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Wonderland on the Nile

So this is what it feels like to slip down the rabbit hole.

I mean, I’m assuming that’s what happened here because, struggle as I may, I can’t find much connection at all between reality and what’s going on in Egypt these days.

Egypt’s transformation to Wonderland has been in process for quite a while, but the country seemed to have finally completed the process the week before last, when all outstanding charges against former president Hosni Mubarak were dismissed, including the murder charges relating to the killing of protestors during the 2011 uprising.

After nearly four years of waiting, the tens of thousands of people who took to the streets to demand his overthrow and, more saliently, the families of the people who gave their lives fighting for a new, better Egypt, didn’t even get their day in court.

On top of that, Mubarak and his sons were also acquitted of corruption charges against them, which heightens the Carrollian atmosphere, because I’ve never met an ordinary Egyptian who didn’t think they were corrupt. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t have jury trials.

Egyptians reacted, of course. A few thousand of them took to Tahrir Square, but security forces shooed them away with tear gas and birdshot before too long. There have since been some more demonstrations at universities and other sites around the country but the massive show of popular will we’ve seen in the past is notably absent.

Apathy wasn’t the most visible response. When the verdict was announced, the courtroom erupted in sustained cheers. Television presenters extolled the decision. Dalia Ziada, the head of an organization called, without intended irony, the Liberal Democracy Institute, told the New York Times the country needed to “move on.”

It certainly seems Mubarak has. Within hours of his acquittal, a picture tagged as his first selfie was making the rounds on social media. And while he’d made all his court appearances on a stretcher because of his supposed poor health, in his own photo he was sitting up and looked surprisingly good for a man of 86.

So here we are, four years after the revolution, if we still want to call it that—although now, apparently, we will have to, because last week President Sisi said he is preparing a law that will make it illegal to criticize either the January 25, 2011 revolution or the revolution of June 30, 2013. I suppose that’s one way to finally silence the debate over whether the 2013 events constituted a coup or a revolution, at least inside Egypt.

I’m not quite sure how the proposed law squares with the constitution Egyptians passed amid much fanfare less than a year ago that guarantees freedom of speech. Or how those enshrined freedoms are reflected in another new law that forbids government employees from talking politics at work.

It’s all part of the confusion here. There’s plenty to go around. For example, Egyptian officials insist that homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt—and it isn’t—but at least 25 men were arrested in a bathhouse this week for “debauchery.” So being gay and saying what you think are officially legal—but if you are or you do, you get thrown in jail.

And it gets even more perplexing. Three people were arrested on a Cairo subway for simply speaking English because, as everyone knows, if you speak English you are, de facto, a spy. That same day prominent U.S. scholar Michelle Dunne, who has been outspoken in her criticism of the current regime, came to Cairo to attend the conference of what she tweeted was a pro-government organization, only to be detained for hours at the airport and denied entry. The Egyptians seem to be trying to minimize the fallout but so far have succeeded only in digging a deeper hole.

While there’s a growing undercurrent of disillusionment about the state of affairs here, Egyptians aren’t saying much about the dismal developments, nor are Western governments. It’s not difficult to see why—the West needs a stable Egypt from which to fry bigger fish in the region and Egyptians are tired of unrest and upheaval. All of that is understandable, but one has to wonder how long the subjugation of people’s rights can continue without repercussions.

Dining with History

Autumn has come to Cairo.

Looking at all the glorious photos of fall foliage in the Northeast of the U.S., it feels a little silly saying that, but there’s been a little nip in the air. Sure, the daily highs are still in the mid-70s or low 80s, but at night it’s been dipping into the low 60s. That feels colder here than it sounds. Air conditioners are off and it’s too chilly to walk barefoot in the house. Last night on the way to dinner I left my sweater in the cab, and I regretted it the rest of the evening.

I’ve been following through on my resolution to get out of the bubble more, and last night’s dinner was part of that. Friends of a friend from New York were passing through Egypt on a three-month round-the-world trip, so we met up at a storied establishment in the heart of Belle Epoque Cairo called Café Riche. It opened in 1908 and has been a haunt of Cairo’s intellectuals ever since.

The whole vibe is very un-Cairo. With its wood-paneled walls; its faded black-and-white photos of Cairo’s most influential cultural figures; its scattered disarray of books, papers and random memorabilia; and the klatch of old men gabbing over steaming plates, Café Riche feels a bit like a cross between the Friar’s Club and Barney Greengrass, for those of you who know New York. The night we were there, it felt like almost everyone else in the restaurant was a regular.

Café Riche has been the backdrop of many a seminal event in Egyptian history. An assassination attempt on the Prime Minister was staged from its doorway in 1919 (he survived). That same year, revolutionaries used the basement as a secret meeting space from which they agitated for the overthrow of their British rulers, and in 1952 Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser plotted his own coup from the comfort of a Riche table, this one against King Farouk, who reportedly met his wife at the coffeehouse. And Egypt’s favorite songbird, Umm Kalthoum once held a concert there.

The days when famous writers such as Naguib Mahfouz could be found loitering over Turkish coffee are gone, but the tables are still populated with a cast of fascinating characters. We were having an entertaining conversation of our own at our table, but I would have loved to have been able to talk to some of the other guests. I have a hunch many of the same people would be there if I ever manage to make a repeat visit. That is definitely now on my to-do list.

I fear I may have to erase another item on that list, though. I’ve been wanting to go camping with the kids in the White Desert, which looks absolutely stunning. A while ago one of the embassies issued a warning about going there, and this week Egypt’s most active militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, swore allegiance to ISIS. That can’t be good. The desert may well be perfectly safe, but I’m going to watch this one play out for a while before I dust off my sleeping bag.

We never did make it up to Alexandria, and with the holidays coming up our weekends are pretty packed. It looks like we might have to wait until spring. That’s okay. There’s plenty to explore in Cairo in the meantime.

The Perfect Year-Two Week

Last week was a fantastic week—and exactly the kind that fuels my belief that one year in a foreign country is not enough. It was the kind of week that comes only after you really have your bearings in a place.

The fun started on Tuesday night, when I went to meet a friend for drinks at a rooftop bar in Dokki, a neighborhood across the river from downtown Cairo. I hailed a cab off the street to get there, and the driver didn’t speak a word of English. Nevertheless, we chatted—in Arabic—the whole way up. That marks a milestone for me, although in truth I didn’t understand half of what he said. Still, I spoke enough to be able to have a conversation entirely in Arabic, which felt great

The bar was lovely. It was on top of a hotel, but not one of the fancy Western hotels, so there were plenty of Egyptians in the mix, including a woman who was wearing hijab and smoking shisha and drinking beer. Talk about mixed signals.

I guess that’s to be expected, though. Mixed signals are everywhere here. I’ve been watching more Egyptian TV, and the more of “real” Egypt I’m exposed to, the more confusing this place becomes, especially around anything involving sexuality.

Take the advertisements. During one commercial break there were two ads. In the first, a woman peddling water coolers was dressed in head-to-toe white satin, including her hijab. In her snowy, sparkly dress she looked like a very modest bride, although as far as I could tell there was nothing bridal about the ad. I suppose she was meant to be the picture of purity. The second ad, on the other hand, was for a fruit soda of some sort, this time being peddled by a group of buff, shirtless young men and attractive bikini-clad women splashing around together on a beach—a scene you would never see in Egypt.

And then there was the show itself, Heba Regl el-Ghorab, which my Arabic teacher told me means Heba, Crow Legs (although articles about the show say it means “Unfortunate Heba”). It’s the Egyptian version of Ugly Betty. I watch it because I can understand more of the Arabic in it than on any other show, which still is only about half. Even if I understood every word, though, I’d still find it confounding.

The show is set in a fashion house, and the women dress like they would anywhere in the U.S. or Europe. They wear skirts that hit above the knee and sleeveless tops—clothes that certainly don’t resemble the attire of ordinary Egyptian women, even the most Westernized. If you go to a party here you’ll see sexy dresses, and women will often wear sleeveless tops if they’re not walking on the street, but you don’t tend to see a lot of short skirts.  I find it interesting that the media here doesn’t reflect the reality of daily life—not even the lives of the privileged. Yes, television in the U.S. is aspirational, but the idealized world depicted there still has some connection to reality. That’s much less the case here, at least from the little bit of television I’ve watched.

General attitudes about sex are no less confusing. There have been a few articles of late dealing with the topic (including this fascinating one by the New Yorker’s Peter Hessler), and they portray a country utterly obsessed. At the same time, I’ve never lived anywhere so repressed. It makes the evangelical community of my youth look downright libertine.  And yes, I realize that we’re looking at cause and effect, although you’d meet a lot of Egyptians here—probably even a majority—that would argue the opposite.

Anyway, I digress. Back to last week, which was topped by a magical night at the Cairo Opera House. The boys’ violin teacher had given us tickets to a concert by Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica chamber orchestra. I had seen him before and had been mesmerized by his skill, so was looking forward to seeing him perform again. I was happy the boys were going to hear such a virtuoso, and was hoping Kremer would inspire them in their own violin practice.

What I didn’t anticipate was how much fun the performance would be and how much the boys would enjoy it. The first piece was a movement of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” (Summer) with an incredible vibraphone solo. That was followed by Piazzolla’s “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,” a delightful and amusing set of four tango compositions (this according to Wikipedia) that incorporate themes from Vivaldi. Finally, after the intermission, we were treated to Philip Glass’ “The American Four Seasons,” which was accompanied by a beautiful avant-garde video, rendering the experience reminiscent of Koyaanisqatsi, which I happen to love.

The whole thing was profoundly moving—so much so that I was almost brought to tears. I say almost because it was impossible to entirely lose myself in the experience when half the audience was on their smartphones the whole time. The woman next to me was chatting until I glared at her, but throughout the concert hall you could see the glare of blue screens. A guy a few seats down was playing video games. Absolutely maddening. Like so much in Cairo. And yet, somehow that is part of its charm.

Routine Drama

We’ve been back in Cairo for just over a week and Paris already seems a lifetime away. I think adjusting to the difference in food was the toughest for all of us.

Not that we’re not happy to be back. We are, very much, but I’m glad the trip—as wonderful as it was—is behind us. Now we can focus on life here. I keep thinking about how little time we have left, but I came across a photo of the day our boxes arrived from New York and realized that was only six months ago. It feels like ages. So there’s plenty we can do and experience in the 10 or so months we have left. I’m looking forward to it.

We’re in the midst of a typically Cairene experience, and one we’ve had before. We’re in deep with another stray kitten. He’s adorable, but would have been impossible to ignore anyway, circling my front yard with the loudest and most incessant meow I’ve ever heard. I got the vet to come examine him, because I was worried he was going blind in one eye (you’ve gotta love a vet who makes house calls). He said the kitten, a little ginger fellow who the boys call Rocky and the gardener calls mesh mesh (apricot) was about 5 weeks old and has a type of herpes virus in his eye that is common in street cats, and gave me a prescription for drops. The vet also said that the non-stop mewling was an SOS call, and that Rocky must have lost his mother. Poor little guy.

We set up a little home for him in our laundry shed. There’s a pipe that he can go through to get in and out. So can the other two kittens I’ve been feeding, who are a few months older than Rocky. At first I was worried they were going to take his food from him, but they seem to have taken him under their wing. And not only for the good. The first couple of days Rocky stayed close to the house, but then we found him wandering down the street with one of the bigger kittens. They’re already taking our sweet little guy out on the town and teaching him the ways of the world. They grow up so fast these days.

Trouble is, now it’s been two days and he hasn’t come back. O swears he saw him at the house across the street, where they put out tons of food each day, and the bawab tells me the same thing. I hope they’re right. I just want to give him his eye medicine.

Things in Egypt continue as usual. Life continues to feel pretty normal, but there are tensions bubbling below the surface that seem destined to flare up at some point. There was a bombing downtown, and 12 people were injured. The bomb went off at midnight, so I suppose it could have been much worse.

The government continues to keep the Al Jazeera journalists and many activists in jail, and some of them are on a continued hunger strike. One young man, who has dual Egyptian-American citizenship, is seriously ill and it seems as though he could die soon. The government doesn’t seem inclined to do anything about it. So the military regime is back in full force.

On the other hand, Egypt does feel considerably more stable, although with the current levels of repression you have to wonder how long that can last. In any case, foreign companies are showing renewed interest in expanding here. There’s a delegation of US businesses set to come next month to explore opportunities for investment, and the word is that tourism is picking up. Egyptians, for the most part, are just happy to have a return to normalcy.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the as-yet-unscheduled parliamentary elections. I saw a news story today predicting that the new parliament will be dominated by military types; I see no reason to assume that won’t be the case.  There is still no party nearly as powerful and as organized as the Brotherhood was, so with them out of the picture Egypt is looking at a political vacuum.

CAT UPDATE:

After nearly two days with no Rocky sighting, I think I saw him across the street last night practicing climbing trees, although it was dark so I couldn’t be sure. The kitten I saw was with what appeared to be its mother, and when I approached him the mother growled at me. I tried to get a look at his eye. It seemed to be okay but I couldn’t really tell. Some locals had staged a TNR (trap, neuter, release) campaign recently, so it’s possible the mother got caught up in that and just found her way home.

Paris. The City of Carbs.

We’re wrapping up our week in Paris. Tomorrow we get back on the train to Brussels, and from there we’ll catch a flight to Cairo.

We’ve had a great time here, although it was far from the usual tourist’s week in Paris. We didn’t do much by way of seeing the sights, although the boys did go down to the Jardins du Luxembourg and played some chess, which they thoroughly enjoyed. A nice man there let them use his chess pieces and gave them some tips.016e2400477d6c0128fd498b72d8eb9a8fcf5900ce

Instead, we were pretty focused on doing what needed to be done for the boys’ school application. I had a couple of meetings with friends of friends who have kids in the school. They all love it, and all warned me that it’s very difficult to get in to. The boys were nervous about their interview, but they did well. And they both loved the school. It looks like a warm and wonderful place. We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed.

But none of this is to say that our week wasn’t full of pleasure. We rented an apartment on the Canal Saint Martin and had a terrific time exploring the neighborhood. On our first day here we went for a run up the canal, and it was really enjoyable. The boys are hoping we wind up living in this neighborhood—the opportunity to bike and run along the canal was enticing to both of them.

Even more of a draw, though, were two award-winning bakeries within walking distance of the flat we were staying in, Du Pain et Des Idees and Liberte. We’d go out every morning and get a baguette and a selection of croissants and pastries from one of them, and then debate which was better. I think I ate more carbs this week than I have in the past three years combined, but goodness, were they delicious. We bought a baguette from an ordinary bakery on the way home one evening and the difference was remarkable.

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Our last night here we went to eat at L’Entrecote, a restaurant that serves only steak frites and has a delicious, secret sauce. We weren’t going to go because the french fries are cooked in peanut oil, and X is allergic to peanuts, but I had called the sister restaurant in New York before we left Cairo, and they told me they use refined peanut oil, which means the allergens have been neutralized. I wasn’t going to take them, but after an unsatisfying steak frites dinner the night before, X decided he couldn’t leave Paris without a crispy tray of fries, so he was willing to take the risk. Plus, at L’entrecote they give you refills, which was more than he could resist.

We got there and the line was down the block, so I asked one of the servers if they’d give me just a couple of fries so X could try them and see if he’d be okay. She did, and he was, and the boys ended up having their favorite meal of the week. It was the perfect end to a successful trip. It’s safe to say that both boys are now big Paris fans. They keep telling me that they hope they get into the school. So do I. We should hear in late January, and I’m sure we’ll all have our finger crossed until then.

But now we’re heading back to Egypt. We’re on the train to Brussels right now, and from there we’ll board our flight to Cairo. It’s a little disorienting shifting between such different worlds. I’m looking forward to going back and getting my mind off of Paris for a while. I want to make the most of the time we have left in Egypt.

 

Training It

Well, the boys and I are on a train from Brussels to Paris, with the lovely countryside whizzing past our window at this very moment. I didn’t get a chance to write on the plane (yes, I was sleeping), so I’m using the train ride instead. I love train travel in Europe. It’s so civilized and efficient. It’s a shame Amtrak can’t quite figure out how to do it right in the U.S.

The last few weeks in Cairo have been a blur. X was sick—twice, I was out for three days with a migraine and then a few days later caught X’s stomach bug. I just got back to normal early this week.

I’ve been loving Cairo. I’m completely comfortable moving around the city now and have really grown fond of the place. I wish we could stay another year or so, but I just don’t think it makes the most sense in terms of the boys’ academic timetables.

We’re getting out of the bubble more. We went to an interesting dinner party in the most incredible apartment I’ve seen thus far in Cairo. The building is right on the Nile and used to belong to a famous singer. Our hosts live in the penthouse apartment. They have a massive balcony that runs the length of the flat and has views all the way up and all the way down the river. The view is stunning.

The week before the dinner party we took the Nile Taxi—speedboats that zip you to various destinations up and down the river—with friends to Sequoia, an open-air restaurant on the tip of Zamalek, a residential island in the middle of the Nile. The restaurant is surrounded by water on three sides, and it’s striking. X took some nice photos. It feels good to be exploring more.

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Speaking of train travel, I’m hoping to get up to Alexandria with the boys in the next few weeks. It seems the best way to get there is the high-speed train (Spanish technology, if I’m not mistaken). It’s super fast—around two hours—and at less than $10 per ticket, enticingly inexpensive. I’ve never been to Alexandria and have always wanted to go. I’m reading Naguib Mahfouz’s “Miramar” right now, which is set in the seaside city, making a trip there all the more appealing.

The boys are having a good year so far. X loves his teacher and seems to be doing well in school. T has been working harder than ever and also joined the cross country team. With five practices a week, I was worried he wouldn’t be able to handle it, but he’s doing a great job of balancing that, his school work, and all his other activities. I probably shouldn’t be surprised. He turned 14 last weekend, so he’s a fully fledged teenager now.

That’s Egypt. But we’re on our way to Paris, where the boys have interviews at the school we’re applying to for next year. Fingers crossed. I feel a bit torn. There’s a lot that is appealing to me about a move to Paris, but I’ve also grown incredibly fond of Egypt. There’s so much about it that I will really miss: I love the climate, the monochromatic palate of dusty shades of beige and the sandy burning smell that permeates the city.

As frustrating as it can be, I love the insanity and the non-functionality of Egypt, and how Egyptians accept all of that as just the way life is. I love the levity and humor that infuses so much of life here. I know it sounds crazy to anyone who hasn’t lived here or somewhere like it, but I’m a little sad at the prospect of returning to a country that actually functions.  Overcoming the difficulties and challenges of life in Egypt is part of what makes it rewarding. I’m also afraid that when we move back to the developed world, we will get sucked back into the materialism and fake pressures. There’s something so liberating about living in a country where trends are essentially non-existent, where you feel lucky just to have food and clothing and the impetus to buy the latest this or eat the latest that isn’t a factor.

Having said all of that, we’re about 15 minutes away from the Gare do Nord, and I am so looking forward to our week in Paris and, yes, the great food and pretty clothes and all the trappings and ease of Western life. Color me conflicted.

Tree pruning , Cairo style.

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