This is to be a journal of my trip to Schutz for the 90th anniversary of the school’s founding. I start out with a tad of anticipation, a tinge of sentiment for les temps perdus, as my friend Alice (Meloy) would say, but I feel a bit of inspiration coming on. I begin this journal on a terrace at the airport in Geneva, Switzerland, the transfer point from the US to Egypt. I’ll make it mostly reportage but will try to convey the feelings from what I see and experience.
I write this to record the experience to share with my fellow Schutzites, so get in the mood for a virtual trip with me to Alexandria and Schutz, my friends!
Friday June 12 – Saturday June 13
I really only realized after arriving to Geneva at around 8 in the morning that I had a long layover waiting for the Cairo flight at 3 pm. Strangely inefficient system for arrivals, for the Swiss – passport control even for transit passengers – with no signage so I (and several others) got in the wrong lines. I bought Evian and a baguette au jambon et fromage and headed to this sunny terrace where I found it airy and mild with mountain-scape and high brilliant blue skies. I caught up on emails, worked on a few reunion items (shopping list a mile long of things to look for in Alex for the friends and the reunion next month; notes for some of the sessions), dozed in an easy chair for a while then spent the last hour before boarding in the airline lounge. A LONG, slow line for exit passport control after security and after the shopping mall and lounge areas. Who would have thought? Good thing I wasn’t hurrying to the gate – many were nervously pacing and looking at watches. I left polite comments with officials standing by. “It’s all new, we haven’t finished yet.”
When standing in the line for boarding passes at the EgyptAir counter, it was the first time to notice Egyptians. That familiar look and voice, unmistakable Egyptian Arabic dialect and vocabulary instantly made me feel something of a kinship. Alatool! La’azm. Kwais gidden, with a hard “g.” Aiwee. Ya salaam! All different terms from what you’d hear in Yemen, really my only recent time inside the Arab World in the last 50 years. Those years in Yemen (2004-2008) while working on the national electrification strategy were quite different from what it is to be among the Egyptians. Yes, Egypt was always less formal and traditional – more familiarly friendly, really. Many in the lines were speaking a few English words (or French, some); men, boys and little kids all at ease wearing Western dress, t-shirts and so on; women all in Western dress with a colorful scarf here and there, chatting and smiling some, with blue eyes (one stewardess, remarkably, the spitting image of Barbara Streisand in Funny Lady, only maybe a little more puffy) some wearing jeans with fashionably cut dress jackets, some young men with CD players and earphones, bopping to the music. Many with laptops and electronic gear. I couldn’t but notice the big, dark and beautiful eyes and eyelashes, even on the boys and young men. Had I forgotten that Egyptians were so beautiful? Or is it just the dress that has changed. I couldn’t help but think of Schutz now full of Egyptian teenagers like these, up-and-coming; how different from the Egypt of old.
An interesting chat with a nice guy of maybe 35 sitting next to me on the flight to Cairo, where I am writing this now. This Egyptian man works at a hospital in Zurich. He learned German in school in Egypt thinking he would move to Europe and ended up in Berne. He started out in a restaurant for several years, couldn’t earn enough to make in Switzerland, took a course for medical technicians and now has a good job in a hospital handling surgical instruments, sterilizing them, etc. for re-use. He is from Tanta. What’s really going on in Egypt? What do people think of the military re-taking control, I asked him, what of convicting the first democratically elected president in Egypt to life in prison, what of democracy and human freedom? We’re happier now that things are more stable. People don’t care about human rights, we don’t know what democracy can do for us. We want good jobs; many left after the revolution (2011). If democracy brings a better economy, we’re for it. But now it’s better. What? You don’t want the freedom to speak your mind? You don’t want a modern society? But we do have a modern society! (Look at us.) We don’t care about democracy. Everyone makes a mistake in life.
He looked at me as if this was something profound. I’m going to have to think about that one. Who made the mistake? Does making a mistake in life mean you shouldn’t protest what’s wrong? Was the revolution a mistake? Was the election a mistake? Now that they are back to where they started, that probably was what he meant.
Later now – at the hotel in Alexandria. It’s past midnight, early Sunday morning.
I was met at the airport by a driver with a Schutz school sign and away we went. I was struck by how much had changed even in the last 10 years since my last visit. Tremendous road infrastructure everywhere – highways with fly-overs and curling, multi-level interchanges as if on the Beltway in DC. Along the desert road with fresh development everywhere, rest-stops mixed with industrial parks on the wayside, billboards and buildings, large, grim-looking walled compounds. We stopped for a “rest” on the six-lane highway that used to be the barren, ribbon of two-lane paved desert road between Alex and Cairo (it was now late at night). Rich black coffee. Young men in tight jeans and t-shirts lounging at tables. Suddenly rushing about – bring water! One of them had turned white as a sheet, falling from his chair. Everyone in the restaurant gathered around that table, seriously quiet. Suddenly taken ill? Drug overdose? I expect that’s what it was.
We came into town East of Ramleh, crossing Lake Mariout on a long causeway that didn’t exist in the ‘60s, and went straight to the Corniche. Four lanes in both directions, crammed with traffic. New modern buildings and hotels mixed with the occasional olden ones from our time, now much broken down with peeling painted stucco, laundry hanging from tiny dingy balconies, open-air coffee houses one after the other looking out over the water, people men and women both drawing at their communal hookas among the painted columns. Starbucks, KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut now appearing here and there, the sidewalks with people strolling. A modern and vibrant society, indeed.
Not a galibiya to be seen anywhere on the route from the airport (but the occasional armored car with large-caliber gun pointing out from alleys along the way…yes, the Egyptian army are definitely still in charge.)
As my long day’s night ends I am in a lounge in the lobby of the Hilton Corniche, where I discovered upon arriving (at midnight! – what a long drive it was from the airport in Cairo) – that the school had paid for our rooms. I had a call in the car from Amina to the driver who met me, Amina one of the Schutz staff who set this up, who informed me that one of the other Meloys will also be here along with John, the Walters and the Pattees. Amina: we will be picked up from the hotel at 11, taken to the school for lunch, then an afternoon shopping trip. I’m an old grandmother, said the warm voice. Why mention that? Maybe it was something in my voice, or maybe so that I might identify her.
Here’s the week’s schedule (sent to me last week):
These are the dates of different events happening in June 2015.
Monday, June 15
Reception on Schutz Campus at 6:30 p.m.
Tuesday, June 16
Graduation at 5:00 p.m. (Alexandria Library) Dinner 7:00p.m.
Wednesday, June 17
Montazah Beach/Lunch at 11:00
Thursday June 18
Tour of Alexandria Library at 11:00
Have a good afternoon.
I am one of two hotel guests in this place lit low with comfortable armchairs, and there is a duo entertaining us, a keyboard player with one of those electronic gizmos blaring out unseen guitar, drums and bass, and a female singer. And what are they singing? La Bamba. A Tony’s Boys number from 50 years ago this year, if my count is right. I can see the elegant Mr. Tony in thick horn-rimmed glasses at the piano, Max in the center of the stage hunkered over his solitary Liberian bongo drum, Mark and Phil singing at the microphone, but none of them is here. It feels strange to be back in Alexandria in my 65th year.
A sunny day with wispy clouds this morning at 9, still-bustling traffic with its now more-familiar sound, the higher-pitched beeping horns of downtown Egypt (– is Sunday the first day of the work week here?) – and scarves. A scarf on the elevator, scarves everywhere in the breakfast room; on the old women, restaurant workers and guests alike, the little girls with their mothers and grandmothers. Not an uncovered head to be seen. Did I simply not notice them yesterday? Do the scarves stay in the suitcases while abroad, indoors at night? Were they the scarves themselves that were absent or the wearers who weren’t out? No, it was mostly men I saw in the streets and cafes last night. And how many of those grandmothers are actually the mothers, now that I think of it? No muezzin’s call last night or this morning, or perhaps I slept through it. It’s Ramadan at the end of this week, so I’m sure to hear it, and perhaps the booming cannon at sundown each night.
Fifty-three years ago at this hour on a sunny June morning in Alex, I might have been on the wharf of the Fishing and Hunting Club, which dominated the Eastern arm of the ancient harbor. Did we go to church in the summers? I don’t remember now! Yes, we must have. Becky (Ammon) wouldn’t have been there playing the organ, and no school choir either, but Dad was diligently religious. I would have had a good night of sleep as a 12 year-old, but last night not so much.
There are thirteen of us. It’s late afternoon, after meeting in the lobby at 11 as instructed to go to the school (yes, Sunday at Schutz is our Monday and it’s a school day), after driving past the iron gate to the old volleyball court where a trail of school administrators came out to greet our minibus to see their old colleagues the Walters and Pattees; after lunch in the dining hall (a’adis soup!); after a brief tour of the school and some photo-taking; after a chat with Nathan and a long conversation with Massimo the Assistant Head of School in his office in the Meloy Building; and after an hour’s nap at the hotel after all of this. Besides the Pattees (Larry and Lavina) and the Walters (Ron and Janie), there is their son Greg Walters (a math teacher in Kuala Lumpur) and his young daughter; the Walters’ other child, a daughter, Dawn, from NC; John Meloy, his wife Clare and son George; and Sara Meloy and her 30s-something daughter, Jaime.
I had meant to go with the girls shopping after lunch but I bumped into Massimo and we started to talk. I knew that Massimo would be the key to keeping the dialogue going, so he invited me into his office and we spoke for a good hour. I asked him if he could give me something of a curriculum – what do the older kids, in particular, learn here? He showed me next year’s plan – science and math, language, English – all the usual and nothing too unusual, not as I had at Colorado Academy my last two years of high-school. One course titled Social Studies. No history, poli-sci or philosophy – those don’t come up until college. I described what I had in mind. He likes the idea and feels sure we could work something into the academic calendar. We talked about what kids do and where they go after Schutz and he easily saw the connection between the kids at Schutz today and our alumni as mentors of a kind – what would it really be? – not sure yet. My mind is already moving and picturing things, I’m getting more into this idea, which I’m sure will turn out to be something somewhat different from how I think of it now. Will anyone else be interested?
Massimo attended Schutz from 1972 -78, one of those Alexandrines of the Eastern Mediterranean (Italian) and found himself back here at George’s invitation helping to mop up late one school year in the late 1980s, befriended Mark Hambly who was one of Dad’s successors when the Consulate was still here (who I met in the late 1980s in DC, a story in itself); Hambly involved himself quite deeply in the school, it turns out – he would have been perfect to help pull things together with me on this thing. Massimo then started teaching, then became HS principal and now is the #2 at Schutz. This is indeed the School contact I needed for after Nathan leaves. I also met a math teacher, an American, and chatted with him for a while in the flags entryway of the Meloy building, looking just as it did 50 years ago. It may be me and just me alone, but I can see how we might fit in here at Schutz. I’ll know more after the meeting with the kids and faculty.
At lunch I had sat with the Walters, the Pattees, Sara and Jaime, and we talked about old times. Sara says she remembers me from the band (she was four years behind my class). She could name everyone in Tony’s Boys from our 10th grade and how fun it was to listen. (Really?) Our version of the Beatles, she said; I said yes, and all the screaming girls, too. (I was one of them, was her quick come-back.) My mind pictured George Meloy’s note in my Kalaam at the end of 10th grade – “Hope to see you back here next year – we need that guitar!” Oh, if only it had been so… While we were all at the table I laid out my ideas and told everyone they were welcome. Sara thought it would be great to do; Lavina of course always bubbled her enthusiasm at this idea in the board discussions. The two former school principals were quiet. They know this might be more appropriate for college kids, not high school. Nathan will bring in pizza (that will get the kids to come, he says) and we’ll talk into the early afternoon. Not sure when…
I know from Colorado Academy where I spent my two last years of high school that, if you treat young people seriously, if you challenge them they respond, and if the challenge has the right measure and quality. Kids don’t want to always be treated like kids. They do want to grow up and they enjoy thinking as intellectuals, thinking of college and of the life ahead by the time they are leaving HS. There may be only a few of us, if this goes, and perhaps there will be only a few of them as well. As Massimo put it, if you only light up one mind or change one young life, it will have been worth it.
We had dinner down at the ancient harbor, nearby to the fort. A seafood restaurant jutting out a little into the harbor (so-so, but not expensive), with a gorgeous third-floor view of the curving, lit-up Corniche. It was fun, joking and lots of laughing. It’s a good group. I’ve come to really like Sara and her daughter, who two years ago co-started a new private elementary school in Tucson along the lines of Montessori – emphasis on creative skills and learning how to learn. Lavina is sweet and charming, tender with her husband. Janie is a kick and her soul-hearted husband Ron has a deft touch. The shopping turned out to be a bust and they will reschedule another day. Amina is darling, with a small face and blond hair. She retired from her job as Nathan’s secretary but was called back to arrange things for this group’s visit. The first thing I asked her at lunch was where I could buy some Gianaclis wine for the reunion dinner. She went immediately to the school kitchen’s captain and in minutes I was giving him money to go make the purchase. Gianaclis? No, I can find better than that. Make sure it’s Egyptian wine, the stuff that the Romans used to import in their ancient galleys loaded with amphoras. Ma’aloum!
I’m struck by the lack of stoplights. There were a few I had seen, on the Corniche back toward town at main intersections, but I haven’t seen a single one since the first night we drove in. None between here and Schutz maybe a mile or two away. The gridlock is everywhere – cars nose into traffic to turn and then stop, which stops the oncoming flow. They stop because there is a long line standing in the side street, stopped because the side street traffic is stopped all the way to the end of the block, stopped because the traffic flow at the end of the block is stopped, it stopped because a car has nosed into oncoming traffic to turn…
There cannot be any kind of building code, or at least one that is enforced. The hodgepodge of construction of these buildings is worse than anything I have seen, anywhere in my international career. I contrast this with the really very well designed highway construction where the traffic flow is quite good. I imagine these major works being the engineering design product of foreign contractors while the ordinary building architecture is undoubtedly all Egyptian. What would the Romans or Greeks be saying about what has come of Alex? Ramses II would be appalled.
On the way to the hotel this afternoon in the impossible traffic, we turned off Rue Hureiya toward the Corniche about a mile east of the school. Masses of tall apartment buildings check-to-jowl everywhere, obscuring the blue sky. The occasional grand old, now-decaying mansion behind black iron gates and compound walls here and there jammed in-between the towering, shoddy apartment buildings. I had another of those shocking realizations of the change since 50 years ago, this time not Agami as it was for me on my last visit in 2006, but on the other side of town. We were standing in traffic on a narrow street lined with these dirty buildings, and I noticed a large sign on a compound wall just ahead to our right. I like to read the Arabic for fun and the word “Victoria” jumped out at me. Huh! – I wonder if this place is connected in some way to Victoria College. As we inched past the open iron gate, there inside was the grand old building, still with some of the open ground around it, but now blotted out by the urban squalor enclosing it. This place used to be viewed in an open, green setting, evocative of the Alexandria Quartet, surrounded by a leafy residential neighborhood on the edge of town where Cleo Prohme lived. It’s now in the middle of the city. It’s all gone now, the Alexandria we knew then. At least more Egyptians have a decent (tiny apartment) home in which to live, but the over-population of Egypt we heard of then but didn’t really see – they lived in poor villages on the perimeter and throughout the Nile valley, but generally out of sight – are here now, in the millions.
It was a good day. Our little group gets more familiar and closer as we go along, and the sense of Schutz as it is today comes forth more clearly, as well. I’m liking what I see so far. A lot happened today, so I’ll switch to bullets.
• Up again before 6 again, finished a few things on the computer and breakfasted with Sara and Jamie, John and family who arrived from Beirut yesterday evening. George the son (named after grandfather George, I presume) is a rising sophomore at ACS in Beirut. We talked of old times, they of what it was like after ’68, and things we were going to buy to take to the reunion (more later on that). I chatted with John about Charlotte’s timeline idea and while he didn’t reveal anything of what they have planned, it’s clear that the idea of the table-top paper would work well with their plan (we might do something simpler, like put flip chart paper on each table).
• Back to Schutz at 11:30 for a few meetings on logistics and planning, then lunch in the dining room. The wine was awaiting me, four bottles each of white and red, all from the Gianaclis winery (450 Egyptian pounds, or $60 total; I could pay 100% duty at customs and still come out ahead on what it would cost to buy it in the US…). After lunch a spate of emails on my cellphone from Massimo’s staff on the meeting with Student Council and Honor Society kids, now set for 10 am Wednesday.
• A big palaver about the visit to Montaza on Wednesday. Some wanted instead to go out to Alamein so I suggested we have two groups, and that’s what it will be. The Montaza group will depart from the school right after the students meeting, so I’ll get to go – my preference anyway.
• Nathan strolled up with his parents and two children in tow – they had just arrived last night from the US. He introduced us all around and I went up to say hi. Can’t you do something about your son’s poor judgment? The mom said with a smile – we tried to convince him to stay at Schutz! Nathan seemed pleased with the compliment.
• At 1:30 the student awards ceremony in the tennis court pavilion (on the same spot as the old red clay surface court). My first look at the school body – surprisingly, almost no American kids at all. I found out later that the student population this year is 85% Egyptian; almost all American dependents evacuated from Egypt during the Arab Spring revolution and they are only now trickling back in. It made me wonder what the school’s finances are just now.
• Before the long list of student awards, a few special presentations by Nathan to….. me as prez of the Schutz Alumni Assn and one each to the Pattees and Walters, both of whom have their names on the new East campus that was a walled-in private villa in our day. We all got big cheers from the audience, reminding me of similar events at the kids’ schools in Costa Rica when we lived there for three years. Unabashed enthusiasm – there’s no other term for it. Then the student awards, which filled a page of the program (and a full hour and half). Academic bowl winners, Model UN winners, NHS winners, many sports awards – volleyball, soccer, badminton and of course, basketball. The school competes in a league in Alex but also sends kids to other countries in the region for tournaments. Six Schutz championship winning teams this year! They all marched to the front while the rest cheered on. You would have been impressed with the good nature and good will that reverberated in the place – many good-looking, bright-looking kids; rich-kids, of course.
• A Schutz board member was sitting in a row in front of me – I greeted several around me – an American man who said he would point out Dinah Bahig who will be at the graduation tomorrow; I want to discuss several things with her (she came on the SASAF board last year). I was sitting next to Jaime, a tall blond, and he said “and this is your wife?” I looked at Jamie who turned red with a big smile and with that I turned back to him and said, why yes…but only while in Egypt. (Jamie burst out laughing and I had to whisper to her, what a compliment that someone should think I could be married to you! No, the compliment is mine she said…). My humor seems to work with this group.
• I spoke with the Egyptian Meloy award winner and her mother after the awards ceremony and learned that almost all of the graduating seniors are going to college in Europe, most to the UK. None to American schools? No – kids seem to be more willing to go to Europe. I wondered what it is, and I feel more determined to change that. Could it be our very tough and almost humiliating visa policy toward Arab countries now? Are we seen as being anti-Arab now? Britain! – The once-hated colonial masters of this country, the country that attacked Egypt in 1956. How things have (sadly) changed.
• After the awards ceremony the Athletic Director invited us to his office where he opened his closet to us – Schutz shirts, athletic bags, various things that I collected to bring back for the reunion. He coached basketball at Denver University; an upgrade from Coach Williams… I told him I knew about DU’s fourth-rate hockey team – he got the joke after telling him I attended hockey-crazy Colorado College (and we both understood that DU has several NCAA D-1 hockey championships while CC nothing for 60 years…)
• A group of us decided to visit the Canteen while we were waiting the trip back to the hotel and there I found that my Arabic was better than anyone else’s (John wasn’t there). I picked up some Arabic-language US snacks for the picnic, asked for “bombas” (over near the tram stop, I was told). We also found out where to buy “dog-doo” candy – remember this? (John wants to buy some for his Thursday night games.)
• A quick chat with Nathan about prospects for working with the school’s tax-exempt status as our way of obtaining it. Possible, but not likely. He is more optimistic and will send me the contacts of people to discuss this back in the US.
• We returned to Schutz in the evening for the reception in our honor. For some reason, they thought it a good idea to serve us dinner in the cafeteria first, at 5:30, then the reception in the auditorium below the b-ball court starting at 6:30. We were all full by the time we got there, and they had 30 feet of table surface full of food, plenty to drink, etc., butlers carrying around trays of drinks and canapes, etc. To greet us there were administration staff and faculty, some alumni who live in Alexandria and a number of parents of current students. It was very nice, no speeches and a great opportunity to get views on Egypt and the changes, and also to get different views on how alumni can make a difference. It was not surprising to hear from some of the parents their angst about not seeking college in the U.S. Massimo said it was because this was an unusual year, and not a very strong graduating class. The parents I spoke with didn’t have any answers, but were keenly interested in discussing my thoughts. They have money, and the reactions were all positive. The social studies/MUN teacher was particularly interested and had several good ideas. They all want to connect with us; you could feel it in the reception we got.
Down to the spectacular-looking new Biblioteca Alexandrina for commencement and a big dinner there tomorrow night. I didn’t get to see it on my visit 10 years ago, so this will be nice. It will be a dress-up affair, Larry and Ron also brought suits. John is giving the commencement address.
It’s a long way and a far cry from Schutz of the 60s, but I feel a kinship with these people and the kids. The by-word “family” is everywhere (I’ll take pics) and while different from ours, it most certainly has that sense of close-knit community still. I’m looking forward to the meeting on Wednesday.
It’s early in the morning on the hotel room balcony, with shopping this later morning. I wrote up a list beforehand, no less than 20 items! Mostly for the reunion, but a few personal things as well. I had a call with Becky a few days before leaving and asked her what she would want from Egypt. So she sent me a sweet email on Monday that ended with her modest little list. This, Egypt, was her home growing up, of course, and I know she would have wanted to come along – she said so. She also said she would set her clock to Egypt time so she could keep track of our doings.
Two of the parents I spoke with yesterday evening at the reception were of American–Egyptian pairings. One was Mahmud, who married an American teacher at Schutz, Linda. The other was Sahar, married to John the board member from the awards ceremony. She showed me a picture of her son, one of the awardees, a noticeably small boy, very handsome and a hard worker at school. I asked both of them about Egyptian society today – am I mistaken or is there a middle class here that wasn’t to be found in the 1960s? They couldn’t speak to the 60s, being maybe in their 40s, though Mahmud may be closer to our age. Oh no, the middle class has disappeared, they both agreed. Really? Oh yes, but it was much different in the 1980s. There was a bigger middle class in the 1980s, they said. It was all much better then. But I knew this wasn’t so. You can see it in the dress of the ordinary people on the street. So I pressed them to explain. Well, back then the people were happy. No, that’s not it. They were together. No… I don’t know what it was, said they.
I think I do. Something changed with Sadat. It was a kinder and gentler government and one they trusted, the first Egypt had experienced in centuries. They had ultimately lost in 1973 but they had showed the Israelis that Egyptians could fight. It was only the US fighter-bombers with no markings (if I’m right about that), flown off US carriers after the Egyptian air force had turned the tables for the Israelis, when the October War turned back in their favor. Pro-Western, now bringing lots of (US) money into the country post-Camp David, gone was the uneasy reliance on the Soviets, and the future for the first time for many Egyptians looked bright. I don’t doubt that there was a new and different sense of patriotic belief, but mostly it was probably the thought that indeed, the lives of their children and future generations would be better.
After a few words with Sahar about my background, she grabbed my arm in that determined way that Egyptian women can do and said we’re going to sit here, and we sat at one of the tables strewn around in the auditorium. I must ask you something. She went to get a drink and brought over her friend, similarly pretty, also clad in a black evening dress. This is Suzy, we were friends from the womb. (They were life-long friends – I imagine them being as if the English-speaking teenagers in Alex we would hear on the radio channel that played western music – this is for FiFi, and Martha and Rosy and Ahmed and Yasmin… and then a song by Sandra Dee or Ricky Nelson would be played, usually American artists.) So what’s your question, Sahar? My daughter was the one who spoke about MUN – she was conference chairperson (I had noticed how articulate and passionate she was). She will attend Edinburgh next year. She applied to the School of International Service in Washington (my International Studies MA school) but she wants to go to the UK. She should go to Washington. What will she find in Scotland? I went there with her and there is nothing there! I told her that SIS was an OK school when I was there, but now is rated quite highly (by Foreign Policy magazine) – higher than LSE, West Point and others but still behind Georgetown and SAIS, so still only third in DC…). But you must let her go to where she feels she will be more comfortable – does she have other friends going there? No. I don’t understand her. Has she been to Washington? No, with a doleful expression. Don’t hold on too tightly, I said. She nodded.
End of conversation, but here is why I think the idea of having those of us who are willing, to invite these rising senior kids to come to stay in our homes for a few weeks, to go to cities where there are colleges that interest them, could make a difference. There is no doubt in my mind that her daughter would find DC not only a diverse community where there are many Middle Easterners including Egyptians, but I also have no doubt that her chances of finding a lead to an international career in Washington would be far better than Edinburgh.
It’s Tuesday night now. It has all finally come into focus after this day, and I mean what I felt in 2006 and how it has felt this week. I’m just back from the graduation ceremony, international diplomat-style reception in the courtyard outside the library, and a lavish meal on the upper floor of the library annex/conference facility. What a night. I’ll say more about that in a minute.
The shopping this afternoon was more fun with this group of really good people. After two stops and about 2 ½ hours… I checked my list and found only three things to cross off. I actually bought a ton of stuff. Silly and sentimental as I am, when we returned to the school for lunch I wandered back down to the canteen to pick up 60+ bags of chips, Cheetos, Doritos, etc., for the Grand Reunion picnic next month – the labeling is in Arabic, natch. Where will it all go in my luggage! Eight bottles of wine to boot, and more besides. I brought a big shopping bag along as well as a second suitcase-inside-the-suitcase and bubble-wrap for the wine, so I expect to have no trouble.
I’m reminded that spending time with people especially on an expedition like this gives opportunity to become familiar and open up more, which makes all the difference. Lavina has a heart of gold, Larry is a very decent man, Ron is an easy-going retiree and Janie is a warm, fine person too. I’ve become closer with both Sara and Jaime, and Dawn and Greg are both solid and very nice. John, of course, is thoughtful and accomplished. His wife, Clare, is just wonderful, outgoing, considerate and a good sense of humor – a foreign service brat like me (not all were so nice as Clare). I think George and Mary Lou must have been proud of their children. I can see now the reason for the outpouring of delight from the Schutz Egyptian staff for the Pattees and Walters and why they have things on campus named after them. It’s been a privilege to be along on this trip. It’s meant a lot to us all.
I won’t spend a lot of time describing the events of the evening, but let’s just say that it was so, so different from any kind of Schutz graduation event we could recall. These people have wealth, not just the school. Everything was done to extravagance and perfection; flowers everywhere, everyone in elegant evening dress, the graduating class attractive, articulate and clearly a close-knit group, flags marched down to the stage with various national anthems playing. (I’ve asked to have all the speeches including those by the students, to put on our Schutz page on the website.) A well-oiled embassy team couldn’t have done it better. The dinner, especially, revealed the kind of society that exists around the school. An excellent, four-course meal for board, alumni, contributors, many probably influential owners of Egyptian businesses, and even a diplomatic corps – the consul generals of both the US and UK missions attended. The speeches at the graduation by the board president and others were very touching and not an iota different from what you would hear at a private school in the U.S. Well-heeled people send their kids to this school, and they all went out of their way to recognize the fact that Schutz has a long and deep history – they value this legacy and our continuing interest as US alumni. Schutz is the oldest American school on the continent of Africa and is the only school in Egypt (and probably all of northeastern Africa) that is accredited by two US organizations. They are heavily invested in Schutz, and I don’t only mean in a financial way.
The moniker “family” most certainly applies; everyone knows everyone on a first-name basis. They personally know the Pattees and Walters and appreciated that George Meloy’s son was there to give the commencement address (he did a good job). They are proud of the school. It’s theirs now (the board’s) and they have BIG plans for it. They are just starting a $4 million fund-raising campaign to completely overhaul it, so if people want to see it again as it was in our day, they had better get here fast – all the old buildings will be torn down.
All whom I talked to want us involved. The board people at the table I was at were keen to know about us and all know of its mission history. (More than one said that like Catholic and Jesuit schools, church support can mean good-quality education.) As we did, but for different reasons, they see it as a special and unique place. I’ll have more to say after the meeting with the student leaders tomorrow, but the kids are clearly of high quality. I think they feel proud to be at a US-accredited school. I’m sorry to say it, but this school and its student body has something you just wouldn’t see at an American school in the U.S. They are almost tender with each other and the affection and loyalty they show to one another is infectious. There may some among us who are not as interested in embracing them, but I sure am ready. The Pattees and Walters get it – this is where the important work of cross-cultural connection happens, at a personal level, and I feel more than ever that Schutz is the crucible for people who will become business, social and political leadership of this country.
What I realized today, what I of course knew all along, is that the old Schutz is gone. People in our community wishing to recapture the past can do it at our reunions. I didn’t feel it when I was here in 2006 and I certainly didn’t feel it this time. The human dimension has a warm feel to it, but it’s very different from what it was for us. It would be so nice to be here with my classmates, seeing the places and reminiscing about all that we did and saw and felt here – that would make it different, for sure. But the place itself, other than maybe putting us back in that time, doesn’t do it. The city, the society here in Alexandria, is all changed. In most ways Alex was a nicer place to be in the 1960s but time goes on and Egypt has changed – for the better, in my opinion. I do feel that Egypt is truly owned by the Egyptians now, and good for them. George and others who helped to build Schutz I think would be glad that the School has gone into good hands. They value the American connection – that was clear.
The school will go on, and I expect it could acquire a name as one of the best, if they are diligent about admissions and standards. It’s very American in every way, not just the faculty and administration, yet Schutz is owned by the Egyptians now, and by a very good breed of people. I felt in my element. I can see how good it would be if we can be part of it, perhaps a coalition of the willing of us.
Tonight at the dinner John and Sahar said they plan a visit to Washington on some pretext, mainly to get their daughter to visit AU and see the campus. They asked if I would be around. If I am around, I will do what I can to make them feel welcome.
Today brought a feeling of finality, and a few other feelings besides. I went over to the School with Lavina in the morning for the meeting with student leaders. Eight showed up, all NHS students including members of the Student Council, five girls and three boys. One of the teachers attended, as well as the School Principal.
One unexpected attendee was Mohan Vaswani, an old classmate. I ran into him last night at the dinner and we agreed to try to find time during my last two days to get together. He called me in the taxi on the way to the School. He wanted to meet with me urgently, right away. How about tomorrow? I’ll have more time. No, we had to meet today to discuss the matter; it can’t wait. Can I come to see you at the school? I won’t have time, Mohan, tomorrow – really. I will come to the School right now. Well in that case, why don’t you attend our meeting? I told him of the purpose and where to find us.
The meeting went very well. I started with some background on Schutz history, and handed out a Schutz history primer given to me by Alice before I departed. I explained the circumstances of our community and organization, why we continued to have an interest in Schutz and Egypt. I was informal and got a few laughs which chipped off the ice. Lavina smiled the whole time. Getting to the point, I told them what I had in mind, that this was just a brainstorming session to discuss some ideas, that I had heard from administrators and teachers, parents and board members – now the important people – you students.
As they caught the drift of what I was saying, they all got warmed up to the idea. Basically, they came across as serious kids and interested in expanding the perimeters of Schutz as it is today. One said that they wanted to have more diversity in the School. They’re all friends and happy, it’s an American school but something was missing. They’re interested in having more contact with the U.S., not just alumni but with their peers, too. (What, you’re not interested in hanging with some old guy like me? – laughs.) They focused first on learning about our careers and how we got them. They later said they like the idea of having “events” besides career talk – do things off-campus, take trips perhaps, get to the U.S., have U.S. kids come here, have seminars. What would you think of spending a few weeks to look at colleges? Great! How about spending a few weeks or a semester at a US high school? Even better! And send some U.S. kids here. We would like to have pen-pals. When can this start? What do we need to do?
During the exchange, Mohan came into the room. He listened for a while and then started in. I didn’t expect this, but immediately got the sense that he had a history with the school later in life. Paul, don’t start something that will break your heart, he said. There are gaps in this School, big changes from what we had. You are coming with a dream but the dream will be a phantasm. You want to rediscover our happy times at Schutz, but that Schutz is gone.
I tried to pull it back to what the students’ thoughts were. Lavina gently asked what the girls’ thoughts were about alumni coming to Schutz for some of the things we had been discussing, but Mohan answered. I needed to get the conversation back on track. Mohan, I will speak to your comments; you students can pretend you’re overhearing our conversation, OK? Pardon us. Mohan, we’re not talking about changing the School. We aren’t interested in making this place the same kind of “family” it once was – these kids have a family here of their own. We are here to see if there are some common interests where we can start to pull together some activities, by small steps, to add value to their experience at Schutz as it is today. Something else. Serious students don’t want to be treated like kids all the time. These people are heading for college and the life ahead, and they won’t mind hearing what’s ahead, getting a taste of what they will experience as we did when we left Schutz. We have something in common, our different Schutz generations, and it’s that we value personal relationships and that’s what we will be creating. Don’t mistake this as some walk down memory lane. Anyone from our community who gets involved will be interested in adding to the future of these wonderful people. We are looking to the future of this School, not its past.
Silence in the room. I could see that Mohan’s mind really had been in a different place the whole time. Let me tell you something about Paul. He was the one who always came into class ahead of time, filled the blackboard with notes, played in a rock band and was admired by everyone. I was flabbergasted. The only thing you said that was true was the rock-band part, Mohan. Nervous giggles. Let me tell you what my girlfriend in 9th grade (Carolyn Kurtz) told me she wrote in her journal about me. Paul likes me… but what a goof-off he is! Everyone relaxed and we got back on-track. I made sure that everyone said something at that point, and the comments were all encouraging. The Student Council prez, a girl, said that she would take charge of organizing their end of the continuing dialogue, I said wonderful, and that I would be discussing the matter with our group in July and would get back to the Student Council and School Admin in the fall with what we are prepared to do.
It went well. I have no illusions that this will take off like a rocket. We’ll have to start with little steps. If people aren’t interested, I’ll look for other people, people like Janie Kurtz the children’s books author who said she might come do a workshop on how to be a writer. As unlikely it is, I’m going to explore getting a relationship with a US high school, maybe a college in the old Schutz pattern. Why not? I want to build a dialogue with Anne Patterson and the people at State, insha’allah. I feel sure now that something can come out of this.
Mohan told me afterwards that he was leaving today for Agami and hoped I would accompany him. I told him, next time, Mohan – come to the reunion in DC! He said he would try. He told me he had been on the Schutz board for a time and that it precipitated difficulties for him.
We went to Montaza in the early afternoon, where I got Becky her shell and more besides, put my foot in the water below the cabanas that hadn’t changed, and we all went off to lunch and more shopping downtown. We all had dinner at the hotel tonight, Lebanese mezza and wine, and had a great time. I told everyone I started the trip sad not to have any classmates with me, but this turned out to be a wonderful time to get to know everyone. Janie said she had heard a lot about me and was glad to now get to know me. I had reported on the morning’s meeting and she said this was a much different board, and that we needed things like this to get people more involved, and more people involved, especially alumni from her Schutz era.
The Alamein group outing was a disappointment. Soon after leaving the city they were stopped and given a security escort. Then when approaching Alamein, they were stopped again and turned around. Problems were expected on the Libyan frontier.
Today I felt for the first time a yearning for our youthful times here. It’s hard to feel it looking at what it is today, but I can still picture the times and the place. It’s not a sharp picture in my mind. I was a different emotional being then.
Sara and Jaime leave tonight and the rest of us leave at different times over the next 36 hours. Most of the rest of us will re-visit the Library for a tour in the late morning then I’ll head over to the School to tie up loose ends with Massimo, arrange getting some flowers and chocolates delivered to Amina after we all depart, and head back to the hotel to pack and get a few hours’ sleep. I will be picked up for the ride to Cairo at 4:30 a.m. Friday
It’s the end of a good day, an emotional day for me, being the end of this special time at Schutz and Alex; I’m finished packing my stuff and all is in order. John emailed me from his room a short while ago to suggest a last drink in the bar with Clare and we had a nice chat about the visit and other things. Upon returning to the hotel earlier I checked in with the Walters and Pattees to say goodbye and they left around 7 pm for Cairo. John and Clare saw them off while I went through the emails. Yesterday in the minibus I passed a sheet around for everyone to give their email addresses – Dawn emailed the list to everyone from her cellphone and we agreed to share photos. I told John and Clare that I’d given you a blow-by-blow and they agreed with your idea of sharing this story with the alumni group in July. I’ll see if we can put a show together, but my main interest is to get something on the website.
The visit to the Alexandria Library earlier today was so impressive – what a fabulous architecture – the large, tiered reading room filling the interior has a cavernous slanted ceiling held up with towering lotus-style columns perhaps 80 feet from top to bottom, with seminar rooms jutting out into the open space, almost Star Wars-like in its majesty. They are digitizing every volume including ancient texts and books of graphic antiquity covering Egypt’s entire history. We toured a number of display rooms below ground, all beautifully done. We got VIP treatment from the library staff.
While the rest went back to the hotel, John and I took off for Ramleh Square for some walking and exploring. We parted almost immediately. I stopped in one of the old coffee houses on the Square we used to visit for a cappuccino and pastry, then walked up to the Amir area to see about picking up things still on my list. Heading back to the School I took the tram from Ramleh to Schutz, a trip nearly an hour long with the traffic interruptions at cross-streets, smelly garbage piled against the tramway in various places. Walked down Schutz street now paved instead of the dusty dirt road it was, dropped by to say goodbye to Nathan, took a card bought at the library bookshop for Amina to go with the flowers and chocolates, snapped a few more pics of the campus, bumped into some of the kids from yesterday’s meeting and chatted a bit, checked in with the IT head at the School to discuss sharing database info, and finished with a de-briefing with Massimo, covering the next steps on the alumni-Schutz program, getting Schutz International Baccalaureate-qualified (I brought it up and he said that the board has been discussing it for 5 years), and a few other items. Massimo is a really good and thoughtful man. We discussed the Meloy Scholarship and what to do about it; I want it to go to real needs, not just money to high-achievers (John and Sara agree, and so does Massimo). Then back to the hotel.
John ambled around town to get photos, then went out to Stanley Bay to find the old church I told everyone I wanted to see (I didn’t have the time). It’s still there, but of course not out in the open anymore. He came back to the hotel and did what I wanted to do, but didn’t – he crossed the Corniche for a swim in the Mediterranean.
On the way back to the hotel I asked the driver about bombas – I hadn’t been able to find any. No problem he said, and sure enough, we found them – just as they were when we could buy them at the Canteen. I realized, of course, that this is precisely the kind of thing you don’t want found in your luggage, and thought better of taking them…even though someone like Ron Pollock would get a kick out of it as a prize. Yup, I’m a still a little sentimental and definitely a bit on the nutty side…
It has been a wonderful visit.