Hospitality and Humor in Cairo

Mohamed kindly asked me to write a guest post for his blog and I thought you might enjoy some tales from my time in Cairo.  My husband was given an overseas posting to Cairo, Egypt in the fall of 2002.  It wouldn’t have been my first choice but my mum had died that year and an overseas posting seemed like an answer to my grief.  His American company was particularly hopeless at finding us accommodation so I went out and contracted my own realtor who found us a beautiful villa to rent on a quiet street in the suburb of Maadi.  Maadi means ferry crossing and the town was on the banks of the Nile at the southernmost edge of the huge city of Cairo.  When we lived there, it was still on the edge of the desert and filled with wildlife.  We had buzzards, foxes, Egyptian fruit bats and endless birds on migration.

We moved in to our villa in December 2002.  Unlike many expats we were living in a real Egyptian street, albeit rather wealthy.  My lovely neighbor across the street (it was more of a lane) was a distinguished older gentleman who greeted me most sincerely in Arabic – my responses got better as I learned Arabic at local classes.  Every day he walked slowly to the mosque at the end of the lane in his pajamas.  At first I was intrigued but then realized that people went to the supermarket in their pajamas also.  Unlike most Westerners I LOVE the sound of the call to prayer.  It reminds me of when I was young and Catholic churches would ring the bells of the Angelus at noon and 6 pm.  We are not so different after all; both were a call to prayer.  The only downside was that our cantor was tone deaf.  On a quiet night you could hear the lyrical cantors from the center of Cairo harmonizing the praises of God, and then ours joined in.  It was a bit like chalk on a blackboard!

Suddenly in March 2003, the USA declared war on Iraq and the second Gulf War commenced.  It was chaos in Cairo; if there were weapons of mass destruction we were in the blast zone.  At that time, my husband was British and I was American.  We got conflicting messages from our respective embassies.  People were evacuating back to the States but at the same time workers were being evacuated from Kuwait to Egypt.  On the day of the war my embassy told me to stay indoors and not be conspicuous.  After a few hours, I had enough and walked to the supermarket as usual.  Despite my long blonde hair, life went on, a tad nervously.  A few days later, I woke up to Koranic music (hymns) blasting from my lovely old neighbor’s house.  First, I was shocked and then angry.  I was convinced that he was giving us a loud message about being infidels.  I cried and paced, told my husband how much I wanted not to be here.

Later, I looked out the window at his relatives and suddenly realized that the lovely old man had died and this was the Egyptian equivalent of a wake.  Then I felt deep sorrow and laughter all at once.  What a fool I was!  It was perfect proof that the great circle of life goes on during war or peace.  I missed him very much and often think of him.  My second story of kindness is a remarkable one.  Many expat spouses fill their time in third world countries with clubs, coffees and outings.  That drove me crazy!  I volunteered at a community center helping distraught (or bored) expats and assisting Egyptians or refugees to find work.  My friend asked me if I would also volunteer at a local cat shelter.  I was reluctant but truly it was better managed than those I have seen in Texas.  The Sudanese manager cried every time a cat was adopted because he loved them so much.  On one fateful day, a tiny feral kitten was brought in.  Her mouth looked sore, so I helped the manager hold her down and open her mouth.  It was badly infected with feline herpes (not transferrable to humans) and she bit me instinctively.  Almost immediately, my finger had started to swell and by evening it was septicemia.

My American trained doctor did not want me to go to the rather basic ER, so she inserted an IV port in my arm and arranged for an Egyptian nurse to treat my privately at home with antibiotics.  My nurse did not speak a word of English and my Arabic was basic.  She treated me like a baby bird, stroking my golden hair and hand-feeding my Om Ali (a fantastic bread pudding) that she brought from the bakery.  Eventually we realized it was a hardship for her to travel from her shanty town at the end of the desert to our house, so we arranged to take me to her apartment.  The entryway had running ‘water’ – who knows?  Their apartment was very clean but even the best room had a broken mirror – everything had been salvaged.  We paid her hundreds of dollars; a fortune for her.  Then she spent about a month’s wages preparing a Bedouin feast for us after I had recovered.  Her father could no longer work because he had Bilharzia, a parasitic disease that was slowly killing him.  Our final gift to them was to take the whole family to a 4 star hotel in downtown Cairo for a meal.  The management was not very happy at an obviously poor Bedouin family joining the fancy folks but dared not cross us.  What no-one realized is that I was brought up, sometimes in poverty, in a public housing area in Glasgow.  Dining in a 4 star hotel on the River Nile was an almost unattainable dream for me too.

33 thoughts on “Hospitality and Humor in Cairo”

  1. Great story. The pajama detail threw me off; when i was a kid in egypt, usually it was the poorer classes who donned (often striped) PJs on Fridays. I had no idea this was still the custom as late as 2003! And Maadi is far from poor! cheers

    • Kerry, I read the preface. It’s amazing and I’ll do my best to get the book. Based on the preface, it’d be good reading for those interested in this culture from different prospective. Thank you for sharing some of it with us. I wish you always happy life without any grief or sorrows.

      • Thank you, Mohamad. It is a short book and relates my personal journey which incorporates my mental health. One reader would have preferred more of a travelogue but my psychiatrist put it on his reading list. My only comment would be that living in an alien culture is very stressful unless you have a superficial experience. I have no regrets!

      • I’m sorry to hear about all what you have went through. As you said, it was new experience for you and probably of a help to face the difficulties… I remember I enjoyed my trip there but it was different environment yet I speak the same language. Thank you…

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