“A Kind of Encounter with History”
by Anelise Chen

I am in Egypt, in a cab, looking out. Then, I am at a restaurant. Then, I am inside a tomb, trying not to breathe on the ancient walls, because my breath contributes to their degradation. My favorite kind of wall carving is the kind depicting the Pharoah smiting enemies. He grabs his tiny foes by the hair, and they dangle helplessly like a bunch of carrots. I think how none of this art would have been made if there hadn’t been extraordinary wealth and oppression and cruelty. Maybe the faint nausea I feel is something like gratitude. Inside the Egyptian Museum I hear there are so many artifacts they’ve lost track; the basement needs to be re-excavated from time to time. It is an occasional check-in with the past, another hello.

I am afraid of everything, of the noise, of human interactions, and the pollution is bad. For most of my visit, I stay inside a large, cold apartment that sits on an island in the middle of the Nile, which, according to rumors, was created from the refuse left by the massive building projects of a former Khedive. I read books about Egypt, and I watch television I can’t quite understand. There is a game show where the contestants try to out-recite one another in poetry. The stage is brightly lit, and music is played for dramatic tension. From what I gather, the contestants are being judged for their use of metaphor, for their rhymes and phrasing. A young Palestinian poet, admired by many, recites stirring, political poetry, and wins the round.

This entire month will only be one line in the story of my life, I think. I went to Egypt and once, I saw it rain. Families came out on the balcony, half in awe. Dust flattened on wet surfaces and the morning air smelled like growing things. Mothers took down the laundry and closed the shutters. I read that Cairo is more humid than it was fifty years ago.

In late January, a few days before I am to leave, we overhear a conversation between two taxi drivers. One is driving the taxi and the other is on a taximan’s holiday in the front seat. They are listing all the presidents the U.S. has had since Mubarak came into power. Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush Sr., Reagan. They laugh in that phlegmy, congested way of all drivers here. Yalla, Tunisia! They shout happily. And Egypt will be next, godwilling. It was winter then.



Anelise Chen lives in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Gigantic, Everyday Genius, The Rumpus, and other places. She is currently the 2012 Open City Fellow at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. “Summer” in this series can be found here.