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. Kerry, wonderful stories from wonderful place. Thank you very much for sharing them here. You can see my smile while reading… It’s very human to fear the unknown. I’ve been to Egypt (Cairo and Alexandria) around 2003 too. I also have a lot of Egyptian friends. They are very kind people with nice hospitality and sense of humor. You should have these memories from Egypt published in a book!

  2. I have a plan for Europe this summer. I thought of Egypt but not sure about the current situation there. You had funny tales from there. Inhabitants are the main part of any place.

    • Life is very different as an expat than as a traveler. When I travel to places that may have dangers, I try to find a local guide that has been recommended and visit places that are less touristy. Thank you for your comment!

  3. Very beautiful post! I have always wanted to travel to Egypt. Maybe next year, for sure. People are the same everywhere, they add to the beauty of a place and they are keepers of customs and traditions.

  4. Sounds like a great adventure. My oldest and I went to Egypt in 2012 for a week. It wasn’t the greatest experience (we drove into the city just as the first democratically elected president had been announced – he was removed by a military coup less than a year later). It was a mess. It was interesting, though, and both of us were glad we saw it but wouldn’t want to go again. Glad your trip was very memorable, though, despite the cat bite.

    • Thank you for reading my post, Joanna. Egypt is not always good for tourism but living there reveals much more. My book illustrates more of the unpleasant aspects of living in a unstable third world country. Letters from Cairo by Kerry Duncan, Kindle.


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