One day, while we were sitting at an ahwa, an open-aired, noisy café, a young girl approached us and, nodding in my direction, asked Usama, “Is he Egyptian?”
“He’s my brother,” Usama said. “Look, we have the same colored skin.”
The girl, unbelieving yet curious, asked: “Does he speak Arabic?”
“Yes, but he’s been away from Egypt for a long time.”
He was kidding. Until this year I’ve spent my entire life away from Egypt, and the way most Egyptians stare at me, a six-foot-three-inch red-haired white boy, I know they think I’m lost. When I’m with Usama, though, a child can hope I really am from Egypt.
I met Usama here a few days after I moved into his neighborhood. I would go to the ahwa and try to converse with people in occasionally coherent Arabic while they cracked jokes about me in between rounds of tea. Usama, thankfully, pulled me away from this group by challenging me to a game of chess. He wanted to know why I was living here and why I was putting up with such riff-raff. But his real concern was whether I could play a good game of chess. We played every day for the rest of the week.
At the end of that time he presented me with two Egyptian delicacies: mish (cheese fermented with worms) and <>i>ringa (year-old raw salted fish). Avoiding the mish, I told him that I had an entire year ahead of me to become Egyptian, so why do everything the first week? In response he showed me something a little more American: Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady,” but in Arabic. I knew then he was a kindred spirit.
Usama works as a data-input specialist at an appliance store. Given his six years of post-secondary education and his penchant for poetry, I have difficulty imagining him transferring forms to a computer all day. He supplements his salary by building and fixing computers in his apartment.
Usama’s bachelor pad is an unfurnished, unfinished cement frame on a building’s roof. It is littered with old hard drives, extinct peripherals, and a small collection of gift cards, trinkets, and pictures of animals. The Sahara rains dust upon everything.
In the hot summers when his apartment bakes, he pats sweat droplets from his forehead with tissues purchased from beggars. On chilly winter days he favors gray dress pants with a bright red sports coat. His skin is light and suggests a Pharaonic lineage. Smallish shoulders contrast with his stocky build and puffy cheeks, and his tea-stained teeth sometimes distract me from what he is saying.
Usama regales me with folktales of Saladin extinguishing the Crusaders. He laughs hysterically at a video of a Palestinian child warding off an armed Israeli soldier, stone in hand. Yet when he discovered I was Baha’i, he researched the religion. When I told him my girlfriend was Jewish, his primary concern was whether or not we could marry under Baha’i law.
Usama helps me with my Arabic assignments by deconstructing the ideas and helping me piece them back together—the same way he meticulously builds a computer. I find myself understanding every single word I read, yet unable to understand the larger picture. Usama shows me how to weld these ideas together; I am beginning to understand the hardships his people have endured.
Hardships do not consume him, though. Usama lives for the future, a time of plastered and painted walls, of appliances and furnishings. He dreams of a home for his future wife and children. In this future he has even made a place for me.
Jason Miller, of Port Richey, Florida, has spent the past year in Cairo studying in an intensive Arabic program.