Imagine walking into famous gardens, now neglected and so arid you expect a tumbleweed to cross your path. Now add to that a museum where mannequins dressed in various styles depict the agrarian history of a country, and where women are categorized and displayed as if they are a species, between the Zebra hide and the stuffed rhinoceros. At the Museum, a gentleman appears and starts opening walls to show you exhibits, and you suddenly realize that no one has been into the museum in while, a long long while, and not just because of its 3 hours open a day policy. Walk a little further and suddenly, you are in a replica pharonic garden, teaming with spring blooms, if somewhat overgrown. You picnic while its caretakers (who also may live in a bower in the garden) bring you flowers and berries. Finally, add indiscriminate gunfire from a shooting club nearby as background noise. That’s what visiting the Agricultural Museum is like.
Maadi is its own unique place in Cairo, and even Egyptian history. It’s actually not all Cairo, but also part of the Helwan township. People have inhabited this land since at least 3250 BCE, in the protodynastic period during the Bronze Age. Which makes sense, because its ground is very fertile and it is beautiful. As my friend Matthew put it, you can ”hear the echoes of history here.” It’s a sprawling area, with old parts that include villas and ruins, and new parts popping up high rises and mc-mansions, Northern Africa style. (It took me a little while to get used to the references of Egyptian history in modern architecture, I would think –How hooky, they’re trying to be Egyptian, and then remember where I was – This Is Their History.)
Inhabiting Maadi currently is a mix of upper middle and upper class Egyptians, expats and expats married to Egyptians. The quality of life in Maadi is exceptional – gardeners, house keepers, cooks are easily (and cheaply) had and a driver is necessary with this kind of traffic – no testing, no signals, very little stop signs. Among the expats, there are many diverse interests – people who work for big oil probably live next to people working for an NGO, or journalists like us – truly fascinating cocktail conversation. But the thing with being an expat family – while there are a tremendous amounts of upside – is that it usually demands one spouse subjugate their aspirations in support of another.
My exposure has mainly been to the wives who have done this in support of their husbands. Some wives have husbands whose positions allow them to take full advantage of the quality of life upgrade – what would be middle class in the US is equivalent to a really nice (extremely nice) life style here. Bravo-esque women who spend their days dropping kids off at schools (with the help of the driver and the nanny,) managing domestic affairs (with the help of the house keeper and the cleaning woman) and all sorts of other things that it takes to look that good. And, to be honest, they really do look that good. Enviably so.
It’s the women who Andy Cohen won’t be calling that truly fascinate me. What’s a highly educated professional supposed to do on a new continent? It’s not like the ad agencies in Cairo care that you used to work at Ogilvy. One woman I’ve met, whose husband is a VP at a large beverage company, works for an international human rights organization. My sister in law is looking into continuing her IP law educator experience somewhere in Cairo.
Others have become entrepreneurs – expanding their professional capacities to allow for intellectual stimulation beyond memorizing which Backyardigan is which – and still remain dedicated to their families. One of the first women I met here, who is originally from Northern Ontario, started a clothing line leveraging high end Egyptian cottons. Another woman turned a passion for ice cream into a business (Crème Brulee ice cream? White Chocolate Mint? I’m so in. Now, I just need to figure out how to get it when I’m back in New York.) Another, a mom of three whose youngest is 5 months old, is an interior designer.
These women have turned a complete disruption into a new opportunity with a resilience that would never happen in Atlanta, the OC, DC, New York and definitely not New Jersey. Though, I think the women from Beverly Hills definitely shop here, the stores here play into some serious sequin addictions.