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Cairene Childhood

Written by Nour Fahmy

I am sitting at my desk, working. Well, actually I’m watching Buzzfeed videos on YouTube. I was planning on watching one video, but one turned into two, and two turned into five. I have my earbuds in so the laughs from the video ring only in my ears. I know I’m procrastinating. My anxiety keeps kicking in every time I look at the Cinderella clock on my wall. It is seven o’clock and my dad has not returned home from work yet. He works late, but I always hope that he will come home at five instead of seven o’clock. His job is tough, the government can be very demanding. He goes to work in the morning a rejuvenated, happy man, and comes home exhausted, tired and stressed. I end up binge-watching random videos on the Internet; my earbuds keep the silence of my room from eating me alive.

The stillness of my room is constantly interrupted by my chair loudly objecting to the way I sit in it. The stray dogs outside my window are barking at an approaching car, which I cannot hear yet. Their low, raspy growls interrupt the eerie-yet-comforting tranquil nature of my street. Slowly, the sound streaming through my earbuds becomes faint background noise as my ears become attuned to the ticks and tacks of my surroundings. Every now and then, you can hear an infant wail, or the whistle of a neighbor as he waters his garden. I live in New Cairo, so at night, it is fairly peaceful. I do not hear the hustle and bustle of downtown Cairo’s nightlife. New Cairo has a sprinkle of this chaos—with the dogs, babies, and whistling neighbors—but the evenings retain a sense of calm that downtown is not privy to.

The dogs viciously bite the air as their barking increases in volume. Dogs are such interesting creatures; they know when someone is intruding on their territory even before our dull human senses can pick it up. The buzz from my earbuds jilts my attention as someone in the video starts laughing obnoxiously. The sounds of the seven o’clock street are so familiar, but am I actually hearing them or assuming them? I lower the volume on my laptop and take out one earbud. It hits the desk with an echoing thud as I start listening to the dogs grittily growling. The humming gradually turns into the sound of a very old engine, sputtering and spattering as though about to take its final breath.

I’m definitely hearing them. It’s seven o’clock, and I did not even need to check my Cinderella clock. The raspy breath of my dad’s navy blue Shahin guides me as I can imagine it rolling down the narrow street, slowly coming to a stop. It’s such an old car, the Shahin. I couldn’t tell you when it was made if my life depended on it. But, I do know that it is a fighting car; it definitely withstands the test of time.

The Shahin exhales one last time as my dad opens the door, steps out, and slams it shut. I stop everything I am doing, and my hand tries to find its way to the spacebar on my laptop to pause the video. I take out the other earbud and let it fall to the ground. It does a small dance to celebrate taking a break from my ear. My attention shifts and I become more aware of my surroundings, like the stray dogs.

I can feel my dad getting ready to commence the journey to our second floor apartment. There are three levels my dad has to get past: one fer forgé gate and two wooden doors. The fer forgé gate is covered with white and pink Bougainvillea wrapping itself around the iron rods. The second door is located at the end of the terrace, perched at the top of a six-step staircase. Then, it is the final countdown. He just has to climb two flights of stairs to get to the final door.

My ears play detective as I try to keep up with my dad’s movements. I hear his keys jingling to their own beat as he shoves them into the first keyhole. There is silence, then, boom! The fer forgé gate is closed shut. I wonder if any flowers fell off...

I can hear shuffling up a few stairs as my father clicks and clacks his black boots on the ceramic tiles. Wait, is my dad wearing his black boots, or could it be another pair? No, it must be the black ones, they are the only pair he has that rupture the icy silence of the staircase. He traverses to the end of the terrace. There is a moment of apprehension.

Did he stop? Of course, he did! My dad always takes a break in front of the pot of mint my mom strategically stationed next to the first wooden door. My chair, right then and there, decides to announce that I will fall off if I continue leaning, through a series of quivered whimpers. I get up to reposition myself closer to the window, hoping to pick up a better signal. Ah yes, I can hear the jingle of the keys as they tip and tap on the wooden door. I jump over my bed and run to the salon, waiting impatiently by the door. All I want is to hug my dad, to feel safe, protected, and at home. With each rushed step, I can hear his exhausted breaths. I look through the peephole, waiting for him to appear. I try to calculate it so that the door is already open by the time he is on the last step.

My dad is surprised to see the door wide open with me standing in the doorway. Usually, he takes a second or two as he unlocks the door to unload the worries of the day before he takes a step over the threshold. However, today, I interrupted him before he was able to detoxify himself from his day. He just smiles as he hurries to stuff his irritations and complaints in a mental filing cabinet. I can see him doing it too, his eyes always betray how he is feeling. My world just came home, and I want to help my dad forget about his responsibilities, so I simply wrap my arms around him and squeeze. But in that embrace, my anxiety flows out of my body for my dad to dispose of.

It is as though my dad is the moon and I am the earth with our unbreakable bond, an idea I remember from the documentary Pour la suite du monde. A community from Île-aux-Coudres, an island on the St. Lawrence River, attempts to revive a local whale-hunting tradition. During the winter, the islanders feel like they are in purgatory because they cannot leave the island; ergo, they hold auctions to keep busy. Two islanders are sitting in an auction discussing the relationship the moon has with the earth. The moon is the fuel that ignites the fire, the earth. One islander states that pieces of the moon fall off and create things on earth, like trees.[1] The second islander states that “a piece falls after a full moon. A little piece disappears. Next night, a bigger piece. Next night, even bigger. After two days, you see a grin on the thing”.[2] The moon, like my dad will always give light and life to the earth, me, and will never feel deprived or sad. The moon is in service to the earth and wants to make sure that it is always developing, and when I hug him when he comes home from work, he replaces my monsters with joy.

However, I have been living in Montréal for the past fours years, very far away from my dad’s warm embrace. I constantly catch myself thinking about when my dad would come home from work and how relieved and excited I would feel. This precipitated image of my childhood is one that I hold very dear to my heart. I, like Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish philosopher, have precipitated particular experiences from my childhood. In Berlin Childhood around 1900, a book of memories of his childhood in middle-class Berlin, Benjamin states, “I have made an effort to get hold of the images in which the experience of the big city is precipitated in a child of the middle class”.[3] In images lie remembrance of what once was, in Benjamin’s case his Berlin childhood and in my case, my childhood in Cairo. I so desperately hold on to the innocence of my youth, when my dad was able to fight off my monsters with a bit of pixie dust.

I feel my dad’s strength and determination in my actions and thoughts. I understand the serenity of his character from the magic of his hugs. As I walk down the streets of Montréal, I try to walk with a spring in my step fueled by my father’s fairy dust. I trust and “believe that a whiff of [...] his air [...] is still present […] and it is precisely this air that sustains the images and allegories which preside over my thinking”.[4] Embodying his determination has helped me cure my homesickness, as I try to look more towards the future than the past. My dad’s ability to come home everyday after long hours at the office with a smile on his face is traced in the way I walk and talk in my life.

I allow this precipitated image of my dad coming home from work to be my guide in life. I still long for the sound my dad’s black boots make as he jogs up the stairs, and the warmth of his hugs that let me know that everything will be okay. My dad feeds me with life and light, just as the moon does with the earth. Benjamin has shown me how to look at the irretrievable past as something that can propel me into the future.

[1] Pour La Suite Du Monde, 1963,, 4:43-6:05. [2] Pour La Suite Du Monde, 1963,, 5:50-6:05. [3] Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900, trans. Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), p.38). [4] Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900, trans. Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), p.39).


Benjamin, Walter. Berlin Childhood around 1900. Translated by Howard Eiland. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Pour la suite du monde, 1963.

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