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Posts from the ‘Copts’ Category

The More Things Change…

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.

 

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Summer Vacation, Part One

Planes seem to be the only place I can reliably blog from—right now I’m on a flight from LAX to JFK. The boys and I have been in the States for the month of July, first in NY and most recently in Laguna Beach, California, where my dad lives.

It was nice to be back but, once again, our time in the U.S. was far more hectic than I’d anticipated. I guess I should realize by now that that’s par for the course—there’s so much to be done while we’re here that we can’t do in Egypt. I was hoping to have more leisure time to socialize and see friends, but it didn’t work out that way.

Our time in New York was thrown into disarray for the most heartbreaking of reasons: a college friend and sorority sister of mine lost her battle with ovarian cancer just two days after I’d arrived in New York. She had been amazing throughout her fight, displaying a seemingly boundless strength. I had been fortunate enough to see her when I was in New York in February and again in May, and had been awed by her positive attitude. I don’t think I would have been able to stay as upbeat and optimistic as she did. She was truly inspiring. She left behind adorable twin girls who are just over a year and a half old. Their father took wonderful care of his wife throughout her illness, so they will be in good hands, but it’s a tragedy for her entire family.

We had a lovely Fourth of July weekend with close friends in Amagansett, and got to see other people out there with whom I always enjoy spending time. My only complaint is that it was too short. These visits are never long enough to really catch up.

We managed to see all the doctors and dentists and orthodontists that we needed to, and T even had an unexpected encounter with an oral surgeon that relieved him of three teeth. I’ve bought cat food and boys’ shoes and shampoo and medications and various kitchen supplies that I can’t get in Egypt. I still have a few more things to pick up on our last day in New York—placemats and chrome cleaner, among them. I haven’t quite reached the level of one Cairo expat friend who buys presents for the birthday parties that her kids attend throughout the year and the foods her kids miss in Egypt, but we are going back with a new Wii U for the boys.

I don’t want to make is sound like the trip was miserable. Yes, we ran a lot of errands, but I also got to see a few friends in New York and caught up with some old college and High School friends in California. It was great to reconnect with them after all these years. The boys each spent time with some of their best friends in New York, and in August we’re going to Croatia with the families of two of T’s closest friends from UNIS. We stay with a close friend of mine in New York, so get to spend quality time with her and her kids, and we had a visit with a friend who lives in India and his fabulous wife and kids. We saw my parents in California and hung out with the boys’ beloved tennis coach. There are just so many people we didn’t get a chance to see…

All in all, we had a lovely time. New York no longer feels like home to me, or to T, although X says it still does to him, but it is still the city I know best in the world and it’s nice to be there. Maybe even nicer now that I no longer live there and don’t care about the teapot tempests one gets caught up in there without realizing it. But I’m looking forward to getting back to Cairo and back to work. I’ve missed having time to write. One of these days I’ll get around to blogging about my amazing trip to Upper Egypt with a Coptic charity. Now, though, our plane is beginning its descent.

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.

Gaining Speed

The pace of life here is starting to pick up. The kids are in school full-force; T’s after school activities started this past week and X’s start this week. I’m working more, exploring more and socializing more. Still no more furniture, though. I’m determined to remedy that tomorrow.

The boys continue to love school. T had a school social this week. He’s becoming increasingly independent. On Thursday X didn’t have classes because of parent conferences, so T went to school by himself. He left early in the morning, stayed afterward for sports practice, and the social was at 6 p.m. that evening so he hung around for that. I didn’t see him until 8 p.m. that night. He had a blast. He’s loving how much more independence he gets here.

I spent the morning exploring Road 9—our neighborhood’s main shopping road—with X. We started out at Lucille’s, a restaurant famous among expats for their breakfasts and burgers (okay, I detoured to Café Greco for a good cappuccino first…), then meandered up the street. We found what looked like a fantastic bakery and a cupcake store that wouldn’t be out of place in New York. I stumbled upon Saad Silver, the new outpost of the small chain of silver stores where my family has been shoppingfor years. I went in and introduced myself, and I happened to be carrying a key chain I bought from their store decades ago. The owner claimed to remember my parents, and promised me great prices. They have beautiful stuff.

That afternoon I met with X’s teacher for my parent conference. He seems to be adjusting remarkably well. I continue to be impressed by the school and at how much fun they manage to make everything for the kids.

When I was coming back home I heard what sounded like a cat massacre. I didn’t think too much of it, because with all the wild cats in the streets there’s always a lot fighting going on. Still, it was the most intense cat screaming I’d heard so far, and it sounded like it was in our next door neighbor’s yard. This morning when we woke up, our wild kittens were nowhere to be seen. I put some food out for them—I’d done that yesterday and they’d gobbled it all up—but as of this writing at 9:30 p.m. I have yet to see a kitten and the food is still all there. I have all the garden lights on and keep peering out the back windows, but there is no sign of them. I fear the worst.

I went on my first-ever felucca ride this week, organized by the school for new parents. It was beautiful. I can’t wait to take one with the boys.

A Nile Beauty

A Nile Beauty

We spent much of today with an old friend from NY who’s living here now. She has an adorable little boy who X got along with well. They don’t live particularly close to us, but I hope we manage to see them regularly. Tomorrow I am determined to decide upon a couch—particularly now that I have managed to open a bank account, which involves a somewhat complicated and abstruse approval process.  Then the boys have some sort of sporting day at school, so we’re likely to be there for much of the afternoon.

We continue to be infested by ants. Tiny little black ones and big giant light brown ones. The black ones are fast little suckers who will swarm any stray crumb within moments of its deposit on a floor or counter top, and can get in to anything (including sealed Ritz crackers and cat food, we learned the hard way). Supposedly, they are seasonal. We also have giant golden-brown ants. They are bold and undeterrable and seem to live in the walls. A nightmare. I’m worried about spraying because of the cats and, without knowing what kind of ants they are, I’m concerned that I’ll do something to make things worse.

The dishwasher and sink continue to shock. The boys refuse to put plates in the dishwasher at this point. The electrician is supposed to come Sunday morning. And then I am meeting with the country representative from Medecins du Monde to learn more about what they’re doing here (I’m on the U.S. board). And on Monday—hold on to your hats—I am venturing outside of the Maadi bubble into downtown Cairo for a meeting and then lunch with a friend of a friend of a friend. I grow ever bolder…

On the political front, well….the government/army crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and militants in Sinai continues, as do the attacks on army troops in Sinai. The tougher the army gets, the more popular they seem to be. Houses all over Maadi sport Egyptian flags; one taxi driver told me that they are displayed in a show of support for the army overthrow of Morsi.

There certainly does seem to be a feeling of nationalism pervading the country. One Coptic leader I spoke to said Christians have been careful not to turn to outsiders for help in light of all the recent church burnings, because they want to emphasize their solidarity with all the other anti-Morsi Egyptians, of any religion. There is an emphasis here these days on Egyptian identity and a bit of an insider vs. outsider attitude—which creates a quandary for a government that is also trying to lure back tourists who are, by definition, not Egyptian.

 

Wrapping Up

Concerns of my grandmother’s demise were unfounded; she recovered, or attained a state that passes for recovery in a somewhat ailing 95-year-old woman, yesterday. Today she was still not feeling great, but my father had arranged a surprise birthday party for her and she rallied. In the end, she really enjoyed herself.

My father and grandmother at her 95th birthday party

My father and grandmother at her 95th birthday party

My father has started negotiations on the villa. I’m glad he’s doing it. Not only did he offer far less than I would have had the guts to, but he’s not budging. And I know he’s right. A lot of people are leaving when school lets out at the end of June and a ton of new places will come onto the market. I’m not worried about losing it—while I would love to end up there, if it fall through there will be plenty of other places. And still, I know I would have caved on a million points by now.

I managed to get out yesterday to see my friend R. We met at a Nile-side restaurant in Zamalek called Sequoia that’s frequented by expats and wealthy Egyptians. It’s a different world from the one I inhabit when I’m in Heliopolis: cocktails, shisha, plush furniture, wi-fi and good food. It was great to see R and meet her boyfriend and 6-year-old son.  She’s been living here for nearly a year now and is enjoying herself. Her son told me that Cairo isn’t quite as good as California, where R’s family lives, but he likes it here a lot.

All in all it’s been a productive trip, and I’m feeling much less apprehensive about our move here. I think we’re going to have a great time. Okay. It’s getting late and the car is coming at 4 am to take us to the airport. I can’t wait to get home and see the boys.

The Search is On

It’s been an exhausting few days here in Cairo, but, overall, good ones. I spent Tuesday and Wednesday looking at apartments in Maadi. The first few flats I saw were a bit depressing—one was very nice, but too small and too expensive for what it was, and the other two had grungy bathrooms and no outdoor space at all. The next day, though, I went out with a great broker named Monzer, and I liked every place he showed me. He made me feel much more optimistic about being able to find something we would all be happy in. It’s a little too early to be looking, though, as some of the places he thought I would like he can’t show until June 1.

All of the apartments we looked at were within two blocks of the school we applied to for the boys, and a few were right across the street. It would be great to be so close for a few reasons. First of all, the campus is huge and has a ton of places to play, and from what I hear it serves as an informal community center, so I think the kids will spend a lot of time just hanging out there. Also, school starts really early—around 8 am, I think—so being close will make it easier for the boys to get to school on time. T always wants to go to bed later, and balancing a reasonable bed time with his need for sleep is a constant challenge.

I toured the school on Tuesday. It’s an amazing campus, and it seemed like a happy place. It’s so big and spread out that it’s hard to get a sense of it, particularly the lower school. I got a better feel for the middle school, which looked fantastic. The kids are allowed to take electives, and there was one in which they design something on computers for the first part of the trimester and then build it for the second part. I think T will be very happy there.

I’m less clear what X’s experience will be like in the elementary school. I’m sure it will be great, but I am mindful of how upset he is to be leaving UNIS and we have been so happy there that I share some of his sadness on that front. I know the school in Cairo will be a wonderful experience, but UNIS has been a really special place for us. T, on the other hand, will be in heaven at the Cairo school, if only because there are ping pong tables in the recreation area where the kids hang out during their lunch hour.

Monday was a big holiday here called Sham el-Nessim, which marks the beginning of spring and dates back to ancient times. We went to my aunt Noona’s house, where the family gathers every Friday, too. She has a big villa with a swimming pool in a gated community in one of the many irrigated-green developments that have sprung up in the desert outside the Cairo ring road—respite for well-off Cairenes looking for an escape from the pollution and grime of crowded Cairo. I’ve been there a million times with my extended family, but this time her side of the family was there as well. What an eye opener that was. I don’t really know any of them. They were great fun and quite different from my side of the family.

I spent a lot of time talking to S and his wife Y, who I think will become friends once I move here. They were both great. S, it turns out, hung out with my brother when he spent a summer here as a 9 year old. He’s been very involved with organizing the Copts politically and started to tell me a bit about what they’re doing. There’s a great story in there. I didn’t have time to get the details, but will revisit the subject with him when I back in August.

Okay. The driver is here. Time to go back to Maadi with my father and look at some more apartments….

Yesterday’s News

I mean to post this yesterday but ended up using up all the credit on the Wi-Fi stick I bought (see below) because I logged on before the package had been activated. My telecom challenges continue….

I arrived in Cairo last night after a couple of days of very jet-lagged days in Paris.  I haven’t managed to do a ton so far but already I can sense that the atmosphere is very different here than it was a year ago. While people talk about crime and fear still—some, like my grandmother, more—they seem to be less tense, as though the dangers have been factored in to their daily lives. Oliver, who is English, likened it to the way Brits learned to live with the constant threat of IRA bombs during those years.

Today is Easter, but the real celebration happened last night. Everyone goes to late-night mass at the church, and then the family gathered at my late-aunt’s apartment, across the hall from my grandmother’s apartment, where I am staying, for a meal at midnight. Apparently you’re supposed to eat right in the earliest moments of Easter morning, i.e. right after midnight. I’ve never been a huge fan of the traditional Easter food. I didn’t get a good look at it last night, but I saw the boiled lamb that is always served, and there were kidneys in some sort of green sauce. I didn’t ask what it was because I wasn’t planning on staying to eat. It was well after 1 a.m. and I was still wiped out from jet lag. I’d only gone over to say hi to the family.

It was nice to see everyone. They all seemed pretty relaxed. Most of them knew I was planning to move and while a few of them pressed me on exactly why I would want to do such a thing, for the most part their reactions were positive. One of my second cousins has three adorable daughters, two of whom are almost the same ages as my boys. I’m hoping they become friends.  I’m curious to see how X will deal with these family gatherings, though. The kids are all girls and they are so quiet at these things it’s unbelievable. They sit for hours, talking in low voices and chatting with one relative or another. I can’t quite imagine X being able to keep it all so low-key. It’s going to be interesting.

Telecommunications are, as always, a challenge. I made my requisite trip to the Mobinil store up the street, doubtless the first of many. I had brought a cheap phone I’d bought in a drugstore back in NY thinking I could put an Egyptian SIM card in it, but I hadn’t realized it was locked. So after going through about 20 telephone numbers, choosing the easiest one to remember (which I don’t, although I do remember the last four digits), paying for it and signing all the paperwork, we found out that we couldn’t activate the phone. I’m going to try to find a cheap burner phone tomorrow that will take this SIM card I spent so much time getting set up today.

And then there’s the Internet. I had a USB stick, but I hadn’t used it so long that it was no longer valid. So I got a new data card for that, reactivated that account, got that home and up and running, and before I knew it I had burned through the package that was supposed to last me the whole week. She told me to wait a while before I started using it otherwise the rates would be higher. I guess I didn’t wait long enough. But I noticed that there’s a cute Italian restaurant on the corner that has free Wi-Fi. I think I’ll be spending a lot of time there.

The woman who helped me at the store was very nice and helpful. When we were wrapping up, she wished me a good Easter. For a second I wondered how she could tell what religion I was and then I realized. She needed my ID card to sign me up for phone service. All Egyptian ID cards state one’s religion. I thought it was heartening that in this increasingly polarized Egypt, a Muslim (albeit an unveiled one) would wish a Christian a good Easter, but it was also a reminder that I’m going to have to get used to religious labeling becoming part of my daily life here.

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