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Posts from the ‘Maadi’ Category

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.

Spring Break!

We have boxes. Ninety-one of them, to be exact. What we don’t have is furniture, i.e. anywhere to put all the stuff in said boxes. Which means we have piles of books on the floor and heaps of clothes on the bed in the spare room. All you friends I invited to come visit? Hold off for a couple of weeks or so, unless you want to sleep on mounds of ski jackets. Not that you’ve all been pounding my door down… But fear not. I am finally motivated to deal with our furniture shortage. Somehow it didn’t feel so dire when we didn’t need any more than we had. A couch, beds, a desk—that seemed like enough until now.

Anyway…the boxes got here just in time. We had run out of cat food the day before. Yes, we have been shipping in cat food from New York all these months. (Just ask the few visitors we’ve had, or O’s work colleagues, who have all been kind enough to come bearing pouches of Weruva). Pathetic, I know, but we have the most finicky cats in the world (not that they particularly like the stuff we give them) and our vet in NY said that the grocery store brands that are available here are the nutritional equivalent of feeding our children Doritos all the time.

A friend of mine said when I was done unpacking I’d wonder how l lived without all my stuff. I’m having the opposite reaction. I’m wondering why I have it. I didn’t miss it at all (except maybe the kitchen supplies and the bedding), and now that it’s here I feel weighed down by it. It’s been an interesting experience. I didn’t bring any personal mementos—no photos, no letters, nothing at all that had any nostalgic value. I wasn’t conscious of their absence until the shipment came, but there was a lightness that came from not being tethered to the past. Even the books I’m unpacking, with their memories of where I was when I read them and what was happening in my life at the time, bring with them a certain heaviness.

Boxes!

Boxes!

The stuff arrived a couple of days after we got back from our spring break trip to a resort on the Red Sea called El Gouna. It’s a super-secure gated development about a 30-minute drive from Hurgada, and everything has been meticulously planned out. And I mean planned. There is little that is organic about it. Think Disney on the sea. O said it reminded him of Celebration, the Disney town in Florida. T also drew the Disney comparison. Having grown up on the beaches of Southern California, the uber-groomed vibe wasn’t my cup of tea (and the beaches aren’t particularly nice), but I can see why Egyptians love it. It is the absolute opposite of the rest of the country. Not a chaotic moment to be had.

And it is lovely. There’s a beautiful marina surrounded by restaurants, and a little downtown area with eateries serving some of the best meals we’ve eaten in Egypt (if you go, you must try the superlative Zia Amelia, which is run by a couple of Italians). We chose to go to Gouna for the sailing school. I am now convinced that sailing is best learned in childhood. I loved being on the water but ducking under the boom as we endlessly practiced tacking and jibing was exhausting. O and I both wound up with scraped knees; the boys, on the other hand, had no idea what we were complaining about. They barely had to bend to let the thing pass over their heads.065

We’ve had more adventures with urban wildlife, this time in the form of a baby mongoose that seems to be living somewhere in our back yard. We’ve tried to take a picture of it several times but it’s a bit camera shy. Very cute ,though.

We’ve been ever so slightly more mobile since O leased a car for work. During the week he has a driver who takes him to and from the office and I don’t have much access to it, but on the weekends we drive it around Maadi. Anyone who’s been to Cairo knows how utterly insane driving here is. There are essentially no rules, and those that do exist are unwritten and known only to the cognoscenti, which we most definitely are not. Driving here is so nuts that my father once got yelled at by a police officer for stopping at a red light. I keep wondering where that was. Where we live there are no traffic lights. We confine our driving to the Maadi bubble where it’s really not so difficult; still the car has made it easier for us to explore the outer reaches of our neighborhood.

The blackouts continue, but more randomly now. Sometimes we’ll have two in a day, then we’ll go a few days without one. It makes life exciting, never knowing what activity you’ll be unable to finish. I’m learning to cook in the dark, as long as dinner is already on the stove. I get most nervous when blow drying my hair. I live in fear of being left with a head of hair that’s half straight, half curly. It’d be tough to pull that off. The government promises the outages will get worse during the summer months. I think I might have to break down and get some emergency lighting for the kitchen. Then again, our favorite restaurant just started delivering. Maybe I don’t need to be able to see that stove after all.

Politically, it’s been more of the same. A few more university riots, a couple more bombs, a scattering of marches. Ongoing incidents of violence against Copts, and some tribal warfare in Aswan that left a couple of dozen people dead. It’s amazing what starts to feel normal. Then again, I guess that’s true everywhere. From here, it’s tough to understand how people in the U.S. go on as though nothing has happened after mass shooting after mass shooting.

That’s it for now. Off to unpack some more boxes.

 

 

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 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.

Wacky Weather

I was emailing with a good friend who recently moved to London, and we were remarking on how different our lives are at the moment. I was saying that while we love it here, when I was in Amsterdam a couple of months ago I realized that I was completely relaxed there in a way I never am here. I’d forgotten what it was like to be able to go anywhere, anytime and not have to worry about curfews (which we no longer have to do) or running into a Muslim Brotherhood demonstration, or just getting into trouble because of the language barrier. Just taking a taxi can be stressful because most of the drivers who hail from other parts of Cairo don’t know their way around our neighborhood, and with my pathetically limited Arabic I have a hard time directing them. I have to study more.

As an aside, I also noticed when we were in Amsterdam that X had forgotten how to cross the street. There are no traffic lights in our neighborhood so crossing the street can be a challenge. If you can’t find a gap in traffic, you have to brazenly walk out into the street and hope someone will stop. We have found women rarely will—I guess they have enough BS to put up with in this male-dominated society that when they get behind the wheel of a car they don’t want to take any guff from anyone. X has developed the habit, as have I, of putting one hand up, policeman style, in the hopes that drivers will see that as a sign not to run us over. So far, it’s worked. But when we first got to Amsterdam, X would just step into traffic and hold his hand up. He’d forgotten there were such things as crosswalks.

While we’re on the topic, I might as well mention that there are virtually no sidewalks here, either, so you wind up walking in the middle of the street. A friend of mine told me that someone she knows was back in the U.S. walking Cairo style. A police officer asked him why he was walking in the street. He said: “Where do you expect me to walk?” Apparently, he shared X’s organized traffic amnesia.

Anyway…back to my friend in London. She had a bunch of questions about what day-to-day life is like here, and asked me to write about them in the blog. So here goes, one by one:

Would love to know if you meet up with friends for coffee and while doing so, what you’re looking at or overhearing.

I do meet up with friends for coffee. There’s only one place whose coffee I like, Café Greco. They have two outposts, one on Road 9, which is the main shopping street in my neighborhood, but it’s on the other end of it so I don’t get over there too often. The other one is in the Community Services Association, which is kind of a hub for expats. They run welcome programs and tours and have classes and a gym and a library and a little store and pretty much anything else a foreigner in Egypt would want. And a Café Greco, which is where I get my coffee when I’m not brewing the La Colombe that O ferries over from New York for me.

The conversation is pretty much what you would find in a NY coffee shop. Post drop off, it’s mommy chat. Later on you’ll see business meetings. People meet for lunch. They talk politics. I’d estimate at least half the people I see there are Egyptian. I know some of the memberships—the video library, for instance—are limited to people with foreign passports, but I don’t know about general admission. It’s possible all the Egyptians I see there have second passports. Whoever they are, they’re a pretty cosmopolitan bunch. And everything there, from menus to posters to the monthly magazine, is in English.

Okay, this is post getting to be long. I am going to save the rest of her questions for the next one so I can do them justice.  On the home front, well, we had a lovely Thanksgiving at a friend’s house. It was perhaps the most American Thanksgiving I have ever had. The food all came from the club affiliated with the U.S. Embassy here, so the turkey was, I’m sure, Butterball and the fixings were as traditional as can be. The desserts were made by an Egyptian-British woman, but I must say they may well have been the best damn apple and pumpkin pies I have ever had.

We are working on a Christmas tree. That’s trickier. We’re deciding between the fake tree and the little live tree that isn’t really a fir and the branches are too flimsy to hold ornaments. It’s a tossup. I’m hoping to get the boys to decide this weekend. If we manage to get out of the house. I canceled our planned trip to the pyramids today (yes, I was trying again) because it is so cold here that it was snowing in parts of Cairo. I figured it’s no fun riding camels in the freezing rain, and the monuments aren’t going anywhere. The weather is going bonkers here. Yesterday we had a rainbow, which I was told was rare in Egypt. Today, snow, reportedly for the first time in more than 100 years. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

I didn't take this but it was too good not to share.

I didn’t take this but it is too good not to share.

We had a little domestic drama this week. T was in his room when all of a sudden the light fixture came crashing down out of the ceiling. There was glass everywhere, and he kept yelling that it could have killed him. Maybe it could have. So I got a new electrician in—this one recommended by the lovely manager of the aforementioned American club—and he checked all the fixtures in the house. Apparently none of them is safe. But he didn’t have time to finish, so he’s coming back Saturday. I’m going to ask him to take a look at the still-electrocuting dishwasher, too. Maybe we can finally fix that thing.

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

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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.

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