Sunday, September 21, 2014

Fear and not-quite loathing, in Cairo

We have all been told over and over again, since childhood, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Fear, (as anyone who suffers from chronic anxiety or bouts of worrying knows), is a rather unproductive emotion- Fear leads to feelings of powerlessness, elevated blood pressure, irrational panic and on occasion, tears. We live in a world that idolizes bravery, and shames fear. Nobody wants to be a wuss, and often we hide our feelings of fear, lest we be labeled a wimp and shrink into the corner.

Well, I have a confession to make, after several years writing this blog, and perhaps due to the variety of places I have traveled as a solo female, being often mislabeled by people as being "brave": I am afraid. I am afraid of pretty much everything. I am, in fact, the self-appointed queen of fear. How I ever managed to hop on an airplane alone in the first place is something of a mystery - I suppose for all that I am fearful and scared, I am also as equally adventurous and curious. If only I could exist in some sort of super-hero-like sealed bubble of protection, while wandering the globe -that would be wonderful.

As a child I was terrified of many things, including but not limited to: hospitals, doctors, dentists, needles, anything and everything medically related (including such innocuous objects as rubber gloves and aqua-blue greened hued nurses outfits), a veritable hypochondriacs list of ailments and diseases, the dark, spiders, large dogs, aliens, ghosts, falling down, climbing things too high, and the probability of an asteroid hitting the earth. As I've matured, some of those fears have wained slightly, (and I do credit watching the X-files as part of the healing process), but many have remained. I am still completely phobic of anything to do with blood and needles, and those fears of falling out of a tree have morphed into the fear of being hit by a car - currently, one of Egypt's manically driven, lawless minibuses careening through a round-about in downtown Cairo. (This fear is not without precedent mind you - being hit by a speeding motorcycle in Tehran and taken via ambulance to a Iranian hospital for probably illegally radioactive X-rays will definitely make one a bit paranoid of future collisions.)

Living in Cairo presents a unique opportunity to confront ones fears - I watch entire families of 4 riding on one motorbike in rush hour, wife sitting side saddle holding a newborn baby, weaving in and out of traffic like a suicidal video game, and my mind reels in the possibilites and probabilities of the situation. I shudder and wipe my sweaty brow, gazing from the taxi. I lay on the sofa and browse Facebook and learn of a bombing outside a Cairo Foreign Ministry office; I quickly close my laptop and retreat to a room in the house not near any windows. The water heater in the bathroom makes odd noises and I envision it exploding as I sit on the toilet, scalding me senseless. I imagine that the cold virus I have apparently caught is actually Legionaire's disease, transmitted via the aging Air conditioning system in our apartment. I create all manner of terrifying situations in my head, as though my mind is an out-take of a horror film, perpetuating endless loops of all that could go wrong.

And then I realize how silly it is. If a family of 4 can ride on one motorcycle, sans helmets, along one of Cairo's busiest freeways, then what on earth do I have to be worried about? If 20 million people here can go about their daily business, why am I such a baby? I am tired of feeling afraid, tired of the scenarios that play out in my mind. Another one of the teachers here (coming from a gloriously logical Engineering background), keeps reminding me of the optimism of statistics. Statistically speaking, in a city of this size, it is unlikely that I will ever be at the wrong place at the wrong time (fear of terrorism). Statistically speaking, it is unlikely that I would be hit twice in my life, by a speeding motorcycle. Statistically, Legionaire's disease is a fairly unusual affliction.

It is with such mantras that I cloak myself in the Emperor's-new-clothes hijab of invincibility; I put it on and twirl around the room in front of the Air-conditioner. I know I am not invincible, and the dangers are still out there, but for now I am choosing only to see with brave eyes, trying to balance the part of me that whispers "be careful" with the part who is dying, itching, screaming -to just be alive.


  1. Your writing is getting really good! Thanks for this.
    Only those who recognize the fear will be able to overcome it. Fear is useful.
    You may have a book here...already!