Back to the Start (Cairo, Egypt)

My first adventures overseas began at age 11, in 1993, when my family packed our bags and moved to Cairo, Egypt for the next 3 years. I wasn’t too happy about it at the time, but the experience completely changed my perspective on the world and the course of my life: my life as an expat today is a direct result of my time in Egypt. Looking back, I can see that I was old enough to have solid memories of my time there and to grasp many of the cultural differences between Egypt and the US, but I was still young enough that it seemed normal: doesn’t EVERYONE move to another continent without a second thought?My father was in the army at the time, and he worked with the US embassy in Cairo. We lived in an affluent (and very green) suburb on the south side called Maadi, sharing an apartment building with other US embassy and USAID employees. I attended an American international school. Here is a view of Maadi:

No, I did not ride a camel to school (we had a small bus), and no, I did not live in a pyramid (these were serious questions that my classmates asked me when I first moved back to the USA). When it was time to leave Egypt for good, I remember crying on the airplane — the first time I cried for moving away from somewhere (and I had moved plenty of times by then).In February 2019, nearly 23 years after leaving, I was blessed enough to be able to return to Cairo, as a sort of pilgrimage to where it all began for me. It was, as could be expected, a very emotional experience for me, and I think necessary in some ways — it definitely happened exactly when it was supposed to, at least, during my 8 month backpacking trip prior to joining the Peace Corps, and after several more years living in a few other countries.My old apartment building was always like a fortress. I remember having to pause our car at the front gate every time we drove in, and waiting while the security guards checked underneath for bombs. Our flat was on the first floor in this picture; the long window was our enclosed balcony:

For years, my strongest impression from Egypt was the extreme poverty and dirt. Underneath the bridge behind our building, there was a family who just… lived there. They had extension cords plugged into somewhere unseen, which brought power to a small TV and some lights. They had strung up light swaths of fabric on strings to act as walls sectioning off different areas. The ground was perpetual mud, a putrid mixture of water and urine; I had to cover my eyes every time I walked past to prevent the omnipresent flies from swarming around my face and blocking my vision. This is the bridge today, and the family is long gone:

Road 9 was just a few minutes walk away from our building and a major shopping and entertainment area for locals and expats alike:

(Side note: I returned to Cairo for a few more days at the end of April, right before Ramadan began, and places were starting to decorate!)

All around Maadi are small guard houses like this one:

And there was ALWAYS construction happening somewhere… and progress was so slow! During our three years there, we watched a group of builders on one particular site only complete the foundations for a building. This one was probably just starting to break ground around the time we left:

However, once they’re finished, some buildings in Maadi are really quite lovely….:

Visiting my old school was FANTASTIC. The school itself is one of the top ranked in the region, and students have plenty of opportunities to thrive. Even alumni have free reign around the campus, including access to the library, gym, pool, and various eateries! (I was happy to receive an official alumni ID card while I was there.) Just like many places in Egypt, the school has strict security as well:

Even though my old middle school building is closed now, it hasn’t been torn down (yet):

The board at the top depicted the rotating class schedule, so we always knew which blocks we’d have on a given day, and thus which books we needed to bring.Looking out from the gym, the middle school on the left. That building on the right was tennis courts when I was a student there:

Swimming pool!

Traditional style oven (definitely wasn’t there when I was a student):

Looking over the campus:

One of my favorite places in Cairo is the Khan El Khalili market in the Old City. I had to take an Uber to get there and saw some interesting views along the way:

Here are various scenes of the area:

Not all the shops were found inside crazy narrow alleys!

Here is neighboring Tentmaker’s Street. My mom has memories of shopping for textiles here, even though I don’t:

Being located in Old Cairo, the area around the Khan is also home to historical sites, such as mosques, schools, and hammams (public baths):

Can you believe that this is actually a style of Arabic calligraphy and depicts passages from the Quran??

Here is what the congregation would have seen while listening to the imam preach:

Doctors at the door of one of the first hospitals in Cairo, from centuries ago:

Place for ablution in a mosque’s pavilion:

Inside a mosque:

Looking back towards the Khan:

Outskirts of the Khan:

Of course, no trip to Egypt is complete without seeing the iconic Pyramids of Giza. I had seen them plenty of times as a teen; I even performed in the band during the high school graduation in front of the Sphinx (I played the clarinet). So, the first viewpoint I sought out was from inside a local Pizza Hut:

Then closer….

If you want a ride, it’ll cost you….

Tehrir Square in downtown Cairo was the epicenter of the demonstrations during the Arab Spring a few years ago:


If course I ate some traditional Egyptian food while there. This is koshari on the right, a blend of lentils, tomatoes, and pasta. My mom and sister were always big fans; I realized that some things don’t change, because I didn’t like it as a teen and I still don’t like it now! I did, however, love the sesame paste tahini and the squishy soft, pseudo-pita balady bread.

My dad’s favorite dessert was Om Ali, a very sweet rice pudding with dried fruits and nuts, baked, and served either hot or cold. I have no memories of eating it while we lived there, but I love sweets, so I made sure to try some on this trip:

My last night in Cairo, I met someone for dinner and shisha. He took me to a laid-back rooftop place with a spectacular view of the Nile:

Returning to Egypt helped me to let go of this Paradise Lost mental image I held of my years living there. It’s one of my favorite countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region, and I would be very happy to spend more time there again. It has such a strong culture that resisted much of the influence of colonialism, and of course holds an incredibly ancient history. I feel very blessed to have spent my adolescence in such an interesting, different (from what I knew before) place.

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