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“The problem is that those people just don’t think,” Egyptian friends, themselves well educated, respond when I tell them these kinds of stories. “Not all Egyptians are like that.”
I know. But I’m still left confused.
Other times I simply do not want the burden of being the token Jew. I do not want to worry whether every move I make will be weighed against generations of stereotypes about the mythical religion and people that in that moment I manifest. It’s the more selfish approach, I know, and perhaps unfair of me to presume. But Cairo’s paranoia is a powerful force.
Then there are the times I prefer to retell the countless encounters with Egyptian friends or professional contacts that keep me staying here. Most friends knew me as just an American before my religion came up in conversation. And I don’t think much has changed since. If anything, I feel closer now to those with whom I can freely share the traditions, stories, and ideas from my upbringing that were such a formidable part in shaping how I see the world today. I like, too, to hear their reactions about how they perceive these parts of the life I lived.
The other day another American and I met a new Egyptian friend for dinner in Imbaba, a poorer area of Cairo where she lives. We ate at one of Cairo’s most famous meat restaurants — and I dined on my vegetarian favorites of babaganouj and garlic pickled eggplant. She was, like most Egyptians, appalled. “What?” she demanded. “Why are you vegetarian?” I provided my usual response, “In America I do not agree with how we produce our meat for environmental and ethical reasons.” I elaborated a bit. And then I added the part I do not always share. “And I grew up with certain food restrictions because of my religion. In my family, we only eat certain meat. It’s called kosher, like Muslims and Halal.”
In yet another only-in-Egypt moment, she was enthralled to learn I was Jewish. “I’ve never actually met a Jew before!” she exclaimed, clasping my hand. I smiled and told her that Egyptians often questionably say when the subject of Jews comes up, “Well I know lots of Jews…” We then launched into one of my favorite kinds of conversations — and discussed different food practices amongst various religions.
After dinner we went back to her family apartment on a quiet side street removed from the Imbaba crowds. They never used to lock the building door, she told me, until after the revolution. We drank juice with her mother and sister, and then watched some of President Morsi’s speech together. They are religious people and openly expressed their criticism. “He mixes religion and politics in a bad way,” her mother lamented, waving her hand in disgust at the small television set.