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, August 17, 2008

Life in the Bubbles

More and more, I'm realizing that I live inside bubbles--no, that wasn't a typo; I really did say bubbles, as in more than one. I live in a bubble inside another bubble.

The larger bubble within which I live is affectionately known as the "Expat Bubble." It consists of all--okay many of--the expatriates who make Cairo their home. Included are Americans, Brits, South Africans, Indians . . . and many others.

I say that the expat bubble consists of many of the expats here, not all of them, because there are some expats who have a much more difficult life. These include the refugees. I've met one refugee through my church and have heard stories that would make a heart of stone soften. Some refugees are here illegally and could be deported, some back to countries where they would face immediate execution, at any time. Most refugees are poor, unable to get permanent employment, taking any job that comes their way. For a blog entry from Mark Jaffrey that will give you a much better idea of what life is like for the refugees, click here.

Anyway, those of us in the expat bubble have a pretty nice life. We're rich by Egyptian standards, even those of us who are not rich by the standards of our home countries. We live in very nice flats ("flat" is a much more commonly used word than "apartment" here), and we shop. A lot. We buy custom-made furniture. We buy alabaster. We buy all sorts of things. Many of us have maids and drivers. We're not worried about where the next meal will come from or how we're going to pay next month's rent. Many of us work with Egyptians, usually as supervisors or others with authority, although some interact with the Egyptian government as well. Those of us who are wives often don't work; we entertain ourselves with shopping or CSA activities. Some do volunteer work. But mostly we associate with each other. When the unemployed expat wives come into contact with Egyptians, it's usually because the Egyptian is our employee or a shopkeeper, or maybe a beggar on the street. We don't often get to know the Egyptians with whom we come into contact, unless it's our bawwab (doorman), maid, or driver. We live a sheltered life, although I can't really give too many details about what life is like outside the expat bubble. I'm still working on coming out of my smaller bubble and becoming more involved in the expat bubble. In time, I hope to venture out of the expat bubble and get to know more Egyptians and what their lives outside the bubble are like.

Within the expat bubble, there's an even more pampered group of people. This is the "Embassy Bubble," in which I am snugly ensconced. The embassy bubble specifically consists of Americans who work for the U. S. Mission to Cairo (the embassy and USAID, or the U. S. Agency for International Development, as well as NAMRU, the Navy something Medical Research Unit) and the families of those employees. We are pampered beyond belief. Our incomes are not as high as many of the other expats' (think oil), although it is higher than some.

The embassy people tend to live almost exclusively within our own little bubble. Those who work, work with other embassy people. Those who do not work socialize with other unemployed embassy spouses. Many of us live in embassy-owned compounds, although some live in embassy-owned apartments on the economy. Our housing compounds don't have bawwabs, but we do have armed guards. No one who doesn't "belong" is allowed in. Deliveries are dropped off at the gate, unless it's a big delivery, in which case the deliveryman waits at the gate until we come to escort him. (We can have visitors who don't have to be escorted, but they do have to sign in.) And our other privileges make it unnecessary for us to step too far outside of the embassy bubble.

We can eat out at the Maadi House. The Maadi House is a walled villa. On its grounds are a pool, a playground, a grassy area, a restaurant, and a bar. I think I remember seeing tennis courts, too, and there may be more in there. We've used it only for the restaurant so far; they have an excellent buffet on Thursday nights--good marinated steak--and a very good brunch buffet on Friday mornings. The food comes from the commissary (see the next paragraph). The Maadi House exists as a social club for the embassy. There's a yearly fee (I forget how much), because you have to join it. Guests are allowed, with members, for a fee of LE3, or around 60 cents. So combine the Maadi House with Otlob (an online service that lets you order from a multitude of restaurants, who all deliver, including McDonald's), and you don't have to go outside the bubble even if you don't want to cook . . . even if you haven't hired your own personal chef, which is also a possibility here.

A more coveted privilege we have--possibly the most coveted--is our access to the commissary. Egyptians and most expats have to either go out to Carrefour (think Super Wal-Mart) to buy necessities, or they have to go to various small shops near their homes. To prepare for a dinner, they must visit the bread shop, the fruit and vegetable stand, the butcher, the spice shop . . . each shop tends to be specialized to one product, so you have to traipse all over Maadi, or Zamalek, or wherever you live. Even then, some things that you take for granted back home simply aren't available here. Your favorite brand of soap or shampoo may be available at the local pharmacy, but probably not. Want some real pork bacon, sausage, or hot dogs? Out of luck, not going to find it here. Not unless you have comissary privileges. It's like a small, but incredibly well-stocked, grocery store. We have produce, frozen meats, milk we can be confident has been pasteurized properly, pet food (available but very expensive on the local economy), cleaning supplies, a personal hygiene section . . . and if they don't have your favorite brand, you can request it. They may just be able to get it for you. Only embassy personnel are allowed to step foot in the commissary. Even the Department of Defense (DOD) contractors, who have access to the DOD-run PX and convenience stores, don't get in the commissary. On our first day at the embassy, they made up special commissary cards for us. No commissary card, no access, no exceptions. And someone with commissary privileges can lose those privileges by buying things at the commissary for someone without commissary privileges. It's okay to buy gifts there; we've given hot dogs as a gift to someone without commissary privileges, and we've had people over and served hot dogs from the commissary. But the recipient cannot pay you back without the risk that you'll lose your privileges. And there's no way I'm risking that.

Our other highly prized privilege--the other strong contender for the title of "most coveted"--are our APO privileges. Imagine being in a foreign country where the things to which you're accustomed are not available. What do you do? Well, if you have APO privileges, you get on Amazon.com or you call your mom and tell her what to ship to you (thanks, Mom!). The APO is the military mail system that provides a U. S. mailing address for those of us who are overseas. Many online vendors will ship to APOs, and if they won't, they'll ship to someone in the States who can forward the package for you. You don't even have to pay for the shipping from the APO collection point (I think it's New York for this region) to the final destination. Other expats have to pay international shipping fees, and even then packages may not arrive in a timely manner or at all, or they have to find someone who is traveling from the States (or Britain, or India, or whatever country they're from) and ask that person--sometimes a friend of a friend--to bring the item along. I received an email recently from a friend who wanted a book from the States. I was tempted to offer to let her order it off of Amazon or ChristianBook.com and ship it to me, but there's a catch: Just like with the commissary, if you extend the privilege to someone who isn't entitled to it, you can lose it. And with as much as Jeff and I depend on the APO, that isn't an option. So I offered instead to talk to a friend who's going home next month to pick up her two cats. (It wasn't necessary; someone else is coming back this week, so she won't have to wait as long for her book.)

Many "embassy people" don't stray outside of the embassy bubble. And some of those who do venture forth create resentment by lording their privileges over the other expats, or just by being arrogant in general. "Embassy people" don't necessarily have the best reputation within the expat community. You're more likely to hear someone say "Yeah, he's an embassy guy, but he's nice" rather than "Yeah, he's an embassy guy but he's a real arrogant jerk." And you don't have to say "He's an embassy guy and he's a jerk"; that's kind of redundant in many minds.

I'm trying to strike a balance between my two competing instincts: I certainly don't want to talk too much about privileges that I can't share, as much as I would like to share them, but I am very curious about what the other expats do in order to compensate for not having commissary and APO privileges. So when I'm with other expats at church or at cell group, I'm trying to listen more than I speak about those things.

So, uh, if you're a non-embassy expat and you're reading this particular blog entry . . . please don't hold it against me. :-)


  1. Hi Deborah,

    That was a great summary of the haves and have-nots of the Cairo ex-pat scene! And many thanks for the shout-out :-)

  2. Okay, so after this post I have no worries that you guys aren't enjoying a cushy lifestyle!! :o) Oh to live in your bubble! I'd like to come visit!

  3. Jeanne - just remember the rules: give us six months to settle in and two weeks' notice. You'll be welcome.

  4. well, actually, even foreign business people or foreign wives of egyptian businessmen have a fantastic lifestyle here. it's a place where everything is possible if one has the cash, and knows where to look. And talking about living in bubbles, there is an elite layer of foreigners married to wealthy egyptians who form the "in-crowd" in town. We live a five star lifestyle, sheltered, protected, etc. Some have personal protection too. And don't bother too much about mixing with Egyptians; you'll only be dissappointed!! They are the most hypocritical, smoothtalking, artificial, lying, cheating, womanising, backbiting people I've ever come across!! Some at the top-most "creamy layer" are tolerable... otherwise, they all try to rip off expats.

  5. I have to disagree on the generalization of Egyptians as all being hypocritical, smoothtalking, etc. The people with whom I've interacted have been genuinely friendly, for the most part. There are a few bad apples, and I do understand that as an expat, I pay more for most things than Egyptians pay, but the prices still seem reasonable to me. I've had very positive experiences with the Egyptians employed by the embassy, with most (not all) taxi drivers, and with business owners. Friends who live on the economy also report good friendships with Egyptians whom they've come to know in the course of their everyday lives--living and working side-by-side with them.

  6. Oops, that wasn't Jeff--that was me. I forgot to sign out of Jeff's account. -Deborah

  7. Well, of course there are nice people, but in my experience, it seems that they are nice from a distance... working and interacting on an everyday basis is ok, I suppose; it's only when one married into their culture that one realises the true, deep, dark depths..!! They have a very collectivist mentality, the herd complex, if you know, and they impose their ideas and beliefs on 'outsiders'. Consider this -- suppose we are christians, or buddhists or whatever religion, would you go and start propagating how wonderful your religion was to a total stranger in the first 30 minutes of a conversation and ask him to convert because all other religions were nonsense??!!!! I guess not. Its just that their religion and beliefs overtake everything else. They seriously believe that their way is the only way.... its the most intolerable thing I've come across...Even the legal system is based on it... anyway, that's just my point of view after getting myself entangled here, beyond hope!!

  8. Getting back to living in bubbles, I guess there is nothing wrong with that -- perhaps it's a sense of security one gets through being with similar folks in an alien country. In the end, everyone at every level lives in some kind of restricted space/environment. And space in this sense is more psychological than physical. We live in bubbles because we are comfortable in them.... I think this is the core issue... that the moment one feels any dissatisfaction, stagnation, or spiritual limitation where he is, or with the people he is with, that's the start of looking further -- a journey to go outside and beyond the bubble. Depends if you find what you're looking for... one may be pleasantly surprised and 'grow' or disappointed and then decide his/her bubble was nicer after all!!
    I love the way you coined that term -- living in bubbles -- its so true!! I mean even the egyptians I bitterly complain about are living in their own bubbles (at various levels). but their problem is that they sometimes tend to force people to join them and come into their own bubbles.

  9. Wow, lots of stuff in just a couple of comments! :-)

    First, I do understand that it's very different interacting with Egyptians on the superficial level that I do, versus living and working side-by-side and the sometimes personal conversations that result, versus actually marrying into an Egyptian family and being immersed in the culture. I only know one expat who has married into an Egyptian family--a Christian family--and she had a very hard time adjusting at first, although she's much happier now, after having been here for many years. She does say that it can be difficult to form truly close friendships outside of the family due to an underlying mistrust of non-Egyptians, so most of her close friends are other expats. I also know others who have formed close friendships with Egyptians, both Muslims and Christians. So although I can admit that I don't know Egyptian culture from an insider's perspective or from anything approaching it, I just can't believe that most Egyptians are as bad as all that.

    I have heard rumors about some of the wealthier families, though not by name (and no specifics that I want to get into). Those rumors point to misbehavior caused by greed and feelings of entitlement, more so than problems with Islam or Egyptian culture as a whole.

    The religiosity here, in and of itself, really doesn't bother me. I'm a Christian, and I take my faith seriously--it plays a role in every aspect of my life. So I understand the desire of Muslims for Islam to affect everything they do, and I can respect that desire. I would prefer for their faith not to affect me quite so much (in the summer, I really would love to wear short sleeves without feeling stigmatized, and I absolutely hated the pressure not to eat or drink in public during Ramadan), but I also recognize that I chose to move here, knowing that this society is very different from my own. So I adapt to their customs as long as it doesn't interfere with my own faith, even if it inconveniences me.

    No one has tried to convert me, but that probably is because most of the Egyptians with whom I interact view themselves as being of lower social class than me (another concept I could do without). As a Christian, I believe in evangelism and would, if I believed it appropriate, share my faith with a stranger--let me point out, though, that I respect Egyptian law on that matter and have not evangelized/proselytized since I've been here--although I believe that it's usually much more appropriate in the context of a pre-existing relationship. But I wouldn't be offended if a Muslim tried to convert me, assuming it was done out of real faith and a genuine concern for my soul, not just out of militancy.

    I can't take credit for the idea of living in bubbles; it's a pretty common expression among expats here in Maadi. I hear it frequently--"we all live in the expat bubble;" "try getting out of the bubble once in a while." Unfortunately, that last one is easier said than done. I don't really have the opportunity to even attempt to get to know Egyptians, other than guards, language teachers, and other embassy employees. So far it's looking like the best I can do is expand my bubble enough that, through charity work, I can maybe have a positive impact on people who don't live in The Expat Bubble.

    It sounds like you're not so thrilled with the bubble you're in . . . I don't know if there's anything I could do to help you go "outside and beyond" your bubble, but if there is, I'd be happy to do what I can.

  10. Wow!! this is turning into a real debate!! but to be fair, and without getting into too much detail, let's just say that I am comfortable in my bubble, but I need something more than comfort... something new, stimulating, energising. Actually, my hubby tried to keep me so within his bubble, that in 4 years of being here, I have not made many friends of my own -- everyone I know, is from his bubble. Now, I feel I need to go out there and get to know folks that are not related to him in any way. Need to create my own network. Also, need to get away from everything Egyptian -- I know it sounds terribly prejudiced, but believe me, you have no idea!! This culture is all about trapping and restrictions, and it's my intention to set things free. Atleast within myself...That's really it -- I just feel I need a change of people around me. I guess you are with people who think like you and are on the same wavelength, because all of you are expats. But so far, I've never had the opportunity to mix in that crowd because I have never ventured out alone!!!And I never lived in Maadi. I just started coming over there regularly last year, after getting to know some folks. And even among my own embassy crowd and community (not US, UK or Egyptian), people have their own SUB-bubbles and politics... so in the end I believe its best to know one's roots, and then use an enter and exit strategy in several different bubbles simultaneously.

    Something else -- about converting and folks getting you to convert, they really believe that we are going to hell because we are the unbelievers -- that's their reason. That's why I said, one doesn't really know the internal workings of this 'set' -- deep down, they spit on us because -- we eat pork, that's forbidden for them, its unclean meat, we are like the heathen, we drink alcohol, don't fast, don't pray 5 times -- all this leads to hell apparently.....
    And the thing that really put me off, was someone in my hubby's private company (of lower social standing) who washed his hands everytime he shook hands with a christian!!!!!! O MY GOD.............can u beat that?? I'm afraid that's the limit for me... So, u live and see and learn different things, which make you prejudiced.
    Talking about going beyond my bubble, I have never visited the CSA in 4 years here..... o my god! I can almost hear u scream with shock!!!!

  11. Victoria – Let me try to respond in the order of your comments . . . I didn’t mean that there aren’t things that you like about the bubble you’re in, but it is obvious that you want more, whether that’s more friends, a different type of friend, or just some new experiences. If you want to meet more expats, I would recommend either doing something through CSA—a tour or a class—or maybe even try going to one of the Maadi Women’s Guild meetings (they’re usually pretty entertaining), or I believe there’s also a Cairo women’s group, or the Cairo Petroleum Wives (I haven’t been, but I’ve been assured that it isn’t just oil wives, that everyone’s welcome). Even if you want to just meet someone new, I’d love to meet you for coffee sometime, and I could bring a friend or two if you want to meet more expats.

    About the conversion thing—I have no doubt that Muslims believe that Christians are going to hell. All members of any faith believe that their faith is correct, and for most of them, that means that the others, by necessity, are wrong. In most faiths, the consequence of being wrong is hell. It’s the looking down on people of other faiths with which I take issue. I have my own faith, and I have my opinions of others’ faiths, but even if I think they’re wrong, that doesn’t mean that they’re inferior people. I would not want to be around someone who had the type of hate and arrogance inside that you describe. However, there are Muslims who genuinely care for non-Muslims—either as a group or for one particular friend—and these Muslims evangelize out of a true concern for the other person, a desire to save that person from hell, the same way you would try desperately to convince a friend to go to the doctor if there was a serious medical problem. It sounds as if your experience has been primarily with one type of Egyptian, whereas the experiences of my other friends have been quite different. (I don’t pretend to have had any significant experience with Egyptians myself—I’m still too cocooned for that!)

    And believe it or not—I don’t go to CSA very often either. I’ve been on three tours, I think, and that’s it. When I’ve been there other than that, it’s been because I was meeting a specific person there for coffee, or showing a newcomer where it is.

  12. Hi Deborah, that is really sweet of you.... for some reason for the last three days or so, my message is not going through. Anyway, I'd love to see you sometime. I come to Maadi once a week nowadays...

    I think the most prudent way to see things in this world is to live and let live and to keep away from folks we can't understand even after trying to understand them -- sometimes the differences between people are more than the similarities. That is the sad truth... I guess we should try and concentrate more on the similarities more than differences, but sometimes the only similarity is that we are all human beings, and that's the only thing in common!!!
    Also, an important thing to remember in every situation is that we have to aim for understanding more than on agreement -- they are whatthey are and we are what we are and so be it.... and also understand and accept that there will always be a chasm between the two -- even among two 'bubbles'. Attitudes and mentalities seldom change, efforts at reconciliation are futile most often and real change deep down is almost impossible on a wider scale; maybe sometimes on an individual level.
    So, I have stopped trying with people who I believe are on the 'other side of the chasm'. You talk of 'bubbles', I've come up with 'splits and chasms'..! Sometimes its just about impossible to cross over........
    Take care.

  13. Victoria - I agree that the goal of interaction with people who are different from yourself should be understanding rather than trying to force an agreement. I think I am more hopeful that change and reconciliation are possible, but I do recognize that it can be very difficult, especially if one or both people involved are not interested in changing him- or herself, only the other person. But trying to learn about and understand people who are different from yourself is part of the adventure of living in another country, so I continue to try. Maybe that's why I talk of bubbles, which can meld around each other and interact sometimes, rather than splits and chasms, which are fixed and immovable.

    I have a few regular activities on my schedule, but I am free for at least a portion of almost every day. If you'd like to meet for coffee/tea/soda anywhere here in Maadi, just let me know when you'll be here and we'll work something out. (If we do that, we can exchange email addresses in a more private setting, too!)

    God bless.

  14. Hi Deborah! That's a good idea. This week, I was in Maadi today, and will be tomorrow and tuesday and thursday as well. But usually, I go about once a week or once in 10 days. Don't know how to exchange numbers or e-mails though. I'd hate to risk putting it here because one never knows where perverts come out from -I am so concerned with privacy and anonimity! There is a bazaar in the CSA tomorrow from 9 -- 2pm and I'll be there. I'll wear a red top.. promise you u can't miss me!This is like a comedy show.... 2 strangers trying to meet each other like on a dating site!!! It's hilarious!!

  15. Victoria - I am going to baby wash this morning, but I'll be dropped off at CSA whenever we're done, probably around 11:30 or 12. I need to do some quick shopping for a birthday gift, but then I'll need to hurry to language class. I'm wearing jeans, a white short-sleeve shirt, and if it's still cook, a light blue hoodie. I'll look for you so hopefully we can exchange contact info. I, too, am concerned about privacy. I received an email from someone named Victoria a couple of days ago, through Expat Women. Was that you?

  16. Hi Deborah, Guess, we missed each other today at the CSA. Never mind, maybe we can catch up later one day. No, I didn't send u any e-mail -- I don't have your e-mail address. Is it advertised anywhere on this site? I haven't looked. But if it is, let me know so I can contact u that way in future. Otherwise, till then, we'll just do it this way......and hope to meet sometime.

    Take care

  17. Victoria - I'm sorry I missed you yesterday. I asked four or five different women in red if they were you, but obviously the answers all were the same . . . I just created a new email address that I'm going to use just for the blog. (Why didn't I think of that sooner?) It's reflectionsfrommaadi@gmail.com. If you email me there, I'll reply with my private email address.

  18. I've been trying to find the address to the Maadi House and any information (I know you have to be an American Citizen). The fees?

    thank you :)

  19. Hi, Anon--unfortunately, joining Maadi House requires more than US citizenship. Even American expats can't join unless they're US government personnel or work for certain DOD contractors. If you're eligible, someone at your agency/company should be able to give you all the details.


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