1971: How’re You Going to Get Home Again If You Don’t Know Where You Are?!

We landed in Cairo late in the afternoon on a steamy late August day in 1971. The new class of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Fellows was in Egypt. We were whisked through passport and customs and got on the American University in Cairo (AUC) bus and headed into the city to be dropped off at our new homes. It had been a long flight from JFK airport and an even longer day.

The good news was that I was back in the Arab World with a two year fellowship and plans for an MA in TEFL. I had left the Arab World in late January 1970 and after a disappointing year at Harvard Divinity School was glad to be back where I felt at home.

The bus meandered across downtown Cairo dropping off Fellows at their new homes. Of course mine was the last so I arrived just as it was getting really dark and walked into my one bedroom apartment only to discover that there was supper on the table and Hussein, the Egyptian assigned to help and watch over me while I was an AUC employee, waiting to see what I needed before he headed off home. I knew the building was on Yousef El-Guindi Street but the university hadn’t given us maps and it was dark so I skipped supper, said goodbye to Hussein, and went to bed.

American Univerrsity in Cairo campus

And the next morning, I got up and thought I would take a walk around the area: I like familiarizing myself with whatever area I happen to be in. Unfortunately my Arabic wasn’t very proficient yet so most of the street signs (where there were any) and shop signs were pretty meaningless to me. So I turned right out of the building entrance (I was in a third floor apartment with a balcony overlooking a girls high school and a really beautiful jacaranda tree) and set off down the busy street. It turned out there was a bustling open air vegetable market just behind my street, the Bab El-Luq market.

I walked down through the market area and turned right and walked about two blocks and found myself at the entrance to the AUC campus, which wasn’t open (it was the weekend) and in front of the campus a huge traffic circle, Midan El-Tahrir. I could see that my new home was going to make it very easy to get to class and to sleep in until almost too late because it was only a block and a half to the campus entrance.

So I walked along the front of the campus next to the Midan and at the next street turned right. I walked along with increasing unease because I thought I must be getting close to home but I wasn’t sure. The problem was that I had just charged out the front door of my building and turned right without ever really looking at the building or its surroundings, sooooo … I really didn’t know what I was looking for or where what I was looking for might be.

The trip around the block …

I stopped on a corner [Start] and asked a young Egyptian (who turned out to be named Hussein and who worked for the makwagi, launderer, in my building) to show me where 7 Yousef El-Guindi Street [red X] was using all the Arabic at my command. Hussein said sure he’d show me, so we walked straight along the street, turned right at the next corner, walked past the vegetable market which I had already seen. We turned right at the next street and walked a block and turned right and walked three-quarters of the way down the street and the kid said “You’re home.” [End] I looked up and there on the corner was the place where I first asked the kid to show me where I lived. He had walked me in a rectangle and brought me almost back to where we had begun. I gave him a healthy tip for his trouble and for my lesson in paying attention!

Boy did I feel stupid. But I really knew where I lived now. And I learned to really check out where I was starting from when I went for walks. It’s a practice that has proven invaluable over the years.

Published by Mark Meinke

Married gay Quaker and historian, retired, and working more than ever.

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