Honorable Mention in the Privilege & Identity Abroad Narrative Writing Contest. See the announcement for all of our winners here.
I moved to Cairo to study Arabic as part of a gap year I took when I was 18 years old. After months spent backpacking in Central Asia I decided I wanted to settle down somewhere for a while, learn a foreign language, and build a slightly more permanent community than hostel life allowed. For a while, I did exactly that.
A month after I arrived in Egypt, the Egyptian Revolution began. The city’s air became saturated with teargas. I watched as buildings and military vehicles were burned to the ground, political headquarters and museums were looted, and the city shut down in turmoil. Internet and cell phone service were completely turned off for days.
When cell phone service came back on two days later, I called my parents back in Boston. “I’m fine,” I told them. “I live in Doqqi—far away from Tahrir Square, where most of the protests are happening.” This was not, on the whole, true. Large protests had passed a couple blocks from my apartment, but it hadn’t made international news and I didn’t want to worry my parents.
As I talked to them I looked out into the street beside my apartment. The doors to the building had been locked earlier that evening in accordance with the city-wide curfew, but that wasn’t the only precaution being taken. “Our community is guarding the street,” my neighbor had communicated to me. It was true; local men bearing machetes and knives paced up and down the street below me. Unlike a typical night, when neighbors would stop to chat on doorsteps and at vendors’ stalls, the faces I saw were not friendly. In the distance, I heard a small explosion—or was that gunfire?
“I want to leave,” I told my dad.
“We’ll get you out,” he assured me. And they did. They bought me a plane ticket departing the day the US embassy called for all Americans to evacuate Cairo.
When I arrived at the airport it was so crowded with Egyptians trying to get out that I couldn’t maneuver my way to the security line alone. I wove between entire families, their entire lives packed up in suitcases piled around them, my shoulders heavy with months worth of souvenirs and guidebooks. I was able to get out because I had parents back home with the cash for one of the only plane tickets left, many hundreds of dollars more than a typical flight out due to demand. It was an option the overwhelming majority of Egyptians did not have, even the ones that had made it beyond the city limits and past the tanks that surrounded the airport.
It’s easy to travel somewhere and feel the sense of belonging that comes from choosing a favorite coffee shop, or befriending a market vendor, or even moving into a residential building, as I did a few weeks before the revolution began. But that belonging has limits. My flight out was filled almost entirely with Western people. Facing the fact that I could leave the violence and turmoil behind simply because of my passport and access to a foreign bank account made me realize just how little my hold on a place means as a visitor, no matter how familiar I am with its residents or culture. As a Western traveler, I have the privilege of entering many places easily. But my passport, my access to money, give me what is perhaps a more important privilege: the ability to leave.
Katie Simon’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, Health, BUST, Women’s Health, and elsewhere. She is working on a memoir titled Plagued, about a gap year spent traveling alone during which she contracted the plague, was raped by a stranger in an alleyway, and found herself in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution. Katie lives in Massachusetts. www.