Friday, October 24, 2014

Dusty Rose-Tinted lenses of Wonder

Lately I have been watching numerous episodes of 'The Wonder Years' here in Cairo, thanks to my flatmate Tressa and her 1 terabyte external hard-drive full of downloaded entertainment -and also the fact that my productivity in marking student quizzes seems increased by watching something at the same time.

In case anyone isn't familiar with 'The Wonder Years', this television show from the 1980's was about a young boy's coming of age in the late 1960's. It starred child actor Fred Savage and featured a lot of great vintage music as well as voice-overs, teenage melodrama and him licking his lips in angst. The funny thing about 'The Wonder Years' is that when I watch it, I am overwhelmed with nostalgia - not only for the fact that I grew up as a kid watching this show about a boy growing up, but nostalgia for what my parents must have felt watching a show about growing up in the 1960's, when they themselves grew up then.

I am not sure of the word for empathetic or collective nostalgia, or if it is a phenomenon for anyone else besides me, but I have always been obsessed with other people's stories, lives, and pasts - to the point where I will actually feel nostalgia for something that I myself didn't experience, if I observe others experiencing the glaze of memory in some shared revery or moment. Thinking about this got me to thinking about perception in general, and the concept of objectivity - or perhaps more specifically, objective reality.

Every morning Sunday through Thursday,  I am picked up at 7 am in a minibus and driven to work. This drive might be quite possibly the ugliest drive I have ever experienced on a regular basis; dusty morning pollution coagulating the arteries of the Cairo suburb of Maadi; Rusty petrol trucks leaking their toxic liquids onto the road as we careen around another roundabout and dodge mangy street dogs, fruitcarts, and brave jaywalkers in uncomfortable-looking suits, attempting to make their way across the freeway, to catch their own particular minibus to work. Unfinished buildings line the roads; rebar and bricks piled and left to burn in the sun beside heaps of cement block and disposed garbage and plastic bags. It's a frantic chaotic mess of a morning, so far removed from anything resembling beauty - I close my eyes as the breeze (and dust and dirt) hits my face through the open window; Other teachers crammed in next to me sip their coffees and discuss the days gossip; the driver curses in Arabic while pressing heavily on the horn, and our sweaty minibus exercises its breaks to avoid hitting a overtly confident motorcyclist.

This is one lens of Cairo - the lens of commuting to work in a 20 million person Metropolis that just happens to exist in the middle of the desert. It is the Cairo of dust and smog and uncountable numbers of satellite dishes on rooftops. It is the Cairo of ugliness and decay and general urban disaster. It is the Cairo my Dad referred to years ago when I mentioned wanting to travel to Egypt - "Cairo is the world's largest up-ended ashtray". 

But then there is the lens of Cairo seen in beauty -in fragments of awe and perfection. It is the kaleidoscopic view found in the old Islamic quarter at sunset, standing on the roof of a mosque, watching a man on another rooftop tend to his pigeon coop. It is observing him feed them, as others circle in the air, dancing through the dozens of minarets and the late afternoon haze. It is the feeling of gratitude and inspiration at such a beautiful skyline that makes you want to call a pigeon a dove. The sound of the call to prayer, sung by someone who can actually sing, the morning light on my balcony, shards of sunshine through the hibiscus tree. It is in unknown alleys and unexplored streets, in rooftop bars that never close and plates of free mezze eaten with friends  It is in the seemingly overt presence of chance and fate; every day I feel like absolutely anything could happen - whether it's meeting a fascinating old man in my neighbourhood who runs an artist studio and wants to help me print a book, or getting hit by a truck - It's all there, good, bad and everything in between.

I suppose this is the case for everyone - that our reality is determined more by the lens that which we see things, not by any measure of truth or actuality. Cairo -like all places I have lived and visited- isn't a place on a map, or defined by any precise objective reality, but rather in the momentary lens that I happen to be viewing it through. Just as I will never know what it was like to experience the 1960's firsthand, I will perhaps never know 'real Cairo' - because such a thing doesn't tangibly exist except to those who experience it, or observe. Cairo unfolds as I imagine it, and I ascribe subjective meaning and importance to things because of my choice of lens. I would like to think that this doesn't invalidate my comments, or that my life here as a transient observer isn't somehow less legitimate. Maybe this is what all writers do; elevate the subjective and ignore the concept of objectivity entirely.

The Pigeon keeper on his rooftop exists eternally now, as does every other nuance and subtlety that I have ever happened to notice - immortalized in my memory, my mind mummified in wonder and delight.

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