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Sarah Moawad

Within two days of being in Egypt, I got a marriage proposal.

He instantly recognized, thanks to my not-quite-native Arabic accent and my willingness to accept a cab fare that was triple what it should have been, that I lived abroad. When I told him I lived in the United States, his eyes lit up, and when I revealed that I was not married (he asked; I did not offer the information), they grew even wider.

After a lengthy conversation comparing life in Egypt to life in North America, he asked if I would consider marrying a man like him, and began extolling his virtues.

“You just want to go to America,” I responded, heartbroken to discover that, to him, our short-lived love affair was just a one-way ticket (and passport) to a new life. He replied, “I just want to live a happy, dignified life. At least when you work hard in America, you are paid a living wage. Here, even when you work hard, you can’t make enough to live.”

When I told him about poverty and homelessness in the United States, he responded, “but is their poverty as bad as our poverty?” I was ready to go into statistics about how low the minimum wage really is (he must think Bernie Sanders is president because he was convinced it was $15), and the bitter realities of capitalism and police brutality and mass incarceration, but the ride came to an end. He gave me his number and very somberly and earne ...

Within two days of being in Egypt, I got a marriage proposal.

He instantly recognized, thanks to my not-quite-native Arabic accent and my willingness to accept a cab fare that was triple what it should have been, that I lived abroad. When I told him I lived in the United States, his eyes lit up, and when I revealed that I was not married (he asked; I did not offer the information), they grew even wider.

After a lengthy conversation comparing life in Egypt to life in North America, he asked if I would consider marrying a man like him, and began extolling his virtues.

“You just want to go to America,” I responded, heartbroken to discover that, to him, our short-lived love affair was just a one-way ticket (and passport) to a new life. He replied, “I just want to live a happy, dignified life. At least when you work hard in America, you are paid a living wage. Here, even when you work hard, you can’t make enough to live.”

When I told him about poverty and homelessness in the United States, he responded, “but is their poverty as bad as our poverty?” I was ready to go into statistics about how low the minimum wage really is (he must think Bernie Sanders is president because he was convinced it was $15), and the bitter realities of capitalism and police brutality and mass incarceration, but the ride came to an end. He gave me his number and very somberly and earnestly asked if I would consider his offer (his request? his plea?). I told him I would think about it (I’m not).

Though the unexpected proposal made me laugh, it also deeply saddened me. Because I know this isn’t an isolated incident.

My cousin, a medical resident who spends every day of the week in a different city, working in various clinics and hospitals, expressed a similar desire to leave Egypt. He had just come home from an overnight shift where a patient had died from asphyxiation after being caught in a fire; the fire department had taken almost an hour to arrive. This was a minor incident, he said, compared to what he usually sees – just one example of how broken everything is in Egypt. The moment he finishes residency, he told me, he would like to move to the Gulf or Europe.

In Egypt, the hope that followed the 2011 revolution seems to have been replaced by a resigned, subdued acceptance that the only way to live is to leave. Provided, that is, you have the power and privilege to do so. Director Hala Khalil’s latest film, Nawara – a story about class, corruption, and crushed dreams set in the immediate aftermath of former President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster – shines a bright light on this dynamic.

In the first scene of the film, a wealthy Egyptian couple hosts a dinner party in their lavish villa in a gated suburban community outside Cairo. The couple’s maid (and the film’s protagonist), Nawara, waits on the dinner guests as they discuss the revolution and its impending consequences for the upper classes.

One guest suggests the uprising was a conspiracy, and that the Americans are in bed with the Muslim Brotherhood. Another asks what will become of them, Egypt’s elite – the wealthy businessmen, government officials and regime loyalists. “The people won’t rest until they see us in jail, or executed like the Iranians,” responds another, referring to the execution of the Shah’s senior officials following the Iranian Revolution.

Having cheated and embezzled their way to the top, Egypts privileged classes are aware that, with Mubarak gone, they are in jeopardy. They discuss their plans to leave the country for places like Montreal and London. Indeed, Nawara’s wealthy employers leave Egypt for a time, leaving Nawara to look after their home.

The film juxtaposes their extravagance and entitlement with Nawara’s life of impoverishment and hardship. Leaving the country is not an option for the slum-dwellers that make up Nawara’s world. They are stuck dealing with the depressing aftermath of a revolution that had promised bread, freedom, and social justice, but failed to deliver.

This political backdrop makes the contrast between the worlds of Egypt’s rich and poor even more stark. As the film shows, the revolution represents a temporary inconvenience for Egypt’s wealthy and powerful – as one of the dinner guests confidently foretells, “trust me, tomorrow everything will go back to the way it was.” For those in Nawara’s neighborhood, the revolution is initially a symbol of hope, change, and people power. In one scene, Nawara and her neighbors gather around a tiny old TV set, celebrating the news that Mubarak’s assets will be distributed among the Egyptian population (a promise that turns out to be an empty rumor).

The contrast is made painfully apparent when Usama, Nawara’s wealthy employer, who is a former minister and member of parliament, asks Nawara what she thinks about the revolution. Her face lights up as she describes her pride and renewed belief that if ordinary people could bring down Mubarak, they can do anything. As she confides her hopes to him, Usama swims in his pool, half-listening to her and laughing with a combination of condescension, disdain, and pity.

The film’s poignancy comes, in large part, from the fact that, after the revolution, everything in Egypt did indeed go back to the way it was (if not become worse) for average Egyptians. As Jay Weissberg writes in his review of the film for Variety:

Much of the impact of “Nawara” lies in the very depressing knowledge that when the dust settled, the goals of the Revolution were trounced and the corrupt power players from a decade ago returned in force, with no accountability. It’s all summed up by Usama’s nonchalant attitude: As Nawara washes her face in a bucket on the floor at home, he casually dives into his pristine pool, knowing that all this unrest will pass.

A beautifully layered film, Nawara is a social commentary that addresses issues of economic upheaval, political turmoil, women, class, and race (in the film, Nawara’s husband is Nubian, and their relationship purportedly marks the first time interracial intimacy has been shown on Egyptian screens). But the bottom line is this: in post-revolutionary, as in pre-revolutionary, Egypt, the poor get screwed while the rich get away.

It is a reality people like my taxi driver understand all too well.

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