The Castles of Cairo

Cairo American College is a fortress. The school, pre-Kindergarten through twelfth grade, is an eleven-acre sprawl located in Maadi, a wealthy Cairo suburb home to expat families and the amenities they desire. I spent my middle and high school years walking in and out of its gates, nodding at the guards idly watching students enter, and traipsing around the world-class facilities inside its fifteen-foot wall: two soccer fields, indoor and outdoor basketball courts, a swimming pool, numerous computer labs, and three separate complexes for the high, middle, and elementary schools. Mostly American and always well-credentialed folks taught both AP and International Baccalaureate courses while absorbing the occasional snooty behavior of their students, the pampered teenagers of foreign nationals and the Egyptian elite. We had a dozen varsity sports, niche clubs and enormous organizations. Our college essays read like a helicopter parent’s dream.

While daily I trudged to school, worried about grades and girls, my parents zipped off to work. My father was an Associate Director at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and my mother managed a US Embassy fund designed to assist small businesses and non-governmental organizations. Each did truly good work while grinding away in compounds built to withstand a zombie apocalypse. Ready and intimidating military personnel monitored defensive constructions that brought Tolkien’s Hornburg to mind. Barricades, checkpoints, identification, metal detectors, and U.S. Marines.

My workaholic parents regularly came home late. My mother, an Iranian immigrant, and my father, an African-American Hartfordite from a working-class background, lived by classic American narratives: work hard, stay out of trouble, and keep pushing. Tired, they would enter our apartment building through its small black gate, greet Hossam (the guard) and Abdo (the doorman and a jack-of-all-errands), trust that the vintage-in-a-bad-way elevator would safely arrive at the 5th floor, and have dinner with their kids. On weekends, we sat endlessly at the breakfast table, worked for several hours, and made a decent attempt at relaxation. Other USAID and Embassy employees spent Saturdays and Sundays at one another’s parties and the “American House,” a walled restaurant-lounge-swimming-pool-garden-hang-out spot closed to all but Americans working for the US government. Ironically, the American House was protected by Egyptian security guards. My parents, never the type for grandiose political statements, simply did not vibe with the House or the insulated, suburban white culture it nurtured.

My family and I arrived in Cairo in 2000 and departed only after I graduated high school in 2006. In two years before and four years after 9/11, I saw little, if any, change in the boundaries created by and for foreign, and particularly American, nationals. For a brief and hazy few weeks after September 11, it seemed that some positive change could emerge from tragedy. Storekeepers continually offered their sincere condolences to American shoppers; no matter how much he or she insisted, an American could not pay for a cab; empathetic Egyptians adopted an attitude of deep mourning. A couple of invasions, complemented by some inflammatory rhetoric regarding Islam, and the barriers that were never truly dismantled were reinforced. It was entirely possible – even likely – that an expat could spend four years in Egypt without experiencing anything other than the most superficial contact with Egyptians and Egyptian society.

Five years after I permanently left Cairo, the Egyptian revolution began. I was living with about a dozen folks in New Hampshire, trying to stave off the cold, and carry out research on racial divisions when Egyptians began protesting in record numbers. I became a hermit. I lived in my house’s basement, eyes switching between the television screen and an al-Jazeera feed on my laptop. I felt like I had skin in the game. Soon, I began receiving messages from a few friends who were actively participating and the revolution grew all the more personal. I started trolling the Twitter-sphere for on-the-scene updates, mining Facebook groups for information, and annoying my friends with constant status updates. Despite the distance nationality and class had created between me and so many Egyptians, I could not help but immerse myself in the moment’s exhilaration and anxiousness.

I watched as Middle East scholars, political pundits, and former policymakers expressed their surprise: there were, according to the experts, few signs of deep, widespread discontent that would lead to Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. I too would not have predicted the events of January and February 2011. Then again, I had not lived in Egypt for five years and, frankly, understanding Egypt’s complex society was not my job. I wondered to whom the experts were speaking and how they had gained their expertise. Unemployed youth and the working class sparked the revolution – they were not the people with whom my Embassy brethren had dinner or the professionals with whom visiting officials, businessmen, and, yes, scholars, discussed pressing issues behind closed doors. The increasingly visible Egypt, and the new undraped Egyptian attitude, was alien to me and, it seemed, an American nation – full of experts and specialists and opinion-makers – that built Middle East foreign policy around Egyptian stability.

My thoughts meandered back to my high school days. I recalled the enormous wealth, power, and privilege concentrated in the hands of my Egyptian schoolmates’ families. Hosni Mubarak’s granddaughter attended Cairo American College’s elementary school; a billionaire’s granddaughter was a grade below me; and the children of Egypt’s captains of industry sat next to me in math and English. Similar to the United States’ class dynamics, the upper crust Egyptians who attended CAC enjoyed lives far different from most Egyptians. The Egyptian street, an unknown and mythologized place in many a foreigner’s mind, was also unfamiliar to wealthy Egyptians: drivers and maids, trips abroad and weekend homes, mansions and the latest technology, parties and expensive restaurants divided one class from another. I would give an arm and a leg to go back in time and ask my fellow classmates if they thought that a revolution was possible – or desirable. I wondered if their parents, or those close to their parents, made small talk in smoky backrooms with Ambassadors and foreign officials. Most of all, I wondered just how little I knew about Egypt.

In hindsight, recent Egyptian history was littered with signs. Rising unemployment, especially amongst young men (many of whom were college educated), coupled with chronic bread shortages and the impact of a global recession, hit the middle and working classes in the wallet and the gut. Rumors swirled around Hosni Mubarak’s health and many were unhappy with the increasing probability that Gamal Mubarak would succeed his father. Underneath it all, resentment against an oppressive dictatorship and government of cronies, anger over an unfathomable equality gap, and frustration with an ever-gloomier future simmered. One could justifiably ask, how could a rebellion not occur?

Two years after graduating high school, I visited Egypt for the first and final time. My Arabic, once conversational, was reduced to pleasantries and grammatically grotesque sentences; a taxi driver ripped me off; and, embarrassingly, I got lost during my first few hours in Cairo. I was a complete outsider. After much difficulty getting from the airport to a friend’s home, I let out a sigh of relief. We promptly went to a late-night café and restaurant on the Nile where we ate and chatted with old Egyptian classmates. I marveled at the Nile’s beauty, commenting that the open-air café had a great location.

“It’s one of the reasons we come here,” a former classmate stated casually. “Nice view, good food. We’re far away from the street and traffic noise. Also, there is a list – not just anyone can get in, so it is a classy place.”

I asked about their post-high school lives, their families, and their plans. There were a plethora of contented shrugs. Life was good; families were well; and, importantly, fathers’ businesses, soon to be the sons’ businesses, were booming.

My friend leaned over with a smile and precious few words. “Nothing ever changes.”


Anise Vance