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Return to Cairo

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Mom in Cairo: Back in our home, we’re adjusting to new normal

Monique El-Faizy
TODAY contributor

Author Monique El-Faizy moved, with her two young sons, referenced as X and T for privacy, and husband, Oliver, to Cairo on August 14, just as tensions reached a fever pitch. She’s there for a two-year stint while working on a book about Egypt. The delay of the kids’ school year rattled her nerves enough to take the boys and head to Rome but now, they’ve returned to their new home. Read the latest on her family’s progress. 

We’re back in Cairo.

Arriving this time was different from any other I can remember. I didn’t feel any of the anxiety I usually do. We were coming home.

That’s not to say I hadn’t worried we might not be able to return to Egypt. While we were in Italy, having fled with the kids when the kids’ American school announced it was delaying the start of classes, Mubarak was released from prison and the self-described anti-coup alliance announced a “Day of Martyrs,” calling for multiple demonstrations. The stage was set for some serious bloodshed.


                     X and T, walking to school in Cairo on their first week.

Monique El-Faizy
X and T, walking to school in Cairo on their first week.

The Back Story

So clearly we left Cairo. I had been jittery. Then again, I’ve been jittery pretty much every time I’ve come to Egypt since 2007, when a guy harassed me in a street for, I think, not being covered enough. So that’s nothing to go by.

The truth is, we were fine and our neighborhood felt completely safe. I think it was a combination of the gruesome images on TV, feeling unsettled in the hotel and hearing about all the families who were leaving. And the jet-lag and worry-induced insomnia. I hadn’t slept for more than 4 hours at a stretch since we’d arrived, and on the day I decided to leave I didn’t fall asleep until 7 or 8 in the morning—I’d been up all night watching the siege of the mosque that the MB protestors had barricaded themselves in.  So not at my most stalwart.

I realized that, but I figured we’d had a stressful summer trying to get ready for the move and, since the start of school had been postponed, I didn’t see much point in sticking around. We could barely feed the kids, between the curfew and our lack of a working stove, and it was only a matter of time before they got tired of being pent up in the house. We might as well take a relaxing little break on the beach, I reasoned. A close friend has an apartment in an Italian seaside town that is nearly always empty.

Nearly being the operative word. When I asked her if we could use it, her concern was that it was too rundown, or that there might not be mattresses there. But that wasn’t the issue, it turned out. No, as the email I received while buckling into the EgyptAir flight to Cairo told me, the issue was that it was rented.


Fortunately we’d planned to spend the first night in Rome, so we were okay for the time being. We were in one of my favorite cities in the world and had a bed to sleep in that night, so I couldn’t bring myself to worry. On the train ride from the airport to the city we met a lovely couple from NY who had just come back from doing volunteer work and going on safari in Africa. The boys had a blast telling them what superheroes they looked like.

And then the glitches started popping up. Both my US and Egyptian cell phones decided, for various reasons, to go on strike in Italy, so we’ve been without any reliable way to communicate with anyone unless we have access to Wi-Fi. Next, the hotel—which was fantastic (Hotel Artemide) and where I was hoping we could stay until we figured ourselves out, told me they were all booked for the following nights. The evening reception staff was terrific, though, and assured me they’d help me find somewhere in the morning.

The morning guy was decidedly less friendly (although I later found out he was holiday fill-in and normally worked in the back office). But he booked us into a sister hotel at a reasonable rate and told me everything was taken care of, which was a relief, given my telecommunication challenges. Thus assured, the boys and I set out for a day of sightseeing. We had a delicious lunch and a great time at the Coliseum. We returned to the hotel in the evening expecting to pick up our bags and go over to the sister hotel around the corner.

If only.

Unhelpful morning man had failed to tell the next shift about our little arrangement, nor had he given the sister hotel my name, so when they called later and asked who they were holding a triple room for, no one knew. Understandably, they gave it away. It is, after all, Rome in August.

Fabulous evening people, though, rode to our rescue, booking us in to a hotel next to the Forum, where we went after a nice meal on the rooftop of our first hotel. Hotel #2 was okay but not great and had only sporadic Internet access.

The kids though, were troopers, despite being exhausted and kept up way too late every night by their jet-lagged, insomniac mother. They have both fallen in love with Rome, although I suspect it has much to do with the daily pizza, pasta and gelato as it does with ruins. Although they’re quite good at indulging my talk of ancient civilization and architecture.

It’s day #3 and I’m writing this from our third hotel and our second city: Santa Marinella. After a slow morning in Rome and a line at the train station ticket office that took longer than the trip itself, we found ourselves in Santa Marinella, a seaside town on the coast less than an hour outside of Rome where, after a prolonged search for a beach escape for us, Oliver managed to book us into a basic but lovely hotel right across the street from the water. We plan to stay for another day, or two, or until we can find a room in Rome.beach boys

Out of Egypt

More of our saga from….

Flight from Egypt: As tensions rise, American mom and kids depart Cairo

Monique El-Faizy
TODAY contributor
Monique and her two boys in Rome.

Courtesy of Monique El-Faizy
The author and her two boys in Rome, where they flew to after leaving their new home in Cairo.

Author Monique El-Faizy moved, with her sons and husband, to Cairo on August 14. She’s there for a two-year stint while working on a book aboutEgypt, but tensions in the country rattled her nerves enough to take the boys and head to Rome while her husband stayed behind to continue setting up their new home. Read the latest on her family’s progress. 

Well…we fled. Temporarily.

I’m still not sure it was the right call, although our friends and family seem terribly relieved. The truth is, our little Cairo bubble was as quiet and safe as ever. I’ll admit — I felt edgy every time I turned on the news or heard about another company evacuating employees, but had I not known about those things, nothing in our neighborhood would have indicated to me that we should get out.

An expansion of yesterday’s post on….


Mom on move to Egypt: ‘We picked one hell of a day to arrive in Cairo’

Monique El-Faizy
TODAY contributor
The author, with her sons and husband.

Monique El-Faizy
The author, with her sons and husband, on vacation in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

A few months ago, I decided to relocate to Cairo with my two young sons, 8 and 12, for two years. I had hit the mid-life skids and was questioning my marriage and my career choices. The book about Egypt I had been working on was almost impossible to write from my home in New York, even with regular trips to Cairo, because the situation on the ground changed too frequently and too completely. My husband  a Brit and former journalist who believes strongly in the value of living abroad  agreed that the experience would be great for the kids and would be manageable with frequent visits. When we made the decision, Mohammed Morsi was president and Egypt seemed to be in the midst of a messy and bumpy transition to democracy. When we got there, things were entirely different.

We picked one hell of a day to arrive in Cairo.

Ominous Arrival?

Well, we picked one hell of a day to arrive in Cairo.

The last 24 hours have been a roller coaster ride. We scrambled to get packed and out of our apartment on time for our flight, and would never have made it without the help of a few amazing friends who went way beyond the call. I felt relaxed for the first time in weeks as I sipped prosecco and watched the clouds outside the plane window.

Alas, that bliss was short-lived. After a layover in Zurich, we arrived in Cairo with two tired boys and two traumatized cats and heard even before we had disembarked that angry mobs had set fires throughout the city in retaliation for the violent dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood protests. The man sitting behind me on the plane said a friend of his had booked him into an airport hotel because it was pointless to even try to get out of the airport—the unrest was just too widespread.

I called Marco, our driver, who would turn out to be more of a savior, and he said that downtown was a mess but the roads between Maadi and the airport were fine and he was there and waiting for us. We sailed through immigration and customs—our cats could have been foaming-at-the-mouth rabid for all anyone cared—and found Marco. A lifelong resident of Maadi, it quickly became clear that he is going to be my go-to guy on everything from where to buy a mattress to how to get my garbage removed every day.

Safely in the van and on our way to meet the owner of the villa, O started reading the news reports of the dispersal of the demonstrations—I was still without any kind of internet access—when I heard him gasp. A British journalist had been shot and killed. Mick Deane. Mick had been O’s cameraman at ITN when we lived in Hong Kong. They, along with correspondent Mark Austin, had traveled all over Southeast Asia together. Mick was a lovely, sweet man. We hadn’t even realized he was in Cairo. Needless to say, the blissful haze of the plane ride out of New York had fully dissipated by now.

There is more to the evening—I am writing this from a random hotel while Cairo is under curfew because we couldn’t get to our intended destination—but my battery is dying and I am fading. More tomorrow.

Facebook Fractures

Needless to say, the situation in Cairo has grown all the more heated after the latest round of massacres of pro-Muslim Brotherhood protestors. With the army taking charge in such a heavy handed way, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for people to stick to the black-and-white positions many of them had taken in the run-up to the June 30th ouster of former president Mohammed Morsi.

Not that they’re not trying. As an employee of the Egyptian Consulate in New York told me when I was there getting my boys’ birth certificates notarized, Egyptians are not good at accepting that others can hold differing opinions, or agreeing to disagree, so to speak. They’re also not particularly comfortable with acknowledging gray areas, preferring to paint things in absolute terms.  But given what’s gone on in Egypt over the past few days, it’s hard for anyone except the most polarized to acknowledge at least some level of murkiness in the situation there. There are plenty of people who were happy to see Morsi go who are now deeply disturbed at the sight of protestors being shot with live ammunition and the obvious ascendance of the Army. People don’t know what side to come down on anymore.

In a country where political discourse had been effectively shut down for the better part of 60 years, learning to disagree amicably isn’t coming easy. My contact in the Egyptian consulate told me his school friends are hardly capable of having civil conversations with him these days because of their divergent views on Morsi’s removal, and my Arabic tutor said that members of his extended family won’t even eat meals at the same table together—during Ramadan, of all times.

My own family seems to be staging a war of their own, with cousin openly bashing cousin on Facebook. I got dragged into it a couple of weeks ago—which got me thinking about the dark side of social media. Much is made about the power of social media to shrink the world, and that’s true, but it can expose previously invisible fault lines in relationships as well.

In the days before social media, I had no idea what my relatives in Egypt thought about politics, as it was rarely a topic of discussion during our visits there—at least in my presence. Now, not only are Egyptians freer in expressing their political opinions than they were under Mubarak, but social media allows the world to see what they think.

Facebook has transformed my interactions with my family, and not always for the better. Our differences have been laid bare and exchanges often get heated. I was on the receiving end of a barrage venomous enough that a friend messaged me offline to comment on it, then tried futilely to defend me by posting a comment elaborating on the point I was trying to make. (Interestingly, my family was much more polite when disagreeing with him; Egyptian hospitality toward strangers reigns supreme even during political discourse). There was even an insult hurled—granted, it was a generalization about Americans, but it was directed squarely at me, and it stung.

Sure, all families have fights, particularly about issues as sensitive as politics. But a disagreement around the Thanksgiving table is likely to be punctuated with moments of fondness and levity, reminders that one is among people whom, ultimately, one loves. Facebook encounters don’t provide these palliative moments. The very technology that has allowed me to maintain closer ties with my relatives in Egypt has revealed just how far apart we are on sensitive issues—all without the comfort of a slice of warm apple pie.

Our move to Cairo is now less than two weeks away, and by the time we get there it’s likely that some attempt will have been made to clear the pro-Morsi sit ins. There’s no way to know how that will turn out—although past performance doesn’t bode well—or what repercussions will be lingering when we arrive. In all likelihood the atmosphere will be tense. That goes, too, for the first Friday night dinner we will spend with my extended family. I just have to hope that being there in person and being reminded of mutual affection will make all the difference.


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