Egypt is like an exposed nerve. On most days, it is secondary, numbed by the repetitions of my pedestrian routine. I have also taught myself a few tricks to maneuver around it. Neglect? Check. Perspective? Check -- Syrians have it worse. Breathing techniques? Check. I even have lost a bit of my snobbery against self-help. It has been three years since the Egyptian revolution of Jan. 25, and Egypt throbs like an exposed nerve. I am in New York City. But I am not sure the distance helps.
"To the best of our knowledge everyone of us is going to suffer and die," British philosopher Alan Watts writes in his advice on happiness and how to live in the present. Avoid futile anxiety about the future.
I tiptoe along Watt's axiom, and, on most days, I succeed. Frankly, I usually suffer from the opposite problem: lacking enough anxiety. I fail to see the urgency of, well, most things. My attitude toward to-do lists: if something is important enough, it will make itself a priority. I am neither homeless nor starving, I tell myself. It must have somehow worked so far. As my college flatmate would say: I am the laziest ambitious person she knows.
But Egypt is an exposed nerve.
My sister's voice was cutting off.
"It is too loud on your end," I said.
"Yes, sorry, I am on my way home," she replied, "I have a bad Internet connection."
"Wait, I just got a message ..." her voice faded away. "Oh, it says they found a bomb near the opera house."
"I just came from the opera house," she said, less to me than to herself.
She is in Egypt, along with the rest of my family, my mother, my father and a younger brother of whom I am wildly protective. She is a number of miles away I cannot make sense of -- seven hours ahead. It is too close a call. It is not the first, and most likely it is not going to be the last.
We changed the topic.
It has been three years since the Egyptian revolution, and news out of Egypt has become a tinderbox for all sorts of melodrama: anger, fear, resignation, apathy and downright hysteria. "Egypt adds Puppetry to its Enemy of State list," one headline read. A YouTube commercial for a telecommunications company, Vodafone Egypt, which featured a puppet, had set off national frenzy. The commercial, they said, had a coded bomb plot. The puppet, they said, was a terrorist mouthpiece. It was sending messages.
"How can we be sure it wasn't?" an acquaintance suggested. I left it there.
And this is the good news, a sort of national black comedy. The rest is blatantly tragic. "Deadly Bombing hits Egypt tour bus." "Bomb Explodes Near Police Academy in Ain Shams." "Army officers Killed in Shootout Near Cairo." "Four Bombings Left Six Dead." "Islamic Art Museum Damaged by Blast."
But at least this is news. Most of Egyptian media these days is a stream of nonsense, a barrage of sleeper cells, fifth columns and conspiracy theories designed to strike panic deep in the subconscious: "Chemical weapons Found at the Rabaa and Nahda protests." "President Obama Member of the Muslim Brotherhood."
I am sometimes surprised when Egyptian friends, worldly political science graduates, are out of touch with news. But why should I be? I am the daughter of a journalist and a journalist myself, and yet I went for months with selective vision, restricting my readings to overindulging in Shape magazine at the gym. I resolutely keep a parasitic relationship to most forms of social media -- to always follow but seldom share. But, even as a follower, after Jan. 25, like many, I grew obsessed. It didn't last -- my relationship with Twitter has long since frayed. I wore out from the constant thinking, abstracting, analyzing, and re-analyzing the stream of nonsense. My thinking has become diffuse, punctuated only by pangs of anxiety provoked by news from home.
A friend once tried to explain to me her decision to go to Doha to study abroad, rather than the more typical Europe or the U.S.
"It was the farthest away I could go."
Seven years have passed, and despite how vividly I remember what my friend said, I doubt she even recalls it. It is probably me -- I have probably given what she said more importance as time went by, as it became my turn to think that maybe I too want to be far, the farthest away I can be. Not many in my circle of friends in New York are particularly invested in Egypt, and it is pretty darn good.
But there is a dark side to being away. It becomes difficult to tell how bad the situation really is back home. Not because following the news falls short, but because your adrenaline goes a bit out-of-whack. When you lose the seeing, breathing, hearing sensation of the street, news becomes hollow. It is not that you overreact or underreact, but that you are altogether unsure of how to react. So I turn home for cues, for a sense of how to read the news, and how much I should be worried.
But I also know something persistently worrying about my parents: they are not the type to worry. I know it first-hand; my perpetual complacency is the direct product of their perpetual Zen. I worry they are not worried enough. I fear the backhanded deceit of human adaptation, the story of the boiling frog. You put a frog in a bowl of water and slowly turn up the heat. The frog does not perceive the danger. It does not jump out. It cooks to death.
The phone rings. Cairo, Christmas 2013.
"Are we still on for coffee?"
"Yes, sure. Why would we not?"
"There was a bomb earlier, have not you heard? I am worried about the traffic."
"Oh, no, no, that was in Madinat Nasr, we should be alright."
(Chuckles) "You make it sound like it is Beirut."
I do not want to be that frog.