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Return to Cairo

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Mom in Cairo: Back in our home, we’re adjusting to new normal

Monique El-Faizy
TODAY contributor

Author Monique El-Faizy moved, with her two young sons, referenced as X and T for privacy, and husband, Oliver, to Cairo on August 14, just as tensions reached a fever pitch. She’s there for a two-year stint while working on a book about Egypt. The delay of the kids’ school year rattled her nerves enough to take the boys and head to Rome but now, they’ve returned to their new home. Read the latest on her family’s progress. 

We’re back in Cairo.

Arriving this time was different from any other I can remember. I didn’t feel any of the anxiety I usually do. We were coming home.

That’s not to say I hadn’t worried we might not be able to return to Egypt. While we were in Italy, having fled with the kids when the kids’ American school announced it was delaying the start of classes, Mubarak was released from prison and the self-described anti-coup alliance announced a “Day of Martyrs,” calling for multiple demonstrations. The stage was set for some serious bloodshed.


                     X and T, walking to school in Cairo on their first week.

Monique El-Faizy
X and T, walking to school in Cairo on their first week.

Out of Egypt

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Flight from Egypt: As tensions rise, American mom and kids depart Cairo

Monique El-Faizy
TODAY contributor
Monique and her two boys in Rome.

Courtesy of Monique El-Faizy
The author and her two boys in Rome, where they flew to after leaving their new home in Cairo.

Author Monique El-Faizy moved, with her sons and husband, to Cairo on August 14. She’s there for a two-year stint while working on a book aboutEgypt, but tensions in the country rattled her nerves enough to take the boys and head to Rome while her husband stayed behind to continue setting up their new home. Read the latest on her family’s progress. 

Well…we fled. Temporarily.

I’m still not sure it was the right call, although our friends and family seem terribly relieved. The truth is, our little Cairo bubble was as quiet and safe as ever. I’ll admit — I felt edgy every time I turned on the news or heard about another company evacuating employees, but had I not known about those things, nothing in our neighborhood would have indicated to me that we should get out.

Ominous Arrival?

Well, we picked one hell of a day to arrive in Cairo.

The last 24 hours have been a roller coaster ride. We scrambled to get packed and out of our apartment on time for our flight, and would never have made it without the help of a few amazing friends who went way beyond the call. I felt relaxed for the first time in weeks as I sipped prosecco and watched the clouds outside the plane window.

Alas, that bliss was short-lived. After a layover in Zurich, we arrived in Cairo with two tired boys and two traumatized cats and heard even before we had disembarked that angry mobs had set fires throughout the city in retaliation for the violent dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood protests. The man sitting behind me on the plane said a friend of his had booked him into an airport hotel because it was pointless to even try to get out of the airport—the unrest was just too widespread.

I called Marco, our driver, who would turn out to be more of a savior, and he said that downtown was a mess but the roads between Maadi and the airport were fine and he was there and waiting for us. We sailed through immigration and customs—our cats could have been foaming-at-the-mouth rabid for all anyone cared—and found Marco. A lifelong resident of Maadi, it quickly became clear that he is going to be my go-to guy on everything from where to buy a mattress to how to get my garbage removed every day.

Safely in the van and on our way to meet the owner of the villa, O started reading the news reports of the dispersal of the demonstrations—I was still without any kind of internet access—when I heard him gasp. A British journalist had been shot and killed. Mick Deane. Mick had been O’s cameraman at ITN when we lived in Hong Kong. They, along with correspondent Mark Austin, had traveled all over Southeast Asia together. Mick was a lovely, sweet man. We hadn’t even realized he was in Cairo. Needless to say, the blissful haze of the plane ride out of New York had fully dissipated by now.

There is more to the evening—I am writing this from a random hotel while Cairo is under curfew because we couldn’t get to our intended destination—but my battery is dying and I am fading. More tomorrow.

Facebook Fractures

Needless to say, the situation in Cairo has grown all the more heated after the latest round of massacres of pro-Muslim Brotherhood protestors. With the army taking charge in such a heavy handed way, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for people to stick to the black-and-white positions many of them had taken in the run-up to the June 30th ouster of former president Mohammed Morsi.

Not that they’re not trying. As an employee of the Egyptian Consulate in New York told me when I was there getting my boys’ birth certificates notarized, Egyptians are not good at accepting that others can hold differing opinions, or agreeing to disagree, so to speak. They’re also not particularly comfortable with acknowledging gray areas, preferring to paint things in absolute terms.  But given what’s gone on in Egypt over the past few days, it’s hard for anyone except the most polarized to acknowledge at least some level of murkiness in the situation there. There are plenty of people who were happy to see Morsi go who are now deeply disturbed at the sight of protestors being shot with live ammunition and the obvious ascendance of the Army. People don’t know what side to come down on anymore.

In a country where political discourse had been effectively shut down for the better part of 60 years, learning to disagree amicably isn’t coming easy. My contact in the Egyptian consulate told me his school friends are hardly capable of having civil conversations with him these days because of their divergent views on Morsi’s removal, and my Arabic tutor said that members of his extended family won’t even eat meals at the same table together—during Ramadan, of all times.

My own family seems to be staging a war of their own, with cousin openly bashing cousin on Facebook. I got dragged into it a couple of weeks ago—which got me thinking about the dark side of social media. Much is made about the power of social media to shrink the world, and that’s true, but it can expose previously invisible fault lines in relationships as well.

In the days before social media, I had no idea what my relatives in Egypt thought about politics, as it was rarely a topic of discussion during our visits there—at least in my presence. Now, not only are Egyptians freer in expressing their political opinions than they were under Mubarak, but social media allows the world to see what they think.

Facebook has transformed my interactions with my family, and not always for the better. Our differences have been laid bare and exchanges often get heated. I was on the receiving end of a barrage venomous enough that a friend messaged me offline to comment on it, then tried futilely to defend me by posting a comment elaborating on the point I was trying to make. (Interestingly, my family was much more polite when disagreeing with him; Egyptian hospitality toward strangers reigns supreme even during political discourse). There was even an insult hurled—granted, it was a generalization about Americans, but it was directed squarely at me, and it stung.

Sure, all families have fights, particularly about issues as sensitive as politics. But a disagreement around the Thanksgiving table is likely to be punctuated with moments of fondness and levity, reminders that one is among people whom, ultimately, one loves. Facebook encounters don’t provide these palliative moments. The very technology that has allowed me to maintain closer ties with my relatives in Egypt has revealed just how far apart we are on sensitive issues—all without the comfort of a slice of warm apple pie.

Our move to Cairo is now less than two weeks away, and by the time we get there it’s likely that some attempt will have been made to clear the pro-Morsi sit ins. There’s no way to know how that will turn out—although past performance doesn’t bode well—or what repercussions will be lingering when we arrive. In all likelihood the atmosphere will be tense. That goes, too, for the first Friday night dinner we will spend with my extended family. I just have to hope that being there in person and being reminded of mutual affection will make all the difference.


Revolution 2.0

Things have been busy here and obviously a lot has happened since my last blog posting—both in my life and in Egypt. First up, there is a new government in Egypt now and what that means for the country is still uncertain. One thing is clear: the Muslim Brotherhood ain’t happy about it.

A lot of my friends have been in touch asking if I am still planning to go. The short answer: for the moment, yes. What I mean by that is, I haven’t decided not to go, but I also realize that things could further destabilize there.  At this point I’m working under the assumption that I’ll be moving next month but am watching closely and am ready to pull the plug on our plans if need be. I guess I should start formulating a Plan B…

The truth is, much of what is happening is what should have taken place the first time around. There should have been a caretaker coalition government and a constitution should have been written before elections were held, which is hopefully what will happen now, although even that isn’t a foregone conclusion. Yes, Morsi was democratically elected but he was well on his way to becoming a dictator and was running a regime that was far from democratic.

It’s important to keep in mind that, with the Egyptian Army controlling about a third of the economy, very little happens there that they don’t want. Their hand just shows more obviously at some times than at others. How they integrate the Brotherhood will be the key to future stability. Sending them underground will have perilous results; the factions that are willing to be part of the political process need to be cultivated and included.

A lot has happened on the personal front as well. For starters, my grandmother died a couple of weeks ago. Needless to say, I am heartbroken.  I really wanted the boys to have a chance to get to know her, and I can’t imagine what it will feel like for me to be there without her; she was my anchor. But she was 95 years old and was ready to go and didn’t suffer too much in the end, so there’s that to be thankful for.

Despite the unrest, school is currently scheduled to start on time. We signed and sent the money for the villa, so we’re committed there. I was relieved to have a place to move into right away; now it’s feeling like a bit of a burden to be tied to a place—not to mention, I’m wondering if we could have gotten a better deal if we’d waited. But what can you do? It’s done. I haven’t booked our tickets yet, and I’ve noticed that airfares are dropping, so at least we’ll save money there.

The boys seem to be feeling pretty good about the move, although we’ve shielded them from news of the latest round of violence. T has been emailing with a couple of boys who are going to be in his grade, which has him raring to get over there and has even eased some of X’s anxiety. Now that school is over and he’s not being reminded daily of what he’s leaving behind, even X starting to look ahead with more optimism.

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