A few months ago, I decided to relocate to Cairo with my two young sons, 8 and 12, for two years. I had hit the mid-life skids and was questioning my marriage and my career choices. The book about Egypt I had been working on was almost impossible to write from my home in New York, even with regular trips to Cairo, because the situation on the ground changed too frequently and too completely. My husband — a Brit and former journalist who believes strongly in the value of living abroad — agreed that the experience would be great for the kids and would be manageable with frequent visits. When we made the decision, Mohammed Morsi was president and Egypt seemed to be in the midst of a messy and bumpy transition to democracy. When we got there, things were entirely different.
We picked one hell of a day to arrive in Cairo.
After a few punishing weeks of packing and ferrying countless documents from one office to another to get god-knows-what official stamp in preparation for our move, I had my first moment of relaxation in ages on the flight from New York as I sipped prosecco and watched the clouds outside the plane window.
Alas, that bliss was to be short-lived. After a layover in Zurich, we arrived in Cairo on Wednesday morning with two tired boys and two traumatized cats and heard even before we had disembarked that angry mobs had set fires throughout the city in retaliation for the violent dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood protests. The man sitting behind me on the plane said a friend of his had booked him into an airport hotel because it was pointless to even try to get out of the airport—the unrest was just too widespread.
Tensions in Egypt had been mounting in the month or so before we were set to leave, and I had been anxiously watching the news. I’d been in regular contact, though, with friends living in Cairo, and they all assured me that things felt fine as long as one stayed away from the protest sites. The biggest annoyance, one of my American friends there said, was that between the demonstrations and Ramadan, it was impossible to get anything done because no one seemed to be going to work anymore.
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As soon as we were off the plane, I called Marco, our driver, who would turn out to be more of a savior, and he said that downtown was a mess but the roads between our neighborhood and the airport were fine and he was already there and waiting for us. We sailed through immigration and customs — our cats could have been foaming-at-the-mouth rabid for all anyone cared — and found him. It quickly became clear that Marco is going to be my go-to guy on everything from where to buy a mattress to how to get my garbage removed every day.
We were safely in the van and on our way to meet the owner of the villa we’re renting, and Marco repeatedly and convincingly assured me that everything was and would stay quiet in the little expat bubble we were living in. The friend’s apartment we were planning on staying in until we got furniture, on the other hand, was out of the question. The roads on the way there were too unsafe to travel. Thankfully, he knew of a small hotel a short walk away and he made arrangements for us to stay there. But any modicum of relief Marco’s assurances had lent me disappeared entirely when I heard Oliver gasp at something he read on his BlackBerry. He turned it to show me. A British journalist had been shot and killed during the clashes. Mick Deane.
Mick was a lovely, sweet man and had been Oliver’s cameraman at the British news network ITN when we lived in Hong Kong. They, along with correspondent Mark Austin, had traveled all over Southeast Asia together. Needless to say, the blissful haze of the plane ride out of New York had fully dissipated by now. What have I done? I fretted. After all the angst and careful thought, had I brought my kids straight into danger?
The last thing we wanted to do was worry the boys, though, so we tried to act as normal as possible. They knew about the unrest, but we reassured them that it wasn’t near where we were living. And sure enough, when we got to the villa they were so delighted with the house and the yard that any concerns about politics soon became irrelevant to them. While they clomped around and claimed bedrooms, though, Marco informed us that the government had announced a curfew, so we would have to scrap our plans to run out and buy mattresses and head over to the hotel.
We put food out for the cats and rounded up the boys, who were complaining that they were hungry — it was, after all, about 5 p.m. and they hadn’t really eaten since we’d left New York nearly 18 hours earlier. By now, though, all the shops and restaurants had closed so people could get home before curfew. Marco dropped the boys and me off at the hotel and took Oliver out to scrounge for food. He came back a short time later with four bottles of water, three bricks of cheese, some rye crackers, a bag of oranges and an assortment of chocolate bars — everything he could grab before the last open grocery store kicked him out.
It certainly wasn’t the launch of our new life in Cairo we’d anticipated, but we were safe. And at that moment, as we watched news reports about the hundreds of people who had died on the streets of Cairo and throughout the country just hours before, that seemed like a lot.
Should we evacuate? We ask ourselves that constantly. If the kids started to be scared, if our neighborhood no longer felt secure or if the violence and instability grew more widespread and pervasive, we would leave. For now, we are continuously recalibrating.
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