Living

At home in Cairo

Rock Hill native Richard Tutwiler and his mother, Carolyn, pose for a snapshot at the Egyptian pyramids during one of her visits to her son and his family in the Middle East, where he has lived for about 25 years.
Rock Hill native Richard Tutwiler and his mother, Carolyn, pose for a snapshot at the Egyptian pyramids during one of her visits to her son and his family in the Middle East, where he has lived for about 25 years.

Richard Tutwiler has boated down the Nile River and climbed Mount Sinai, where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments. Most days, he can see the ancient pyramids, if they're not clouded by Egypt's pollution.

A curiosity about Biblical holy lands and ancient civilizations drew the 1969 Rock Hill High School grad to the Middle East more than 30 years ago, when he had the chance to study abroad as a college junior.

He came back home, but never for long.

The Middle East -- the part of the world probably least understood by most Americans -- has been home for more than 25 years to Tutwiler, who lives in the Egyptian city of Cairo with his wife, Patricia Murray, and their two sons.

"I've worked in almost every Arab country except Saudi Arabia," said Tutwiler, 55, who has lived in Syria and Yemen and has traveled in Jordan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Lebanon and other countries.

The family recently returned to Rock Hill for a two-week visit with Rick's mother, Carolyn Tutwiler, and a vacation with family friends at North Myrtle Beach. During their stay, which ended Sunday, when they left for Egypt, he spoke to the local Henry's Knob group of the South Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club.

In the cosmopolitan city of Cairo, with summer trips to the United States and Murray's native England, their sons Iain, 15, and Daniel, 11, have been exposed to a wealth of international culture.

But there's one thing they haven't been exposed to: Cutting grass.

There's little or no grass in Egypt, the site of one of the driest deserts in the world, Tutwiler explained. So when a family friend asked Iain to cut the grass during their trip to the beach, it was a new experience.

"It was sort of a challenge," laughed Murray, 55.

Tutwiler, the son of the late Frank Tutwiler, is director of the Desert Development Center at the American University in Cairo, and Murray is a preschool teacher. Their sons attend Cairo American College, an independent American school that offers athletics, Boy Scouts and other activities typical of U.S. schools.

They live in a three-bedroom apartment in a suburban area where the living space is considered generous and the minimal greenery is unusual by Egyptian standards.

And in busting Cairo -- unlike other parts of the Middle East -- they are surrounded by a large and diverse ex-pat community, including some fellow Southerners. Said Tutwiler: "We can sit around and talk about UNC basketball."

But they're not insulated from Egyptian culture.

Tutwiler, who speaks fluent Arabic, has boated down the Nile River several times, part of a course he teaches to international and Egyptian students.

The trip travels through a rural area from the ancient capitol of Luxor, site of the Valley of the Kings, to Aswan, stopping at ancient temples on the way.

Described Murray: "You can see people going about their lives with their donkeys or irrigating their fields or doing their washing."

And Tutwiler also has climbed Mount Sinai about four different times with his son's Boy Scout troop. "It's red granite, so it's a beautiful color, and very stark and weathered," he said. "Since about 400 A.D., there have been religious communities there."

Pilgrims from all over the world visit the mountain, he said. During one trip, "behind us came this line of people riding camels and singing hymns. They were pilgrims from Nigeria."

His mother, Carolyn Tutwiler, has grown to love the Middle East during numerous visits with her son's family.

"You feel like this is where my roots are, because it's where Christianity started and where civilization started," she said.

Contrary to American perceptions of the Middle East, the family has found their adopted home very safe.

"I still would walk the streets at midnight in my neighborhood without worrying," said Murray.

During a recent trip to England, Iain confided that he felt safer in Cairo. And Carolyn Tutwiler found the Egyptians to be very friendly. "They'll do almost anything to help."

Said Murray: "I think what strikes me about Egyptians is their extreme good nature," and tolerance of each other. Traffic jams are common, but road rage is nonexistent.

But Murray said the Egyptian landscape was an adjustment because there's no vegetation. Instead of greens, the earth is colored in shades of brown.

"We're near a canyon," she said. "For a long time, that was not pleasing to me, but now it is." When they visited England, she said, it seemed "obscenely yellow-green" in comparison.

Women aren't required to adopt a certain dress in Egypt, but Murray said she does cover her shoulders and knees in deference to the Arabic culture. "I see it as the host country, and I'm a guest there," she said.

Tutwiler's work involves providing knowledge and training to help encourage agriculture and other sustainable development in the desert. Because of the lack of rain, fields have to be irrigated with water from the Nile.

He primarily works with two groups of people on the agricultural development: landless peasants, who know how to farm but can't pay the rent to keep their farms, and more educated people who have participated in government training programs but don't have farming experience.

He enjoys his work, and the couple plan to stay in Cairo at least until their two boys have finished their schooling.

"Cairo has turned out really well for us," he said, "because it's a great place to raise kids."

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