More and more, I'm realizing that I live inside bubbles--no, that wasn't a typo; I really did say bubbles, as in more than one. I live in a bubble inside another bubble.
The larger bubble within which I live is affectionately known as the "Expat Bubble." It consists of all--okay many of--the expatriates who make Cairo their home. Included are Americans, Brits, South Africans, Indians . . . and many others.
I say that the expat bubble consists of many of the expats here, not all of them, because there are some expats who have a much more difficult life. These include the refugees. I've met one refugee through my church and have heard stories that would make a heart of stone soften. Some refugees are here illegally and could be deported, some back to countries where they would face immediate execution, at any time. Most refugees are poor, unable to get permanent employment, taking any job that comes their way. For a blog entry from Mark Jaffrey that will give you a much better idea of what life is like for the refugees, click here.
Anyway, those of us in the expat bubble have a pretty nice life. We're rich by Egyptian standards, even those of us who are not rich by the standards of our home countries. We live in very nice flats ("flat" is a much more commonly used word than "apartment" here), and we shop. A lot. We buy custom-made furniture. We buy alabaster. We buy all sorts of things. Many of us have maids and drivers. We're not worried about where the next meal will come from or how we're going to pay next month's rent. Many of us work with Egyptians, usually as supervisors or others with authority, although some interact with the Egyptian government as well. Those of us who are wives often don't work; we entertain ourselves with shopping or CSA activities. Some do volunteer work. But mostly we associate with each other. When the unemployed expat wives come into contact with Egyptians, it's usually because the Egyptian is our employee or a shopkeeper, or maybe a beggar on the street. We don't often get to know the Egyptians with whom we come into contact, unless it's our bawwab (doorman), maid, or driver. We live a sheltered life, although I can't really give too many details about what life is like outside the expat bubble. I'm still working on coming out of my smaller bubble and becoming more involved in the expat bubble. In time, I hope to venture out of the expat bubble and get to know more Egyptians and what their lives outside the bubble are like.
Within the expat bubble, there's an even more pampered group of people. This is the "Embassy Bubble," in which I am snugly ensconced. The embassy bubble specifically consists of Americans who work for the U. S. Mission to Cairo (the embassy and USAID, or the U. S. Agency for International Development, as well as NAMRU, the Navy something Medical Research Unit) and the families of those employees. We are pampered beyond belief. Our incomes are not as high as many of the other expats' (think oil), although it is higher than some.
The embassy people tend to live almost exclusively within our own little bubble. Those who work, work with other embassy people. Those who do not work socialize with other unemployed embassy spouses. Many of us live in embassy-owned compounds, although some live in embassy-owned apartments on the economy. Our housing compounds don't have bawwabs, but we do have armed guards. No one who doesn't "belong" is allowed in. Deliveries are dropped off at the gate, unless it's a big delivery, in which case the deliveryman waits at the gate until we come to escort him. (We can have visitors who don't have to be escorted, but they do have to sign in.) And our other privileges make it unnecessary for us to step too far outside of the embassy bubble.
We can eat out at the Maadi House. The Maadi House is a walled villa. On its grounds are a pool, a playground, a grassy area, a restaurant, and a bar. I think I remember seeing tennis courts, too, and there may be more in there. We've used it only for the restaurant so far; they have an excellent buffet on Thursday nights--good marinated steak--and a very good brunch buffet on Friday mornings. The food comes from the commissary (see the next paragraph). The Maadi House exists as a social club for the embassy. There's a yearly fee (I forget how much), because you have to join it. Guests are allowed, with members, for a fee of LE3, or around 60 cents. So combine the Maadi House with Otlob (an online service that lets you order from a multitude of restaurants, who all deliver, including McDonald's), and you don't have to go outside the bubble even if you don't want to cook . . . even if you haven't hired your own personal chef, which is also a possibility here.
A more coveted privilege we have--possibly the most coveted--is our access to the commissary. Egyptians and most expats have to either go out to Carrefour (think Super Wal-Mart) to buy necessities, or they have to go to various small shops near their homes. To prepare for a dinner, they must visit the bread shop, the fruit and vegetable stand, the butcher, the spice shop . . . each shop tends to be specialized to one product, so you have to traipse all over Maadi, or Zamalek, or wherever you live. Even then, some things that you take for granted back home simply aren't available here. Your favorite brand of soap or shampoo may be available at the local pharmacy, but probably not. Want some real pork bacon, sausage, or hot dogs? Out of luck, not going to find it here. Not unless you have comissary privileges. It's like a small, but incredibly well-stocked, grocery store. We have produce, frozen meats, milk we can be confident has been pasteurized properly, pet food (available but very expensive on the local economy), cleaning supplies, a personal hygiene section . . . and if they don't have your favorite brand, you can request it. They may just be able to get it for you. Only embassy personnel are allowed to step foot in the commissary. Even the Department of Defense (DOD) contractors, who have access to the DOD-run PX and convenience stores, don't get in the commissary. On our first day at the embassy, they made up special commissary cards for us. No commissary card, no access, no exceptions. And someone with commissary privileges can lose those privileges by buying things at the commissary for someone without commissary privileges. It's okay to buy gifts there; we've given hot dogs as a gift to someone without commissary privileges, and we've had people over and served hot dogs from the commissary. But the recipient cannot pay you back without the risk that you'll lose your privileges. And there's no way I'm risking that.
Our other highly prized privilege--the other strong contender for the title of "most coveted"--are our APO privileges. Imagine being in a foreign country where the things to which you're accustomed are not available. What do you do? Well, if you have APO privileges, you get on Amazon.com or you call your mom and tell her what to ship to you (thanks, Mom!). The APO is the military mail system that provides a U. S. mailing address for those of us who are overseas. Many online vendors will ship to APOs, and if they won't, they'll ship to someone in the States who can forward the package for you. You don't even have to pay for the shipping from the APO collection point (I think it's New York for this region) to the final destination. Other expats have to pay international shipping fees, and even then packages may not arrive in a timely manner or at all, or they have to find someone who is traveling from the States (or Britain, or India, or whatever country they're from) and ask that person--sometimes a friend of a friend--to bring the item along. I received an email recently from a friend who wanted a book from the States. I was tempted to offer to let her order it off of Amazon or ChristianBook.com and ship it to me, but there's a catch: Just like with the commissary, if you extend the privilege to someone who isn't entitled to it, you can lose it. And with as much as Jeff and I depend on the APO, that isn't an option. So I offered instead to talk to a friend who's going home next month to pick up her two cats. (It wasn't necessary; someone else is coming back this week, so she won't have to wait as long for her book.)
Many "embassy people" don't stray outside of the embassy bubble. And some of those who do venture forth create resentment by lording their privileges over the other expats, or just by being arrogant in general. "Embassy people" don't necessarily have the best reputation within the expat community. You're more likely to hear someone say "Yeah, he's an embassy guy, but he's nice" rather than "Yeah, he's an embassy guy but he's a real arrogant jerk." And you don't have to say "He's an embassy guy and he's a jerk"; that's kind of redundant in many minds.
I'm trying to strike a balance between my two competing instincts: I certainly don't want to talk too much about privileges that I can't share, as much as I would like to share them, but I am very curious about what the other expats do in order to compensate for not having commissary and APO privileges. So when I'm with other expats at church or at cell group, I'm trying to listen more than I speak about those things.
So, uh, if you're a non-embassy expat and you're reading this particular blog entry . . . please don't hold it against me. :-)