Discovering Egypt through amoebic dysentery

February 19, 2009

It probably started with an ice cube. My semester abroad in Cairo last spring was filled with a lot of frustration, not the least of which was the lack of iced drinks. I had been determined to live like a “local,” but growing desperation for an iced tea led me to ignore warnings to avoid Egyptian tap water.
One particularly hot day, I stopped at a juice stand to cool off. An employee chopped off a hunk of ice from a giant ice block and handed it to another man who rinsed it off in the sink and plopped it in my drink. Each of the men had visibly dirty hands. In the United States, I would have been appalled at the lack of sanitation; in Egypt, after too many days of hot tea, I was just happy to have some ice.
My efforts to live like a local certainly did reap cultural dividends, just not the kind I expected. A few days later, I started feeling sick and developed a 104-degree fever. Before I could say, “pyramid,” I was on my way to Mustashfa as-Salaam (Hospital Peace), about to acquire far more insights into the Egyptian health care system than I ever wanted to know.
Once in the hospital, I was feeling sicker by the hour. A round of tests confirmed that I had the amoeba E. histolytica, as well as a bacterial infection. Hotel as-Salaam became my new home for the next seven nights.
Though I was aggravated and a little scared at the time, I now realize that my week in as-Salaam was one of the few times during my travels that I encountered Egypt on its own terms. It was perhaps the only time I ventured outside of the protective bubble of the American University in Cairo and away from the bars and restaurants intended for foreigners and upper-class Egyptians.
To be sure, there were some funny superficial differences between as-Salaam and an American hospital. Visitors—and presumably patients—smoked, without penalty, in the hallways. I became a pro with a bidet in the absence of sufficient toilet paper. Around dawn I would be startled awake by the call to prayer. In typical Cairo fashion, the dozens of surrounding mosques would summon the faithful one by one, each a few seconds apart, each a little off-key. Every morning my nurses would throw me out of my bed to tidy the room. I would drag myself (and my IV rack) to a chair outside while they changed my sheets and doused the room with pungent cleaning chemicals. To talk to my nurses, none of whom spoke English, I quickly learned useful vocabulary like blood test, IV, and diarrhea.
Beyond these superficialities, however, as-Salaam afforded me the opportunity for deeper observations about my city of residence and left me with as many questions as answers. In a country where women are noticeably absent from most service sector positions, interacting with my female nursing staff and several female doctors was a marked change of pace. I was surprised to encounter two male nurses, both of whom worked only night shifts—a fact that may have been significant or merely coincidental.
While Egypt enforces a strict separation of the sexes, I sensed that barriers between members of the same sex are lower than in the United States. One afternoon, a nurse came to the room and called for me. I replied that I was in the bathroom. Instead of waiting, she walked in on me and fiddled with my IV while I was on the toilet.
My hospital stay also provided me a window into Egypt’s tense ideological divisions. In a conversation with one of the hospital’s Christian administrators, he was pleased to learn that I was also a Christian and proudly showed me the Coptic cross tattoo on the inside of his wrist. Accustomed to hearing Egyptians praise Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter, I was shocked to hear him describe his fondness for George W. Bush. As I could gather with my limited Arabic, he liked Bush because he was “bombing the terrorists.”
According to an old Egyptian saying, whoever drinks from the Nile will return to Egypt. After my adventures with amoebic dysentery, I’m disinclined to go back to Cairo for any extended period of time. Still, I am beginning to miss the Middle East, and I hope to spend my summer there. This time around, I won’t be drinking the water.

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James Johnsen

Great article, Meghan! I miss Cairo frequently, even though I never got stuck in a hospital.

peace and love.

Gary Evans

Blimey, I had almost identical experience in Heliopolis. Unfortunately I had to self diagnose and stay in the hotel room. I remember the green gunge very well, 2nd only to Malaria a horrible debilitating disease.