May 3, 2013 6:50 pm

Expat lives: Lebanon to Egypt

The FT’s Middle East and north Africa correspondent, finds Cairo’s idiosyncrasies more challenging as a father
Borzou Daragahi with his wife, Delphine Minoui, and daughter Samarra in Tahrir Square, Cairo©Tara Todras-Whitehill

Borzou Daragahi with his wife, Delphine Minoui, and daughter Samarra in Tahrir Square, Cairo

They’re not the real Pampers. They’re the ones made in Egypt. And they leak. I have come to realise this after repeatedly peeling off the wet clothes from my infant daughter’s bottom.

Life has changed since I’ve become a father living in Cairo after more than a decade working as a correspondent in the Middle East. There used to be a time when I’d ask my friends coming to visit from abroad to buy me a couple bottles of premium liquor from the duty free or a few hundred grams of chèvre or Comté cheese from the fromagerie. Now I ask them to pick up some high-quality western-made Pampers or, when there’s a shortage, some baby formula. Aptamil is my new single malt.

I am no stranger to rough living. I have spent long stretches in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Iran under the Revolutionary Guard’s lockdown and Libya during a time of civil war and militia rule.

Despite the images of fiery chaos on television and the continued tumult following the Arab Spring uprisings, Cairo is a far less dangerous place than Baghdad, or even where my parents live in Chicago, with its rising homicide rate.

This magnificent, sprawling and vibrant city, undergoing dramatic changes after its 2011 revolution, remains full of comforts. Five swanky health clubs lie within walking distance to home in Zamalek, a leafy upper-middle-class district on the Nile that hosts many foreign embassies. For a daily entrance fee of about $15 per person or an annual subscription of more than $1,000, one’s family can enrol in the Gezira Club, a 75-acre expanse of green space with two fitness centres, two swimming pools, a golf course, horse-riding trails and tennis and squash courts.

Cairo and the Nile by night©4Corners Images

Cairo and the Nile by night

Good quality restaurants in town serve everything from sashimi to vindaloo. And new eateries such as Cairo Kitchen have reshaped traditional Egyptian stews into scrumptious yuppie fare.

Of course, there are architectural and archeological treasures both renowned and obscure, including the pyramids of Giza and the tombs of Saqqara. To get away from the city, tremendous weekend resorts await a short plane ride or drive away along the Red Sea and Mediterranean and in the oasis towns of the desert. Compared with Beirut, Istanbul or Dubai, prices for rent, transportation and groceries are relatively low.

The Sultan Barquq mosque©4Corners Images

The Sultan Barquq mosque

We very briefly considered buying, but quickly realised Egypt’s ongoing political and economic crisis had frozen real estate transactions. Many rental flats are in a state of disrepair, and many landlords insist on letting their places with their ancient and sometimes tacky furnishings. After a month of frustrating apartment-hunting, we found a splendid unfurnished flat with parquet floors, high ceilings, elegant trimmings and a wraparound balcony in a prewar, art deco building with a gorgeous wood-panelled elevator out of a Dashiell Hammett novel.

My wife, Delphine Minoui, a writer for Le Figaro, and I spent months assembling a dedicated team of nannies and housekeepers who help us not only watch over the baby and run the house, but navigate some of Cairo’s ways. Ali the plumber, who doubles as an informal parking lot attendant along the street, is some kind of mechanical genius. Samer, the handyman and occasional ministry of culture employee, brings a watch-like precision to hanging paintings, light fixtures and curtains. Taher and his relatives can get us a car to take us to the airport or further destinations within minutes. Mohamed, the FT’s longtime office manager and native of the lovely river town of Aswan, navigates the ministries and embassies as sleekly as a salmon cuts across rough waters.

Egyptians seem to fawn over children, and try to accommodate them when they can, though I get a bit leery when strangers kiss little Samarra on the cheek or offer her candy without asking.

We are sending her three times a week to a well-maintained day-care centre filled with adoring nannies for a mere $180 a month. An even better Montessori-influenced pre-school awaits her when she’s a bit older; and unlike in New York or London, there are no waiting lists.

Khan el-Khalili bazaar in the Islamic district of Cairo©Corbis

Khan el-Khalili bazaar in the Islamic district of Cairo

But as a new parent, I find I can no longer shrug off the familiar dysfunctions and perils of Cairo with cynical cackles as mere fodder for news. They are now potential impediments to the wellbeing of my daughter.

When my wife and I lived here in the summer of 2007, the frenetic freestyle bebop of car-horns – the almost pathological way drivers honk their horns, even when there is no foot or vehicle traffic – seemed a component to the city’s 24-hour vitality. The air pollution was bad – especially when farmers burnt the fields after harvest – but not as suffocating as Tehran, which is a mile above sea level.

Now I wonder whether Cairo’s noise, dust and smog is why my daughter keeps waking up so early in the mornings and is so frequently congested and coughing.

In Baghdad I once had a dentist give me root canal treatment. Despite the out-of-date novocaine that only partially numbed my jaw, I snickered every time he left me in the chair to run up to the roof and switch generators as the power came in and out.

I was nowhere near as nonchalant when a reckless Egyptian doctor told us over the phone to feed our baby powerful antibiotics to treat her cough without even examining her. (Thankfully, we later consulted another paediatrician who said she needed no such thing.)

A market vendor©4Corners Images

A market vendor

In the weeks after the collapse of Muammer Gaddafi’s rule in Tripoli, I spent several hours a day hunting for food and drinking water. It was August. The power was frequently out, and tap water was cut off. I bathed twice a day with wet wipes. I reeked but it was all part of the adventure.

But I was harried middle-aged dad rather than macho war correspondent during Egypt’s bottled water crisis of 2012. The authorities had shut down a bunch of factories for alleged health-code violations. Severe shortages ensued. I went from supermarket to supermarket, trying to get my hands on some bottles of Nestlé or Aquafina for the little one.

Recently a group of archaeology school graduates began staging their own mini-Tahrir Square by our house, camping out in front of the Ministry of Antiquities to demand jobs. A few times they’ve scuffled with police, residents and business owners. I might have once been thrilled for a ringside seat at such street drama. But I now can’t help imagine the consequences of a rock or tear gas canister sailing through the window of my daughter’s bedroom.

In my articles, I have long written about the slow, steady collapse of institutions and economies in the Middle East and sought to explain what it means for ordinary people as well as business. In Egypt, nowadays, we live it. After the devaluation of Egypt’s currency, importers suddenly found they had less money for commerce. Instead of ordering, say, 100 crates of baby formula, they would buy 70. Shortages ensued. We feared not being able to get enough Aptamil for Samarra.

Approaching the pyramids of Giza in a taxi©4Corners Images

Approaching the pyramids of Giza in a taxi

As usual, local connections came through. The neighbourhood pharmacist called a friend who knew a friend. We paid a premium, and it felt a little like we had just made an illicit drug purchase when the white powder showed up at our doorstep. But Samarra had her formula.

For perhaps the first time since I’ve lived in the Middle East, I feel the full emotional impact of what it’s like to live in a failing state that by default favours the strong over the weak; where those who lack connections are invisible and even money can buy you only limited privileges; where there are badly fraying systems of accountability; and quality control is faltering even at the local nappy factory.

Being forced to entrust my child to a doctor knowing there are no legal or professional consequences if she gets it wrong – even though I am paying her – is terrifying. But it hopefully also makes me a more sensitive reporter and a conscientious parent.

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Buying guide

Pros

● Archeological and architectural treasures galore

● Well-connected airport with regular flights to all major European, African and Middle Eastern cities

● Relatively inexpensive domestic help, transport costs, food and rent

Cons

● Traffic, noise and pollution

● Seismic political instability means a breakdown in law and order and systems of accountability in ever/y field

● The summer heat and the possibility that energy shortages may mean frequent brownouts

What you can buy for ...

$100,000: A one-bedroom, 95 sq m apartment in Nasr City, a middle-class suburb in eastern Cairo

$1m: A four-bedroom, 400 sq m apartment in Giza, overlooking the Nile

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