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A Tourism Backfire

I’m writing this on a flight from Amsterdam to Cairo, where we spent the past week. We had a great week in Amsterdam, eating our way through the city. The boys tried all the Dutch specialties I grew up with. It was chilly and rainy—and we didn’t mind in the least, coming from always-warm Cairo. That’s a real change for me. I’m normally such a baby about cold weather.

The boys had a break from school because of the Eid al-Adha holiday, which marks the end of the annual Hajj to Mecca and commemorates Ibraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail to Allah. As in the Judeo-Christian telling, God stopped Ibrahim from killing his offspring, sending a lamb instead. In observance of the occasion, Egyptians slaughter an animal and donate a portion of the meat to the poor. Apparently the streets in parts of Cairo run red with blood on the day of the feast. I didn’t think we were quite ready for that.

I had needed a break. I had been on edge in the days before we left. There had been more to deal with of late. There was the RPG attack on the satellite dish in our neighborhood, and the 50 people killed in demonstrations on Armed Forces Day on October 6. And I didn’t make matters any better by deciding it was time for me to get the boys out of the cocoon of our neighborhood just as the self-described anti-coup alliance called for three days of protests. They’re still agitating against the overthrow of President Morsi.

I thought I had planned well. I knew the pyramids could be a dicey proposition because with the dearth of tourists the guides and hawkers there, starved for business, have grown very aggressive, but I also told myself we couldn’t live in Cairo for two years and never see the pyramids. And there is no guarantee that the situation here will get better. For all I know, now is as good as it is going to get.

I decided to play it safe. I booked a room in the Palace Wing of Mena House, the beautiful and storied historic hotel a stone’s throw from the pyramids. We’d go there, enjoy an afternoon by the pool, have a nice meal at the Indian restaurant—reputed to be the best in Cairo—and decide the next morning if we wanted to visit the monuments. I figured the tour guides at Mena House would know if it was safe to go.

The best-laid plans….

We got to within spitting distance of Mena House without incident (I wasn’t sure we’d be able to, as Giza, the area where they pyramids are, has seen its fair share of clashes recently) when things started to go wrong. The approach to Mena House is also the one used by many tourists heading to the pyramids and, before we realized what was happening, four men had rushed our car trying to get us to ride their horses or camels or god knows what. We signaled to them that we weren’t interested, but one of them—as it happened, the one with crooked eyes that made him look deranged and unhinged—jumped on to the back of the car.

The kids were terrified. The cab driver sped up, then stopped, then sped up again. We couldn’t shake him. The driver got out of the car and yelled at him, then got back in and sped off. The tenacious fellow held on for dear life. The kids were frozen with fear. Even I was shaken, and I knew what was going on, I knew he that he was acting out desperation and had no intention of hurting us; he just wanted us to hire him to do whatever it was he did.  All the while, the guards at Mena House stood idly by and watched it happen. It wasn’t the first time they witnessed that scene that day and it wouldn’t be the last.

When we got near enough to make eye contact I beckoned one of the uninterested Mena House guards over to the car, but by then the guy was leaving. Or maybe it was the approaching soldier that scared him off. I have no idea. All I know is that the boys were traumatized. Hours later, after we’d had a nice lunch by the pool and gone for a swim and were back in our lovely room, they told me there was “no way” they were going to the pyramids the next day. So the view from our window was as close as we got. I’ll try again in few months.

The View from our Room

I have yet to see any of my Egyptian relatives. One of my father’s cousins called a couple of weeks ago. He was going to travel for the holiday, as were we. He said we would get together after the break. I look forward to that. I noticed, though, that several of my cousins have unfriended me on Facebook. I have no idea why. I can only deduce that it’s because of my nationality (anti-American sentiment here as high as I’ve ever seen it).  Whatever the reason, I’m quite shocked by it, as family is generally paramount in Egypt. Still, I’m looking forward to finally seeing the family and introducing the boys to their cousins.

It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, but the negative feelings toward Americans are tied up with wild theories and beliefs about Obama that have widely been accepted as fact. Many of them are completely illogical, and the funny thing is each side thinks he’s in bed with their opponents. Thankfully, most of the Egyptians we have gotten to know tend to be of the rational and independent-thinking variety, but the mainstream of Egypt makes the Birthers and the Tea Partiers look almost reasonable these days. It’s all so ludicrous that it’s amusing.

I know I now have many of you wondering what I’m talking about, but I just can’t bring myself to propagate the nonsense. Take Pamela Geller and her extreme-right cronies, intensify what they say by a magnitude, remove any trace of logic, and you’ll be close. (And some of the links below will explain more).

I will say, though, that, aside from the cold shoulder I’m getting from my cousins on Facebook, the anti-Americanism is confined to ill feelings about Obama and his Administration. Egyptians are careful to make the distinction between government action and citizens, and the boys and I have never felt unwelcome because of our nationality, despite Obama’s deep unpopularity here.

Speaking of Americans, I have my first visitor coming, @pfro. Ever the intrepid traveler, she’s touring the country. I can’t wait to see her.

 

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Urban Warfare

Well, I’d been concerned these blog postings had been getting a bit banal, but this week we have some real excitement in the form of ROCKET PROPELLED GRENADES. Ironically, although I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to distinguish between gunshots and fireworks (the popping sounds are usually fireworks), when I was awoken by two huge booms at 4:30 a.m., I told myself it was nothing and just rolled over and went back to sleep.

Wrong again. Good thing I’m not a war reporter. Turns out a couple of over-armed black-masked men decided to try to take out a TV satellite dish; the main satellite field is located uncomfortably close to our house. A couple of days later, video of the attack surfaced on the Internet. The guys behind it were members of a Syrian group with ties to Al Qaeda. Fantastic.

The assault on the satellite dish was the topper to the October 6 holiday, Armed Forces Day. There were festivities throughout the country. Needless to say, the MB thought the day presented a terrific opportunity to once again make their point that they are waiting for their democratically elected leader Mohammed Morsi to resume his rightful place at the helm of the Egyptian state. By the end of the day, more than 50 were dead and hundreds had been injured.

Also on the urban warfare front: we have defeated the army of ants that had invaded our home. O came from New York armed with heavy artillery in the form of massive doses of ant poison. The traps proved fairly useless, but the poisoned gel that we piped into their lair did the trick. We can now leave food out in the open for more than 10 seconds without an ant assault. There are still a few stragglers, but we have at least temporarily defeated the occupying forces.

O also brought with him a basketball hoop for T’s birthday. It was the one thing T told me he really wanted our house in Cairo to have, and he’s thrilled now that it’s here. He and X go out and shoot hoops nearly every day. And since there still isn’t a ton to do IN the house, it’s a relief that they have something to do outside.

On the household front: The couch is due to be delivered any day now. I can’t wait. The carpenter stopped by yesterday and said he had finished building the loft beds and now they just needed to be stained. He had come to the house with swatches so the kids could choose fabric for their desk chairs. The choices were pretty limited but they both opted for a funky 60s-style graphic black-and-white print with bright orange and red accents. Quite cute.

Finally, I realized I’d never closed the chapter on the shocking dishwasher. It’s still electrifying—apparently that’s just par for the course here, where nothing is grounded. But supposedly the previous tenants, who worked for a big oil company had an electrician who did ground the appliances, and there was some sort of extra wire that nasty Zanussi guy didn’t know how to deal with. So he attached it to the sink, and hence the jolting water. The electrician came and took care of that, but the dishwasher still zaps us. There’s a switch on the wall that cuts power to it, and he told me to just turn it off between cycles, which we now do. The one time I forgot, I got a little shock again. But now my laptop zings me as well, so I’ve decided to learn to live with it. Maybe all the extra electricity will be like getting hit by lightning and I’ll develop some sort of superpower.

 

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