Culture Julie

What’s in Your Lunchbox?

Egypt Sandwich

One morning before school, Alexander, our newest kindergartener, was fiddling with Egyptian coins and thinking through options at the school canteen. His eyes lit up when he realized he could buy a milk box … maybe chocolate, maybe strawberry, or maybe banana!

He looked up and asked, as if he had a revelation. “Mom, how do I say, ‘Can I try a sip of that?’ in Arabic?”

My mind immediately thought of a gross juicebox straw that some kid was slobbering all over. Conditioned by American cafeteria germ paranoia, my first answer was, “You can’t ask for a sip of something. Please don’t ever ask for a sip of something, especially at school!”

So instead he asked, “Mom, how do I ask for a bite of something?”

Alexander was just beginning his time on the school playground; clearly this was something he wanted to learn.

But I still wasn’t thrilled. “Iskander [as his name translates in Arabic], do kids ever ask you for a bite? Do they ever ask for some of your food?”

He frowned. “Yes, they always want a pretzel.” At the breakfast table his three sisters immediately chimed in. “Yes, they always want the pretzels!”

It was a cultural revelation. My kids, the Americans, bring weird snacks to school.

Egyptian culture breeds generosity, usually. When a child opens a bag of chips it is common practice to offer to friends. Same with a packet of cookies. What you have is meant to be shared.

Earlier this summer as we visited a school friend, she told her mother, “Layla [our daughter] never brings a sandwich.” She couldn’t comprehend it. She thought we were starving her.

But the system here does not include a lunch break, and to me, a sandwich is lunch. Egyptian kids eat when they get home around between 2-4pm, depending on the traffic.

For them a sandwich is breakfast, eaten at the beginning of the day, often at school.

I grew up on peanut butter and jelly, or perhaps ham and cheese. My kids, meanwhile, have encountered a whole variety of sandwiches, and often get a taste. Usually they are made in a long, thin Kaiser-type roll or pita-type bread.

Inside: French fries. Or scrambled eggs. Perhaps some strange sort of salty white cheese. Maybe liver. Beans, mashed or falafeled.

Our oldest daughter recently attended a church retreat for expat kids. Hosted by Egyptians, she was surprised at the shock other campers had at the French fry sandwiches.

“What could be better to eat for breakfast?” she wondered, telling us over her morning corn flakes.

I am sure our littlest kindergartener will try many “bites” of things in the years to come. Unlike me growing up, hopefully it will expand his palate and encourage him to try new things.

And maybe he’ll also stop frowning when friends ask him for something, and instead, like them, will learn to offer freely.

He has freely received, as the Biblical saying goes.

What’s in your lunch? Can I have a bite?


Culture Julie

Why Egyptians Get Confused by Our American Children’s Names

Arabic English Names

Names don’t work the same in every culture.

We realized this six years ago, when our oldest daughter came home from her first days of school with “Emma Jaison” printed on her books. Her name is Emma Hope Casper, which I clearly wrote on all her official forms.

But I also filled out the ever-important question of her father’s name, my husband, Jayson. As per Egyptian pattern, her name became Emma Jayson, though in practice Ema or Amy, Jaison or Jasen, depending on how they guessed these strange names to be spelled.

A quick lesson in the Egyptian naming system is required. When a baby is born, parents choose the first name, just as they would in America. But that is the choice available, and the rest of the name is determined by family.

Every baby’s second name is its father’s name, even if she is a girl. The third name is the baby’s grandfather’s name—that of the father’s father. The fourth and final name for official paperwork is that of the great-grandfather, and unofficially stretches back through the generations.

To be honest, we are still confused about any actual “family name”. Some people seem to have something to correspond with Smith or MacDonald, although it would be something along the lines of Masri (from Egypt) or Tantawi (from Tanta). But we can’t quite figure out how that works with the pattern above.

Each of our three daughters have similarly returned from kindergarten with their name changed. Our second became Hannah Jayson, though alternately spelled: Hanah, Hana, or Hanna.

Trying to get it right in discussion with school administration, our third daughter’s first name, Layla, got combined with her second, Peace. But her papers came back:  Lailapes Jaison. I almost couldn’t figure out what it said.

Granted, transliteration between English and Arabic isn’t easy. But he mix-ups in name have sometimes bothered our girls. A simple name like Emma Hope has become Amahoub. Hannah Mercy was eventually spelled correctly, with her a different issue emerged.

In kindergarten, Hannah was known only as Hannah Jayson, but when she entered first grade, they added her actual middle name. This happened the same year that the former president Mohamed Morsy was deposed.

But when you write Mercy in Arabic script it looks just like Morsy, since Arabic writing leaves out the short vowels. And since the word “mercy” in English looks nothing like its translation in Arabic (rahma), everyone assumed she was similarly named to the Muslim Brotherhood leader.

Plenty of people here hated the Brotherhood, but Morsi is a fine and common name—among Muslims. While plenty of names have no religious marker, Abanoub or Shenouda signify a Christian, while Mohamed or Morsi indicate the child is a Muslim.

So the teachers wondered: Why is Hannah Morsy enrolled in the Christian religion class?

Click here to read more about our kids and religious education in Egypt.

Even more confusing for the teachers is how Emma “Hobe” and Hannah “Morsy” are sisters to begin with, with different names for their father. Add in Lailapes Jaison and you really confuse them!

We thought we would make things easier for our son Alexander, who is now entering kindergarten.

Click here to read the different naming options we considered, with pros and cons for each in Egypt.

My husband’s middle name is the same as his father’s, so to honor both the family and the Egyptian pattern, we did the same. He is Alexander Jayson (father’s name) Charles (grandfather’s name). His last name is still Casper, as we can’t imitate them in everything.

But it won’t be that easy. We commonly call him by the Arabic equivalent of Alexander, Iskander. He goes by both, and much as a four-and-a-half-year-old understands these things, he knows they are both his names.

But when he gets to school, what will he say his name is? Will he write Iskander in Arabic class, but Alexander in English? And how many people will just call him Alex, anyway?

Despite the confusion for each of our kids, we teach them their names were chosen with care. We display them in our living room, that they might be esteemed by child and guest alike.

English-speaking friends sometimes curiously notice the semi-strange middle names, and Arabic-speaking friends are often altogether confused. But wholesome discussion usually follows.

Hope, Mercy, and Peace—each a desirable virtue for life, paired with a corresponding Bible verse we trust they will internalize.

Our son’s pattern is different, and his sign requires more explanation. Alexander was the son of Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross. Of his two middle names, may he follow and become a third generation of faith.

Children grow old and develop their character. But a name is the one thing we give them they keep their whole lives. Their identity will be shaped by many, and their path is their own.

But we have the responsibility to shape their foundation, beginning with that first official form.

Our Hope is that they grow up with the Mercy to let others misunderstand them, the internal Peace to know who they truly are, and a family history to teach them whose cross they are privileged to carry.

Name Signs


Culture Family Julie

Saying Good-Bye: Part and Parcel of an Expat’s Life

Saying Good-Bye

Growing up I lived the first 18 years of my life in the same house, only moving to go to college.  My mom has lived in the same town her entire life, and all four of my siblings still live within 20 minutes of that town.  I didn’t grow up saying too many good-byes for the first 18 years of my life.  The second 18 years, however, were quite opposite.  College, grad school, first job, marriage, and then life overseas; lots of changes and lots of moves.  Since my husband and I first moved overseas, we have lived in three different countries, four different cities, and five different apartments.

While not every expat moves often, saying good-bye to people and places is a common part of the expat lifestyle.  Even if you are one who stays put in the same foreign country for many years, you must still say good-bye to the others who filter through year after year.  And then add factors like childbirth, children’s schooling, medical needs and a revolution, and there are good-byes all over the place.

Good-byes are a reality for us, but they don’t have to be a negative aspect of expat living.  Before traveling overseas, my husband and I took a course in grief counseling.  We didn’t exactly realize it at the time, but it was great training for this lifestyle.  Every good-bye is a loss.  And every loss causes grief.  Sure there are some losses more painful than others, but all losses are felt at 100%.  Given this reality, how can we keep from shutting ourselves off to new friendships or new opportunities that we know may eventually require another farewell?

Stay ‘complete’ in your relationships

You never know when a relationship could end or be interrupted.  There were people I could not physically say good-bye to when the revolution occurred two years ago.  I didn’t anticipate needing to say good-bye, and so I wasn’t complete in all my relationships.  I wasn’t able to tell people I was thankful for them, or that I loved them, or that I was glad they were in my life because….

On the other side of that spectrum, we have to deal with the difficulties that come between us and another person.  If we work through the problems, we won’t let the pain of a strained relationship be a burden to carry into our next assignment.

We’ve all heard people lament, “I just wish I had said this to her before she died.” Or, “If only I told him I loved him before he left.”  Living with those ‘unsaid statements’ makes you less free to join in a new relationship.  Communicating them does not remove the pain of saying good-bye, but it does help to heal the pain.

Say ‘good-bye’ to people, places and things

This is one of the most practical points I took from the training those many years ago.  Don’t be afraid to say good-bye.  Embrace it.  Hug. Cry. Say the words you hold within you.  Saying something simple instead, like “See you later,” may seem like it will hurt less, but if you know the good-bye is for a significant period of time, you must say it.

This is especially true for our children.  We hate to see them hurting as they say good-bye to yet another friend.  Sometimes we try to comfort them by telling them we can visit their friend next year, or maybe the friend will visit us again.  But instead of offering such hope, which often proves false, grieve with your children.  Agree with them that saying good-bye is really hard, that the friend they just said good-bye to can’t be replaced.  That’s it.  You don’t need to make promises or try to make it hurt less.  Let them grieve and help them to say good-bye well.

Saying good-bye to places was a new concept for me, but we have done it in every flat we’ve lived in since living overseas.  I am sure our 9-month old daughter doesn’t remember our apartment in Tunisia, but we still walked with her through each room of the flat and said good-bye to the rooms. We talked about what we enjoyed doing in those rooms or how we would miss them.  It may seem trivial, but if you think about it, you can probably vividly picture some special places in the home where you grew up.

While the flat you have lived in for the last year may not seem as significant as your childhood home, it is still good to treat it as a place to say good-bye to.  Again, for your children, you may not know what their special memories are in that place.

For some, Cairo is a tough place to live.  As you move onto your next assignment, or return home, you may do so with a sense of relief.  And yet, living here has changed you.  The people you’ve met have affected you, for good or for bad.  Even if you joyfully skip through you apartment on moving day, and say good riddance to your bawwab as you walk out of the building, it would still be good to close off those relationships and places completely.

Life overseas is exciting: It is a chance to visit ancient sites, interact with people so different from yourselves, perhaps also to help the poorest of the poor.  But it also has its challenges, and the ‘good-byes’ are among the greatest.  Learn to be complete in every relationship and say good-bye well, and this challenge will be just a little bit easier.

This article was originally published on Maadi Messenger.

Current Events Family Julie

A Family Errand through Tahrir

Application for Consular Report of Birth Abroad
Application for Consular Report of Birth Abroad

My life in Cairo is spent mostly in our house and the surrounding area of Maadi, which is about half an hour from the famous Tahrir Square.  Friends and family in the states get nervous when they see the violence and flare-ups in Egypt, but the reality for me is generally far removed.  Last week, however, we needed to take a family trip through the heart of the uprising.

Our destination was the American Embassy in Garden City, normally only a five-minute walk from the Square.  Our son, Alexander, was born in Cairo three months ago, and it has taken us this long to secure an appointment with the embassy for his “Certificate of Birth Abroad” (the equivalent of a US birth certificate) and his first passport.  We originally had an appointment at the embassy on the 29th of January, but that was a particularly unstable week around the embassy due to ongoing clashes, and so it closed for several days. All appointments were postponed.  We were hoping for calm now, so we could get this process started.  I didn’t like not having a passport for our baby, as I wasn’t sure what would happen if we were forced to travel.

Since our two oldest girls were still on school break, we ended up taking the whole family downtown for our adventure.  We left our house around 8am with the hopes of arriving in time for our 9am appointment.  Of course, when you are two adults accompanied by three smaller walkers, plus a baby slung snuggly on your chest, it takes a bit longer than normal to get places.  We had an uneventful walk from our house to the closest metro station.

Unfortunately we were traveling during rush hour which meant the metro was packed.  Emma, our oldest, gets a little nervous getting on and off the metro.  She seems to have a fear of our family being split up as some of us get on the train, and others get shut out behind the door.  This has never happened to us, but I understand her fear considering getting on and off the metro can be a real battle due to the sheer number of people.

As we saw the train approach, we noticed that the cars were all quite full.  When the train stopped and the doors opened, we quickly pushed our way in, crowding together with those already in the car.  The trip from our station to downtown is about 20 minutes, and it looked at first, like we would all be standing for that whole time.  But as is common in Egypt, others in the car noticed our small children, and offered me and my baby-in-carrier a seat.  I put Layla on one knee and Hannah on the other until a few minutes later, another seat was offered to Emma and Hannah.

As we rode along, I looked around me and realized there were no other women that I could see in this particular car.  In fact, I was totally surrounded by men.  I was really glad my husband was among them.  Not only was I surrounded, though, but the men had made a barrier of space between me with my kids and everyone on the train.  That was much appreciated considering that where we were standing earlier, there was no space around anyone.  My thoughts went to the many articles I have been reading of violent attacks on women in Tahrir Square.  They sound awful, and the men involved sound like barbarians.  This, on the other hand, was an example of what my family usually experiences: considerate people who look out for the sick, elderly, and moms with young children.

When we arrived at Sadat station, the metro stop under Tahrir Square, I was glad to notice the absence of tear gas.  I have never actually experienced tear gas, but Jayson has on several occasions, and so have some other family members when he has taken them to visit the Square.  I had heard that over the last week, the tear gas was quite palatable in the station, and I was most concerned for our three-month old son if there were any lingering fumes.  I was glad not to notice any.

We exited the metro, Jayson carrying Hannah and Layla, Alexander strapped to me, and Emma holding tightly to my hand.  We quickly escaped the traffic that was exiting with us, regrouped in an open space, and walked toward the turnstiles.  We then followed the crowd through the narrow door, up the steps, and into the open air.

I looked around and saw the white tents covering the center of the traffic circle.  We considered taking a family picture, but, being that we were an American couple with three blonde daughters and a new baby, we didn’t want to linger and attract any more attention than we naturally do wherever we go in Cairo.  We headed toward the embassy.

Embassy Plea
Photo from a few months ago; no cars dare park in the area now.

Normally this walk would take us only 5 minutes, even with the little ones in tow.  However, due to the recent fighting, several walls have been constructed over the last few weeks.  These walls are made of large concrete blocks, each one is probably 3 feet by 3 feet.  The blocks are then stacked 3 or 4 high, and they cover the entrance to streets, blocking the thoroughfares to cars and people.  This meant we had to walk out to the road which runs along the Nile, past the Semiramsis Hotel, which was sadly boarded up at every door and window due to the attacks from last week.

We walked two more blocks until we finally came to a road without a wall.  Turning left, we walked another block to the road the embassy is on.  People were milling about normally, and we noticed several police trucks and tens of riot police walking around, perhaps preparing for coming protests.  The line at the embassy, on the non-American services side, was perhaps slightly shorter than normal, but long, as always.  On the American services side, however, we got right inside once we showed the guard our appointment paper.

The embassy is a comfortable place to sit as you first wait for your number to be called, and then for the staff to get your paperwork started once you’ve submitted it.  The girls enjoyed playing various games in the spacious waiting area.  It is one of the few places in Cairo that I have seen a water fountain … the kind you drink from.  The embassy also had done a good job preparing us for exactly what forms we would need to get the birth certificate and passport.  We were able to submit the papers without any trouble, and look forward to seeing Alexander’s passport in a couple weeks.

Once the work was done, we headed back outside after grabbing our cell phones from security, and decided to walk back to a different metro stop since the Tahrir stop wasn’t as close as it used to be.  Jayson is much more familiar with downtown than I am, so he led the way and eventually we found the stop were looking for.

The ride back home on the metro was a lot less-crowded.  The whole family got a seat and we were glad to have accomplished what we set out to do.  It even included a glimpse of the downtown scene.

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Culture Family Julie

Alexander’s Subuu3

Alexander Eyes Open

About six weeks ago, we welcomed baby Alexander into our lives. According to Egyptian tradition, one week later we should have given him a Subuu3.

Subuu3 is related to the Arabic word for ‘week’, and the number three at the end represents an Arabic letter absent in English. We delayed his party, however, until his eighteenth day of life, until both sets of grandparents could arrive. But this is acceptable according to the local traditions, as Egyptians tend to be very, um, flexible, on matters of time.

Yu'annis and Alexander

Our good friend, a Coptic Orthodox priest, Fr. Yuennis, traveled three hours one way from Upper Egypt to perform the religious rites of what is essentially a cultural baby party – received from the Pharaohs. We weren’t really sure what these rites included, though, until he was about fifteen minutes from our home.

My friend, who had already arrived, told me I needed to have a basin prepared for the priest to bathe Alexander in. I racked my brain, but couldn’t think of anything appropriate. Fortunately our neighbors upstairs had a foot bath which worked perfectly for the event.

I learned after the fact that we should have had a similar party the previous night where Alexander was also bathed. This time, all the guests would have thrown an Egyptian coin or two into the water, and the lucky woman who was chosen to bathe the baby would then collect that money. It is up to the family to choose, but the main criterion is that she is an older woman. My friend told me that for the Subuu3s done for her two children, the women took 100 and 150 Egyptian pounds (US $17 and $25) respectively. Not a bad fee for giving a baby a bath!

Yu'annis Leading Ceremony

Instead, our party began with the arrival of the priest, who chanted prayers before taking Alexander from me to bathe him. The point is to bless the baby; it is not a baptism. In the Orthodox tradition boys are baptized forty days after birth, and girls eighty.

Yu'annis Bathing Alexander

I have to admit that I was quite distracted during the priest’s words since we had about fifteen children, ages 3-9, holding lit candles and standing very close to each other and many other flammable items! Even when I took Alexander to get him ready for his bath, I was very conscious of the candles behind my back and prepared to catch on fire at any minute!

Later, when I asked my friend about the craziness of putting lit candles in young children’s hands, she just laughed and said this was a key part of the ceremony, and that, unlike our party, the children should have marched around the whole apartment holding the candles.

(Please click here to watch a video clip from the religious part of the ceremony. Translated subtitles are provided, though we are not yet able to translate the parts in Coptic. You may need to select ‘captions’ from the YouTube screen.)

Group with Candles

Kids and Candles

Hannah and Candle

After getting cleaned up and dressed in white, as is customary, Alexander got to experience the most stimulating part of the evening. First, he was put into a special bed made for the occasion. Then we put him and his bed on the floor and I stepped over him seven times, showing my authority over him as his Mother. Next he was taken by my friend and shaken a bit in his bed.

Alexander in Basket

If that didn’t wake him enough, another friend took a mortar and pestle and made lots of noise right next to him. As it rang out, she chanted something like, “Listen to your mother, listen to your father, listen to your aunt, but don’t listen to your grandfather.” They will say several variations on this, always joking around by adding the “don’t listen to” part. When I asked the ‘why’ behind all this, I was told that it helps him not be afraid in the future when he hears a loud noise. Having been put through this ordeal, the rest of life should be much easier.

Making Noise

This is all followed by walking around the room in a circle with the noisemaker in his ear while the guests chant something like, “Lord, be with him and grow him; may he have the prettiest gold in his ear.” This is said regardless of gender, for some reason.

(Please click here to watch a video clip from the cultural part of the ceremony. While there is lots of chatter, no subtitles are necessary – just take in the hubbub.)

Circling the Room

Once all this was done, it was time for the food. In general, Egyptians are very generous and great at hospitality, so we wanted to be sure we had more than enough food as well as a nice-looking spread. It probably wasn’t enough, but with a lot of help from the four grandparents, we mixed ready-made Egyptian favorites with American items.

Baby Party Spread

The final aspect of the traditional baby party is the party favor, also called a Subuu3, where we comically veered too much into American baby shower traditions. The Egyptian bag should be filled with peanuts, popcorn, and some hard candy, along with perhaps a baby-looking figurine or something similar and labeled with the baby’s name.  But our friends were enamored by the favors we gave out as they weren’t the least bit traditional.

In preparation for this party, my mom came with American items. Our bags were filled with a lollipop and a couple pieces of candy – all wrapped in blue, of course – then tied together with a miniature pacifier and a card bearing Alexander’s vital statistics: name, date of birth, weight, and length — information all our stateside friends expect to hear at the birth of a new baby. This was far too much detail for our Egyptian friends, though. They only include the baby’s name and a written blessing. This is what happens when you combine two cultures!

Baby Party Kids

All in all it was a great night. Our Egyptian friends had a chance to meet Alexander and we were able to share in Egypt’s unique cultural traditions. Perhaps most importantly our child received a blessing, as did we, of an ever deeper sense of belonging.

Alexander and Daddy

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Culture Family Julie

Mother’s Day: Culture, Parenting, and Last-Minute Chocolate

Our American readers may wonder why I am writing about this topic two months before the US celebrates their matriarchs, but here in Egypt, our big day is on March 21st.

Mother’s Day has been celebrated in the last three countries we have lived in: Jordan, Tunisia, and now, Egypt.  I don’t remember the dates in each country, but I do remember asking a friend in Jordan if they celebrate Father’s Day.  She laughed and said, “Here, everyday is Father’s day!”

It could be interesting to research what countries have official mother’s and/or father’s day, but I don’t think I will get around to that anytime soon.  If any readers have any insight, please share in our comment section!

I have noticed this year that Mother’s Day is quite a big deal around here.  I guess as our girls are getting older, and involved in more things, I will collect more and more handmade crafts of love from various venues.  As such, I thought it worth writing about what I’ve noticed so far before first, I forget, or second, get too busy to write (being a mother and all).

This is the first year Emma is in school, and she has been singing a few songs about mothers in both Arabic and English over the last couple weeks. Still, the day passed without any word of an assembly, so maybe it is still in the works? Sometimes it is hard to figure out the culture, especially when mixed with an Arabic administration!

Emma also made a mother’s day surprise for me last Wednesday, but had to hide it in her backpack until yesterday when she presented it to me along with the flowers that she purchased with her sisters and Daddy – from her own allowance.

The weekend before I scored four different mother’s day crafts!  Fridays are both weekend and “church day” for us.  In the morning, the girls attended the Coptic Sunday School and each made a flower in their individual classes:  Emma made a flower balloon, and Hannah made a paper flower to put on the refrigerator.  At this same church, we will celebrate mother’s day in my adult Sunday school class tomorrow, and a friend mentioned that next Saturday night is a special service for moms, complete with gifts!  That’s a lot of celebrating!

Meanwhile, the second church where the girls attend Sunday School actually changed the time of their normal meeting today and invited the moms to attend a special party.  And so the three girls and I headed over to the local Arabic Evangelical church where we first listened to the kids sing some of their normal songs.

Then one of the teachers took some comments from the audience.  First she asked the kids what are some things their parents do that really bother them.  The answers included: Limiting internet, making me do homework and go to school, and yelling at me.

And then it was the moms’ turn to share about the kids, which included: Not taking care of their stuff and not listening to their parents.  During this time, Emma got out of her seat and came back to me to translate the question (in case I didn’t understand) and ask me to share an answer!  Kind of funny that she wanted me to answer such a question.

After it was all over, I asked what she would have shared if she said something.  She liked the “Mom makes me do homework and go to school” comment.  I was glad she identified with that first over some of the others!

After the mutual sharing, the kids all went to their respective classrooms while the moms were invited to move forward in the sanctuary for a talk geared for them.  The speaker shared that when she deals with kids, she emphasizes four things about them: They are important, loved, different and good.  She then expanded each of these points, but since I had our two-year old with me, I wasn’t able to sit and concentrate on her talk.  I caught some things here and there but missed the bulk of the message.

When I came back inside after letting Layla run around a bit, there was a question/answer time.  I would have enjoyed really listening to the exchange here, but it was a bit challenging.  I was able to listen to one or two questions regarding teaching children not to interrupt, or at what age can you start punishing a child.  As I listened, I soon realized that I was very pridefully and smugly listening to these questions and answers with an air of: “These poor people don’t know anything about child-raising.”

Like I do!  I was ashamed when I realized my superiority complex!  It’s not that I think I parent perfectly, and I am willing to admit my faults, which are more on some days than others.  However, I do think that I have studied how to parent well, even if I can’t always apply it properly.  And this isn’t all pride.  I have the privilege of great role models and friends who share struggles and ideas, as well as numerous books on the topic from so many perspectives.  I almost don’t have an excuse for not having all the answers!

On the other hand, I have lived in this part of the world long enough to at least know some of the stereotypical child-rearing strategies.  And I am guilty of thinking all parents use these strategies.  But we all tend to apply what we have learned growing up.  Unless you really don’t like some things your parents did, and you have resources to find better ways, then you will probably repeat those things.  I come from a place where resources are abundant and we are taught to search for ideas.  That isn’t as true in this culture.

Some of the things I observe here as adults relate to children have their roots in what people have been taught, and this stemming from good things.  As I have mentioned in other posts (see below), Arabs, as a whole, love children.  My kids have gotten so much attention from perfect strangers over the last 5 ½ years living in two different Arab countries, that I cannot doubt this culture’s love and care for children.

One natural response here is that adults don’t like to see or hear children cry.  If a child falls and scrapes his knee, the nearby adult will scoop him up, tell him, “It’s okay, don’t cry,” as he wipes the tears away, and then offer a lollipop or bag of chips to help him forget his pain.

Remember as well that Arabs are generous.  This continues along as a child gets into a fight with a friend or sibling and their feelings get hurt.  A candybar helps to mend things.  And then it gets carried further when a child gets upset because they can’t have what they want.  If a two-year old is told not to touch the computer, and cries about it, they may be soothed by a bag of cookies.  And so a young child may not be taught to deal with disappointment or learn to accept no for an answer.  Instead, they may be placated with sweets.

Sometimes my friends ask me how I discipline my children and they have often been surprised at how much I talk to my toddlers.  I believe little ones can understand a lot at a young age, and we have explained our expectations to them from the start.

I have noticed that younger children here are not expected to be able to listen and obey.  At times my friends make fun of their own child-rearing practices as they explain that after telling a child no yet again and having that child disobey, then the parent will lose their temper and yell and maybe even hit their child.  The parent’s anger has built up as the child disobeys time and time again, yet without real consequence, and then once the parent gets fed up, the child gets a punishment perhaps too harsh for the offense.  Again, this is a stereotype, and certainly it is not only Egyptian parents who fit this scenario, but it is one that plays out time and again.  There aren’t always resources to try something different.

Well, I have strayed a bit from the title of the piece.  After the question/answer time, we enjoyed a few snacks outside and the girls each brought me the pictures they colored of a mom and child.  The church gave out small cutting boards to each mom and we walked back home to head to bed.

It is nice, all this attention for Mother’s Day.  Another friend invited some moms to her place for tea on Mother’s Day morning, and that was nice too.  Perhaps there will still be an unknown school assembly to come!

I know I have a most privileged job here as a mom to our three girls.  Today I was reminded that I don’t have all the answers, and as parents we do the best with what we know.  I am always praying that God would make up the slack and give me more wisdom than I possess on my own!


Update: Now that it is Mother’s Day night, I can finish this post with a learning experience.  When I dropped Emma off at school this morning, I kind of noticed half-heartedly that other moms and kids were coming to school with gifts.  I barely thought about it until later that morning when another foreigner was asking if Emma had taken a gift to school for her teacher.  Then it occurred to me that the other parents were doing just that!

I wondered why, since many of the teachers weren’t actually moms, but I tried to find a quick suitable gift for Emma’s teachers before picking her up for the day.  I stopped at the local sweet shop and bought some chocolate after asking the workers there if this was an appropriate gift.

I then asked why teachers get gifts on this day and they mentioned that the teachers are like moms to the kids.  That made a lot of sense.  I quickly paid and walked down the street to the school and as Emma came out of her classroom excitedly ready to tell me something important, she saw the two bags in my hands and exclaimed, “Yes!  Are these for my teachers?!”

I was so glad I decided to stop and get something even though it was a last-minute thought.  Emma was so happy to give a gift to her teachers and glad to be doing what the other kids did.  A nice tradition, to give teachers gifts on mother’s day.  Let’s hope I remember by this time next year.


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Culture Family Julie

Touring Egypt with Egyptians

Our family recently had the privilege to go on a Nile tour from Luxor to Aswan.  With my parents visiting from the US, one of the sites my Dad wanted to see was the Valley of the Kings.  At first we said it was too far to try, but then Jayson heard our local Orthodox church advertise a trip to Luxor/Aswan, and so we enquired.  Turns out, no one else in the church signed up, but the travel agent, who worships at this location, was able to get us the same good price as he was offering to the Egyptian congregation, and so we made the arrangements for Mom, Dad, Jayson, me and our three little girls to embark on this great tour.

First step was getting to Luxor which is located about 8-9 hours south of Cairo by train.  We debated going by train or plane – big difference in time and price – and in the end, went with the more adventurous route.  We weren’t sure what to expect as we boarded the sleeper train in Ramses station, but we had three sleeper cabins which were quite comfortable and roomy.

Sleeper Car in the Train to Luxor

Since we left town around 8pm, we got our girls to bed as quickly as possible, anticipating a 5am arrival in Luxor.  Then we enjoyed a good dinner before retiring to our different beds.  I don’t think I slept too much and among the adults, we got varying hours of sleep.  The beds were comfortable enough, but the train was really rough.  We stopped and started all through the night, and felt like we were going to blow right off the track at different points.  About an hour before Luxor, we got some breakfast, then woke and dressed the girls before arrival.

We were met in Luxor by a representative from the travel company and taken to a big tourist bus along with about 25 Egyptians.  Our agent in Maadi had told us he had a group of doctors going on the same trip so we would be with them.  After traveling together a bit, we realized that many of us were together in the same train car from Cairo to here.  We went straight to the Valley of the Kings while our tour guide, Mohamed, began telling us about Luxor and what we would be seeing soon.  He usually works with English groups, but of course could guide in Arabic as well.  And so, our little family had our own English translation from him each time he finished his Arabic spiel.

The sites that day were interesting, and the three girls did well despite it being hot and including lots of walking.  We were all enjoying the places we visited, but also curious to get to the boat where we would be living for the next five days.  It wasn’t long before we learned of a complication in this trip.  Due to a workers’ strike at the locks near Luxor, our boat was parked about one hour south of Luxor in the town of Esna.  This meant that we had to drive over an hour after touring before boarding the boat.  And so, the schedule I had worked out for day one was not going to work.  Fortunately, our littlest one was able to nap during the long bus ride, and we all made it till the 3pm lunch when we finally got to the boat.

Exhausted on the Unexpected Bus Ride

By that first evening together, Emma and Hannah had made friends with a young single Egyptian named Mahmoud, who was traveling with his two sisters, parents and grandmother.  He quickly became like an uncle to them and throughout the week I often heard Emma call out, “Mahmouuuud, Mahmouuuud” as we walked around the temple ruins.

Mahmoud, with Hannah our Future Archaeologist
Mahmoud, with Emma our Future Captain

Day two was another complicated day due to the lock strike.  Since we had more to see in Luxor, we now had to drive an hour each way making for a long morning.  Or so I thought.  We were supposed to leave by 8 or 9 am, but by 10am our whole group was waiting in the lobby of the boat as the tour bus we were supposed to ride was having trouble finding gasoline due to a gas shortage.  I don’t know exactly what time the bus arrived to pick us up, because the boat left the port for about half an hour to allow another boat to set sail, and when we docked once again closer to noon, our tour guide was more than ready to get on with the tour.

(Click here for a tour of our Nile cruise boat, and here for a lazy gaze at a pastoral Nile River island.)

During our waiting time, the girls were once again playing with Mahmoud and this gave me a chance to meet him and his family and we had a nice time getting know each other.  I wasn’t sure if I was the only one stressed out about such a late start to our day since the boat was supposed to sail for its next destination at 3:30.  I knew we had two places to tour in Luxor and at least two hours of driving.  How could we possibly do it?  I was relieved to hear the concern of others in the group too, but they said that the sites we were to see, the Luxor and Karnak temples, were among the most important of the tour.  We couldn’t just skip out on these sites.  I quickly tried to refigure Layla’s eating and nap plan as it was obvious she would not be doing either of those things on the boat this day.

Out of the six or seven families in our tour group, there were four young children: our three girls, and a 1 ½ year old boy, Yusuf.  He was traveling with his parents, aunt, and grandparents, and Emma and Hannah really took to him.  By day four, Hannah practically looked like she was in their family as she walked along with them at the sites and played with Yusuf on the boat.

With Yusuf, on the Sun Deck

We also met up with them a time or two in the disco room and the kids all danced together.  On the final day, Yusuf’s dad delivered three black plastic bags to our girls, each one filled with the same assortment of snacks: a pack of crackers, a lollipop, a tube of chocolate, a small cake, some gummy worms and a juice box.  By that point, Hannah was too sick to enjoy any of it, but the gesture was so typical of the generous Egyptians we know.  It never even crossed my mind to buy something small for anyone, and yet, they bought all three of our girls bags of snacks.

Several other people in our tour group enjoyed playing with our girls as well.  One of the daughters in a family of three older girls often played with Layla when she was strapped to my back.

Layla, with One of Many Children Lovers

It wasn’t unusual to find Layla in someone else’s lap on a motorboat ride or as we were waiting in the lobby of the boat.  Even though we were the only non-Egyptians in our group, they welcomed us in and made the trip extra-special for our kids.

Not only were we the only foreigners in our particular tour, we were the only foreigners on the whole boat of three tour groups.  According to one of the workers on the boat, they’ve only had Egyptians riding the boat for quite awhile now.  One evening while I was in line for dinner, one of the servers asked me how I liked the food.  I answered that I thought it was very good, and he tapped the lady next to me in line and said, “See, she is American and she thinks the food is very good!”  I felt very strange when he said that like my opinion is more important than anyone else on the boat?!  But perhaps he was excited about the presence of foreigners in his restaurant for the first time in a long time. Tourism has taken a severe dive since the revolution.

Among New Friends

There were three or four elementary-aged girls on the boat, and after the first or second day, they became friends with Emma and Hannah.  Their time was limited together since we didn’t tour at the same time, but they could see each other on the sun deck or in the disco room.  One night there was a gallabeya party.  A gallabeya is a traditional robe-like dress which is a typical dress for men living in upper Egypt.  Technically the woman’s equivalent for that is called an abaya.  We weren’t planning on mentioning this party to our girls since it wasn’t going to start until 9pm which is two hours past their normal bed time.

However, the young girls on the boat, as well as the older girls in our group, were very excited about this party and asked Emma and Hannah if they planned to attend.  Not only did this mean staying up quite late, but also buying a gallabeya!  Following the lead of those in our group, we purchased a gallabeya for Emma and Hannah at one of the shops during our stop in Kom Ombo.  We later purchased some more on the boat and then some fancy head-ware at the market in Aswan.  Although it wasn’t in time for the party, by the end of the trip, our whole family was properly outfitted.

At dinner, just an hour before the party, Hannah was too tired to eat and decided to go to bed rather than attend the party.  This meant only Emma had a chance to participate, and she had a great time with her friends.

Dressed up for the Party
Dressed Up at Home - Adults have more Inhibitions

We had a wonderful trip and saw amazing sites in the south of Egypt, but probably the highlight of the trip for our entire family was the living people of Egypt, rather than its ancient monuments. You can see pictures of the temples anywhere, but how else could you get memories like these?

Our Touring Party

(Too bad the normally punctual Americans were late for this group shot. Oh well.)

Current Events Family Julie

Living in Fear

Looting during the revolution

“I haven’t gone out in over a year.”

This was one of the statements my friend said to me the other day in talking about the changes in Egypt recently, particularly the lack of safety.

“I used to go out with my sister-in-law.  I would leave the kids at my mother-in-law’s house, and my sister and I would go downtown and walk around, do some shopping, all of this after 11pm.  We would come back around 1 or 2 in the morning.  Now I won’t even walk around Maadi at night, we are in our own house by 11:00.”

So many of my recent conversations with my Egyptian friends have either revolved around, or at the least, mentioned the lack of safety and the growing fear in everyday life.

Prior to the January 25, 2011 Revolution, the lack of crime in this huge city of Cairo was amazing.  I don’t know the statistics, but people didn’t generally worry about purse-snatching, carjackings, kidnappings, robberies or violent crime.  One of the reasons was the iron-fist of the previous regime, complete with a strong secret police system and the extreme power, and sometime corruption, of the regular police.

In truth, people were afraid of the police, and yet the average law-abiding citizen had nothing to worry about.  In this way, their everyday life was safe.  They could leave their cars running while they grabbed something from a kiosk, or send their children down the street for bread.  They could go out late at night, as Egyptians are known for doing in this city that never sleeps, and walk along the Nile River, without a thought for personal safety.  All this has changed for those I’ve talked with.

“Be very careful of anyone you see on motorcycles.  Two guys on a motorcycle stole my friend’s bag from inside her car while she was sitting behind the wheel!  Another friend’s car was stolen right in front of her apartment.”

Another friend of mine cautioned me as she related these stories of people she knew.  Friends from her old neighborhood or colleagues at work, who live in our Maadi neighborhood, let their guard down for a moment, or perhaps, never had their guard “up” quite enough, and lost a bag and a car.

“Keep your eye on your children.  Don’t let them play outside without you.  People are being kidnapped now for ransom.  It is happening to Egyptians, but they may see you and think you have a lot of money.  Hold onto those kids.”

The same friend who hasn’t gone out for a year told me how when she goes out, she no longer carries a purse.  Rather, she will put some money in her pocket, and only enough for what she needs to buy.

I then shared with her how my wallet was stolen just the other day.  We went to the local Coptic Orthodox church for the worship service, and I was across the street at the church’s coffee area.  I had just been sitting with some Egyptian friends and I went to pick up my daughter from her Sunday School class.  I had my bag on my shoulder with Layla in that same arm.

As is common, my bag was too full to zip, since it contained cups for all three girls, plus a water bottle for myself, diapers and wipes, maybe some library books and random other things, and so my wallet was in the bag, laying on top, exposed to the world.  I had to push through people to get to Hannah’s classroom, and then again, push through people to get out the door as her classroom is located in the same place as the cash register and food service counter.

Less crowded than other times, this is church coffee area, with the door to the classroom bottle-necking in the background. Daughter Layla is at the table.

As I was going through the doorway to get to the outside seating area, I felt someone run into me, perhaps a lightening of my bag and I turned to look.  A woman with a child in her arms apologized briefly, and I nodded, understanding how babes in arms often touch people who are close to them, much to a mother’s chagrin.  But something in me made me pause, and after taking a few more steps, I released Hannah’s hand and swung my bag to the front of me so I could check it.

No wallet.

I dug a little deeper to see if it was still in there, but it wasn’t.  I quickly went back to the table I had been at to make sure I hadn’t left it there.  Nope.  I looked around at the tables where people were talking, drinking their coffee, eating their falafel sandwiches.  No one was paying attention to me.  What did that woman look like?  Where did she go?  Could she really have taken my wallet right there, surrounded by church folk, inside the church property?

I cautiously approached a table where I thought she may have gone, but I was trying to figure out how I could ask the people sitting there if they had stolen my wallet?  How do you ask someone if they have seen the wallet that was just in your own bag?  How accusatory is that?  I looked around in vain.

Later, friends informed the staff at the shop who told them this was the third wallet that was stolen in the last month or so. I was kicking myself for putting it right on top with the bag open.  I couldn’t do much about being distracted by my children, one on a hip, the other in hand, but I could have been more careful.  If someone had to unzip my bag to get to my wallet, I probably would have noticed that quicker.  Oh well, add me to the statistics.

My friend, who attends the same church, was sorry to hear the story, and especially that it happened at church.  But she said the priests are often telling people to watch their bags.  Wallets and purses have even been taken from inside the church during mass.  The church is open to all, you can’t implicitly trust all who come in.  I told her that I used to leave my whole bag (minus the money) on a table at the coffee shop to save a spot while I dropped my kids off.  We both agreed that wasn’t a good idea!

“Praise the Lord it was just your stuff, and not your children.  Hold onto them!”  And that is the truth.

Another friend has often told me how scared she is these days, especially as a Christian.  The first time I saw her after the Maspero incident in October, where about 27 Christians died during a peaceful protest, she was visibly nervous.  State TV had turned people against Christians during that night and it left some of the Christians feeling vulnerable.

“I watch the news constantly because I want to know what is going on.  But I am more scared each time I watch it.  I don’t know what is going to happen in Egypt.  But what can I do?  I can’t go anywhere.  I don’t have the means for it.  We can only hope and pray.”

Egyptians are scared, at least the ones I talk to.  Whether they are Christian or Muslim, they have fears now that they didn’t have before.  Some are tired of the protests and just wish things would be stable again, but mostly, they want to be able to live without fear, as they lived before.  They can see the problems with the old regime, and most I’ve talked to are glad that Mubarak is out of power.  However, their personal lives are worse than before because they feel no safety on the streets.

Personally we don’t feel afraid.  We feel our house is secure, and we are careful as we move about, aside from the wallet incident!  We hold onto our kids and take precautions with our money.  We call each other when we are heading home and as a woman, I don’t go out alone in the dark.

I feel for our friends, though, who feel safety has been taken from them.  I don’t know how long it will take before that is restored.  It’s not a quick process, and in the meantime, it makes life uncomfortable.

Culture Julie

Cultural Insights on Marriage and Children

Today I had a nice long visit with a fairly new Egyptian friend. Her name is Suzi and she is the mom of one of Emma’s classmates at school.  This was our third visit together, once at our house and twice at hers.  The kids all have fun playing together – Emma and her school friend, along with my Hannah and Layla, and the friend’s little brother who is the same age as Hannah.  While they played, we mostly chatted about life.  I thought I’d record some of the things I heard today as they provide an interesting insight into culture here.

Marriage Differences

One of the topics we spoke about was marriage.  It is common here for a man to come to a woman’s house to inquire about marrying her.  He may have known of her for a long time, or perhaps a friend mentioned her or he saw her in some spot and asked others about her.  There are a variety of ways that this meeting can come about, but it is still a norm for marriages to be “arranged” this way.  In most cases, it seems that the woman has full rights to say yes or no, but it is often the way a relationship begins.

That’s not to say there aren’t many, many relationships that start because people work together or go to school together or whatever, but this man coming to ask for a woman’s hand, while basically absent from the American culture, is still very present here.  Suzi was asking if it was harder or easier to get married in America and I said that it was harder because of the absence of the arranged marriage.  She seemed somewhat surprised to know that it doesn’t happen in the states.  I couldn’t just wait at my parent’s house for possible suitors to come calling; I had to meet people and take initiative without being too forward.  I told her it was tricky as it is a bit of a game to let someone know of your interest without being aggressive (as the woman). And meeting potential spouses in general can be challenging.  While I appreciate the American dating system as a whole, I thought it might be a bit easier to find a husband in this culture.

That being said, she asked if the man must have a house or apartment already purchased and furnished before proposing to someone.  He sometimes must have a car and enough money for a good amount of gold jewelry as well, that will be shown off at the engagement ceremony.  In this way, I said, things might be easier in America.  Many couples will start off living in an apartment and work together to afford a house after getting married.  Whatever the particular timetable, it is not expected that a man have all the material goods before he can even look to get married.  This is one reason that Egyptian men are getting married later in life as it is getting harder and harder to earn enough money to buy a flat and furnish it before proposing to a future bride.

Suzi’s story itself was quite interesting to me, and perhaps bizarre from the Western perspective.  She is married to her first cousin.  Her mom and his dad are sister and brother.  We talked about this a bit as I told her it is illegal in the states to marry your cousin.  (I guess I don’t really know if it’s illegal, but I think it is.)  I tried to explain that one reason is the possible genetic problems with the offspring, but she said they just trust God for the health of their children.

I have encountered this frequently in this part of the world—the idea of marrying within the same family.  Suzi said it makes sense as you know where the spouse comes from if they are from your family.  It is a risk to marry an outsider.  Her sister also married a cousin, and they have already, somewhat jokingly, arranged for Suzi’s daughter to marry the sister’s son, which is many years down the road considering they are both five now.

Even though Suzi married her cousin, she had never actually seen him until the wedding day!  His family has lived in Cairo his whole life and she grew up about 8 hours south and at one point when they were very young they saw each other, but not another time until the day of the wedding.  They got engaged over the phone and spent the following year planning things, and getting to know one another over the phone, before Suzi came to Cairo to get married to her cousin whom she had seen once in her life!  They have been married 7 years now and seem to be happy with the arrangement.

Children Sleeping

Another topic we covered was children sleeping.  We’ve talked about this each time we were together as Suzi cannot get over the fact that my girls go to bed at 7pm.  In Arabic there is a word specifically for “staying up late,” and Egyptians, in particular, are known for their love of the late night.  Especially in summer when kids are off school and the weather is so hot during the day, the streets will be busier at night with people enjoying a walk downtown or the view of the Nile.  As such we have to miss out on some of these late-night activities if we want to hold to the regular bedtime.

Today Suzi was trying to figure out how she could get her kids to sleep earlier.  As of now, her six-year old daughter sleeps at 2 or 3am, maybe midnight on an early night.  Apparently, she doesn’t struggle with being tired during the day, and is not too difficult to wake in the morning, but Suzi complained that sometimes she, as the mom, would like to go to bed earlier but can’t since her kids won’t.

How the kids fall asleep is another factor.  Suzi couldn’t get over the fact that I put Layla in her crib awake and she would just fall asleep.  She mentioned that they would rock their kids until they fell asleep and then lay them down.  I assured her that even in America, moms do different things with their kids, but I followed others who had success with this method and I really appreciated being able to not take the extra time to put the kids to sleep.

There are some downfalls to this, however, as my babies have always been used to sleeping in a crib. The few times I have wanted them to fall asleep on me or in another bed often didn’t work.  One nice thing about the sleeping habits of babies around here is that they can sleep anywhere!  Sometimes that could come in handy.

Besides the time factor, they have been working on getting the kids to sleep in their room without the parents.  Emma’s friend is scared to sleep without her mom and so Suzi will begin the night in the kids’ room before moving to her own room.  They have begun rewarding the kids for sleeping on their own.  The parents are ready to sleep and stay in their own room and let the kids be in theirs!  I suggested using a similar reward system to slowly move up the bedtime to a more reasonable hour.  I can’t imagine how the kids function going to bed so late, but besides that, I cherish those hours in the evening when the kids are in bed and I am still awake.  Somehow Suzi is cheerful and full of energy even though it seems she doesn’t get much time to herself.

Potty Training

Once we exhausted the sleeping topic, I thought I would ask about her method of potty training since I have heard very different ideas in the Middle East than I have in the states.  I asked her when she began potty training with her children and her answer was when they were about eight months old!  I guess when she noticed them going to the bathroom, she would quickly strip them and put them on a small child’s potty so they got used to the idea.  At night, of course, they would wear diapers as they had no control over nighttime toilet needs, but during the day, slowly, slowly, they would get used to the idea of using the potty.  It seems it may have been a long process but by the age of 1 ½, the children would be fully potty trained.

I asked why she did it this way, was it because diapers are expensive?  This is one of the reasons I heard in Jordan when I asked a friend who said she begins as soon as the child can walk.  Suzi said this is the way her mom did it except that she would begin as early as five months!  I shared with her that in the states, people may begin the process at 2 for girls, and 3 for boys (as a general figure).  She pointed out that kids will do what they learn and get used to.  This is what I had told her about sleeping: my girls are used to falling asleep on their own and sleeping early.  Her kids got used to using the potty at an earlier age and needed no daytime diapers by age 1 ½.

Two different cultures; two different ways of doing things.  We share so many things in common such as marriage and child rearing, but our methods vary greatly.  Who has it better?  Who does it better?  What can we learn from each other?

Family Julie

A Date on Public Transportation

The ubiquitous Cairo microbus

Last week Jayson and I got a chance to spend time together … just us.  Since it is summer in Egypt where the weather is not so conducive to lots of outdoor walking, and it was also Ramadan which means no stopping for water breaks, we decided to go hang out at a mall for awhile where we could walk around in air conditioning and enjoy a nice meal as well.  After settling the girls with a babysitter, we had five hours all to ourselves.  We decided to take the cheaper and more exciting way to the mall, rather than simply hop in a taxi for the 30-minute ride.

We got directions from our neighbor who works out by the mall and could tell us which microbuses to get on and where.  This is important since routes are not posted but one just has to learn from experience where these blue and white Volkswagen vans go.  This is definitely a cheaper way to travel, but often involves more time as you must wait until a van fills up before it starts on its route, and your destination may not be directly on its route.  As for us, we were supposed to walk 10 minutes to board the first minivan, then ride that to the end of the route where we were to walk a few minutes to find the next minivan to take us the rest of the way, dropping us off on the highway near the mall.  I say, “supposed to” because we only followed the first half of the directions.

We started off from our house and crossed the metro tracks a little earlier than normal just to try a different route.  We found that it was an interesting place to walk, but not necessarily the easiest route.  Our double stroller would not have fared well on some of the paths, so we were glad to be free of the baby gear for this trek.  We found the first microbus easily enough and boarded it to wait about 10 minutes before it filled up to leave.  It was warm out and the microbuses depend on open window a/c only, so we were hot at times, but I realized during the ride that it was better on the microbus for couple time, as at least here we would sit together.  In a taxi, Jayson sits up front and I’m in the back.  One point for the microbus!

We got to the end of the line and the others riding along let us know that this was the place to get off.  Jayson briefly asked one man to direct us to the next microbus going the direction of the mall.  We thought we could see which direction to go, but he insisted we go another way as he was going to the same area and would accompany us.  As we’ve learned in this culture, it’s not unusual for someone who is giving you directions, to actually walk with you to your destination to make sure you get there.  I hoped this man was actually going our direction, and not just going out of his way for us.  As we walked the 15 minutes between the last stop and our next vehicle, the man complimented Jayson on his Arabic and asked basic get-to-know-you questions.  He was friendly and surprised to find an American speaking his language so well.  He made a brief stop at a store and then we waved down a bus going our way.

Again, as is common to what we’ve found, this man who took us under his wing to show us where we were going also paid the bus fare for both of us when we boarded the bus.  He directed us to move forward in the bus and pointed out an empty seat for me.  Jayson exchanged phone numbers with him, his name was Anwar, and briefly asked him what time we would need to be sure to leave the mall in order to find a taxi before the fast-breaking time of day when life stops briefly for people to eat.  Anwar didn’t answer the question, but instead asked why in the world we would take a taxi when we could go by bus and microbus!  Truth is, these other modes are so much cheaper, but we also didn’t want to be late getting back to the girls.

Before long, we saw the mall on the side of the highway, but Anwar told us to wait until the bus turned off the road and actually let us off quite close to the entrance.  We thanked him for his help and got off the bus, amazed to realize that we both got this far for the mere cost of 1.50LE (about 30 cents).  We entered the mall and were refreshed by the air conditioning from the start.  We spent about three hours walking around, eating dinner, walking some more and ending our time there with some ice cream.  It was so nice to be able to start and finish conversations without interruption as well as have a leisurely meal without feeding anyone else!  A nice break from the norm!

We left the mall about an hour before we hoped to be home just in case we ran into trouble finding a taxi.  We had decided to take a taxi back thinking that would be simplest, but at the same time were open to other options if we found them.  Our friend had said it was hard to find a microbus coming back toward Maadi with empty seats and we didn’t want to stand by the highway and wait forever.  However, before we even climbed all the way to the highway we saw some maroon microbuses parked along the road.  Jayson asked if these were going to the area where we had switched modes of transportation before and they said yes.  So, we climbed in, waited a few minutes and took off, enjoying the breeze that took our breath away.

The intersection we were dropped in the middle of

Five minutes down the road, the van pulled over on the side of the highway, but no one made a move to get out.  Then I saw the driver looking at us in his rearview mirror and he told us this was our stop.  It wasn’t quite what we expected, but he pointed down the on-ramp and said the area we wanted was down there.  We kind of laughed together about this as we weren’t expecting to just be dropped on the side of the road, but the driver never said he actually goes to the drop-off area.  So we carefully walked down the on-ramp, admiring some grassy areas, overloaded trucks and people traffic as we walked.  Once at the bottom, we had some busy roads to cross before we arrived at another set of microbuses.

Overlooking scenic Cairo

These weren’t going into Maadi, but could drop us off near a metro stop, and so we agreed and climbed in the front.  It was fun to be riding in these areas that I don’t usually get to see.  We passed a several block section of marble/stone workers where there were large pieces of rock stacked up to sell.  There were many piles of various garbage and under one particular bridge there must have been about 20 old microbuses that were discarded there forever.  At one point, we pulled over to let people out and noticed a stairwell built that would take people directly to the other busy road underneath us.  This was one of those instances where it was reinforced that you have to know your route and where the microbuses go.  So many people were going up and down these stairs because they knew this is the place to find transport.

This wasn’t the place, however, where we got out.  We went a little further up and the driver pulled over and pointed out the metro station at the bottom of the on-ramp.  Once again, we got out and navigated our way down the side of the road, past the piles of garbage, the shop selling garden decorations and the graffiti-covered walls of the metro until we found the entrance to the station.  We briefly considered walking the 2 ½ stops to our house, but decided it may take too long and we don’t even know the way exactly.  So, we bought our tickets and sat on a bench until the metro came.

It was about 6:30 by this time and fast-breaking was approaching quickly.  Things were mostly quiet at the station and the metro itself wasn’t too full.  We boarded and found a seat and enjoyed the last leg of our journey.  At the stop before ours, someone threw something into the windows of our car.  Others around us distributed the small bag of 3 dates and we got them too.  As we exited the metro at our stop, we noticed a couple men filling cups and handing them out to metro passengers.  People give away a lot during Ramadan and this was one example we saw up close.

We completed our journey by walking the final 10 minutes to our house where our three girls happily played with our wonderful babysitter.  We had again made our way back for a pretty inexpensive amount, but even more importantly, enjoyed a little adventure together and saw a little more of this interesting city.

A sunset to end a romantic outing
Culture Family Julie

Motivational Strategy: Comparison

Emma loving the spotlight, Hannah shying away

I like many things about Egyptian culture, and am happy to be raising our children here, but one aspect of the way many Egyptians interact with children has been grating on me recently.  This is something I have noticed in Jordan, Tunisia and Egypt, so it may be safe to say it is a tendency across the Arab world to do this.  Before I mention it, let me remind the readers that we have found a tremendous welcome and interest in small children in every country we have been in.  I can’t count the number of strangers I’ve passed on the street who have verbally blessed our children, wanted to kiss them or give them lollipops.  In general, Arabs love children and aren’t afraid to show it.

And now for the flipside: we have often experienced that if children do not respond in a favorable way, no matter their age, they are told they are bad.  And this isn’t the big problem.  What I have usually witnessed goes something like this:

A stranger or friend greets baby Layla enthusiastically, and Layla reaches for her or smiles at her.  (This makes the stranger/friend very happy).

After this, the stranger/friend greets 3-year old Hannah just as enthusiastically, wanting a kiss or handshake from her, and Hannah promptly frowns at her, turns her head away and definitely does not reach to shake hands.  (This does not make the stranger/friend happy at all).

Inevitably, the response of the stranger/friend is, “inti wahash wa Layla kwayyisa.”  (Translation: you are bad and Layla is good.) 

Keep in mind that three-year old Hannah probably knows enough Arabic now to understand she has just been told by a stranger that she is bad but her baby sister is good.  And why?  Because she didn’t want to kiss someone she never saw before?  So how does that make her want to respond the next time?  Well, if it’s the same person, she probably still won’t care to kiss her.  If it is a different stranger, same story.  She is three years old and has sense of who she knows and who she doesn’t, and how she cares to interact with them by this point.  Being compared like this to her baby sister will not motivate her to change!

All that said, we are working with both Emma and Hannah to be polite to the adults that we interact with.  It is important in this culture to greet people and shake their hands.  Sometimes the problem is that when I convince the girls to be kind and return the handshake, they are then pulled in for a kiss on the cheek.  That’s not helpful for their learning process!  They don’t always feel like responding to people’s greetings, but again, as they are getting older, they need to politely respond and we are working on this.  But they don’t often want to smile and answer people who last time they saw them said they were bad!

The crazy thing is, I have been through this with each of the girls over the last couple years.  Emma was a friendly baby and smiled at strangers and they loved it.  Then she grew a little older and didn’t want to just go to anyone who held their arms out.  I think this is natural.  Problem is, by the time she reached that stage, her baby sister was the friendliest baby on the block and won everyone’s affections.  Then all of the sudden, Emma was “bad” and Hannah was “good.”  Now Hannah has grown some and has a friendly baby sister, Layla who gets all the compliments.

I’ve heard from others that this habit of comparing children to each other is quite common and can be quite damaging.  So far for the most part, these have been quick and minor occurrences, but I try to let the stranger/friend know that the older one was just as friendly when they were a baby.  And I try to talk to the older kid after the fact to be sure they aren’t getting negative messages from people.  Sometimes it is a fine line between being polite to adults, and having them take advantage of the kids.  As I said, I finally convince my girls to shake an adult’s hand, and then they pull them in for a kiss too …. again, a common form of greeting here, and one they can get used to.  But one I wish the adults would ask for and not just take.  Of course, I do have friends who are gentler with the kids, and these are the adults my kids like and feel comfortable with.  But it is something I have to watch and work on to correct the negative messages and reinforce the good.

Culture Family Julie

Uniform Shopping

Wearing her favorite pink dress, Emma celebrates her new school uniform

Yesterday we got to do an exciting getting-ready-for-school thing when we went to buy Emma’s uniform.  It is pretty standard here to have uniforms in school and hers is no different.  A couple of weeks ago the school told me where to go to buy one, and we’ve been waiting for a free afternoon to do just that.  I told Emma in the morning that we would go after lunch to get it, but reminded her that we have no choice when it comes to school uniforms.  Everyone wears the same thing, and we wear the uniform and colors that the school chooses.  I wanted her to be prepared for this because she is sometimes particular about clothes.  She has a favorite dress that she has worn everyday possible since February when she first got it as a hand-me-down.  It is short-sleeved so she had to wear a shirt and pants under it during America’s winter, but now it is at least weather-appropriate.  It has a few holes in it, but still she insists to wear it every time it is clean, which is basically every other day.  She even has favorite underwear and socks to go with it—all pink.  So you can see why I was concerned about her feelings on a school uniform.

We walked down the street to the uniform place and entered a small clothing store which pictured a school-uniformed girl outside.  There were at least 10 young men wearing the store’s vest and ready to help any customer who entered.  At the time, I was the only one along with my two little girls.  I think they were initially quite puzzled that this babbling half-Arabic speaker was buying a school uniform for an Egyptian school.  But I had memorized the things I was supposed to tell them…I need a uniform for Wadi Degla Language School, grade KG2.

I noticed neat stacks of different colored shirts on the shelves behind the counter, and a few of these stacks were pink.  I silently prayed that the pink was for the girls of this school.  But it didn’t take but a minute for the man helping me to put a mostly navy blue, with a red stripe and light blue stripe, polo shirt on the counter complete with a Wadi Degla emblem on it.  I reiterated that this was for a girl, but it seems that all the uniforms are the same for this school.  Emma was behind me but could see it, and yet didn’t complain.  She tried on a shirt to check the size and then we went into a dressing room to try on the navy blue pants which were much too long and a little baggy, but surprisingly fit around the waist.  Next she tried on the soccer warm-up that is the uniform for P.E. days.  I wanted to take her picture while we were doing this simply because buying a school uniform was a new thing, but the man told me cameras were forbidden in the store.  Not sure if they were afraid I would try to make a copy of the uniform or what, but I saved my picture for once we got out of the store.  (pic in stroller)  After we tried on the sweatsuit, which is Emma’s favorite part of the whole uniform, the man asked if I wanted to see the “sweater.”  I put this is quotes because while we were speaking Arabic the whole time, he used the English word here.  I said yes since this would be needed in winter and he brought out a fairly thick winter coat.  I was surprised at this but he assured me this would be needed in the winter.  I thought a sweater would be much more useful, but as they really weren’t trying to push multiple items on me throughout my time there, I didn’t feel they were just trying to “sell” me something.

At the end, we purchased one of everything we thought we would need for the year.  I didn’t want to go overboard, although now that I’ve left the store, I realize that I will really need another shirt and pair of pants since she will be wearing these five days a week.  Fortunately it isn’t too far for me to head back there.  I was a little surprised at the cost of this all, thinking some of the things more expensive than I expected.  I am pretty sure most schools in Egypt have uniforms, including the public schools.  I wondered how the cost for them varied since many Egyptians are quite poor, I didn’t think a school uniform should be a strain on their budget.  For all my purchases which included one pair of pants, one short-sleeved polo, one long-sleeved polo, one sweatsuit and one jacket, it cost me 600LE, or about $100.  I guess as I write this that isn’t too expensive to outfit my child for her whole school year, but I ‘m just not used to spending that much in one shopping trip!

This store also carried other school accessories such as backpacks, lunch boxes and thermoses.  Emma was sure to point out which of all of these things she wanted and Hannah chimed in on her desires too.  I thanked them for their suggestions but assured them they had good backpacks for this school year already and I would consider the lunch boxes if necessary.  We headed back home to show our new things to Daddy.

As we arrived home that day, Emma was talking excitedly about her uniform, and Hannah said, “but Emma, it’s black.”  I quickly shot Hannah a glance which meant, “Let’s not remind her of the dark color of the uniform,” and we entered the house.

Thankfully Emma is eager to wear her new uniform, especially the sweatsuit for P.E.  She is counting down the days until school starts, although is a bit distracted as her birthday comes first and requires its own countdown.  I realized I have a lot to learn about this whole uniform thing, and I’m sure, the Egyptian school system in general.  I just hope I send her to school on day one at the right time with the right things wearing the correct uniform.  She will already have enough differences to overcome; I don’t want to add to them!

The eager student
Family Julie

My School is Locked

Off to school and preschool

Emma and Hannah have been attending a local preschool here in Maadi, for the last two years.  Emma started just a few months after we arrived in Cairo, and Hannah joined her sister when she turned 2 ½.  One of the main reasons we chose to send the girls to preschool is to help them learn Arabic in a natural way.  We searched several preschools and found that many quality ones focused on teaching the kids English.  We wanted the quality and the good care associated with these preschools, but didn’t want the English teaching that was included.  We eventually found a preschool maintained by one of the local Coptic churches, which had a basic program, but caring teachers.  One of the most important factors for us was that the teachers and children were all Egyptian Arabic speakers.  We knew our girls would be immersed in the language.

At the beginning, Emma, then age 3+, didn’t really know any Arabic.  But since she was so young, we figured she would be able to function without language until she just assimilated into it.  I got encouraging reports from the teachers frequently as they told me that she was understanding them, then understanding the children and finally, communicating with the children in Arabic.  She didn’t speak with us in Arabic often, but we would try to gauge her understanding by asking her what she learned different days and different vocab words.

By the time Hannah joined Emma, I knew that the big sister would be able to communicate anything necessary for the little one.  Hannah was excited to join Emma as she went with me everytime I picked Emma up or dropped her off.  She already knew the teachers and some of the kids.  And so they both attended three days a week for half a day.

Volunteering in the classroom

Over the months, I got to know the teachers more and eventually did a little volunteer teaching in English/music once a week.  It was a fun challenge for me teaching preschoolers who don’t speak English.  It stretched my Arabic and gave me a chance to teach some fun things to my own girls too!  It was a good situation and we were happy to stick with it for Hannah once Emma enters school in the fall.

This was until a few weeks ago when I took Hannah into school in the morning and only the two aides were present.  They asked me if I had been to the parents’ meeting the night before and I told them I hadn’t heard there was one.  They then proceeded to tell me what was going on.

Apparently, one of the little girls in the class had gotten out of the classroom one day the previous week without the teachers noticing.  Now this classroom is located inside a building which is set back a ways from the main gate of the facility.  This building is by no means set up to be a preschool as it belongs to the villa-coffeeshop of the Coptic Church across the street, but it works.  I couldn’t quite understand from the conversation, all of it in Arabic, if the girl had just gotten out of the classroom, only to be apprehended by someone sitting in the coffeeshop portion of the facility, or if she made it all the way out the gate before being noticed by a passerby and then returned to the room.  There is a difference here, of course, as the second scenario is more serious especially given that a busy traffic circle is close to the gate, and also that a stranger returned her.  I am thinking this is what happened.  Praise the Lord there was no harm to the little girl, but you can imagine her parents’ fear and anger when they learned what happened.  This news quickly reached the school’s supervisor and then ultimately, the bishop in charge of preschools in the area.  By the time I talked with the teacher aides that morning, they were planning on all being fired even though some had served there for more than 20 years.

I was really sorry to hear this story and the plight of the teachers.  Yes, it is definitely an oversight which could have been catastrophic, but I don’t know where all the blame lies.  Ultimately, the teachers are responsible for each one of the children during the day, and so, the fault lies with them.  At the same time, they felt they were being taken to task without any chance for answering for themselves, or any consideration for their previous years of service.  I felt bad for them and told them I would give a good word for them if asked.

I immediately had the opportunity for this as I left the room that morning, leaving Hannah in the classroom with just a few other children whose parents either hadn’t heard the news or trusted the teachers anyway.  I ran into one of the men responsible for the preschool program and he told me the story once again after apologizing for not informing me of the parents’ meeting, but he didn’t have my phone number.  He was definitely upset with the teachers and said two things needed to be done: 1) reconfigure the classroom to keep the children contained, moving the bathroom within the facility; and 2) replace the teachers.  I did my best to support the teachers saying that if they fixed the first problem, then this shouldn’t happen again.  He didn’t seem convinced, but let me know the preschool would remain open the rest of the week before closing for a period of time.

Hannah finished out the week with the two teachers aides as the two teachers themselves refused to return to the place where they were being treated unfairly.  I was told that I could check back within about a month to see when they would re-open.  Or at least, that is what I understood them to say in Arabic.  By this time, Emma had begun a summer course, so she was at that five days a week, and now Hannah was home with me and Layla five days a week!  The first few days were rough for her as she couldn’t wait to go pick Emma up from school so she had a playmate!  It had been a long time since she wasn’t with Emma during the day, and she wasn’t sure what to do with herself.  We did get some quality time in, going shopping and cooking lunch, but I did have to restructure my day from what I was used to.

After a few weeks, I returned to the villa to check on the progress.  I ran into one of the teacher aides who was now working the cash register at the coffee shop.  The other aide had found work in the baby section of the preschool and the two teachers were hoping to open their own preschool within a couple months.  I was glad that there was some reshuffling rather than everyone being totally let go, but this aide told me that the preschool would not re-open at all.  That was a surprise to me, but that was the decision that was reached.  She then told me about the other preschool opening and gave me the teacher’s number.  I was glad to hear of that option as I really had developed a relationship with the other two teachers and the girls and I were all comfortable with them.

So that is where we are today.  After talking to the teacher on the phone, she said I can come see her new place in a couple weeks and decide if Hannah will attend or not.  In the meantime, I’ve told Emma and Hannah what happened at their old preschool, and they seem to understand to a point.  The other day, Hannah related the story to her grandmother this way: “My school is locked.  A kid got out and the policeman brought her back.”  Hopefully she can have a new school soon.

Culture Family Julie

Emma: A Cross-Cultural Self-Portrait

From our young artist

A few weeks ago, Emma drew her first self-portrait.  Actually, I think it was her first attempt at drawing a person at all, and she chose herself.  I’m not sure where this falls on the list of developmental milestones or if she is on track, but up until now she hasn’t drawn many things.  She likes to color and stays in the lines well, and usually likes to use many colors on her pictures.  She is working on writing her letters and numbers and can draw shapes and such, but pictures of things have been few.

The other day I went to pick her up from a church nursery and she proudly showed me her picture (on left).  She pointed out that she had very long hair and flowers on her dress.  I think her friend, Emma, who was in the same class may have drawn a self portrait as well, so maybe that is where the idea came from.  Since then, I have seen her draw herself two more times.  The last time is pictured on the right.  There have been a couple variations, but some things remained the same.

One of my favorite aspects of these pictures is the arms.  I love how they come out of her head, and am curious to know why this is, and also when she may notice that coming out of the sides might be more accurate.  One of the variations between pictures is her dress.  In her first picture, she drew a flowery dress, which is a normal thing for her to wear, especially as she basically wears nothing but dresses these days.  Her second picture she colored her very favorite dress on herself, or so she told me.  It looks a little red to me, rather than the actual pink color of the dress, but its close enough.  I thought the colors on this last drawing were interesting as they reminded me of Egypt’s colors, but I don’t think that went through her mind.

The one constant through all three of her self-portraits was her long hair.  You’ll notice that her hair is incredibly long in these pictures, reaching way down below her feet even!  It’s not the same color in both pictures, but I don’t know if that is a conscious choice.  I do think, however, that her drawings of very long hair are reflective of a struggle she is having.  She really really really wants long hair, but at this point, it is only medium-length.  She has fine, slow-growing hair.  I did cut the back a few times, over a year ago, as I thought it looked better a little on the shorter side, rather than long and thin.  But she has said many times that she doesn’t want it cut, and wants it to be long.  Sometimes her desire is to be like me, which often takes me by surprise.  Some days she wants a ponytail because “mommy has a ponytail.”  She doesn’t realize I just do it to keep cool and it’s something I can do quickly in the morning.  It’s all about practicality.  She just looks at my long hair and wants hers to be the same.  I think, though, that this desire for long hair is coming more from the children around her.

We are in Egypt, and most Egyptian girls have lots of long, thick hair.  They are born with a full head of hair and it grows quickly after that.  Mine are born with just some hair, and then it seems to take forever to grow.  Hannah is three and I can barely get a ponytail out of her hair, and I’ve never cut the back.  Emma’s is growing, very slowly, but it is something she notices that is different between her and the girls at school.  It doesn’t help the situation when one of the girls said to her the other day that her hair was short.  She took a real offense at that since short hair is for boys!  She didn’t come home crying about it, but she did think to bring it up to me and was quite upset when she recounted the remark.  I comforted her as best I could telling her I was sorry that hurt her feelings, and that probably most of the girls she sees here have  a lot of hair!  I assured her that one day her hair would be longer, but regardless of hair length, she was a beautiful girl.

When I saw her self-portrait that she drew tonight, and noticed the hair reaching beyond the floor once again, I remembered this comment of the schoolmate, and saw this picture as a little white fair-haired American girl trying to fit into the picture of girls she sees around her … dark, long-haired Egyptians.  I’m sure there will be many such drawings, conversations, stories, and tears throughout the years of us living cross-culturally as our girls try to fit into a place where they want to belong.  God, give us wisdom and the right words to comfort and encourage our little girls.


Family Julie

A Tale of Two Toddlers: On the Passing of my Grandfather

Halver Van Dame and Layla Casper

My Grandfather passed away yesterday and it brought to mind the last times we saw him in the early spring when we were visiting the States for a couple months.

My parents are empty-nesters, as all five children have married, moved out, and have kids of their own.  Much to my mom’s joy, they are all living within 20 minutes of each other, except for me who lives overseas.  A little over a year ago, their nest was refilled a bit, when they moved houses to accommodate my dad’s aging parents.  They found a house in a beautiful setting with a large back yard, which, most importantly, could allow for an in-law suite.  And so, my 96-year old grandmother who was in excellent health and had full mental capabilities moved in along with my 94-year old grandfather whose health was also decent, but who was suffering from dementia.  They were so happy with the arrangement, and proud of their two sons for making this work out for them.  My grandmother, though getting weaker, could care for my grandfather on a normal day.  But to be living with my parents gave them extra security should something happen to one of them.

Unfortunately, about two months after they moved in, my grandmother suffered a debilitating stroke which left her in the hospital and a nursing home for several months until she passed away on her 97th birthday.  She never regained her physical capabilities or her speech and eating functions.  This left my grandfather mainly under the care of my father.

About six months after my grandmother’s passing is when we arrived on the scene for a couple months.  We were able to observe daily life as my father now cared for his father, much the same way I care for my three-year old toddler.

The similarities were striking.  We would all eat dinner together, and much like I decided which food and how much went on my daughter’s plate, my father had to divvy out his father’s portions.  Sometimes my grandfather would reach to take more of one thing or another, but knowing his dietary and diabetic restrictions, my father would have to tell him no.  This reminded me of my limiting some of the less healthy things for my daughter.  I usually avoid talking about desserts or offering too many to my kids.  I personally love sweets, but they aren’t that good for me.  Why should I encourage my kids to regularly consume them?  It was the same with my grandfather.  Even though the freezer was filled with three different kinds of ice cream, both “toddlers,” were kept in the dark, for their own good.

Some of the more awkward parts of caring for a parent were also part of a normal day.  My grandfather is functional enough to go to the bathroom when he needs to or let my Dad know he needs help.  And yet, it is more a matter of routine now.  Before bed, my Dad will put my grandfather on the toilet and this is his time to go.  At night, he wears Depends, but unfortunately, these do not always do their job.  Many days when I was there, the sheets were stripped and washed for the next night.  My toddler has been potty trained for some time now, but she still has accidents, and I make it a point to tell her to get on the potty at times throughout the day.  She still wears diapers to bed.  She is basically able to take care of herself in this area, but needs some assistance.  The difference here is about 150 pounds.  She’s a lot easier to lift on and off than him.

My grandfather has a pretty simple routine during the day, not nearly involved as my toddler’s.  And yet, some of this routine involves playing Rummy.  After dinner, my mom, dad and grandfather often play a few hands of Rummy.  At times he forgets the rules or forgets what he is doing, but this is a game he played with my grandmother for years at every meal.  It is ingrained deep in his memory.  My toddler likes to play games, although hers are much simpler and more active.  One thing they do share in common here is the television.  While my grandfather sat in his living area of the house “watching” cartoons, my toddler would come into his room, climb up on the other recliner and watch right along with him.  In fact, my preschooler discovered her new favorite show while watching with him.

It’s hard to see my grandfather in this state.  He is a happy guy and his dementia has not made him mean.  We’re thankful for that.  He’s fairly easygoing.  But it is harder to watch all that my dad has to do for him.  It is a strange role reversal for my parents as my mom was the primary caregiver for their five children.  He takes the main responsibility for his dad.  This means he can’t be left alone.  Two days a week he goes to an adult daycare center.  He seems to enjoy this change of pace, and it allows my dad to play golf or run errands.  The other five days, dad is on 24 hours a day.  That’s not easy at retirement age.  It’s not easy to clean up a messy bed morning after morning.  It’s hard work lifting him on and off the toilet.  It’s constant responsibility for a 160 pound toddler.  It’s arranging for babysitters so they can go out on dates, or simply fulfill other responsibilities they have.

I never heard my dad complain.  This wasn’t what he expected when they moved in, as my grandmother was able to do much of this for him.  She was more so the one responsible.  But it is the reality of the situation, and he has accepted this task to care for his parent.  There are good things about Granddaddy not remembering things, as I’m sure it would be difficult to realize your own son was bathing you.  But there are hard things too as his life is kind of the same day after day and you wonder about the purpose in it.  And mentally, when you care for an aging parent, particularly with dementia, you worry about your own future and don’t wish to be in the same situation yourself.

When it was time for us to return to our home overseas, my grandfather was actually in a rehab center after spending a few days in the hospital for an infection.  We hadn’t said good-bye to him previously, so we made sure to stop by the rehab center on our way out of town.  He was sitting in a wheelchair as he had recently finished his therapy session.  I went in and said hi, reminded him who we were and told him we would be traveling again in a few days so we had come to say goodbye.  I thanked him for watching TV with the girls and told him about the favorite show they discovered with him.  In the meantime, the girls started getting distracted by the various “toys” in the room.  Their favorite was a pink ball.  As I got ready to tell them not to touch, the therapist said it was fine.  And so, before leaving, my two girls bounced the ball back and forth to my 95-year old “toddler” grandfather sitting in his wheelchair with a big smile on his face.  It was fun for all of them, and the best way to say good-bye.

With great-granddaughters, 'watching' cartoons
Family Julie

Too Much Homework

Two of the curriculum books at Emma's new school.

The middle of July is an odd time to be writing about too much homework, but our oldest, Emma, has just begun summer school and is having her first experience with homework.

This all started because we missed getting Emma into the school we had chosen for her last year.  In Egypt, the schools follow a British system where the children attend two years of kindergarten, KG1 and then KG2.  At many schools, children can begin as early as 3½, although the average age is probably 4.  At the school we preferred, however, they would not accept Emma last year even though she was 4 in September. Due to the high demand for that school, they accept only older children, only going as low as 4½ for KG1.  We didn’t mind this since our American system starts kids at age 5, we preferred waiting.  The problem came this spring when I went to register her at our chosen school.

We had left Egypt for a few months due to the revolution and shortly after we came back, I went to the school to confirm which papers I would need when I came to register her in the month of June.  It is well-known that the kindergarten registration in schools here is in June, so I figured going in May was getting a good jump on things.  However, when I went to the school, the secretary told me that the registration was done and closed; there were no more places.  I was so surprised and told them I thought registration was in June!  They seemed to confirm that that was the norm, but this year they did it in March.  They told me I could try calling them sometime in June, and if someone has withdrawn their registration, maybe Emma would have a chance.  I left the school wondering what we would do now!

I talked with many Egyptians in the next few weeks, all of whom confirmed that registration should be in the month of June.  Many questioned whether I understood the secretary correctly and encouraged me to return to the school.  Others asked if I knew anyone important who might help us get in even though they said classes are full.  The only people we knew were other parents at the school, but this was not good enough.  I went there three times and each time was told the same story.  The last time I went, the secretary told me to bring our next daughter in March if I wanted to register her for the following year.  It looked like we had to give up on that possibility, at least for this year.

In the meantime, we continued to look for other possibilities, but quickly learned that we had a problem.  Since we had “held Emma back” from starting due to the requirements of the one preferred school, she was now a whole year older than her potential classmates at most other schools we would choose.  I was told it would be best if she could skip KG1 and enter the second year of kindergarten in the fall.

Being a foreigner and having no experience with what KG1 entails, I had no idea if Emma could really skip a grade.  Our main concern was the Arabic that she would already be behind in.  The schools we were looking at were called “languages” schools and basically taught most of the subjects in English, while reserving the Arabic language for the subjects of Arabic, religion and social studies.  At the same time, we were trying to choose schools where the language of the kids would be Arabic.  This way Emma would be immersed in Arabic during recess and in the lunchroom with the goal of her being comfortably fluent in Arabic, as well as making Egyptian friends.  So she had a great advantage over most children as she would excel in the English-language subjects due to that being her native tongue; but we didn’t want her to immediately fall behind in Arabic.

One of the schools we found, and the one we are planning on her attending this fall, is called Degla Valley Language School.  One of the great benefits of this school is that it is one block from our house.  Not only does this make it easy to drop her off and pick her up, but it will hopefully make it easier for me to be involved in her school in some way.  I am not looking to teach anything, although being a native English speaker I could easily get a job. I want to be able to interact with her teachers and really be on top of what is going on in her school.  Of course location is only one factor to consider.  We visited the school and felt the facilities were not as good as the preferred school, but were decent.  We liked that the kindergarten section of the school is separate from the older grades which will help with kid-traffic as well as be less intimidating for the little ones.  The program and curriculum looked modern and thorough, and the staff was friendly.

Another benefit of this school was the built-in possibility for Emma to skip KG1 by doing one or two months of a summer course.  For some reason, this school offers the option to parents to enroll their children in the summer course in lieu of KG1.  I haven’t had a chance to ask the other parents why they would choose this route; we are only doing it because of extenuating circumstances.  But Emma has about 10-15 kids in class with her, all seemingly looking to skip their first year.  And this is where the homework comes in.

It seems that the children learn the Arabic and English alphabets as well as their numbers, colors and shapes, during KG1.  Learning the letters means writing the letters, and that is most of the homework that Emma has brought home.  She is not so overwhelmed by writing the English letters, but every day that she has Arabic class, she has to write a new letter along with the three vowels of Arabic, and it turns out to be a bit much.  I am trying to learn what motivates her to help her push through and finish her homework each day.  It has been an adjustment going from the carefree life of preschool to five days a week “real” school with homework.  And it may not help that the weather is usually in the 80s or 90s by the time we are finished lunch and ready to begin the homework.

All in all it’s been a positive experience, but I’m sure we have just as much to learn as Emma does.  She will be learning her ABCs and 123s while we learn how exactly this Egyptian school system works.  For example, I was impressed when I saw the school assignment book that Emma brought home the first day, but a bit amused by the way they wrote her name on the front.

Should read: Emma Jayson, but foreign names are difficult.

In Egypt, everyone, girls included, uses their father’s name as their second name.  Therefore, Emma is known as Emma Jayson in her school.  Both names are foreign to them, but now they have seen them written by me, and at least spell Emma right on her crafts.

Emma’s daily schedule was posted in her book and it let me know which subjects and which “specials” she would have each day.  She has English, math and Arabic three times a week as her subjects, and then other things like swimming, cooking, music and art.  However, I’ve learned that cooking and art don’t mean the kids do anything in those areas.  Rather, on Art day, Emma brought home a really cute Elephant bag which the teacher gave her at the end of the day. She didn’t even watch them make it.  And when Emma complained that they didn’t do any cooking on the designated day, I asked the teacher the morning of the next cooking day what was in store.  She said they would be making pizza that day.  I asked if the kids help make it or if they just eat it, and she confirmed my guess that they just eat it.  So really it should be called “special snack” day, rather than “cooking.”

Teacher-made elephant bag.

So we are only beginning our journey here, and I am sure there will be more blog posts on the subject of school as we go down this road.  For now, we are working on the alphabets and trying to keep cool as Emma completes her first year of school in two months.  Guess that justifies all the homework!

Culture Family Julie

Whose Wedding is it Anyway?

Last night Emma and Hannah were in their first Egyptian wedding as “ashbiinaat.”  This is basically the equivalent of the western “flower girl” or “ring bearer.”  I still can’t tell you the name of the bride or the groom, but I can tell you how it came about and how it played out.

About three weeks ago, one of the Sunday School teachers at the Arabic Evangelical Church of Maadi approached me to ask if Emma could be in the wedding of a fellow teacher.  She mentioned the name of the teacher, but said she wasn’t present that day so she couldn’t introduce me.  I told the teacher that I would ask Emma, but didn’t think she would want to be in the wedding as she had recently been saying she didn’t want to be in any weddings.  Both girls had preformed beautifully as flower girls in their Uncle Aaron’s wedding last fall, but Emma had decided she didn’t like the attention and chose not to be in any more weddings.  I promised the teacher I would talk about it with Emma, and as long as the white dress still fit from the previous wedding, I had no objection to her taking part.

Emma surprised me by quickly agreeing to be in this wedding and once we tried on the dress and learned that both hers and Hannah’s still fit, I took that information to the teacher the following week at Sunday School.  I cautioned that while Emma agreed, she may change her mind under pressure as everyone is staring at her, taking pictures and getting in her face.  I suggested that if there was trouble, maybe Hannah could join her at that moment and it might make Emma feel more comfortable.  I really wasn’t trying to push for Hannah to be in the wedding, but who knows how they understood it.  In any case, she came back to me a few minutes later, after talking with the bride, and they wanted both girls to now be in the wedding.  At this point I got to meet the bride, who I kind of recognized as one of the teachers, but I can’t remember her name now.  I still don’t really know why she asked Emma to be in the wedding, as she has no relationship with her; I can only assume she wanted a cute foreign kid in her wedding.  And now she had two!

The wedding took place on Sunday night, the day after our enjoyable, yet long, rihla to Anafora.  The girls had both gone to preschool that day, then had lunch, then Emma did her homework, and then they played outside a bit before it was time for dinner and getting in their white dresses.  Both girls were excited about their role and telling our neighbors all about it.  The wedding was supposed to start at 6:00, and we were told to arrive between 5:30 and 5:45.  Being the punctual foreigners, we ate dinner, dressed the girls, combed their hair, and hopped in a taxi, arriving at the church around 5:35.  The florists were there decorating the church and the videographer and photographer looked to be present, but there wasn’t any sign of anyone else, let alone the organizers.  I had the girls sit down on the white aisle runner and snapped a few pictures before anyone arrived.

And then we waited, and waited, and waited.  People very slowly started arriving, and Emma and Hannah danced around outside as Layla toddled around inside the church.  As it got closer to 6:00, and it became obvious that this was not going to start on time, Jayson and I wondered about allowing our girls to be in weddings of people we don’t know.  It’s one thing to do this for friends or acquaintances, but strangers?

As we waited for more people to come, we watched the road for signs of the bride’s car.  Emma and Hannah practiced their Egyptian wedding call, which is called the “zigruut.”  It involves moving your tongue back and forth inside your mouth very rapidly while making noise. I’m sure they will be experts at this by the time they are 8, if not earlier.

You may notice that Emma and Hannah have their hair in pigtails.  Perhaps this isn’t the dressiest thing to do with hair, but I am not the best when it comes to styling hair.  Also, the girls’ hair is fine and light so   I don’t feel like there is much I can do with it.  So, for something different, I put it in pigtails.  This is their last picture in pigtails, because when the bridesmaid, Miss Mary, arrived, she asked me to let their hair down.  Emma’s worked okay, despite the fact that I had no comb with me.  But poor Hannah has very little hair in the back, and once it is in pigtails, it keeps that shape for a long time!

It was about 5:50 when Miss Mary arrived and explained to the girls exactly how to walk with her.  It turns out there were other children in the wedding as well, and they would all walk in formation with the one bridesmaid who would be accompanying the bride from the car, up the stairs, and into the church.  Once they got into the church, the role of the children was over.

As we waited for the bride to arrive, the many children who were attending the event, posed for pictures with some of the Sunday school teachers who were also present.

And then, finally, we heard the familiar “honk—honk—honk-honk-honk” of the bride’s car as it approached the front of the church.

The kids lined up with Miss Mary to welcome the bride.

Emma had told me she would smile nicely for the wedding, and I especially notice it in this picture as that is not her natural look.  I also notice that this is when Hannah really started to fade.  Due to the long trip the previous day, she was wiped out and ready for bed already.  She did make it all the way to the inside of the church, but just barely.

As the bride exited the car, led by her father, I barely recognized her as the woman I spoke with two weeks prior.  For one, her hair had been brown, and she wore glasses.  The amount of make-up was quite different from her normal look as well.  This is all to be expected on the wedding day, but the change of hair color really threw me.  The kids lined up in front of the bride, ready to lead her up the stairs.  All the guests surrounded the procession and the big mob moved into the back of the sanctuary.

At this point, Miss Mary and the kids stopped as the bride and groom continued to the front stage.  Emma and Hannah came back to me and they were free to do as they pleased.  Hannah, who was very tired, chose to sit with us, which quickly turned to lying down on a pew.  Emma, who was still excited about the whole wedding thing, wanted to sit in the front where she could see better.  I let her go, figuring she would behave well.  I also realized that these weddings are different from our traditional western weddings where the wedding party and pastor may be on stage, but everyone else is sitting in the pews.  Perhaps the photographer or videographer move about inconspicuously, but as much as possible, no one blocks the view of the bride.  You may be able to see from this picture that these events are much more informal as some gather as close to the stage as they can.  Also, the pictures and video of the wedding is of utmost importance, and the professionals do not need to stay out of sight.

Among the crowd, the groom is standing on the right edge of the photo, and the bride is next to him, outside the frame.

Emma spent most of the ceremony as close as she could to the bride.  At one point, Jayson went to the front to take pictures and told me she was standing next to the iconostasis.  I couldn’t believe she felt comfortable up front and center where all the attention was focused.  Perhaps because it was her choice to be there, she felt okay.  I also wondered if it was okay with the bride that Emma was right next to her.  I was told later that it was no problem.

Around 6:30, Jayson took Hannah home to put her to bed, and I pushed Layla around the church in the stroller to keep her content.  Emma came to the back of the church about 5 minutes before the ceremony ended and told me that she now wanted to play outside, as many of the other kids were doing.  She also wanted chips like the other kids.  So, we took one last picture with three of her teachers (at top of post) and bought a bag of chips for the taxi ride home.  She had done a great job in performing her duty, and even enjoyed a close-up view of the ceremony.  Now it was time to have a snack and get home to bed as she returned to being a normal schoolgirl the next morning.  Maybe one day we will learn the names of the bride and groom, but until then, we’ll be thankful it was a good experience for our girls.

Family Julie

An Egyptian ‘Rihla’ (Outing)

Last Saturday, our family of five joined a busload of Egyptians for an all-day trip to two monasteries.  This was the first trip we took like this since Layla joined our family a year ago, but Jayson has traveled with many from this group on several.  While these outings are great opportunities to see different parts of Egypt and also to interact with Egyptians on a deeper level, being out all day long with three young children can also be exhausting.  We often have to weigh these two thoughts to determine if a “rihla” is worth taking.  Obviously, we decided to be adventurous and give it a go this time.

Here is a little glimpse into our family’s experience on this latest rihla.

The bus was to leave from the bishopric church in Kozzika, just south of Maadi, by 6:45am.  We assumed that the bus would not leave on time as punctuality is not the most important trait of the Egyptian culture.  However, being the foreigners in the group, and not totally sure how late we could be, we opted to follow our Western ways and be there on time.  Sure enough, we were among the few who arrived on time.  The bus didn’t leave until around 7:30am, although I did hear others complain about not leaving on time.  These “others” however, were not at the meeting place at 6:45, so I’m not sure why they complained.  The fact that we left late didn’t really bother us since we expected it.  And actually, our two older girls enjoyed running around the church grounds as we waited, and being one of the first to arrive allowed us to choose the front seats of the bus to try to prevent the frequent car-sickness our girls’ exhibit.  Further, leaving later actually lined up better for our one-year old’s morning nap which she easily took in her car seat.

Our first stop of the day was to a monastery/retreat center called Anafora, which we learned means “sacrifice.” We had heard of this spot from foreigner friends who sometimes frequent the place for two to three day retreats with their families.  We even heard there was a pool which is sometimes suitable for swimming.  I wasn’t sure what to expect with this so I packed the bathing suits, but didn’t mention the possibility to the girls ahead of time.  This turned out to be a good idea since we never did see the pool to know if it was filled and clean for swimming.

Our first event of the day was mass in the church at Anafora.  At first I wasn’t sure if I would sit through the mass with an active one-year old in my lap, but it turned out to be the best place for our not-yet-walker to crawl around.  The whole place was carpeted with small, colorful carpets.

Inside the Sanctuary

It was a simple, yet beautiful building to take in.  Our two older girls enjoyed playing with their Egyptian peers in various ways throughout the mass, as I continuously looked toward their Egyptian parents to see if our girls were overstepping the expected norms.  Hannah was enjoying conversation with a group of kids, and at times laughed out loud during mass.

Surrounded by friends

At other times, Emma and Hannah were running and skipping around the back of the sanctuary with two Egyptian 3½ year olds from our group.  It didn’t seem to faze anyone too much, but I guess I am just used to Western expectations of children in church services.  I was so glad they were playing happily with the other kids; this is just what I hoped for.  However, I really wanted them to wait until AFTER mass was over.

Urging the kids to 'shhhh'

Meanwhile, Layla kept busy crawling and climbing and being picked up by total strangers.  And a few times, she even visited her Daddy on the men’s side of the church.

Keeping one still

When the mass ended, I told the girls they could finally run around.  But once again they had to sit as a woman briefly shared about the church building.

Taking in a lecture

Following mass, I assumed we would eat breakfast.  It is the Orthodox practice to fast until after communion.  This meant that most of those in our group had not eaten breakfast yet and it was now 10:30 in the morning.  I learned, however, that we would first visit the gift shop before eating.  This was followed by another surprise when Jayson told me we were getting back on the bus to drive somewhere else for breakfast.  This was unexpected as I thought the plan was to spend a few hours in this first monastery.  We soon learned that we were just going down the road slightly to another part of this monastery where we would eat breakfast and hang out for a few hours.

The other part of the compound was nice in many ways, but not great for the not-yet-walker.  There was no inside clean floor for her to crawl around on, and so she was a bit limited in her movement.  This part of the complex had a large courtyard surrounded by a shaded area where the tables and chairs were.

Entering the courtyard

This is where we ate breakfast, some listened to a lecture, and kids played.

Fun in open space

By about 2:30, we were ready to head to the second monastery of the day, about a 45-minute drive by bus.  This lined up perfectly with Layla’s afternoon nap, although wasn’t quite as long as I would have preferred.  Still, I was thankful for any sleep she had that day.  We had visited this second monastery before and remembered that the church here was also carpeted.  We figured this is where I could hang out with the kids even as Jayson attended a second lecture of the day.  We arrived at the St. Toma monastery shortly after 3pm.

St. Toma Monastery

I carried Layla in her car seat into the church with hopes that she would sleep longer, but to no avail.  Still, it was a carpeted place where she could crawl around for awhile.  Unfortunately, the two older girls saw a lot of open space and just assumed they could run back and forth.

The monastery sanctuary

Again, being the foreigner, I wasn’t sure what was appropriate, but it didn’t seem quite right to be so playful in the church building.  Many others, after all, were walking around and looking at the icons contemplatively.  I didn’t want our foreigner kids disturbing them.  We soon learned that they shouldn’t be running and playing, and they were sent with the adults to an outside open space where they could play while the second lecture took place.  I stayed in the church for another half hour or so with Layla since she was much less obtrusive in her playing around.

Following the lecture, it was time for lunch.  For us, it was basically dinner time since it was almost 5pm.  The girls had been having a great time all day running and playing with the other kids from the group.  One of the great things about the monasteries is that they provide lots of open space where you can feel safe letting the kids run around without them being able to get lost.  The girls got lots of exercise and made some new friends, and this was great to watch.  Had Layla been able to move around on her feet more, the trip would have been even more enjoyable.  As it was, we found creative ways to let Layla move in relatively clean environments.

But back to lunch/dinner.  The man who organizes these trips often likes to bring the meals with him rather than get them from the monasteries.  We aren’t sure why this is, but he sometimes arranges delicious food, and other times, we aren’t so sure.  This was one of those “not so sure” times.  Our meals were packaged on a Styrofoam plate wrapped in plastic wrap.

Chicken, hamburger, mincemeat-between-baked bread, cucumbers - all likely a day old

The food was not too bad, but the main question was, how safe was it?  We had no idea when it was cooked or how it could possibly be stored safely as we had been out and about since 7am that morning.  But we had eaten this food before and not had any trouble, so we dug in again.  We didn’t force the girls to eat too much of it, but they ate their fair share.

We finished our lunch/dinner and washed up and expected to be heading out shortly.  However, when I asked what time we would leave, he told me 6:15.  This was a little disappointing as I thought we were aiming to arrive back in Maadi around 7, but once again, we try not to expect anything too hard and fast.  Jayson disappeared for awhile with Layla and when I called him on his cell to locate him, he told me he was talking with a resident of the monastery.  I enjoyed the respite from holding and occupying Layla and enjoyed watching Emma and Hannah play with their new friends. (video clip)

When the bus did finally pull out of the monastery around 6:30, I settled in for a comfortable ride.  Layla did not need much coaxing to fall asleep in her car seat once again, and Hannah was out pretty quickly too.  Unforunately, the ride home took much longer than the morning ride as Cairo traffic added at least an hour to our trip and our family of five stumbled wearily into our home around 9:30pm.  I quickly got Layla ready for bed while Jayson tucked Emma and Hannah in, and all three were sound asleep within minutes.  It was a full and exhausting day on our Egyptian rihla.

Family Julie

Expectations in Maghagha

note: About a week before the revolution, our family took a trip to Maghagha in Upper Egypt. Whereas normally we would have liked to post about our experiences shortly after returning, events took a turn that did not allow much time for reflection. Two months later, Julie is finally able to share our experiences, with quite a few pictures as well.

I am learning more and more that I am not a very flexible person.  I like my schedule, knowing where I will be and what I will be doing, keeping my kids on a normal sleep schedule and having an idea of what is around the next bend.  Sometimes, though, we all know that life isn’t dependable.  This may be compounded by living in another culture, and is especially the case when we take trips out of Cairo.

A year ago, during Coptic Christmas, we traveled for the first time to Upper Egypt, to the town of Maghagha, to stay with a priest’s family for four days.  This priest is a friend of Jayson’s work, and he graciously offered to host us for an “out-of-Cairo” experience.  We learned a lot while there and really enjoyed getting to know his family, and as is always the case with such hospitable Egyptians, the invitation to return was put forth multiple times.

We finally had the chance to return last week for the Orthodox celebration of Jesus’ baptism, or eid il-ghataas.  Since we visited many of the Holy Family sites last year (parts one, two, and three), I imagined that this visit would be more casual and relaxed.  I thought that while Jayson might go out and about with the priest, the girls and I would hang out at the house, talking with the women and learning more about their lives in this Upper Egyptian city.  However, I was in for three surprises.

The first one came as soon as we arrived.  The train ride was fairly uneventful, but our seven-month old Layla, was definitely ready for a nap by the time we pulled into the station.  I was keeping her awake imagining we would be at their home soon so I could set up her crib, and she could get a normal nap while we got reacquainted with the family. Instead, as we were loading the car, Jayson informed me we would be going directly to the village, about 20 minutes away, where the priest’s church is.  I deduced this meant we would spend the whole day there, including the four-hour service at night which ends at midnight.  I was not a happy camper on the ride to the village!

I was right about spending the entire day and half the night at the church, and there were some periods of stress while there, but all in all, it was not so bad.  Layla napped in the car and later on the floor of a reception room we had to ourselves for the day.  We tried to get Emma and Hannah to nap while watching a movie, but the electricity went off and the movie stopped working.  However, they were fairly content to wander around the church grounds, mingling some with the people there, coloring, exploring the church and checking in on Daddy as he talked to various people.

We had an opportunity to visit the mayor of the village’s sister’s house which was a very interesting building to see, and even observed something new at the mass that evening.  There was an added element of water to commemorate Jesus’ baptism.  The priest went around with a towel soaked in the water and touched each congregant’s head with it. The bottles were taken home by people to use and mix in their normal consumption.

Layla slept almost the whole service, and Hannah slept about half the time.  Despite being about the opposite of what I had expected that day, it didn’t turn out so bad.

The night was a little challenging as we returned to the priest’s house around 11:00pm and after greeting the family members, I got the room and crib ready for sleeping as quickly as I could.  Layla transferred to her crib well, but really struggled with sleep for several hours, and ended up sleeping in our bed to give me some shut-eye, and not wake up the rest of the house.  Emma and Hannah joined us for the midnight meal before they went to bed and actually slept well.

It was great seeing this family again, and meeting the newest member, one-month old grandson, Jason. The mom informed us they named the boy after my husband.

After a leisurely morning, we drove to another priest’s house to spend some time with his family of four.  We had a meal with them during our visit last year, and planned to do the same this time.  Just before our host priest dropped us off, however, he mentioned he would be going to the local hospital for some tests on his heart.  He then planned to pick us up and take the girls and I back to hang out at his home while he and Jayson saw some more sites.  I was very happy with this arrangement as I was hoping to give Layla a normal day so that we could all have a normal night.  I figured we would be at visiting the second priest’s family for about 4 hours, leaving us plenty of time to get all three girls in bed much closer to their 7pm bedtime.

However, such perfectly laid plans were not to be.  We had a good time with the family as we visited with his wife, two children, and some extended relatives.  They were typically hospitable serving us tea upon our arrival and again about an hour later, followed by a delicious meal that was more than we could eat, after which we had bananas, oranges and more tea.  Meanwhile, the kids were having a great time together once our girls warmed up.

It was fun watching Emma speak with the kids in Arabic and really be able to communicate together with them.  I was glad they were enjoying themselves, and it freed me to be with Layla and also visit with the family members.

After about five hours, I started getting a little uptight.  I wondered what happened to the priest and why he wasn’t calling to come pick us up.  I’m sad to say that he wasn’t my main concern, but the clock was ticking and I really wanted to get Layla in her bed early.  Around 6:30 or so, he called and informed us that he would travel to Cairo the next day for a heart procedure so we should stay with the other priest for the night.  Once again, my main concern was for my own little family as I realized that this restless baby would not be in her bed anytime soon!  I thought also of the priest, and was concerned for his health, but my face gave away my frustration at this surprise number two.  By the time we would get our things from the other house and move them here, it would be well past the normal bedtime.  Unfortunately, our new hosts read my face and asked if I was unhappy to stay with them.  I tried to explain that I was very happy to stay with them, but I just needed to get my kids in bed.  It sounded hollow, and I felt bad to have offended them.  For one, most Egyptians think our child-rearing methods are very strange, particularly in the way we feed the kids, and the way they sleep so early.  So they couldn’t understand my concern about the hour, after all, it was only 7pm – not late at all!  Secondly, earlier they had mentioned how they wanted us to stay with them on our next visit, and so they were very excited about hosting us, even though it was a surprise to them too.  To see my visible disappointment was probably quite hurtful.

And once again, this surprise turned out to be better than expected.  Layla did not get into her own bed by 7pm, but at this apartment, the bedrooms were set in the back of the house, away from the living room.  The other apartment was difficult for sleeping because the living room, with all of its noise and light, was just a doorway away from my children who were supposed to be sleeping.  Also, while we really enjoyed our original host’s family, he didn’t have any young kids.  This house came complete with a nine-year old girl and five-year-old boy, and my two girls played happily with them for the next 24 hours.  We all slept better that night, and got some decent rest for the third surprise the next day.

The plan the next day was to visit the younger priest’s father in a nearby village.  This sounded like a nice idea, and through conversation I discovered that even though he is in his 80s, he still farms his fields every day.  Jayson told me we would visit him on the farm, and for some reason, I pictured a nice farmhouse to sit in while the girls ran through the fields.  What a nice treat after living in the city.

When we arrived at the priest’s father’s plot of land, I realized I was right in half of my thinking.  We were surrounded by green fields in every direction—a site for sore eyes coming from the smog of Cairo.

But the surprise was that there was no farmhouse to speak of.  Instead there was a small stone structure built on his land, but the house where he slept at night was a distance away.  So, we had a very casual visit, sitting on bamboo sticks, a log, a white folding chair and a large cloth bag.

Fortunately I had brought Layla’s car seat so she could be contained in a clean place.  But feeding her and trying to encourage the girls not to step in any animal droppings, and then wondering just how long we would be visiting here as Layla’s naptime came and she started to cry heightened my frustrations.

And yet once again, there is a bright side to all of this.  Our girls did enjoy walking through the fields with their friends.  Emma saw a water wheel that irrigates the land.

All four kids rode on a donkey.

Jayson got to learn more about a village farmer’s life from the 80 year old man.  And for some reason, Layla fell asleep on my shoulder—something that rarely ever happens.  We got to breathe some fresh air and bask in the green of the land.  And in typical Egyptian fashion, we were even served tea, cooked over a fire, as well as bread with cheese.

You just can’t beat Egyptian hospitality.

In some ways, it was a trying and tiring trip, mainly as I was concerned with the behavior and schedules of our three little ones.  But overall, the girls did well being flexible with eating and sleeping, and got to have some new experiences.  As for me, looking back has helped me see the good things that come with surprises, and will help me remember in the future to be a little more flexible, and expect great things.

Current Events Family Julie

Too Far Away to Celebrate

February 11, 2011 is a day that will go down in history.  The man who has been president of Egypt for 30 years finally took the cue from his people after 18 days of protests and stepped down.  Having lived in Egypt for the past 18 months, we were heavily invested in this story. We rejoice with the Egyptian people at what they have accomplished and how they have accomplished it.  We admire their steadfastness and their commitment to peace over these last two weeks.  And we quietly mourned as we watched the celebrations because we were not there to join them on this joyous day.

In some ways, this is a very selfish reaction.  How can we possibly mourn when the people that we have come to love and identify with are rejoicing?  At the same time, this may show some of the depth to which we wish to belong to them.  How could we leave them in the midst of their suffering?  As Jayson said, “If we didn’t stay with them in their suffering, we don’t deserve to celebrate.”  He agrees this may not be the truth exactly, but it sums up how we feel.

The last 18 days have been an interesting journey for our family.  We anticipated the first day of protests on January 25, police day. We didn’t really know what to expect.  We had followed the events in Tunisia with interest because we had lived there previously and had many friends there.  We were excited for their successes, but also glad not to have been stuck in some of the unrest that took place.  We didn’t really know what might happen in Egypt; would this day be an isolated incident?  And so, we listened to our neighbors and friends and followed the Twitter feed to see what was happening in Tahrir Square on that first day.  More or less, the day went by without too much hype.  Many people showed up for protests in a few parts of Egypt, and most of the population went on with life as normal.  Wednesday morning came, Jayson went to work, the girls went to preschool, and I went shopping.  Would this fizzle out?  Was this a one-time event that didn’t have much effect?

On Thursday we started to hear about the call for nationwide protests following Friday prayers.  There was a hope that people would leave their mosques on Friday and join the protests all over the country.  Again, we weren’t sure what to expect, but we noticed more fear this time among some of our Egyptian friends.  Emma’s afternoon Sunday School class was cancelled in anticipation of the unknown.  I went to a choir practice on Thursday night at our local Coptic church, and while I didn’t understand all the Arabic conversation going around, I definitely sensed fear that things could get out of hand.

Friday morning was the first day of the blacked-out internet.  Not only that, but all cell phones were shut off for the entire day too.  We went to church in the morning as normal, but the crowds were definitely smaller and the priests were urging the people to go straight to their homes following mass, as we didn’t know what would happen by noon.  We obeyed the edict and made ourselves comfortable inside our house.  We have a large mosque right across the street from our house and we noticed the police barricades and extra officers stationed in the area.  Jayson was interested in seeing first-hand what might happen, and walked out the door around 1pm to watch what was coming.  The girls and I stayed inside, watched movies and played.  We didn’t hear anything unusual outside when the prayers were ending, so I figured this thing that was hyped up basically fizzled out before it started.  However, I learned more later after Jayson was able to go along with the protesters and witness both the peacefulness and some of the conflict that occurred when they met up with the riot police.

While he was with the protesters, I was with the girls hanging out in our house.  I actually felt pretty isolated because the internet and cell phones were off; I had no way of communicating with anyone, or finding out what was happening outside of our house. After a few hours, I packed the girls up in our stroller and walked down the street to a friend’s house.  We had planned to have dinner and a playdate with them that evening, so we kept the appointment even though I couldn’t contact them to confirm.  My friend was home alone with her boys as her husband had been out of the country when the unrest began and was unable to get back into Egypt.  She felt for me as well since there was no way for me to contact Jayson in the last four hours since he left the house.  It was comforting to have some fellowship as the kids played together, unaware of both the personal and national events taking place around them.

Fortunately, the TV wasn’t shut down by the government, so we could follow the events through CNN and al-Jazeera English.  We watched as Tahrir Square filled up more and more, as violence increased in clashes with police, and as ultimately, the army rolled into the square and the police disappeared!  It was a little scary to watch as we heard news of tear gas and water cannons, and watched the NDP building burning.  It seemed that things were getting out of control, and even though the square was not that close to our homes in Maadi, we didn’t know how the effects would trickle down.  I was greatly relieved when a little while later, Jayson showed up at the door.  We watched the news together, he ate some dinner, and we packed up to walk back to our house even though it was past the newly established 6pm curfew.

The next few days were a bit crazy, but we did settle into somewhat of a routine.  In the mornings and early afternoons, we tried to get out of the house and walk around our neighborhood.  Jayson went out of his way to say thank-you to the local militia who had organized themselves to protect the houses and shops in the area.  We saw some of the burned out cars and broken glass that were the result of the looting and fighting that was occurring during curfew hours.

I did some shopping and saw most of the shops closed down and boarded up to prevent looting.

The few stores that were opened reminded me of the pre-snow rushes that we’re familiar with in New Jersey when news of a big storm comes.  We tried to schedule play dates for the girls each morning as the preschool was closed and some of our friends were feeling the strain of broken routines with their kids stuck inside all day.  Not only did the kids enjoy the company, but being able to talk together with the other moms was comforting.  We all had our news, stories and questions for each other.  Once the cell phone service resumed, I tried to call many of my friends, both Egyptians and foreigners, to see how they were weathering this storm.  My Egyptian friends thanked me for the call, made sure we were all okay, reminded me NOT to open the door in our home for any stranger, and seemed a little nervous about where things were headed.  Many of my foreign friends were making plans to leave the country as the US started sending evacuation planes for any citizens who wanted to leave.  It was a disconcerting time as we tried to weigh what we should do in this situation.  We felt safe, but more and more people seemed to be leaving, and the protests had a different flavor each day.  It was confusing.

Our curfew times were spent inside the house of course.  Some days this started at 5pm, other days it was 3pm.  People in our building were intent on securing the place and making sure we were all safe.

Some friends who lived closer to a more volatile area in Maadi came to stay with us for two nights before they left Egypt.  The camaraderie was nice.  Jayson took periodic trips upstairs to our neighbor’s house to watch the news as the internet was still off and we had no television.  One night we were warned that the water would be shut off in half an hour, so while trying to get our very tired girls into bed, we were also filling every container we could find with water.  Cooking was tricky as we tried to conserve food in case grocery stores started to run out of food, while at the same time use up perishables in case the electricity was shut off.  We tried not to eat too much food, but didn’t want to waste food if we ended up leaving the country quickly.  For someone who likes to plan ahead, it was hard to not be able to do that.

Jayson had a great experience on Tuesday when he visited Tahrir Square and got to witness first-hand the peaceful and unified protesters.  He really got to feel the spirit of the Egyptians who were gathered in the square … some for the first time, and others who hadn’t left for several days.  He saw the signs and heard the slogans, noticed the families having picnics and talked with some religious scholars about their philosophy.  He took lots of pictures and was eager to share these positive images with others.  On the way back home, though, he was stopped by some local militia who made him delete ALL the pictures on the camera.  This was a huge disappointment for him, and a disconcerting conversation overall, but one that he learned from.  We couldn’t believe the scene just one day later in the square as we watched on television as pro-Mubarak demonstrators began attacking the protesters with rocks, clubs, horses, and camels.  Once again, it felt like things were really getting out of control, and we didn’t know how far this would extend.

During this whole time, we were in conversation with parents and people from our organization regarding the situation on the ground.  I felt like my emotions were all over the place at times, one minute thinking that things were just too unpredictable here and we should get out of Egypt right away.  And the next minute, seeing the stores reopened and men filling the coffee shops, it seemed like life was back to normal and there would be no reason to leave.  We would watch the news and hear from friends about the US encouraging and then urging their citizens to leave Egypt, and we would wonder what information they had that we didn’t know.  It was really hard to know what to do, but in the end, on Thursday morning, Feb. 3, we made the decision to take the last guaranteed US evacuation plane out of Egypt.  There were various factors that went into that decision, but once made at 7:30am, we packed very quickly and left our house by 11am headed for the airport.  Our landlord graciously offered to drive us there, and once there, we were processed quite quickly for the next flight out to Frankfurt, Germany.

Our evacuation experience was really quite smooth, all things considered, and we are grateful to the US embassy workers in Cairo and Frankfurt for all their work.

After deciding to leave Cairo at 7:30am on Thursday, we touched down in Philadelphia by 4pm (local time) the next day.  All four of our parents were there to greet us, and following an hour-long drive where two of the three girls got car sick and three of the three girls fell asleep, we arrived at my parent’s home for the night.  We’ve now had about a week to adjust to the time change and get over our colds and enjoy time with extended family.  We definitely appreciate being here and all the positives that are here.  At the same time, we watch the news and talk to friends in Egypt and wonder if we still shouldn’t be there.

Yesterday was one of those days that we really wished we were in Egypt.  Mubarak’s resignation brought a mixture of joy and sorrow for us.  Joy for the Egyptian people as their commitment to peaceful demonstrations finally brought the downfall of the regime.  And sorrow because we watched from our living room in the US.  We wish we could have been there during the celebrations; maybe not among the tens of thousands in Tahrir Square, but at least among the hundreds in our neighborhood of Maadi.  We rejoiced with them from far away, and hope soon, that we can celebrate with them on their own soil once again.