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Posts from the ‘Life in Cairo’ Category

Sex and Politics

Spring has arrived in Cairo and the weather has been glorious. Warm, but not too hot; I wish it could stay like this indefinitely. Of course, I’m ignoring the khamaseen, the sand-filled southern winds that for two weeks left me constantly rinsing grit out of my irritated, itchy eyes, but they seem to be behind us now. We’re headed to the Red Sea soon for some sun and sailing lessons, and I can’t wait.

We had parent-teacher conferences at school. Once again, I’m disappointed in the lower school but completely wowed by the middle school. T has grown and blossomed here more than I ever could have imagined and that’s primarily due to the school. The administration and the teachers are fantastic. Some of his favorites are leaving next year, including the principal, who is the best school administrator I’ve seen anywhere, but I think it’ll be okay. The vice-principal is taking the helm and he’s terrific, too. It’s X in the lower school I’m concerned about. We’ve started making him do Khan Academy work at home because he just isn’t getting the academic challenge he needs.

Also in the positive column, the blackouts have been decreasing. They were nightly for a while, and occasionally we even had two in a day, but we’re down to one or two a week. It’s a nice relief.

Our shipment from New York has supposedly arrived in Egypt. It’s expected to clear customs in the next few days. I’m hoping we’ll get it before we leave for the beach, but that might be wishful thinking. I’m not sure where we’ll put everything since we’re still woefully short of furniture, but I sure am looking forward to having a dining room table, and the boys are excited about having all their stuff again.

While I may be feeling upbeat about life in Cairo, it’s been an abysmal week when it comes to women’s rights and societal attitudes about women. First, a student at Cairo University was sexually harassed by a group of fellow students who whistled and shouted at her as she walked through campus, some of them trying to remove her clothes. Afterward, the dean of the law school, where she studies, essentially blamed the incident on her for what she was wearing—a figure hugging, long-sleeved pink sweater and black pants. Then a British woman was raped by a security guard in a hotel in Sharm el Sheikh and the local governor basically said she was asking for it because she’d been drinking.

It’s probably not a huge surprise to hear that men’s attitudes about women here verge on the Neanderthal. Perhaps more surprising is how much women contribute to those attitudes. They, too, often see the victims of sexual harassment as somehow culpable—even the members of a Facebook group for expat women in Cairo were questioning the actions of the Sharm rape victim—even when they themselves are the victim. Until attitudes in Egyptian society change, and on a large scale, harassment and sexual assault will not stop. Women here need to be part of that change.

There was big news on the political front: Egypt’s defense minister, General  Abdul Fattah al-Sisi finally declared his candidacy for president this week, after first resigning his cabinet position. He is now officially a civilian, although he announced his intention to run while still wearing his army uniform.  Now that he’s formally declared, he’s fair game. We’ll see how long the near-universal adulation of him lasts. The Egyptian papers have already started publishing articles critical of him.

Sisi’s widespread support comes from the belief that he will be able make Egypt more secure. We’ll see. In the short term, his candidacy is just as likely to invigorate already angry Muslim Brotherhood supporters and Islamists and spark a new round of instability. Five people were killed on the Friday after his announcement in skirmishes with security forces, including a young female journalist. It’s all quite sad.

It’s easy to understand why Egyptians are looking for a little respite from all the turmoil. Even in our protected little bubble we’ve seen a recent spike in crime. Earlier this month a woman walking down the street with her two children just after nightfall was held up at gunpoint and, just two days later, three teenaged boys were abducted by five men in a car and robbed. They were unhurt and let go on the outskirts of the city with enough cab money to get home, but both incidents occurred relatively early in the evening and on the well-secured streets surrounding the school, so they’re a reminder that we should always be careful.

 

 

Impatience and Patients

Egypt continues to be in a holding pattern while it waits for General Sisi, the Minister of Defense who is widely viewed as the solution to all that ails Egypt, to announce that he will run for president. There are few who doubt that he will, and he has reportedly put a campaign team together behind the scenes, but for some unknown reason he has yet to formally throw his hat into the ring. Egyptians are getting antsy.

In the meantime, the government is trying to create the appearance of activity by making various moves of its own. It reconstituted the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to make the Minister of Defense—yes, said Sisi—its head, instead of the president. The government said the move was to bring the SCAF in line with the new constitution, but commentators in the media said that is not, in fact, the case.

This isn’t the only instance of disconnect between the government’s interpretation of the constitution and the transitional roadmap and that of the media and punditry; the government also reads the timeline for elections in an entirely different manner than most of the rest of the country. Which leaves Egyptians knowing nothing, really. At the end of the day, the only analysis that matters is that of the Presidency, since the President is the one calling the shots on all of this. We’re all still waiting to hear exactly what he thinks.

Praying for Egypt

Praying for Egypt

As if throwing innocent journalists in jail (#FreeAJStaff) doesn’t make Egypt look weak enough, things got downright silly last week with the AIDS Kofta scandal. For those of you who missed it, an army general claimed to have invented a wand that could detect AIDS and Hepatitis C from a significant distance, as well as inventing a 100 percent effective cure that involves drawing blood from the patient, breaking down the disease and returning it in a purified form.

“I will take the AIDS from the patient and I will nourish the patient on the AIDS treatment,” the army general said. “I will give it to him like a skewer of kofta to nourish him.” Kofta is a kebab made of ground meat.

What was most amazing was not that a senior official went on television and made such a ludicrous claim, but that a huge portion of the country believed him and attacked anyone who dared question the veracity of what he was saying. The President’s own scientific advisor was subject to a raft of insults when he suggested the general’s assertions were not true.

We continue to furnish the house at a snail’s pace, but took what was for us a giant leap forward by acquiring a bed for the spare bedroom in preparation for our second houseguest, my friend @cacurtis. We spent a long and excruciating day at Egypt’s first Ikea and, in the end, had to leave before we’d bought half of what we needed so we’d be home before X was due to be dropped off from a playdate and our new mattress was to be delivered. Still, we managed to get a bed, some bedding, and a dish rack. Only took us about three hours. Eventually we’ll have to go back, but I’m dreading it. That place is like the Bermuda Triangle. Once you go in you never know if and when you’ll finally get out.

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Hole in the Sky

We keep trying to join the gym, but it is as complicated as anything here. They don’t take credit cards or checks. We have to pay all in one installment. The ATMs never have enough cash for me to pull out the whole amount and I haven’t been able to remember to go to the cash machine two days running to get the money together.

Actually, it’s even more complicated than that. Most of our money here is in a dollar account and I have to email or go to the bank in person to have it transferred into the Egyptian Pound account. You can’t say hello to a teller at the bank without waiting at least half an hour, so I try to make my trips over there few and far between. It always turns out, though, that when I want to pull money out of the bank, I haven’t transferred enough over to the Egyptian Pound account, and it won’t convert automatically, even if there’s enough money to cover the transaction in my USD account. And on the weekends, when I usually think of this stuff, there’s no one to email because round-the-clock banking has yet to arrive in Egypt.

Finally this week I budgeted enough time to swing by the bank on my way to the gym—which is in the community center I’ve written about in the past—and, of course, their systems were down.  I ended up paying the extortionate day fee just to run on the treadmill. And then we all got sick and the gym lost its appeal. I still can’t breathe through the congestion. And I’m still not a member of the gym.

Tomorrow is @cacurtis’ last full day with us. We’re planning on renting a felucca in the morning and, in the evening watching the sunset over the Nile in a downtown bar and having dinner at Sequoia, an open-air, river-front restaurant in Zamalek. Maddening though it may be, Cairo is a stunning city.

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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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.

Holiday Travel

It’s been a busy January with a lot of travel—hence the lag in posting. I have one more trip in February, then things should return to normal for a while.

Right after New Year, the boys and I went to New York for a week and had a great but hectic time. It was 017a5daab36d2f7570cff6544314c97b43c1f41058wonderful to be back and to see friends. It also showed me how much Cairo has become home for us in just the few months that we’ve been here. The city felt familiar, of course, but it didn’t make me feel as though that’s where I belong. Living away from New York has allowed us to get off that particular treadmill and freed us from things that seem so pressing when you’re there, from local politics to the latest trend. There’s something liberating in being untethered from all that.

Susannah Snow

The boys were sad to leave their friends and X started telling people he didn’t like Cairo. On our last day in New York he told me he wanted to move back ASAP. I’d expected that, though, and, overall, he wasn’t as emotional or as nostalgic for New York as I’d feared he might be. During our layover in Frankfurt on our return trip, we bumped into one of his best friends from school, so he started feeling better before we even got home. As we exited the airport in Cairo he sighed a contented, “Aaah, Egypt.” It was the warm balmy weather that cheered him (we’d been in NY for the Polar Vortex), but I figured if he could find things to feel positive about, we’d be okay. After a day or two back in school, he was as happy as ever.

The constitutional referendum took place over the two days after we got back. No one knew quite what to expect, and there had been fears that the Muslim Brotherhood would try to undermine the entire process. They did try, but didn’t manage to cause too much harm. A bomb went off in front of a Cairo courthouse before the polls opened, but it didn’t hurt anyone. About 10 people were killed in clashes during the two-day plebiscite.

Far more worrying was the draconian crackdown on the part of the government. They arrested pretty much anyone they could find who was campaigning for or hanging posters urging a “no” vote. The Muslim Brotherhood, which opposed the constitution, boycotted the referendum. The result? The document was approved by more than 98 percent of the voting public. It’s tough to take results like that seriously. Former President Hosni Mubarak won elections with a smaller percentage of the vote, even when running unopposed.

We were back in Egypt for fewer than 10 days—during which I was naturalized as a citizen of the Netherlands by the Dutch Ambassador (hooray!)—before T and I were on a plane again, this time to Paris for the International Festival of the Circus of Tomorrow. We had been there when the revolution in Egypt broke out in 2011 and this year’s event coincided with the third anniversary of the revolution. Once again, I found myself monitoring events in Egypt while walking the streets of Paris.

What a mess that was—the anniversary, that is, not Paris. Paris was fantastic. The circus was great fun and T ate like there was no tomorrow. But it was difficult to be away when all hell was breaking loose at home. Things look so much worse from abroad. Not that it wasn’t bad—multiple bomb attacks, more than 60 people killed and a staggering number of arrests of people, including activists and journalists, who hadn’t done anything illegal. But I found myself worrying that it wouldn’t be safe to return to Cairo.

We did, of course, and as I’d anticipated, things felt much calmer on the ground than they’d seemed from TV reports. Still, with the new element of random bomb attacks, there’s no question that Egypt is more volatile than it was a few months ago. Many are worried that once General Sisi declares his presidential candidacy, things will get even worse as his opponents seek to retaliate. As it is, there are weekly, if not daily, attacks on police and military targets. The terrorists have, for the most part, avoided civilians, so for the time being I feel safer than I did living in the UK during the years the IRA was active. We just have to hope things don’t escalate.

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.

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