Playground

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

There was one playground not too far from my grandparents’ apartment in Cairo (the summer home of my childhood) where I wasn’t treated like the quirky, abnormal kid that I was used to being. It wasn’t your ideal picture of a playground, though. Rusty railings, monkey bars so high you’d break a bone if you fell, sharp nails everywhere that would’ve whispered the word “tetanus” in my mother’s ear had she ever accompanied me and my cousin. It was every child’s dream and every parent’s nightmare, and I got to enjoy it. The kids there didn’t care that I couldn’t speak Arabic or that I was a Christian (and not even a Coptic but a Presbyterian — a minority of the minority). We’d play hide-and-seek, tag, cops-and-robbers, you name it. When we’d finished, we would sit together and giggle because we were all Egyptians and there was nothing to keep us from being happy.

At the playground in Cairo I could be something I had no chance of being in Memphis: normal.

Cairo was quite a sight in its glory days, once heralded as the most beautiful city in the world. It was filled with villas and clean roads and marketplaces that brought tourists from all over to behold the city’s majesty. However, through horrible governing and overpopulation, the city descended, apparently low enough to take ninth place in a 2012 CNN ranking of the “World’s 10 Most Hated Cities.” As for me, I never really had a golden era. Sure, when I was younger I was that kid the PTA parents adored; I was the top student in all my elementary school classes, but I was never perfect. I was never balanced. As I grew older, everyone seemed to be trying to escape Egypt except for me. Egypt was a playground that I could only visit in the summers, and my desire to keep returning never wavered. I never stopped depending on it and seeing it as not only the apotheosis of my childhood, but as my childhood in its entirety. And even after I found other playgrounds in Memphis, I still yearned for Egypt with all my heart every morning when I looked at the calendar and saw the date steadily approaching June.

Years passed. The Egyptian Revolution happened, and my grandmother died during it, so we went to Cairo in the midst of all the tear gas and riots and violence, and I had to watch from the top floor of a hotel as black smoke rose from my crumbling, dying city. That last glimpse of the moribund city that had once been my fairy godmother stuck with me, telling me that things would be different from now on, that things would never be the same. That I would never be the same.

Two years later my grandfather died as well and we had to go back again. It was the third time in a row we’d gone to Cairo for a funeral, and that was all Cairo had seemed to be at that point: a mausoleum, kind of like the Pyramids. After the funeral, having nothing else to do, I went alone to that playground I had frequented so often in my childhood, and to my dismay, I found that it had changed. The squeaky, splintery play sets had been removed, replaced by new, plastic, child-proofed swing sets and jungle gyms. It looked American. I sat down on the see-saw by myself and started reminiscing, imagining the sounds of the yelling children who had stopped coming to this place long ago, who were now my age and off in the cadaverous city, doing whatever it is that makes CNN hate Cairo so much, and I realized the truth. The truth is that when there’s no one left to sit on the see-saw with, it’s time for you to leave the playground. So that’s what I did.

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