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Two sketches toward an autobiography

Two sketches toward an autobiography August 23, 2021

 

NASA/NOAA, Egypt from space
A NASA/NOAA photo of the Nile River and the Nile Delta — the ORIGINAL “delta” — from approximately 512 miles above the surface of the planet. The exceptionally bright glow of Cairo at the southern end of the Delta is plainly visible, as is the long narrow strip along the Mediterranean coast on western side of the Delta that is Alexandria. Moving westward, after the sparsely populated moonscape of the Sinai Peninsula, the very populous nations of Israel and Lebanon and coastal Syria are unmistakable.

 

Written separately, so with some overlap:

 

(1)

 

My wife and I lived for roughly four years in Egypt, in a southern suburb of Cairo called Ma‘adi that lies on the east bank of the Nile River.  We didn’t plan to be there so long; it simply worked out that way.  We were doing reasonably well financially, partly because of the remarkable generosity of my brother in connection with the family business and partly because my wife, to our surprise, walked right into a good job teaching at Cairo American College.  (I was studying.  For one year, I served as a private tutor to the daughter of the exiled Shah of Iran.  In our final year there, I won a fellowship — essentially, I understand, Fulbright money — from the Center for Arabic Study Abroad, which was and is pretty much the finishing school for American Arabists.)  But also, frankly, because we were having a wonderfully good experience there.  Every day was fascinating, although also often challenging.

 

Twice, we went home during the summer.  After all, Egypt is hot in the summer, and I could make a fair amount of money working for the family construction business.

 

I always found returning to Egypt just a bit depressing, though.  To leave my parents and the rest of my family behind was rough, and, in those days, we didn’t have easy communication by telephone, let alone by email, and regular mail took weeks to reach us, if it even reached us at all.  We called home only twice during those four years, and doing so was a major undertaking.  (Even calling across Cairo was difficult, because the Egyptian telephone system back then was so bad.)  The first time was when I received a telegram from my brother telling me that my father had suffered a heart attack.  It took me twenty-four hours to get through via a telephone at the Ma‘adi post office.  Only then did I learn that my father had survived.  The second time was when our first child was born.  And that, too, took prolonged effort — which was especially difficult because, at the time, I was suffering from hepatitis.

 

The most depressing part, for me, was typically the approach to Cairo airport after a summer in California, which, given our flight schedule, always took place at night.  As I looked out the window, down on the poor, drab, and dimly lit neighborhoods over which we were flying, I would ask myself what I was doing.  And then, when we hit the chaos of the airport itself — things are much, much, much better now; the Cairo airport today is clean and modern, whereas it was once completely disorganized and resembled a not very well kept warehouse — I was really feeling down.

 

But then we would climb into a taxi and begin the sheer, white-knuckle thrill of careening through the streets of greater Cairo (and sometimes on its sidewalks), weaving at high speed amid the traffic.  And I would begin to think to myself, “I absolutely love this place!”

 

(2)

 

I first became really aware of the power of Latter-day Saint community when my wife and I were living in Cairo.  Or, more precisely, in Ma‘adi, to the south of Cairo.

 

As I say, we ended up spending four academic years there.  We hadn’t planned on that initially.  We simply kept on extending — and the Cairo Branch was a principal reason for our willingness to stay.

 

A resident American official then with the Center for Arabic Study Abroad — I was a CASA fellow for my last year in Egypt — made an interesting comment to me that is helpful in this context:  I had been suffering from hepatitis, which had left me bedridden for at least a month, and he came to visit me to see how I was.  In the course of the conversation, he confided in me that, if it were up to him, he would be seriously inclined to admit Latter-day Saint students to the CASA program, which was strictly limited in size, in preference to non-Mormons, even if the LDS students had slightly lower qualifications.  I asked him why.  Because, he said, LDS students arrived in Cairo — a huge, exceedingly foreign, often quite dysfunctional, and frequently very difficult city — with a support system already in place.  Several CASA students, pretty much on their own and overwhelmed by Cairo, had prematurely dropped out of the program, leaving their spaces vacant — and, each time, leaving the Fulbright officials who were its principal funders tempted to reduce the number of student slots accordingly.  The Mormons, he said, flourished . . .  and never dropped out.

 

This certainly fit our experience.  The hepatitis episode was a case in point:  My unofficial diagnosis, before a physician confirmed it, came from the branch president’s wife, Lani Green, at a branch Christmas party where I was feeling unbelievably awful.  (She’s a nurse.)  And members of the branch were amazingly kind through my recovery.  Especially so as it transpired during the very last stages of my wife’s pregnancy.  I could do little, but the branch president’s wife and Carol Naguib, the Relief Society president (both of whom had become very close friends), as well as others, were remarkably kind to both of us then and during our son’s first months.

 

That had been the pattern from the first:  Arriving at the Cairo Airport — a chaotic and intimidating place in those days — without even a plan of where to spend the night, my new wife and I were met, to our delight, by a then-member of the branch, our friend S. Kent Brown, who was in Egypt at that time doing research at the Coptic Museum.  We stayed at his family’s apartment for a week or two, until, with the help of the Relief Society president, we found a place of our own.  And she also helped my wife land a quite unexpected teaching position at Cairo American College — which had been vacated, a few weeks into the fall term, by a new American teacher who, it seems, simply couldn’t handle life in Egypt.

 

 

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