I’ve been couchsurfing now for close to two years, and every experience is unique and completely different from the next. Most of the time when I send out requests to people I am interested in being hosted by, I take the time to individually read over each profile and send out personalized posts to each person in order to get to know them a bit better, but sometimes you are left without many options and have to choose between several choices that don’t necessarily mimic your interests, but could still provide for a distinctive encounter.
Putting up a public post after Jeremy and Milo headed out to India, I was left for another two weeks in Egypt wondering what I wanted to do, and still was interested in seeing. Within a few days, over twenty people had responded to my message offering to host me, yet most of them either had no references, no personal information on their profiles, or were downright creepy. Here’s my experience staying with these people.
The first guy who accepted me seemed like a normal, functional human being. From his profile, I understood that he was married, in school to become a doctor, and had a bunch of positive references. Meeting him near Tahrir Square to take a bus out to (what I thought) would be his apartment, it immediately became obvious that he was very tired, and slept for three fourths of the hour and a half ride. In the small amount of time he was awake, he told me that he had recently broken off his marriage, moved in with friends, and was in between doing placements for his schooling that barely allowed him to sleep let alone spend time with couchsurfers.
So, he dropped me off with a friend of his who worked at a couple language schools and was absolutely obsessed with learning English. Right off the bat, this friend put me in the uncomfortable position of sitting in a desk in front of a ton of people my age who began asking me questions such as “how do I get better at speaking English,” to which I couldn’t give an answer as I wasn’t a teacher. He continuously put me in situations where my ability to speak English as a native was taken advantage of, even when I blatantly stated to him that I was in no position to be lecturing or telling people about how to learn English better. Although friendly, this guy didn’t understand when I kept explaining to him that I wasn’t the voice of my country, but just an average outgoing everyday guy who happened to know English, and eventually assumed that I would be interested in lecturing to a group of over 200 people about what it is like living in America.
The problem with this, was that the guy also held a conservative and devout mindset, as did most of his friends and “students” that were interested in learning more English and about the US. At one point as I sat in a classroom and began to talk with a group about the United States, their responses made me aware of how many taboo topics I would have to tiptoe around if I gave a speech on my country, and it put a sour taste in my mouth as I am not one to lie about reality. How could I ever begin to talk about the gay rights movement, transgender individuals, rape culture, rampant institutionalized racism within my country, police violence, and minorities with these people? I decided at that moment I needed to get out of an environment where I would have been shunned for voicing these true and real events occurring in my daily life back home. I have no issue with conservative religion, but when it masks the reality of various topics that are important to talk about in order to make social progress, I feel as though it is detrimental to our growth as humans.
Once I left this couchsurfing experience (on the excuse that I had a volunteer position I wanted to do within the city center), I went to stay in the Egyptian equivalent of a budget motel that another couchsurfing host owned and kindly allowed surfers to stay at for free. This sounded exactly like what I wanted, a breath of fresh air and solitude away from people’s stares, questions, and the omnipresent loudness, but this experience also turned out to be a bust. As I entered the building, it felt as though I was in a real life horror movie, complete with creaky old floorboards, handprint stains on my wall, a broken toilet, masses of mosquitos flying around my room, and the halls absent of working lights that created an eerie environment where the undead could easily have come out of a neighboring room at any point. But I endured the five days of staying there as it was free and centralized, before I would head to the biggest lifesaver of my trip. More on that later.
Another area of interest while in Cairo was trying to find a local art and music scene, as well as doing some urban exploring while in the country, because I wanted to see how these niche areas I was so interested in back home would compare to other locations in my travels. I began to scour the web for ways to fulfill both of these interests, and quickly found a couple of people to meet up with who shared my hobbies.
Instagram provided a lot of connections who were more than willing to meet up and show me their local hangouts, introduce me to their friends, and share a glimpse into what it was like being young and artistic in an otherwise conservative and strict country. I found out about three abandoned palaces, but when we tried to enter, each resulted in guards no longer taking bribes when they had in the past, so although upsetting for me being unable to go inside these places, it was nice to see a change in the widespread corruption I had seen in other places of the city and country.
After my five days of staying in the horror house came to an end, I ventured to a part of the city known as Heliopolis, and was immediately put at ease by the change of pace. It was quiet, the streets were relatively clean as far as Egypt goes, and people actually drove in a semi-safe manner. I was met at one of the local bus stations by Majd, a Syrian-born student studying in Cairo for the past three and a half years. I was immediately drawn to his couchsurfing message agreeing to host me a couple of weeks prior, and had been texting back and forth with him over that time, excited to get to know him more and hear about his life.
He had grown up in Damascus, the second largest city of Syria and capital of the country, and had moved around to study architecture, economics, and IT at several universities trying to figure out what he was passionate about. When the war became worse in 2012, he moved to Cairo to gain an education in a safer environment, and for the first time in his life he was thrown into a foreign country with the ability to learn independence and follow his dreams of traveling outside of Syria, with the support from his parents, too. He recalled the last couple weeks of his time in Syria as being filled with lots of excitement and elation that these dreams of leaving the country were finally coming true, but couldn’t help but notice the omnipresent fear in the eyes of everyday citizens on the street, something he’d never forget.
If you take the time to get to know most Syrians, one of the first things you will realize is how much they talk about a love of their country, their fellow citizens, and the beauty that was their country. Immediately I felt at home staying with Majd, who welcomed me with a clean bed, sheets, snacks, a towel, and some alone time to catch up on the internet which I had scarcely had for the past couple weeks. We dove right into getting to know one another, and within a couple of hours it felt as though we had been friends for years. Not only did we share an incredibly similar outlook of open-mindedness and an appreciation for life’s little intricacies, but he had the best movie taste of anyone I’d met while travelling, so we went back and forth showing each other trailers, screenshots from our favorite scenes, and talking about cinematography.
At one point, the topic of homosexuality came up, and I mentioned matter of factly that I was gay myself, which completely took him by surprise. Not only was I the first native English speaker he had met, but I was also the first American, Jew, and gay guy. But, as became common and equally amazing about his personality even though he had come from a conservative upbringing and background, he was eager to learn as much as he could about my country, hear about my awareness of sexuality at a young age, and learn the customs of the Jewish religion.
I was curious whether Majd had met any other Syrians while moving to Cairo, and he told me that a couple had become his close friends, one in particular named Hatem, from the city of Homs who was studying in the same university and major. A common trend in the media of the western world is that Syrians and refugees are lumped into a massive group that is said to appear so different than our fellow citizens. Not only is this ridiculously false, but when I met both of these guys, I would have had no idea where they were from, looking exactly the same as my westernized friends back home with their Nike shoes, red framed glasses (coolest glasses ever Hatem), and long hair. It makes me disgusted to think that so many buy into the mass media stereotype of ridiculous preconceived notions on what Syrians or refugees in general would look like, but it is an unfortunate effect that occurs where many generalize a large group of people to look a certain way. Not only were these two some of the kindest, most intelligent, driven, and fascinating people I met while travelling, but we had a mutual meeting of the minds that resulted in so many sobering and powerful moments.
I will never forget the sparkle that lit up the eyes of Majd when he talked about how beautiful his country used to be, and how he would never see it reach the potential that it had while he was growing up there. A distant look washed over him as I could tell he was diving into the inner-workings of his mind, trying to find words to describe the hurt and sorrow he felt at what was occurring to not only his family, his friends, and his country, but to the future of young minds. He was one of the lucky guys to escape the country while he could, but unfortunately his parents were still living within Damascus, with no electricity and struggling to make it by due to the constant bombing occurring in their city. At one point while he was still living there, Majd told me that his family needed to relocate to another part of the city as it was too dangerous to live where he was.
Hatem moved to Cairo when his family was pushed out of their city of Homs due to the violence occurring from Assad’s army taking over. He was able to flee the country with his whole family, and now lives with his mother and siblings together in an apartment in Cairo, while his father works on the border of Turkey helping refugees to escape the horrors within their country. Hatem showed me a photo that I think is important to post here as it really showcases the true nature of his situation. Pictured below is an image shot of what used to be Hatem’s room that he had grown up in and had to flee. When the Free Syrian Army took back over the territory that Assad’s forces had so forcefully and violently ravaged, a friend of Hatem’s who had remained in the city got permission to enter their old apartment complex and walked around the ruins and despair left behind. Imagine if this was where your earliest memories were from, a time and place shrouded and difficult to reach through the haze of hatred, violence, and disaster that had flanked every waking moment for the people living in these places before they were forced to escape for their own safety? How would you leave behind some of your fondest memories of playing with friends, running around the halls of your house, writing or drawing at your desk, eagerly looking out the window down to the street anticipating a game of football in the streets with the neighborhood kids? I don’t know if I could do it, to be honest. My throat wells up and I have difficulty swallowing, both physically and mentally, how I would react to seeing an image of a place I had built so many memories in such devastation.
Although these stories greatly touched my heart and I will never be able to fully encapsulate how these two impacted my life with their openness and ability to share their experiences from the depths of their consciousness, what truly left me speechless was their drive to succeed, learn from the past, and remain optimistic in the face of extreme adversity. Never have I met people who’ve been through such hardships and are able to simply push on to better themselves, cherish the memories they had of their country, and still look at life with a glass half full. I thought I was an optimistic person, but after meeting these two, I can’t justify any hardships I’ve ever faced near to the levels that these guys have overcome. Not only did they become some of my fondest friends and we got to know so much about each other, but these people are the definition of heroism at its finest. As a small child, you look up to people whom you respect and value the opinions, devotions, and motivations of. I’m not a small child anymore, but I think that the same heroism lies in people like Majd and Hatem, who had to make some of the toughest decisions NO ONE should ever face, let alone at our age.
These two are paving the way on an uncertain path to their own futures, taking advantage of all the opportunities they can, and representing their families, culture, and interests in a place at first completely foreign to them, but now overwhelming populated with so many others in similar situations with untold stories. This meeting and experience with these two was so raw and emotional, and I really felt as though a piece of their journey and striving to reclaim all the pieces they’ve lost as a society have impacted my heart, mind, and soul in the most profound ways.
Seeing people I had become so close to dealing with complicated and overwhelming issues, while simultaneously striving to make the most for themselves leaves me breathless, amazed, frightened, and impacted, with the need to share their stories. I vow to go out of my way and continuously become involved in sharing dialogue to help publicize this ongoing issue as loudly as I can as an advocate for their wellbeing; as friends, as intellectuals, as mentors, and most importantly as fellow humans.