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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.

A Day in the Life…..

When I was in New York in January, a friend told me that what she most wanted to read about on the blog was what my daily routine is like. So here goes:

There’s a lot about life here that’s very similar to my life in New York. I wake up and get the kids up and ready for school. When Oliver is around, he might do it. Breakfast is the same thing it was in New York: toast, or Weetabix or French Toast or eggs. One of the first things I did was get an espresso machine because there’s a dearth of good coffee here, so that’s part of my morning routine as well. Every time I go to New York I bring back bags of La Colombe, so I’m still drinking the same delicious stuff. I will be miserable when that eventually runs out.

The school is nearby and T’s classes start a little earlier than X’s, so he’ll often walk ahead. There’s only one street to cross between our house and the school, and on the way we pass at least four uniformed and undercover police officers and two school crossing/security guards, all of whom know us by name, so I don’t worry that he’s not safe.

One of us takes X five or 10 minutes later. There’s a massive security wall around the school and only people with passes can get through the rotating gate. Drop-off is pretty pleasant; they’re often blasting music in the morning, so people kind of dance to class, and the principals and sometimes the superintendent are outside greeting the students as they arrive. It’s all quite sweet.

After that my routine is pretty much the same as it was in New York. I sit down to write, and try to find time to read the papers and exercise. Both are tough. There’s a ton of Egyptian press, which I read in translation, and I try to keep up with the American papers as well.

On the exercise front, the CSA, the community center for expats, has a gym with treadmills and group classes. Occasionally I’ll go over there for a run, though I hate running inside. Sometimes I’ll go run at the boys’ school, but the track isn’t open to parents until after 5:30 p.m. so I’m usually too busy with them and their afterschool stuff by then.  There are also spin classes at the CSA, which I haven’t tried, and a Pilates studio, which I have and which is fantastic. There’s a yoga studio up the road that I haven’t been to but I know a lot of people who take classes there and like it. I’ll get there eventually.

The truth is, I’m still trying to pretend I can recreate my New York workout routine here, which I can’t. I miss running along the Hudson, so don’t run as much here. I haven’t found anything I like as much as the Core Fusion classes I used to take at Exhale, so I do one of their videos several times a week. And I tend to do my yoga at home as well. Eventually, though, I’m going to stop clinging to my old habits and develop a new routine. I had started swimming at the school once or twice a week when the weather was still warm, but it’s a little too chilly for that now.

I’m alone in the house until 1, when my housekeeper arrives. That’s another difference: she comes every day, whereas in New York we only had someone come once a week. Most expats in our neighborhood have daily help. For starters, it’s far more affordable here than it was in the U.S., but it’s also more necessary. Cairo is incredibly dusty and things get dirty very, very quickly. Streets are hosed down several times a day to keep the dust under control (making them muddy instead) and I’ve noticed our neighbors have their cars washed daily or close to it. And, as crazy as it sounds, it’s really helpful to have someone else who can answer the door. Everything here is done in person, so the doorbell rings constantly throughout the day.

I go back to pick up the boys from school at 3 or 4 depending on the day, and then deal with their various after-school activities, just like back in the U.S. We either cook something for dinner or order from one of the local restaurants (there’s an Italian restaurant, a Greek café and a rotisserie chicken place that are our regular haunts) or eat at the club where the boys play tennis. That part of life here is pretty boring and we’ve all discovered that we don’t particularly like Egyptian food.

The boys' favorite meal

The boys’ favorite meal

Similarities aside, there are plenty of things here that have become normal for me that I think would look strange to any of my Western friends. For starters, there’s the scene outside our house. There are always people in the street—the same people. There are the bawabs, the superintendent/doormen who live in every apartment building. There are the private security guards stationed at various points along the street, and the police men who constantly patrol. And then there are the drivers who spend most of their days just waiting around until they are needed.

We live on a small street that’s pretty quiet, but even here we get a lot going on that would seem out of place in New York. Like the bikya guy: several times a day a guy pulling a big wooden cart behind him walks through the neighborhood yelling “bikya, bikya.” He buys household junk. Or the zabbaleen, the garbage guys. Sometimes they come by to collect the trash in an open-backed pickup truck; other times they come in a little donkey-pulled cart. You still see donkey carts mixed in with traffic on a regular basis here, even on the highways.

And then there’s the poverty, which I still haven’t gotten used to. Two days last week there was a man dressed in a white robe with a white scarf wrapped around his head calling out to God in a hoarse voice while he shuffled slowly down the street. It was haunting and heartbreaking. A police officer later told me he was “magnoon” or crazy. There don’t seem to be a lot of services for the mentally ill here. There’s a paraplegic man we see wheeling himself through a busy intersection in the neighborhood who looks like he may also suffer from a mental illness. I’m always terrified he’s going to get run over. I saw him the other day stopped in the middle of busy traffic trying to lift his lifeless legs to put his feet back on the foot rests. It’s heartbreaking.

And the animals. There are at least a dozen wild cats that live on our street, and probably more. And packs of dogs. They’re not always here, but they can be scary when they are. One of them went for X the other day. Lately I’ve seen a litter of puppies frolicking around. They’re adorable—as long as they’re little. We hear packs of the big ones barking all night long.

One of our neighborhood feline friends.

One of our neighborhood feline friends.

Life in Cairo is lived on an entirely different timetable. Things happen much, much later here. I called a local orthodontist at 9 p.m. the other night just to see if I had the right telephone number. To my shock, someone answered the phone and gave me an appointment.  Another orthodontist (we’re still choosing…) called me at 10:40 on a Thursday night (the first night of the weekend; Friday and Saturday are the non-working days here), to give me an appointment for 7 p.m. that Saturday. I asked for the address and she told me to call at noon the day of my appointment and they would give it to me then. I ended up getting sick and when I called to cancel, they didn’t even have my name in the book.

This post is getting long, so I’m going to wrap up. I’ll try to be better about including all the quirky differences about life here in future posts. And feel free to ask questions—I’ll happily answer them.

Salaam.

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