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Posts tagged ‘Egypt’

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!

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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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.

The Fun of it All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And therein lies the fun.

Gaining Speed

The pace of life here is starting to pick up. The kids are in school full-force; T’s after school activities started this past week and X’s start this week. I’m working more, exploring more and socializing more. Still no more furniture, though. I’m determined to remedy that tomorrow.

The boys continue to love school. T had a school social this week. He’s becoming increasingly independent. On Thursday X didn’t have classes because of parent conferences, so T went to school by himself. He left early in the morning, stayed afterward for sports practice, and the social was at 6 p.m. that evening so he hung around for that. I didn’t see him until 8 p.m. that night. He had a blast. He’s loving how much more independence he gets here.

I spent the morning exploring Road 9—our neighborhood’s main shopping road—with X. We started out at Lucille’s, a restaurant famous among expats for their breakfasts and burgers (okay, I detoured to Café Greco for a good cappuccino first…), then meandered up the street. We found what looked like a fantastic bakery and a cupcake store that wouldn’t be out of place in New York. I stumbled upon Saad Silver, the new outpost of the small chain of silver stores where my family has been shoppingfor years. I went in and introduced myself, and I happened to be carrying a key chain I bought from their store decades ago. The owner claimed to remember my parents, and promised me great prices. They have beautiful stuff.

That afternoon I met with X’s teacher for my parent conference. He seems to be adjusting remarkably well. I continue to be impressed by the school and at how much fun they manage to make everything for the kids.

When I was coming back home I heard what sounded like a cat massacre. I didn’t think too much of it, because with all the wild cats in the streets there’s always a lot fighting going on. Still, it was the most intense cat screaming I’d heard so far, and it sounded like it was in our next door neighbor’s yard. This morning when we woke up, our wild kittens were nowhere to be seen. I put some food out for them—I’d done that yesterday and they’d gobbled it all up—but as of this writing at 9:30 p.m. I have yet to see a kitten and the food is still all there. I have all the garden lights on and keep peering out the back windows, but there is no sign of them. I fear the worst.

I went on my first-ever felucca ride this week, organized by the school for new parents. It was beautiful. I can’t wait to take one with the boys.

A Nile Beauty

A Nile Beauty

We spent much of today with an old friend from NY who’s living here now. She has an adorable little boy who X got along with well. They don’t live particularly close to us, but I hope we manage to see them regularly. Tomorrow I am determined to decide upon a couch—particularly now that I have managed to open a bank account, which involves a somewhat complicated and abstruse approval process.  Then the boys have some sort of sporting day at school, so we’re likely to be there for much of the afternoon.

We continue to be infested by ants. Tiny little black ones and big giant light brown ones. The black ones are fast little suckers who will swarm any stray crumb within moments of its deposit on a floor or counter top, and can get in to anything (including sealed Ritz crackers and cat food, we learned the hard way). Supposedly, they are seasonal. We also have giant golden-brown ants. They are bold and undeterrable and seem to live in the walls. A nightmare. I’m worried about spraying because of the cats and, without knowing what kind of ants they are, I’m concerned that I’ll do something to make things worse.

The dishwasher and sink continue to shock. The boys refuse to put plates in the dishwasher at this point. The electrician is supposed to come Sunday morning. And then I am meeting with the country representative from Medecins du Monde to learn more about what they’re doing here (I’m on the U.S. board). And on Monday—hold on to your hats—I am venturing outside of the Maadi bubble into downtown Cairo for a meeting and then lunch with a friend of a friend of a friend. I grow ever bolder…

On the political front, well….the government/army crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and militants in Sinai continues, as do the attacks on army troops in Sinai. The tougher the army gets, the more popular they seem to be. Houses all over Maadi sport Egyptian flags; one taxi driver told me that they are displayed in a show of support for the army overthrow of Morsi.

There certainly does seem to be a feeling of nationalism pervading the country. One Coptic leader I spoke to said Christians have been careful not to turn to outsiders for help in light of all the recent church burnings, because they want to emphasize their solidarity with all the other anti-Morsi Egyptians, of any religion. There is an emphasis here these days on Egyptian identity and a bit of an insider vs. outsider attitude—which creates a quandary for a government that is also trying to lure back tourists who are, by definition, not Egyptian.

 

A Typical Weekend in the Bubble

Saturday night. The end of our weekend. The boys go back to school tomorrow, and afterschool activities start this week, which we’re all looking forward to. T is going to be doing soccer and flag football, which we both find a bit amusing. He’s come to Cairo to learn how to play American sports. X is going to be taking cooking and baking.

Weekends here are relaxing, at least for now, despite the errand running. Fridays we have to stay close to home because of all the demonstrations and the early curfew. I know this is a bit perverse, but I enjoy our Fridays all the more for their limitations. Yesterday, for example, the boys watched a movie on iTunes while I slept in. Then I got up, we tidied up a bit, walked over to the CSA where I could get a decent coffee and the boys had an early lunch. We walked home and I read a little, wrote a little, and took a nap. Then we went over to the school were I swam laps, X played basketball in the pool and T played soccer on the field with some boys he knows. I sat on the bleachers and read a little more as the sun set. Glorious, really.

Afterwards, we wandered over to one of the local grocery stores that caters to expats. X was thrilled to find Double Stuff Oreos—something that, as far as I knew, he’d never set eyes on in the U.S. Like a good Egyptian, I slipped the produce guy and the meat guy each a little cash so they’d pick out the best stuff for me. Before I knew it the produce guy was going through my baskets checking out everything I’d bought to make sure it was all up to snuff. He got one of the shop hands to swap out a few items for me.

While we were checking out I started talking to the manager as part of my personal crusade to persuade one—any—of the stores here to carry Greek yogurt. The boys were chatting to him and as a gesture of what he undoubtedly saw as kindness he gave the kids a big bottle of Coke. They were laughing, because they knew I wouldn’t offend him by saying them they couldn’t have it. So there was soda at home that evening.  The boys, needless to say, were thrilled.

Saturday morning we spent moving the furniture I’d bought from departing expats into the house. I am now the proud owner of a desk, a bed, a chair and a rug. It’s all terribly exciting. We had an encounter picking up the furniture, though, that is best described as awkward. A friend’s housekeeper here had recommended a friend of hers—let’s calls her Penny—whom we tried out for a week. She wasn’t great so we told her we were going to try someone else the following week. (Which we did, and she was terrific.) Penny was not pleased.

When I was buying the furniture from the outgoing Brits, they told me they were leaving that day but I could meet their housekeeper “Penny” on Saturday. I mentioned I’d just tried and not hired someone of the same name. “Oh, ours is fantastic,” they told me. So I figured it couldn’t possibly be the same person. But when we rang the bell to pick up the bed and desk on Saturday morning, who do you think answered the door? Of course, it was the same woman we’d let go only a week before. Just my luck.

When we were done moving furniture, Marco took us for breakfast to a tameya (Egyptain falafel) stand under a bridge, where we ate street food like real Egyptians. Even more exciting than the new furniture, really. Then home to set everything up, more napping, some of FaceTiming with NY friends on Theo’s part and dinner at a delicious new Greek restaurant with newly made friends. All in all, a terrific weekend.

Finally, we have more additions to our menagerie. Kittens. They’re not ours, really, and I will do everything in my power to keep it that way, but there’s a cat who seems to claim our back yard as her home who has adorable offspring. Three or four of them, as far as I can tell. The boys want me to buy food for her.

And, oh. The dishwasher continues to give us little electric shocks from time to time. As does the kitchen sink. And possibly the running water. I’ve put the bawab on the case.

That’s life in our bubble. Outside of the neighborhood things remain less than idyllic. There was an attempt on the interior minister’s life on Thursday when a bomb detonated near his convoy, and on Saturday an improvised hand grenade went off in a police station. These are new developments in Egypt and no one knows quite what to make of them yet.

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