There was an air of tension for me on that flight. I mean, it wasn't overtly frightening. It wasn't tense in the way it had been when the plane shuttered and shook violently during some turbulence hours earlier. It wasn't something like that, which could make everyone simultaneously grip the arm of their seat until their fingers dug into the itchy blue fabric and make their knuckles turn white. Nothing so dramatic.
The pilot's voice buzzed over the intercom, tinny and far away, informing us to fasten our seatbelts in preparation for the impending landing. My breath caught in my throat as the air pressure began to change and the massive metallic bird, which carried me in its belly, dipped down towards earth.
The tension I felt now was far more insidious than what had come before - and it belonged to me, and no one else. My knuckles were white again, but this time they were all alone.
Thinking back on it now, I suppose that anxiety had been there for weeks already. It had made its home in the back of my mind, lurking in the shadowy places where I keep all those irrational fears I've always refused to admit exist at all. It had been staring at me with a wide, toothy grin, steadily growing in size and momentum as this moment drew nearer. It had been drifting around my thoughts as a delicate silver mist of worry, which had now burst into the impenetrable black fog.
I hadn't been to back Egypt in a full decade. Out the window, the lights of Cairo drew nearer and nearer until we became a part of them, and I couldn't help but feel terrified of setting foot there again. From the ages of two to five years old I had lived there in an apartment building my grandfather owned in the very heart of the city just a five-minute walk from Tahrir Square. Although I was born in a Toronto hospital on Canadian soil, my earliest memories take place in the crowded streets of Cairo.
I was sixteen now, fingers digging into itchy fabric, eyes shut, trying to control my breathing as the plane's wheels skittered across the runway and we slowly came to a halt.
The black fog trilled doubts and worries with no grounds in reality like a tone-deaf skylark. Egypt is judging you. Egypt doesn't want you. You abandoned Cairo. What right do you have to come home after so long? What happened to that bright-eyed little girl with jasmine in her hair and an unconquerable smile on her lips? The one who beamed and waved to the baker every morning while her mother bought fig cookies and fresh croissants? Where is she now? She belonged here, she was loved here; you're nothing but an imposter. You're nothing at all.
I swallowed hard as the people around me began to stand up and move off the plane. The half-remembered world of my childhood was just a narrow corridor away. I slung my carry-on bag over my shoulder and shuffled into the stream of people exiting the plane.
When I exited the plane and that eerily familiar wall of heat slammed into me, it chased away the black fog in an instant. When I took my first deep breath of the sweet Cairo air a word began repeating in my head over and over like a drumbeat. Out of my control it thudded along with the beat of my heart. Home.
I was distracted as we went to check our bags, and we met my grandfather at the airport. The word was thumping in my head, it drowned out everything else. The more I breathed the air and saw the streets and heard the high-pitched honking of the cars the louder the drumbeat grew. When my grandfather's car pulled up in front of our old apartment building the drumbeat exploded into thunderclaps. Home, home, home. You are home.
It was staggering how wholly foreign a place could be, yet how achingly familiar. Logically, I understood that Cairo was not home. I didn't speak the language, nor was I familiar with their culture or daily life; I was a Canadian through-and-through. I would never in my life be able to fit into this place. But despite all of that I felt the most deafening sense of belonging.
As I stood there, staring up at the decrepit old building, fuzzy-dreamlike images from my childhood began to shake off their cobwebs and dance to life. Things half-remembered and vaguely recalled were suddenly available to me, whole and full with stunning clarity. All at once I was experiencing a ballet of senses; the crumbled sidewalk and the thin cake of sand on everything in site and the incessant honking of Cairo drivers and the stiff, dry, heat came together with the air that smelled like honey and jasmine and I was five years old again. I was five years old, skipping home from school, staring up at the same building, whole-heartedly believing that it was prettier than the pyramids.
Basking in the glow of the warm embers of memories, I felt safe and I felt real and I felt right. Egypt was home and that was all there was to it. Nothing has ever made as much sense to me in the moment, yet so little out of it as that did.
I spent ten days there five in our old apartment building, two in Luxor and three at our beach house in Alexandria. Although my grandfather had been living there, our old apartment had been exactly as we'd left it down to the Johnny Bravo stickers on the frame of the bunk bed my brother and I once shared. It was like living in someone else's life all these memories I didn't know I had continued to materialize out of thin air at the slightest provocation. I could suddenly remember my brother and I throwing paper airplanes at the street cleaners from our balcony until they would yell strange curses we couldn't understand up at us, shaking their fists and spitting. I could remember the way to the bakery and what fig cookies looked like. I remembered the way to a park I'd played at as a child and how to get to the lion cage in the Cairo Zoo; and once I got there I remembered how it felt when the lion-keeper had handed me a metal pole and a chunk of meat almost as big as I was to feed to one of the enormous males.
I'm under no false illusions that I could ever live in Egypt. I do not hold some holier-than-thou belief that I have some kind of right to the country because it was my home for a couple of years. I understand that I will always be a foreigner there and nothing can change that. None of these things alter the fact that it is my home. It always will be.