On burkinis, bans, and freedom of choice

France’s burkini ban intersects at the junction of many complex issues – East vs West, religion vs secularism, feminism vs patriarchy, the right to freedom of speech and expression vs a perceived need for greater state control. These are the things I know:

  • The images of gun-toting French cops looming over a lone burkini-clad woman on a beach in France are disturbing, to say the least. This is a knee-jerk reaction to a complex issue – forcing religion, and in particular, Muslim women underground, on spurious security grounds, plays right into the hands of IS and other extremist groups who want to sow discord and chaos. It also goes against fundamental Western values, which can be summarized, ironically, in France’s famous call of Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite. In short, it’s an own goal for the French in their fight against IS.
  • And yet, the burkini itself – as with all other items that promote female modesty, from an orthodox Jewish headscarf to the hijab, and in particular, the niqab – is something I find hard to get behind. For every woman that chooses to wear it, many others are forced – either overtly by the State, as in Saudi and Iran, or by cultural and societal pressures, as is the case here in Egypt. Those pressures are particularly relevant in Egypt for poorer women – money has nearly always bought a certain level of immunity. Until all women are genuinely given true autonomy over their bodies and their choice of clothing and not forced into archaic notions of modesty with dubious etymology, I find it hard to celebrate the burkini as an item of freedom, as its inventor has declared.
  • Having said that, I’m also an advocate of personal choice and the freedom to live your life in the way you choose–with the obvious caveat that this doesn’t impinge on others. I have many friends who have chosen the hijab, in the face of mounting hysteria and thuggery in the West and regular casual discrimination here, and I respect their choice. It would be wrong to assume that prejudice against the veil or burkini is a Western phenomenon alone – veiled women in Egypt are routinely turned away from certain bars and restaurants and no doubt from certain jobs, while burkinis are frowned at in a number of high-class establishments here. I don’t condone targeting individual women or sanctioning discrimination anywhere for what is a systemic issue – in the same way that I don’t advocate taking out frustrations with the patriarchy on individual men.

In the end, as Arundhati Roy says, coercing a woman out of a burkini is as bad as coercing her into one, though the reasoning for both is very different. But as the world seemingly becomes a more and more terrifying place, it becomes too easy to abandon nuance and cling to moral dichotomies and absolutes, which I see on my newsfeed every day. Few issues, unfortunately, are that simple anymore.

On Blogging and Bloggers – Breaking the Fourth Wall


Version 2


I don’t consider myself an expert blogger. I don’t have 10 handy tips to drive traffic to your blog, or make you better read. I didn’t start my blog either to make money or become famous, though I’m not averse to the possibility of either. I did it mainly to hold myself accountable – to push myself to write more, to find my ‘voice,’ and to become more disciplined as a writer. I also did it to connect, which is probably why all of us really use social media.

So I didn’t follow any of the blogging ‘rules’ – like focusing my blog on a particular theme, for example. As a fiercely independent soul with a wide range of interests and an abiding fear of commitment, I wanted to write about anything that took my fancy. I’ve also, I’m ashamed to say, failed to strike up many significant relationships within the blogging community. I’ve generally spent very little time in the blogosphere, if I’m honest, because the online world can be overwhelming enough as is and I’m trying to use any free time I have to write. (I also subscribe to Groucho Marx’s old adage that I’d rather not be a member of any club that would have me.)

But somehow, after a newfound determination to write more frequently last year – and a little help from the nice folk at WordPress – I’ve picked up an increasing number of readers, which has been lovely and very touching and also rather overwhelming. From all corners of the world and spanning all ages, lifestyles, political persuasions, etc. If you are one of them, thank you – I’m very touched.

With this modest success, I’ve discovered, comes certain responsibilities. I am increasingly asked to check out other people’s blogs, to follow them if possible, and to comment on their work – by new bloggers, especially. With that in mind – and the caveat that I still consider myself a novice – I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned on my journey, just in case it can help you in any way.


1. I’ve visited – and been visited by – an incredible range of blogs – from poetry to politics, sport, sex, food and fashion, and then some. You name it and there’s probably a blog for it. On the plus side, it means there’s room for everyone, which is what continues to make the blogosphere such an interesting, vibrant place. On the downside, it’s probably getting harder than ever to get your voice heard – to achieve ‘cut through,’ as the marketeers would call it.


2. People blog for a variety of reasons but I’d hazard a guess the majority of us want to be read – whether you’re anonymously chronicling your sexploits or diligently photographing your recipes – and probably beyond your friends and family and immediate circle. If that’s the case, I think there should be one primary goal: Quality over quantity, by which I mean striving for original and well-written content, rather than putting anything and everything out there. This may mean that you post less frequently than you set out to, but in the long run, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

This is very much a personal opinion and it also depends on why you’re blogging in the first place – if you’re doing it for catharsis or because it makes you happy, then post as much or as little as you like. Otherwise, I think it helps if posting is a judgment call. Not everything you write needs to be published.


3. As I’ve said already, I don’t believe your blog has to focus on one topic – though I may be the exception that proves the rule. Do write about the stuff that interests you and that you’re passionate about, which always helps. Unless you’re writing for yourself primarily though, it’s worth remembering that the majority of people aren’t going to be interested in the minutiae of your daily life – unless you have a talent for expressing it particularly well. Again, this all comes back to your reasons for blogging in the first place – if it makes you happy to share, do it.


4. A few writing tips mostly culled from my journalism and editing background that may help – do with these what you will.

  • Most journalists will tell you that your first two paragraphs are the most important, since they’re responsible for drawing your readers in – or not, as the case may be.
  • Pay attention to your headline – it doesn’t have to be one of those annoying clickbait ones but a catchy headline definitely helps.
  • Use spell check or get a friend to read over your work if you’re worried about the grammar/content (I always run everything past my sister or good friends first).
  • Use paragraphs! In today’s fast moving world, nothing is a greater turn-off than huge chunks of text without proper paragraphs or spacing. I’m not a fan of the overly simplistic blogging style of using a paragraph for every sentence, mind you – just advocating for a happy medium. Try and intersperse long sentences and short ones for maximum effect too.
  • Edit. There’s nearly always stuff that can be taken out to make your prose tighter and sharper – this is where a second opinion from someone you trust can help.


5. While good content is vital, do make sure your blog is easy to read and navigate too – which means the font isn’t too fussy or too small (spare a thought for us older readers) or on a dark background, which can make it difficult to read, and that different sections are clear and accessible. There’s a fine line between expressing your personal style – and blogs are definitely great for that – and putting off your potential readership with an overly fussy or incomprehensible design.

I think Medium showcases writing especially well, for example – all that clear white space is a writer’s dream. And don’t be afraid to change up the theme every now and then, which is easier than ever before with WordPress, I reckon – if I can do it, anyone can. My blog’s gone through several incarnations before this one – and may well change again sometime soon.


6. A personal bugbear – if there’s an About section, please do add a line about yourself and/or your concept for the blog, or get rid of it altogether. This may be just me but I always visit the About section of any blog I go to because I want to find out something about the person I’m visiting and their vision for their blog, which often helps me understand it better.

It’s a bit like going to a party and looking out for the host – I’m in your space and I want to stop by to say hello. An incomplete About section always looks a little careless to me. It doesn’t have to be an essay or particularly witty or erudite, and it can still be anonymous if you’d prefer that, but it helps if there’s something.


7. On blogging etiquette: Please don’t ask me to follow you or get offended if I don’t or don’t thank you for a follow. I tend, in life, to operate by the same principles I apply for myself and I don’t actively solicit followers, which feels a bit too much like political campaigning to me.

I’m also sorry to say I follow very few blogs now for the reasons I outlined earlier – my email folder is overflowing on the best of days, as is my daily reading list. I do try and visit every blog that visits me, however, and like and comment on posts I particularly enjoy. In the future, if I ever get organised enough, I’d like very much to highlight the blogs that stand out to me to draw wider attention to them if I can.


The last and most important point is that all rules are made to be broken – including these – and thankfully the blogosphere’s big enough and bad enough to accommodate all of us. What works for me may not – and probably will not – work for you, since I’m most likely blogging for different reasons, and I can be a nitpicking perfectionist, and different things make me happy.

To read a wonderfully warm, honest and different perspective from someone I consider a proper blogger, read this by the Holistic Wayfarer, who I think sums up the joys and pitfalls of blogging beautifully. Of everything she says, this point rings especially true for me:

Remember how small you are – in blogging and life.
There’s always someone with more readers, someone faster, smarter, more talented and savvy. You’re not all that. Neither am I. That’s why I try to keep it real. For all the rewriting I do here, I don’t want to end up editing my image when you’re coming to me with a certain level of trust in my honesty.


All best and happy blogging to you all.


Your body is yours now – your skin stretches
comfortably around its heights and its
depths, its hills and crevices, the scars of
old, the sights, the colours, the smells, all
that you have absorbed in your life –
the joy and the pain.
Your soul nestles within – it even
purrs at times.
You breathe.

But still,
there are moments.
When darkness beckons and your soul
trembles; when you feel jagged and hollow, like
a bottomless void, a continent with howling
winds and dark storms, sheer cliffs and
parched deserts, wild animals that
roam hungry, icy crevasses where
no light can reach.

Perhaps this is how it was at
the beginning, when you lay
shrouded in darkness, and raged
against the dying light, the
confined space, the relentless thump
of your mother’s heartbeat, an
echo of things to come.

There are moments.

I am sorry, you say, yet again.
I am sorry for my darkness and the sharp
jagged edges that claw sometimes and
draw blood. I am sorry I
hurt you again.
I try to smooth them daily, buff
them, polish them to smooth
oblivion, but sometimes
it doesn’t work.

I hate hurting you, I say –
I hate feeling
like this.

Talk to yourself as you would to
someone you love, you
heard someone say.

But what if this is how you speak
to the ones you love? You
hurt them the most.

What chance do you have


The Art of Wabi-Sabi (or Things You Will Learn Later in your Life)

wabi sabi small_Fotor

You are 37 when you first fall in love – properly, passionately, the way you dreamed of when you scribbled furiously in your teenage notebooks and that has eluded you until precisely this moment in a dusty Cairo hotel. It is not love at first sight and there is no Hollywood meet-cute, but there is a touching of souls, as Joni Mitchell once sang, that reverberates long after you meet him.

Months later, you leave everything you know and traverse continents to go back to him and a new life in the city he has bequeathed you. Over the next three years, you learn that Great Loves can be irrational and painful, full of terrible highs and soaring lows, that passion is overrated, and it is never good, as someone once told you, to love another person more than you love yourself. One day, you wake up and realise that love is not enough.

Love, in fact, is never enough.


You are 28 when you experience death – sudden, tragic, wrenching – for the first time. On a bright summer’s day in your office in London, you get a call from a policeman who tells you that your oldest sister, who has been missing for months, has been found dead in a car park overlooking the Cornish coast. You drop everything and run out for shelter in a Soho doorway, watching the world continue to turn as yours changes forever.

Late that night, you make the five-hour drive down to a Cornish hospital with your mother and sister to identify her, in the tiny chapel where they have laid out her body, and receive a crash course in pain, the finality of death, and the meaning of loss. You discover what it’s like to grieve under a terrible litany of shoulda/woulda/couldas and what ifs that spin endlessly into a vortex and threaten to suck you into the darkness.

For a long time after, you dream that she is with you – at a gathering or a party or at home. She gets up to go, as she always does, and you urge her to stay – over and over again. She never listens.


(You are 14 the first time a boy calls you beautiful. Late one summer night, by the swings in Oakmere Park, where you have gone with a friend for a walk. He whispers into your ear urgently and you smile in a way that suggests you’re used to such things. Inside you know that tomorrow you will put on your ugly school uniform and go back to normal life.)


You are 5 years and six months old when your parents take you and your sisters from your home in England and deposit you in a Catholic boarding school in a South Indian hill station – once the summer retreat of the colonial English. You do not realise it then but you will be ensconced there for the next seven years, only flying back home to England for the winter and summer holidays.

Twice a year for the next seven years, you will dread the long tunnel at the entrance to Heathrow airport, which you will always associate with your mother’s sobs as she tries to say goodbye. When you get to the school in the Indian hill station, you will cry into your pillow quietly for three nights as great waves of homesickness and guilt and regret consume you, until one morning you wake up and the strange boarding school has become your home again.

You will also cry each time you leave the school to go home for the holidays.


You are 33 – the age your sister was when she died (and Jesus) – an age you secretly thought you would never reach because you thought you had been cursed to die too, like the heroine of some morbid fairytale. You have spent the last five years caring less and less about your life, drinking too much, partying more recklessly, haunting crowded bars and clubs, indulging in careless flings and desperate love affairs, going through the motions in a career you hate more and more.

On your 33rd birthday, you leave the job, end the last relationship, and clear out your cupboards. At some point during this year, you will embark on a new career as a journalist, which you will embrace like it is your calling. For the first time in your life, you are proud of what you do.


You are 12 when your mother takes you out of your boarding school and puts you in a school near your home in England. You don’t know it then but she has begged the headmaster to let you in, even though he knows nothing about you – a strange Indian child in his very English school. He puts you in the bottom class of your year, with kids who already know they’re destined for hours of woodworking lessons and dreary home ec classes.

You realise for the first time that you look different from your classmates, who also seem strange to you in their overwhelming whiteness and brash confidence and determination to break the rules. Being around boys for the first time makes you self-conscious. You get called a Paki on your way home by two awkward boys from the other school in the neighbourhood, on the other side of town. You don’t know who’s more embarrassed. The next term, you’re moved up to the top set and a different world.


You are 39, four months from your 40th birthday, when you watch your father take his last racking breath in a quiet hospice bed in a North London suburb. He has been diagnosed with a brain tumour almost exactly two months earlier. You fly back home to England from Cairo when your sister tells you this, steeling yourself for your entry into the darkness once more.

Unlike your sister’s passing, however, your father’s death offers a chance at redemption. Your relationship with him has long been strained but you visit him twice a day, feed him, sit with him and try somehow to transmit all the love you can muster when you hold his hand. He cannot speak but his eyes follow you around the room as you move and you hope that, somewhere inside, he recognises that he is not alone.

After he dies, you feel an overwhelming urge to have a child – a primal call, you think, to complete the circle of life. It doesn’t happen.


You are 42 and in a committed relationship for the first time in your life. You, who have always fled commitment and run headlong into the arms of men incapable of giving it to you, are bowled over now by the sweetness of love and how it doesn’t have to hurt or feel like you’re jumping into the darkness without a safety net and how you can love from a place of strength without losing parts of yourself, rather than going into battle and coming out with the scars.

You learn what it’s like to love and be loved unconditionally, when you’re PMS’ing and grouchy, on your fat days and bad hair days, and the days when you’re tired and vulnerable and don’t want to get out of bed. You understand for the first time what it is to seek shelter in another’s arms, and that it is possible to trust, that what feels like the end often isn’t, and that everything is possible if you take a leap of faith.


You are 45 when you start writing again, properly. By now, you have given up much in your life – sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, careless love affairs with careless men. You try to eat well, exercise regularly, dabble in meditation and yoga to calm the restless soul. Sometimes you miss the old you, the sense of freedom, the open roads, the unpredictability and terrible glamour of a life less lived.

But by and large you think – and hope – this:

Slowly, very slowly, you are coming home.

The unbearable lightness of being thin (or please stop talking about my weight)


Fat – and how to mitigate it – is all around me at the moment.

Yesterday, a friend told me she’d had a gastric bypass operation – and thanks to complications including infected incisions, she’d lost a staggering 35 pounds in three weeks. She’d been feverish, horribly bloated, and spent hours in the emergency ward trying to heal her incisions. Friends told her she looked fantastic though.

I’ve just come off a Viber conversation with a good friend – someone I’ve enjoyed bantering with for years about our fluctuating waistlines and love of all things food. After losing a lot of weight thanks to a hideous bout of food poisoning in India earlier this year, he’s been determined to keep it off, so he’s currently weighing himself every day. Our conversation went something like this:

Me – Isn’t that a little obsessive?

Him – It works for me and it’s really helping to keep the weight off. I know you go to the gym and eat well but you never seem to lose any weight.

Me – (slightly crestfallen). Really? Do I look big?

Him – Well, I’m not going to lie. You don’t look trim.

He’s right. I don’t look trim at the moment. I have a body that’s generously padded at the best of times, and it can go from thin-ish and curvy, to buxom and out there, and to – god forbid – plump and matronly, or just plain fat – by the time you’ve eaten that cupcake. Over the years, I’ve been the butt – pun intended – of many a boob and butt joke, mostly affectionate banter from friends that I’ve had no problem going along with.

But I’ve also been the recipient of many intrusive comments – or what’s commonly known now as fat shaming – from everyone from my mother, who has always been obsessive about fat, to assorted Indian aunties and uncles. In Egypt, where I live now, I’ve had to listen to a number of random comments about my weight and body – both positive and negative – which have led me to conclude that (wealthy) third worlders are actually worse than first worlders where fat’s concerned. The ultimate status symbol in the developing world is a trim toned bod – the skinnier the better.

Being an unmarried woman provides more grist to the mill. I have been inspected by random Indian ‘aunties’– we use the term very loosely in the third world – in a manner not dissimilar to how a farmer, I imagine, would inspect a cow at a farm show. One of these aunties actually popped in to pick my mum up for lunch when I was back in England recently. Her exact words to me were: “Hi. You’ve put on weight. Ok, bye.”

The truth is, my weight does fluctuate – horribly. I wish it didn’t, and I wish the majority of my life wasn’t spent wishing I was 10 pounds– or more – lighter. I wish parts of me didn’t wobble and I didn’t spend far too much time in front of the mirror inspecting said parts, or asking the immortal question: Does my bum look big in this? (which is rhetorical, if you hadn’t figured that out already.) I wish I was one of those women who could eat whatever I wanted without gaining a pound and look good in a burlap sack, if that’s what I wanted.

If fat symbolises a kind of lazy wanton decadence and greedy self-indulgence, thin represents control, discipline and a willingness to conform. There are no fat heroines, and even fewer fat role models. There is a lushness and rebellious sensuality about a fat woman’s body, in fact, that seems to threaten the very foundations of our society. Fat women, in particular, seem to deserve to be shamed.

So, as we consume more than ever before as a society, we applaud weight loss and diets even more, to the point where perceptions of what’s acceptable have become horribly skewed. Thin isn’t about being healthy any more but about being a Size 0. Thigh gaps and clavicles have become fetishised. I’ve been at parties when dangerously skinny women – medically underweight and borderline anorexic – have walked past, to envious sighs of approval from some friends.

I can’t count the number of compliments or approving looks I get when I’ve lost weight, and the general sense of dread I feel when I’ve gained. The majority of conversations with my female friends touch on weight or diets, which I’m sadly as guilty of bringing up as anyone. Most women I know, even the very slim ones, believe they’re not thin enough or toned enough, even when there’s abundant evidence to the contrary.

The fact is that my thin periods haven’t necessarily made me any happier over the long term and they definitely haven’t meant I’ve been particularly healthy – at times the reverse, if anything. Some of the happiest, most rounded people I know – in every sense of the word – are overweight and they’re no less beautiful or confident for it. Their ability to be comfortable in their own skin in the face of overwhelming disapproval is something I both envy and applaud.

Because while I generally abhor political correctness, I can’t help feeling that fat-shaming is one of the last socially acceptable forms of bigotry. I’m not interested in thin shaming any more than I am fat-shaming and I understand the desire to be thin – I’ve lived that my whole life. But I wish we were kinder and a little more sensitive about how we went about it, both on ourselves and on others.

In my own life now, I strive constantly, and sometimes desperately, for balance, to battle all the negativity out there. I try not to take on board the comments I hear, whether positive or negative. I aim for strong rather than skinny – to eat well and to move my body as much as possible, since time and experience have shown that this works for me. If a friend wants me to celebrate their weight loss, I try also to point out that he or she looked great before.

It may be difficult to believe at times, but we are so much more than our bodies.

On breaking up and a bar named Freedom

horreya stella_fotor


It is a sign of growing up, I think, that when my relationship came to its predictable – but still quietly devastating – end last week, I didn’t turn to a vodka (or three) to wash away my broken-heart blues. Nor did I call on the army of hardy friends who used to commiserate with me in these things (partly because I now live in Cairo and said friends, such as I still have them, are inaccessible for reasons of sheer distance). Nor did I sit for hours in a slightly darkened room, chain-smoking cigarettes and listening to maudlin love songs (David Gray, anyone?) in some tragic parody of a lovesick teenager.

No. This time I chose to Keep Myself Busy in a bid for Germanic efficiency, rather than the Gallic grand gestures I used to favour. My logic is this: all the energy, time and mind-and-heart space I invested in the great love must be transferred elsewhere if I am to survive this. I’m not sure the logic-over-love scenario is one that works for everyone, but it’s applicable in my case, partly because our end – sad as it was – was always out there on the horizon, like those storm clouds that linger on a beautiful day. And as with all good dramas, we’d had several dress rehearsals along the way.

So I called every good friend I had and set up dates and activities that would keep me occupied for at least the next several days. I went shopping in City Stars with one and spent a glorious afternoon lunching and shopping (why does trying on a new pair of shoes seem to reach the parts of a female soul that other things can’t?). And I called another good friend for a more cultural evening Downtown – somewhere I rarely venture to these days from my cosy Zamalek bubble.

Thus it was that we spent a suitably intellectual – and very funny – evening catching up on life over mezze in one of Cairo’s oldest restaurants, venturing to the Townhouse Gallery afterwards for a spot of Culture, and finishing up in Horreya, or “Freedom” in Arabic – a Downtown institution and rare alcohol-serving ahwa that is the haunt of wannabe intellectuals, trendy expats and a surprising number of gay men – both foreign and, dare I say it, Egyptian.

It had become almost a rite-of-passage for me – this trip to Horreya – seeing as I’d lived in Cairo for more than a year and hadn’t yet ventured there. With dreams of domestic bliss and babies disintegrating faster than a cheap Downtown dress, and sad singledom furiously beckoning, a trip there seemed more important than ever. In other words, swapping faux Zamalek glamour for hard-core Downtown grunge – two harassed-looking waiters, grim fluorescent lighting that did nothing to hide the grimy ceilings and floors, ominously cracked mirrors, and a menu that seemed to consist entirely of Stellas – made infinite sense to me at this particular point in my life.

So we ventured in and found a table and had a Stella each and I tried surreptitiously to people-watch through the broken mirror opposite me. In places like this, obvious people-watching is not cool – a bit like getting your camera out at an exclusive dinner party. I was struck by the hideously bright lighting first, and then the men intently playing backgammon in a corner (in the non-alcoholic section, this being Egypt after all), and then the huge crowded table behind us, packed with people so disparate it was impossible not to wonder what could possibly have brought them all together.

It turned out that it was a very sociable gay Yemeni who was responsible for this. Determined to spread the party mood around, he insisted we be given a plate of food from his table. As he told us when he ambled across, he was celebrating, of all things, the acquisition of a British passport, which he’d gained by marrying an older Englishman three years ago.

I was surprised, given the Daily Mail-inspired Cretan maze of British immigration law, but happy for him. “Do you love him?” I asked, after he had told us for the third time about the three homes his husband had bought for him and the different countries he could now live in (with England being very low down on the list). His careful pause before the “yes” suggested that love – on his part, at least – may not have been the main motivation for this particular union.

Did Horreya live up to its hype? In many ways: yes. Would we have been invited into the celebrations of a gay Yemeni and his entourage in the generic coffee chains that I frequent in Zamalek? Never.

Here in the heart of downtown Cairo, all the contradictions of daily Egyptian life came together in one glorious tumble – like a washing machine in full spin. A gay man could celebrate his marriage and the fruits of it in a society where homosexuality does not exist, in a café that looked like a traditional Egyptian ahwa but served alcohol, and in a space where different nationalities and classes and age groups blended together happily, in a kind of Boho Benetton ad. But it is the curse of our post-modern age that I could never quite forget that I was in Horreya. A dive by any other name is surely still a dive.

And, no matter how much I may want to deny it, age catches up with you in the end. We stayed for a couple of hours or so, nursing our individual beers, enjoying our conversation and the food we had unexpectedly been given. I happened to catch sight of the time at around 10.30pm and asked whether my friend wanted to stay. Neither of us, it turned out, wanted another beer, and she was also in need of a toilet break. The toilets here are terrible, she said, so it might be easier to go home. I agreed, willingly. Our night had been eventful, funny and suitably satisfying and it led me on this occasion happily to my bed.

Once I was incapable of leaving a party early in case I missed a piece of the action. Is it wisdom or cynicism now that assures me there will always be a party going on somewhere and I will, in fact, miss very little I haven’t experienced already? It seems to me that, with age, a bite of the apple is now often as satisfactory – if not more so – than a whole one.

That’s got to be a good thing, somewhere down the line.

(Full disclosure – I wrote this piece around six years ago now, when my last relationship was coming to an end and as I was approaching my 40th birthday, but never got around to publishing it. I have not been back to Horreya since. )   

Cairo: Remembrance of Things Past

party 2

Another season in Cairo after an especially long sojourn back home and I am already missing old friends. I have returned after a fresh wave of departures – the yearly diaspora that is part of life for foreigners here. This round has been especially harsh; it feels like my circle has dissipated overnight. I thought I had taken precautions to maintain my friendships as my relationship with S deepened, but I hadn’t counted on the loss of impetus to make new ones.

The ghosts of old friends pervade the city. In that home on the corner, I once partied late into the night, as old Egyptian belly dance movies flickered on a wall behind us. On another occasion – it must have been winter – we huddled up on the balcony with our drinks over a makeshift fire, shooting the breeze til dawn and exhaustion crept in. When other friends lived there, I attended sunny barbecues in the walled-off garden – a rarity in this city of grey high-rises – eating mezze and grilled meats and watching piles of empties mount up in the corner.

In that flat just up the road, other friends held sophisticated soirees attended by a lively crowd of diplomats and journalists and activists, as the Nile sparkled beautifully in the distance. In this favourite restaurant – now sadly closed – I met many friends over the years, sometimes for big crowded brunches, at others for intimate one-on-ones over fluffy scrambled eggs and toast. We talked about our relationships, our jobs, the joys and challenges of babies, the choices we had made that had brought us to this place at this moment in time.

At that café overlooking the Nile, I brunched with other friends – long, lazy Lebanese breakfasts with Om Kolthoum providing the soundtrack, punctuated by the sounds of the river, cooled by industrial-sized fans. There were felucca rides too with varied friends – more motorboat than traditional felucca in this stretch of the river – but a chance still to escape the crowded streets. On one memorable occasion, I wandered here with a couple of friends for an early morning felucca after an all-night party, drinking in the silence as the sun crept up.

Just around the corner, in that flat with the huge terrace, were more amazing parties – tables laden with food and drink, a butler, sometimes a DJ – and a whole crowd of people who have now departed. Over the years, I have attended parties and gatherings in almost every street in this upscale neighbourhood and their memories linger in the air – Gatsbyesque reminders that the best always seems to be behind us. I am not sure if it is the city that has changed or me. I suspect we have both grown wearier over time.

In this crowded arts centre many years ago, I saw a stirring oud concert with my love at the time – the man who brought me back to this city after my first visit here. Down that busy main street, I sat with a dear friend for mint tea and shisha, discussing our demons and the difficulties of being students again in our 30s. Here too, I walked down to Tahrir with other friends during the revolution – such as it was – a few years later, sometimes fearful, sometimes in awe of my adopted city. I remember our journey down here towards the square in a big group on the night Mubarak fell.

I am the only one left now.

For such a big city, Cairo expat life can feel remarkably provincial – like being on a university campus, with just a few degrees separating you from everyone else in your narrow, privileged circle, and the same unspoken awareness that time is transitory and real life on pause. I remember the many parties I hosted myself – the revolution party, end-of-curfew party, pre- and post-Ramadan celebrations, birthdays, X’mas and New Year’s shindigs. The vast majority of those who attended – both Egyptian and foreign – have now left, their lives overtaken by new jobs, new destinations, husbands, wives or babies.

There are new people now. I met one the other day – a young American girl of 23 who has been here for a year, breathless in her love for her new life here. I was like that once, I think, but I am weighted down by memories now. Goodbyes are more painful when you are far from home – your friendships more intense, heightened by the knowledge that sooner, rather than later, you will part.

In time they will renew themselves – I have been here long enough to know that. For the moment though, I am in limbo, mired in the past, not quite willing to embrace the future.