Arrivals and Departures

We arrived in the US on August 29 1969. No plane at the time could fly direct between Egypt and the US, even if the strained relations had allowed such a flight. The trip took nearly 2 days in an august procession of airplanes and airports; Cairo to Beirut in a United Arab Airlines Comet, Beirut to Paris on a Pan American DC8 , Paris to Chicago, also on Pan American but in a Boeing 707-320B and finally Chicago to Salt Lake City on a Boeing 707-220. The Pan American tickets came in a thick long book, slightly larger than a checkbook, with red ink on the back of each sheet. On every leg of the trip my father carefully tore out a page from each of the four tickets in exchange for boarding passes. The manager of the Pan American office near the Nile Hilton made sure every customer was aware of the advanced computerized reservation system, the first of its kind in the region. “Not even Beirut has such a system. And we are in a state of war!”, he insisted to everyone who would listen. I had accompanied my father to the ticket office, perhaps to blunt the manager’s questions. “And why the trip to Amreeka?” he inquired. My father was wary of telling him about our impending immigration. The Cairo of that time was not a place where a man offered unnecessary information, especially since currency controls made it impossible to take any meaningful trips, and altogether likely to seek the assistance of Lebanese money changers. “Just to visit our family there”, was all my father would volunteer. There was no doubt that the manager noticed that the tickets were one-way.

The succession of ticket stubs facilitated a trip that was the antithesis of Conrad’s Marlow’s journey into the heart of the jungle. With every step along the way the world got larger, brighter, more open and more promising. Cairo had quickly become disheveled and dusty after the 1967 war, as if Israel’s rapid attack destroyed not only airplanes and armor but also every mop, dust feather and wash bucket. Color photography became popular in Egypt in the early 1960s, and the transition from black and white to color removed any pretensions to glamour. The monochrome dustiness of Cairo gave way to a brighter and greener Beirut. Although we never left the airport transit area, we could still spy green cedars and lush bushes from the windows. The place gave no hint of the calamity that was to visit it in less than half a dozen years. Paris, where we stayed overnight, was even brighter. It seemed that every street was over-lit, the stores exceptionally cheerful and the people dressed more colorfully. We wanted to take a walk around the city, but a soft evening rain changed that plan. It was the first time in my life I experienced summer rain. My mother took it as a sign of the strangeness of the lands to come. I took a different view. I never lost affection for the soft light that accompanies evening rain. It was in Paris that I lost my fears about making it to America at all. Those fears had begun to gather force as soon as school ended in June. In July I broke my shoulder in a surfing accident in Alexandria. I worried that I would be deemed an unfit invalid at the airport in America and turned back. In August there were rumors of planned hijackings by PLO members and dark rumblings about cancellations of flights to the Middle East. A few days before our departure there was a fire in Al Aqsa mosque, and the Egyptian media, all 3 television channels anyway, were hysterical with intimations about Israel’s involvement in the matter and the necessity to gird for an upcoming conflict. None of these events made the prospect of the trip any more certain or easier. It was not until we landed in Paris that I felt the grip of Egypt loosen around me. Still, I could barely sleep that night, fearing an alarm clock fiasco that would have us late to the airport and permanently locked out of America. I stayed awake for the entire flight, my shoulder throbbing badly, and fell asleep only when the pilot announced that we entered US airspace and the stewardess distributed landing forms. My father filled them out with the meticulous attention of a man signing away his life.

Our departure from Cairo started with Halim, my father’s driver, bounding up the steps to our Heliopolis apartment to take down our luggage. After he stowed them away in the car, he came back up to witness the parting scene. All four of us stood in the foyer with my grandmother, her companion Um Boutros, and Rushdi, our neighbor, on the other side. My grandmother had no wish to go to the airport. Her son immigrated the month before, and now her daughter was on her way as well. For the next two decades she would rattle alone in our apartment, bickering constantly with the asthmatic Um Boutros, far from all her children and grandchildren in America. She stood in black, the color she wore since my grandfather’s passing five years earlier, and with her luxurious gray hair pulled back in a tight bun. A woman accustomed to many calamities in her life, she was now facing a final one with grace and no tears. She started the proceedings by hugging and kissing my mother, then my father and my younger brother. She came over to her eldest, and favorite, grandson, pushed him down so she can kiss the top of his head. She demanded a promise that he will take care of himself and keep her close to him. He neither promised her then nor disappointed her later. She never lost her special affection for the boy who was the chief cheerleader and initial instigator for the idea of immigration. She held on for years until after the birth of her first great grandson. She knitted shawls for the mother of the baby, sending them in carefully wrapped packages to America with any one she could trust to bring them there. She asked her grandson to make sure his wife wards off the winter cold by wrapping herself tightly while nursing the baby. The shawls lacked her earlier skills, for she had grown careless and on occasions missed a few knots. Still, they were appreciated. Two women in her coffee circle of widows went to America to visit their children, and the tales they brought back strengthened her conviction that the land was not for her. Once a month she posted a letter to her grandson, always addressed to his parents’ house, where he mostly did not live. He received the letters in clumps, but read them in the order of their posting. Wars, riots and assassinations were mere background noise to her. She focused mostly on family details, asked for nothing except forgiveness and packages of Cadbury chocolates, and hoped for little except redemption and the occasional visit from America. But on the morning of departure to America no one knew of what was to come. All were glad when she concluded the proceedings by reaching for her vial of Myroon oil and drawing a cross on each of the four foreheads. We were but a few links in a chain that extended back millennia as every Copt started any venture with a spot of oil on the forehead. But these were broken links, for few had ever immigrated before.With that, we were off to the airport.

There was no party of people seeing us off at the departure area. My parents did not advertise our intention to immigrate beyond the most immediate family and a few close friends. No one in their circles of friends from the Cleopatra Church knew about our plans far in advance. It was all announced quickly and in a matter of fact way a week or so before our departure. Pope Kyrillous was known to disapprove of immigration, and the business of dealing with the spiritual needs of those already abroad fell to Bishop Samuel. The local priest issued an unenthusiastic prayer for the family’s safety. My father did not sell our prized 1960 white Ford Falcon, and the driver took us to the airport in it. It all seemed as well planned as a weekend outing. Halim unloaded our luggage at the curb, shook my father’s hand, jumped back in the car and left. I watched the car pull away, its left tail light, a single round red saucer, winking a goodbye. I waited for it to disappear into the shimmering air while everyone went into the terminal. I never saw the car again. My memory of the old terminal was that it was hot and forlorn. Policemen in white uniforms manned the checkpoints. In the early morning light the desert outside glowed hot and unkind. Inside, a few pigeons flew around and cooed in a distant corner of the ceiling. I expected my mother to cry. But she did not. My father, normally undemonstrative, instead let out a blast of criticism of Gamal Abdel Nasser. “We are not leaving Egypt”, he said. “Look around, nothing here says Egypt. We are Arabs, from an Arab republic, waiting to board an Arab airliner, with passports proclaiming we are Arabs”. “Tayeb, Tayeb”, my mother shushed him. The wait was short, the walk across the hot tarmac was brisk, and the door of the airplane closed quickly. With the final turn of the door handle I felt relieved.

Memory refuses to yield any specific details of the few hours spent at the Beirut airport except for a few incidents that stand out but with shaky veracity. I recall a young girl, barely past puberty, either European or American, smoking Virginia Slims in front of her parents, who smoked Kents. Early smoking did not shock me; I had tried my first and last cigarette at age 7 at the urging of a wayward cousin. The girl’s lack of furtiveness seemed downright unenjoyable. She propped her bare feet on one of the chairs, and my mother’s face twisted in disapproval. Somewhere in her mind she feared for what her sons might face, or worse, find attractive in a future country. There was also a Lebanese gentleman sitting next to us in the lounge who leaned over to my father and asked “Masryoon?”. In Lebanon we rediscovered that we were not Arabs, and as Edward Said would intimate in his memoirs, a lesser cousin of the Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, and perhaps the Iraqis as well. One encounter we did not have, or we would not have understood it had we had it, was with a young woman named Leila Khalid.  She was at the airport that day traveling from Beirut to Rome. The next morning, as we flew to America, she commandeered a TWA airliner to Damascus. News of Leila’s adventure were prominent on American Television on our first full day in the country. Huntley and Brinkley both agreed she was a terrorist. I listened closely to their broadcast trying to catch every unfamiliar English word. I did not agree nor differed with their assessment of her. I imagined that had the hijacking been pushed up a few days and the news came in Cairo I would likely have applauded her deeds.

Dinner in Paris was my first meal outside Egypt. We had nothing to eat all day but only my brother seemed to have any appetite. He wondered out loud what elementary school in America will be like. None of us bothered to answer him. My mother appeared emotional, my father distant, and I resorted to my habit of passing time by counting the objects around me. It dawned on me how daunting my prospects were. I was to attend a school in an unfamiliar language, and eventually take college entry exams that I had never prepared for, and try to fulfill my father’s wish of attending either Princeton or Cal Tech, the two US schools he thought were worthy of attention. Our prospects as a family were daunting as well. My father had no job lined up. He had never applied for a job in the years since he started his company. I suspected that my mother could not cook unassisted. This was not the way to immigrate, we were told. The sensible thing is for the man to head out first and get a job and a place to live, then bring in the family. That would have entailed us staying one more school year in Egypt. Neither of my parents liked the prospect of separating from each other, and the prospect that my brother and I would stay in Egypt alone for a few months was simply unthinkable to them. Nasser had insisted that the war to liberate the Sinai was imminent. This was not the time to separate families. I was excited to go to America, and feared that my father’s solitary trip might end up in failure and abandonment of the whole idea of immigration. Burning the ships seemed best, but watching them burn is never easy. Still, I was excited.

The customs agent in Chicago was a ruddy and beefy man who wore a tag with his last name, which seemed to be constructed entirely with the last four letters of the alphabet, with one or two vowels thrown in as gesture of mercy for those foolhardy enough to try to pronounce it. He looked closely at our passports and our green cards, which were actually made of laminated greenish plastic, and asked “Do you speak English?”. All four of us answered “Yes” in unison, better to be safe. He chuckled, “I was only asking your father, but good enough anyway”. He closed our passports and remarked “I have been working this for 20 years since I left the Army, and I liked it more when the passports said ‘Egypt’. Welcome to America”. It all seemed too easy. My father’s first act on leaving the customs area was to buy a copy of the New York Times. There was no news of Egypt or the region, beyond a report about fighting between the Lebanese Army and the PLO. My father remarked with mock amusement that there was also no column from Mohammed Hassanein Heikal. Later I would try to decipher the editorial page on the flight to Salt Lake City, but got no further than the first paragraph of a column by James Reston about the thirtieth anniversary of World War II.

Cousin N. and her husband P. were waiting for us outside customs. Their son A., a toddler, ran around them in circles. N. held the newly born K. My mother fussed over the children and N. seemed overjoyed to see us. P. and I both held back, likely for very different reasons. What struck me about them was their clothing. It was a hot day in Chicago and they were dressed in standard late 1960s academic attire, T-shirts, jeans and sandals. I felt hope that soon I might look like that. The signifiers of assimilation are limited to the senses. I knew I will never speak without an accent, and would soon find out that it will also be impossible to master American idioms. Every time I had mastered some, a new one cropped up. But if I can’t sound like them, I could at least try to look like them. The trouble was that the American tribe of that time was bewilderingly diverse. “Them” dressed in all sorts of manners meant to arouse all sorts of reactions. In the end I was never able to dress “like” Americans for I never found out how Americans dress anyway. There were a few cardinal rules to follow. No male of Middle Eastern extraction should wear slippers in public. Another rule was never to be the most formally dressed man in any party. I cringed when my father attended backyard barbecues in a casual blazer and a tie. It took me the better part of a quarter century to convince him that Polo shirts are not for savages. I once bumped into Edward Said on Morningside Heights on a hot Sunday morning. He was dressed to the nines, except for a tie. His entire manner was very elegant, and very foreign. That was certainly another rule to observe; never try to look like an elegant foreigner. But beyond these and a few other rules, there seemed to be no rules, neither to obey nor to break. In any case, I was soon to discover that men dress to please their superiors, or their women. “You are not going out with me looking like that”, was the only cardinal rule in the end. Eventually you become an American when you can dress down without feeling shabby or out of place. The place of exile is inside the clothing, unless they mysteriously fit.

Salt Lake City on the eve of Labor Day 1969 had a wholesome squareness. America at large was in turmoil, simultaneously landing on the Moon and getting mired in the mud of Woodstock, but Salt Lake stayed a few years back. It was not provincial at all. The American prosperity allowed the LDS (Mormon) Church to send missions abroad after World War II. In that relatively small city one could find many who lived abroad for extended periods, in places as varied as Kenya and Ecuador, Australia and Thailand, Japan and Germany. The seemingly odd thing was that many ventured outside the country, but rarely to the larger cities, such as New York. Those places seemed odd and far away. The headlines from them came by way of the three major networks and the national papers. The New Times noted that on Labor day Flint Michigan was prosperous and distancing itself from liberalism. There was no hint that half a century later it would be as decrepit and shabby as Boulaq or Imbaba. The network news warned of upcoming campus violence and eulogized a famous boxer who died in a plane crash. But it was not the specific news items that impressed me, rather it was the lack of any exhortation on part of the news anchors.

The dry heat of the valley reminded me of Egypt, but the city was lush and clean, scrubbed down to the last gutter. There was an orderliness that left a taste of loneliness in anyone used to the cacophony of Cairo. I could not sleep on the first night. I listened to the outside noises, none of which were made by humans. It was a natural and cacophonous symphony. I was told that the croaking noise was of tree frogs. Trying to sleep in a bed adjacent to the window, and the trees just outside, made me wake up in alarm at the prospect of peeping frogs. I woke up several times, and on one occasion went downstairs to eat a bite. I decided to try Peanut Butter, Skippy was the most cheerful name in the refrigerator. But I did not know how to eat it. I scooped a big spoon into my mouth and suddenly felt as if a cement truck had dumped its load into my throat. I frantically tried to get some water, but realized that I had no idea where the glasses were stored. The faucet was low and I simply scooped the water into my mouth. With my face and chest wet, I cast about for milk. There was only one unopened carton, stubborn and inscrutable. One side had “Open” helpfully printed, but gave no instruction as to how to do it. I gave up on milk. Next I found a jar of Velveeta Cheese, which seemed indistinguishable from Peanut Butter except for the color. I decided to leave well enough alone. As I headed back upstairs I heard a rattle outside. Opening the back door I came face to face with a raccoon outside the screen door. She calmly took my measure and walked away with two little raccoons hurrying behind her. I imagined her mumbling “Welcome to America, idiot”. I slipped back into bed wondering how many firsts still await in this country of wonders, the land where the Wild Things roam.

— Maged Atiya

From “Tales of Immigration”



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