Wednesday, December 2, 2009

In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo, Dreaming of Baghdad

Either this deep desire of mine
will be found on this journey,
or when I get back home!

It may be that the satisfaction I need
depends on my going away, so that when I've gone
and come back, I'll find it at home.

--Rumi
From The Essential Rumi

**************************************************************

Someone asked me a while back if I love Egypt or hate it. After long thought, I would have to say I neither love it or hate it. So why did I come?

If I had to pinpoint the exact moment that things started to spiral downward in my life it would have to be October 4, 2004. Standing at my computer on the factory floor entering that nights scrap/loss data my boss came to me and whispered over my shoulder the words that would change my life forever. "Scott has instructed me to write you up for a second shift mistake." I knew what that meant. The company had been downsizing for a while and their end goal was to eliminate mid-level management positions without the benefit of having to provide unemployment payments, opting instead to set people up to be fired. They had been after me for a while. I was the last group leader left out of three shifts. Glancing over my shoulder at the clock on the wall I noted the time. 6:50 am. Ten minutes left on my shift. I finished entering my data, left my keys next to the computer, picked up my bag and walked to the door. Arriving at the time clock early was uncharacteristic for me and was noticed by several people who had also gathered at the time clock. "Third shift group leader is here before 7 am - that's a first." And it was. It was not usual for me to leave before 7:30. But I was leaving for good. I did not go in to work that night. Terry called me the next day and said that they had been waiting for me at the front door so they could "walk me out" upon my arrival. So that's the gist of how I lost a well paying job.

Like anyone who has ever quit, been laid off, or fired from a job, I did not feel bad - I felt energized. When one door closes another one opens. I was ready to try something new. I held out a great hope that things would be OK although I knew in my heart it wouldn't be. I chose instead, to be in denial about the situation. I didn't stay unemployed long. I started waiting tables for $2.13 per hour. Worked two jobs - the second one being a retail clothing store for $6.00 per hour. Retail generally does not allow full-time positions so the maximum hours I could get per week ranged from 15 to 20 depending on if I volunteered to cover shifts for other employees. I went from bringing home $1,000.00 per week to bringing home (between two jobs) $250.00 per week. Now, I'm not good at math so I will leave you to calculate the percentage that my salary dropped on your own. Each week I would have to take from my savings to pay bills. I knew this would not last long.

2005 was fairly stable for the simple reason I was still able to supplement my income with the money I had saved over the last six years. By the end of 2005, however, things went from bad to worse. On December 26, 2005 my son was arrested and went to jail. Without going into all the details at this time, by February of 2006 I had a nervous breakdown. It happened one night in the McDonald's restaurant in Princeton. I started crying uncontrollably and could not stop. I was yelling and screaming then just collapsed on a table. I had people trying to approach me and give me religious pamphlets "Jesus saves". All I could do was scream at them "get away from me with that shit!" I don't remember how I managed to leave the place or get home. I spent the next couple of days in a daze sleeping when I was not working and dragging myself to work. The thing about working in Customer Service and Retail is that you are expected to be happy and smiling all the time. I was reprimanded at work for being in a "depressed state" and this was bad for business. There was nobody I could turn to, nothing I could do but go home and sleep and cry and shake. I stopped eating. I stopped caring about living.

About two weeks later my income tax check arrived. I had made good money the year before, but was in a high tax bracket because of overtime so I got roughly around $900.00. This is a lot of money on one hand, but on the other hand it isn't. I sat one night in Panera Bread just staring at my computer screen. My mental state was deteriorating rapidly. Everything was falling apart around me and I felt I could not control it. Then I realized what I needed. I needed to get away. I had a standing offer from a friend in Ohio to visit her sister in Jordan. All I had to pay for was my airfare. I would take her up on the offer.

When I told my boss "Y" that I was going to Jordan he told me I should go to Egypt as well. I told him I would love to, but I did not have any money for hotels, etc. He offered to call his family and have me stay with them. So I booked tickets. I would fly into Cairo and travel overland to Jordan (a cheaper route than flying) and then fly home from Amman. I stayed in Egypt only a few days. There was no money to do touristic stuff. I left Egypt on the overnight bus to the the Red Sea and then took the ferry to Jordan. Another bus to Amman. My friend's sister was lovely. I spent most of my week there with her in the apartment. Again, there was no time or money for touristic stuff. However, it proved to be just the break I needed. When I arrived back home I felt ready to start over again.

2006 continued my the same way the previous year had. I had waiting jobs. Some days I would work a 10 hour shift and make only $50.00. Most of this would be spent on gas to get back and forth to work since I lived 45 minutes from any civilization this required driving 90 minutes per day to get to work. It wasn't the driving time that bothered me, I was used to that, what bothered me was that during this period gas had hit an all time high in the US. It was approaching $4.00 per gallon. At one time it would cost me $20 to fill my tank, but during this period it was closer to $45.00. I had to fill up the tank every other day. It got to a point that I became sick of pumping gas.

A curious set of events had been set in motion as a result of my trip to Egypt. One was that "S" felt sorry for the fact that I was unmarried and gave my email address to all his single friends. I would come home at night and find my inbox full of promises of love and marriage proposals from guys who were in their late 20's. Complete strangers. This may appeal to some 40 year old women, but it was a huge turn-off to me. First and foremost, I had no desire to get married. I was quite happy being single. If I was to ever get married it would be for love with someone of my own choosing and not because someone felt "sorry" for me. The other thing that happened was people began to try to convince me to move to Egypt. What could I do there I asked? You could teach English. I said it was a nice offer, but explained to them that I had no teaching experience, no college degree I did not see how logically this scenario could work. However, almost everyone I talked to assured me that fact that I was American and a native speaker of English was all that was needed for every school in Egypt to roll out the red carpet for me. I was told I would get paid 5 times that of Egyptian teachers. That I would have an apartment provided for me. I would have all kinds of benefit packages like plane tickets to my home country, etc. It all sounded too good to be true. I pushed it all to the back burner and continued to push my way forward any way I could in the US.

In the early part of 2007 it became apparent that all my efforts to get back on track or get ahead were going to be useless in the end. I was "pissing in the wind" so to speak. Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. I finally made the decision that I had long put off and that was to put my house on the market for sale. Now, to my my house was nice. It was built in 1918 but had been well maintained. It was not perfect, but it provided shelter and warmth. The problem is, I had paid (and mortgaged) $50,000 for it and it was in reality worth much less. I also contacted an attorney regarding the possibility I needed to file bankruptcy. Now, in a perfect world, my house would have sold quickly and I would have made a profit of about $15,000 since I had some equity in it. I would then take this money and move into an apartment and start my life over. That was the plan anyway. But it's not a perfect world and the real estate market was just at the beginning of it's slow period. Months passed and no one even looked at the house.

Knowing that in a few short months, I was facing the possibility of foreclosure and being left with no where to live and no money, I began to reconsider those offers my Egyptian friends were telling me about. I began to search the web for "teaching in Egypt". I was led to a website of a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training program that promised guaranteed results and job placement assistance. I talked to more people in Egypt, all of whom reiterated the same sentiments as those from before: you will have no problem finding a job in Egypt. I considered the scenario. I would go to Egypt, take the TEFL certification, get a job, be provided with housing and benefits on a two year contract. This would allow me the opportunity to save thousands of dollars after which I could then return to the US and start over once again.

In early June of 2007 I purchased a one way ticket to Egypt for February 12, 2008. I basically had to steal the money to buy this ticket. I stole it from myself. I sold all the appliances in my house. The stove, the refrigerator, the washer, the dryer, the dishwasher - I sold all my furniture. How was that stealing you might wonder? Well my house was contracted with the realtor as "including all appliances". If someone had wanted to buy the house and found all the appliances gone I would have been in big trouble. But I knew by this time the house would never sell. I continued to live in the house with no furniture and no appliances for two months until one day near the end of July, in a blistering heat wave, the air conditioner died. I would spend the next 8 months sleeping on a friends couch.

Shortly after I bought my ticket to Egypt, I knew the next thing I needed to do was find a place to live temporarily when I arrived in Egypt. I had planned to attend the TEFL course in Alexandria straight away and housing was included with that. I had already applied to the TEFL program and been accepted. I listed Egypt as my first choice and Argentina as my second choice. (A representative from TEFL who I spoke to on the phone helped me rule out a European location because of the difficulty involved in obtaining work permits and long term visas in countries in Europe since preference for jobs went to those with EU citizenship.) I figured I would be able to find a job shortly after that, and might need a place to live only for a month or two while I sorted out all the details with a school. I also began at this time contacting schools by email, sending my CV, joining FaceBook groups about teaching in Egypt, networking with my contacts in Egypt, etc.

A few days after I had purchased the ticket, I was sitting in Borders bookstore. This had always been my favorite place to go and it continued to be a sanctuary for me. I could only allow myself to buy a cup of coffee and wander around the store. I sat in the aisles and read all the books about Egypt because I could no longer afford to buy them. This particular day a magazine on the rack caught my eye. It was Transitions Abroad. I picked it up and flipped through it. It was chock full of tips and information for people who are considering teaching abroad. There were job postings, info on shipping companies, articles by ex-pats. I broke down and spent the $4.95 for the magazine.

When I got it home I read it cover to cover. I found an article about a website called "couchsurfing". It was like a backpackers dream. People from all over the world who have a couch or spare room in their home agree to "host" travellers usually on a short term basis. I looked up the website and found hundreds of profiles in Egypt. I created a profile and contacted those who had listings who were women or ex-pats. I did not want to contact any of the numerous Egyptian men who had profiles, because it appeared they were using the site as a way to meet foreign women. I did not have time for this. The people I had contacted emailed me back and told me they were unable to commit to anything with me because my request was coming too far in advance and they were not sure if they would still be in Cairo that far in the future. I was back at square one. I carefully began to look through and read all the profiles on the site. I only got through the first two pages when one particular profile caught my eye. It was a guy in Maadi. What attracted me to his profile was that he said he liked dogs. I was planning on taking my dog with me. I did not even look at any other profiles, but I sent him a message. I told him of my plans to arrive in Cairo and take the TEFL and that I would be looking for a place to stay for a week or two.

A reply came very quickly. I sent him my phone number and told him it would be easier if we speak in person. He called me right away. I explained my situation to him. He listened and was very helpful. He told me he has an extra room in his apartment and that he travels frequently for his job and would probably be in the Gulf at the time of my arrival. He told me I could have his apartment for as long as I needed it. Then I dropped the bomb. I have a dog. "Great. Bring the dog. I love dogs", he replied. He then offered to keep the dog for me while I was in Alex provided he was in Cairo at the time. This would save me a considerable boarding expense. I could not believe my good luck. What I didn't know then, was that I had just had my first conversation with the man I would end up marrying. Of course at the time there was no hint of a romantic relationship between us. We kept in touch by phone after that initial conversation. "W" would call me once a month of so and ask me if I needed anything. He helped me to arrange shipping some of my things through his company (sparing me yet another considerable expense) and answered all my questions. He was a nice guy and a decent guy and a huge help to me and that was the extent of it. But in my mind, things seemed to be going very smoothly with my plan to move to Egypt. I began to think it hadn't been such a bad idea after all.

Having the living arrangements and the dog situation scratched off the checklist was a huge burden off my shoulders. It was a good thing too, because things were about to get more difficult in my current situation. I had to sell my car at the end of June. Living so far away from any place to work, and in an area with no public transportation, I had to convince "T" to let me borrow his truck. I kept working at my job at the restaurant, and pumping gas into a huge gas guzzler day in and day out. Things were plugging along fine until sometime in July when a deer ran head first into the side of the truck one night on the way home. "T" was pissed to say the least. Even though his insurance covered it with no deductible he was the kind of guy who valued his cars above everything else. My driving privileges were revoked. After 3 days of having to call in "sick" due to lack of transportation, I convinced "T" that I would lose my job if I couldn't use the truck. He relented on the condition that I go straight to work and straight home.

It was a few weeks later that my air conditioner died. Now not only was I driving his car, I was sleeping on his couch as well. "T" worked at night arriving home at 9 am. I worked during the day arriving home after he left for work. It was a good arrangement in that our paths rarely crossed. But I still had to go to my house daily and pack up an remove the remaining items. I rented a storage locker in town for $30 per month. I would wake at 5 am everyday and go down to the house. Load up bags and boxes of stuff and move them into the storage locker. Other things that I couldn't bear to part with, but knew I would never see again, I hid in "T's" attic. I gave many things away, threw many things in the trash, gave some to my son, etc. The hot mornings of summer turned into cold mornings of the fall and each day would find me sitting in the storage locker sorting and re-sorting into "keep" and "get rid of piles". I had started holding yard sales earlier in the spring so the things left were the sentimental things. I would sit in the locker surrounded by what was left of my life. Boxes of photos and negatives. Boxes of keepsakes, artwork, and school projects my son had made from Nursery school up to 5th grade. Mountains of papers I had saved some from when I had been in High School. Little by little it was disposed of. The only way I could get through it was to tell myself over and over again that if I died tomorrow I could not take any of this with me anyway.

Eventually, it became too much to bear and I left the house one final time leaving much stuff behind. At the end of September my court date came up and I turned the keys to my house over to the bank. Even though "T's" house was only a few blocks from mine, I could not drive down that street again. One day I worked up the courage to and happened upon a scene that I had not expected. The bank had hired a company to come and clean out the remaining items from my house. I saw my things being loaded into a truck. Lamps, ice skates, jewelry, photo supplies, etc. What was left of everything I owned in the world piled into a trailer bound for Goodwill or the Salvation Army. I never went past my house again. (The bank listed my house for sale at the cost of what I still owed on my mortgage. It sat empty for nearly 2 years selling only in the spring of 2009. I heard this from a friend. When I visited the States in August of this year, I did drive by again. The bushes in the front had been removed and new flowers planted. But it was still difficult for me to see this.)

In the beginning of October I was growing increasingly restless driving to work everyday only to be turned away for "over staffing". I quit the job in the restaurant. It was costing me more to show up everyday than I was actually earning. Luckily though I caught what I thought was another break. I was contacted by a temporary employment contractor I had applied with previously. They were looking for temporary employees to work for a sub-contractor of Toyota. I would be earning $8.00 per hour. This was a higher salary than I had earned in the past 2 years. I would have 4 solid months to work before I would be leaving for Egypt. This would allow me to bring home around $275 per week. I would be able to save a significant amount of money to use for my TEFL course as well as living expenses until I could find a job in Egypt. "W" also called me at the end of November and told me he had to take a business trip to the States at Christmas time and he would like for us to try to meet. I searched for flights between Indiana and where he would be in Colorado and found the prices over $800. This was more than my ticket to Egypt. I had photographed a wedding at the end of October - the last piece of business that I had pending from my photography business I had tried to start earlier that year to supplement my income. So I had $500 saved from that. I told "W" that it did not look like I could justify flying to Colorado over Christmas because it was too expensive. He was very disappointed. He did not realize how far away Indiana and Colorado are and that there are no trains or busses in the US for cheap, fast interstate travel.

One day in mid-December I showed up at my job in Toyota only to be told that they were in a slow down (always happens when they hire too many expecting some to quit after a few days) and they would need to be sending people home for the day. Since I was low on the seniority list, I was chosen to go home. By some stroke of genius I had brought my laptop with me that day, so instead of going straight home, I went to the truck stop to use the wifi. While there, I searched a few different sites for prices to fly to Colorado. I managed to find a flight for $400. I decided that you only live once, and the plant would be shut down for a week at Christmas so I decided to book the ticket. I emailed "W" and told him the good news he was thrilled.

Now, you already know that this story has a happy ending, but it did not start off that way. When "W" and I met in person we hated each other. He thought I was a tough woman and thought I was fat. I was not particulary attracted to him either and found him to have some annoying habits. We fought rather frequently over the next few days, although remained cordial and friendly with each other at the same time. After all, he had been so kind to me and so helpful and I was forever in his debt for this. Nonetheless, we shared some memorable moments together including Christmas dinner at the home of one of his colleagues (the same one we plan to visit this year). I arrived back in Indiana on December 27 and reported back to work at Toyota on January 2, 2008 as scheduled. When I got to work, I discovered that all the temporary employees were being "laid off" temporarily. Great. Now I have only 6 weeks left in the US and no income coming in. I had been counting on being able to work right up to the very end and was counting on that money. (Ironically, I got a voice mail from the employment firm on February 10 saying that I could report back to work February 11).

So once again, I found myself unemployed. The last 6 weeks were hard for me because I would have to leave the house everyday to avoid seeing "T". Since I did not have a job I was not allowed to drive anywhere. The only place to go in this town was the public library which closed at 5. I would spend my days sitting in the library and then walking around town freezing until nightfall. I slept constantly just hoping for the hours to pass faster if I was oblivious to them. My mother had to send me the $800 I needed in order to put my dog on the airplane.

I arrived in Egypt on February 14, 2008 flat broke. "W" was a man of his word and picked me up at the airport, but if looks could kill... I'll skip all the boring details here in interest of making an already long story a little shorter, but we were married 6 weeks later. Stranger things have happened I'm sure. How we went from being acquainentces to hating each other to being married in the span of 6 weeks is beyond me. But I'm told there is an expression "out of hate comes love". We are living proof of that.

Three days after my initial arrival in Cairo, "W" had a contact at a school who who was in desperate immediate need of a native English speaker. I happened to be in the immediate need of $1,200 to take a TEFL course. I postponed my TEFL course from March to April and took the job. So here I was in Cairo less than three days, on a bus on my way out to 6th of October. The position was with a Junior Kindergarden class. It was at this moment that I discovered I suck at teaching and I'm not good with kids. The co-teacher had years of experience so I basically just became her assistant. I tied shoes, wiped noses, dried tears, broke up fights over toys, opened packages of snacks, etc. As the month passed, I realized more and more I was not cut out for this kind of work. But determined to finish what I had started, I decided to go ahead with my plan to take the TEFL. Perhaps I would be able to find a job working with adults. The temporary job gave me exactly the money I needed for the TEFL class. "W" and I got married April 3, 2008 and on April 4 th I left for a 10 week stay in Alex. (The TEFL certificate itself is only one month, but I had signed up to do the teaching internship afterward to gain practical experience.)

Right before leaving for Alex, I was contacted by a school I had previously emailed my resume to while I was still in the US. I had an interview lined up and a potential job offer for the 2008 school year. I really thought things were looking up. My time in Alex went great, and my teaching internship was with an adult intermediate level class. I came back to Cairo in early July and had only 6 weeks before I had to start my new job.

I'll pause here for a moment and reflect on how nicely this fit into my original plan assuming I had not gotten married. It seemed to be working out rather smoothly. I would come to Egypt, take the TEFL, get a job, etc. Just like I had planned it. Had I needed it, this school would have secured housing for me. The salary was decent, transportation to and from school included. It was all as I had imagined it would be when I made the initial plan to move to Cairo and work for 2 or 3 years before returning to the US. I hadn't planned on getting married and that surely was not called for in the original recipe, but it was the icing on the cake.

Here's the point where it turns south. I soon realized I sucked at teaching even more at the new school that I had at the first one. I was a high school graduate, with no experience in education, only qualified to teach English and I was placed as a homeroom teacher for second graders. I was responsible for teaching English, Math, Science, and Social Studies. I was in WAY, WAY over my head. I gave it a concerted effort and was holding on and trying my hardest with everything I had in me. I was fired at the end of November after working only 3 months. Thus ended my teaching career in Egypt. I applied at some other schools only to be told I'm not qualified or to be offered assistant teaching positions for 1,000 LE per month. Granted 1,000 LE per month is what Egyptian co-teachers make (and some full teachers as well), I could have stayed in the US waiting tables for that much money each month. When you consider my original intention to come to Cairo and work was so that I could earn money to save and move back home, these latest developments reflect nothing short of a flat out failure. There is no way I would have been able to remain in Egypt past the day of being fired. I would have had to pack it all in and come up with plan B, find some way to get the airfare home and call it a day. I failed miserably at what I set out to do. Hindsight is 20/20 and in retrospect, I know I would have admitted my defeat and gone back home.

But in the end, one year later, I'm still in Egypt. I didn't come to Egypt so I could get married. I didn't get married so I could stay in Egypt. I didn't marry my husband because I loved Egypt. I married him because I love him. I know now that the certain something I thought was waiting for me in Egypt, was - only it was not in the form of what I thought it would be. I know now that my pull to go to Egypt was not to teach and earn money - but because it was my destiny to meet him. We will be married for 2 years this April and every day that passes our love grows stronger. I know that sounds so cliche, but considering we did not know each other very long when we married it is a positive thing. It may not have been my choice to still be in Egypt after 2 years, but I am, and having him by my side, being so supportive and understanding of my frustrations, makes it more bearable for me. I don't know what the future holds for us or where we will end up living. All I know is that I needed to make this journey.

8 comments:

  1. Thank you Iman, for finally telling your story of how you met your husband.
    I am a great believer of destiny, and that after all the hardship and struggle you had to go through, love and ultimately happiness was found.

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  2. Hi, two words in your blog attract me, Maadi and Baghdad cause I’m originally from Baghdad and currently live in Maadi, when I read your story I found that I’m about to go through what you have been through but in opposite; as I’m about to leave Cairo - Maadi and move to the state (got the DV green card) and have no idea what I’m going to do there? All my friends advising that it will be easy to find a job to teach Arabic as I’m native speaker and there is a good market there these days for Arabic native speakers, the problem I have no idea or skills to teach the language other than being a native speaker. Strange world ha, you left the state with a dream to start new life in Egypt and I’m leaving Egypt towards the state with a dream to start new life. I wish I will be lucky like you and found good partner there as I’m too still single at mid thirty. Since we are neighbors and I still have another 1 or 2 months before I move so If you like we can meet in Maadi to have some exchange some experience of expat living in Egypt and USA.
    Regards

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  3. Hi there & thanks for sharing your story.
    I read it from first word to last and I'm usually not good at reading long posts at the screen.
    Yours captured me.
    Sometimes it does seem like we have a destiny waiting for us somewhere.
    I am glad you found yours and you two are happy :)
    Egypt can be quite challenging, no? ;)
    And teaching,..., horror, nothing for me either, no way, Jose :)
    I started TEFL before going to Kuwait and quit it before finishing (paid much less, it was only an online course).
    Take care and Cheers from "beautiful" Sharm ;)
    Nicole

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  4. I really appreciated your effort to put all that down. I found it very interesting and i am so so glad you found a good man to be with. I want to tell you that I really have enjoyed a lot of the comments. I have been to Egypt three times and I certainly don't like it there. I have been in love with an Egyptian however, and still am. I don't think it is our destiny to be together however. I am glad it was yours

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  5. piece was well written and I enjoyed reading it. thank u for taking the time to write it! randomly, anmar, you'll most likely be facing some challenges converting your native arabic language skills into a well paid job. Most companies w/ 180k/yr salaries hiring arabic speakers are looking for people with secret clearances. Sorry, ministry of common sense, I know that this isn't the format for a response to someone else, but i just wanted to give a head's up. happy new year's to all! =)

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  6. Anwar: If you want to teach arabic and find difficulty with security clearance try teaching muslim children that are homeschooled. Ask around at the local mosque for more info.

    OFG: I loved your post! I am sorry that you had to go through that rough period but..."with difficulty comes ease." Thank you for sharing your story it was very interesting!!!!

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  7. I am shocked at some of the similarities between you and myself. I also live in Egypt, just moved here in December and I am getting married. Have filed bankruptcy, home is in foreclosure now and my dog is coming June. I remember selling all of my appliances from my home and trying to fit my 3 bedroom 2 bath home into 4 rubbermaid storage containers (that my dad was kind enough to store for me). But all of those bad things just make me appreciate my very simple life here in Egypt and my fiance who supports me through my daily frustrations.

    ReplyDelete