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Take Egypt Like a Man

This week, Nadia El-Awady talks medieval diseases, a variety of other diseases, and toughening up.

My country gave my Scottish khawaga husband a medieval disease. At least that’s what he calls it. Colin spent a mere month with me in Egypt. Two weeks into his visit he began napping. Colin is not a napper. I spent months trying to convince him of the benefits of napping and he would not relent. Two weeks in Cairo and he napped like the best of Egyptians. I felt so proud. But then he began complaining about stomach upset. And he got a fever for a couple of days. We figured it was the air conditioning that made him sick. I gave him the best of Egyptian cure-for-alls: lots of mint tea.

Colin continued to feel moderately ill up until the day he left. When he got back to the UK he went to the doctor and had some tests done. A few days later he sent me a message on Whatsapp: “Nadia, I have a medieval disease I didn’t know even existed anymore!” Concerned, I messaged back, “What?? What do you have??” “Dysentery!” he wrote back. “Dysentery?” I replied. “That’s child’s play!” I tapped on my phone. “Everybody in Egypt gets dysentery! Just take some medicine and it will go away,” I said, no longer interested.

If you are Egyptian or a resident of Egypt who has lived here long enough, you will have contracted several of a long list of diseases.

I recall the first time I visited Egypt when I was in the fourth grade. I had the time of my life. Every day my brother and I would go out and play on the street with the neighbors’ kids from sunrise until midnight. One of our favorite games was crushing soda bottle caps with rocks so we could fit them on our fingers and use them like the sagat (finger cymbals) bellydancers use. We had neighborhood races (only one kid in the whole neighborhood could beat me, just so you know). And we played hide-and-go-seek. Of course, this being a normal neighborhood in 1970s Egypt, sheep were always munching on the local garbage heap nearby no matter what we were doing.

One day my American mother screeched when she discovered that all three of her children, including the youngest at the time who was barely a toddler, had lice. My mother grew up in the 1950s in mid-west America and did not lead an easy life. She tells stories of going to the toilet in an outhouse and carrying water into the house. But she never had to deal with lice. Well, welcome to Egypt, the lice were telling her.

You have not lived in Egypt if you have not had lice. If you do live in Egypt and you’ve never had lice then you live the existence of a faffy (slang Arabic for sissy) person, isolated from the real people and animals of Egypt. And that doesn’t count.

The second time I got lice was during my first year at university. I found an insect, and then another, and then another, crawling out from underneath my hijab. It was the worst experience of my life. I remember calling my father who was working in Saudi Arabia at the time, crying and telling him I wanted to shave my head. Being the proper Egyptian that he was, my father just said, “Be patient, Nadia. Use the anti-lice shampoo and they will all die off.” And they did.

My third experience with lice lasted for at least two years as my own children went through their lice phases at school. I turned into the mother who checked her children’s hair for lice eggs. I’d summon them several times a week and fiddle through their hair looking for the irritating, transparent, tiny eggs. With the nails of my thumb and forefinger I’d pull any out that I found. Just thinking about this stage of my life makes my head itch! But my very intimate experiences with lice just go to prove my Egyptianess… and that I am proud of.

Another very Egyptian bug is the household flea. These days my garage gives me fleas. I park my car in a courtyard that lies behind a neighboring building. Air conditioners constantly drip water onto the garage floor, creating a damp atmosphere that fleas evidently thrive in. Last year we all pitched in and our garage man bought some sort of an insecticide that killed off all the fleas. It seems that flea season is now back though. I found a flea hopping happily on my arm while I was driving the other day. Being quite experienced in fleas, like all Egyptians are, I knew that trying to squish it would do no good. I picked it up with the cushioning on my forefinger and thumb and threw it out of the window.

This reminds me of how my grandmother used to prevent bed bugs from infesting her house. Every single morning she’d take out a gadget she had that worked based on a piston mechanism. She’d fill it with benzene and squirt the stuff everywhere. The whole house always smelled like benzene in the morning. It must have been effective because I never remember coming across a bed bug in my granny’s house.

Bugs that you can see and throw out are easy stuff. Have you ever had hepatitis? I have. So have most Egyptians. Doctors report that something near three quarters of the Egyptian population have hepatitis C, a blood-borne viral infection of the liver. Me and a very large number of other Egyptians are lucky enough to have had the less dangerous of the hepatitis viruses: hepatitis A. Hepatitis A is food borne, and you all know how clean our food is. I got hepatitis A during the first month of my first ever job in Egypt. Three other colleagues got it at the same time. Our workplace was so nice (it really was) that they gave us sandwiches for lunch everyday. Apparently the sandwich batch one day was loaded with the stuff. I had to spend 40 days at home doing nothing but lie in bed. It was awful. I was yellow. I was feverish. I was nauseous. I was weak. And I was incredibly bored.  My ex-husband, a specialist in the hepatitis virus, would not even keep me occupied with sex. He told me that any kind of physical activity was prohibited during those 40 days because it could re-activate the virus. I should have made this one of my grounds for divorce. If a husband won’t have sex with his very bored, yellow, hepatitic wife then something is definitely wrong in that relationship!

My chronic allergic bronchitis started during my last two years of university. Do not be surprised. Just breathe the Cairo air and you will know where that came from. It took me years to find a doctor who would help me decrease the frequency and severity of the bronchitic bouts.

The list, of course, goes on. Typhoid, Bilharzia, asthma, a million kinds of diarrheal diseases, food poisoning (everyone in Egypt gets food poisoning), and who knows what kinds of evils are lurking in our bodies from the water we drink and the air we breathe?

Of course this means that by the time an Egyptian reaches adulthood (actually, if), they are very strong and hardy. Egyptians can travel to any country in the world and know they are immune to most of their diseases. Actually, to be truthful, half of the Egyptian population is strong and hardy and the other half is completely broken down from all the diseases that ravaged their bodies over a period of 40-some years. But the experience makes our soulsstronger, or so I like to convince myself.

So Colin, honey, toughen up and don’t think twice about your medieval dysentery. You need it to build up your immune system. When you’re in Egypt just drink lots of lemon juice and mint tea. They cure all diseases. Them and tea and coffee. Welcome to Egypt, habeebi!