Few things daunt writer and adventurer Robert Twigger. In the course of writing eight books, the 46-year-old has hunted the world’s longest python, and investigated a drug ritual in Haiti that turns people into real-life zombies. Yet even he admits to a temporary loss of nerve during last year’s Egyptian revolution.
“I was at home in Cairo and my friend Paul the priest rang,” Twigger says, reflecting one year on about the revolution that began on January 25 2011. “Escaped prisoners were rampaging along his street, which leads from the notorious Tora jail to the middle-class suburb of Maadi, where he lives.
“I dug out a Nagaland headhunter’s knife my grandfather gave me. If push had come to shove, it would have been ineffectual but it was important psychologically,” he says. “My mother-in-law helped us barricade ourselves in the flat by stacking furniture against the door. The huge Carrefour supermarket down the road got torched.”
Cairo isn’t Twigger’s first taste of expat life. After studying philosophy at Oxford, he moved to Japan. A career teaching English as a foreign language increasingly frustrated him: “A lot of it involved translating obscene pop-song lyrics for schoolgirls,” he says. So in an attempt to escape a rut, he signed up to learn aikido with Tokyo’s riot police. The experience became the subject of his debut Angry White Pyjamas, the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 1998. Much of Twigger’s writing since has included acts of derring-do. But it is the philosophy of adventure, not machismo, that interests him.
Twigger first visited the Egyptian capital in 1993. He arrived to see a friend, but left having fallen in love with his future wife, Samia, who worked for Reuters. The couple moved to Oxford, where they had two children. In 2004, restlessness and England’s high cost of living compelled them to sell up and fling themselves into Cairo’s idiosyncratic property market.
Finding a house generally requires the services of a simsar, a cross between an estate agent and a local spiv. Every street has one. Once a buyer finds a street they like, they ask a bawab (or building concierge) to contact a simsar, who then takes them to look at places for sale. “One tip: check out your neighbours carefully,” says Twigger. “We got into a dispute over who should pay for the lift maintenance, so the neighbour got the lift altered so it didn’t stop at our floor.”
Maadi is about 25 minutes’ drive south of central Cairo, and takes its name from the Arabic for “ferries”, a reference to the lack of a bridge across the nearby Nile. The suburb mixes leafy streets and high-walled villas with western-style shops. Popular with both expats and affluent Cairenes, it’s also home to the British International School, attended by Twigger’s children, who are aged nine and 11.
New Maadi, the district where the family lives, is a fast-growing overspill. Given the number of high-rises punctuating the skyline, it’s hard to believe the area was little more than desert 20 years ago. Home comforts are not hard to find in the city, from the colonial splendour of the Windsor Hotel to the boutiques of Zamalek, the Nile island sometimes called Egypt’s answer to New York’s SoHo.
“My favourite place is the Al Kotob Khan international bookshop around the corner from us,” Twigger says. “Great cappuccinos. So peaceful. Although if you want to live like you do in the UK, you’ll find it more expensive in some ways. Fine wines and steaks will set you back. But you’ll never iron a shirt again: 10 pence each and delivered to your door.”
Smog often blankets Cairo, making it almost intolerable in the summer. An unexpected consequence of the revolution was that initially cars stayed off the roads. “I’ve never seen the sky so clear,” says Twigger. “Amazingly, for the first time we could see the Wadi Degla hills from the apartment.”
This year Twigger will spend more time in the UK for work reasons, watching from afar as democratic Egypt takes its first steps. “I’ll miss the country,” he says. “The best thing about Cairo is that it’s a place where small miracles happen daily.”
● High-quality international schools
● Africa’s only metrosystem is surprisingly effective, enabling more than 700m passenger journeys a year
● Red Sea resorts are a couple of hours’ drive away
● The political instability following Mubarak’s overthrow
● The bureaucracy can be infuriating; connections help
● Poor waste collection makes Cairo one of the world’s most polluted cities
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