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The Luxury of a Hot Bath

Balyana woman by oven

After three days of sweating through visits to the towns and villages of Upper Egypt with a Coptic charity and spending two nights in some of the dirtiest hotels I have ever seen, one of the first things I wanted to do when I got home was have a hot bubble bath. Once I did, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman, who has probably never had the luxury of soaking in a bath in her life and probably never will. Along with her daughters, she shared her crumbling home with a small buffalo, a cow and countless roosters, hens and ducks. The stench of urine was overwhelming. She answered our questions about her finances, her daughters’ educations and much else stoically but tersely. She clearly would have preferred we hadn’t been there intruding into the details of her life, but as the charity was going to build her a new home, she suffered resolutely though our inquiries. She is getting a new house, but there is so, so much more that she and everyone in her village and countless others just like it still need.

I’ll write a lengthier account of the trip in the week to come.

Migrations

I’m enshrouded in the fog of jet lag. I got back to Cairo a few days ago after spending a week in New York and Philadelphia for my 25th college reunion. It was fantastic fun and great to get a little break from Cairo.

I had a hard start back in Cairo. We have all the usual end-of-school year stuff to contend with but, as we’re learning, June has an added punch when you have kids in international school: the big goodbye. Both boys have close friends whose families are leaving Egypt when school lets out, so there has been a mad crush of farewell parties on top of the normal schedule of year-end concerts and plays and conferences.

A few days after I got back we threw a party at our house for one of X’s departing friends—this one returning home to China. Fortunately another mother helped and did the heavy lifting of cooking and baking. We’d recently bought a ping pong table from one of the many leaving families, which we had delivered the day before the party, so the kids were taken care of. We just pushed them outside and they played in the garden and had a ping pong tournament. I don’t know what I’m going to do when we’re back in an apartment without a yard. It makes entertaining the boys so much easier.

The glut of families moving on has given us the opportunity to further furnish the apartment. Right before I left I made a mad dash to get it in better shape for O’s parents, who came to visit while I was away. I had a carpenter come put shelves up (they’re falling down now, probably a function of our uneven walls as much as anything), had him build an extra closet and bought a little commode so there would be a bit more storage in the guest room. Oh, and we bought a big sideboard for the living room and moved the one there to the dining room so we have room for glasses and platters and the like.

But I still need more, so have been scouring the moving sales. It’s madness. There are two main Facebook pages where expats in my neighborhood post things for sale, one in English and the other in French. For a couple of days I would see something I liked, take a moment to consider it, and by the time I checked again it would be gone. When I looked more closely I saw that items go within minutes of being posted. Sherif, the carpenter, told me there are a couple of expats who buy everything and sell stuff on that they don’t want, and a few Egyptians who resell whatever they buy from the expats at a profit. So I’m getting aggressive. I did manage to score a lamp and a couple of rugs, which I have yet to pick up, but those were from a friend. By the time I get this place finished, we’ll be getting ready to move again and I’ll have to sell it all.

This is a big week on the political front. As I write this, people are lining up all over Egypt to vote in the presidential elections for General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.  Notice I didn’t just say “vote in the presidential elections.” No, pretty much everyone out there is voting for Sisi. Journalists tweeting from polling stations around Egypt have been hard pressed to find anyone voting for his opponent, Hamdeen Sabahi. One journalist reported finding a Sabahi voter, who was promptly set upon by the crowd upon admitting that he’d done so. Sisi won Egyptian hearts and minds when he pushed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi out of the presidential chair, and he won 95 percent of the expat vote, which took place last week.

Women line up to vote

Women line up to vote

Voting continues today, but the result is a foregone conclusion. The government is worried about the low turnout so declared today a holiday, but with temperatures hitting 108 the polling stations are largely empty. The news reports say that the election committee is going to fine anyone who didn’t go to vote. If you don’t hear from me for a while, assume I’ve gone underground to avoid prosecution.

UPDATE: The election committee reportedly declared a third day of voting. They are determined to get that turnout number up!

Spring Break!

We have boxes. Ninety-one of them, to be exact. What we don’t have is furniture, i.e. anywhere to put all the stuff in said boxes. Which means we have piles of books on the floor and heaps of clothes on the bed in the spare room. All you friends I invited to come visit? Hold off for a couple of weeks or so, unless you want to sleep on mounds of ski jackets. Not that you’ve all been pounding my door down… But fear not. I am finally motivated to deal with our furniture shortage. Somehow it didn’t feel so dire when we didn’t need any more than we had. A couch, beds, a desk—that seemed like enough until now.

Anyway…the boxes got here just in time. We had run out of cat food the day before. Yes, we have been shipping in cat food from New York all these months. (Just ask the few visitors we’ve had, or O’s work colleagues, who have all been kind enough to come bearing pouches of Weruva). Pathetic, I know, but we have the most finicky cats in the world (not that they particularly like the stuff we give them) and our vet in NY said that the grocery store brands that are available here are the nutritional equivalent of feeding our children Doritos all the time.

A friend of mine said when I was done unpacking I’d wonder how l lived without all my stuff. I’m having the opposite reaction. I’m wondering why I have it. I didn’t miss it at all (except maybe the kitchen supplies and the bedding), and now that it’s here I feel weighed down by it. It’s been an interesting experience. I didn’t bring any personal mementos—no photos, no letters, nothing at all that had any nostalgic value. I wasn’t conscious of their absence until the shipment came, but there was a lightness that came from not being tethered to the past. Even the books I’m unpacking, with their memories of where I was when I read them and what was happening in my life at the time, bring with them a certain heaviness.

Boxes!

Boxes!

The stuff arrived a couple of days after we got back from our spring break trip to a resort on the Red Sea called El Gouna. It’s a super-secure gated development about a 30-minute drive from Hurgada, and everything has been meticulously planned out. And I mean planned. There is little that is organic about it. Think Disney on the sea. O said it reminded him of Celebration, the Disney town in Florida. T also drew the Disney comparison. Having grown up on the beaches of Southern California, the uber-groomed vibe wasn’t my cup of tea (and the beaches aren’t particularly nice), but I can see why Egyptians love it. It is the absolute opposite of the rest of the country. Not a chaotic moment to be had.

And it is lovely. There’s a beautiful marina surrounded by restaurants, and a little downtown area with eateries serving some of the best meals we’ve eaten in Egypt (if you go, you must try the superlative Zia Amelia, which is run by a couple of Italians). We chose to go to Gouna for the sailing school. I am now convinced that sailing is best learned in childhood. I loved being on the water but ducking under the boom as we endlessly practiced tacking and jibing was exhausting. O and I both wound up with scraped knees; the boys, on the other hand, had no idea what we were complaining about. They barely had to bend to let the thing pass over their heads.065

We’ve had more adventures with urban wildlife, this time in the form of a baby mongoose that seems to be living somewhere in our back yard. We’ve tried to take a picture of it several times but it’s a bit camera shy. Very cute ,though.

We’ve been ever so slightly more mobile since O leased a car for work. During the week he has a driver who takes him to and from the office and I don’t have much access to it, but on the weekends we drive it around Maadi. Anyone who’s been to Cairo knows how utterly insane driving here is. There are essentially no rules, and those that do exist are unwritten and known only to the cognoscenti, which we most definitely are not. Driving here is so nuts that my father once got yelled at by a police officer for stopping at a red light. I keep wondering where that was. Where we live there are no traffic lights. We confine our driving to the Maadi bubble where it’s really not so difficult; still the car has made it easier for us to explore the outer reaches of our neighborhood.

The blackouts continue, but more randomly now. Sometimes we’ll have two in a day, then we’ll go a few days without one. It makes life exciting, never knowing what activity you’ll be unable to finish. I’m learning to cook in the dark, as long as dinner is already on the stove. I get most nervous when blow drying my hair. I live in fear of being left with a head of hair that’s half straight, half curly. It’d be tough to pull that off. The government promises the outages will get worse during the summer months. I think I might have to break down and get some emergency lighting for the kitchen. Then again, our favorite restaurant just started delivering. Maybe I don’t need to be able to see that stove after all.

Politically, it’s been more of the same. A few more university riots, a couple more bombs, a scattering of marches. Ongoing incidents of violence against Copts, and some tribal warfare in Aswan that left a couple of dozen people dead. It’s amazing what starts to feel normal. Then again, I guess that’s true everywhere. From here, it’s tough to understand how people in the U.S. go on as though nothing has happened after mass shooting after mass shooting.

That’s it for now. Off to unpack some more boxes.

 

 

Sex and Politics

Spring has arrived in Cairo and the weather has been glorious. Warm, but not too hot; I wish it could stay like this indefinitely. Of course, I’m ignoring the khamaseen, the sand-filled southern winds that for two weeks left me constantly rinsing grit out of my irritated, itchy eyes, but they seem to be behind us now. We’re headed to the Red Sea soon for some sun and sailing lessons, and I can’t wait.

We had parent-teacher conferences at school. Once again, I’m disappointed in the lower school but completely wowed by the middle school. T has grown and blossomed here more than I ever could have imagined and that’s primarily due to the school. The administration and the teachers are fantastic. Some of his favorites are leaving next year, including the principal, who is the best school administrator I’ve seen anywhere, but I think it’ll be okay. The vice-principal is taking the helm and he’s terrific, too. It’s X in the lower school I’m concerned about. We’ve started making him do Khan Academy work at home because he just isn’t getting the academic challenge he needs.

Also in the positive column, the blackouts have been decreasing. They were nightly for a while, and occasionally we even had two in a day, but we’re down to one or two a week. It’s a nice relief.

Our shipment from New York has supposedly arrived in Egypt. It’s expected to clear customs in the next few days. I’m hoping we’ll get it before we leave for the beach, but that might be wishful thinking. I’m not sure where we’ll put everything since we’re still woefully short of furniture, but I sure am looking forward to having a dining room table, and the boys are excited about having all their stuff again.

While I may be feeling upbeat about life in Cairo, it’s been an abysmal week when it comes to women’s rights and societal attitudes about women. First, a student at Cairo University was sexually harassed by a group of fellow students who whistled and shouted at her as she walked through campus, some of them trying to remove her clothes. Afterward, the dean of the law school, where she studies, essentially blamed the incident on her for what she was wearing—a figure hugging, long-sleeved pink sweater and black pants. Then a British woman was raped by a security guard in a hotel in Sharm el Sheikh and the local governor basically said she was asking for it because she’d been drinking.

It’s probably not a huge surprise to hear that men’s attitudes about women here verge on the Neanderthal. Perhaps more surprising is how much women contribute to those attitudes. They, too, often see the victims of sexual harassment as somehow culpable—even the members of a Facebook group for expat women in Cairo were questioning the actions of the Sharm rape victim—even when they themselves are the victim. Until attitudes in Egyptian society change, and on a large scale, harassment and sexual assault will not stop. Women here need to be part of that change.

There was big news on the political front: Egypt’s defense minister, General  Abdul Fattah al-Sisi finally declared his candidacy for president this week, after first resigning his cabinet position. He is now officially a civilian, although he announced his intention to run while still wearing his army uniform.  Now that he’s formally declared, he’s fair game. We’ll see how long the near-universal adulation of him lasts. The Egyptian papers have already started publishing articles critical of him.

Sisi’s widespread support comes from the belief that he will be able make Egypt more secure. We’ll see. In the short term, his candidacy is just as likely to invigorate already angry Muslim Brotherhood supporters and Islamists and spark a new round of instability. Five people were killed on the Friday after his announcement in skirmishes with security forces, including a young female journalist. It’s all quite sad.

It’s easy to understand why Egyptians are looking for a little respite from all the turmoil. Even in our protected little bubble we’ve seen a recent spike in crime. Earlier this month a woman walking down the street with her two children just after nightfall was held up at gunpoint and, just two days later, three teenaged boys were abducted by five men in a car and robbed. They were unhurt and let go on the outskirts of the city with enough cab money to get home, but both incidents occurred relatively early in the evening and on the well-secured streets surrounding the school, so they’re a reminder that we should always be careful.

 

 

Impatience and Patients

Egypt continues to be in a holding pattern while it waits for General Sisi, the Minister of Defense who is widely viewed as the solution to all that ails Egypt, to announce that he will run for president. There are few who doubt that he will, and he has reportedly put a campaign team together behind the scenes, but for some unknown reason he has yet to formally throw his hat into the ring. Egyptians are getting antsy.

In the meantime, the government is trying to create the appearance of activity by making various moves of its own. It reconstituted the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to make the Minister of Defense—yes, said Sisi—its head, instead of the president. The government said the move was to bring the SCAF in line with the new constitution, but commentators in the media said that is not, in fact, the case.

This isn’t the only instance of disconnect between the government’s interpretation of the constitution and the transitional roadmap and that of the media and punditry; the government also reads the timeline for elections in an entirely different manner than most of the rest of the country. Which leaves Egyptians knowing nothing, really. At the end of the day, the only analysis that matters is that of the Presidency, since the President is the one calling the shots on all of this. We’re all still waiting to hear exactly what he thinks.

Praying for Egypt

Praying for Egypt

As if throwing innocent journalists in jail (#FreeAJStaff) doesn’t make Egypt look weak enough, things got downright silly last week with the AIDS Kofta scandal. For those of you who missed it, an army general claimed to have invented a wand that could detect AIDS and Hepatitis C from a significant distance, as well as inventing a 100 percent effective cure that involves drawing blood from the patient, breaking down the disease and returning it in a purified form.

“I will take the AIDS from the patient and I will nourish the patient on the AIDS treatment,” the army general said. “I will give it to him like a skewer of kofta to nourish him.” Kofta is a kebab made of ground meat.

What was most amazing was not that a senior official went on television and made such a ludicrous claim, but that a huge portion of the country believed him and attacked anyone who dared question the veracity of what he was saying. The President’s own scientific advisor was subject to a raft of insults when he suggested the general’s assertions were not true.

We continue to furnish the house at a snail’s pace, but took what was for us a giant leap forward by acquiring a bed for the spare bedroom in preparation for our second houseguest, my friend @cacurtis. We spent a long and excruciating day at Egypt’s first Ikea and, in the end, had to leave before we’d bought half of what we needed so we’d be home before X was due to be dropped off from a playdate and our new mattress was to be delivered. Still, we managed to get a bed, some bedding, and a dish rack. Only took us about three hours. Eventually we’ll have to go back, but I’m dreading it. That place is like the Bermuda Triangle. Once you go in you never know if and when you’ll finally get out.

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Hole in the Sky

We keep trying to join the gym, but it is as complicated as anything here. They don’t take credit cards or checks. We have to pay all in one installment. The ATMs never have enough cash for me to pull out the whole amount and I haven’t been able to remember to go to the cash machine two days running to get the money together.

Actually, it’s even more complicated than that. Most of our money here is in a dollar account and I have to email or go to the bank in person to have it transferred into the Egyptian Pound account. You can’t say hello to a teller at the bank without waiting at least half an hour, so I try to make my trips over there few and far between. It always turns out, though, that when I want to pull money out of the bank, I haven’t transferred enough over to the Egyptian Pound account, and it won’t convert automatically, even if there’s enough money to cover the transaction in my USD account. And on the weekends, when I usually think of this stuff, there’s no one to email because round-the-clock banking has yet to arrive in Egypt.

Finally this week I budgeted enough time to swing by the bank on my way to the gym—which is in the community center I’ve written about in the past—and, of course, their systems were down.  I ended up paying the extortionate day fee just to run on the treadmill. And then we all got sick and the gym lost its appeal. I still can’t breathe through the congestion. And I’m still not a member of the gym.

Tomorrow is @cacurtis’ last full day with us. We’re planning on renting a felucca in the morning and, in the evening watching the sunset over the Nile in a downtown bar and having dinner at Sequoia, an open-air, river-front restaurant in Zamalek. Maddening though it may be, Cairo is a stunning city.

Are Arab Bombs Deadlier than Irish Bombs?

After the frigid week I had in New York, the no-coat-needed weather of Cairo has been such a relief. We were thinking about taking the kids skiing during their break in April—and we still haven’t ruled it out—but a warm holiday is looking pretty appealing after spending a week in calf-deep slush.

It was good to come back to Cairo. I arrive at the airport with no trepidation at all anymore, which is somewhat ironic, given that it’s far more unstable than it was during the years I felt uncomfortable here. I think some of that is just about familiarity.

I also think that some of the worry my friends have for me, while entirely understandable in light of what they see on the news (and appreciated), has to do with a distrust of the Arab world. I had dinner with some friends in January who refused to accept my assertion that I was probably safer in our cloistered expat neighborhood in Cairo than we were in Tribeca. But there is no question; we live surrounded by security guards and police officers.

And yet, my friends in New York—who have never been here—feel firm in their conviction that we are not safe. The funny thing is, I didn’t get any of that concern from friends when I moved to London in the early 1990s, and the truth is I felt far less safe there. I was always antsy about IRA bombings and was really shaken by the one instance in which we had to evacuate a restaurant.

That feeling was based on fact. Statistically, I was in more danger there than I am here. During the 1990s, eight civilians were killed in London alone, and many more people were injured. Over the 30 years of the Troubles, at least 650 civilians were killed. The IRA set off bombs in pubs, department stores, shopping centers, subway stations and on busy roadways. There was no way to know what their target might be and when they might choose to strike. Yes, Egypt could still deteriorate that far, but it hasn’t yet. For the time being, I live with less anxiety about terrorism here than I did in London. I’m just careful about where I go. And at least here I know what kind of places to avoid.

None of that is to say I’m not worried about the turn things seem to be taking. I am, and I don’t understand why the government continues to focus on the Muslim Brotherhood and has said next to nothing about Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the Sinai-based terrorist group that has taken responsibility for nearly all the recent bombings. They keep trying to reassure tourists that they are still safe in Egypt. It seems to me visitors would glean far more comfort from the arrests of the perpetrators than they would from empty promises.

I admit, I expected my kids to be shaken by the bombings, but they aren’t worried at all. Their little world is so safe and secure that the danger feels far removed. T says he feels far more at ease here than he did in New York because there he worried about random violence, while here it is more predictable (no school or movie-theater shootings, for example). The school canceled a trip T’s grade was supposed to take to the Red Sea for security reasons, and his only reaction was disappointment. The boys continue to insist that they want to stay here longer than the planned two years. For now, though, I’m sticking to the timetable.

The trial of the Al Jazeera journalists and their 17 co-defendants (some of whom have complained of torture) started this week, and was then abruptly postponed until March 5. The whole thing is a joke, and a travesty. Other journalists who have worked with the Al Jazeera crew at news organizations such as CNN and NBC have attested to their professionalism, and the heads of some of the most prestigious news outlets in the world published an open letter criticizing the prosecutions. Frankly, I can’t figure out why the hell the government thinks prosecuting these people—some of whom have hardly spent any time in Egypt at all—is a good idea. Egypt is being ridiculed the world over and there is not a discerning mind out there that believes these guys are actually Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers.

Egypt today is unquestionably more repressive than the Soviet Union was during its final years, when I lived there. And at least there you knew the rules. Here no one seems to know what they are—including the people charged with enforcing them. Journalists have spent the past two months repeatedly asking if it is illegal to interview a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and no one in authority has yet to give a clear answer. What kind of government doesn’t know its own laws, and how on earth are people supposed to adhere to them if they don’t know what they are?

Things tick along slowly on the domestic front. We are the proud owners of a coffee table. It doesn’t match the TV console, which we will convert to a buffet in the dining room, but now we are left looking for a new TV console. It never ends. At least our dining room table is on its way over from New York. There’s one furniture decision I won’t have to make. Although I do think the chairs might need reupholstering…

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Digging In

Our departure from New York became more definitive this week; I flew in on Monday night to move all our personal belongings to Cairo.

It was one hell of a week, and I am glad it’s behind me. I find moving emotionally draining at the best of times; this time I was dealing with it all alone and in terrible weather to boot. I was worried the movers wouldn’t be able to get there with all of the snow, but they managed. So now we’ve taken what we want from our apartment and our storage facility is empty. Our ties to New York are far more tenuous than they were a week ago.338

I’m not at all sure everything will get to us intact, but I don’t know that I really mind. I went to scope out the storage facility the day before the movers came, and was so overwhelmed that I was ready to just leave it all behind. We’ve been living without most of our things for nearly six months now and while there are a few items we could really use (duvets and pillows, for starters) we haven’t missed most of it. Still, I know how this goes, and when it gets to us we’ll be glad to have it and sad about the things that have inevitably broken in transit.

Moving out of storage

Moving out of storage

 

Empty

Empty

Or maybe not. Our perspective is a little different this time. I think being in Egypt, where the standard of living is so vastly different from anywhere else we’ve lived, has changed all of us and our relationships to material goods. We’ll see. I am looking forward to having a proper dining room table, though. When it will all get there is anyone’s guess. It’s scheduled to arrive in Alexandria at the end of March, but then has to clear customs and get shipped to Cairo. I have no idea how long that process will take.

I’m writing this once again from the lounge in CDG while I wait for a flight—this time back to Cairo. I can’t wait to get home, not least for the warm weather. New York was a frigid, slushy mess while I was there, which made the task of moving all the more grim.

Slush

Slush

Not that Cairo doesn’t have its own grim elements. Yesterday a bomb went off on a bus carrying tourists from Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, killing at least three people. The event was tragic in itself and ominous in what it portends. It’s the first bomb in the recent wave of violence that specifically targeted tourists; the previous attacks were directed against police and military forces. The fear is that this signals a new phase in the conflict between Islamists and the government.

Presidential elections are the next step in the roadmap, although a date has still not been set. Many Egyptians believe that General Sisi, who is the presumptive next president of Egypt despite having yet to declare his candidacy, will be able to bring about stability. I’d like to think so but I’m not at all sure it will be that simple, and one can only imagine that the cost of stability will be quite high in terms of human and civil rights.

Okay. Short post this time. I’m wiped out after the overnight flight and have some duty-free shopping to do.

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