An intimate stranger: The New Jersey-Cairo connection

Egyptians were welcoming and generous, full of praise for America, loved in those days for its comparative youth and possibilities. When I told them I wasn’t just visiting but lived here, they thought I must have lost my mind….

Photo: CreativeCommons/the.rohit


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I’ve lived most of my life in Egypt, but I was born and grew up in Trenton, the capital of New Jersey, perhaps the most maligned of the 50 United States.  Although densely populated with a rich ethnic mix, New Jersey is typically associated with the Mafia (e.g. The Sopranos). And although it possesses unspoiled coasts and countryside, people think it’s an urban waste because they’ve only travelled on the factory-lined Jersey Turnpike. New Yorkers typically look down on their small, southern neighbor. Director Woody Allen said ‘I believe there’s intelligence to the universe, with the exception of certain parts of New Jersey.’

I always knew this was silliness but it’s true that New Jersey was quite provincial, tribal even, when I was growing up, with Italian, Polish, German, Irish, Puerto Rican and African-American communities living in separate, working-class neighborhoods. The local industries that had attracted immigrants like my grandparents had gone gradually bust in the fifties and sixties. The bridge crossing the Delaware River near my house proudly read ‘Trenton Makes, the World Takes’, hearkening to a more productive era.  But the slogan everyone repeated when I was a girl was ‘What the World Refuses, Trenton Uses.’ I must have felt the prevailing lack of confidence because my earliest dreams were of running away.

My father was born in New Jersey, one of ten children, several of whom had made the trip from Calabria with their parents. He was a construction worker who ran his family in stern Italian fashion. My mother was Polish, a factory worker until she married. We lost her when she was 44. As the only girl, I inherited many household responsibilities and was obliged, like my altar-boy brothers, to attend Catholic mass six days a week for ten years.  Then I lucked out. A New York State University program providing early admission for ‘bright but underprivileged urban youth’ took me to Buffalo, New York. I hoped for a doctorate but when my application for a full graduate scholarship was refused, I dropped out and left for Europe, thus undoing the efforts of my forebears.

It wasn’t only sour grapes; I had seen too much violence, including the race riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, and had been the victim of gun-toting muggers and sleazy flashers.  America was foundering in the wake of the revelatory 1960s; opportunism replaced idealism, marketing doubled for creativity, consumerism for intellectual appetite. America, to me, signified the homogenization of desires. I’d read enough to know that a real education meant travelling. Thanks to my passport and monies saved from part-time jobs, nothing could stand in my way.

For a while I explored Europe and then I came to Cairo, a respectably bohemian address and less taxing than places like Paris or Rome. To be shod and pressed was the height of fashion in Egypt. It was safer and cheaper; there was only one fast-food outlet (Wimpy’s) in the whole country and nobody went there. Egyptians were welcoming and generous, full of praise for America, loved in those days for its comparative youth and possibilities. When I told them I wasn’t just visiting but lived here, they thought I must have lost my mind. But for the first time anywhere, I felt free. Egyptians, however, were living under martial law. The irony of having chosen to express my independence in a police state only later became apparent to me.  I knew nothing of local culture or politics when I arrived.

Being a stranger in a strange and hospitable land had advantages, including access to Cairo’s worlds within worlds. I spent my days in the medieval quarter sipping tea in the cramped homes of expansive new friends. At night, in Nile-side villas I drank martinis with the nouveau riche, never realizing that these contrasting ambiances were symptomatic of the socio-economic tensions that led to the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat.  One thing I could not fail to notice was that with Sadat’s death, Egypt’s age of relative innocence, its isolation from the culture of time and money – my culture, America’s –  was over.

In 1985 I was obliged to return to the States. I found a good job in Texas, but Egypt was on my mind. I had come close to something and needed to return. It had to do with the people, their view of death as a fact of life, their understanding, so at odds with the America’s, that life’s process counts more than the results.  Seven years later I made it back with a mission to review everything I’d figured out and the far longer list of what I’d missed. I immersed myself in history, politics and the life of the streets. I wrote angry editorials about the authoritarian state, railed against corruption and the lack of civil rights. I travelled the country widely, lamenting the devastation of Egypt’s fragile desert environment and recording the jokes, proverbs and stories of the characters I encountered. In short, I did my homework.

Then one day a young woman visiting from Seattle asked, ‘What do Cairo and New Jersey have in common?’ and I was about to say ‘zero’. I mean, why would I have left home if not to find a completely different life?  Then it hit me. My hometown was a place where most people struggled hard to get by, like Cairo. My upbringing was only slightly less strict or religious that that of the girls, Christian and Muslim I saw every day.  My extended family, like Egyptian ones, pitched in when times were hard. And like New Jersey, Egypt was nearly always reduced to stereotypes by outsiders who really didn’t know a thing about it.  I’m not saying the two places are identical, far from it, only that  the similarities had never struck me, since I had only been interested in the (new, exciting) differences. I guess we tend to define ourselves by contrast with other people, cultures or so-called nationalities, but the longer and closer you look, they mostly melt away.

After nearly 30 years in Egypt, the newness has been replaced by familiarity, at least on my part.  To Egyptians I remain a foreigner and therefore a stranger, albeit an intimate one to whom they have shown great kindness. Egypt gave me a home, a career, a wealth of friends and an understanding of human nature, including my own, thanks to its vivid present and a past long and detailed enough to mark the patterns of behavior that show us to ourselves. And as a small but heartfelt homage to my hosts, I try to tell their stories.

Maria Golia

Maria Golia

is author of the non-fiction books Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt, lived in Rome, Paris and Ft. Worth Texas before moving to Cairo in 1992. She visits Prague frequently. Her newest book Meteorites: Nature and Culture will be published this Fall by University of Chicago Press. Visit www.mariagolia.wordpress.com for more.