Nadia Elkharadly: Home is Where the Heart is

One thing I’ve grown to love about writing this column every week is the freedom I have to write about whatever I’m feeling/thinking/wondering about.  Usually it’s music related of course but this week I thought I’d take a different spin on things.

I think I’ve mentioned here that I’m Egyptian.  Born and raised here in Canada, to Egyptian immigrant parents, I grew up speaking Arabic and then French before I even learned to speak English.  I’ve had the great fortune to have visited the country of my parents’ birth a few times in my life, and every trip yielded different experiences, stories and fond memories.

With Egypt being at the forefront of the news time and again, and the anniversary of the recent revolution coming up, the world perspective on my “heart” home country comes to my mind.  And here I’d like to offer a personal perspective this place that is holding the world’s focus for both amazing and tragic reasons.

My parents came to Canada from Egypt in the mid-seventies.  My dad’s family is from Alexandria but he was raised in Cairo in an area called 3abaseya.  My mother’s family is from Maadi, a part of Cairo populated by European and North American Expats.   On every trip I spent time in all of these places, Alexandria not as often due to the distance from Cairo.  My grandparents’ apartments became familiar places to me.  As children my brothers and I would make up games to pass the time our parents spent with the parents they’d left behind.  We’d run a basket on a string down my one grandmother’s balcony, trying to catch one of the cats that prowled the yard around the building.  We’d look out into the bustling street from my other grandmother’s balcony, throwing things at the people below and hiding when they looked up.  Apartment balconies with their higher up views were a novelty for us, and they figure heavily into my memories of those visits to my grandparents.

Visiting my mother’s mother in Maadi had many charms.  I loved sitting in one corner of the room, looking out the top floor window at a giant palm tree.  I think the tree had been planted when my mother was young, and it was taller than the entire building.  I wished so much that I could have a palm tree at home that I could look at every day.  My grandmother was (and still is) such a character, eccentric and difficult at times, but loving and sometimes downright hilarious.  She was losing her vision when I saw her last, but she was still able to read my fortune in the grounds of the delicious Turkish coffee that my aunt made us.  My grandmother’s fortune telling was always uncannily accurate, whether she was predicting a quick trip to Dubai that my mother and I were going to take that we didn’t tell her about, or telling me I’d be receiving news from an old friend days before a letter came in the mail at the apartment we were staying at.  I’d like to think I get my card reading talent and odd ability to predict random things from her.

My father’s mother lived in a lovely apartment in the bustling 3abaseya area.  We’d have to take a winding staircase to get up there, leaving the noise of the busy streets behind us with every step we took, only to have it greet us again through her open balcony doors when she let us in.  I remember she was a fantastic cook, making traditional Egyptian dishes, and yummy deserts, forcing us kids to eat dish after dish, and if we didn’t we’d be met with sad disappointment.  Egyptian mothers, and especially grandmothers, are the queens of guilt trips, and they know it.  She would have bottles of coke and sprite, the kind I’ve only ever had in Egypt and seen in movies set decades ago, slim cool glass with a pop top you needed a bottle opener for.  She made couscous from scratch, rolling the flour paste between her palms until it formed the tiny little balls.  When it was cooked she would sprinkle it with sugar and feed it to me and my brothers as a treat.  To this day, the taste of couscous and sugar is one of the most comforting things to me, reminding me of childhood and family.  And I remember the baby picture of my dad hanging in my grandparents’ apartment, a reminder that even my intense, perfectionist, engineer father had once been an adorable little boy, and that made me love Egypt even more.

I remember once looking down from my paternal grandmother’s apartment balcony at a man in a galabaya (traditional Egyptian man-dress) beating an emaciated horse.  The animal looked to be on the brink of starvation, and was pulling a huge and extremely heavy cart that was weighed down by bags of cement.  I remember watching this man whip that poor horse and I remember sobbing to my dad, begging him to run down and stop him, to save that poor animal from the abuse it was taking.   And I remember my dad telling me that the horse, that poor beast, was that man’s lifeline, his livelihood.  He probably takes better care of that horse than he does himself, my father said.  He needs him to live.  It was cold comfort at the time, but I grew to understand that this was a reality in Egypt.

People leading donkeys and horses drawing carts, herds of camels travelling on the same highways as cars, these are normal occurrences in Egypt.  People there live in an odd series of parallel times.  Some people are nearly as modern as we are here in Canada, with blackberries and laptops and internet.  Some live as they did in ancient time, harvesting crops on the banks of the Nile, far away from the cities.  And some live in between, caught between the old and the new, the then and the now, but most of all, just living.  They couldn’t care less who ruled in the capitol, whether it was one old man or another, wearing an army uniform or a business suit.  They care about where their next meal is coming from, and having a roof over the heads of their children.  That’s the reality for most Egyptians.  While the world around them contemplates and decides their fate, they are simply just trying to survive.

The Arab spring; it’s a term that’s become commonplace in the media now, and frankly I’m a little sick of it.  I’m sick of the endless opinions on whether Middle Eastern people can handle democracy.  I’m sick of the statistics, I’m sick of the cold and impersonal news reports.  If there’s one thing I wish everyone would start to see about the “Arab Awakening”, it’s the people.  And I’m not just talking about the names that make the news, like the blogger Sandmonkey or Google staffer Wael Ghonim.  I’m talking about the people in Cairo, whether they’re protesting in Tahrir or just trying to live their everyday life in a time of chaos.  It’s the people in Syria, watching their countrymen be killed every single day while they’re trying to exact change, or the people in Algeria, who won the first victory but are still struggling.  And its’ the people right here, in Canada, and in Toronto, who count these and all the other middle eastern countries in strife as their home away from home.  We’re not sound bytes or snapshots or video clips.  We’re real people, here and over there, just hoping and wishing that someday soon, things will be ok.

I could have talked about going to see the sites, climbing into the great pyramids at Giza, visiting the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the lighthouse in Alexandria or the beautifully preserved temples in Abu Simbel.  I’ve done all those things, and trust me every moment of each experience was astonishing and overwhelming in its own way.  All those places and more make Egypt a mandatory travel destination in my opinion.  I hope the turmoil will subside, that democracy will prevail and that Egypt will once again be the place that I love so much.  I can’t wait for that day to come so I can finally go back.

Thanks for reading my stories and memories, I hope you enjoyed them.

Until next time,



Nadia’s column appears every Tuesday

Contact us at

Nadia Elkharadly is a Toronto based writer with a serious addiction to music. Corporate drone by day, renegade rocker by night, writing is her creative outlet.  Nadia writes for the Examiner (.com) on live music in Toronto and Indie Music in Canada.  She has never been in a band but plays an awesome air guitar and also the tambourine.  Check in every Tuesday for musings about music, love, life and whatever else that comes to mind.

5 Responses to “Nadia Elkharadly: Home is Where the Heart is”

  1. That was very well written. Thankyou, and may your wishes come true.

  2. Perspective is an amazing thing. How little we really know beyond our own four walls.

  3. I enjoyed reading that. Very nicely related…

  4. thank you nadia for the best read i had in years, it was so enjoyable and i could go on reading and wanting to go on reading for ever , keep up the good work, cant wait for your next project

  5. Julia Wehkamp Says:

    I can feel the love through your words. I think Egypt needs writers like you. Thanks for sharing.

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