My Love/Hate Relationship with Cairo


Middle East

I grew up having what us Egyptians call “Oadet El Khawaga”; loosely meaning “Foreigner’s complex.” In simple terms – it means that a lot of us glamorize the West and think that anything that’s foreign is better than anything local. This applied to foreign people, foreign food, foreign movies, foreign products, etc. It started with Disney Channel movies that I grew up watching and the idea of a western high school experience. Just until recently, I always wished that I was born in the US, with a US passport. This never stopped me from telling my parents how much I wished they’d taken an opportunity to live in the US so that I would be born there rather than in Egypt. Sometimes I still wish for that, especially when I’m in an endless process applying for a visa with my powerless Egyptian passport – but that’s another thing! I would watch all American everything and feel so down about where I’m from. I would feel so disconnected from the one country I was born and raised in – as if I was an outsider. I know the place. I speak the language. I’ve lived my whole life in it, but my brain was always somewhere else.

The conflict happening in the country did not help. My family’s and my livelihood were barely affected by the events happening in Egypt, but I was not even aware of the incredible privilege I had. What growing up in a revolution meant for 12-year-old Noran was that we stayed inside the house a lot and had no fun.

I wasn’t aware of the injustices or awful things happening, so it only made me dislike my situation even more, unaware of how lucky I was to be unaffected.

The Cairo I grew to know but not to love..

Years later, I was afforded the opportunity to travel outside the country. In one of my first trips abroad, I was in New York roaming the streets with new international friends I had met at a conference, from all around the world. Each one of us was talking about our country and sharing different unique aspects of our countries to each other.

For the first time, I realized how proud I was of some aspects of my upbringing as I was telling stories. I felt like I was being a hypocrite to myself. And as that thought came into my head while walking up 48th street on a chilly night, I saw a familiar flag down the avenue. At that moment, I felt the most belonging I’ve ever felt to this place I called home for 18 years. I stopped my new friends and told them “Look at that! THAT’s my country’s flag!” They stopped me and made me take a picture with it, looking like the cheesiest New York tourist that’s definitely going home in two days.

I was also definitely missing the Shataf – if you know, you know.

The crappy blurry picture I took when I spotted my flag.

When I came home a few days later, I decided that I was going to see what this country had to offer. Hell, what this city offers. I lived in Cairo my whole life and had no idea what half of it looked like. My only trips other than school and my grandparents’ house was the mall.

I seriously needed a change.

Slowly, I started going to different areas with friends, being more open to going to places that might take a bit longer to get but are completely different worlds. I found my Paris in El-Korba, I found my Manhattan in El-Zamalek, and I found places in Cairo that I loved going to. Places that felt like home. If a non-Egyptian friend were to come here, I would know where to take them, when and how to get the best deal there.

I took ownership of where I live.

Now, Imma stop you right there, Noran. Don’t be pretending like everything’s fine and rosy now.

Ok, so yes I found my place in Cairo, but my relationship with this country and city is still complex AF. The city frustrates me, on so many different levels. It starts at basic things like how I wish there was the existence of decent public transportation and cheap education. Then it quickly escalates to major issues like the way sex, gender, race and other issues are treated. I could discuss these more deeply but if I start, I’ll never stop.

And the weather. Oh, the darn weather.

The marvelous beauty that is feteer

But when you’re so down on Cairo, it sucks you back in with its incredible food.

I don’t know how, but at some point, I thought burgers and fries outweighed Egyptian food. Ewww! I know, right? 

Don’t get me wrong, I love fries, but I love them more in Egyptian bread from Shabrawy. And pizza is one of my favorite foods, but Feteer is something else. Egypt doesn’t only offer traditional Egyptian food, though. Because of refugees and immigrants coming from the Levant region, mostly Syria, there is amazing Syrian food in Cairo, and I love me some Shawarma and Halawet El-Jibn.

Another love of mine is our language - here's a piece of Egyptian Arabic. Educate Yo-Self dictionary

  • 11

    Oadet El Khawaga: Colloquial Egyptian term suggesting someone glamorizes everything that is foreign and western.

  • 22

    Shataf: “Bidets” that we use to clean ourselves. Get yourself one, it’s life-changing. (I personally don’t know how people live without one.)

  • 33

    El-Korba & El-Zamalek: Two beautiful neighborhoods in Cairo with amazing architecture.

  • 44

    Shabrawy: Quintessential Egyptian chain of sandwiches and meals. Think of it like a Deli chain.

  • 55

    Feteer: Like Pizza, but dare I say, better?

  • 66

    Halawet El-Jibn: Syrian dessert made of sweet cheesy goodness.

  • 77

    Molokheya: Doesn’t look great at first sight, but green garlic-y goodness.

  • 88

    Karkadeh: Hibiscus Tea, no frills. Roots in southern Egypt and is delicious.

My relationship with Cairo evolves every day. I’m just super thankful that I appreciate my city much more than I did just a few years ago. Self-growth is mesmerizing.

How do you feel about your hometown?

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