I grew in Egypt during a revolutionary regime that brought great political and social upheaval. My earliest memories of an idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end in the early sixties when the Nasser regime designated certain politically-prominent, landowning families like mine as enemies of the people, subject to imprisonment, confiscation of all property and assets, and constant surveillance by the secret police. As soon as I could, I left for England to study. Ten years later, under Sadat, there was another great reversal, an abrupt about face toward the West; there were brief expectations of political and economic reform, but the situation deteriorated rapidly until it ended with his assassination and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
I gave up hope for change in Egypt, and left for the States, determined to make a new life in America with my husband and children. There was no room in this brave new world for my memories of jasmine and dust; my children grew up playing hockey in the Midwest and baseball in the South; I happily learned to make brownies and chocolate chip cookies, but I drew the line at serving ketchup and American cheese.
I tried to be the perfect chameleon. As I wrote later in my first novel, The Cairo House:
'But the true chameleons are the ones who straddle two worlds, segueing smoothly from one to the other, adjusting language and body language, calibrating the range of emotions displayed, treading the tightrope of mannerisms and mores. If it is done well, it can look deceptively effortless, but it is never without cost. There is no hypocrisy involved, only the universal imperative underlying good manners: to do the appropriate thing, to make those around you comfortable. For the chameleon, it is a matter of survival.'
As the years passed, and my sons grew up and moved away, I traveled to Egypt for increasingly frequent visits, but the country had changed so much by then that the world I had grown up in seemed gone with the wind. I would return to the States with a feeling of coming home.
Then 9/11 happened. And that sense of belonging was taken from me, overnight. Once more, I found myself unwittingly, unwillingly, being assimilated to a suspect identity that was designated as ‘enemies of the people’: this time, Arab/Muslims. I could have gone on blending in, as I had always done, perfect chameleon that I was, or I could have stood up and tried to counter the funhouse images surrounding me everywhere n the media. I volunteered to speak on Islam, on current events. The first time my neighbor of eight years heard me speak at a church, she burst out: “I didn’t know you were Muslim!” It seems I had been such a perfect chameleon…