Watching and worrying

Cairo's large expatriate community may be in shock after the terror attacks, but few feel unsafe

Dan Bernard

The terrorist attacks that rained hell on New York City and the Pentagon also sent shock waves of distress through Westerners living in Cairo. United States citizens in particular found that their anguish for the faraway victims came coupled with a personal sense of unease.

"I’ve been pretty worried," said Nicole Reak, a 24-year-old who left Colorado to teach in Heliopolis. "We’re all concerned about what might happen next."

There were no reports of threats against Westerners in Egypt. But the horrifying images of the World Trade Center burning and collapsing set loose fears that Americans everywhere could be at risk.

As the US government aired suspicions that people with Arabic names carried out the jetliner attacks, young expats like Reak were deluged with calls and e-mails from relatives urging them to consider getting out of the Arab world just in case. On Sunday, Reak and her friend Naomi Monson were keeping their cool, exchanging laughs with vendors at a sunny produce stand on Maadi’s Road 9.

"We’ve got friends who say they’ll stay here forever, even if the embassy tells them to get out," said Monson, 25, of Wisconsin. "And some of our friends are ready to leave tomorrow."

Virtually every expat interviewed for this article reported having received gracious expressions of sympathy from Egyptian acquaintances. And longtime residents dismissed the suggestion that Westerners faced any danger in Egypt.

"That [terrorism] has nothing do with Egypt," scoffed Ivanka Romiak, a high school teacher from Toronto who has lived in Cairo for most of the last two decades, including during the Persian Gulf War. "Egypt has always been safe. Egyptians are pacifists. They’re the kindest people in the world."

But other long-term transplants said they were saddened by what they saw as a cynical reaction by some Egyptians to the bloodshed–and how it could reveal a worsening state of relations between the West and the Arab world.

Maria Hogenbirk grew up in New Jersey, 15 miles from the World Trade Center, before marrying an Egyptian and moving to Heliopolis with their three daughters. Hogenbirk said she was stunned when her daughters said their schoolmates had cheered news of the attacks in New York. Hogenbirk’s 11-year-old quoted her classmates: "‘Hurray, hurray, they got what they deserve.’"

"I thought, where does that come from?" said Hogenbirk, 50. "It all stems from what they’re hearing at home. My daughters can’t understand what they’re hearing. My daughters are fearful now and questioning–what’s it going to lead to?

"I have the chills. Watching CNN on TV, I break down. Especially being so far from home, it’s so hard to absorb it all," she said.

Expressing similar disappointment was Angela Dillon. Dillon, 31, says her eyes have been opened to the flaws in US Middle East policy since she moved to Cairo from Palm Springs, California, a year and a half ago. Still, she feels affronted that some Egyptians and local media commentators barely paused for respect before using the terror attacks as an opportunity to critique US policy.

Dillon said she was particularly upset when she overheard a discussion between some of her Egyptian co-workers. They speculated that the US government had fabricated the names of Arab suspects in the hijackings and suggested that the Israeli government had engineered the attacks on its ally in order to turn world opinion against the Palestinians.

"I feel uncomfortable that these things are being said, because I don’t come in and say, ‘All Muslims are terrorists’ or anything like that," Dillon said. "I agree that US foreign policy may be unfair. But to come in the next day after the attack and say, ‘American policy brought this on’–it’s not really a good time and place. I feel like it’s not a time for political arguments. It saddens me even more."

On the surface, the carnage in the United States changed little for Westerners in Egypt. After the attacks occurred Tuesday afternoon Cairo time, the US Embassy closed to the public, reopening Sunday with an enhanced presence from the Egyptian police.

"Americans have called up saying, what is our posture, or what do you know? A little bit nervous, but not terribly so," said Philip Frayne, the embassy’s press attaché. "The few people that have called up have seemed concerned, but it’s not a huge number of calls."

The Cairo American College high school in Maadi cancelled classes and athletics for two days. The American University in Cairo also cancelled classes in a gesture of sympathy and banned the media from campus the next week to avoid a political furor, a spokeswoman said.

Beyond that, official reactions were slight. Mostly because of its proximity to the US mission, the British Embassy closed for a day. So did the American International School in Heliopolis. The Canadian Embassy stayed open, as did other English-language schools. And life proceeded as normal for most expatriates. Some stayed away from places where tourists gather, out of a worry, however baseless, that Westerners were more vulnerable to harm there. Others just avoided talking politics outside their circles.

While the attacks served notice that the United States could no longer consider itself immune to major terrorist attacks, Sophie Ashton, 32, of Yorkshire, England said British visitors had already learned to live with that sense of vulnerability because of years of attacks by the Irish Republican Army.

Representatives of the American Chamber of Commerce in Cairo said they had heard no reports of businesses changing their plans or operations in reaction to the terror attacks.

One man from the United States said he was concerned that rising political tensions could jeopardize an Egyptian petroleum venture he had just entered. He declined to give his name because he said he was worried about his safety.

"There is a concern, and anybody who tells you there’s not isn’t being honest with you," said the 41-year-old Maadi resident. "We’re in the Middle East. Everything’s pointing our way."

Volume 5, Issue 28
20 -26 SEPTEMBER 2001


© Cairo Times