Bank card in hand. Lease In the inbox. School starting Monday. Our Cairo adventure has officially come to an end. We are all better for having had it.
Bank card in hand. Lease In the inbox. School starting Monday. Our Cairo adventure has officially come to an end. We are all better for having had it.
It’s been two weeks since we arrived in Paris, and Tuesday felt like it marked the end of our transitional phase. Up until now our life here has felt somewhat dreamlike, but with the first day of orientation at the boys’ school today, reality has set in.
Aside from a few hours spent on campus, not much has changed in actual fact. We’re still in our temporary housing on what I have come to call Tourist Central. We’re renting a little flat right on the Rue de Rivoli, right next to the Place de la Concorde, and really, the only Parisians here are the ones working in the cafes. Actually, that’s true for pretty much the whole city during the month of August, but one feels it particularly acutely here. There are no real supermarkets and everything costs double what it would in a residential neighborhood. But we knew that coming in.
What was entirely unexpected was the ongoing serenade from the apartment upstairs. At least I think it was upstairs. Over the past two weeks I have become fascinated with the person who plays violin beautifully from morning to night. He (I have decided it’s a he) is incredible. This is no student. He plays amazing piece after amazing piece, with very little repetition. And it is serious, concert-level music he is playing.
At the suggestion of a friend, I decided I would write a note to let him know what peace and respite his playing has given me during this transitional and somewhat tumultuous period of my life, but after traipsing around the building and through the courtyard, I couldn’t figure out what apartment the music is coming from. The mystery just heightens the magic. I hope to someday find out who it is—and pay for the privilege of watching a performance. I have no doubt he (or she) is a professional.
The boys have been troupers, but I know that being unsettled the past couple of weeks has been hard on them. There’s been very little fun. We spent our first day here at the bank, and the next several days looking at apartments. We found one we liked and they seemed relieved once we started the negotiations, but then we found out the lease would be for less than a year and we’d have to do this all over again. I was so keen to give the boys some stability that I was willing to take the place anyway, but while waiting for various hitches with the rental agreement to be ironed out I found another apartment in the same neighborhood that works even better for us—and with a renewable lease. It’s still not finalized but I’m feeling hopeful.
The owner of the apartment very sweetly took me around the neighborhood and showed me all her favorite spots. Having a place of our own will be a big relief. Although I will miss the music. And there are still plenty of logistics to deal with: phones, sports registration, establishing residency, health care…all the fun tasks of starting life in a new city. Oh, and finding a job. Fortunately, the beauty of this city really does take the edge off, and our relocation agent has been a rock for me. I resisted hiring one but she has been a godsend. I will gladly pass her name along to anyone considering a move to Paris.
Going to orientation made the boys miss their Cairo friends even more than they already did. I’m traveling back to Egypt soon and am looking forward to seeing my friends there, so it’s a bit less painful for me. But I’m enjoying being out, too. Today I wore a short skirt (that wasn’t even particularly short) that I wouldn’t have been able to leave the house in in Cairo. It was entirely unremarkable here. There is a certain liberation in that.
Still, life in France has its own worries. Someone I know is planning a trip to Egypt and asked me if I thought it was safe. His message came the same day that the mass shooting on the Thalys train was averted. I couldn’t help thinking that, despite bombings and beheadings, in many ways we had been safer in Egypt than we were here. I’m not sure how long will be the case. There is by all appearances a growing insurgency there in spite of the increasingly repressive environment, but it has yet to become a real threat to ordinary civilians there. The same thing cannot be said for lone-wolf actors in Europe.
Lucky for me I don’t need to think about any of that. The fiddling is so lovely…
So it wasn’t exactly Biblical, but I’ll never experience a Passover dinner in quite the same way again. Getting out Egypt was an ordeal, to say the least, both logistical and emotional. We had to sell all the furniture in the house (which I didn’t quite manage to do, but thankfully O was there to deal with our aftermath), and cull for the movers. The boys were saying goodbye to their father and I was saying goodbye to the Tunisian. All very painful.
So here we are. In Paris. Setting up a new life yet again. There’s a lot to write about our last couple of months in Egypt and about our settling in here. So watch this space. The adventure continues.
I’m having an I’m not ready to-leave-Cairo moment. I can see what year three would look like here, and I’m disappointed I’m not going to have it. When you move to a foreign country you spend the first year totally clueless, the second year building routines and finding your feet and the third year solidifying friendships and refining. I’m there now, and acutely aware that I’m about to leave.
For example, I’ve joined a book group. I haven’t attended my first meeting yet but I’m really looking forward to meeting the people in the group. It’s a mix of expats and Egyptians. I was hoping we’d choose something Egyptian to read but, alas, we’re reading Achebe. Still, I’m sure it will be an interesting discussion.
What’s more, I’m finally getting out and socializing, both with expats and with Egyptians. I’m going to parties (three last week two this week) and having coffees, drinks and dinners. Last week I got together with a really interesting woman. She’d been the tour guide of a friend who’d come to visit me. She defied stereotypes: she was around 40 but never married–by choice. She was religious and culturally conservative, but strong and independent and knew her own mind and believed in herself as firmly as any woman I’ve met anywhere. I really enjoyed talking to her and hope to see her again soon.
I’ve also managed to travel a bit. The BF and I took a fabulous trip to Alexandria. I’d never been, and what a shame, because I liked it far more than Cairo. It’s got a real Mediterranean vibe to it. The quality of the light is totally different than that in the dusty capital, more luminous. Despite being visibly more religious (even on the hottest day the vast majority of women we saw were covered from wrist to ankle), the city feels more relaxed. And it was great to put my feet in the sand. It had been far too long.
Speaking of the BF…. the trip to Alexandria was our first time traveling together, and I was pleased to see that we seem to have a similar rhythm. Being in love with someone is one thing; being good travel companions is another. Fortunately, it doesn’t look as though that will be an issue with us. We had a great time. The Tunisian and I are in the second half of our first year together. It’s turned into a solid thing that has the feel of permanence.
The boys really like him but other members of my family are not as thrilled. Apparently there’s some concern about our different religions, in that he is Muslim and my family here is Christian. I was shocked when I heard that. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I didn’t expect that to be an issue in this day and age.
I think it says more about my family than anything else. I’ve been here almost two years and I’ve only been asked about religion twice; once by a cab drive and once by a security guard who used to work on our street and had a somewhat creepy obsession with my eldest son. I meet and hang out with a fair number of Egyptians and none of them seems remotely interested in what religion someone is.
I had a fascinating conversation the other day with a woman whose family is half Muslim and half Christian and in which people are free to choose their religion. While they are certainly not the norm here, I’ve found that the Egyptians I’ve met–mostly privileged Muslims–are more open-minded than my lifelong experience with my family would have led me to anticipate.
I suppose that’s to be expected, though; minorities throughout the world are more protectionist and rigid in their ideas, because they have more to fear and preserve. Still, I was disappointed–and surprised. My grandmother had a brother who converted to Islam to marry the woman he loved. He was shunned by the family and the story was kept secret from me and some of my cousins here in Egypt. I’m flabbergasted that nearly a century has passed and the same issues are at play and nothing seems to have changed.
An insightful take on the state of affairs here.
I don’t know. The case involves a Libyan student whom police expelled from Egypt in 2008, after a complaint that he was gay. From back in Libya, he sued. This Tuesday, after seven years – the alacrity typifies Egyptian justice — an Adminstrative Court ruled that the Ministry of Interior did the right thing, under its power to”prevent the spread of immorality in society.” In fact, then, this isn’t a new policy. The court reaffirmed authority the state always had. Two years ago, for instance, a Polish citizen was vacationing on the North coast here with his Egyptian partner. The Pole grew seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. The nurses found their relationship suspicious and called the police. After several…
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We’re in that Spring/Summer transition here and I have some serious cabin fever. At least on the hot days. It hit 100 degrees last week and all I wanted was to be on a beach somewhere. A few days later it was freezing and I had no interest in going out at all.
Not that I haven’t been able to get away. I borrowed a generous friend’s house in Greece recently to get some writing done. The trip was logistically challenging and the weather was awful, but it was really nice to be back in Europe. It reminded me of what I have to look forward to in Paris. Yes, the boys and I will be relocating to Paris over the summer, and we will spend at least the next four years there.
I have mixed feelings about leaving Egypt. There’s still so much I haven’t done here, on the work front and on the tourism front. I’ve spent way more time stuck in Maadi than I would have liked, and not for any good reason. There are still a ton of places I’d like to see and people I’d like to interview and cultural events I’d like to attend. Oh, and Arabic I’d like to learn. Really, I could use another year here.
What I have, though, is four months, give or take, and I am working on making the most of them. I had planned with a friend to go to a lovely outdoor roast chicken restaurant out near the Saqqara pyramids last Saturday, but the weather turned cold and windy and it looked like sandstorms were a distinct possibility, so we bailed.
The BF and I are heading to Alexandria this weekend, and the weather there looks pretty nice. I’m really looking forward to it—I’ve been wanting to get up there for years, but have never been. I’m hoping this will be the first of many trips I manage to sneak in before I move.
Our leaving Egypt isn’t all bad —although I am dreading the apartment hunt in Paris. I’m not sure why. I’ve done it a million times before, but this time feels strangely onerous. I keep hoping that someone out there knows someone with an apartment to sublet in the neighborhood I want to live in and I can forgo the logistical nightmare. I guess two years between apartment hunts isn’t enough respite for me.
On the upside, though, it’ll be nice to live in Europe again. My time in Greece gave me a little reminder, and it was pretty great. There are all these little things you don’t even notice when you live in the West that, after being in Egypt, are such delights: orderly traffic, clean stores with pretty displays, organic food, safe and reliable transportation. Life is just less stressful, or at least the stresses there are have less to do with daily survival.
And yet, I’ll miss that aspect of life in Egypt. Life in the developed world is so, well, ordinary—at least for someone like me who grew up there. I’m sure if you were raised in the developing world and moved to the West it would feel pretty extraordinary. I remember when I lived in the Soviet Union hearing stories of Soviets hyperventilating the first time they saw Western supermarkets because they had never seen such overabundance.
Lack of options isn’t the issue in Egypt. It’s the uncertainty that gets to one here. We are constantly waiting for the next power outage, water outage or other imminent inconvenience. And yet…in the West where those things are so much rarer people find worries with which to fill their minds and time, so insignificant things often take on oversized importance. Living here taught me not to sweat the little stuff. I’m going to try to hold on to that perspective, but I’m not at all sure I’ll be able to in the long term.
On the political front, now feels like as good a time as any to be leaving. There’s certainly not much happening anymore that’s Arab Spring-like. Parliamentary elections have yet to be scheduled, members of the Muslim Brotherhood continue to be sentenced to death in Egyptian courts (and President Sisi just declared that anyone who was caught digging tunnels from Gaza to Sinai would also face the death penalty), and a court just ruled that the police could deport gay foreigners. How they’re going to decide who is gay, I have no idea.
Terrorism doesn’t show any sign of letting up, either. The assaults on security forces in Sinai continue, as do random bombings and shootings in the rest of the country. The Jerusalem Post recently published an article querying Sisi’s ability to tackle the problem, and it’s a fair question. It’s possible that the Brotherhood and related groups just have too much support inside Egypt to be quashed. That remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the regime’s repressive crackdown hasn’t had the desired effect.
A sandstorm has had Cairo under a blanket of grit for two days now. It’s pretty awful. Just a couple of minutes outside leaves you with a coating of dust and sand in your hair. Visibility is down to next to nothing and the whole city is cloaked in a jaundiced pall.
The external drabness fits the mood here. People in Egypt seem more despondent than they have been in a long time. It’s been clear for a while now that the government under the nation’s beloved President Sisi is as repressive as any that came before it. Random bomb attacks against military and police still take place in Cairo and its environs, and the insurgency in Sinai against the security forces there continues. Militants dealt a particularly debilitating blow at the end of January in coordinated attacks that killed at least 26 people. And on the fourth anniversary of the revolution, the mother of a 5-year-old boy was killed by police birdshot while marching to lay a wreath of flowers in Tahrir Square.
That’s not the end of it. This week at least dozens of soccer fans were killed when police fired teargas at a crowd trying to storm a stadium. The victims were almost all young men, between the ages of 19 and 23. The senseless deaths seemed to be more than many here could take. One friend of mine said his cab driver was fighting back tears while talking about the tragedy the next day. For the moment, the love affair between the people and Sisi’s government is cooling.
There was one positive development: the release of Peter Greste, one of the three Al Jazeera journalists who have been in prison here since last December for, well, doing their jobs. They were accused of being in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed in Egypt, and of reporting false news that damaged national security here.
The charges were preposterous. Greste and his colleagues were well known among the press corps as reputable, mainstream journalists who had worked with a number of international news outlets, including BBC and CNN. And while much of the Egyptian public believed the three were guilty (why would they have been arrested otherwise??), plenty of those in power here knew the case against them was nonsense. Prosecutors were unable to produce a shred of credible evidence against the trio. And yet, Greste languished in jail for 400 days and his colleagues are still there.
The pressure to free them was constant and considerable, and Sisi felt it. Eventually, it paid off for Greste, an Australian citizen, who was released under a recently passed law allowing for the deportation of foreigners charged with crimes. His colleague Mohamed Fadel Fahmy is Egyptian-Canadian; there were reports that he will renounce his Egyptian citizenship so he, too, can be deported. The rumor mill was in full force earlier this week, predicting that he’d be released within hours, but as of this writing he remains in jail.
The most worrisome case is that of the third journalist, Baher Mohamed. He is an Egyptian citizen with no other nationality, so the law allowing deportation doesn’t apply to him. His fate will be decided during his retrial, which is set to begin tomorrow. If Fahmy isn’t out by then, and it looks like he won’t be, he, too, will be retried. Amal Clooney (yes the heartthrob’s wife) is one of the lawyers defending Fahmy and is reportedly coming to Cairo this week to push for his release. Given how things have gone for them with the Egyptian legal system so far, I can’t imagine either man is feeling particularly positive about their prospects in court, but at least Fahmy has a possible get-out-of-jail card in his Canadian passport. And a higher court said this week that it had ordered the retrial because of a lack of evidence in the earlier proceedings, so that could be a good sign.
The whole thing has been a PR disaster for Egypt, leaving many Westerners scratching their heads as to why the government didn’t find a way to release the three a long time ago. From a local context makes more sense; it has little to nothing to do with the men who were arrested, and far more to do with a feud between Qatar and Egypt. Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera, supported the former Islamist regime in Egypt, putting it at odds with the current government here, which outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and is doing everything it can to suppress the group. What’s more, Al Jazeera, which is owned by Qatar, operated an Egyptian channel, which was sympathetic to the Brotherhood. Given that, in the eyes of ordinary Egyptians, the three men were guilty simply by association.
Recently, though, relations between Egypt and Qatar have thawed a bit, and Al Jazeera shut down its Egyptian channel—a move that some believed paved the way for Greste’s release. One can only hope that the other two men will be freed soon as well. Sadly, there are plenty of other journalists languishing in jail in near anonymity.
UPDATE: They’re out on bail. Good news, at least for now.
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.
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.