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Posts tagged ‘Alexandria’

The More Things Change…

I’m having an I’m not ready to-leave-Cairo moment. I can see what year three would look like here, and I’m disappointed I’m not going to have it. When you move to a foreign country you spend the first year totally clueless, the second year building routines and finding your feet and the third year solidifying friendships and refining. I’m there now, and acutely aware that I’m about to leave.

For example, I’ve joined a book group. I haven’t attended my first meeting yet but I’m really looking forward to meeting the people in the group. It’s a mix of expats and Egyptians. I was hoping we’d choose something Egyptian to read but, alas, we’re reading Achebe. Still, I’m sure it will be an interesting discussion.

What’s more, I’m finally getting out and socializing, both with expats and with Egyptians. I’m going to parties (three last week two this week) and having coffees, drinks and dinners. Last week I got together with a really interesting woman. She’d been the tour guide of a friend who’d come to visit me. She defied stereotypes: she was around 40 but never married–by choice. She was religious and culturally conservative, but strong and independent and knew her own mind and believed in herself as firmly as any woman I’ve met anywhere. I really enjoyed talking to her and hope to see her again soon.

I’ve also managed to travel a bit. The BF and I took a fabulous trip to Alexandria. I’d never been, and what a shame, because I liked it far more than Cairo. It’s got a real Mediterranean vibe to it. The quality of the light is totally different than that in the dusty capital, more luminous. Despite being visibly more religious (even on the hottest day the vast majority of women we saw were covered from wrist to ankle), the city feels more relaxed. And it was great to put my feet in the sand. It had been far too long.

Speaking of the BF…. the trip to Alexandria was our first time traveling together, and I was pleased to see that we seem to have a similar rhythm. Being in love with someone is one thing; being good travel companions is another. Fortunately, it doesn’t look as though that will be an issue with us. We had a great time. The Tunisian and I are in the second half of our first year together. It’s turned into a solid thing that has the feel of permanence.

The boys really like him but other members of my family are not as thrilled. Apparently there’s some concern about our different religions, in that he is Muslim and my family here is Christian. I was shocked when I heard that. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I didn’t expect that to be an issue in this day and age.

I think it says more about my family than anything else. I’ve been here almost two years and I’ve only been asked about religion twice; once by a cab drive and once by a security guard who used to work on our street and had a somewhat creepy obsession with my eldest son. I meet and hang out with a fair number of Egyptians and none of them seems remotely interested in what religion someone is.

I had a fascinating conversation the other day with a woman whose family is half Muslim and half Christian and in which people are free to choose their religion. While they are certainly not the norm here, I’ve found that the Egyptians I’ve met–mostly privileged Muslims–are more open-minded than my lifelong experience with my family would have led me to anticipate.

I suppose that’s to be expected, though; minorities throughout the world are more protectionist and rigid in their ideas, because they have more to fear and preserve. Still, I was disappointed–and surprised. My grandmother had a brother who converted to Islam to marry the woman he loved. He was shunned by the family and the story was kept secret from me and some of my cousins here in Egypt. I’m flabbergasted that nearly a century has passed and the same issues are at play and nothing seems to have changed.

 

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April in Cairo

We’re in that Spring/Summer transition here and I have some serious cabin fever. At least on the hot days. It hit 100 degrees last week and all I wanted was to be on a beach somewhere. A few days later it was freezing and I had no interest in going out at all.

Not that I haven’t been able to get away. I borrowed a generous friend’s house in Greece recently to get some writing done. The trip was logistically challenging and the weather was awful, but it was really nice to be back in Europe. It reminded me of what I have to look forward to in Paris. Yes, the boys and I will be relocating to Paris over the summer, and we will spend at least the next four years there.

I have mixed feelings about leaving Egypt. There’s still so much I haven’t done here, on the work front and on the tourism front. I’ve spent way more time stuck in Maadi than I would have liked, and not for any good reason. There are still a ton of places I’d like to see and people I’d like to interview and cultural events I’d like to attend. Oh, and Arabic I’d like to learn. Really, I could use another year here.

What I have, though, is four months, give or take, and I am working on making the most of them. I had planned with a friend to go to a lovely outdoor roast chicken restaurant out near the Saqqara pyramids last Saturday, but the weather turned cold and windy and it looked like sandstorms were a distinct possibility, so we bailed.

The BF and I are heading to Alexandria this weekend, and the weather there looks pretty nice. I’m really looking forward to it—I’ve been wanting to get up there for years, but have never been. I’m hoping this will be the first of many trips I manage to sneak in before I move.

Our leaving Egypt isn’t all bad —although I am dreading the apartment hunt in Paris. I’m not sure why. I’ve done it a million times before, but this time feels strangely onerous. I keep hoping that someone out there knows someone with an apartment to sublet in the neighborhood I want to live in and I can forgo the logistical nightmare. I guess two years between apartment hunts isn’t enough respite for me.

On the upside, though, it’ll be nice to live in Europe again. My time in Greece gave me a little reminder, and it was pretty great. There are all these little things you don’t even notice when you live in the West that, after being in Egypt, are such delights: orderly traffic, clean stores with pretty displays, organic food, safe and reliable transportation. Life is just less stressful, or at least the stresses there are have less to do with daily survival.

And yet, I’ll miss that aspect of life in Egypt. Life in the developed world is so, well, ordinary—at least for someone like me who grew up there. I’m sure if you were raised in the developing world and moved to the West it would feel pretty extraordinary. I remember when I lived in the Soviet Union hearing stories of Soviets hyperventilating the first time they saw Western supermarkets because they had never seen such overabundance.

Lack of options isn’t the issue in Egypt. It’s the uncertainty that gets to one here. We are constantly waiting for the next power outage, water outage or other imminent inconvenience. And yet…in the West where those things are so much rarer people find worries with which to fill their minds and time, so insignificant things often take on oversized importance. Living here taught me not to sweat the little stuff. I’m going to try to hold on to that perspective, but I’m not at all sure I’ll be able to in the long term.

On the political front, now feels like as good a time as any to be leaving. There’s certainly not much happening anymore that’s Arab Spring-like. Parliamentary elections have yet to be scheduled, members of the Muslim Brotherhood continue to be sentenced to death in Egyptian courts (and President Sisi just declared that anyone who was caught digging tunnels from Gaza to Sinai would also face the death penalty), and a court just ruled that the police could deport gay foreigners. How they’re going to decide who is gay, I have no idea.

Terrorism doesn’t show any sign of letting up, either. The assaults on security forces in Sinai continue, as do random bombings and shootings in the rest of the country. The Jerusalem Post recently published an article querying Sisi’s ability to tackle the problem, and it’s a fair question. It’s possible that the Brotherhood and related groups just have too much support inside Egypt to be quashed. That remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the regime’s repressive crackdown hasn’t had the desired effect.

Dining with History

Autumn has come to Cairo.

Looking at all the glorious photos of fall foliage in the Northeast of the U.S., it feels a little silly saying that, but there’s been a little nip in the air. Sure, the daily highs are still in the mid-70s or low 80s, but at night it’s been dipping into the low 60s. That feels colder here than it sounds. Air conditioners are off and it’s too chilly to walk barefoot in the house. Last night on the way to dinner I left my sweater in the cab, and I regretted it the rest of the evening.

I’ve been following through on my resolution to get out of the bubble more, and last night’s dinner was part of that. Friends of a friend from New York were passing through Egypt on a three-month round-the-world trip, so we met up at a storied establishment in the heart of Belle Epoque Cairo called Café Riche. It opened in 1908 and has been a haunt of Cairo’s intellectuals ever since.

The whole vibe is very un-Cairo. With its wood-paneled walls; its faded black-and-white photos of Cairo’s most influential cultural figures; its scattered disarray of books, papers and random memorabilia; and the klatch of old men gabbing over steaming plates, Café Riche feels a bit like a cross between the Friar’s Club and Barney Greengrass, for those of you who know New York. The night we were there, it felt like almost everyone else in the restaurant was a regular.

Café Riche has been the backdrop of many a seminal event in Egyptian history. An assassination attempt on the Prime Minister was staged from its doorway in 1919 (he survived). That same year, revolutionaries used the basement as a secret meeting space from which they agitated for the overthrow of their British rulers, and in 1952 Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser plotted his own coup from the comfort of a Riche table, this one against King Farouk, who reportedly met his wife at the coffeehouse. And Egypt’s favorite songbird, Umm Kalthoum once held a concert there.

The days when famous writers such as Naguib Mahfouz could be found loitering over Turkish coffee are gone, but the tables are still populated with a cast of fascinating characters. We were having an entertaining conversation of our own at our table, but I would have loved to have been able to talk to some of the other guests. I have a hunch many of the same people would be there if I ever manage to make a repeat visit. That is definitely now on my to-do list.

I fear I may have to erase another item on that list, though. I’ve been wanting to go camping with the kids in the White Desert, which looks absolutely stunning. A while ago one of the embassies issued a warning about going there, and this week Egypt’s most active militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, swore allegiance to ISIS. That can’t be good. The desert may well be perfectly safe, but I’m going to watch this one play out for a while before I dust off my sleeping bag.

We never did make it up to Alexandria, and with the holidays coming up our weekends are pretty packed. It looks like we might have to wait until spring. That’s okay. There’s plenty to explore in Cairo in the meantime.

Training It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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