The recent attacks in Paris have filled everyone with renewed foreboding and re-awakened memories for me of the fascinating years I spent in a liberal, peaceful, ambitiously tolerant Cairo back in the 1980s.
Life in Egypt and much of the Arab world, most notably Syria, has changed drastically since then. The levels of violence and anger which surfaced during the demonstrations in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring were shocking. Although Mubarak was ousted, and then Mohamed Moris, along with his strict Islamic agenda and the sharia basis to the constitution he was proposing, tension still remains. The wonderful country and welcoming people face dissension and regression.
Tourists are staying away, cutting off vital sources of income. Worse still, previously independent women are often closely monitored, prohibited even from roller skating, or being downright abused. I’d already noticed in the TV coverage of the demonstrations the almost universal wearing of hejabs and more severe abayas by the few visible women in the crowds When I was there my uncovered English head wasn’t particularly remarkable or inflammatory because less than half the local women were covered, and if they were they wore beautiful scarves rather than plain, repressive black.
I have longed to take my family to visit the temples and towns along the Nile, so I can show them where I spent two of the most formative and dramatic years of my life and experience the ancient wonders still standing proudly in the desert.
Until the revolution the country was booming. An Egyptian student we hosted in early 2011 was proud to update me on the gleaming hotels and shopping malls of the city, the efficient metro system, all built since my day, but I wonder how changed the atmosphere is now, compared with the bustling, chaotic, building-site Cairo which welcomed me when I arrived in 1984.
* * * * * * *
Until that hot October night I’d had a conventional English upbringing. Convent school, Oxford university. But when I was sacked from my first job for failing to knuckle down, I realised this was my chance for adventure. At 23 I had no real commitments. Instead of running away, which was the opinion of my career-climbing friends, I was embracing an experience that would change my life forever.
On impulse I answered a small advert to teach in an English prep school for Egyptian primary age children based in the colonial suburb nearest the airport, Heliopolis.
And that’s how I found myself stepping off a plane into a night as warm as soup, the elegant white minaret opposite the arrivals hall glowing with a kind of neon necklace, and the call to prayer wavering up into the darkness. That call became the punctuation of our existence, dominating the air five times a day.
Every day was a challenge, but it was also an adventure. There was the evening lurching down town on a swaying tram when another teacher had an epileptic fit triggered by the lights and chaos and refused to believe, when he came round in the lobby of the Nile Hilton, that he was in Cairo. There was my first sight of the Pyramids at dawn, riding bareback on a chestnut mare. Christmas in a leaking, creaking villa in Alexandria overrun with rats and ghosts. Haggling for everything, including rent. My handbag slashed with a knife that went dangerously close to my femoral artery. Sleeping under the stars by the Red Sea. Men hissing ‘fish and chips’ or ‘Michael Jackson,’ or ‘Manchester United’. The blue eyes of an admirer, striding through the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan…
My workplace was a converted colonial villa in a sandy courtyard, surrounded by pre-fab classrooms. No chalk, no books, no pencils. No air-con. No windows. I quickly learned the word maleesh ‘no worries’ and adopted the oral approach to teaching my four year olds from old Peter and Jane books. The joke was that you could tell from the children’s accents who their teachers were: my kids’ home counties accent, which gave me the nickname Lady Diana, mingled with the Glaswegian and Geordie accents which richocheted round the playground.
The kids were affectionate and enthusiastic, ranging from bilingual Sahar who translated for me, to Youssef, a mute albino with a lazy eye who always wanted a kiss at the end of each day. And Lina, who called me Miss Lovely.
The parents were charming, well off and ambitious for their children ultimately to get into good English or American universities.
And the teachers were both European, Arab or mixed race. There was S, a half English, half Egyptian ex-air hostess who despite her supermodel looks had coped with the racism she encountered by being feisty and outspoken.
There was J from Kenya, who had an unfortunate skin pigmentation which scared both children and parents. But she mothered me, fed me endless Egyptian sweets, and taught me some unique Arabic exclamations.
But it was M who gave me the greatest insights into love, sex and marriage behind closed doors. While I was promoted to be the English figurehead for our nursery department she did all the admin and went from a slim bride with fetching scarves draped across her black hair to a colossus covered in floor-length garments. Covering her body changed her personality from deferential to dominating. But she often took me, the English bint to her home for feasts of chicken, spaghetti, cakes and delicious om ali pudding which would cover every inch of a vast dining table, and laugh about everything from periods and childbirth to the size of her husband’s manhood.
She ruled the roost at home, right down to the finances. She missed adorning herself with fashion and jewellery and make-up, but she didn’t envy me. She considered the freedom of me and my friends to be vulnerability. My unmarried independence equalled lack of protection.
Then there was J, simple and naïve with carrot-coloured hair. Her red stilettos clicked briskly across the tiled floors. Promising an exotic life, her Egyptian husband had brought her from a pizza place in London to a backstreet apartment sandwiched between her in-laws, where she cooked and cleaned even when heavily pregnant and had to endure the distress of finding one of her sisters-in-law breastfeeding her child one day when she came home from work.
We Brits were welcomed wherever we went, but we were still a condundrum. On the one hand we were cultured teachers, educating their children. Figures of the utmost respect.
On the other hand we were considered to be loose women with no male relative watching over us, roaming unaccompanied. We stood out with our blonde or auburn hair, our paler limbs, and sometimes – until we learned the ropes – our inappropriate dress. As headmistress of my school I was told never, no matter how hot it was, to show my shoulders, knees or armpits. Hardly a repressive dress code. I wonder how it would be now?
I called it the conundrum of lust and disgust.
We didn’t appreciate at the time how tolerant our neighbours were. Sometimes we had parties, and drank and smoked. There were special shops where you could buy red Egyptian wine, called Omar Kayyam, or the white, called Crus des Ptolomies. Cigarettes were called Kilopatra and tobacco fell out of flimsy paper wraps after the first drag.
We were apparently watched by the police, but apart from once when they justifiably busted a raucous punk party, they were never heavy handed. In fact, that night my flatmate and I, still dressed in bin-liners, were driven home by the cops!
Learning enough Arabic was a way of being accepted. I could diffuse a tricky situation either by unleashing a torrent of abuse involving donkeys and whores, or by informing any would-be accoster that I was a teacher, not a tourist. My sister’s estimation of me went up by miles when she came to visit and I rounded fluently on a museum guide who was trying to goose her.
As for any deeper hostility, there was no hint of it in shops or bars, and radical Islamism was in its infancy and indeed banned, at least officially. There was television, but the ‘editing’ made it impossible to know what was going on. Starvation in Ethiopia would be followed by a hijacked aeroplane and thence to some Texan basketball game. The James Bond movies would be so clumsily cut that the spy would be approaching a simpering temptress one moment and skiing down a mountain the next.
But the World Service told us that Indira Ghandi had been assassinated and the IRA had attacked the Tory conference in Brighton. And there was some unrest in the streets when the Americans bombed Libya, but it wasn’t directed at us.
Then one morning in February 1986 the news was about Cairo.
Some conscripts from Central Security, allegedly prodded by early Islamic fundamentalists, had been rioting in Giza, torching hotels near the Pyramids.
I wasn’t too worried. It was the other side of town, and these guys weren’t hardened soldiers. Although they brandished big guns they didn’t look as if they knew which way up they went, let alone how to fire them.
These were familiar figures I came across when walking home at night. They probably found a six foot redhead striding about in sunglasses (to avoid eye contact) rather alarming. It never occurred to me a) to be afraid or b) that it was bad form to be out after dark. I was used to the sotto voce obscenities, but back then I still felt safer in Cairo than Clapham.
But at school that day the word spread, sans internet or mobiles, that the city was in uproar. The one dodgy phone didn’t stop ringing. Parents started arriving at the school to remove their children and then the news came that there was to be a blanket curfew. Everyone had to be home by 1pm. Suddenly I had to make a decision. I still had 200 children who had to be evacuated by bus. Did I despatch them, keep them in the school, go home myself?
We were in a very rough area with, it transpired, a conscript academy a few blocks away. Would they come baying for the blood of the English headmistress/infidel? Would I be arrested if I didn’t get home?
Miraculously, as the hours ticked by, most were safely dispatched by bus and other parents. At 1pm I sent the remaining staff home and an eery silence descended. I was alone with one little boy, the ancient caretaker, some vicious cats – and a nearby gang of foreigner-hating soldiers, but what could I do? Declaim in my Mother’s Day Arabic kuul senna w’enta tayyiba: ‘May all the years be kind to you?’
At 2pm the last father arrived. To my dismay he was someone who had come on to me a few weeks earlier when I’d made the mistake of agreeing to give his son private lessons at home then had to fend off his heavy-handed flirting. But this wasn’t the time to be aloof. He bundled me into his red Fiat, rescuing me from a night spent with a toothless boab (caretaker) and a leftover school dinner of rice and beans.
Heliopolis was empty apart from tanks and guns on every intersection. I tried to imagine Oxford Street, the City of London, all empty, everyone gone home, but I couldn’t imagine everyone obeying orders in that way.
In my street the orange seller and his donkey were still trading. My flatmates had already tucked into the gin and were engrossed in a game of Trivial Pursuit. We’d played it so often that we’d changed the rules so you had to give the answer and the others would guess the question.
A weird silence fell ove the city and as with so many other occasions disaster turned to hilarity.
And so my two years in Egypt drew to a close. We were all changed by all those experiences. I dream of showing Egypt to my family one day – if the unrest spreading over the world doesn’t close all our horizons.
And the man with the blue eyes? He became the father of my eldest son.