On Saturday mornings the Tupperware at the Shooting Club playground is replaced by bags and boxes from French-style bakeries; the mommies and daddies run around behind their wee ones, distracting them on the swingset or slide with force-fed bites of chocolate croissant.
But after my snarky previous post about the Shooting Club, I want to clarify. We don’t pay membership dues for the irony value. I am one of those mommies, though usually found chasing my kids around with a camera rather than a fork. Multilingually educated (عقبالنا!) and preppily dressed, the little Janas and Malaks we meet might be the nearest demographic equivalent of my own overprotected towheads: organic milk only; bike helmet for the tricycle. I’m no more a participant-observer here than at home, at the beautifully maintained playground near our house in a near Boston suburb.
Of course, it feels more liberating (dare I say democratic?) that the playground at home is not a club, has no guards at the gate. It is “free” and “public” for those who can cough up the equivalent of a membership fee in the form of a down payment or rent, or who can drive there and make their children look and act like they belong. That means everyone has to share – no swiping little Emma’s truck or pushing little Liam in the sandbox. (Hey grownups who tell kids to share: would you lend a stranger your iPhone? How about your car?) By the way, with no one haranguing them about sharing, lots of kids at the Nadi El Seid playground have been incredibly generous to mine, sharing their toys, blocks, snacks, turns on the slide, even pushing them on the swings.
Egypt’s class system is a major drain on productivity, but the U.S. East Coast’s also has its pitfalls. We can have a conversation later about how property taxes are collected and allocated, but it’s necessary to note, American allergies to it aside, that the nadi system has its strengths. There is an element of social support. Our neighbor says they organize heavily subsidized trips for members over 70 – e.g., a weekend at a seaside resort in Suez for under 150 pounds (like $25). They show films and have discussion groups etc. They host various exercise classes including a seated-in-a-chair ankle-wiggling exercise for sedentary older ladies. And of course all kinds of things for kids.
But you want to hear about the parents, right? Here’s a sample, quite skewed probably by who is drawn to me as an English-speaking opportunity (though I try to stick to Arabic unless it’s impolite) or whose kids seek out mine. I should emphasize in case it is not clear from the capsules below that all these people (except maybe the first) seemed really very bright and had good, respectable reasons for living or thinking the way they did. I mean no disrespect by quoting them here.
- The flirtatious young mom, sitting poolside to keep an eye on the private lessons of Mimi (Amina) and Kookoo (Karim), amusing herself by having a halfhearted argument with the swimming instructor: This revolution, really! He [Mubarak, it transpires] wasn’t that bad of a guy, was he? And it isn’t fair to blame one man for everything that’s wrong in the country! Look, they got their revolution, and what did it produce? Traffic jams and piles of garbage in the street. The country was cleaner before. (The instructor, from his position down in the water, vigorously disagreed.)
- The very clean-shaven, nattily dressed middle-aged gentleman pushing a three-year-old Malak on the swing (Malak = girl’s name, means “angel,” he said she looked like one at birth so they decided to name her that) is a cosmetic surgeon. He has spent time in the US and Saudi Arabia (duh, of course there’s cosmetic surgery in Saudi Arabia). Upon returning, in view of the Islamization of Egypt, he hired two female doctors to join his clinic. But they get less work than he had hoped: 2) the clients assume a male doctor is more experienced; 2) they don’t feel comfortable showing a female doctor their boobs and (pointing to various sometimes-fleshy places) so on. The outward Islamicization, though, is real. Years ago you could hardly see a higab in the Shooting Club, and now it’s rare to see a woman without one! His female employees all cover up for the commute, then take off their scarves when they get to work, though he doesn’t tell them to. (I’ve seen the assistant teachers at my daughter’s school do the same.) His wife works – a physiotherapist – so on Saturdays when the private schools get the day off they split the day; she finishes work at noon, and he starts at noon.
- The guy built like a tank, whose 2-year-old is throwing sand in the sandbox, turns out to be an officer in the Egyptian Special Forces (القوات الخاصة). He was supposed to go to West Point to train 14 years ago, but the permission was suddenly yanked; he graduated in Egypt instead. Upon learning that I am American: “Oh, I’ve been spending a lot of time guarding the U.S. Embassy these past few months. Since January 28 we’ve been there. At the time, no one knew it was a revolution, just some protests. Whenever there’s any disturbance we are sent to guard the sensitive embassies: you know, the US, Britain, France, Canada, Israel. Bibo, stop throwing sand! Saudi Arabia? Yes. And Kuwait. Also the Egyptian Museum, the ministries, things like that. Interesting? No, it’s hard actually. Is there a culture difference between the Special Forces and the rest of the military? Well, yes. In your country, the ordinary soldiers have missions, experience: Iraq, Afghanistan. Here we have only training. Personally I have worked for the UN, so I have some experience: I’ve been in Somalia, Darfur. But that is not true of the Egyptian military as a whole.” Will I see him at the club again? Perhaps by the pool. He coaches the swimming team!
- The middle-class-looking conservatively muhaggaba mom of a kid taking semi-private swimming lessons: “We drive in from al-Haram, by the Pyramids. Yes, it’s a long way. Does your son only do swimming? Mohammed – he’s five – is about to start soccer next month. Three times a week. Yes, I work – I’m a pathologist. Yes, it’s very hectic sometimes. But…!” I forget where she told me his school was, near home or not; some parents go to incredible lengths (or send their kids to incredible lengths on school buses, across the city or out into the new desert towns, more than an hour each way) to reach the private school of their choice. From talking to the kids I can testify to the strength of these schools’ foreign language programs, at least.
- the super-sweet, outgoing, and well-mannered nine-year-old girl whose family lives right on Kasr El Ainy Street, near Tahrir, repeating what she must have heard at the dinner table: “Oof. They keep demonstrating. All they want is their demands. They don’t want the country to quiet down. It makes so much noise I can’t get to sleep at night. We have another apartment, in Maadi, but it’s still being redone so we can’t move there yet.”
Have you had enough yet? Want me to go spend a day somewhere else?