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Yasmina of Cairo

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NADA Magazine

BRINGING UP A BABY IN CAIRO
By Yasmina

Last September 2002, on a balmy evening marred only by the heavy fug of carbon monoxide drifting from the city’s highways, I brought my two and a half-month-old son back to Cairo. Born into the leafy green damp of an English summer, rocked daily beneath the leaves of a mulberry tree in my mother’s old pram, and admired by kindly friends on sedate walks across the village green, there was nothing to prepare him for the life he was about to be hurtled into.

The trip home from the airport was our first reminder. As I tried in vain to wedge his car seat into the back of our old Mazda without the help of seat belts, my plea to drive carefully was met with a cheerful “of course!”, only to be followed by the usual hair-raising dodgem ride with trucks, taxis and unlicensed drivers swerving around us, the belch and blare of fumes and horns a stark reminder that we’d well and truly arrived.

Did that sound bring a flicker of memory from the womb? Throughout most of my pregnancy I’d driven these choked streets, following journalistic assignments by day and dancing at weddings at night until well into the second trimester, our journeys to and fro accompanied by the street music of two million vehicles, tooting, honking, purring, and occasionally colliding. Pregnancy made me careless, and on more than one occasion I found myself leaping from behind the wheel to shake a fist at a cowboy of a microbus driver that I’d failed to steer clear of, only to be met with mirth and derision from his passengers hanging from the windows. A mad foreign woman driver – and pregnant too. What a laugh!

His name is Azzedine, which means literally “loved by religion”. For a Christian mother and a not particularly devout Muslim father it might seem an odd choice. But its connotations for me were very different. I chose it many years ago from the pages of Vogue, when Azzedine Alaia was the toast of Paris. Later I watched the old Egyptian classic movie in which Azzedine, a Mamluk prince from the days of medieval Islam, escapes from a fortress to marry his sweetheart in an Arabic version of the Count of Monte Christo. Friends in England thought it sounded romantic. Here in Egypt it quickly became shortened to Azz, or beloved. And that seemed perfect.

As a dancer performing around the Middle East and in the nightclubs of Cairo, I’d left it late to have a baby. There was always one last contract to fulfill, one last irresistible place to travel to. He was finally conceived near enough to the day of September 11th 2001, and as he grew inside me, and simultaneously global tensions began to grow between the ‘civilized’ West and the ‘dangerous’ Muslim East, I became increasing aware of the connotations of what I had done. I felt as though this child somehow represented own my personal contribution to inter-cultural relations; a tiny living bridge; a statement of peace in an increasingly distrustful world. (In the warm glow of pregnancy such thoughts blossomed. I was impervious to pessimism, as though cushioned in an amniotic fluid of my own.)

Meanwhile, all around me, warning flares were being launched in every direction. An American friend, in the throes of a nasty divorce, was in the process of having her eight-year-old son taken from her by her Egyptian husband. Another acquaintance, who’d carefully brought up her own half-Egyptian son to be mindful of his Catholic mother’s roots, was alarmed to discover him fasting in Ramadan and going daily to pray at the mosque. Didn’t I fear the future, I saw the question in the eyes of my friends. The answer seemed to be, no. My own Egyptian husband may not pray five times a day, but the birth of his first son (he has three daughters) suddenly made him respectful of a God to whom he’d hitherto paid the minimum attention.

An immediate visit to the extended family, of whom we generally saw little, was the first order of the day. Little Azzedine was descended upon like humming birds to an exotic new flower. His brother-in-law whisked him from my arms and held him high under the bare electric light bulb illuminating a modest four-room apartment in the teeming baladi neighbourhood of Zeitoun.

Then, with the practiced ease of the truly devout, he began to recite prayers from the Koran into his ear, a fervent murmur asking God to guard him from evil spirits. Short, bald and dressed in his long white galabaya, he looked nothing like any of the good fairies at the christening, yet in effect that’s what he was. A blessing is a blessing in any religion, and to me it seemed a magical moment. We’d missed the traditional ‘siboa’, the welcome party for a new baby that takes place seven days after birth, and with it some of the most ritualistic traditions still common-place today. I’d failed to lay him on the floor and step over him seven times wafting an incense burner, or place a knife on either side of his cradle to ward off the devil. And I’d also missed having friends and relatives bring gifts of money – too bad! But it wasn’t too late for the ‘aaqiqa’, the Muslim giving of thanks for the gift of a baby in a tradition reminiscent of the Bible, when Ibraham offered his son in sacrifice, and was allowed by God to sacrifice a sheep instead. Nowadays the wealthy will have the largest animal they can afford slaughtered, and the meat divided into three parts; one for the family, one to neighbours, and the third to the mosque where it is distributed amongst the poor. Azz’s father, who hadn’t done this for any of his three daughters, was determined to do it for his first born son. But although I’m not a vegetarian, the idea of sheep’s blood across my threshold made me slightly queasy.

“Couldn’t we have it done at the butcher’s and then just distribute the meat from there?” I asked hopefully, but apparently the sacrifice must be made at the baby’s home.

“You can go out and we’ll clean it up before you come back”, his family told me cheerfully, but when the time came the sheep was delivered early. As its plaintive bleat echoed up the stone stairs of the hallway there was no time to leave and I found myself trapped, reduced to hiding behind a door as the sound of tiny hooves pattered towards the bathroom. By the time I returned home the walls of the shower were thankfully spotless, but an over-powering stench of seasoned lamb emanated from four large saucepans boiling on my stove, while female relatives bustled around the kitchen. Azz, they gleefully informed me, had enjoyed the whole spectacle. (I could believe it. Already proving himself a typical Egyptian he loves any social gathering). Later I distributed parcels of rice and meat to our neighbours; the local corner-shop, the people downstairs who knock out fake Louis XIV three piece suites day after day, and the friendly DIY man across the road. Overnight I went from being the foreigner of dubious morals who was rumoured to dance at weddings, to Om Azz (Mother of Azz), esteemed barer of male child, and as such, highly regarded in all quarters.

Little did they know, though, that the weddings continued. At age four months, and still exclusively breast-feeding on demand, Azz accompanied us to performances, fussed over by my orchestra, calmly taking it in his stride. In the almighty din of a sound system blaring out live Arabic music to a hotel ballroom full of wedding guests, he would sleep peacefully in his car seat, sometimes waking at two am to find his mother on stage in a shimmering costume, dancing with the bride and groom. On one occasion, in the midst of a throng of jigging guests, I saw him weaving towards me, carried high in the arms of one of my musicians, being bounced to the beat. His eyes were a little wide, but other than that he seemed unfazed. Children are nothing new in the nightspots of Cairo, and many is the time I’ve seen babies sleeping on table tops while their families revel into the small hours. But never did I imagine I’d be the one whipping off a sequined bra to feed a hungry mouth in the dressing-room, my skin still damp from performing.

Sometimes I’ve thanked my lucky stars that, in many ways, Cairo is the ultimate baby-friendly city. Where else, I’ve asked myself, could a journalist take a squalling infant to an interview and not be viewed with pitying disapproval – or shown the door? There comes that inevitable day – familiar to all working mothers – when the nanny doesn’t show up and there’s no getting out of that all-important meeting. Often it works just fine; Egyptians smile indulgently at the sight of a baby, and more often than not will dandle him on their knee whilst you scribble in your notebook. There was the embarrassing occasion though when I turned up at the home of a famous author with a wingeing Azz in my arms, hoping there’d be a friendly female relative eager to take him off my hands. Instead the author turned out to be a chain-smoking bachelor, and I was reduced to shouting questions at him whilst jogging an increasingly loud and fretful Azz on my shoulder up and down the room, with my notepad resting on his back.

“So how would you say the influence of globalization has affected East West relations?” (Whaa whaa whaa). “We are moving closer and closer to a crisis of misunderstanding – here, d’you think he’d like a biscuit…”

But although Cairo is baby-friendly when it comes to other people, environmentally it’s a disaster. At three and a half months Azz was admitted to hospital with asthma symptoms, and as I helped the nurses clamp a nebulizer mask to his face and wept while they inserted the needle for the drip into his tiny vein, I knew my tears were partly from guilt and fear that the city’s pollution had brought it on. Perhaps I should never have brought him back here, I starting thinking, remembering the green grass and fresh air of the English village where he was born. The doctor was more sanguine, pointing out that I’d admitted asthma runs in my family, and that there are other factors to consider. But five months and another attack later, the nagging feeling continued to haunt me. Our quests for clean air take us out once or twice a week to the Pyramids, where Azz has ridden an Arabian stallion in the arms of a robed Bedouin, and once to the races (I was covering a story) where in typically relaxed Egyptian fashion, he was permitted to crawl on the turf of the track just minutes before the horses thundered past. (Grass is so rare to find, he should be allowed to enjoy it, I reasoned.)

There are of course some advantages to bringing up a baby here. Just as I predicted, help has been easy to come by, and mercifully cheap. That, at least, is the good part. I have to admit though, that nannies tend to come and go with depressingly regularity. I dreamed of finding the “lovely, motherly girl” my own mother described. “It must be easy out there,” she said, before we left. But I couldn’t help but be alarmed by the advice of my downstairs neighbour, who’d been through twelve nannies in four years.

“This is the drill,” she told me, matter-of-factly. “Filipinos are good, but very expensive. Nubians are excellent, but they have terrible boyfriends. Local girls are the worst. They’ll teach your child slang words, and they’ll try to involve you their personal problems. Of course, no matter which kind you get, they all steal from you – so don’t forget to keep everything locked up at all times.”

I had no choice in the matter; the Egyptian girls were all I could afford. And her advice proved absolutely true. At our third attempt, a playful, volatile twenty-four-year-old who quickly familiarized herself not only with the ins and outs of my life but the contents of my bedroom closet as well, I decided it was futile to replace her. I just bought better locks. Better the devil you know – and anyway, Azz adores her. After eight years in Egypt I am still a foreigner, and as my son grows his unmistakably Egyptian features often cause strangers to look at us curiously. Can he really be mine, they’re thinking. In the recent past, when war raged in Iraq, many of us from the UK or America experienced a mixture of embarrassment and nervousness out in public. As the bombs fell on Iraqi civilians, Azz felt like a talisman in my arms; his Egyptian blood pulling me with him to the ‘right’ side of the fence. A baby, I have learned, is a potent symbol, of solidarity, of optimism, of hope.

Sometimes I read e-mails from friends back home and feel envious. So-and-so’s six month old daughter goes to bed by seven pm and sleeps soundly in her own room each night (Egyptian babies sleep with Mummy and stay up all hours). Azz’s little cousin lives in the countryside and gets to look at green fields full of happily munching cows (Azz sits on the balcony and watches donkeys struggle by pulling heavily-laden carts, or peers from the windows of taxis through a mist of traffic fumes). His mosquito net comes from B&Q, but it’s not just for show - one night without it and his little head breaks out in tender red lumps.

But then I watch him gaze enraptured at the crowds as we walk through the souk, jog in his walker to the sound of Arabic MTV, and revel in the unlimited attention of family, friends, his nanny and his Dad, in a country that embraces children as an integral part of day to day life. He’ll grow up, I remind myself, knowing two cultures, seeing the world from both sides of the East West divide and will hopefully empathize with both. In a world that despite global homogenization seems daily more polarized, that must be a good thing.
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