I was in gym class the first time I heard the gossip that would change my life. A girl in the locker room advised us to stay home the next day, after her mother said there would be “some kind of protest.” I laughed off the ridiculousness and didn’t heed the warning. Within two weeks, my braces were off, I had turned 16 — a very exciting event in the life of a teenage girl — but we were also under complete house arrest with an army-enforced curfew of 7 p.m.
See, I’m Egyptian, born and raised, and have gone to the same international school since I was three years old. Despite the fact that the nation’s problems and unhappy population had always existed, I had been residing in a more Westernized bubble with all my friends, where we remained blissfully unaware and unaffected as we grew up. Until, as clichéd as this may sound, everything changed.
You may have heard about the political strife at some point on the news, or have seen the warring factions on your television. While all that was happening, we were bored and unable to comprehend the gravity of what was being called a “revolution.” We were wandering around our bedrooms in a daze of unanswerable questions. When was I getting back to my sophomore year? And more importantly, when would Facebook be working again? Worrying about our lives’ trivialities allowed us to forget the bigger, critical events happening in the streets. Denial, as they say, is more than just a river in Egypt.
More times than I can count, I’ve been asked what it was like: If my family knew Mubarak; if I had gone into Tahrir Square and protested; if I believed in the revolution. The answers to all these questions remain no, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t affected in the greatest way an event can affect you. It simply doesn’t make as good a sound bite. I didn’t feel free or liberated — in fact I don’t think it was possible to have felt more trapped. During the curfew, we were forced to immerse ourselves in long-forgotten hobbies, to deal with such a loss of normality, to see those not much older than us trying to accomplish the Herculean task of overthrowing an entire government. My friends and I were forced to play politician, using words and ideas that our parents had indoctrinated into us, playing our finest and least mature game of pretend.
My parents said if the instability remained by the end of my sophomore year, we had to consider “other options,” which seemed to have something to do with the brochures for alternative schools in London that were piling up on my desk. My naive self was sure that there was no way this could extend to the end of the year. I was enrolled in a school in London three months later, where I finished my high school career. Needless to say, I was not happy about this turn of events, despite the fact that I was told by countless others how lucky I was to be moving to such an incredible city. Logically, they were correct — but angsty teenage me was not having any of this logic. I was determined to remain unimpressed with my parents, as well as the so-called revolutionaries who had taken the life I knew away from me.
In hindsight, the Egyptian Revolution forced me to grow as a person. Had I remained in the same school for all 18 years, I would have been far more unprepared for the challenges of Yale. One major difference between life in foreign countries and life in Egypt are the misperceptions I didn’t realize even existed. I can’t even recall the number of times I’ve been asked if I live in a pyramid, ride a camel to school or “speak” hieroglyphics. It’s so easy to forget that not everyone has seen what I have seen. It’s equally easy to forget that I too, am misinformed and should get off my high horse before calling anyone else ignorant. This epiphany came to me when, in a group of people singing the American national anthem, I realized I didn’t know the words and mumbled along, hanging my head in shame.
It’s very easy to get comfortable and feel as though everything in your life is concrete. But that’s rarely the case, and that’s something I was forced to learn in a very unexpected way. Preparing yourself for change is impossible, but what you can do is alter unexpected experiences into an opportunity for growth or learning, even if at first glance they seem like the end of the world.
Malak Gabr is a freshman in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.