Sunday, August 21, 2011

Are You Happy?

It's been about one year and two months since I packed up my things -- for the third (and final?) time, I might add -- and moved to Egypt. It's strange, but sometimes I feel like I never left, like that year I spent in California in between my two moves to Egypt was actually further mental preparation for the final plunge. During that time, I never felt quite right. Though I was technically "home", I felt like a sellout, like I had given up on Egypt when it had needed me most, and maybe more importantly, when I needed it most.

When I arrived last June, and as my first post reflects, I was apprehensive of what remained of the Egypt I remembered. Had I romanticized it to make the transition easy, or was that the real Egypt? Truth be told, the first two weeks back were tough. A heaviness set upon me that made even the slightest task seem difficult in this not so new place. I did not feel that rush that I had expected upon reaching my supposed homeland. Though I tried to conceal my anxiety, it didn't take long for my family to see that I was feeling a little overwhelmed. Fortunately, my father was not having it. He could see that I was homesick for California. "This is not a revolving door," he warned me. I remember laughing it off at the time, but those words forced me to jump back in. Regardless of how I was feeling that moment, I was going to make it work.

While it's only been a year, I can now say that my reasons for coming back to Egypt may have had less to do with the country itself than I had originally thought. There is no doubt that this country and its people have been through (and are still undergoing) radical transformation and change. It's certainly an inspiration and an honor to be part of it. But that's only part of the story.

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending some time with my good friend Amira, who was visiting from California. Like others before her, she was curious to hear my answer to that all-important question: Was I happy here? Truly? case you forgot what these states are supposed to look like
My answer to this question changes depending on various factors. If an acquaintance is asking in passing, I answer concisely, "Yes, it takes some adjustment, but it's good." If a close friend on the verge of her own leap of faith asks with wide eyes and has an hour or so to kill, I offer a more in-depth analysis of my ongoing journey and the challenges and triumphs associated. My response is also influenced by whether the questioner is fond of or detests Egypt. For my idealistic friends, I make sure not to sugar-coat my experience any more than they have in their own minds. To those cynics who think I'm simply playing the part (until I crack) while suffering in silence, I am more than happy to boast about the privileges of my supposed prison, which include but are certainly not limited to 24-hour delivery services, the best fuul and ta3maya sandwiches in the world, and enough scarves to satisfy even the most devoted collector.

So, what did I say this time? Well, Amira was none of the people described above. She was simply a sensible, level-headed person curious to hear my answer. I felt no need to justify or glorify my decision, nor did I need to offer her a sobering account of the fragile state of this country. My reply was that the question itself seemed irrelevant to me. People, particularly those who are unsettled by the thought of living in a so-called third world country, seem so preoccupied with place. I don't quite see the relationship between location and happiness. I told my friend that of course I realize that California is beautiful, and that life is "easy" there. But when the demands of daily life kick in, you hardly remember where you are. You seek happiness from the people around you, not from the traffic-free roads or those "How-in-the-world-did-I-spend-so-much? I-only-came-in-for-batteries" trips to Target.

Whoever said to choose your company before your destination was right. It doesn't matter how many malls are within a five-mile radius of your house, how many different kinds of cereal you have to choose from, or how big your backyard is. If you're not with the people you love, it won't be worth it. On the other end, there are people in the world living in unfathomable conditions who are content simply because they are surrounded by the people that matter. Life may be difficult, at times impossible, but being with the right people helps us forget, even if just for a moment.

Of course, if you're lucky, you won't have to give up much from either side. Life is good, and, though each day comes with a bigger dose of unpredictability than it once did, I am now with the people that mean most to me. Yes, Laila, I'm talking to you. Actually, mostly your kids, but I guess that includes you by association.


  1. Asalamu Alaykom from Al-Haram,

    The "Are You Happy?" question. I wrote about it too on my blog:

    I don't think that Egypt is the place to come to in order to feel happy. That might be America (and Disney World in particular). No, I am here to find some peace and I hope you find it too :)

  2. So, you know where I'm coming from :) It's definitely not location that determines your happiness but what you surround yourself with and how you choose to see it. It also depends on what you're looking for in life. Peace sounds about right to me.

    On a side note, Disneyland claims to be the happiest place on Earth, but there sure are A LOT of crying/screaming children there, so hmmm...