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Remembering Hedonistic Cairo

Reader comment on item: "Cairo and the Age of the Hedonists"

Submitted by Repatriated in Reality (United States), Nov 28, 2006 at 22:58

Dear Mr. Pipes,

In 1971 when you were in Cairo, I was a sophomore in high school in the States. I had little, if any thought of living in the Middle East, Cairo in particular.

Many years later, I had casually mentioned Cairo as a last resort to live, and was even afraid that I was going to die there! Fate had a surprise for me. In 1980 I married for a second time and we moved to Manila, in order for my husband to begin his new job with a French oil company.

The evening we booked into the Peninsula hotel, there was a car bomb in the underground car park, which was directly above the ballroom. It shook the entire hotel, including the passengers in the lift which was descending to the ground floor. My husband and I were in that lift. What a welcome to life in the expat lane.

From then one, life was one big expat party, in between military coups, that is. After only a year, we moved to Jakarta. I was nervous about living in a Muslim country, but my fears were wasted; I really enjoyed the life there. I know we were spoiled beyond belief. Maids, drivers, etc. But in May 1982, there were problems. There was a presidential election and it caused no end of disorder. On one occasion, I was in my car, with my driver, going to my husband's office. When we arrived, the military police were in charge of the car park. I arrived to my husband's office and he was shocked. "How did you get here? There's a curfew!!!!!! I just witnessed the police gunning down people in Banteng Square!!!" He told me that there were rioters and demonstrations because of the elections, and now we were stuck in the hotel until evening. We finally went home about 11:00, where the streets were deserted, only the few Saracens keeping watch.

After six years in Indonesia, we were posted to London. More bombs, only this time they were the IRA variety. I heard the one at the Parliament after taking my daughter to school. We lived in Chelsea then, and the Houses of Parliament were miles away.

After four years in London, we moved to Moscow. It was the most depressing time in my life. I just couldn't "get into" the Russian way of life, particularly the heavy vodka swilling that was expected of everyone. In October 1993, the second coup took place. We had been out to lunch with friends, and were trying to get home. There was a heavy snowfall (it was only October 3rd but this was Russia) and that made the driving even more trecherous. The police had put up roadblocks and we had to snake our way home by backroads instead of the ring road around Moscow. We watched the attack on the Russian White House on CNN and listened to it from our balcony. It was truly a frightening time, and our daughter missed school for that week due to the danger of being seen outdoors. The tv station was attacked, too. I can't remember the name, Ostanko, or something like that.

During our stay in Moscow I became pregnant with our second child. The British Embassy doctor advised me to get out of Russia as soon as I could, due to my advancing age (40) and threatened miscarriage. So I left in early 1995. Our daughter was born in June of that year. My husband's company wanted us to go to Libya of all places. Fortunately, as a US citizen, I couldn't go, thank God. My husband, being British, is allowed to work there. But he wouldn't go anywhere that he couldn't be with his family. So instead we were sent to Paris, home base of this company.

After a year of struggling to make ends meet on a French salary, my husband decided it was time to get out of France and move in a different direction. Which takes us to Cairo. October 1996 to be precise. After our look-see trip, I decided it wasn't so bad after all. It was so much more modern than I thought it would be. I am ashamed to admit that I had preconceived ideas about Egypt, you know, everything was either pyramids, palm trees and King Tut, or every woman was wearing the veil. Egypt has such a history it can't be summed up in anyone's lifetime. I lived there ten years until this June when I returned to the States to help take care of my ailing mother.

1997 was a bad year for terrorism in Egypt. First there was a bus full of tourists near the Cairo Museum who were slaughtered. Then in November it was the Luxor massacre. It was the most horrible of crimes. Our friends had just returned from there the day before. After that, something had changed. We no longer felt safe walking the streets of Ma'adi. We knew that we could be the next target of fanatics. My daughter used to walk to school, but after the massacre, my driver took her.

Something was changing in Egypt, but it was very gradual. Every year, I was noticing more and more women covering up, with a veil, or the whole shebang, which my husband calls the "Full Bee-Keeping Kit". You know what I mean, the black one with the half-inch slit for the eyes. I had been to the zoo with my daughter and my driver. I made the mistake of wearing a sleeveless top. A group of teenage boys started groping me and my driver yelled at them to stop. It was so hot I just couldn't imagine wearing sleeves, but that was a big mistake.

It wasn't just the clothing restrictions that I was tired of. It was the general feeling that there were more and more Islamists roaming around, pushing their radical ideologies to the masses. Cairo itself is a paradox. There are numerous casinos, although Egyptians are not allowed to gamble. There are jazz clubs, nightclubs, belly dancers, etc. Shishas are smoked by more and more women than men. And they aren't just smoking tobacco either. There are Western-style bars and cafes. An English-language radio station (NileFM). Shopping centres and malls to rival any Western ones.

The Red Sea resorts boast the most bold tourists, some of the braver women topless on the beaches. The Egyptian teenage girls who attended the international school dressed in the latest fashions, i.e. tightest jeans, littlest cropped tops, etc. Inside the sanctuary of the school, I suppose they felt free to dress as they pleased. I couldn't understand how a "good Muslim" could dress in such blatant Western clothes and then feign religious piety.

We foreigners were to observe a very strict dress code and usually stuck to it. With the men, it was more difficult to assess whether or not they were moderate or radical in their beliefs. A good indication that someone is a radical Islamist is the presence of a "grape" on the forehead. This is due to the pressing of the forehead on the floor during prayers, a sure sign of great piety.

As an American, I felt very vulnerable in the last few years in Egypt. It is the Iraq war that has changed things. Most Egyptians can't stand our president and say it was wrong to attack Iraq. They know that Saddam Hussein was a wicked tyrant, but Arabs do stick together as a rule. I just don't understand how anyone could defend such a monster.

I suppose I have a love-hate relationship with Egypt. I loved the Red Sea. I shall miss it terribly. I have a lot of Egyptian friends. But I didn't like the crazy traffic, the mosque at 5:00 am or the feeling that somehow, I didn't belong there. I am not Muslim and never will be. I will never wear a veil or swear allegiance to Mohammed.

Many of my Coptic friends have already left Egypt. Many more will follow. They say they are persecuted, regardless of what the rest of the world has been told. Many have been there for generations, and will be the first to leave their home country. Most hope to come here so they can live in freedom. I personally don't believe that there are two Islams. There is only one. The so-called moderate Muslims do not even practice Islam, except at Ramadan, when they think that by fasting they are being holy for one month. Then it's back to their normal lives. God is not impressed. In all religions there are certain rites and rituals which are peculiar to that belief, and I can respect that. . . however, with anyone who preaches radical Islam there is almost always violence involved.

When I think of what Egypt was and still could be, it just makes me frustrated and sad. It's such a mess, both politically and socially. There is no infrastructure, or if there is, it's invisible.

Sometimes I dream about Egypt: I'm in a felucca on the Nile, just floating away down that old river, being told by the boatmen that the bullrushes on my right were the same ones that Moses was found in. It's nearing sunset, the perfect time to enjoy a felucca ride, perhaps a glass of wine and a light dinner. Then reality sets in. Time to get out of the boat and face the horrible traffic on the Corniche, to dodge the crazy taxis and minibuses, to get home to sanctuary.

Repatriated in Reality


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