of a village. I can only imagine the stories that inhabitants of Saqqara would share. Yet Maria has a talent for capturing the human story of an otherwise touristy visit. Centuries of history are entombed in Saqqara’s walls. And similarly, through a brief glance at the camera.

Back in Cairo, she feels at home, having found a supportive community of teachers and friends who have accepted her as family. Yet Maria remains a perpetual student, seeking inspiration through the artistic.

The whirling figures of a local Sufi Dance Troupe may seem ethereal, meditative. Traditionally, the whirling indeed represents an active form of meditation, in a ceremony intended to reach the source of perfection.

There weren’t words to describe this visual experience.

The words that came to my mind, however, were Maria’s. From November of 2011. She had the opportunity to go to Tahrir Square with an Egyptian friend. Suddenly, it was as if her new world were spinning around her:

“There was a gaseous haze in the air that could be seen in the rays of light from the street lamps. Ambulances were whizzing in and out, making their way through the path that had been created for them. Motorcycles were now being used to carry the wounded to the field hospitals.

…the crowd started to get rowdy, and many of the men began to yell, “Allahu Akbar.” People started to run in my direction, and this was the first time that night that I felt I might be in serious danger. Mohamed and I backed up to let the crowd of men get through the field hospital (FH). They were dragging a captured soldier from Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), I believe, who had been severely beaten and bloodied, into the FH that was now being run by the Islamist groups.”

Soon after landing in a new world, Maria was in the midst of a revolution that would alter politics, media, and her life.

After her Tahrir visit, she wrote, “Back in my apartment, I found myself still trying to make sense of everything I saw, yet amazed by the bravery and courage of these Egyptians (young, old, male and female) who are fighting to turn this country around and to be given the chance at freedom and democracy…”

While Maria is a teacher by profession, her learning never ceases. She explores, she questions.

She seeks.

Her stories inspire me to keep traveling, to get on a plane yet again.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Janette Arruda April 11, 2012 at 4:00 am

I am near to tears as i read your amazing and moving account of my daughter’s new life and experience in Egypt. I have often referred to her as “my gypsy” because I never know where she will go next. You are right: she’s always seeking, learning and growing. And I add: loving people wherever she goes. I am proud to be her Mom. What have I done to deserve her? She’s a treasure; a gift from God. It is my pleasure to share her special self with you all. Thank you ever so much.

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Lauren April 18, 2012 at 1:02 am

Now we know where she got it from. Thank you, Janette!

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Barb April 16, 2012 at 2:46 am

Great job .Wonderful writing and loved the pics. Maria sounds like a very special woman.

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Rose Madigan April 16, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Lauren

This is absolutely beautiful!

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Laura April 22, 2012 at 4:15 am

What a beautifully penned story. I went to Egypt on a 2 week tour right after college, and while I’m grateful that we had a jam-packed schedule and I got to see so much of the country, I only interacted with the people that were my guides or the random guy in the market on occasion. I wasn’t able to travel slow enough to really take it all in and interact more with locals. It sounds like she has settled in well though and enjoying Egypt. It really is a beautiful country!

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Lauren April 22, 2012 at 1:25 pm

Thanks, Laura! I hope you can grab a repeat visit at some point in the near future. It’s high on my list for sure.

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Maria May 29, 2013 at 6:20 pm

Lauren Schaad, I never said thank you for writing this wonderful article about me and my time in Egypt. Thank you. It’s an honor to be on your website.:) Love you, my friend.

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