I’m so happy to have Postcards from Kerry writing today’s guest post. Please take a few minutes to read her very powerful story about her memories in Cairo.
It was Thursday, 20 March, 2003 and the second Gulf War had commenced. Some months before, we had moved to Cairo for an international posting with my husband’s company. For over 20 years we had been longing to take an exotic overseas posting but I was my mother’s caretaker, in Scotland, because she had a chronic mental illness. We also had two elderly cats. In January 2002, my mum suddenly died, swiftly followed by our elderly cats. A mixture of grief and bravado provoked me to encourage my husband to put his name on the international posting list. When Cairo was offered I was tentative, having already visited friends on a similar posting some years before, but went with the flow. ‘At least it will be familiar’, I thought…
My husband moved before me and I left the UK for Cairo in November 2002. Until we could find an apartment or house to lease, we were staying in the only decent hotel in Maadi which is a suburb of Cairo. It was, for the most part, a beautiful area with many consular buildings, villas and gardens – situated right on the edge of the desert. The company was particularly unhelpful with finding us somewhere to live so I found my own realtor who was half French, half Egyptian and spoke perfect English. Most expatriates chose to live in a sub-section of Maadi called Digla. I viewed many beautiful apartments but it struck me that apartment blocks full of Westerners was neither safe nor what I wanted to experience. Our final choice was a large older villa with an amazing garden full of hibiscus, guava and mango trees with the greenest grass. It was in Maadi Gedida (New Maadi) and most of the neighbors were local professionals with just a smattering of braver expats.
We had moved from a rural, agricultural part of north east Scotland so our first difficulty was adapting to the almost constant noise of a city of 20 million residents. Most visitors to our villa remarked on how quiet it was – and it was, by comparison. Egypt has regular small earthquakes and the windows are rarely wind, water, noise or sand tight. Almost all the villas in our tiny lane had a Bo’ab who usually lived on the property. It is hard to find an exact job description for a Bo’ab but for the most part they act as caretakers of your property. We chose not to have one, but kept on the gardener who came with the villa. I will call him Salim and he voluntarily took on many of the tasks of a Bo’ab along with gardening. He stayed most of the day at the villa, although he had his own apartment and stayed at his mother’s home until he married. He was unusually tall, handsome and Bedouin.
I don’t know if he ever realized how much he helped me settle into such an alien environment. He spoke very little English and I was still learning Arabic. Bit by bit, I got to know my neighbors and all of their Bo’abs. Egyptians are very curious, talkative and generally respectful. Once I learned how to say the usual pleasantries in Arabic, our neighbors were more welcoming. One neighbor, however, really didn’t like me and my ignorance of some of the social norms was the reason. Dogs are referred to as unclean in the Koran and we had one skinny street dog living in our street. If you touch or are touched by a dog, a Muslim should perform a lengthy cleansing and religious ritual. A previous expatriate, living in the street, had tamed the dog so she didn’t know that she should be frightened of humans and would run up to everyone for a filthy cuddle. Poochy, as we imaginatively named her, then had a large litter of adorable puppies. Most of the neighbors felt sorry for her and left bowls of food for her. I had been determined not to fall under her spell but the puppies broke me and I took over her medical care.
The neighbor I referred to starting shouting at me one evening because I was encouraging the dog that scared her. I shouted back and told her that it was inhumane to neglect these poor animals, not realizing her deep rooted social and religious feelings. By contrast, our across the street neighbor, was a delightful old man, most likely a retired professor, who was so old that he went to the mosque at the end of the street in his striped pajamas. He went out of his way to greet me in Arabic and made us feel very welcome. Communications were very poor in Egypt – the phone rarely worked, letters took weeks to arrive and the internet was unpredictable. We knew there were rumblings of a war against Iraq and the threat of weapons of mass destruction but didn’t realize that war was imminent.
I am American by birth, my husband is British, and we registered at our respective embassies when we arrived in Egypt. We started getting conflicting emails – many Americans were evacuating because if there were WMDs then Cairo was in the blast zone. The British embassy had a typical stiff upper lip and they indicated much less concern. My husband’s company also had staff evacuating from areas such as Kuwait into Egypt which added to the chaos. On that first day of war, I received an email from the US embassy suggesting that I stayed indoors that day. My husband went to work as usual. I was already on the brink of a mental health break with the trauma of both bereavement and a major life change. I inherited chronic anxiety, depression and OCD from my very dysfunctional family. Many mental illnesses are genetically inherited and affected by circumstances. Our family would make an amazing medical case study with diagnoses of Bipolar, ADD, OCD and Depression, with at least two suicides. The email suggesting that I stayed inside for safety made me want to do the exact opposite. I got dressed and walked for hours and hours throughout the suburbs, stopping for coffee and looking in the shops.
Just as I imagined, life went on as normal, although it was quieter than normal. People stared at me but I stood out from the crowd anyway, with long curly reddish blonde hair, although I dressed modestly out of respect for my host country. As I was walking back to the house, I had to pass a Satellite Station, which may or may not have had a military use, but was guarded by young conscripted soldiers. One of the regulars was obviously an English literature major and he quoted some Shakespearean romantic dialogue at me every time I passed his location. I kept a straight face (although bubbling up with laughter) and did not interact – he didn’t need any encouragement. That evening, which was the night before the Islamic Sabbath, we went to our neighborhood European bar, discussed how stressful the day was and drank too much.
The following day I woke up to the sound of loud Koranic music being blasted from our lovely old neighbor’s house (striped pajamas). This was not normal for the Sabbath and I can still remember the shock I felt that the one neighbor, who I knew liked me, was doing this. I was convinced that he was trying to make us feel unwelcome now that the West had started a second Gulf War. My poor husband had to put up with his neurotic (and also paranoid) wife ranting about nasty neighbors, street dogs, Egypt and Americans for most of the day. He agreed that it was odd and perhaps we should think about moving to another neighborhood but we were stuck in a long lease agreement. I took a little more anti-anxiety medication and went back to the bar to drown our sorrows. It is a very bad idea to mix medication with alcohol, so don’t follow my example unless you are living in a war zone…
The next day I noticed lots of the old man’s relatives visiting the house and it finally dawned on me that the poor old man had died and this was the equivalent of an Irish Wake but without alcohol. Can you imagine how awful I felt? It was sheer coincidence that the war started and he died. That little revelation taught me so much about myself, my illness and narcissism. Life is very hard in an unstable third world country like Egypt and my presence there was inconsequential. I made it my mission to devote the rest of my time to volunteering at two locations – a community center for expatriates that also helped Sudanese refugees, and a cat shelter. Unobtrusively, I continued to care for our street dogs in a way that satisfied me and our neighbors. Every day I greeted people in Arabic and learned a little more until I was vaguely fluent. My best friends were from Egypt, Lebanon, Ukraine, Belgium, Canada and Scotland and we all learned a little something about each other’s culture. Whenever I think about Cairo, I remember our lovely old neighbor who walked to the mosque every day in his pajamas.
If you would like to read more of my stories, visit my website Postcards from Kerry and one day I will publish my Memoirs of Cairo.