I've Moved!

My new blog is called Reflections from a Global Nomad, in order to acknowledge that we no longer live in Maadi and that we are, in fact, global nomads, not staying in one place longer than two or three years. Please join me at http://DeborahReflections.blogspot.com

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Ma'salama, ya Masr, wi Shukran

Today is the day.

By the time this post publishes (it's been scheduled a little in advance), my family and I will have left Egypt.

What to say on a day like this? One chapter of my life is ending today. It's a chapter I'd like to keep open for a while longer. I expressed my nostalgia in my "Saying Good-bye" post not too long ago. Now I've said my good-byes to my friends, my favorite shops and their keepers, my favorite restaurants and their owners and employees.

What I haven't said yet is "Thank you." Thank you, embassy community, for preparing the way for me and for providing so many small and large luxuries to make my adjustment easier. Thank you, expat community as a whole, for welcoming me, embracing me, and providing a supportive social network during every phase of my life here. Thank you, Maadi Community Church, for showing me a glimpse of what heaven will look like. Thank you, Maadi Women's Guild, for giving me the opportunity to fellowship with other Christian women, to participate in group Bible studies, and to serve people who need it more than I ever imagined possible in my comfortable life back in the States. Thank you, Caritas Egypt, for running the baby wash program, which was my first foray into volunteering in Egypt. Thank you, Mother Teresa's, for running the orphanage and daycare where the children stole my heart from the moment I met them.

Thank you, people of Cairo, for welcoming me into your country. For being supportive and not impatient with me as I mangled your lovely language in my attempts to speak it, and for your attempts to help me learn it better and more quickly. For caring about my daughter and looking out for her welfare, even when I disagreed with your advice. For offering me a seat on the Metro even though I'm sure you were more exhausted and in need of it than I was. For using your own Metro ticket to get the turnstile to let me out that time when my ticket decided to stop working during transit. For banding together to protect my daughter, myself, and my property from your less upstanding neighbors during the Revolution.

Thank you, Egypt, for showing me that I'm stronger, more adaptable, and more capable than I realized. For showing me how good my life is. For showing me how good life can be even for people who have so much less than I have, as long as they have faith, family, and a sense of humor. For giving me a taste for adventure. For helping me understand that adventure does not always feel adventurous. For helping me realize that a laid-back attitude doesn't mean that things can't get done, just that they get done in a different way and with different timing. For showing me that things don't have to get done how and when I want them to, and I'll still be just fine. For allowing me to expand my horizons and those of my daughter.

Good-bye, O Egypt, and thank you.

Ma'salama, ya Masr, wi shukran.

Friday, June 17, 2011

An Invitation

I have enjoyed writing Reflections from Maadi over the last three years. However, I just don't see my way clear to continue writing Reflections from Maadi once we no longer live in Maadi.

Take heart, however (or be discouraged, if you rejoiced at the thought of this blog ending), for although this blog will end, a new one will begin. I decided to start a new blog, with a new name and a new address that aren't so country-specific, so that it can stay with me as we move from post to post over the years. The plan is to import the content of Reflections from Maadi and eventually delete this blog.

I do intend to publish one more post here, my good-bye to Egypt, so stay tuned for that.

My new blog will not have any new posts until this fall. I may feel compelled to write a little something before our arrival in Cambodia, but it's more likely that I won't post anything until September, after we arrive and set up internet access. This summer I will not be blogging, although I hope to keep up with the blogs I read.

My new blog is called Reflections from a Global Nomad, and it can be found at http://DeborahReflections.blogspot.com. Consider this post your invitation to join me there. I hope to see you there in September!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The New Normal

It seems like all the expats here in Egypt have a new system of indicating time. Events now are labeled as "pre-Revolution" or "post-Revolution." Yes, the Revolution of 25 January changed things that much, at least according to some. According to others, little has changed. I think it depends on where exactly you live and how much you pay attention.

In my neighborhood, not too much has changed, at least on the surface. The streets may be marginally cleaner. You're likely to see things like this:

Patriotism and pride in being Egyptian seems to be up. I haven't taken pictures yet, but it's very common now to see poles, trees, gates, and walls painted in red, white, and black, the colors of the Egyptian flag.
You're also likely to see scenes like these:

These pictures, and many others like them, appeared during or shortly after the revolution. They reflect the national unity that was present during the revolution (also captured by the now-famous photo of Coptic Christians holding hands while encircling a group of praying Muslims in Tahrir Square, making sure that they were not disturbed or harmed during their prayers). This unity has persisted among some, but unfortunately not all, Egyptians.

However, not all the changes in Egypt are positive. In my experience, most of the negative changes are under the surface. Unfortunately, they can rise to the top suddenly and turn minor annoyances into dangerous situations. I have not experienced these situations myself, but no one is immune, and wise people will not forget that today's Egypt is not as safe for foreigners (or for Egyptians) as pre-revolution Egypt was.

One surface indicator of the dangerous undercurrent is a rise in crime. Crimes that are commonplace in big cities in the United States used to be unheard of within the expat community here; now they're much more common, though still less common than in America's largest cities. Purse snatchings and pickpocketing are things to be concerned about now, whereas in the past, they were remote possibilities in most of Maadi. There also are rumors floating around of murders and sexual assaults, though it looks like all of the rumors stem from one event that happened within a few days of the revolution--the rumors make it sound like it happens at least once a week, but in reality, it seems to have been a one-time occurrence.

The rise in crime is a problem, but it isn't one that I've been too concerned about. Like I said, the frequency of these events still is not as great as you would expect in most cities the size of Cairo. You can't guarantee that you never will become a victim, but you can reduce your chances by taking common-sense precautions, just as you would in New York City, Los Angeles, or Washington, DC. When I look at this situation, I see a choice: I can stress out about the difference between now and before, or I can see that Maadi still is safer than Washington, DC, where I went every day for two years with nary a problem, even though I spent a little time in some of the rougher neighborhoods as part of my job. I choose to take reasonable precautions and not worry overmuch.

I tend to be more concerned about two other recent phenomena. The first is the distinct possibility that minor incidents will grow suddenly into terrifying and potentially violent ordeals. It used to be that fender benders, for example, were no big deal; the drivers would yell at each other a little, and then someone would shrug and say "Allah aayez keda" (Allah wanted that), and the drivers would get in their cars and drive away. Now, if the fender bender involved one vehicle driven by a westerner, it is a real possibility that other drivers will band together with the non-western driver to blame the westerner and demand restitution, even if the westerner really wasn't to blame. Angry mobs recently have coalesced around minor traffic accidents and around tourists at the pyramids who resisted a camel handler's demands for more money than had been agreed upon. (It's always been a common trick to say "That was the price to get on the camel; it's another 100 pounds to get off!" But it used to be that the tourist who resisted for a while was able to get off the camel without handing over any extra money; now that may happen, or the other camel handlers may form an angry mob and scare the tourist into handing over all the money he has on him.) An angry mob can be a frightening thing, and I honestly do not know what I would--or even should--do if I ever became the target of one.

Even the possibility of angry mobs, though, would be less scary if it weren't for the other recent phenomenon: the police more often than not won't intervene anymore. The Egyptian police never have been respected by the Egyptian people; instead, they have been feared. When the police abandoned their posts during the revolution, the people's fear disappeared. The police still aren't working at full capacity because many police haven't gone back to work. The people no longer fear them, and that makes it dangerous for the police. The police spent years abusing their power; now, many of them rightly fear retaliation. If a policeman intervenes, he may just become the target of the angry mob rather than the one who scares them into dispersing. So purse snatchings have occurred within feet of  policemen, with no intervention. The mob at the pyramids gathered under the eyes of the tourist police and terrified a tourist into tossing a wad of cash in one direction and running with his family in another direction. It used to be that if we were afraid for any reason, we were instructed to go to a police station. As westerners, we would be protected, especially once we showed our diplomatic IDs. That protection may or may not be forthcoming anymore. Now the only safe places to go are to our embassy or to one of our other compounds. It's a little scary to think of what could happen if we became the target of an angry mob when we were not near one of those places.

Again, though, I see a choice here: I can take reasonable precautions and go about my life, or I can be so afraid that I don't ever leave my home. I want to enjoy my remaining time in Egypt, so I take precautions and live my life. I'm aware of my surroundings more than I was before, I'm more cautious in general, and I don't drive anymore (I think I still would choose to drive here, though more cautiously than before, but our car already has been picked up for export since we're rotating out soon). There is a potential threat here, but it isn't such a high-probability threat that it should unduly affect my life.

The way I see Egypt today--the new normal, if you will--the people have made one choice: They chose to oust Mubarak. Now they have a series of other choices to make. They will make political choices at the polls, and those choices will determine whether Egypt is free or not, a democracy or not, a nation united or a nation divided along sectarian lines. But they also will make other choices as they go about their daily lives, and these choices will have great impact as well. Each and every Egyptian will decide whether he or she prefers to live in a country of laws, where the police are allowed, encouraged, and even forced at first, if necessary, to function as police do in free societies, to protect the entire population and to enforce laws that affect all people equally. The other option is for the population to fragment into "us" against "them" groups and band together to promote "our own" over all others, even if "our own" is in the wrong; to prevent the police from functioning as police do in free societies; to trap Egypt in the past rather than moving it forward into a modern and future reality of freedom and equality.

The people of Egypt have made one choice, which has resulted in the new normal we see around us today. But now, and every day from now going forward, they must choose what the new normal will become. I wish them well as they examine their hearts, their minds, and their society in order to make the choice with which they and their children will live.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Saying Good-bye

I have a serious case of preemptive nostalgia.

Our time in Egypt is coming to an end; we're leaving in just a few--so few!--short weeks for an indefinite time. There is no guarantee that we ever will come back, although both Jeff and I would like to return. We'll spend the summer on home leave in the United States, then move on to our next post (Phnom Penh, Cambodia) this fall. We're excited about our future in Cambodia ... but I'd just as soon not have to leave Egypt.

Some friends recently arrived for the beginning of their posting here. For the last week, my days and evenings have been filled with introductions as we take our friends to our favorite restaurants and shops, expose them to the pleasures of Cairene life, and generally try to help them settle in and thrive here. It's a happy time of reuniting with friends and sharing aspects of our life that I really didn't expect to be able to share with friends from home. But it's also a sad time.

Every time I introduce my friends to a restaurant, to a shop, to the joys of a sunset felucca ride, I'm acutely aware that it may be my last time to enjoy those pleasures myself.

We introduced them to MCC this Friday, and as I looked around at the familiar scene, it was like I was experiencing it again for the first time. I felt again the awe as I looked at this tiny slice of what heaven will look like, with people from so many different races, cultures, and denominational backgrounds. I admit it; I teared up a little as I thought of my impending departure. Even though I anticipate finding a similarly diverse international church in Cambodia, nothing ever will be quite the same as this, my first, international church.

We took our friends to the Khan el Khalili yesterday. We introduced them to our old favorites, to which we were introduced early in our tour here--Moustafa's glass and clothing shops; Gouzlan's jewelry shop; the Three Crazy Brothers metalwork shop; and Sunnyland, the world's best papyrus store. We took them by some of our own finds--the camel bone shop with the amazing figurines and chess sets, and the silver shop where you can purchase a necklace or bracelet customized with your name. They found their own shops to visit as well--a small jewelry shop, a large bookstore with historic photographs of Egypt. At each of my favorite shops, I looked around with longing at all the beautiful items that I had considered purchasing on previous trips but had decided against for one reason or another. This would be my last chance; was I sure I wanted to pass up these purchases? In the end, we made our planned purchases of some water glasses to match a pitcher we purchased a year or so ago, a couple of pajama sets for Alexa to grow into, a camel figurine carved from camel bone for my mother, and a commemorative spoon for her friend. We also purchased two wood inlay boxes--how have we been in Egypt for three years without purchasing one of those?; a couple of old locks to which Jeff took a fancy; and two large papyrus paintings by Ibrahim, the painter whose subject matter could almost step off the page and into the shop, but whose price tag matches the quality. We also were gifted with a small inlay box for Alexa and with two smaller papyrus paintings that the shopkeeper had seen me gazing at longingly--a beautiful Tree of Life and a nighttime pyramids and camels scene that inexplicably captivated both Jeff and me.

We still have more introductions we want to make. There are shops here in Maadi, the alabaster factory in Mokattum where we finally will purchase those lamps we've been talking about for three years, and the Asfour Crystal showroom, to name a few. We want to make a repeat visit to our favorite restaurant, Condetti. We want to introduce them to a few other restaurants here in Maadi. Maybe take another felucca ride. I'd love to introduce them to the pyramids, but the security situation there is just shy of stable enough for us to feel comfortable going there right now.

Each introduction will be a hello for them ... and a good-bye for us. I'm so grateful to have had this time in Egypt, both the pre-Revolution years to get to know the "Egypt that was" and most especially these short weeks since the evacuation was lifted, to meet the "Egypt that is becoming" and to say good-bye to my life here. The future holds wonderful things for us; I only hope it is not too selfish for me to hope that one of those wonderful things is the opportunity to return to Egypt one day and meet the "Egypt that will be."

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


The evacuation order has been lifted!

I know; I'm a few days late in sharing the news--we received word Thursday that it would be lifted Friday--but I've been exceedingly busy since I found out. Within half an hour of receiving the word, I was on the phone with the government's travel agency. I wasn't allowed to get tickets yet--it was Thursday around 4:30pm, and I couldn't get tickets until the order was lifted officially Friday morning--but I was allowed to make reservations, and reservations I would make! I quickly discovered that it would be easier said than done. The itinerary I wanted was sold out for both Saturday and Sunday, and I wasn't sure if I was allowed to make reservations for Friday since I wasn't certain when the paperwork would be signed. But I finally made reservations on a different airline for Sunday afternoon.

The next two days were a flurry of activity. Friday morning I dealt with a mistake by one of the travel agents, who misread my travel orders, claimed that the government was not going to pay for our tickets, and refused to issue them. (Thanks to Dianna at the State Department for helping clear that up.) Then I packed, attended one last gathering of the family, attempted to finish replacing the velcro and elastic on a bunch of cloth diapers (thanks, Mom, for doing most of it for me), and acquiesced to Alexa's rather piercing demands that I take frequent breaks to hold her and reassure her that the flurry of activity wasn't a prelude to my leaving her. On Sunday morning, I attended church in jeans and a t-shirt, then went directly to the airport. My mom rode with us to keep Alexa happy in the backseat on the 45-minute drive, and we were followed by my sister-in-law, sister, and niece, who came to give Mom a ride back home and to see us off.

I had a brief period of worry at the airport when I realized that there could be a problem with Alexa's visa, but it was alleviated pretty quickly by phone calls from the ticketing agent to her supervisor and from me to Jeff. Then it was just a matter of getting through security, to my gate, and on the plane. That part was much easier than it could have been because Jeff and I had planned ahead and purchased a Gogo Babyz Travelmate. It's basically a cart that you can attach to almost any car seat to give it wheels and a telescoping handle--effectively turning the car seat into a bare-bones stroller. I went through a total of four airports, including my originating airport and Cairo, wearing a backpack, with a diaper bag worn diagonally over my torso, pushing (or at times pulling) the car seat. I was happiest when Alexa was in her car seat, but there were times when I managed to get through the airport with all my stuff while carrying her, which I never could have done without the Travelmate. I also had a Moby wrap available in case I needed to tie her to me, but my connections all were quick enough that I didn't really have time to tie it on and use it.

Once I arrived in Cairo, I wasn't sure whether or not to expect an expeditor. Jeff had said he'd try to get one for me, but the arrangements all had to be made over a holiday weekend, so he wasn't sure if it would work out or not. There was no expeditor waiting for me at the plane, but I managed to get through immigration, baggage claim, and customs without one--God bless porters who are willing to work for baksheesh plus the $1 cart rental fee.

I expected to see a driver with my name on a card as soon as I cleared customs, but none of the signs had my name on them. A phone call to Jeff's office resulted in the phone number for the travel agency's switchboard, and they sent me the number of an expeditor who was looking for me. At that point, I only needed the driver, but I knew that the expeditor would bring the driver, so I called him anyway. It turns out that the expeditor had misunderstood which flight I was on; he was waiting at a different terminal. He sent the driver to me but didn't come himself. Just as well--I wasn't in the mood to tip him. The driver came and collected me, along with Alexa, all of our carry-on baggage, our two large checked bags, and our checked fold-up travel crib. In no time we were on the Ring Road headed to Maadi.

Jeff was waiting for us at home. He'd been able to get off work early, and he met us at the gate. He was thrilled to see us, of course, and couldn't get enough of holding Alexa. The guards and staff all welcomed us back enthusiastically. It felt so good to be here again!

Since we arrived home, I've been trying to unpack. Alexa is adjusting, although she's gone back into full separation anxiety--she'd had it bad when the evacuation first started, probably due to stress, and by the time we left the States, she had just started to be okay spending time with the extended family without me. Now she wants me all the time, and she gets very upset if I'm out of sight. But that was expected, and she does enjoy playing with her daddy as long as I'm there too. And she grins like crazy when she pets the cats (under our careful supervision--she likes to pull hair, tails, ears, anything she can). I'm sure she'll be fine before long. She's been through a lot in the last few months, and it just takes some time to adapt.

I'm loving being back here, with my husband, in my apartment, taking care of our daughter and our cats. I haven't gone out yet because I've been focused on unpacking, but I'm looking forward to getting out there again. I have a feeling Jeff will want to be with me the first time, making sure I'm aware of new security guidelines, although I think he's filled me in pretty well. I intend to make the most of my last couple of months in Egypt. I'm just so grateful to have them!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

My Wonderful Man

Jeff's birthday is just around the corner.

Last year, we were apart on his birthday, because Jeff was on a work-related trip. Ditto for the year before that. This year ... sometime in early January, Jeff told me about a couple of work trips he'd need to take in March and April. "Okay," I said. "Alexa and I will be fine. But you're not going to be gone on your birthday for the third year in a row, are you?"

Fate is laughing at me. We carefully arranged for Jeff's trips to be before and after, but not during, his birthday. For the first time in three years, Jeff will be home for his birthday. For the first time in three years, I will not. I won't be there to bake or buy a cake, to give him his gift, or even to kiss him good morning. But despite my physical absence, I hope for him to know--in his head and in his heart--that I'm with him in spirit, that I respect and love him, and that I am profoundly grateful and proud to be the wife of such a wonderful man.

My wonderful man is a devoted husband. He constantly tells me and shows me that he loves me. From buying little (and not-so-little) gifts "just because" to seeing to my safety when I refuse to do so myself, Jeff makes it clear that with him, I am loved, and I am safe physically and psychologically.

My wonderful man is a loving father. Alexa never will have reason to doubt that she is the apple of her father's eye. In the short time that she has been with us, I have watched with joy and bemusement as she has wrapped her father securely around her little finger. From playing peek-a-boo to changing beyond-dirty diapers with nary a complaint, Jeff quietly demonstrates day in and day out that he loves his daughter more than life itself and that he is devoted to her well-being.

My wonderful man is a diligent provider. He works long hours when necessary to provide the money our family needs. He works under good circumstances and, like now, under less than ideal circumstances. Like everyone, he has times when he just doesn't want to do it, but he always pushes through in order to provide the best service he can at work and to provide for our needs at home. He curbs his own desires in order to ensure that our future needs are met, spending far less today than he could in order to provide for our future as well as our present.

My wonderful man is a good friend, not just to me, but to others. I have watched him maintain relationships that I and many others would have written off, because he sees the good person hidden beneath the thorns. He is a good judge of character, too--I've watched thorns recede to show the world what my husband was able to discern years ago. Through the good times and through the bad times, Jeff is a supportive and dedicated friend.

My wonderful man is a person of integrity. I shared before how his principled stand first attracted my attention. Jeff consistently thinks through the morality of his decisions before he takes action. He was one of the first people I ever heard support copyright law when file sharing services like Napster became popular. Even today, as we look at buying new phones for use overseas (therefore needing unlocked ones), he pointed out how buying jail broken phones is, in effect, stealing from the mobile company that subsidized the phone's purchase in anticipation of future revenues. As a result, we will spend significantly more money in order to buy factory-unlocked phones, but we will be behaving with integrity in the purchase. Jeff wouldn't have it any other way--he will provide for his family, and he will not be wasteful, but he also will not cheat anyone else along the way.

My wonderful man is a person of compassion. He ensures that we give, over and above our tithe, directly to people and organizations that assist the less fortunate. He buys the little packs of Kleenex from Cairo's street children. He gives to beggars on the metro. When I approached him with a request to purchase supplies for the impoverished children of Kentucky--who routinely lose 15 lb over the summer because of the absence of free school lunches, which provide most of their nutrition during the rest of the year--he told me to double the amount I'd hoped to spend. He suggested that we donate to special projects at our church in the wake of the revolution. I know that when he becomes aware of a need, we soon will be looking through our budget, finding a little here and a little there, so that we can help meet that need.

My wonderful man is a man of faith. His strong Christian faith guides him in all of these other areas. His faith informs his beliefs and his actions in every aspect of his life, from his politics to his work to his family life and more. He is a shining example of a man defined and molded by his faith in Jesus Christ.

My wonderful man. All I hoped for in a husband. All I dreamed of in a father for my child(ren). The role model I pray my daughter will look to when she one day chooses a husband and father for her children.

Happy birthday to my wonderful man.

I love you, Jeff.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Third Culture

Part of a Skype chat exchange between me and a friend who left Egypt last summer and spent some time in the U.S. before moving overseas again:

Friend: Do you have some moms and babies you can get together with where you are?
Deborah: Nope, not really. Probably could if I made the effort but that feels like settling in here and this isn't home anymore.
Friend: I understand. When we are in US for our breaks, I never seem to put forth much effort into 'hanging out' with other women or going to their parties....  they all look at you funny anyway, like you are some sort of alien being that does not belong....
Deborah: The ladies at church are supportive and sympathetic but ... at a Greek restaurant the other day, they thought the pastor was insane for eating goat. Goat! That's pretty tame ... we just don't relate.
Friend: Hahaha, goat?  Who'da thunk it?? And yes, it is pretty tame... how big is the church?
Deborah: It wasn't even that they didn't want to eat it, but how vocally disgusted they were ... very small, just over 100 on a good service
Friend: Sounds like the one we went to while in US.
Deborah: It's a good church, with good people. It's just that the small-town South doesn't understand wanting anything different ... is it possible for an adult to become a "third culture kid" after just a couple of years overseas?
Friend: Oh yes!  You adjusted well.  You jumped in with both feet.  It's the ones who do not participate in the culture, whether that is with other ex-pats or with locals, that do not become that tck..... It's much better when one is adventurous...

Overall, it is better when one is adventurous. It makes life overseas rich and rewarding. I wasn't even that adventurous, really. I spent a lot of time in the embassy bubble. If I have any regrets about my time in Egypt, it's that I wasn't adventurous enough. I didn't spend enough time with locals. I didn't learn enough of the language. I didn't immerse myself in the culture fully enough. But if I had done those things ... the adjustment now would be even harder than it is.

You see, when you live overseas, you have a choice to make.

You can hang on to the culture of your home country. You can hang out only with other Americans, in my case. Cook and eat only familiar foods (at least to the extent possible). Refuse to adapt your clothing and behavior to the local culture. This choice makes it harder to function in the new country. Expats who make this choice often hate being overseas; they constantly compare the new country to their home country, and they find the new country lacking in almost every respect. During my time in Egypt, I learned quickly to identify those expats who had made this choice and to avoid them as much as possible. They were toxic to my emotional state. Too much time with them left me depressed and dissatisfied with life in Egypt, at least until I recognized the mindset and instead got angry at those who seemed determined to poison everyone around them.

The other extreme is to "go native." Spend as much time as possible with local citizens. Shun all but local foods. Dress and behave so much like a native that you can't be told apart from a distance. Become fluent in the local language and look down on anyone who doesn't speak it. I don't have any experience with expats who make this choice--to my knowledge, they either shun other expats or live in areas where there are no other expats to shun. It seems to me that this choice would lead to the easiest life overseas once you've gone native, although the process of getting there would be long and difficult.

The third option, the one most often chosen, I think, is to strike a balance. The precise balance varies from person to person, but the goal is to adapt as much as necessary to facilitate and enjoy life overseas while not losing touch with the home culture either. Learn the language and use it, but don't stress about speaking it just like a native speaker. Adapt your clothing and behavior to show respect for the local culture, but don't try to turn yourself into a local. Be open to new experiences. Make friends with other expats and with locals, to the extent that language skills and the culture allow. (My few Egyptian friends are women who are fluent in English, for example; it wouldn't be appropriate to have male friends, and my Arabic isn't good enough for small talk, much less real conversation that doesn't center around driving directions or price haggling.) Adopt a blend of both cultures in order to function as well as possible in each.

As you can guess, I chose the third option. For me, the balance was tilted heavily toward American culture, as it often is for foreign service families who know they won't be in any one place for more than a few years. As I mentioned earlier, my balance may have been tilted a little too heavily toward American culture. But no matter where the balance is, the experience of overseas life, the experience of a culture not your own--even if your experience of it is limited--changes you. Children who grow up as expats have a unique culture that they experience as their native culture--it isn't their home country's culture, or their host country's culture, but a mix of the two. These children are known as third culture kids, trans cultural kids, or tck's.

Third culture kids often feel most at home with each other, even if their native languages, religions, and home--or "passport"--countries differ. The culture to which they often have the hardest time adapting is the culture of their own country. They often can move without too much difficulty among other cultures, but they just don't fit in once they move "home." I suspect that's because the kids at "home" have been exposed to all sorts of subtle cultural influences that the third culture kids missed. The third culture kids also just aren't used to a situation where their classmates' experiences are so homogeneous--where's the kid with a stronger Asian influence, or a stronger African influence? What do you mean, everyone claims Christianity, and almost everyone is Protestant? Where are the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Orthodox Christians? How is it possible to believe that this is the only way to live--haven't you seen anything different? No, I guess you haven't, since everyone here lives similarly.

If all goes as Jeff and I hope, we will be raising at least one third culture kid. I pray that we will have wisdom in that endeavor, and that our daughter--as well as any other children we may have--will adapt readily to her unique culture and to American culture when that time comes, keeping the best of her various cultural influences and discarding the rest. But in order to raise her to do that, I also need to figure out my own place, my own culture.

I grew up in a small town in the American South. Those years shaped me, and I will never--nor do I wish to--escape those influences. My time in other parts of the U.S. caused subtle changes in my personality and outlook. But my time in Egypt--brief though it was--has changed me more than I think even I realize. There are some surface changes, some deep changes, and--I suspect--some fundamental changes to the core of my personality, or at least the beginnings of fundamental changes. But at this point, if I so chose, I could slip back into the culture of my growing-up years with only slight modifications.

Of course I'm choosing not to. I enjoy my expat life, and I'm looking forward to raising my third culture kid. But there are costs, and there will be costs to Alexa in the future. In order to help her later, I have to continue to work my way through my own adjustments now. The one I'm most noticing: the faint but ever-present feeling that this place just isn't home anymore, that I don't quite fit in, and that I shouldn't settle in.

If you're interested in how truly third culture kids fare after being suddenly repatriated, as in the current evacuation, here are a couple of news articles about their experiences.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Balancing Act

Life as an evacuee is a balancing act.

I have a life here. But it isn't my real life, the one from which I was torn away so abruptly. I don't even know if I'll be allowed to return to that life. State Department regulations state that evacuees who are scheduled to leave post within a certain time frame (90 days, 6 months, I'm not sure of the specifics; reports vary) won't be allowed to return to post. If it's a 6-month rule, I'm already within the limits, and the powers-that-be won't send me back. If it's a 90-day rule, I'm only a few weeks away from the limits. There is some question of whether that rule will be waived in this case. There also is some question of whether the rule allows us to return if we pay for our own airline tickets, rather than being reimbursed by the Department. But more importantly, there is some question as to whether the evacuation order will be lifted before we're scheduled to leave anyway, making the rule a moot point.

But back to the balancing act. Alexa and I are in limbo. We are experiencing what our lives would have been if we hadn't moved away from my hometown, or at least something resembling it. I'm being a stay-at-home mom, but the home where I'm staying is my mother's house, not my own. I'm attending a small, close-knit church where everyone knows and cares about each other--and they've been very supportive of me and Alexa--but I don't know anyone. I'm driving in my SUV (Jeep Grand Cherokee--very nice!) to my nephews' basketball games and birthday parties, but the SUV is a rental and when I get to those basketball games and birthday parties, I don't know anyone other than my own relatives. I've been living away from this area, coming back only to visit, long enough that I don't have any friends here anymore, so my time is spent with my mother and her friends, or with my siblings or sister-in-law. The highlight of my days is talking--or better yet, skyping--with Jeff.

The bottom line is that I don't belong here right now. If I'd made different decisions in the past, I could have belonged here. Depending on the choices I make going forward, I could belong here in the future. But right now, at this moment, I don't belong here. I belong in Egypt, with my husband, living the life that we've created together.

But if I'm not allowed to go back to Egypt, I'll be here until September, other than a few short trips to DC for processing or to other states to visit other relatives. (Our plan has been to spend most of the summer here on home leave between posts.) That'll be seven months total. Over half a year. Long enough that I should try to belong here. Long enough to make it worthwhile to rent a furnished apartment, find a playdate group, join a Bible study. Settle in a little and act like I live here.

But if I am allowed to go back, it will be sudden. If I go back under Department orders, with them covering the expenses, I'll have three days from the time the announcement is made until I have to be on a plane. That's three calendar days, not even three business days. If I'm in a furnished apartment, my understanding is that they'll pay the fees associated with breaking a lease, but have you tried to make those arrangements suddenly over a weekend? I haven't, and I don't want to. If the order were lifted today, I could call the travel agent, pack our bags, and be on a plane first thing tomorrow morning. If I settle in here more, that would be much more difficult.

It's the uncertainty. Some who were evacuated, especially those with school-aged children, made the decision from the start that they wouldn't return to Egypt, or they wouldn't return until the end of the school year. Their families, their children, need that stability. I need stability too, but much less than those families. So I haven't made that decision, and I won't make that decision, because what I need more than stability is to get back to my life in Egypt, to wrap it up the way it should be wrapped up before I leave for good.

There's so much still to do in Egypt. I haven't even started sorting and purging for our move to our next post. I haven't bought any of those beautiful alabaster lamps with the copper accents. I haven't even taken a tour of Coptic Cairo! And I haven't said good-bye. To my friends, to my church, to the guards who worked so diligently to protect us. To Road 9, the Khan, the drivers who won't stop so I can cross the street unless I step out in front of them. The taxis whose horns create a cacophony of beeps, honks, and out-of-place melodies. The women on the metro who wouldn't offer me a seat when I was pregnant and wearing short sleeves, but who insisted that I sit when I was holding a baby and wearing culturally appropriate clothing. To all the sights, sounds, and smells of a huge city in a developing country. I need to say good-bye, to all these things, in my own way.

I so hope to go back. I so need to go back. But in the meantime, I'll go on with my balancing act. Fitting in enough to stay occupied, to provide the stability that Alexa needs, to use this time to allow relationships to develop between Alexa and her extended family. But not enough to create problems if I do get that call, that email, that notification that we have three days to board that plane. I'll continue to tell myself that we're going back.

Because I just can't bring myself to accept that my life in Egypt is over.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Evacuation Day

Monday, 31 January 2011, began early and lasted late. My alarm clock went off at 5am, after I’d been asleep for only four hours. For the last several nights, I’d averaged four hours of sleep a night. As someone who needs eight or nine hours each night, let me tell you: I was beat. Already.

Nevertheless, I got out of bed and headed toward the shower. As I went into the bathroom, I heard the squawk of the emergency radio and paused to listen. It was the same announcement I’d heard the last several mornings: Curfew is still in effect. The streets are not secure. The embassy is closed until further notice. Do not try to approach the embassy unless your supervisor tells you to and arranges secure transportation for you. Stay off the radio unless it’s an emergency.  The same announcement would be repeated throughout the day, unless something happened to change it.

But today I wouldn’t be able to hear it. I was evacuating.

I showered and dressed. Ate breakfast. Went through my mental list of things that had been packed, trying to figure out if any substitutions should be made—I was at the weight limit for our luggage and beyond the limit of what I could carry on my own, so additions could not be made without corresponding subtractions. Jeff and Alexa woke up. Jeff held his baby girl, not sure when he’d be able to do so again. She was evacuating with me.

We’d been told to be ready the moment the vans pulled up. They’d be leaving at 8. At 7:30, Jeff went downstairs to get the car seat and reported that people were gathering already. We decided to head down as well. We spent the next two or three hours sitting in the common room, waiting for the buses to show up. I chatted with a couple of other ladies who were evacuating, one who—like me—wouldn’t have left of her own volition but was being pressured by her husband’s managerial hierarchy; another who was so conflicted that she hadn’t made the decision to leave until one o’clock that morning. I envied her the choice. Jeff continued to hold Alexa. I watched them, drinking in the sight of them together.

Finally the vans pulled in and we began loading. We had too many people to fit in one load, but we managed to fit anyway. The vans were needed to pick up other evacuees in other locations—we already were running behind schedule, and no one wanted to waste the time for a second trip unless it couldn’t be avoided. We crammed in for the 15-minute drive to the commissary compound, where processing would occur before the caravan of buses left for the airport.

As we drove through Maadi, I was struck by how quiet the streets were. It made Friday morning—the typical quiet time—look like rush hour. Almost every street we passed showed the remnants of the barricades set up by last night’s vigilante militias: a stack of sandbags here, a pile of junk metal there. A tank sat in each major intersection. I wished I had my camera, but with all the things I had to carry, I'd made the decision to leave it in my carry-on bag, despite knowing that I would miss some great pictures. It was the right call, but ... oh, the pictures I missed!

Just two turns from our destination, we stopped. A group of Egyptian men surrounded the front of the vehicle. After a short conversation in Arabic, our driver made a U-turn through the pass to the other side of the divided road. We drove a few meters—passing through a small crowd of waving, smiling young men—then turned right and began a convoluted journey that eventually led us back to the main road a scant distance farther down than where we were stopped. From my new vantage, it was easy to see that relatively permanent road blocks had been erected, and although most vehicles could maneuver through if they went slowly and carefully, our larger vehicles simply wouldn’t fit.

After that, we arrived at the commissary compound quickly. People and bags—one checked, weighing less than 44 pounds, and one carryon per person—were unloaded, and the vans sped off to collect more evacuees. We were directed to a long table where we checked in, and the administrators made sure that appropriate travel orders had been issued for everyone. Those who were low on cash had the opportunity to collect an advance against their travel per diem. We all waited around, making trips into the commissary as necessary to use the bathroom and buy travel supplies, until the order was given to start loading the nine or ten waiting buses.

As the buses were loaded, I stood aside with a few others. The dependents from my husband’s office planned to travel together so that we could help each other along the way, and most had not yet arrived. Several of us have small or multiple children (one family has four), and two young girls were traveling without any parent, as dad had to stay and mom was already in the States when all this began. Those with no or older children planned to stay close and help those of us who needed it. So the few of us who had arrived watched the buses fill and eventually leave without us.

Finally everyone had arrived. There were no more large buses, so we loaded up into a smaller tour bus, packed in like sardines. Our luggage was tossed into an open cargo truck, and we could only hope none of it flew out on the bumpy roads leading to the fast, smooth sailing of the Autostrade. We were content, though—our support group was intact.

Tanks were in abundance as we made our way to the airport. One young boy excitedly counted 35 or so. They sat in intersections and alongside the busy road—traffic outside of Maadi was lighter than usual, but definitely there. Soldiers stood near the tanks, lounged on top of them, or sat nearby. Atypically, none seemed to notice cameras aimed at them, even when those cameras were pressed to the window as we passed slowly by.

Soldiers turned us away from the first airport gate we approached. We backtracked, turned around again, and went to a different gate, where we were allowed entrance. As we approached the arrival hall that would serve as our departure hall, I saw masses of people milling around outside: the evacuees, “official” (diplomatic passports) on one side of the doors, “non-official” (tourist passports) on the other. American law states that non-official U.S. citizens are to be given equal opportunity as official citizens to evacuate in these situations, so each plane would carry half official evacuees and half non-official evacuees.

We unloaded ourselves—de-pretzeled ourselves, actually—from the bus and headed to the back of the long, winding line on the official side of the doors. The truck with our luggage made its way toward us, then parked while the luggage was unloaded. As they were unloaded, the bags were placed in long lines stretching across the driveway. I saw one of our bags and went to claim it. “Don’t touch that!” A man barked at me. “It’ll make them all tip over; someone will get hurt. Just wait.” Surprised, I turned to one of my fellow evacuees. “He yelled at me, too,” she admitted. Unsure as to the problem—the bags were being placed in a single layer, so even if they tipped over, they wouldn’t touch anyone, much less cause injury—I watched as all the bags were unloaded. When the go-ahead was given, I joined the others in gingerly stepping over all the not-my-bags to reach mine, then pulled it out of line. Sure enough, the bag beside it fell over—and landed harmlessly on the ground, not even causing the anticipated domino effect.

Our group organized ourselves pretty well. The two of us with infants were responsible primarily for our own babies, two or three kept an eye on the 11 mobile children, and the remaining two or three made sure that all the luggage kept up with the group as we inched forward. Before too long, one of the security guys approached us. “Am I to understand that you’re a large group of single moms traveling with a bunch of small children?” Affirmative responses all around—the two without children were particularly critical to our group, so there was no way they were being left out of anything. “You’re exactly the kind of group that we want to expedite and get on your way. Follow me.”

We followed him toward the front of the line. Progress was slow, as children were corralled and made to help with the copious amounts of luggage, but eventually we made it. The security guy told us to “wait here” while he went to arrange things for us. Within just a few minutes, I heard an abrasive voice: “You can’t stand here, this is a traffic lane, I need you to move NOW!” It was the same guy who had yelled at me over the luggage. As we laboriously moved ourselves and all of our bags onto the sidewalk, clearing the wide and deserted driveway where we’d been parked by our security guy, he continued to yell. Finally he went away. I overheard our de facto leader telling another member of our group: “You know, it was weird, the first thing he said when he came over was ‘what office are you with?’ What does that have to do with anything?”

Shortly after that, our security guy came back, an apologetic expression on his face. “Between when they told me the policy and the time it took me to find you and bring you up here, the policy changed. They’re not expediting groups like yours anymore. I’m sorry.” He helped us make our way back to the end of the line.

Hours passed. Diapers were changed on changing mats laid out on the grass. Snacks and water were distributed and consumed. For the most part, we didn’t move. Telephone conversations revealed that the first planes that were boarded, before we even arrived at the airport, were stuck on the tarmac waiting for approval to depart. The ambassador herself was making phone calls trying to get the evacuation planes cleared. The Regional Security Officer made an announcement that they were trying to get us all out that day, but some may have to spend the night at the airport because of crew rest laws kicking in as a result of departure delays, especially for the two planes that were scheduled to make two round trips. It was getting chilly, and I was glad that I’d packed for a potential overnight in some freezing European city (we wouldn’t know what city we were going to until we were assigned a flight).

Finally there was significant movement. Another plane obviously was being boarded, as the line ahead of us decreased by a third. Children again were corralled to help us move ourselves and our bags to our new position. The security guy who had tried to help us before came to give us an update. While he was speaking with some, another security guy approached me, as I was standing off to the side and couldn’t hear what the first was saying.  He told me what to expect with numbered cards and such, which we would receive once we’d been assigned to a plane. Then he said “Now that all the groups with connections are gone, the rest should be able to go according to plan.” Excuse me? He must have been exhausted and frustrated to have let that little tidbit slip.

Not long after, I was approached by the first security guy who had tried to help us. “How old is your little one?” Almost seven months. “We’re taking infants under 12 months first for the next flight.” Great, can the whole group go? “No, only immediate family members. But we’ll be upping the age limit as we clear the little ones, and we may be able to fit everyone on the next flight, so you may end up together anyway.” Thanks, but I’d rather stay with my group. I need them. “If everyone doesn’t fit, the ones who are left may have to spend the night here.” That’s fine. “It’s going to get cold, and they may not be able to go inside.” I’m prepared for that. Thanks for your concern, though. “Ok.”

A few minutes later, security guy number two, the exhausted and frustrated one, approached me. We repeated the same conversation, with only minor variations.

A few minutes later, the guy who liked to yell came up, trailed by the other two. Both of the nice ones looked embarrassed and a little worried. Not a good sign. I don’t recall all the details of this conversation, but I was ordered to leave the support of my group, the group that my husband had told me to be certain to stay with, the group whose help already had been needed time and time again. “You have no choice,” he said to me. “I’m responsible for her,” referencing my daughter. I remember my response to that unbelievable statement: “No, you’re not,” with a measure of steel in my voice. “I’m responsible for my daughter.” His responsibility extended to keeping looters and potentially dangerous opportunists away from her (and from the rest of us) while we waited our turn to board a plane; I was and am responsible for everything else, including keeping her fed, clean, and warm—all of which I was prepared to do even if we did spend the night outside that airport. I had planned and packed for four days of travel in conditions ranging from hot to snowy.  One night outside in Cairo’s chilliest was not going to be a problem; I wouldn’t even need to break open the checked bag, as blankets, extra clothes, and bottles all were stored in her diaper bag. All I needed was the willing assistance of my group to help hold her, prepare bottles, or guard and move bags.

In the end, I acquiesced to separating from my group and taking the earlier flight—not gracefully, not even politely, but with open hostility and anger—only because my husband also had told me that no matter how heavy-handed and dictatorial this guy became (I’d complained about him in earlier phone conversations), I was not to resist him so much that I risked being sent back to my apartment instead of evacuated. (My husband knows me well enough to recognize temptation on the horizon.) There were two more confrontations, though: one when he insisted that I move myself, my daughter, her car seat, her diaper bag, my backpack, and our two suitcases immediately, without help, while I was holding a screaming baby and trying to prepare a bottle for her; and one after I’d checked in and tried to move to where he’d told me he wanted us—inside, where Alexa could be warm—only to be told that I couldn’t go inside yet. I was livid at that point: he was so concerned that my daughter be warm that he was forcing us to separate from our group—whom we needed—but once he’d accomplished that goal, we were left to wait outside in the cold anyway?!? I found myself grateful that my hands were so full; otherwise I’d have had a hard time resisting the urge to wring his neck.

After another half hour or so, one of the women in my group approached me. She told me that the mom of an infant younger than Alexa had gone willingly into my plane load, and that a mom of two and a mom of four had been forced, like me, as they filled the plane with progressively older children and their families. There were two seats left on my plane, and one of them was designated for a helper from our group. In the end, my plane carried five adults, six young children, and two infants from our group. We left behind two adults and the five oldest children.

We made our way through security and checked our bags. After passing through passport control, a short bus ride took us to the plane. One member of our group took Alexa’s car seat as I carried the baby. When I reached the top of the stairs and tried to claim the car seat from the flight attendants, who had taken it from my friend, they refused to give it to me. “We don’t know how many passengers there will be. There may not be enough seats.” There will be; my baby was counted as a passenger, and she has her own seat. State Department regulations require it, and State Department regulations require that I use that car seat. “We don’t know. We need to keep it here. We’ll put it in the cargo hold and you can get it in Istanbul.” You can keep it here, in the front of the plane, until the plane is completely boarded. Then there will be an empty seat beside me for my daughter, and you can bring me the car seat once you see that there’s room. Don’t put it in the hold. She’ll need it during this flight. “Okay, we can do that.”

Eventually, finally, the plane was fully loaded. As soon as I heard the announcement that all passengers were aboard, I flagged down a flight attendant, pointed out the empty seat beside me, and requested my daughter’s car seat. Her face brought to mind the phrase “deer in the headlights,” but she disappeared up the aisle. Several minutes later, she came back. “The seat is in the hold. I cannot bring it to you. I cannot get to it.” In a firm but controlled voice, I replied “You can and you will. It was not supposed to go into the hold. Get it.” At least, I thought my voice was controlled … the man three rows up who turned his head to see what the fuss was about may not agree. Several more minutes later, the flight attendant timidly approached me again. “What color is your seat?” Orange. But I saw another orange one up there, too. Mine is the Chicco. Finally, after another several minutes, I saw Alexa’s car seat being held aloft, over the heads of seated passengers, approaching me. As I buckled Alexa in, I hoped that the drama was over for the day.

Not so, but at least I had nothing to do with the rest of the day’s drama. An elderly passenger toward the front of the plane suffered from faintness and vomiting en route to Istanbul. He was attended by two doctors on board; they gave him oxygen and had him lie down. Upon arrival in Istanbul, he was taken to a hospital. I have no idea who he was or how he’s doing.

We landed in Istanbul around 2am on Tuesday, 1 February. I had left my apartment 18-1/2 hours earlier. It would be another 25 hours before Alexa and I arrived at my mom’s house. We left Istanbul around 6am, then made two more connections before arriving at the local airport 45 minutes from my hometown. Luckily, Alexa allowed me to sleep a good bit on the way. I was informed by flight attendants and other passengers that as I snoozed, she smiled and cooed at anyone and everyone who passed by our row.

Upon arrival in the United States, I discovered that the authorized evacuation under which I had left Egypt had been upgraded to a mandated evacuation. That information did make me feel slightly better about being forced to leave, but still … then and now, I yearn to go back.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Lockdown Pseudo-Twitter: Saturday and Sunday

In this post, I'm continuing to publish things I wrote while locked down in our apartment in Maadi. Please remember that errors, contradictions, and uncertainties were left in deliberately in order to reflect my experiences at the time. The following updates were written on Saturday, 29 January, and Sunday, 30 January. This is the last of what I wrote while I was there.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

8:06am – Internet’s still not up. The curfew ended just over an hour ago, but we’re still being instructed by the Marines to stay in our homes. I’m not sure what’s going on outside. The AFN news channel is showing its normal lineup, meaning it’s showing what aired on Fox News last night (morning shows tend to be shows that were shown live in the States the night before), so it’s still showing images from last night. CNNi has moved on—it’s on some international business show now. I heard a siren a few minutes ago, but there’s no telling what that was for. I can’t even look out the window and see anything useful because of the direction our windows face.

Jeff came to bed around 2am. I hadn’t been sleeping well up to that point, so I woke up enough to ask what was going on. He told me that Mubarak had finally given a speech—what took him so long?!—and that Mubarak was dissolving his entire government, to be reconstituted, presumably taking into account the protesters’ demands. I’m not sure that’s going to be enough; after all, their primary demand seemed to be that Mubarak himself had to go. We’ll see what happens later today. If the protesters are satisfied, it will be quiet, or mostly so. If not … well, we made it through yesterday okay.

11:11am – We got mobile phone service back an hour or so ago. I called my mom even though it was 3am where she is. I thought she’d be worrying and would want me to wake her, especially because we don’t know if or when mobile service will be cut off again. I was right except for one thing: She wasn’t asleep. She’d spent most of the day blissfully unaware, because she was at work, but she got very worried in the evening when people started calling her.

Jeff just left. We’re still supposed to stay in our homes, but certain mission-critical people need to be at the embassy in a situation like this. Jeff’s office keeps the Cairo-DC communication flowing, so the office needs to be manned. Throughout the embassy, people who spent the night last night are going home, and they’re being replaced by others. The RSO sent transportation. We packed a bag so that Jeff has everything he needs to spend the afternoon, night, and all day tomorrow at the embassy. (No, I didn’t tell my mom that Jeff was going in and that Alexa and I will be alone tonight. The purpose of the call was to reassure her, not to worry her further. We’ll be fine, even if tonight is a repeat of last night, but she wouldn’t believe that, so she doesn’t need to know right now.)

11:25am – CNNi just reported that people are again gathering on the streets of both Cairo and Alexandria. It looks like Mubarak’s plan to dissolve his cabinet isn’t enough—the people want him gone.

1:56pm – Jeff just called from the embassy. There will be a curfew in effect from 4pm today until 8am tomorrow. So it’ll definitely be just me, Alexa, and the cats tonight. Jeff asked if I wanted him to send a mass “we’re okay” email or just email his sister so he can ask her to let people know without letting everyone know that he has email access (ergo that he’s at work and we’re home without him). I asked him to just email his sister.

2:06pm – The Today Show just came on AFN News. They’re actually showing real news! Yay! It’s the first live coverage I’ve seen today. I think the footage they’re showing is from yesterday though.

I’ve heard that 35 bodies were taken to a single hospital in Cairo yesterday. I wish the total had remained at one. But the protesters aren’t backing down, so it looks like there will be more, especially if the military decides to go all-in for Mubarak. The question now is: who will blink first, Mubarak or the protesters?

5:02pm – I’m sitting in the middle of a mass uprising that might topple a government … and I’m bored. I’m stuck in my apartment. The news is getting repetitive. There’s no internet to browse. Who knew being in the middle of history could be boring?

Ah, the news just got interesting for a minute. They talked about “rising angst against America” and asked if there had been any reports of the American embassy or Americans being targeted. Nope. They still aren’t interested in us. That’s fine by me—I don’t want it to get that interesting. At this point, I just want it to play out. However it’s going to end, go ahead and do it already. I want my husband back home.

6:56pm – Ok, I’d like to be bored again, please. I just got back from a building meeting called by the RSO guy who lives here. He didn’t have too much concrete to tell us as far as plans go, but he just wanted us all to get together for a minute. He was talking about having requested a fast-response Marine team, not being sure how he’d handle it if our walls were breached by looters (if he shot one, there’d be two; if he shot them, there’d be four, and they’d be really mad then; he could beat up a few—with the aid of the guards, I’m sure—but not a lot …) I think the bottom line is that we’re on our own, and if looters breach our walls, all we can do is hunker down in our safe rooms, let them take our stuff, and hope that they have no interest in us. He confirmed that there’s looting on Road 9 (VERY close by) and that there was attempted looting next door, but their guards fired into the air, the military showed up, and the looters went away. Basically all we can do is hunker down, ride it out, and hope that our walls and guards are enough to deter them, or that if they do come in, they’re satisfied with busting up our cars downstairs. I started hearing gunfire while I’ve been typing. I’m not a fan.

I’m worried now. I was fine before the meeting, but hearing the tension in the RSO guy’s voice, seeing the fear on the others’ faces … knowing that we don’t have the resources in place to protect us or to get us out if something happens tonight … I had been believing the news reports that today has been more peaceful than yesterday, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s been more peaceful between the government and the protesters, but now the looters are coming out and they’re the ones I’m worried about. I hate that Jeff had to go in. I’ve done all I know to do to prepare for anything. I have go bags packed for both Alexa and myself. If we have to go, I won’t be able to take the cats, but I put down extra food and water for them, because if we have to go, there won’t be time to do it then. Of course we can’t go tonight because there aren’t any plans to protect us while we go.

I have supplies for myself, Alexa, and the cats in the safe room … other than food. I’m going to go put some cans of soup and a jar of peanut butter in there. (I already have food for Alexa and the cats in there.) The logical part of my brain says that it isn’t going to be an issue; tonight won’t be any worse than last night … except that I’m not sure I really believe that. The looters make all the difference. They’re my fear now. The army won’t protect us from them, and the police aren’t around anymore. I’m not sure I’ll be sleeping tonight.

8:15pm – I just received a phone call from our floor warden. She told me that there is a group of people outside our walls with sticks and clubs, but not to worry about it: they’re the good guys. They’re the bowwabs and some residents from the neighboring buildings. They’ve banded together to protect the buildings from looters. I’m relieved. Their goal is not to protect our building, but in protecting their own, they also will increase security for ours. I hope our precautions also help them.  In a very real way, we’re mooching off of the risk that they’re taking.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

7:39am – Last night was interesting. I finally decided shortly before 11 that there was no point to staying up. I gathered our go-bags, the cats’ travel crates, litter box, and food and water bowls, put them all in the safe room, then called Jeff to give him an update on the situation.

The whole time it was obvious that both of the cats and Alexa all had picked up on my stress. Isis wouldn’t leave the safe room, once all of her supplies were in there; she’d approach the door but wouldn’t step foot out of it. Cleo left the room every time I opened the door, but if I called her name, she came running. Cleo typically does not come when called; like most cats I’ve met, she’s more likely to look at you as if to say “silly human; if you want me, you must come to me,” if she doesn’t just take off in the other direction. Not last night, though. She practically galloped down the hall if I stood in the door and called her, as if she were afraid I’d close her out.

The saddest, though, was Alexa. She was happy as a clam if I held her. She was content if I put her down but remained within arm’s reach and facing her. But the moment I turned my back or, heaven forbid, took a step or two away, her little face crumpled and she cried pathetically until I touched her. Some primal part of her little brain seemed to realize: “Mama’s afraid. If Mama is afraid, then I’m in danger. My only hope of survival is to keep her with me.” And she was very effective at keeping me with her.

I got in bed around 11:30 and fell asleep shortly thereafter. Around 12:30, I was woken by a phone call from the CLO. They were contingency planning: If an evacuation were authorized, how many in my family would go? Well, Jeff wouldn’t—he’s mission critical. I’d have to talk to Jeff about whether or not Alexa and I would go, but it would depend on … at this point, my sleep-fogged brain failed me. It would depend on a lot of things, I thought. Definitely on whether or not we could take our cats. She said that they’d be able to go on a later flight than us. My brain woke up enough to say “That’s the best you’re going to get; agree,” so I said that I’d still have to check with Jeff, but we’d probably go. We got off the phone and I called Jeff, who had wanted to know any and all developments. I told him what she’d said. He told me that downtown was eerily quiet; the demonstrators had heard that their homes were being looted and had gone home to protect their families and their stuff.

After the information exchange, I tried to go back to sleep. That part didn’t work. I heard what sounded like gunfire, possibly close, and it was all over. I was awake. I had to go to the bathroom. I was hungry. I took care of all my physical needs and still lay awake for at least two hours. I saw the clock hit 2:30. I was probably awake until 3 or so. Then I was woken at 7 by the Marines reminding everyone on the radio that the curfew is on until 8, the embassy is closed until further notice, everyone should stay in their homes, and no one should try to go to work unless their supervisor tells them to and arranges transportation.

Jeff called just a few minutes ago. He’s coming home this morning. He couldn’t say exactly when for security reasons—the situation out there has them treating Cairo as if it were Baghdad, from an op-sec perspective—but he will leave the embassy within the next couple of hours. The curfew doesn’t end until 8, so I doubt they would leave before that.

I’m exhausted. I need a shower but can’t take one because Alexa will wake up any moment. I have a headache. Being in the middle of a revolution—or attempted revolution, if they end up failing—really isn’t any fun. But it’s part of the territory sometimes, apparently.

8:18am – When Jeff and I were married, we registered for everything in blue and green. Blue for Jeff, green for me. We have a great set of dishes—12 dinner plates, 12 round salad plates, 12 square plates, 12 bowls … all of them six blue and six green. I’ve always organized them carefully in my kitchen cabinets; that’s just my nature. The dinner plates are in one stack, alternating colors: green, blue, green, blue, like clockwork. The small plates and bowls are in side-by-side stacks, one stack green, one stack blue. All neat and organized, like a store display. Yesterday as I put up some dishes, I thought it might be nice to introduce a random element. So I grabbed the dishes from the dishwasher and just put them up without concern for organization by color. I ended up with two greens, then a blue on top of a stack of blue plates. A series of three blues and then two greens on top of my dinner plate stack. This morning as I put up some more dishes, I realized what I was doing. I’m deliberately introducing a little chaos into my kitchen cabinets, because somehow that makes the chaos in my life right now seem a little less chaotic. Sometimes psych majors realize the darndest things.

9:19am – Jeff is home. We believe that an evacuation has been approved, but whether or not it will go into effect will depend on how things go today and tonight. It may be the beginning of the end for the protests, as people can’t focus too much on protesting when they’re having to protect their families and belongings from looters. The looters may have ended this uprising and given Mubarak a little more time, although the handwriting is on the wall for him. Jeff reports that things outside, between the embassy and Maadi, are “eerily normal.” Traffic is normal for a Friday morning (though not for a Sunday), very light and fast. Civilians are directing traffic, some with sticks and knives, replacing the missing traffic cops. Very few people are out walking around. Neighborhood vigilante groups formed last night and I would assume are still in effect, even though the members may be taking sleep breaks. Basically people stayed close to their own buildings but had whistles—hear a whistle, go help your neighbor, knowing he’d do the same for you.

12:06pm – It’s official; there is an authorized evacuation tomorrow morning. Now we have to decide if Alexa and I are leaving. Today is a pivotal point. If the security situation remains unstable, it will continue to be dangerous at night. But there is a military presence in Maadi now, making it much safer. Depending on the reactions of Mubarak and the protesters, things could get better, or they could deteriorate rapidly. If we leave now, we can take the cats out with us. If we wait and it gets worse, we may not be able to. Once we leave, we may not be allowed back in for some time, possibly not at all, if it takes long enough that they determine that we’re too close to our PCS date by the time they lift the evac order. And Jeff will be here, not with us. We have to decide today. I don’t want to leave, but there are factors to consider other than my desires, including Jeff’s safety too. If we leave, he’ll feel freer to just stay at the embassy instead of going back and forth, with the travel being the most dangerous part. We need to decide …

2:19pm—Looks like we have little to no choice. The pressure is on from Jeff's bosses in DC. Alexa and I are leaving. The cats can’t go after all. An employee who will be here for the duration is a cat lover who has agreed to take responsibility for Cleo and Isis, since Jeff won’t be able to take care of them if he gets stuck at the embassy. Her maid will care for them if she can’t get home. I’m probably done with updates for a while now; gotta get ready to go.