We came from very different backgrounds: she was born in New York, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, whereas I had grown up in mid-Missouri. But some similar restlessness had motivated both of us to go abroad, first to Europe and then to Asia. By the time we left China together, in , we had lived almost our entire adult lives overseas. We made a plan: we would move to rural Colorado, as a break from urban life, and we hoped to have a child.
Then we would go to live in the Middle East. We liked the idea of writing about another country with a deep history and a rich language, and we wanted this to be our first experience as a family. All of it was abstract—the kid, the country. Maybe a boy, maybe a girl. What difference did it make? An editor in New York warned me that Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak had ruled for almost thirty years, might seem too sluggish after China. But I liked the sound of that. I looked forward to studying Arabic in a country where nothing happened. The first disruption to our plan occurred when one kid turned into two.
In May, , Ariel and Natasha were born prematurely, and we wanted to give them twelve months to grow before moving. But, when protests broke out on Tahrir Square, our girls were eight months old, and they were exactly eighteen days older when Mubarak was overthrown. We delayed and reconsidered, but finally we decided to go. We moved out of our rental house; we put our possessions in storage; we gave away our car.
The day before we left, we got married. Leslie and I had never bothered with formalities; neither of us had any desire to organize a wedding. But we read somewhere that if a couple has different surnames the Egyptian authorities could make it difficult to acquire joint-residence visas. We left the babies with a sitter and drove to the Ouray County Courthouse. As the deputy county clerk started the ceremony, Leslie asked when the department that handled traffic violations would close. She ran upstairs to pay one last speeding ticket.
I shoved the license into our luggage. The next day, along with our seventeen-month-old twins, we boarded the plane.
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Neither Leslie nor I had ever been to Egypt. After Morsi arrived, the mice vanished. He ate the heads of a couple, leaving the bodies behind, and others stopped showing up. These house cats have been clocked at speeds of up to thirty miles per hour. The toddlers, like the mice, learned to give Morsi a wide berth. He had no patience for their chattering and tail-pulling, and he scratched each of them hard enough to draw blood.
This was handled efficiently: one attack on Ariel, one attack on Natasha. It was impossible to keep him inside. We had a small garden, where strays liked to gather, but Morsi refused to tolerate them. Many times, I saw him drive some scraggly animal out through a gap in the spiderweb fence. Sayyid, the neighborhood garbageman, warned me that somebody might grab Morsi. Egyptians are believed to have been the first cat breeders in history, and they loved the animals so much that they forbade their export more than thirty-seven centuries ago.
In our building, an elderly woman on the fourth floor was the self-appointed cat carer, and she put out bowls of food for the animals. She always greeted me with a smile when I took the girls out for walks in their double stroller. Egyptians are even crazier about small children than they are about cats, and we attracted attention in Zamalek.
Certain faces stood out: a one-eyed doorman, a tea deliveryman with a broken nose, a shopkeeper who liked talking to the twins in Arabic. We bought everything in pairs, and when the girls sat side by side in their stroller, wearing matching clothes, it felt like a kind of show. They always dressed identically: nice jackets, button-front shirts.
A couple of times, I tried to strike up a conversation, but the men ignored me. They never so much as glanced at the girls. Whenever we crossed paths—old twins, young twins; twins on foot, twins on wheels—I wondered how my kids were going to turn out after this odd childhood on the Nile. The island is situated in the heart of the city, but the river creates a powerful sense of separation.
Even on days of major demonstrations, it was easy to forget that Tahrir was only a mile and a half away. I often saw Zamalek residents watching the revolution on television, as if the images had been beamed in from some distant land. Most people had no interest in getting involved. Sayyid told me cautionary tales about certain figures, like the one-eyed doorman. During a demonstration, the doorman walked to a street near Tahrir, where he decided to watch from an overpass. That was a mistake: when Egyptian police disperse crowds, they often fire their shotguns into the air. The doorman got hit with bird shot and lost his eye, and that was the last time he went to a protest.
Morsi fought fiercely whenever the Copt clipped his claws. Due to the heavy smell of tear gas in Zamalek at the moment. We think it is safer for the children not to come to school today. We are terribly sorry for the very short notice, but it is strictly out of our hands. I started stashing large amounts of cash around the apartment. If things got violent, I had plans for an emergency departure: what we would pack, how we would get to the airport. By now, the protests were almost constant, and we lost electricity several times a day.
The government announced a policy of dimming the lights in the airport; there were hardly any tourists. Whenever I returned from a trip, I touched down in the Morsi-era twilight zone: darkened hallways, frozen escalators. It is strictly out of our hands. One morning, I went to renew our visas at Mogamma, the government building beside Tahrir. I handed our applications to an official. This was what mattered at such a time? Even more absurd was how pleased I felt: I was so happy that we had got married! I returned to Zamalek and retrieved the Ouray County license. The official seemed just as pleased as me; the visas were processed without a hitch.
When the coup finally came, in July, , none of my planning mattered. General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the Minister of Defense, issued a statement that gave Morsi forty-eight hours to respond to the demands of protesters. Morsi had a reputation for stubbornness, and it seemed impossible that he would negotiate.
On the day that everybody knew would be the last of the Morsi Presidency, Atiyat arrived with her fingernails painted in the colors of the Egyptian flag. She took out some red, black, and yellow crayons, and she instructed the twins in the production of little flags. Should my three-year-olds be celebrating a military coup in advance? What if things get violent? We decided that, in the event of gunfire, the safest place in the apartment was the interior hallway. That was the plan: shut the doors, stay close to the floor. There was always a plan. Old plans had a way of becoming irrelevant, but new plans were easy to make, and Leslie and I often had other versions of this conversation.
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Once, the nursery school cancelled class because the police found a terrorist dummy bomb a block away. Another time, an ISIS -affiliated group kidnapped a foreigner on the outskirts of Cairo and beheaded him. Before moving to Egypt, I had imagined that we would establish clear protocols: if x happens, then we will respond by doing y. This was how embassies operated; during the summer of the coup, the American Embassy in Cairo evacuated all nonessential personnel.
But once we were living in the city, without a connection to any institution, I realized that we were more likely to respond as Cairenes did, with flexibility and rationalization. People talked about the events calmly, and they maintained a sense of distance— it is strictly out of our hands. They told jokes.
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They focussed on the little things they could control. Even a newcomer learned to normalize almost any situation. It was a dummy bomb, not a real bomb. The kidnapped foreigner was an oil worker, not a journalist. It happened only once. And the difficulties of everyday life kept people occupied. Things went wrong all the time, and usually it had nothing to do with politics. Our Arabic teacher died suddenly, because of poor medical care. The shopkeeper who chatted with the girls was shot and killed near his home, reportedly after trying to mediate some dispute. One day not long after the coup, the elderly cat carer on the fourth floor put out some food.
So she poked her head through a gap in the spiderweb gate, in order to look down through the elevator shaft. Above her, on one of the upper levels, the Byzantine box was motionless. Afterward, the police interrogated the doorman, and he either quit or was fired.
The landlady also had wire screens installed behind the spiderweb gates. On the fourth floor, the family of the elderly woman played recorded Quranic chants for months, to put her soul at peace. Leslie and I told Atiyat and our other sitters never to allow the twins to go on the landing unattended. During this time of violent headlines, one of the things that scared me most was the elevator outside my front door. The morning after he disappeared, five ugly strays were lounging in the sun on our balcony. I wondered if Morsi had finally lost a fight, and I tossed water at the strays until they left.
The girls were upset. By now, they were big enough so that Morsi tolerated their presence; occasionally, he even showed affection. I was becoming another Zamalek eccentric, the foreigner who wandered the island at night, calling out for the deposed President.
Around this time, Leslie and I realized that we should stop discussing politics in front of the girls. During one of our trips to see family in the U. But his name is Sisi. After the great age of pyramid-building ended, in the twenty-fifth century B. Pepi II ran the country into the ground. Someday, I thought, historians would view our current age as another example of bad-cat politics, crude and fable-like.
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Once upon a time, Morsi was in power, then Sisi drove him out like a stray in the garden. Then more than a thousand protesters were massacred in a brutal crackdown.
Arabic translation of Three Ladies in Cairo
Then Morsi was placed inside a cage in a courtroom, where he was tried for murder and treason. Could anybody blame a child for confusing these political figures with animals? From our garden, I looked up and realized that he was stranded on an upper balcony. He had climbed there on the limb of a tree. Leslie went up to the apartment. The woman who lived there refused to open the door, and she stood silently on the other side while Leslie introduced herself.
Then the woman finally spoke. She threatened to call the police. He said that the woman was probably afraid of the cat. He made an Egyptian gesture, tapping his head, rolling his eyes, and whistling: crazy. The landlady also had no interest in dealing with the recluse. It was after 9 P. The woman opened the door partway. She pointed at me. The place was cleaner than I expected. The woman was nice-looking, and she wore an elaborate dressing gown that made me think of Miss Havisham.
I thanked the woman, but she ignored me. She was still staring fiercely at Leslie. She slammed the door. At home, Morsi slept for most of three days. He told us that one day he noticed a flat tire in his usual checkup before starting his daily work. Normally, he headed to the trunk to get his car jack and the spare tire to prep it. At this point, we were back in the taxi to hear the rest of the story; he did the normal thing, nonchalantly closing the trunk until he got help from his friends to get rid of it.
This started out subtly.
This driver was operating in Zamalek. During the ride, the topic of books came up and he provided amazing, in-depth insight about various books and classic, international literature. He told us that he is working on a novel based a very interesting topic: an alternate history novel set in Egypt based on the implications of World War I. Driving the taxi was already his second job besides his day job. Identity Magazine. Amr Moussa - April 23, 0. Identity is a monthly fashion and lifestyle magazine bringing you the latest and hottest trends in Egypt and worldwide!
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