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Yesterday’s News

I mean to post this yesterday but ended up using up all the credit on the Wi-Fi stick I bought (see below) because I logged on before the package had been activated. My telecom challenges continue….

I arrived in Cairo last night after a couple of days of very jet-lagged days in Paris.  I haven’t managed to do a ton so far but already I can sense that the atmosphere is very different here than it was a year ago. While people talk about crime and fear still—some, like my grandmother, more—they seem to be less tense, as though the dangers have been factored in to their daily lives. Oliver, who is English, likened it to the way Brits learned to live with the constant threat of IRA bombs during those years.

Today is Easter, but the real celebration happened last night. Everyone goes to late-night mass at the church, and then the family gathered at my late-aunt’s apartment, across the hall from my grandmother’s apartment, where I am staying, for a meal at midnight. Apparently you’re supposed to eat right in the earliest moments of Easter morning, i.e. right after midnight. I’ve never been a huge fan of the traditional Easter food. I didn’t get a good look at it last night, but I saw the boiled lamb that is always served, and there were kidneys in some sort of green sauce. I didn’t ask what it was because I wasn’t planning on staying to eat. It was well after 1 a.m. and I was still wiped out from jet lag. I’d only gone over to say hi to the family.

It was nice to see everyone. They all seemed pretty relaxed. Most of them knew I was planning to move and while a few of them pressed me on exactly why I would want to do such a thing, for the most part their reactions were positive. One of my second cousins has three adorable daughters, two of whom are almost the same ages as my boys. I’m hoping they become friends.  I’m curious to see how X will deal with these family gatherings, though. The kids are all girls and they are so quiet at these things it’s unbelievable. They sit for hours, talking in low voices and chatting with one relative or another. I can’t quite imagine X being able to keep it all so low-key. It’s going to be interesting.

Telecommunications are, as always, a challenge. I made my requisite trip to the Mobinil store up the street, doubtless the first of many. I had brought a cheap phone I’d bought in a drugstore back in NY thinking I could put an Egyptian SIM card in it, but I hadn’t realized it was locked. So after going through about 20 telephone numbers, choosing the easiest one to remember (which I don’t, although I do remember the last four digits), paying for it and signing all the paperwork, we found out that we couldn’t activate the phone. I’m going to try to find a cheap burner phone tomorrow that will take this SIM card I spent so much time getting set up today.

And then there’s the Internet. I had a USB stick, but I hadn’t used it so long that it was no longer valid. So I got a new data card for that, reactivated that account, got that home and up and running, and before I knew it I had burned through the package that was supposed to last me the whole week. She told me to wait a while before I started using it otherwise the rates would be higher. I guess I didn’t wait long enough. But I noticed that there’s a cute Italian restaurant on the corner that has free Wi-Fi. I think I’ll be spending a lot of time there.

The woman who helped me at the store was very nice and helpful. When we were wrapping up, she wished me a good Easter. For a second I wondered how she could tell what religion I was and then I realized. She needed my ID card to sign me up for phone service. All Egyptian ID cards state one’s religion. I thought it was heartening that in this increasingly polarized Egypt, a Muslim (albeit an unveiled one) would wish a Christian a good Easter, but it was also a reminder that I’m going to have to get used to religious labeling becoming part of my daily life here.

Logistics

My dad arrives in New York today. He’ll spend a few days here with the kids before we leave for Cairo (via a couple of days in Paris). I’m looking forward to ticking a few more things off the to-do list.

In the past week I spoke to someone at the Community Services Association in Maadi, the neighborhood where we plan to live. The CSA is a community center for expats and the person I talked with told me that they would be a great resource for me in my house hunt. A lot of people find places through word of mouth, she explained. I plan on making them one of my first stops.

I’ve also been in touch with a couple of brokers, so I’ve got that side of things covered as well. It’s still a little tough to know exactly what price range to look in because we don’t know if Oliver will be coming or not, but I figure that, at the very least, I’ll get a feel for the marketplace.

I’ve got an appointment with the admissions director at the school we want the kids to go to. I’m looking forward to seeing it. I keep meeting people who went there and rave about it. Last weekend I was getting my hair cut and telling my stylist about our move. A guy who works in the salon and overheard our conversation told me he’d gone to that school for a few years when he was a kid and he considered them some of the best of his life. I also managed to talk to the former headmaster, who now runs the school a friend’s kids go to here in New York, and he assured me that the academics are strong.

Unfortunately, it seems we’re going during a big vacation week, so several of the people I’d like to see are going to be out of town. On the upside, we arrive in Cairo the day before Orthodox Easter, so we’ll be able to celebrate with the family. I always like being there for the big Coptic holidays. Even though the rituals are foreign to me, they’re so beautiful that I love being able to watch them. And I’m looking forward to seeing my grandmother, who rarely leaves the house and is lonely. I’m happy the kids will have the chance to get to know her.

We showed the apartment here in NYC to a neighborhood parent today, and it looks like he wants to sublet it with the furniture, so that’ll make packing up much easier than it otherwise would have been. There are still a lot of unanswered questions, but it feels as though things are moving forward. I’m starting to feel the time pressure, though. I’m planning on moving in a little over three months and as of this moment we have no house, no school and no jobs. We have yet to sort out the logistics of getting our stuff out of the place here and into a place there, and deal with whatever visas we need and all the paperwork of transporting the cats. I’m hoping that by the time I get back from Cairo I’ll have resolution on some of these things.

Machinations

The kids’ school applications are finished and I’m headed to Cairo in a couple of weeks to look at houses. I’m going with my father because he is the best bargainer I have ever known and I am well aware that my lack of Arabic will mean I’ll wind up paying double what he would. He’s being kind enough to come with me and help me house hunt, even though he thinks I’m nuts to be taking the kids to Egypt. He called the other day while our Arabic teacher was here and asked the professor to talk me out of going.

He’s not the only one. I’ve been meeting with Copts in the New York area for a story I was reporting for the New York Times Metropolitan section, and the consensus seems to be that I’m out of my mind. The reaction when I tell people I’m moving ranges from utter disbelief to real concern. Which I appreciate. Truly. I just think that Egyptian Christians are—understandably—so fearful about what the rise of the Brotherhood means for them, that perhaps they lose sight of the parts of daily life in Egypt that continue normally. And I get it, believe me. I was terrified the one time I was harassed there and couldn’t wait to leave. As a Times reporter who lived in Cairo for ages said to me: “Do I think you’re okay moving to Cairo? Sure. If I was your Coptic aunt, would I tell you not to come? Absolutely.”

On the upside, the word of my move has been filtering out among our more international friends, many of whom know people working in various jobs in Cairo. Although I already have one or two friends there and a handful of acquaintances, it’s nice to know that there is a pool of people I’ll be able to get in touch with on arrival. I love that part of expat life—many of my closest friends are people I met while living overseas. And, according to our friends here, the people they know in Cairo still seem to be enjoying themselves, despite the instability.

The kids seem to be dealing with the move in different ways. T has a friend who was in Cairo over the break and went to see the school the boys will—hopefully—be going to. Apparently it was so amazing that he’s launched his own campaign to persuade his parents to move to Cairo, which has T feeling gung-ho about the whole thing—provided I find a house where he can put up a basketball hoop. X is still adamant that he doesn’t want to go, and is pretty anxious about it, but we’re learning that underneath that carefree and blustery exterior is a worried kid. So we’ll need to carefully manage him, but it looks as though he needs some extra attention and thought regardless of where we’re living. I’m still convinced that this will be an enriching experience for both of them.

Beginnings

A couple of months ago, I had an epiphany. “I think I need to move to Cairo,” I told my husband, Oliver, while squeezing Colgate onto my toothbrush.

Oliver thought the move makes perfect sense. Pretty much everyone I’ve told since has thought I am insane.

By way of background: I’ve been working on a book about Egypt’s Coptic community, the Orthodox Christian minority there, for nearly two years, visiting Egypt every six months or so. But the situation in Egypt is so fluid, and things are changing so quickly, it’s nearly impossible to report a book remotely. I felt I needed to be there. What’s more, tensions between Christians and Muslims, which have been heating up for years, have reached a boiling point. This is a critical time for Copts in Egypt—not to mention, Christians throughout the Middle East—and their story needs to be told.

I have personal reasons for wanting to go as well, which I’m leaving intentionally vague at this point. Suffice it to say that I’m at that clichéd place in life: mid-40s, a mother, with 20 years of marriage and a lot of sacrifices for my family under my belt. I decided it was time I made a move that would benefit my career, not just my husband’s.

First, though, I had to sell the idea to my two sons, 12 and 8. Egypt wasn’t quite as foreign to them as it might be to other New York City kids, because my father is Egyptian and I’ve taken the boys to visit his mother in Cairo, although our youngest was only two when he was there. Plus, they are space-starved Manhattan kids, so all I had to do was promise them we could live in a house or ground-floor apartment with a back yard where they could erect a basketball hoop. Once a place to play ball was on the table, I could have been suggesting a move to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan for all they cared.

That’s not to say they don’t have their concerns. They’re worried of course, about leaving their friends, and they catch news reports about the various riots and killings that are plaguing Egypt these days. Overall, though, they seem to accept our assurances that we will be living in the safety of the expat bubble and going to a well-secured school.

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