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Posts from the ‘Travel’ Category

Migrations

I’m enshrouded in the fog of jet lag. I got back to Cairo a few days ago after spending a week in New York and Philadelphia for my 25th college reunion. It was fantastic fun and great to get a little break from Cairo.

I had a hard start back in Cairo. We have all the usual end-of-school year stuff to contend with but, as we’re learning, June has an added punch when you have kids in international school: the big goodbye. Both boys have close friends whose families are leaving Egypt when school lets out, so there has been a mad crush of farewell parties on top of the normal schedule of year-end concerts and plays and conferences.

A few days after I got back we threw a party at our house for one of X’s departing friends—this one returning home to China. Fortunately another mother helped and did the heavy lifting of cooking and baking. We’d recently bought a ping pong table from one of the many leaving families, which we had delivered the day before the party, so the kids were taken care of. We just pushed them outside and they played in the garden and had a ping pong tournament. I don’t know what I’m going to do when we’re back in an apartment without a yard. It makes entertaining the boys so much easier.

The glut of families moving on has given us the opportunity to further furnish the apartment. Right before I left I made a mad dash to get it in better shape for O’s parents, who came to visit while I was away. I had a carpenter come put shelves up (they’re falling down now, probably a function of our uneven walls as much as anything), had him build an extra closet and bought a little commode so there would be a bit more storage in the guest room. Oh, and we bought a big sideboard for the living room and moved the one there to the dining room so we have room for glasses and platters and the like.

But I still need more, so have been scouring the moving sales. It’s madness. There are two main Facebook pages where expats in my neighborhood post things for sale, one in English and the other in French. For a couple of days I would see something I liked, take a moment to consider it, and by the time I checked again it would be gone. When I looked more closely I saw that items go within minutes of being posted. Sherif, the carpenter, told me there are a couple of expats who buy everything and sell stuff on that they don’t want, and a few Egyptians who resell whatever they buy from the expats at a profit. So I’m getting aggressive. I did manage to score a lamp and a couple of rugs, which I have yet to pick up, but those were from a friend. By the time I get this place finished, we’ll be getting ready to move again and I’ll have to sell it all.

This is a big week on the political front. As I write this, people are lining up all over Egypt to vote in the presidential elections for General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.  Notice I didn’t just say “vote in the presidential elections.” No, pretty much everyone out there is voting for Sisi. Journalists tweeting from polling stations around Egypt have been hard pressed to find anyone voting for his opponent, Hamdeen Sabahi. One journalist reported finding a Sabahi voter, who was promptly set upon by the crowd upon admitting that he’d done so. Sisi won Egyptian hearts and minds when he pushed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi out of the presidential chair, and he won 95 percent of the expat vote, which took place last week.

Women line up to vote

Women line up to vote

Voting continues today, but the result is a foregone conclusion. The government is worried about the low turnout so declared today a holiday, but with temperatures hitting 108 the polling stations are largely empty. The news reports say that the election committee is going to fine anyone who didn’t go to vote. If you don’t hear from me for a while, assume I’ve gone underground to avoid prosecution.

UPDATE: The election committee reportedly declared a third day of voting. They are determined to get that turnout number up!

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.

 

 

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…

aj5 aj6 aj3 aj2

Digging In

Our departure from New York became more definitive this week; I flew in on Monday night to move all our personal belongings to Cairo.

It was one hell of a week, and I am glad it’s behind me. I find moving emotionally draining at the best of times; this time I was dealing with it all alone and in terrible weather to boot. I was worried the movers wouldn’t be able to get there with all of the snow, but they managed. So now we’ve taken what we want from our apartment and our storage facility is empty. Our ties to New York are far more tenuous than they were a week ago.338

I’m not at all sure everything will get to us intact, but I don’t know that I really mind. I went to scope out the storage facility the day before the movers came, and was so overwhelmed that I was ready to just leave it all behind. We’ve been living without most of our things for nearly six months now and while there are a few items we could really use (duvets and pillows, for starters) we haven’t missed most of it. Still, I know how this goes, and when it gets to us we’ll be glad to have it and sad about the things that have inevitably broken in transit.

Moving out of storage

Moving out of storage

 

Empty

Empty

Or maybe not. Our perspective is a little different this time. I think being in Egypt, where the standard of living is so vastly different from anywhere else we’ve lived, has changed all of us and our relationships to material goods. We’ll see. I am looking forward to having a proper dining room table, though. When it will all get there is anyone’s guess. It’s scheduled to arrive in Alexandria at the end of March, but then has to clear customs and get shipped to Cairo. I have no idea how long that process will take.

I’m writing this once again from the lounge in CDG while I wait for a flight—this time back to Cairo. I can’t wait to get home, not least for the warm weather. New York was a frigid, slushy mess while I was there, which made the task of moving all the more grim.

Slush

Slush

Not that Cairo doesn’t have its own grim elements. Yesterday a bomb went off on a bus carrying tourists from Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, killing at least three people. The event was tragic in itself and ominous in what it portends. It’s the first bomb in the recent wave of violence that specifically targeted tourists; the previous attacks were directed against police and military forces. The fear is that this signals a new phase in the conflict between Islamists and the government.

Presidential elections are the next step in the roadmap, although a date has still not been set. Many Egyptians believe that General Sisi, who is the presumptive next president of Egypt despite having yet to declare his candidacy, will be able to bring about stability. I’d like to think so but I’m not at all sure it will be that simple, and one can only imagine that the cost of stability will be quite high in terms of human and civil rights.

Okay. Short post this time. I’m wiped out after the overnight flight and have some duty-free shopping to do.

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.

A Tourism Backfire

I’m writing this on a flight from Amsterdam to Cairo, where we spent the past week. We had a great week in Amsterdam, eating our way through the city. The boys tried all the Dutch specialties I grew up with. It was chilly and rainy—and we didn’t mind in the least, coming from always-warm Cairo. That’s a real change for me. I’m normally such a baby about cold weather.

The boys had a break from school because of the Eid al-Adha holiday, which marks the end of the annual Hajj to Mecca and commemorates Ibraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail to Allah. As in the Judeo-Christian telling, God stopped Ibrahim from killing his offspring, sending a lamb instead. In observance of the occasion, Egyptians slaughter an animal and donate a portion of the meat to the poor. Apparently the streets in parts of Cairo run red with blood on the day of the feast. I didn’t think we were quite ready for that.

I had needed a break. I had been on edge in the days before we left. There had been more to deal with of late. There was the RPG attack on the satellite dish in our neighborhood, and the 50 people killed in demonstrations on Armed Forces Day on October 6. And I didn’t make matters any better by deciding it was time for me to get the boys out of the cocoon of our neighborhood just as the self-described anti-coup alliance called for three days of protests. They’re still agitating against the overthrow of President Morsi.

I thought I had planned well. I knew the pyramids could be a dicey proposition because with the dearth of tourists the guides and hawkers there, starved for business, have grown very aggressive, but I also told myself we couldn’t live in Cairo for two years and never see the pyramids. And there is no guarantee that the situation here will get better. For all I know, now is as good as it is going to get.

I decided to play it safe. I booked a room in the Palace Wing of Mena House, the beautiful and storied historic hotel a stone’s throw from the pyramids. We’d go there, enjoy an afternoon by the pool, have a nice meal at the Indian restaurant—reputed to be the best in Cairo—and decide the next morning if we wanted to visit the monuments. I figured the tour guides at Mena House would know if it was safe to go.

The best-laid plans….

We got to within spitting distance of Mena House without incident (I wasn’t sure we’d be able to, as Giza, the area where they pyramids are, has seen its fair share of clashes recently) when things started to go wrong. The approach to Mena House is also the one used by many tourists heading to the pyramids and, before we realized what was happening, four men had rushed our car trying to get us to ride their horses or camels or god knows what. We signaled to them that we weren’t interested, but one of them—as it happened, the one with crooked eyes that made him look deranged and unhinged—jumped on to the back of the car.

The kids were terrified. The cab driver sped up, then stopped, then sped up again. We couldn’t shake him. The driver got out of the car and yelled at him, then got back in and sped off. The tenacious fellow held on for dear life. The kids were frozen with fear. Even I was shaken, and I knew what was going on, I knew he that he was acting out desperation and had no intention of hurting us; he just wanted us to hire him to do whatever it was he did.  All the while, the guards at Mena House stood idly by and watched it happen. It wasn’t the first time they witnessed that scene that day and it wouldn’t be the last.

When we got near enough to make eye contact I beckoned one of the uninterested Mena House guards over to the car, but by then the guy was leaving. Or maybe it was the approaching soldier that scared him off. I have no idea. All I know is that the boys were traumatized. Hours later, after we’d had a nice lunch by the pool and gone for a swim and were back in our lovely room, they told me there was “no way” they were going to the pyramids the next day. So the view from our window was as close as we got. I’ll try again in few months.

The View from our Room

I have yet to see any of my Egyptian relatives. One of my father’s cousins called a couple of weeks ago. He was going to travel for the holiday, as were we. He said we would get together after the break. I look forward to that. I noticed, though, that several of my cousins have unfriended me on Facebook. I have no idea why. I can only deduce that it’s because of my nationality (anti-American sentiment here as high as I’ve ever seen it).  Whatever the reason, I’m quite shocked by it, as family is generally paramount in Egypt. Still, I’m looking forward to finally seeing the family and introducing the boys to their cousins.

It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, but the negative feelings toward Americans are tied up with wild theories and beliefs about Obama that have widely been accepted as fact. Many of them are completely illogical, and the funny thing is each side thinks he’s in bed with their opponents. Thankfully, most of the Egyptians we have gotten to know tend to be of the rational and independent-thinking variety, but the mainstream of Egypt makes the Birthers and the Tea Partiers look almost reasonable these days. It’s all so ludicrous that it’s amusing.

I know I now have many of you wondering what I’m talking about, but I just can’t bring myself to propagate the nonsense. Take Pamela Geller and her extreme-right cronies, intensify what they say by a magnitude, remove any trace of logic, and you’ll be close. (And some of the links below will explain more).

I will say, though, that, aside from the cold shoulder I’m getting from my cousins on Facebook, the anti-Americanism is confined to ill feelings about Obama and his Administration. Egyptians are careful to make the distinction between government action and citizens, and the boys and I have never felt unwelcome because of our nationality, despite Obama’s deep unpopularity here.

Speaking of Americans, I have my first visitor coming, @pfro. Ever the intrepid traveler, she’s touring the country. I can’t wait to see her.

 

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