Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Kids in Cairo’ Category

Training It

Well, the boys and I are on a train from Brussels to Paris, with the lovely countryside whizzing past our window at this very moment. I didn’t get a chance to write on the plane (yes, I was sleeping), so I’m using the train ride instead. I love train travel in Europe. It’s so civilized and efficient. It’s a shame Amtrak can’t quite figure out how to do it right in the U.S.

The last few weeks in Cairo have been a blur. X was sick—twice, I was out for three days with a migraine and then a few days later caught X’s stomach bug. I just got back to normal early this week.

I’ve been loving Cairo. I’m completely comfortable moving around the city now and have really grown fond of the place. I wish we could stay another year or so, but I just don’t think it makes the most sense in terms of the boys’ academic timetables.

We’re getting out of the bubble more. We went to an interesting dinner party in the most incredible apartment I’ve seen thus far in Cairo. The building is right on the Nile and used to belong to a famous singer. Our hosts live in the penthouse apartment. They have a massive balcony that runs the length of the flat and has views all the way up and all the way down the river. The view is stunning.

The week before the dinner party we took the Nile Taxi—speedboats that zip you to various destinations up and down the river—with friends to Sequoia, an open-air restaurant on the tip of Zamalek, a residential island in the middle of the Nile. The restaurant is surrounded by water on three sides, and it’s striking. X took some nice photos. It feels good to be exploring more.

0140ea599f3234f3207e98a27ec88d4c976d1a579f 01446112d61dde11335594b444de756044d8f82985

Speaking of train travel, I’m hoping to get up to Alexandria with the boys in the next few weeks. It seems the best way to get there is the high-speed train (Spanish technology, if I’m not mistaken). It’s super fast—around two hours—and at less than $10 per ticket, enticingly inexpensive. I’ve never been to Alexandria and have always wanted to go. I’m reading Naguib Mahfouz’s “Miramar” right now, which is set in the seaside city, making a trip there all the more appealing.

The boys are having a good year so far. X loves his teacher and seems to be doing well in school. T has been working harder than ever and also joined the cross country team. With five practices a week, I was worried he wouldn’t be able to handle it, but he’s doing a great job of balancing that, his school work, and all his other activities. I probably shouldn’t be surprised. He turned 14 last weekend, so he’s a fully fledged teenager now.

That’s Egypt. But we’re on our way to Paris, where the boys have interviews at the school we’re applying to for next year. Fingers crossed. I feel a bit torn. There’s a lot that is appealing to me about a move to Paris, but I’ve also grown incredibly fond of Egypt. There’s so much about it that I will really miss: I love the climate, the monochromatic palate of dusty shades of beige and the sandy burning smell that permeates the city.

As frustrating as it can be, I love the insanity and the non-functionality of Egypt, and how Egyptians accept all of that as just the way life is. I love the levity and humor that infuses so much of life here. I know it sounds crazy to anyone who hasn’t lived here or somewhere like it, but I’m a little sad at the prospect of returning to a country that actually functions.  Overcoming the difficulties and challenges of life in Egypt is part of what makes it rewarding. I’m also afraid that when we move back to the developed world, we will get sucked back into the materialism and fake pressures. There’s something so liberating about living in a country where trends are essentially non-existent, where you feel lucky just to have food and clothing and the impetus to buy the latest this or eat the latest that isn’t a factor.

Having said all of that, we’re about 15 minutes away from the Gare do Nord, and I am so looking forward to our week in Paris and, yes, the great food and pretty clothes and all the trappings and ease of Western life. Color me conflicted.

Advertisements

Drama in the Bubble

School is in full swing and life here is getting back to normal. Our full routines aren’t in place yet—extracurriculars are still gearing up—but they’re getting there.

No longer the newbies, we’ve reached the stage where most things are familiar and we’re eager to venture out more, or at least I am. A big part of me wishes we could do a third year here, but it just doesn’t work with the kids’ school. I don’t want to move T during high school and, as much as I love it here, I’m not ready to commit to another four years in Cairo after this one.

The thought that this is our last year infuses everything I do. I’m trying to stay in the moment, but I find myself counting down lasts, as in, this is our last chance to do this or that, this is our last first day of school here, our last autumn here, you name it. And I’m thinking about our next destination more and more. I need to pull myself back and focus on where we are now. I do love it here.

Life is different in year two. We’re more comfortable moving around the city. We’re making changes in our daily life, including firing our gardener, who was terrible and was ripping us off on top of it. We’ve found a new one, an incredibly nice guy who has transformed our garden. He’s planted a bunch of jasmine in the plot in front of my office terrace, so when I go sit outside to drink my coffee or edit, I’m surrounded by its beautiful scent. I can already anticipate its Proustian effect.

We have new neighbors on either side of us, whom seem very nice, but we do miss our old ones. There’s a new, huge, restaurant that opened up across the street from us. I’m less than thrilled about it because it has a ton of outdoor seating and I’m worried about the noise. So far, the constant music has been annoying (though they do seem to have turned it down) and there’s a real clamor coming from kids play area. The Egyptian idea of bed time differs wildly from mine.

On a somewhat more positive note, there’s a new butcher shop in the neighborhood, and it is pristine. That’s a welcome addition. They have everything you could want and, best of all, they deliver.

I’m really enjoying the feeling of knowing my way around and am eager to explore the parts of Cairo I don’t know. I was wandering around my neighborhood this weekend further afield than I normally go and noticed how entirely at ease I now feel walking through the streets.

I’ve vowed to myself that I’ll be more social this year and make more of an effort to go to cultural events and to put myself in situations where I’m forced to speak Arabic. I called a local orphanage to see if the boys and I could volunteer there. The director said she’d call me back, but as I write this I realize I need to follow up with her.

I’ve also resolved to get the boys out and about more frequently. We’re running out of time to visit all the must-see sites in Egypt. I’m putting together a list so I can plan accordingly. We’re starting small: tomorrow we’re taking the Nile Taxi up the river to Zamalek with another family from the school.

Being away for the summer has allowed me the space to look at the city with fresh eyes—and remark upon its idiosyncrasies. My friends are always asking me about how life in Cairo differs from life in New York or elsewhere in the U.S., so I’ll share things as I notice them:

-Taxis: Whenever you walk down the street you will be honked at by every empty taxi that goes by. It’s terribly annoying and feels vaguely harassing. If I wanted a taxi, I’d be trying to hail one. It feels vaguely harassing.

UPDATE:

I was going to edit and post this (Friday) morning, but before I had a chance to, while I was working on something else, I heard a crazy din outside. That’s not so unusual—Egyptians are rather voluble—but it lasted for so long that I finally left my office and went to look out an upstairs window to see what was going on. A big yellow front loader was parked in front of Fire and Ice, the restaurant, blocking all the traffic on the street. It was surrounded by police. A man was in the basket, elevated in the air, and was shouting at the top of his lungs. All I could hear him saying was “you’re in Egypt, you’re in Egypt.”

photoOur bawab later told us that there had been so many complaints about the restaurant—hundreds, he said—that the police had shut the place down. They took down all the lights, all the speakers and removed all the patio furniture. The melee lasted for several hours.

I can’t say I’m disappointed, as being forced to listen to their music for 12 hours a day was making me a lunatic, but it does seem rather drastic. I would have been happy for the police just to remove the sound system, or to confine it to inside. Clearly someone around here has some serious juice with the local authorities.

Oh, Egypt. It’s one big soap opera.

Holiday Cheer

Phew! I am always so relieved when Christmas is behind us. Usually we have a crush of holidays in December—X’s birthday, Sinterklaas, Christmas, Orthodox Christmas, New Year’s Eve. By the time my birthday rolls around in January I’m too exhausted to want to do anything. This year, though, we’re down to two holidays—Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and we’ve already made it through one.

T opening presentsChristmas was nice. O came in from NY—he’s here for good now—and brought all the presents with him.The boys were so happy. We had a mellow day, and just cooked dinner at home. The next day we drove to Ain Sokhna, a resort on the Red Sea about a 90 minute drive from Cairo, with two other families who have kids in X’s class, one from South Sudan and one from Bangladesh. It was quite the cultural mélange.

The weather in Ain Sokhna was about the same as in Cairo—in the low 60s, but somehow on the beach it felt much warmer. The kids had a blast playing in the sand—they made a giant sand castle—and it was warm enough for me to swim in the sea, although not for too long. Still, it was a great getaway. I think we’ll go back pretty regularly. The roads are good, it’s an easy drive and it’s such a nice break from Cairo that I imagine we’ll go at least a few times a year.Sand Castles

I’ve been running around Cairo doing interviews for the book, which is always exhausting. I had a meeting yesterday in a neighborhood called Shubra, which is about as far north of downtown as I am south. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper the whole way up there, and the entire round trip, interview included, took nearly five hours. It’s hard to get much done when a single meeting can take up your whole day.

Still, I’ve been venturing out of our little bubble pretty regularly. I’m going a bit stir crazy down here. We met a friend of X’s at the Gezira Club last week, which was lovely. They have absolutely everything there—playgrounds, restaurants, tennis, squash, gymnastics, soccer, golf….you name it. I was hoping to do some shopping while we were up in Zamalek but, once again, traffic was so bad that just getting there took it out of us.

Now that O is here there’s a new round of annoying banalities to be dealt with, and they’re even harder this go around. I’m an Egyptian citizen so, by comparison, was able to do things with relative ease. He tried to get an Egyptian cell phone number yesterday and couldn’t because he’s currently here on a tourist visa. They told him he would have to establish residency or get a letter from his employer to be able to get anything other than a prepaid phone. I can’t wait to see what happens when he tries to open a bank account or get added to mine.

I am becoming increasingly exercised about the position of women in Egyptian society. The sexism is everywhere, and so corrosive. I make weekly objections to both of my Arabic tutors about their curricula (which neither of them is responsible for, but who else am I going to complain to?). The rich men are always married to beautiful women and the poor men have fat, ugly wives. Today we were learning vocabulary around one’s daily routine. The man got up, ate breakfast, got dressed and went to work. The woman woke up, fed her family, cleaned the house and then visited with her friends.

But the truth is, the women in Egypt are as responsible for the state of affairs as men are. When I complained to my teacher today, he told me that he talks about this issue with his colleague at the university. His female colleagues just want to get married—to pretty much anyone. And these are women pursuing graduate degrees. I’ve noticed this here before. The women believe it is their duty to cook and clean and take care of their husbands. Men are held responsible for very little. The old attitudes hold and traditional gender roles are entrenched. Until the women themselves push back against them, nothing will change.

Things are going downhill on the political front. There have been several bombings over the past week and there is no reason to think we’ve seen the end of that. The government crackdown on the Brotherhood is more repressive than anything I saw when I was living in the Soviet Union. It’s gotten so nuts that they’re now arresting journalists for reporting on the Brotherhood. These new policies seem destined to backfire.

But the boys and I are about to have a temporary reprieve. We’re flying to NY in a few days and will be there for a week. We’re all looking forward to seeing our friends and being able to enjoy a city that functions for a while. I just hope it’s not too cold.

Milestones and Mail

Momentous Moment: We finally made it to the pyramids this week, and we lived to tell the tale. X, who had been the most nervous of all, got off to a shaky start when, as we were climbing up the ramp inside the Great Pyramid, he started worrying that it might collapse on us, but once we were in the burial chamber on the top he was fine. When it was all done he decided he loved the experience, and he was the only one of us who was up for a camel ride. Now I can tick one of the many must-sees off my list. Phew!

The boys had a great last few days of school. Big parties and lots of fun, and Santa rode in on a camel. What more could a Cairo kid want? Yesterday we went out and got our tree. We were running out of time. The boys didn’t really want one but I insisted. T watched “No Impact Man” in his global affairs class and is worried about our carbon footprint, so we wound up getting a live tree. It’s not a fir and can hardly hold ornaments, but it’s cute and hopefully we’ll be able to keep it alive. T is skeptical; understandably so, given my track record with plants and fish, and our gardener has managed to turn our back lawn into mud so he’s unlikely to be much help.

Our tree

Speaking of my gardener…he sweetly delivered a little fenugreek plant to me the other day. It has the name “Joyce” taped on it. I’m expecting an angry visit from the first grader whose science project I stole any day now.

The past few days have been a crush of playdates and sitting in traffic and getting ready for Christmas. Speaking of which, I miraculously got a holiday card from my friend who just moved to London, in record time, no less. And they say the mail here doesn’t work. She was the one who had asked me all those questions, which I hadn’t finished answering (and by the way, I’m happy to answer any other questions), so here goes:

What’s it like at the market or supermarket and what do you generally cook for dinner?

Ugh. Food shopping here is no fun. T said the other day that he misses Whole Foods and I am right there with him. The meat in Egypt is enough to make anyone turn vegetarian. The local markets are fine—but just fine. They’re like New York bodegas.  There are a couple of bigger stores that are supposed to be nicer, but they’re too far for me to get to easily. One of them has an online shopping service and the meat and fish are pretty good quality, so I tend to get a weekly delivery from there and supplement with stuff from the local bodega-type shop. My housekeeper cooks for us once a week (more if I’m out) and we eat twice a week at the club where T takes his tennis lesson. In between I end up making a lot of pasta, salmon and chicken.

Do you think like an Egyptian or an American abroad and how much do you truly identify with your roots?

 What I realize being here is how much I am the classic “third-culture kid.” I never really saw myself as an Egyptian-American in New York because all the Egyptian-Americans I met there were immigrants who spoke fluent Arabic, which I do not. Plus, my mother is Dutch, which complicates things even further. But I was at a party here a few weeks ago where almost everyone was like me. They were Egyptians, full or half, who had grown up abroad or partly abroad or in a lot of different countries. Many of the uber cosmopolitan Egyptians, even those who were raised up here but went to American schools, don’t speak much more Arabic than I do, or at least they aren’t fluent. I find I identify a bit with the Egyptians, a bit with the Dutch (I have become friendly with several of the Dutch mothers at the boys’ school) and a bit with the Americans, but not fully with any of them. I think my kids—and yours, London friend—will be in the same boat.

 What do you miss and what are you happy being away from? Are you homesick? Could you stay longer than your projected stay of a few years?? So many questions! 

I don’t know that I miss anything about New York, per se, in that I never have moments that I’m sad about the absence of things. I see pictures and I get nostalgic about the quality of the light, and when I order sushi here I remember how much better it was there. I miss Amazon and Whole Foods and good dry cleaners and other conveniences, but those are really little things for me, and not having them is also part of the challenge of life here, which is what makes it fun. Oh, I do miss running along the Hudson River. A lot.

I’m glad to have a break from the self-importance of New York, which you completely lose sight of when you’re there. I’m glad my kids are getting a different view of their place in the world. In New York they, particularly X, were aware of how much more money people around us had than we did; now they are keenly aware of how privileged we are from a global perspective. That lesson alone was worth the time spent here. T had learned that earning $7,000 a year puts a person in the global consumer class, and the boys were commenting on how much more than that everyone they know in New York earns. They know people here—people they see and interact with every day and whose homes they have been in (our gardener, our bawab, etc.)—who don’t earn that much. They see Western consumption and consumerism in a very different light now. Which isn’t to say they are immune to their lure—but they are more aware of it and how much they have in relation to other people in the world.

And there isn’t the same following of trends and fashions here, even among the super wealthy. It’s nice to be away from that.  There are a lot of other things that you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about when you live in the U.S. that look absolutely nuts when you’re here—at least to me—like the lack of gun control. Every time I pick up a newspaper it seems as though someone has walked into a hospital or a school and opened fire, and there’s hardly a response. The insanity of that is starker from here

I look forward to seeing my friends when we go back to New York and I wish they would ALL come visit, but I can’t say I’m homesick. I could easily stay longer here, aside from the restriction of T going to High School, which I don’t think I want him to do here. But I equally can’t see myself wanting to move back to New York in a year and a half. X was saying he thought we should move to India for two years (his best friend from NY is about to move there) and then to Italy for two years, and then somewhere else. If nothing else, the past year has taught me that life is full of tricks. I’m not trying to plan at this point. We’re here for another year and a half, and possibly a year beyond that. Where we wind up after that is anyone’s guess. It’s a big, big world.

Celebrations

Poor O. He got here Friday and I have handed off all the tasks that I find too annoying to do. He spent three hours on the phone today with our Internet provider, trying to get our service sorted out. As it stands, you can’t have more than one device online at a time.

But it hasn’t been all terrible for him. I managed to get the couch delivered the night before he arrived, so at least he had somewhere comfortable to sit when he got here. And the day after he arrived we had X’s birthday party, which was apparently a great success. We had a ginormous bouncy slide that the kids had a blast on. I’m not sure why. I went down it once and it brought back all those school science lessons about friction. I’m still nursing burns.

Sliding Xander

055026

I had a fun week the week before O got here. Very social, including a book party at a trendy restaurant in Zamalek. It seemed all of Cairo was there—at least all of chic Cairo. I took a Nile Taxi up with a friend and bunch of her friends—basically a speed boat on the river, but a great way to travel because you avoid all the traffic, plus it’s lovely. There were passed hors d’oeuvres and pomegranate margaritas or martinis or cosmopolitans—I had too many of them to remember exactly what they were. It was a hip as any New York party, with one massive difference: the smoke. The place was so thick with cigarette smoke that the only thing to do was light up yourself. It felt like the healthiest option, a way of equalizing internal and external toxicity.

The MB marches had become a regular occurrence in our neighborhood until the passage of the protest law. The kids found them scary, but mostly they were just loud. They came and went pretty quickly, though.  There hasn’t been one in a week or so, maybe because of the harsh implementation of the new law prohibiting protests without prior notice.

Things feel pretty settled, really, as long as you’re not put off by armed soldiers on the streets. I drove out to City Stars in Heliopolis the other day, right by the Rabaa Mosque, and the street was lined with soldiers and army vehicles.  There’s an underlying tension, as though things could blow any minute, but for the most part life has returned to normal in Cairo. Foreign countries have eased their travel restrictions and the U.S. Embassy families are returning.

On the home front, we have sad news. Samy the fish died. X was disconsolate for an hour or so. He wanted to have a proper burial for the little guy, until he saw his sinking corpse in the fishbowl. “Just flush him,” he told me. I think he’s done being a fish owner for the time being. Too much heartbreak.

T has not one but two big pieces of news. First, he was chosen to be one of nine students who will be participating in an improv festival in Munich this February. On top of that, he was the overall winner of the Middle School writing contest, and won a generous gift certificate to Diwan, Cairo’s best chain of bookstores. He’s thrilled about both.

The Fun of it All

I had an interesting work week last week. I made it out of the Maadi bubble and up to Tahrir Square, where I interviewed one of the pastors at the Kasr El Doubara Evangelical Church, the largest evangelical church in the Middle East. They have some compelling programs, including several drug rehab facilities. Apparently they have a contract with the government and are the primary trainer of drug rehab personnel here in Egypt.

Domestic life continues to progress—at the pace of dripping molasses. I still don’t have my couch. I have a couch—two, in fact—but neither is the one I ordered. We have a loaner, and we have what was supposed to be our couch but was made with the wrong fabric. I have kept it covered in plastic so the cats don’t destroy it. They told me I would have the correct couch on Saturday, then Sunday. Now they’ve pushed it to next Tuesday. I just want somewhere comfortable to sit…

The advantage of such slow movement is that every little step forward seems like a huge accomplishment. I learned, for example, that my ATM card works as a debit card at a few places. Doesn’t seem like such a big deal, I know, but one of the biggest annoyances here is that, with a mostly cash economy, I am continuously running to the ATM machine, which is a 10-minute walk away. Okay, it’s a minor annoyance, but a constant one. So finding that I could use my debit card at the local grocery store was transformational. In the absence of significant progress, one must celebrate the baby steps.

The boys are still happy. X told me that he wants to stay here until he graduates from high school and T has discovered that he has a talent for the theater, so has been having great fun with that. He has potentially good news on that front, which I am not allowed to disclose until it is official, but if it comes off it would be very exciting for him. And he’s loving his Global Affairs class which, as far as I can tell from his description, will involve traveling around the country to do volunteer work. I’m sure there’s more to it, but that’s the part that has him excited.

X’s birthday party is next weekend. I have managed to put together the kind of party that would leave me slightly nauseated in the U.S. –entirely over the top. Things are just so much more reasonable here. We’re having a giant bouncy slide, playground games and a popcorn machine, plus the requisite pizza, hot dogs, french fries and birthday cake. I drew the line at the cotton candy machine. I figured I didn’t need to throw unadulterated sugar into the mix.

The kids in X’s class have been out of control as it is. They were all given school email accounts (what on earth were the tech people thinking??), and let me tell you, a bunch of 8 year olds can cause a fair amount of mayhem on Google Hangouts.  Thankfully the school told the kids they weren’t allowed to chat anymore, but X with email is still a scary sight. I can see a serious BlackBerry obsession in his future.

Thursday they had a pajama party/social. I dropped him off in the school gym, which was pitch black save for colored disco balls. The music was blaring. Some pretty good dance tunes—I was tempted to go in myself and take a spin, but he would have killed me. Parties certainly didn’t look like that when I was in 3rd grade—this was more along the lines of the Black Banana (a club in Philly, for the uninitiated). He was so excited.

I had my first all-Arabic phone conversation when I called a carpet cleaner to try to get a rug cleaned. I wasn’t at all sure I had adequately relayed my request but, sure enough, the next day the cleaner in question showed up on my doorstep. I guess my Arabic is coming along—although it wasn’t exactly a complex conversation. We’ll see if I get the rug back.

Curfew ended this week. It’s great news for Cairo and for all of Egypt, but I’m going to miss the quiet. The MB has marched by us a couple of times recently and they are LOUD. Apparently they have more planned in the coming days.

I just got a disturbing phone call from someone asking for “T’s mom” and identifying herself as being from the trauma clinic. My heart froze, until she explained herself. I was out of town last week and T had a sore throat. The lab is far away, but they make house calls, so someone from the lab came here to take a throat culture while I was away. The results are ready now (never mind that it’s a week later and we have already figured out that it wasn’t strep), so they want me to trek out to their facility to pick up the results up and pay the bill. That part, the seemingly easy part, they can’t do on the phone. The more I start think I have this place figured out, the less it makes sense.

And therein lies the fun.

%d bloggers like this: