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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.

Routine Drama

We’ve been back in Cairo for just over a week and Paris already seems a lifetime away. I think adjusting to the difference in food was the toughest for all of us.

Not that we’re not happy to be back. We are, very much, but I’m glad the trip—as wonderful as it was—is behind us. Now we can focus on life here. I keep thinking about how little time we have left, but I came across a photo of the day our boxes arrived from New York and realized that was only six months ago. It feels like ages. So there’s plenty we can do and experience in the 10 or so months we have left. I’m looking forward to it.

We’re in the midst of a typically Cairene experience, and one we’ve had before. We’re in deep with another stray kitten. He’s adorable, but would have been impossible to ignore anyway, circling my front yard with the loudest and most incessant meow I’ve ever heard. I got the vet to come examine him, because I was worried he was going blind in one eye (you’ve gotta love a vet who makes house calls). He said the kitten, a little ginger fellow who the boys call Rocky and the gardener calls mesh mesh (apricot) was about 5 weeks old and has a type of herpes virus in his eye that is common in street cats, and gave me a prescription for drops. The vet also said that the non-stop mewling was an SOS call, and that Rocky must have lost his mother. Poor little guy.

We set up a little home for him in our laundry shed. There’s a pipe that he can go through to get in and out. So can the other two kittens I’ve been feeding, who are a few months older than Rocky. At first I was worried they were going to take his food from him, but they seem to have taken him under their wing. And not only for the good. The first couple of days Rocky stayed close to the house, but then we found him wandering down the street with one of the bigger kittens. They’re already taking our sweet little guy out on the town and teaching him the ways of the world. They grow up so fast these days.

Trouble is, now it’s been two days and he hasn’t come back. O swears he saw him at the house across the street, where they put out tons of food each day, and the bawab tells me the same thing. I hope they’re right. I just want to give him his eye medicine.

Things in Egypt continue as usual. Life continues to feel pretty normal, but there are tensions bubbling below the surface that seem destined to flare up at some point. There was a bombing downtown, and 12 people were injured. The bomb went off at midnight, so I suppose it could have been much worse.

The government continues to keep the Al Jazeera journalists and many activists in jail, and some of them are on a continued hunger strike. One young man, who has dual Egyptian-American citizenship, is seriously ill and it seems as though he could die soon. The government doesn’t seem inclined to do anything about it. So the military regime is back in full force.

On the other hand, Egypt does feel considerably more stable, although with the current levels of repression you have to wonder how long that can last. In any case, foreign companies are showing renewed interest in expanding here. There’s a delegation of US businesses set to come next month to explore opportunities for investment, and the word is that tourism is picking up. Egyptians, for the most part, are just happy to have a return to normalcy.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the as-yet-unscheduled parliamentary elections. I saw a news story today predicting that the new parliament will be dominated by military types; I see no reason to assume that won’t be the case.  There is still no party nearly as powerful and as organized as the Brotherhood was, so with them out of the picture Egypt is looking at a political vacuum.

CAT UPDATE:

After nearly two days with no Rocky sighting, I think I saw him across the street last night practicing climbing trees, although it was dark so I couldn’t be sure. The kitten I saw was with what appeared to be its mother, and when I approached him the mother growled at me. I tried to get a look at his eye. It seemed to be okay but I couldn’t really tell. Some locals had staged a TNR (trap, neuter, release) campaign recently, so it’s possible the mother got caught up in that and just found her way home.

Summer Vacation, Part Two

Well, we’re back in Cairo and immersed in school stuff already. Before things get too full-on, though, I’m going to write about the second part of our summer.

I already moaned in an earlier blog posting about Alitalia losing our bags, so I won’t dwell on that any longer. Our first night in Trieste wasn’t much fun—we had stayed late in the airport filing a report on our missing bags and spent that night in an airport hotel near the highway, so we didn’t get any sense of the surrounding area. We were all pretty wiped out and woke up late the next day, still jet-lagged from New York.

That’s where the adventure began. We took a taxi back to the airport so we could pick up our car and head to Slovenia to meet T’s oldest UNIS friend in Ljubljana, his grandmother’s home town. What a gem.  I had considered going to Venice that day, but a friend convinced me that I was missing an opportunity. Boy, was she right.

Ljubljana

Walk to school 005

Ljubljana

Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is gorgeous. We stayed in the center of town at a place called Hotel Slon, and the staff there couldn’t have been nicer. On our first night we meandered down to the pedestrian zone in the Three Bridges area, which is flanked by restaurants with outdoor seating. We had a terrific meal and, thanks to our attentive waiter, I sampled several delicious Slovenian wines.

Our friends arrived later that evening and the next day we all explored the city together. We walked through the downtown area and took a funicular up to the Ljubljana Castle, which provides stunning views over the city.

The following day we all caravaned to a nearby town called Postojna, which boasts the second-longest cave system in the country, and the only deep cave I’ve ever been in. We took a 90-minute tour, which includes a train ride that ferries you most of the way through the nearly 13 miles of caverns, and saw more stalagmites and stalactites than you can shake a stick at. Pretty cool.

We then drove down, still following one another, to Zadar, Croatia—about a 5-hour journey—where we caught a ferry to the mostly untouristed and idyllic island of Ugljan. No, the beaches are not sandy for the most part, but the water is so clean and so clear that it doesn’t matter. We would dive in off the dock near our house. The swimming was heavenly.

There’s a fairly developed fishing industry on the island and we were there for the annual fisherman festival, which consisted of a massive fair with entertainment by night and a parade of fishing boats serving booze and food by day. People were drinking and dancing. The adults remarked that there were no noticeable safety standards and that someone was bound to go overboard at some point. The kids noticed that the guys on the boat next to ours were mooning us.

Moon over the Adriatic

Moon over the Adriatic

We spent a lot of time on the water while we were in Ugljan, which always makes me happy. One day we chartered a boat to take us to the Kornati archipelago, a national park consisting of 140 islands. We docked at one and the captain and his wife cooked fish and pork chops over an open fire. It was one of the best meals we had while we were there.

Kornati cove

Kornati cove

On another evening we took the ferry back to Zadar, a charming little town that has served as a natural port since prehistoric times. Locals say that, while smaller, it’s prettier than Split. I’ve never been to Split so can’t compare, but Zadar is lovely. I’d happily go back. We only spent one evening there, most of which was taken up by a dinner at a restaurant with the slowest and worst service imaginable (though decent food and great views), so didn’t get to wander around much.

The most enchanting thing about Zadar was the sea organ. It’s an experimental instrument that involves pipes embedded into marble steps that lead down to the sea. When the water whooshes into them, they emit melodic tones. It is absolutely magical. The best time to go is at high tide, when the music is at its strongest. I’d go back just to hear that again, particularly off season when it isn’t so crowded.

At the end of our time in Ugljan our friends went off to Belgrade, where T’s friend’s grandfather is from, and we drove back to Trieste. It’s not on the well-beaten tourist path, but much like the rest of Italy, it is beautiful and has fantastic food. It’s right on the Adriatic Sea and has a canal running through it, so the light is stunning. Our last night there, the boys and I sat in a café on the canal and sipped aperitifs and watched the sun set. Sheer bliss. X took some fantastic photos—seems he has a great eye.

Trieste topped off a great summer, but we were delighted to get back to Cairo. Bring on year two!

X’S TRIESTE:

Xander's Trieste IMG_1229IMG_1205 Xander's Trieste

Summer Vacation, Part One

Planes seem to be the only place I can reliably blog from—right now I’m on a flight from LAX to JFK. The boys and I have been in the States for the month of July, first in NY and most recently in Laguna Beach, California, where my dad lives.

It was nice to be back but, once again, our time in the U.S. was far more hectic than I’d anticipated. I guess I should realize by now that that’s par for the course—there’s so much to be done while we’re here that we can’t do in Egypt. I was hoping to have more leisure time to socialize and see friends, but it didn’t work out that way.

Our time in New York was thrown into disarray for the most heartbreaking of reasons: a college friend and sorority sister of mine lost her battle with ovarian cancer just two days after I’d arrived in New York. She had been amazing throughout her fight, displaying a seemingly boundless strength. I had been fortunate enough to see her when I was in New York in February and again in May, and had been awed by her positive attitude. I don’t think I would have been able to stay as upbeat and optimistic as she did. She was truly inspiring. She left behind adorable twin girls who are just over a year and a half old. Their father took wonderful care of his wife throughout her illness, so they will be in good hands, but it’s a tragedy for her entire family.

We had a lovely Fourth of July weekend with close friends in Amagansett, and got to see other people out there with whom I always enjoy spending time. My only complaint is that it was too short. These visits are never long enough to really catch up.

We managed to see all the doctors and dentists and orthodontists that we needed to, and T even had an unexpected encounter with an oral surgeon that relieved him of three teeth. I’ve bought cat food and boys’ shoes and shampoo and medications and various kitchen supplies that I can’t get in Egypt. I still have a few more things to pick up on our last day in New York—placemats and chrome cleaner, among them. I haven’t quite reached the level of one Cairo expat friend who buys presents for the birthday parties that her kids attend throughout the year and the foods her kids miss in Egypt, but we are going back with a new Wii U for the boys.

I don’t want to make is sound like the trip was miserable. Yes, we ran a lot of errands, but I also got to see a few friends in New York and caught up with some old college and High School friends in California. It was great to reconnect with them after all these years. The boys each spent time with some of their best friends in New York, and in August we’re going to Croatia with the families of two of T’s closest friends from UNIS. We stay with a close friend of mine in New York, so get to spend quality time with her and her kids, and we had a visit with a friend who lives in India and his fabulous wife and kids. We saw my parents in California and hung out with the boys’ beloved tennis coach. There are just so many people we didn’t get a chance to see…

All in all, we had a lovely time. New York no longer feels like home to me, or to T, although X says it still does to him, but it is still the city I know best in the world and it’s nice to be there. Maybe even nicer now that I no longer live there and don’t care about the teapot tempests one gets caught up in there without realizing it. But I’m looking forward to getting back to Cairo and back to work. I’ve missed having time to write. One of these days I’ll get around to blogging about my amazing trip to Upper Egypt with a Coptic charity. Now, though, our plane is beginning its descent.

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!

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.

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