Remembering Om Al-Donya

The first time I remember questioning what being Egyptian meant was about fourteen years ago when, standing in the kitchen of our Gaborone home I asked my mother, “Mama, are we more black or white?”

Having grown up in a place where the remnant tensions leftover by Apartheid were still very real even to children as young as nine years of age, the question of whether I was more white, black or colored (to use the terms of the time) constantly gnawed at my mind. At school, I would always be part of the somewhat ambiguous category of the “Arab kids”- a group made up of Egyptians, Iraqis, Iranians and others that were not really Arab at all but whose features put everybody at loss for categorization.

At home, my parents did their best to avoid the question. Whether this was because they did not actually have an answer or did not want to be the ones to fling me into the bickers at school, I never knew. What was certain was that while they insisted that we were wheat colored– which is a term many Egyptians still use- their main focus was on instilling in me the knowledge of and love for Cairo- home.

And it was through their recollections that I soon came to hear the phrase om al-donya.

And so my questions shifted.

Why is Egypt called Om Al-Donya (Mother of the World)?

Perhaps the most famous answer to this question is that it “is the oldest civilization of the world” and yet to most om al-donya is a much more evasive concept. It is the memory of the calls of the karawan at dusk and the melodies of Om Kalthoum’s Ya Sabah El-Kheir and Mohamed Kandil’s Ya Helw Sabah ringing flowing through the city’s streets each morning. It is the recollection of an era during which the chivalry (gad3ana) of the Egyptian accounted more for its labeling as om al-donya than history.   It is the remembrance of a state of mind and time in which there was to life a certain quality of music- a rhythm that made up the ordinary fabric of everyday living.

By the time we moved to the Gambia several years later, Egyptian became no longer a vague identity that was both geographically and politically far off. The existence of a large community of “Arabs” meant that I came to think of myself as Egyptian (masreya) as opposed to part of something bigger. For the first time, I came to hear my Arabic as Egyptian Arabic. I recognized certain quirks as Egyptian humor.

My affection and attachment to the city grew through my parents’ narratives especially that my own knowledge of Cairo was limited to short vacations through which I saw very little of the city that is now my home.

When I moved back to Egypt to start my university degree, I was stunned by how little remained of the city that has been constructed in my mind for so long because the truth is, Cairo is a difficult place. It is easy to slip into endless complaints about the usual things: the traffic, the noise and the pollution. And yet what struck me most was that the dreariness which the city had come to accept its own injustices. For years, it seemed to me that to live in Cairo was to internalize the notion that you had to be on one side of some kind of privilege or the other.

And then came January 25. The single most vivid memory and dear memory of the revolution to my heart was the sound of “Ya Masr, it’s been a long time, we have missed you” reverberating within my chest as I watched brows contract and mouths outstretch with a unity that I had never seen before and through which I regained my sense of belonging to the space that I had felt had been robbed of its sense of shared humanity.

But until now, I find that no words can unpack the remnants of three years of triumph and defeat, of dreams and downfalls, of the sheer contradiction bred on Cairo’s streets. It seems that now most headlines and literature on Egypt reflect a dichotomy in which you are either lead to believe that there is no hope in the country or to believe in a false sense of progress.

As time wears on, my motivation for starting this blog was the need to create a space in which narratives, experiences and visions from and about the city can be shared. A space in which we can move beyond than this dichotomy.

A place to remember Om Al-Donya.