I grew up in a traditional-to-borderline-religious Muslim family in the heart of Cairo, Egypt. The idea of traveling around the world, let alone traveling by myself, was never a subject for discussion.
And why would I need to travel the world? I lived in the heart of the beacon of civilization; a 20-minute taxi ride would get me right at the footsteps of the Great Pyramid. I lived in the country the world wanted to see. There was nothing else, nothing better, to see, in my mind.
That is, until I moved to the United States and began looking at the world from a different perspective.
In my mid-twenties, I started to fantasize about traveling, about eating pasta in Italy, dancing flamenco in Madrid, lounging on the beaches of Barcelona, delving into Istanbul's culture, praying in its grand mosques, strolling down the alleys of Seville and taking a ferry from Spain to Morocco.
But it wasn't something I fantasized about doing alone. I dreamed of traveling the world with my prince charming. We'd plan our trips together, hop on a plane and have the time of our lives.
Then I woke up and was 30, with no prince charming in sight.
I had two options: keep dreaming and keep waiting, or just take off and soar my way through the world. I asked a couple of friends if they wanted to vacation with me to Istanbul and got the "I'll think about it" and the "I would want to go somewhere else" responses.
The next day I booked my flight and hotel. Three months later I took off to Istanbul for a week.
Istanbul was always my first choice. Growing up, I'd heard that my great-great-grandfather on my mother's side moved to Egypt when he was a young man, married an Egyptian, started a family and lived there for the rest of his life. While I take great pride in being Egyptian, my spirit soars even higher knowing I'm part Turkish, so this was not just a vacation but a coming home of sorts.
I had been there less than 24 hours when I encountered Istanbul's kindest and most sincere people. I had reservations for a live dance performance right after landing, and with a late arrival and persisting rainy skies, I was almost certain I wasn't going to make it. I took a chance and decided to try to go, since that specific show was not going to be available again during my stay. I ran to the tram station but was going the wrong way. A young man saw that I needed help and walked me to the station and showed me what I needed to do to get to my destination. Once off the tram, an older man pointed me to the right place: Hodjapasha Dance Center, where I got to stimulate my love of art and music. I returned to Hodjapasha throughout my week stay and watched two other shows: a traditional dervish whirling ceremony, and White Rose, a play based on a true love story from the Ottoman days, told through ravishing music and sensational dance.
As if I wasn't already in love with Istanbul, the minute I walked into the Hagia Sophia, I fell head over heels in enchanting love. Although I'd read about the Hagia Sophia, saw photos of it and watched specials about it on TV, the minute I stepped foot there, I was charmed by its majestic artistry. Something took over me while there. I can't explain what it was, exactly, but it was a sense of gratitude, humility and astonishment.
Constructed in 537 as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral during the Byzantine Empire, the Hagia Sophia has withstood time and the brutality of human nature and served as the center of wisdom for Christianity and Islam and architectural inspiration for many decades. As I stood there, looking in admiration at Christian and Islamic symbols, a thought occurred to me: Perhaps the Hagia Sophia still stands to teach us all that we can coexist, and coexist peacefully.
Sultan Ahmet Mosque, constructed in 1616, was another site that dazzled and inspired me. There's something heavenly about Sultan Ahmet's interior blue tiles. The mosques of Istanbul, including the Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent, are ingeniously beautiful. I could spend a whole day -- maybe even days -- studying and admiring every little piece of their interior and exterior. As I stood there, I wondered for a minute: If the beauty and greatness of Hagia Sophia, Sultan Ahmet Mosque and the Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent could have such a powerful impact on me, what will it feel like standing before God?
Genius and romance come together and live in harmony at the Basilica Cistern. There, at the largest ancient cistern that stands beneath the city of Istanbul, I found myself slowing my steps down, flirting with its perfectly dimmed light and pursuing its rows of columns.
Standing on the steps of the crystal staircase at Dolmabahce Palace, which is plated with 90 kilos of gold, I suddenly had a vision of myself dressed as a queen with my head turned over my shoulder. Then I got back to reality.
A local music shop and the lobby of my hotel had become my safe places after dark. I had become acquainted with the staff of the shop and hotel, from the maids to the managers and owners. Over tea, Turkish coffee and lattes, I discussed Turkey's political climate. We talked about Ataturk's legacy and Tayyip Erdogan's achievements and his, shall I say, perplexing antics.
On a boat in the Bosphorus, I befriended a couple from Greece who were there on their honeymoon. At the music shop, I met another couple -- one from Egypt and one from the United Arab Emirates. The Egyptian and I talked about the beauty of Istanbul, lamented over Cairo's plight and shared a dream of one day seeing our ancient, beautiful city rise to its proper place in history and the world.
I ate food that made me want to cry with joy. I shared a small table with three women over fish sandwiches grilled on a boat right off the Bosphorus. I fed pigeons that seemed to find sanctuary around the mosques. I had small talk and laughs with locals, on the streets, on the trams and everywhere I was. I found myself blushing when men randomly came up to me to admire my eyes. I shopped and bargained at the Egyptian and Grand Bazaars like it's what I do for a living.
Istanbul opened her arms to me, enriched my life with beauty, culture, history and greatness. It gave me friendships and a third place to call home. It kept me safe. It now has a piece of my heart.
But Istanbul did something else for me: It led me back to Cairo. I realized I'd never explored my hometown the way I'd explored Istanbul. I'd never given it the chances I'd gave to Istanbul. Though I greatly admire it, I'd never been open to its possibilities. Every magnificent spot in Istanbul reminded me of something about Cairo. So this is where I'm going next. I'm going with my heart open to all the possibilities. Maybe it is Cairo, after all, where all my dreams will come true.