Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

July 22, 2004 Oh, the people you'll meet!

I’ve met all kinds of people in Cairo. All kinds of expats, I should say – I don’t know much of anything about how the Cairenes live. I’ve always met the “long term overseas” folks – who aren’t really long-term, that label should go to those whose lives are here for good, not just for a visit. The long-term overseas are Americans who come with their wives – yes, always wives – and children on a USAID or perhaps embassy assignment for three, maybe four years, occasionally it stretches to five. With few exceptions they don’t know much about Egypt before they come. They are enthusiastic and excited, they buy all the books, they research the neighborhoods and schools and social clubs. Then they end up living in Ma’adi, a shady green suburb south of the city – home of the American school and the British school, scads of anglo expats, foreign newspapers and magazines, fast food, upscale shops, new air conditioned cinemas, and the only places to get good filtered coffee. When I’m feeling cynical, I could accuse them in my mind of having transplanted upscale American suburbia to Egypt – Montclair, New Jersey or Falls Church, Virginia. Liberal, educated, expensive, good schools, train to the city, restaurants you can walk to. That’s rather unfair, though. Ma’adi is an oasis in the cluttered chaos that is Cairo. I use that word a lot, but oases are what this city needs. And the expats who live there are sincere, they love being in Egypt, they learn more Arabic than I have though they don’t need it for their work, and they learn a lot about the country and its people. Why should I feel critical? I know less Arabic, far less about the country, and despite my almost-forgotten attempts to become a Middle East expert in graduate school, I can’t imagine wanting to live here.

I went to the July 4th party at the American school in Ma’adi, the guest of one of my long-term overseas colleagues. It was a huge event, over a thousand people, and I’m glad I went. It wasn’t nearly as hokey as the event I went to twenty years ago at the U.S. embassy in Sana’a, with the marine band marching in lockstep across the flowerbeds – though this did have a few marching marines playing patriotic music and a solo rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. This event was ten, twenty times bigger. Children in shorts and t-shirts chased pell-mell across the broad school lawns. It was hot and still, so they set up two tents lined with pipes that sprayed a constant fine mist that was almost as good as outdoor air conditioning. Food was hot dogs and hamburgers, plus fudgesicles and red, white, and blue ice pops that people handed out from cartons as they strolled through the crowds. They gave us each a raffle ticket when we entered. My colleague’s fourteen-year-old daughter won the grand prize, two round-trip tickets between Europe and the United States. Not bad!

Lately I’ve met some people who live in Cairo in other ways. One is a Pakistani woman whom I actually met two years ago while boarding a flight from Cairo to Paris. Salima lives the life that I once thought I wanted. She is an Egyptologist and an archaeologist, doing work in the Valley of the Kings and eastern Turkey. She grew up in Pakistan and the US, studied in England, and lives in Zamalek in a splendid old apartment. She lives the kind of international life that I want – or perhaps think I want, or should want – but that I have not wanted enough to seize for myself.

I went to dinner at Salima’s house, with a dozen or so friends of hers. They are in a different world from the Americans, or so it seems to me. Salima’s husband is English, as are most of their friends. But that’s not why they are different. They are in Cairo because it is Cairo, not because it is their latest posting. Her husband is an architect, and one of their friends is a city planner. Both move in the world of Islamic architecture that I tried to be part of in graduate school. Both studied at Harvard, the friend a few years before I was an undergraduate there, the husband just after I left MIT. So Salima is living my childhood fantasies, and her friends my graduate school ones. We all know people in common from many steps of our lives. It’s a different community from the one I know in Cairo. It appeals to me immensely, though I have chosen not to live that life.

I had dinner one night with two Americans who live in Cairo in a different way from the American expats or Salima’s friends. Both are fluent in Arabic, and have been in this part of the world for decades. They work together for an American consulting firm on a USAID project. He grew up in the Arab world, because of his father’s work, and spoke Arabic by the time he finished high school. His parents are now in the Boston area, he thinks of himself as a Bostonian, he taught in the New York City schools for years. But he he keeps landing up back in the Middle East – with his languages, it’s easy to get work here, and it pays well. He doesn’t seem terribly happy about it. He describes his world as a buffered microcosm; work on an American project that frustrates him, tennis at the Marriott with other foreigners, food imported from the United States. He has a feeling of déjà vu about the long-term Americans. He has seen so many come and go, watched them progress from their initial wide-eyed ignorance, sort out where to live, learn some Arabic, enthusiastically explore the souqs and museums and restaurants, take side trips to Aswan and Luxor and Sinai, settle in to ordinary life, then leave at the end of their assignment to repeat the process in the next country. He can’t share their excitement, one family after the next. But he isn’t an Egyptian, either, and doesn’t want to be. His colleague is a bit different. She has been here for fifteen years, has converted to Islam, and has, as he put it, “real” Egyptian friends. She wants to live as an Egyptian. Perhaps it’s easier for her than for him, she wants to fit into a community here, whereas he can’t find anyplace that feels like home.

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