Sunday, June 24, 2012

Egyptian Expat in Cairo - One Hour to Egypt's New President

Funny how the picture changes in a span of 6 months. I left Cairo back in December of last year. It was still a city reeling with anger against the army, speculation about presidential elections, burgeoning grass-root activities and hope for a better future.

June 23rd - yesterday I woke up at 3 pm, totally jet lagged and totally lazy and relishing the fact that someone else is taking care of my kids' needs.. Ohhh I love being here!

My BB was flashing red.. I smiled inwardly, my friends must be checking on me! grabbing it from my bedside< i look at the dozens of identical broadcasts I've received.. this wasn't about my return home... This was a mass call, initiated by a friend, gone viral, to go rally for a modern secular Egypt at a specific time in Heliopolis..

I'm going to see my in laws anyway today... I'll make sure to drop by to see what people think..

In the two days, I've been here, i've noticed a huge scene shift..
All the hopeful faces I left back in December, are now grim with anger, despair and frustration.
Everyone who voted Islamist back in November parliamentary elections, has now categorically voted Shafik (i.e. military).. Revolutionaries refused to vote and are now biting at their knuckels. Ironically some actually went to yesterday's rally for Shafik. There are also those who voted Morsi (i.e. crazy) to spite the military but are now biting a bit further down their peripharies in remorse.

 A huge number of voters went for a military rule: "We are being shot at,"  my brother told me when I was debating my vote. "think of it as a penalty. you have to defend your goal, you don't really have a choice. you abstain, you lose your right to defend yourself."

It's a lose-lose situation and I feel sorry for everyone involved. We all voted or abstained for all the wrong reasons.  One year ago, 88 million Egyptians were unified for one common cause: the end of corruption and regaining control over our own future. Today, 25 minutes before the announcement of the presidential elections, a sense of fear, betrayal, and guilt permeates the air. That, for now is our common denominator!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Egyptian Expat in Cairo -

Nanny-less diaries

I didn’t come up with this one! Though I wish I did..

I’ve been nanny-less for almost ¾ of my nine years of mommy-hood. And the short bouts in which I had house-help, the price tag for the service came quite high: my money, my jewelry, and most of all, my sanity.

Somehow I got by.

As a matter of fact, I still am getting by, with three kids between 9 and 3 and a house in child-unfriendly New York. A little bit of toughening up and loads of spillover whining sessions, I somehow get by. But it’s my friend Yasmin Shafei, who so creatively and so aptly coined the term as she navigates Cairo with two little ones and no house-help.

Mind you, YS is no spoilt brat. She also braved New York City with kids and came out of it with fond memories. She breezed through the big fat apple with no help, and she survived. She even liked it and didn’t bother to complain; which admittedly, I did lots of.

What is it in Cairo that makes the job ooooh soooo hard?
I’m finally living here in my parents’ house… A dream I thought was banished to the lowest drawers of my consciousness since marriage to the UN uprooted me from my home.

I have a cook, a cleaner, a couple of “pass-par-tout-s”, and my sister’s driver at my disposal.. I even got lucky with a sitter I’ve known for a couple of years and she works full time with my kids. Yet I’m drained!
My friend Noha asked me this morning: you actually live alone with 3 kids in New York?

By alone she means without house-help. That statement in itself tells me a lot about family structure for young families living in Cairo where a father ultimately comes fourth after mami, driver, and house-help. If you add grandparents and aunts to the mix, the poor man is left to dwindle his fingers over shisha every night with his friends .
That’s an exaggeration, but in many cases it is sadly an accurate description of Cairene family life.

Six months ago, I would have frowned my brows and given her – what I would hope would look like- an arrogant condescending emoticon –like look. I would have sneered a little and so haughtily explained that I had it all under control and I was no spoilt daddy’s girl.

The only truth that remains today from that perspective is that I never was a daddy’s girl. Other than that, I have a new found admiration for all those hands-on new mommys who stretch themselves so thin, in a city of 88 million humans, double that number in stray animals and less than a fifth of it in resources.

A typical day for a new-age mom in Cairo starts somewhere between 5:30 and 6:30 AM. For a night bloomer like me, this is simply inhumane. School days for multi-child families ends anywhere between 1 and 4 pm. And that’s when the traffic torture begins.

My kids all finish at 1 PM sharp.. Ideal right??? Too bad I have to do two simultaneous pick-ups from 2 different locations. End result??? Lots of sprinting, panting, apologizing and angry unwelcoming kiddie faces envying each-other depending on who got picked up first!

Sundays the boys have swim class, Tamara has Ballet, all 3 have Arabic and that’s just the weekly kickoff day.

I sat in Grecco cafĂ© this morning with a dozen moms after drop-off and I listened carefully and silently acknowledged: Living Nanny-less in Cairo is an unparalleled adventure. As much as I applaud Yasmin’s courage and enthusiasm, I think that 6 weeks from now, as I shed all my social luxuries and support systems away and board that plane back to lonely New York, I will pray real hard for her to find help and keep it. For she needs that here in Cairo more than I ever will in NY or Europe or wherever the UN decides to dump us in the future.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Egyptian Expat in Cairo

Here is a shocker…
I looked up the definition of Expatriation and google comes back with this: “ex•pa•tri•ate ( k-sp tr - t ). v. ex•pa•tri•at•ed, ex•pa•tri•at•ing, ex•pa•tri•ates. 1. To send into exile. See Synonyms at banish.”

OUCH… I never felt that marriage to the UN would lead to exile.. sounds really harsh!
I didn’t like this definition so I ventured to look for my own.

But my life, in its mischievous ways, decided to hand me with a rare opportunity to find the answer myself.

Early in May, I got the news that my dad was terminally ill.. Funny how the word terminal immediately puts a ticking clock over a person’s head. Their life stops the day you hear the news, and the mourning process takes off long before it’s due.. But that’s a side issue that deserves a blog post on its own.

Three months later, and after an arduous summer, a decision was finally taken… The kids and I would stay in Cairo till December to spend as much time with my dad as possible and pitch in where needed.

September 7th, I took the kids to their respective schools. The day proved chaotic, stressful, crowded and tremendously scary for all three kids and myself.
Later that night, I updated my status on FB with some cynicism. I criticized the school security measures, the lack of coordination between nurseries and school schedules, traffic, crowds, heat, and the arrogance of Egypt’s new elite with their fancy bags and signature couture.

September 14th, I wrote on FB:

“Aside from politics.. what's up with Cairo and Ice watches??? two weeks in the great capital and my son already insists he must have one!!! and an X Box and a motor scooter and a golf cart and and and and .....”

This proved a popular post with many agreeing but some didn’t like my orientalist attitude.. Well they didn’t quite say it outright, but it was there in every word of defense they wrote.

By September 20th, my dreams of finally settling back home, albeit for a short while, started to dissipate… I wrote on FB:

“Week 3 in Cairo. Hot,hot, school pick up is a nightmare, surprisingly lonely, wish I could organize a little so I can do more!”

Lonely??? Who would have thought I would ever feel lonely in the Cairo of my childhood friends, cousins, cousins of cousins, colleagues and the hundreds of people I consider close friends???

October 12th, I wrote:

“Week 6 in Cairo:I reside with my family, which by default = I have access to a cook, a driver, a house cleaner, an ironer etc... YET! i'm way more drained than when I played solo in Westchester!!!!!!!”

Lonely.. drained.. chaotic are usually all symptomatic of one thing: a new phase of expatriation; a dismantling of a home and a discovery of yet… a new one. What was going on? Why was I.. oops, why am I still living as an expat in my own homeland?

And the real definition of expatriation suddenly became crystal clear.
Expatriation for roamers like me.. is not the physical act of leaving home, or worse being expelled from it.

Expatriation is a state of mind that imprints itself in a roamer’s psyche and becomes a critical part of our consciousness. We are expatriates no matter where we are. Roaming in a constant state of rootlessness and that’s what marriage to the UN means!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

When Election Day meant Hope for Egypt .... Oh well!!!! At least we had One day to Cherish

It had rained the day before. I know, in Westchester, when rain and morning-after are logged together in the same sentence, humming birds, green trees and the fresh smell of grass come to mind.

But this is Cairo, there are never enough trees for any birds to nest on, the closest we have to grass patches are water drenched green swamps in what was initially designed to be green public squares. Even in lush Maadi, the school I was to go cast my vote in was located in a muddy, beat-down street a few blocks away from the lavish villas and old-Maadi houses this neighborhood is so famous for.

I woke up way too early and way too excited. Afterall, I was going to get my thumb inked for the first time in my life!

Days before, we sat in big groups over Greco coffee and Abul Sid shisha (water pipe) going over appropriate attire to detract attention, exit strategies in case of violence, proper behavior to dodge Islamist groups intimidation and where we would all meet after we vote to celebrate this historical moment in our lives.

On the morning of… my cousin Laila (yes, we tend to all carry the same first name in my family), my friend Hedy, my sis and her friend (who were voting next door) stood dutifully in long winding lines. We were early and we were met with many familiar faces. Maadi is big by most people’s standards, but this is Egypt, 88 million citizens and somehow you always end up bumping in all the people you know. Everywhere you go, you’re in familiar territory.

By mid-morning, the wait gets boring, apparently, our judge is still sleeping and some volunteers decided not to go for the job of observers. There was a call for new volunteers from the lines, I wanted to help but it was either spend a whole 12 hour days in that voting room observing, reporting on violations, and helping clueless voters, or be frowned upon for not wanting to help build our country!!!!

Where did that attitude come from? Over-zealous, first time voters blinded by the prospect of writing their own national history I guess. I tried to explain that we all wanted to help, but we had small children and short notices don’t help. Again, more frowning and a few nasty remarks about my lack of patriotism.

Meanwhile on the other side of the muddy road, Islamist parties had organized themselves and with such positive energy have stationed their laptops and volunteers to guide the, by now super tired, voters to their designated voting rooms.

I did my part, I took pictures, I talked sense, I officially complained and I reported violation.. After all, the rules were clear: parties were not allowed to campaign on the day of! But the lack of internal organization and the long wait were ripe environment for any takers. No one was more readily organized than the Islamists and sure enough, the street was flooded with yellow banners, untamed beards and scary black Niqabs.
When the doors finally opened, the lines went in fast. The process was relatively painless, except when a young woman clad in a huge black Niqab cut the lines, and pushed her way in to vote!

Hedy, Laila and I tried to block her path. We argued that for such a supposedly pious woman she should respect her fellow citizens and wait for her turn. She begged to be let in:
- They called my number, she argued
- No they didn’t, Hedy firmly replied. You and I carry the same number and it hasn’t been called yet.
- But I’m carrying a sleeping child, she said
- Well, so are a dozen other women whose turn you’re so impolitely ignoring
- OK, then I’ll go home
- Great… Who needs another Islamist vote? I told her. With this outfit, no way you’re voting liberal I assume!
- If you’re really going home, get out of the line and walk back, Laila told her
- But I can’t, can’t you see my long black dress will be muddied?
- Really now< I was quite angry by then… we have to push aside and muddy ourselves for your highness simply because you chose to come vote in a dragging black robe on a morning like this. Your decision to cover yourself from the whole word doesn’t make you a better or cleaner person, you know!

In the end she won… she managed to push her way in, moan and beg the army soldiers at the gates, vote before the rest of us and so proudly flaunt her black gloved hand at us. We couldn’t tell whether she was inked or not.
Later that day we heard reports from other stations that Monaqabbas performed multiple votes for their party and no one dared question their identity under the black Niqab!

A woman behind me murmured to her friends: so they lie, cheat, trample and seduce.. That’s what the Islamist party women do to win.

And win they did, a sweeping victory for a party that most of the Maadi population can’t identify with. How?

Months later, sipping coffee in Panera and dreaming of a steamy cappuccino with my Maadi friends back in Greco, I still wonder!

How did they win our district over? How many Monaqqaba voters did I see that morning? Including the pushy lying one with the sleeping baby, probably two or three. How could the outrageous Salafi Al Nour Party take my Maadi by storm on that Monday morning on Election Day? I can’t imagine the mostly secular crowd, in jeans, sweaters and fancy chignons stood so patiently for hours to vote Al Nour or even the F&J Party.

God help us in the next few weeks when, along with their Islamic peers the F&J Party, Al Nour translate their surreal ideologies into a constitution that will govern our lives and our children’s lives for generations to come.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Mom's First Day of School

7.45 pm

I’m fifteen minutes late for my first school appearance. Yes, three years into the post and I still have to go through that first-day-of-school trauma AGAIN!

I drive up on Central Avenue. I tune in to 100.3 hoping for a feel good song. Sure enough, one of my favorites is playing and I stretch my lungs out to sing my anxiety out of my system. Yes, I sing loud!

As I enter the meeting room, I tell myself: it won’t be so bad. It’s just another PA meeting. I’m a pro by now!, I’ve gone from shy shadow member, to elected PA president to outspoken member in three years and I loved every moment of it. But that’s in the boys’ small, family-style French School, where almost all 20+ families are expats, roamers like me.

This all American community school is a totally different story!

I step inside the meeting room and I see a judging panel: 6 or 7 moms and one dad facing the rest of us moms and also one dad who constitute the school parents body.
Everyone looks at me and I tell myself it’s only because I’m late!

But why are they seated as panelists? I pull out a comforting mental image of our French school PA meetings in Panera Bread coffeehouse where no one can tell who is a member, a treasurer, a president or just there for the coffee. We just all gather around the long wooden country table and do our meetings over crunchy bagels and hot coffee, while out toddlers enjoy turning our working papers into their coloring sheets.

I grab a chair in the last row of seats and I stare at the panel speaking about past and future events and I realize from the number of jokes floating around the room that:
1- I’m the only non-American in the room.
2- I’m the only new comer.
3- I’m probably only the only person who has no idea what a parish breakfast means!

I’m hyper ventilating. I try to find ways to calm my nerves down. But then I realize I’m simply hot because I forgot to take my heavy coat off! I do so as quietly as possible. I see one of the panelists inquiring about me and I wonder; how on earth will I introduce myself? What will I say? “Hey, I’m Laila. I’m the only Egyptian Muslim here, and I have two boys who go to the French school next door and one daughter who attends this wonderful American catholic school. But hey, I have no identity crisis… none what so ever.. I’ve only been a roamer for 13 years. I’m cool….all cool!!!”

I get my moment and I do introduce myself. It actually happens fast and without any bumps. Except, I can’t find my English words, and I have this weird Franco Egyptian accent that no one can identify. Oh!!!! I suddenly realize: I speak Franco English at the American school while my French friends from the French school think my French is tainted with English. I can’t think in Arabic any longer. Who the heck am I? Why can’t I master any language? Why am I constantly at a loss of words and proper sentence structure?

I’m grateful they don’t comment much about my obvious struggle with the vernacular. Some brush it off to normal anxiety for being a first time school mom (at this particular school) and they all welcome me aboard!

I come back home and I tell my husband all about it. I’m so excited I finally found a way into my daughter’s new school. Though it’s doubtful I will ever integrate as successfully as I did in an all-roamers school. But in a couple of years, when all those thoughts will be once again neatly tucked inside a memory box ready to be shipped to our next destination , I will sit in my airplane chair, look down on New York and feel good about it all…

Up until it’s time to brace myself one more time for my first PA meeting, in another roamer school, in another roamer post with another group of intimidating parents who seem to have already formed an invincible tight-knit community to which I can’t possibly belong!