Monday, October 29, 2012

Words in Transit

Your average Egyptian doesn’t read much other than the Quran and the newspaper on a daily basis.  People aren’t reading novels on the subway like they do in transit in NYC; rather, a man’s beard peaks out from his daily, a woman’s lips move with the rhythmic verses of the holy Islamic text.
So I was pleasantly surprised when my neighbor on the bus to Cairo asked to leaf through the underlined pages of my Naguib Mahfouz short stories.  Naguib Mahfouz is the father of Egyptian written expression, who dug up the rugged charm of Cairo’s dusty alleyways and Egypt’s colonial and revolutionary history, re-enamoring millions of Egyptians with their country and sharing the real Egypt and her people with the world.
Soon after Naguib Mahfouz broke the ice, Madame Ibtisam was programming her number into my phone and telling me how I would come over and she’d cook me molokhiyya, Egyptian spinach soup.  She announced that she used to work some job in the public sector, had three children - “Alhamdulillah, praise be to God” - and a husband who had passed away 15 years ago.
“We used to go to Agamy in the height of winter,” she gushed fondly of him.  Agamy is a suburb of crisp Mediterranean beaches outside of Alexandria where folks go to escape the city.  “It was freezing.  Wrapped in our thickest jackets, we would stroll down the beach together – our love kept us warm.  We would collect sea shells and glass softened by the waves to put in jars to decorate my husband’s pharmacy.”  She wasn’t sad at all; in fact, her face was awash with the meaning of her name, Ibtisam, smile.  She was just blissfully nostalgic, transported back to that bleak blue ocean whipped up by the ashy winter clouds, her husband by her side.
            “I like how you’ve underlined some things, a lot of it is the romantic parts,” she noted coyly.  “Are you a romantic?”
            “I guess so,” I shrugged my shoulders, bringing a shade of pink to my cheeks.
        “Like this, here.”  Madame Ibtisam traced a chubby and callused finger over an underlined passage and held the novel between us.  With Naguib Mafouz’s help, we silently shared a million love stories, hers, Egyptians’, and mine.
 عرفت الحب لأول مرة في حياتي. إنه كالموت تسمع عنه كل حين خبراً ولكنك لا تعرف إلا إذا حضر. وهو قوة طاغية يلتهم فريسته، يسلبه أي قوة دفاع، يطمس عقله وإدراكه، يصبّ الجنون في جوفه حتى يطفح به، إنه العذاب والسرور واللانهائي. تلاشى شخصي القديم تماما وحل محله آخر بلا تراث ولامبادئ، ينقض على مصيره بعينين معصوبتين. 
“I knew love for the first time in my life.  I learned that it is like death; you hear all sorts of things about it, but you don’t know unless you’ve attended.  It is an oppressive force that devours its prey, depriving it of any defensive strength, wiping out its reason and consciousness, filling its empty cavity with a madness until it overflows.  I learned that it is torture and joy and the infinite.  The person I was faded away completely and was replaced by one without tradition or principles who went up against his fate with blindfolded eyes.”        -"Love Above the Pyramid Plateau: The Light of the Moon", short stories by Naguib Mahfouz

“How do you know her?”  My friend Hadir has just put me in the first empty cab to pull up to the square below her apartment in the chic neighborhood of Zamalek.  The cab driver and she exchange startled looks and then a laugh over some shared memory.
“She rode with me a couple times.”
“Oh, what a funny coincidence.”
“It’s so crazy, she looks like a boy, but she has a chest and everything.  In the morning she could go out as a boy, and then in the evening, she could go out as a girl, if she wanted!”  I roll my eyes, now used to Egyptians’ inability to figure Hadir out.  You could say she’d fit right in on Smith campus in a feminist literature class with a bunch of other butch chicks.  People stare at her all the time in utter confusion, and often address her with the male “you”.
“No,” I correct, “I’m actually positive that she’s just a girl, all the time.
            A minute later, he asks, “You’re not Egyptian, are you?”
“Nope.”  I don’t feel like divulging my nationality tonight, and he doesn’t press me.
“It’s better that way.  Egyptians are no good.”
“What do you mean?!  Egyptians are the best!”  I am shocked at his condemnation, since I’ve heard many an Egyptian claim that his people are truly the best on the planet.  Many of them claim to know that even without having left their country’s borders, much less Cairo’s!
“No, no, they’re no good.  Well, half of them are good, the men are good.  Not the women, though.”
“You mean to tell me that all Egyptian women are no good?”
“Exactly, the women are awful.”  There’s an Egyptian proverb that if a man is grumpy, his woman must be giving him a hard time at home.  I can’t get a feel for this guy, though – is he open to humor and sarcasm, or would he be irked that a foreign woman is pushing his buttons?  Either way, I’m feeling sassy tonight and don’t feel like taking any chauvinism or idiocy.  I decide to leave his woman out of it and take a different angle.
“Well, actually, I think you have the wrong half of the population.  I think the men are the worst part of Egyptian society.”
“No, no, you’re wrong there.”
“Tell that to all the women who get harassed and groped every day in the streets by rude men.”
“Nooo, ever girl likes to get harassed.  Every girl likes to hear ‘sweet thing’, or that they’re beautiful.”
“I’ve heard far nastier than that.  What about those men?”
“Well, they’re rude.  But that’s not what really happens.”  It is clear my feminist rampage is going nowhere.  Our conversation leads us to his asking what I am doing here anyway, so I tell him about my Arabic studies.
“Do people in your program study the Quran and Islam?”
“Yea, sure, all the time.”
“Anyone with an ounce of understanding and smarts who reads the Quran will convert to Islam.”  His eyes bore back at me through the rearview mirror.
“Well, sometimes they’re studying it in a more academic context, or in comparison to other religions like Judaism and Christianity.”
“The only things we share with Judaism and Christianity are the 10 commandments that God sent down to Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed.  You know, don’t steal and don’t kill, the basics.  But if someone reads the Quran, they will, they must, convert to Islam.”  So much finger wagging ensues in this sentence that I feel more nervous than usual winding among Cairo’s sadistic streets and drivers.
“Well, there’s also the linguistic value of the Quran.  It’s the epitome of the Arabic language, so others study it for that reason.”  He scoops up my compliment to his heritage. 
“Arabic is truly an amazing language, isn’t it?”
“I’ve been studying it for five years, and I learn something new every day,” I offer.
“I’ve been speaking it for 46 years, and I learn something new every day!”  He slaps the steering wheel in a hoarse guffaw.
Somehow, our conversation meanders to the Russians who permeate the Sinai peninsula’s resorts.
“Russian women are beetches.  They just want to marry rich Egyptian men.”  He pauses, searching for a tactful in.  “I’ll marry you if you want, and then you can get Egyptian citizenship.  How old are you?”
“A lot younger than you.”
“How old do you think I am?”
“You told me, 46 years old.  Which is too old for me.”
“Well, just offering!”
I bemusedly get out of the cab before he can ask for my number in order to make good on his marriage proposal.  It’s just another night in Cairo.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Traitor or The Killer?

“We have no choice.”  That is the most common refrain one hears rolling off Egyptians’ tongues these days when asked about the presidential elections.  Their tone drips with disappointment and frustration.  The fascinating part is that you will hear this from Egyptians of all colors, liberals, Christians, Muslims, and it’s not because they agree.

The first round of elections surprised many.  I remember watching the results trickle in at an Egyptian friend’s house.  The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammad Morsi, was in first place with 25% of the vote was no shocker, considering the amount of money the Brotherhood had put into the campaign and the way they exploited networks that they have been nurturing for years with charitable social programming.  What threw everyone for a loop was Ahmed Shafiq’s close tailing of Morsi with 24% of the vote; Shafiq is a pillar of the military, was Mubarak’s aviation chief, and then was his last prime minister before protesters demanded he leave office in March of 2011.  He is the epitome of falool, a “remnant” of the old regime, and most were expecting the other leftover to do well, Amr Moussa, but he came in last out of the five strongest candidates.  The other black horse was socialist candidate Hamdeen Sabahy, who came in third by gathering most of the revolutionary vote, while liberal Islamist Abdal Moneim Abo alFatouh came in third.  Many of my young liberal Muslim friends lamented the fact that revolutionary forces did not coalesce around one candidate, either Sabahy or Abo alFatouh, which would have possibly enabled them to propel a candidate representative of the revolution into the runoff.  Shafiq and Morsi were both able to exploit mostly rural networks based on clientelistic and familial ties, whereas the revolutionary candidates swept city votes based more on ideology.  How bitterly ironic that a revolution meant to topple a broken system has led to elections between that very same corruption and the forces that were always its worst enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood.  The most pessimistic see this election as one between a traitor and a killer, the traitor being Morsi and the Brotherhood for how they have failed to protect the revolution, and the killer being Shafiq, for his compliance with the Mubarak regime.
Cartoon floating around Facebook, by Amr Okasha
Of course, questions have been asked, doubts fielded, accusations hurled, about whether or not these were truly fair elections.  There is no doubt that there was nowhere near the level of widespread fraud that dominated Mubarak’s years, but there were certainly concerning discrepancies, such as stations not being monitored, a random box of ballots being found in the desert, and candidates either paying money or food to voters.  I know many who allege that there is no way elections could be free and fair under the military.

Before I delve into the three different ways in which Egyptians “have no choice”, it’s worth noting how low voter turnout was.  Only 46% of registered voters cast ballots, compared to 54% in the parliamentary elections last fall.  That’s not to say we have a much better rate in the states, and we could speculate to no end about why voters don’t go to the polls.  But one thing that struck me is that Egypt has no absentee voting system, forcing voters to return to where they are registered if they intend to vote.  In a country with many workers who migrate from the countryside to Cairo and Alexandria, many are hard-pressed to find the time and funds to return sometimes extremely long distances to scribble down their vote.  During the first round on May 23rd and 24th, I asked the man who works in the kiosk across the street if he had voted.  When he responded “Not yet,” I asked him what he was waiting for?  He then explained to me that he is from alMinya, which would take at least 10 hours to reach by bus or train, and I’ve never seen a day where that man is not filling grocery bags at that kiosk.  This is just something to keep in mind as we see the elections results, particularly since an even lower turnout is expected in the second round: only about half of Egyptians are choosing their president!

“We have no choice,” the girl giving me a manicure said, shaking her head.  “I’m voting for Shafiq.”  She went on to explain that, even as a Muslim, she was scared that under Morsi and the Brotherhood’s presidency, Egypt would turn into Iran, where civil liberties are limited and women are forced to cover their heads.  My taxi driver earlier that day had told me that originally he worked in tourism and had only started driving a cab when all the tourists fled after the revolution, so naturally, he, too, would cast his ballot for Shafiq.  It is widely believed that Shafiq will restore security to the country, and thus bring back tourism, which speaks to many who have just been plain terrified in the last year, what with numerous violent clashes and a slight rise in other crime.  You must understand that crime just doesn’t happen in Egypt, not even in Cairo, a city of anywhere from 18-24 million; stealing or killing is considered haram in religion, and communities are just very tight-knit.  So for Egyptians, the security vacuum since Mubarak stepped down has been tangible and deeply unsettling, and Shafiq has boasted he will restore security in as little as six hours!  Many Christians feel that Shafiq is their only choice, since in an Islamic state they will truly lose their place in their homeland.  Liberals say you can’t trust the Brotherhood, given their constant flip-flopping in the last year in the interest of grabbing power.  Others argue Shafiq should be given a fair chance, since he was only prime minister for a month or two before popular demands labeled him as Mubarak’s crony and forced him to step down.
Ahmed Shafiq
“We have no choice,” said the man selling fruit on my block.  “We have to elect Morsi, or else it’s like the revolution didn’t even happen.”  Shafiq is a carbon copy of Mubarak, in both his mannerisms and his ties to the military and the corrupt business elite.  He is even accused of being involved in pitting security forces against protesters during the revolution, and many see him as a killer.  If he comes into power, many of my young friends fear that the military will remain the “state above the state”, with its economic holdings and budget kept secret and safe.  Over dinner last night, my friend Mahmoud and I laughed over Shafiq’s claim that he will restore security in six hours, but his attempts to do so would undoubtedly include random detentions and arrests of journalists and protesters, and the security state would be as strong as ever.  On Facebook after it was learned that Shafiq would be in the runoff, I saw a joke that read, “Breaking news: Mubarak dies of laughter at the people”, referring to the absurdity of the same regime coming back to power so soon.  At least, Mahmoud says, the Brotherhood recognizes the revolution and has participated in it to varying degrees; they deserve a chance to prove themselves to the people.
Mohammad Morsi
“We have no choice,” said my friend Ahmed.  “I’ll either boycott, or nullify my ballot.”  This is a stance that has gained some traction recently, although it remains relegated to a small segment of society mainly consisting of young liberals.  Nullifying their ballot means they will go vote, but write something inappropriate that will make their vote not count: these ballots are still counted in total voter turnout, which seems to give it more legitimacy to me.  Ahmed plans on writing, “Yasqut, yasqut hokm alaskr – Down, down with military rule.”  I don’t see this action as being able to affect the outcome or public opinion very much, but it will certainly empower those that participate, and it will demonstrate that all of Egypt is not electing one of these two worst-case scenario candidates.  These will be the people that go down to Egypt’s squares again.

Amidst the depression at having no choice and being forced to choose between two, there is other political drama at which to balk and pull one’s hair out.  On June 2nd, Hosni Mubarak and his interior minister, Habib alAdly, were sentenced to life in prison on charges of not having done anything to stop the killing of protesters.  The charges were legally very weak, obviously meant to satisfy the masses, and on appeal, their sentences will likely be reduced.  Even life in prison is not enough for many furious at the deaths of almost 1000 revolutionary martyrs, and Egyptians poured into Egypt’s squares in throngs after this verdict.  They are also livid about the fact that a number of high-level police officers were acquitted of any charges of killing unarmed protesters, as if those people just killed themselves.  Mubarak’s sons got off on corruption charges with a slap on the wrist.  Shafiq himself, called as a witness to testify at the trial for one of the most important and tragic battles of the revolution, the Battle of the Camel, didn’t even show up to trial, showing how much he cares for justice.  More innocent sentences get passed down to the falool and their cronies on a daily basis.  Furthermore, yesterday, a third of the parliament was dissolved by the courts, ruling that single-seat representatives were unconstitutional.  Morsi’s and Shafiq’s camps bombard each other daily with vile claims (just like in America!), but behind the scenes, it seems that Shafiq has promised to stack his Cabinet with Brotherhood members.  It looks more and more likely that with the army’s backing, Shafiq will indeed become Egypt’s next president.

Egyptians are tired, but not yet defeated, and with the unwavering strength and determination that characterizes these peoples, they seem ready to stand tall and take whoever comes their way.  At my fruit stand, the fruit seller shrugged his shoulders at his lack of presidential options, saying they could always vote for someone else after four years if nothing went well.

“What if Morsi or Shafiq reinstate emergency law or just don’t allow elections to happen again in four years?” I asked, playing devil’s advocate.

“Well, then we know the way to Tahrir Square now.”

Let’s hope he is right.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The President

The election season has flown by in live color and raw sound.  My eyes still widening from my morning NesCafe, my cab swishes by a billboard with a stern face promising jobs and a strong Egypt.  The newspaper stands on my way to lunch are riddled with headlines of the latest developments in the dramatic race.  After the heat has overcome the city, my afternoon cab swerves around a dozen supporters holding their candidate’s sign.  Popping by my neighborhood fruit stand on my way home, an interview with leading candidates blares out through rows of peaches and mangos.  Egypt votes for a president on Wednesday.  Egypt is choosing its leader in what will hopefully be its first fair presidential elections since its independence in 1952.  This is history, and Egyptians are making it.
Candidates' faces whizz by on my morning cab ride to work

“Did you see the march?”
“What march?”
“For Abu Ismail!”
All the doormen in Ayman’s building were giddy with political excitement about the nearby crowds.  It was almost midnight on a Wednesday, and thousands of Salafists, rather fundamentalist Islamists, had taken to the streets with “God is great” chants and fireworks in support of their favored candidate, conservative sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.  After weeks of rumors and accusations, Abu Ismail’s mother had been found not to have American citizenship, which would have banned him from running according to some bizarre Egyptian law.  I seized on the moment to ask Ayman, my doorman friend, who he would give his vote to (though my wording may sound strange, that is how it is phrased here in Arabic).  Instead of spitting out a name, he confessed to me how scared he was of a religious candidate coming to power and how adamantly he believed religion and politics should be entirely separate.  This shocked me, since religion plays such a prevalent role here.  He went on to explain that he felt the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists had proven themselves liars, traitors to the revolution, and since coming to power with 70% of the Parliament’s seats, nothing had transpired other than theater and lies.
Campaign banner for disqualified Salafist candidate Abu Ismail
As I was leaving, Ayman told me that he would be observing an election site somewhere in Cairo, as he has a part-time government job in a community center in his neighborhood.  He recalled an anecdote during the parliamentary elections of 2010, which, like all previous elections, had been rigged in favor of Mubarak’s party.  He was at his assigned election site when a soldier walked in - “He said his name was Nadar, I’ll never forget his name.”  The soldier spoke with Ayman, who was then forced to stand by while he and a couple other cronies stuffed the ballot box with a couple thousand ballots.  “Whoever we get next will be better than going back to that.”


“Abo al-Fatouh,” Karim told me, almost cautiously, once we inevitably got onto the subject of the presidential elections.  Mamdouh nodded alongside him, and it all clicked for me.   Abdul Moneim Abo al-Fatouh appeared to be the bridge that could connect secularists and Muslims in a country where religion is a constant, but not without much toil and debate.  For many of my young, liberal, Muslim friends, he squarely represents their worldviews, including their support of the revolution and their backgrounds as Muslims.  Having once been part of the Muslim Brotherhood, he started to break with the organization as his Islamic philosophy became more and more steeped with liberal openness.  He officially broke with them after announcing his bid for presidency in the wake of the revolution, which the Brotherhood at the time forbade.  Abo al-Fatouh seems to me someone that can appeal to large segments of society: a friend went to one of his rallies and described its energy as akin to Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Campagin poster for Abdul Moneim Abo alFatouh
The other candidate who speaks to liberal secularists is Hamdeen Sabahy, a firecracker leftist who had been opposing Mubarak’s party in parliament for years and joining activists in all sorts of protests.  Miriam, my colleague at work told me she respects him, but she is uncomfortable with his socialist background.


“Seriously, Amr Moussa?!” I shrieked at my friend Amir in shock.  Only a month or two before, we had watched a talk show interview with the former Mubarak statesman in which the man spent the whole interview regaling the audience with his heroic anti-Israeli antics during his tenure as Mubarak’s foreign minister, during which he broke with regime policy on the loathed Israel.  The former minister has been campaigning strongly with lots of funds, and friends have told me they fear his exploiting the popularity of his name and reputation and using his financial prowess to convince entire families to vote for him.  Uneducated people in the countryside don’t need much convincing to vote for someone; since little interest is shown in their villages, if a candidate makes a visit, he is more or less guaranteed a vote.  This is so indicative of the lack of political education here, in that a decision is not made based on who presents the best campaign and solutions, but rather, on where and at who money is thrown.
Some people see Moussa as being of the "faloul": this word refers to the remnants of the former regime, and is generally not said as a compliment.  A few weeks ago, there was a Friday protest against the faloul, who at the time also included Omar Suleiman, the notorious chief of intelligence in Mubarak’s regime who was appointed vice president after the revolution in an attempt to placate the masses; that obviously failed, and he was in fact the one to announce Mubarak’s resignation.  The other holdover from the Mubarak regime is Ahmed Shafiq, former aviation minister, and the last prime minister appointed by Mubarak before the revolution.
Amr Moussa campaign poster
Although one might think these faloul figures would be ostracized and hated, the two leftovers, Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq, enjoy seats at the top of the polls only 24 hours before they open.  This is because Egyptians also crave stability right now, and being practical, they see that only strong statesmen with experience in politics can set Egypt on the right course.  Christians like my colleague Miriam are also drawn to these secular faloul candidates, since they truly dread the possibility of an extremist Islamist government grabbing power.  The sentiment of wanting someone who will fix what is broken makes sense.  It doesn’t matter that Shafiq sounds like a broken record of Mubarak in his speeches; he has the political prowess to comfort people.  Egyptians have had a traumatizing year since their revolution broke out: they have lost hundreds of youth to police batons and army tanks, the economy has tanked, security fears have become rampant, there are shortages of gas and other goods, and well, not much has changed, or at least not enough.

I was also with Amir the night we heard about the “istiba’ad”, the expulsion of a number of top contenders for the presidency by the election council.  This was such a game-changer that Amir and I both took it for a joke at first.  But it was soon confirmed that Salafist candidate Abu Ismail had indeed been banned, as had former spy chief Omar Suleiman, and the charismatic adviser and financier of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat alShater (who I think would have won otherwise.)


“I’m sick of politics.  I’m just totally tired of all the drama,” Gamal threw his hands up in the air at my inquisitive question about whom he would vote for.  His sentiments were understandable, what with the explosive roller coaster ride the contest has been.  Every day has been a new allegation hurled from one political stronghold to the next, a new law drafted to ban remnants of the former regime, or en entirely new candidate!  

“So, have you made a decision, then?”  I pressed Gamal, half sarcastically, but also truly curious about whom this pious, intelligent, and simple man wanted to lead his nation.

“I’m just observing it all right now, gathering information, I don’t think I’ll make my decision until the last minute.”  I told Gamal I liked his approach; it reminded me of my first time voting in the 2008 primaries, between Obama and Hillary.  Gamal is pretty religious, so I pried him about whether or not he would be voting for Mohammad Morsi, the candidate the Muslim Brotherhood ended up fielding after their previous candidate, Khairat alShatr was banned.  He told me did indeed want Islam to be a greater part of government, but that he was not sure he trusted the Brotherhood anymore.
Billboard for Mohammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate

Even with only a day left before polls open, I speak with Egyptians like Gamal and Miriam who are still on the fence, still weighing the options, still contemplating who it is they want to lead their beloved nation.  The first round of elections will be spread out over two days this week, Wednesday and Thursday, with a likely runoff taking place in mid-June.  Egypt’s new president should be announced by June 21st.  People generally seem optimistic that things will be peaceful, although there are worries that after the final result in June people could take to the streets in fury if their candidates do not win, or if the military council goes back on its word and does not hand over power.

Will the elections be clean?  More or less, if you don’t count the Muslim Brotherhood handing out packs of sugar or kilos of meat to sway voters, or the general inefficacy of Egyptian bureaucracy.  Will the SCAF support a certain candidate and refuse to respect the will of the people?  Everyone hopes not.  Will Egypt be able to change course under the guidance of a democratically-elected president?  That’s the idea, but ultimately, Allahu a’aalam, only God knows, so, khair in sha Allah, hopefully, all goes well.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

January 25th, One Year Later

A year ago today, on January 25th, 2011, Egypt rose up.  After 18 days of protests and close to one thousand deaths, Egyptians succeeded in ousting Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of dictatorship.   Today, millions of them returned to the country's square with the same courage, humor, and fervor that characterized their uprising a year ago.  Some were celebrating the glory and bravery of their revolution.  All were mourning the martyrs that were killed by security forces during those 18 days and in the ensuing year.  Many feel that their revolution is incomplete, and seek to reclaim it and topple the military rule that is plaguing the country.

In the weeks leading up to the year mark of the January 25th Revolution, the debate swirled around whether the day should be one of remembrance and celebration, or one of renewed revolt and protest against what many see as the same fraudulent negligence, only wearing a military uniform.  It was clear to me that the energy that unified Egyptians for the 18 days before Mubarak’s expulsion was lacking, perhaps because there is no longer a common enemy.  Liberally inclined folks wager that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has struck an informal deal with the Muslim Brotherhood to ensure that both wield power, so they fire their criticism at both the military and the newly elected religious politicians.  A larger segment of society is also dissatisfied with the sloppiness that has distinguished the military-led transitional period, which has most glaringly included violent infractions that have left scores dead.  Then there is what many sarcastically refer to as the Couch Party, who don’t care much for politics, and merely want stability; some of them blame the revolutionaries for creating chaos.  Then you have conspiracy theorists who point fingers at faceless thugs (boltagiyya) who want to “burn and destroy Egypt” for no apparent reason, as my raving taxi driver explained to me yesterday.  Needless to say, when lots of Egyptians get together and talk politics, there is a lot of gesticulating and yelling and very little consensus, although everyone agrees on their love for Egypt.

When I met a group of Egyptian friends at Cairo University to march to Tahrir Square, the atmosphere was unmistakably political.  Many of the chants and signs demanded the military hand over power to a civilian government immediately and face punishment for its actions.  They were unmoved by the SCAF’s recent concessions, including the release of about two thousand political prisoners and the repeal of emergency law (except in cases of “thuggery”, which leaves the door wide open to interpretation).  These mostly young people were remembering, too, many of them wearing masks or holding photos of the martyrs who had been killed in the last year’s violence.  As we set off beneath the sun glinting off the red, white, and black of the Egyptian flag, the students’ voice rose escalated with demands of fair trials, freedom, a civil state, social justice, and the return of the military to their barracks. 
My friends and me in the march from Cairo University
 to Tahrir Square.  Photo by Amir Makar
I found myself reminiscing to my high school days of protesting the invasion of Iraq.  It is curious what societal traits transcend geographical and cultural borders and become universal; I guess fighting for justice looks about the same everywhere.  Signs with witty and powerful slogans and photos were all around us, and students scrambled onto each others’ shoulders to lead the crowd in chants, handing the megaphone to a peer when they lost their voice.  “Wahed, itnain, tasleem a-sulta fain?” (One, two, where is the handover of power?).  I heard the echo of “One, two, three, four, let’s end this stupid war” when I used to protest the Bush administration’s invasion.  In front of and behind me, all I could see was Egyptians, their numbers as thick as the Cairo pollution, and I was reminded of looking on crowds of my fellow American protesters twisting around New York City’s blocks.  At one point, people all around me raised their hands in the peace sign and observed a moment’s silence for the martyrs.  The energy was electric, rippling around the neighborhood stores, reaching up into apartment buildings where onlookers waved at us with tears in their eyes, and weaving its way amongst these young revolutionaries.

Photo by Amir Makar
I was baffled that Tahrir Square could hold us all: it was to the point of bursting, with marches from all over Cairo gushing in to occupy Tahrir once again.  The square’s mood seemed to contrast somewhat with the tenacity of the march.  That is not to say that there was not an aura of enthusiasm and protest in the famous throne of the revolution, but there was more of a sense of celebration and happy nostalgia than anything else.  As dusk descended on the square, so did disappointment on the faces of my Egyptian friends.  They expressed frustration that the Muslim Brotherhood had control over the most visible and audible stage, belching out lies about having been present in the square at the onset of the uprising.  Although individuals from the Brotherhood stood by their fellow revolutionaries a year ago, the organization discouraged its supporters from taking to the streets at the beginning of the revolution, and those who did broke were younger members who broke with the older cadre of leaders.  It seemed a usurpation of a revolution that belonged to young people, liberals, and your everyday disgruntled people with no political claim.  Nonetheless, the day’s turnout was extraordinary, a true testament to the force that is the Egyptian people.
Tahrir from above
Photo by Amir Makar
By the late night and early morning, only those dedicating themselves to a sit-in remained.  Perhaps Egypt’s squares will once again fill on Friday to ensure that both the SCAF and the new Parliament know they are under watch.  That is where I feel street pressure must now be focused.  The SCAF has promised to step down and hold presidential elections in June.  If they do not meet these promises, Egyptians must save their strength to rise up again.  I do hope pressure is also maintained on the SCAF so that they are held accountable for their wrongdoings, including military trials for civilians, torture, and the massacres committed at Maspero, Mohammad Mahmoud St., and the Interior Ministry.

A common refrain during marches and protests is “a-soura mustamerra”, the revolution goes on, and that it does.  Of course, it is debated that what took place a year ago in Egypt was not a full-scale revolution, in that only the head of the system was overthrown, as opposed to the entire political order.  But a revolution also signifies a dramatic change in the way people think about how their country works, and that is indeed underway in Egypt.  Never before would millions have descended into the streets in opposition to the status quo.  Never before would so many have voted in relatively clean elections.  So although many of yesterday’s protesters felt that the revolution’s goals have yet to be realized, there is certainly a dramatic transformation that deserves celebration as well as fighting for.  

Monday, November 21, 2011

Shehab's Revolution

Blood streams from my arm like the River Nile, and saline tears roll down my cheeks like Alexandrian winter rain.  No, I have not been shot with a rubber bullet by the Egyptian Central Security Forces and their military cronies.  No, I have not been inhaling tear gas made in the USA and exported to Egypt.  That’s a few kilometers up the road, in the beating heart of the revived Egyptian Revolution, Midan Tahrir.  There, young revolutionaries are losing their eyes, or worse, their lives.  There, volunteer doctors are treating cases of asphyxiation in a makeshift field hospital in the square’s mosque.  There, Egyptians are pouring in by the second, the mood one of both hope and foreboding, dedication and exhaustion.

No, I am not there, although my heart and spirit no doubt are.  I am lying in a hospital bed, the tube linked to my arm’s vein slurping up my donated blood, doing the least I can for these brave Egyptians.  I am not crying because it hurts.  My tears are for Shehab.  Shehab and I met earlier in the safety of the Midan’s rebellious spirit on one Friday afternoon earlier this fall, thousands of protesters surrounding us with chants and demands.  Later that evening, chaos would again descend as protesters furiously attacked the Israeli Embassy.  Naturally, we talked politics.  Palestine, Egypt’s Supreme Military Council, America’s nuclear weapons, you name it.  It was one of those tireless exchanges where energy incessantly flows back and forth between two people.  I was so struck by his cleverness, his passion, his commitment to Egypt - he is the Egyptian youth that rose up in January, and he is the youth who will rebuild it.  Or he was.  Now Shehab’s vivacious spirit will have to guide his comrades.  Shehab was killed yesterday in his beloved Midan Tahrir, at the hands of Egyptian security forces.  A photo and video circulating the web shows military police dragging bodies over to a pile of trash: I recognized the shirt he wore the day we met.
With Shehab (left) in Midan Tahrir
When my friend Mohamad told me the news this evening amidst sobs, I clumsily told him in emotionally faltering Arabic that this is how Shehab would have wanted to go.  “But why?  Why are they killing us?”  He asked me, pained.  I responded that I didn’t understand, I didn’t know.  But what I do know is that al-soura mustamerra, the revolution goes on.  There is a type of energy at the moment that my friends tell me is reminiscent of the uprising earlier this year.  The urgency is certainly there, as the list of crimes of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) only grows.  Military trials for civilians have continued to the tune of 12,000 since the fall of Hosni Mubarak.  Investigations into egregious massacres like the bombing of an Alexandrian church or the recent murder of 24 mostly Copts are not taken seriously, most likely because they have state fingerprints all over them.  A timetable for the transition to civilian rule has not been firmly set and any promises have been dishonored.  The parliamentary elections (scheduled to start this Monday) have been despicably organized and there is fear of military deals with the Muslim Brotherhood.  The military is trying to impose constitutional amendments that would guarantee their economic foothold and protection from the law. 

If there is a time to stand up again and fight, it is now.  I cannot say whether or not this will transform into the wave of might and power that rippled across Egypt this past January, nor whether the SCAF will make the concessions demanded of it.  As I speak, the civilian cabinet is trying to hand in its resignation to SCAF, but is so far being refused.  Clashes continue unabated into their fourth day in not only Tahrir, but also Alexandria, Qena, Aswan, Suez, and other cities.  Calls for a million-man march tomorrow afternoon are spreading around the country.  People are organizing on a massive scale, planning police resistance tactics, march and escape routes, drop-off points for medical and sit-in supplies.  It is extraordinary to see, and while I want no more young martyrs to suffer Shehab’s fate, I want more than anything for Egypt to achieve her revolutionary dreams.

One of the blood drive doctors stopped at the foot of my hospital bed.  “Leih keda?”  He whispered softly, tilting his head in concern at my glistening cheeks.  Why the tears?  I told him of Shehab.  “Rabena Yastur,” he muttered, head bowed.  May God protect us.

On a personal note, my classes have been moved to a different location, since the most intense clashes are literally taking place outside my campus.  Life in the rest of Cairo goes on relatively normally, although people are always tuned into the square and the politics.  My program and the American University in Cairo are taking the right precautions, as are my friends and I.  Here is a list of links to articles, news sources, and photos with more details on what is currently taking place in Egypt.
Tear Gas (a particularly nasty, perhaps new brand is now being used)
Egyptian Chronicles Blogger (very detailed, somewhat graphic)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Cairo Snippets

I'm still out of sync with politics, so here's a portrait of the Egypt life I've been living for the last few months.  Enjoy!

Ventured out briefly today to meet Cairo.  She returned my call by dumping sweat down my back, although she wasn’t as noisy and crowded as usual.  There was no running commentary, no hisses or honking or stares.  Ramadan gives me a special moral shield to walk around with.  With it, I fend off shameful stares and comments, forcing them back into their owners’ minds.  It’s not my shield, in actuality, it belongs to their Allah and the holy month of fasting and refraining.  Either way, I feel a little  more comfortable in Cairo’s streets.  She is often daunting and sometimes cruel, so her subdued demeanor is much appreciated.

It’s sometimes hard to muster the courage to descend from my 10th floor haven, but it is always rewarding when I do, tonight being a smashing example.  The festival we discovered is exactly what Egypt needs more of.  Young people in colorful clothes meandered stalls of books and grassroots organizations.  Children and adults alike painted a mural with bright paint while various musical acts performed for an enthusiastic crowd.  It was a place and atmosphere promoting creativity and acceptance, both of which this society could use more of. 
My friends and I then made our way to the shaby (folky, local, popular) hood of Imbaba, where we sat down for liver - the camel’s was chewy - and rice pudding!  Despite the undying noise and trash littering the air and roads, the place had character.  A multitude of weddings passed by our meal, and men crowded ‘ahwas (cafes) for the Egypt-Tunis match.  On our way back home, we stopped for mugs of freshly squeezed juice and sweet milkshakes, which has become a mainstay of my friends’ and my Egypt experience.
I’m glad I went out into the Cairene night.

These Cairo days accumulate a pattern, or I have inclined them to do so at least.  My sleep is always late, nowhere before 2am, and sometimes with the sun’s greeting.  I sit on the balcony after the sun has set, looking south and west at the concrete slabs encircling for miles, peaking into neighbor’s florescent-lit windows, pondering things, absentmindedly patting away Cairo dust.  
Sunset from my balcony
During the week, I have succumbed to the Arabic workload, evening managing to enjoy myself.  I do more interesting things on the weekend, plus some vegging out, and I’ve begun to insert exercise into my schedule.  The adjustment since Turkey has certainly been more challenging than I expected it to be, and I feel somewhat as though my initial infatuation with Egypt has worn off.  I have a much shorter fuse when it comes to stares and comments in the streets; in fact, I fight back a slew of stereotypes in my mind each time I face that. I imagine it will be more difficult to maintain the giddy enthusiasm that has often reigned over my Egypt life, but I’m up for the challenge.

My apartment has secured a special place in my heart, as many of my settling places tend to do.  I am unequivocally drawn to the spaces I inhabit, and I have a natural instinct to care for them, clean them, and make them welcoming.  I enjoy taking the creaky elevator up to my flat, closing the humidity-lain door with a bang on the trash-ridden hallway and entering the royal air-conditioned living room.  I don’t even mind the discomfort of my armchair, or my bed, although the cold showers will get old now that summer’s heat has burned off.  I adore our miniature stove and our gargantuan refrigerator, and our balcony has quickly become to me what my Alexandrian dorms’ rooftop once was, though the view is not quite as extraordinary here.  Of course, Nour the kitten makes it all the more my home.
Nour (light) of my life

My dinner with Ahmed Tuesday night reminded me why Egyptians have made such an impression on me.  We never run out of topics to talk about, because we are both so genuinely curious about each other’s culture.  We discussed politics, pop culture, love, and all the while, I felt at ease.  He feels like my Egyptian brother.

9/24, Alexandria
Cairo hasn’t won me over like Alex did.  Alex forever has a piece of my heart, most notably for being the first city I lived in outside of the US.  I feel acutely nostalgic when I roam her horizontal streets, remembering a time where everything was new and I was fueled by curiosity. 
There are the blaring comparisons to Cairo, like how I can actually affirm that the sky is blue, and indeed not grey, here, or how I can breathe soundly without wanting to vomit my insides out.  Tonight, as I walked back to my friend’s apartment, things were calm, not too much noise, few cars, but Alex still manages to retain an energy that makes her come abuzz.  It’s the late-nighters, men preparing for the next day’s load, the young people going to and fro from ritzy cafes.  It’s the Mediterranean, washing up years of history into Alex’s bosom and spraying her dwellers with refreshing mists.  Then there’s the proximity to nature, despite being in a city.  The ocean makes this place who she is, and every time I let my thoughts wander to sunsets on the Corniche, my chest fills up with a passionate sort of pain that makes me want nothing more than to return to Alex and never leave.  Like I said to my friend Mahmoud today, when I see the sun set behind the Alexandrian harbor, I have no doubt that there is a God.
Of course, part of my love affair with Alexandria is that when I lived here, I was surrounded by a community of both Americans and Egyptians with whom I shared everything: evenings spent driving aimlessly listening to techno, food outings, hardships, trips around Egypt, discoveries.  I sorely miss that, and would instantly trade the happening life in Cairo for it.

Rosh Hashana and birthday cakes in an open apartment hugged by the Cairene breeze.  Party full of internationals in an unreal Garden City apartment and improv-ing on its royal balcony.  Last night was a reel from a well-soundtracked film about living the exotic abroad life.
Wust al-Balad, Downtown Cairo

Got lost in a couple books today, one finely decorated with Arabic curls, the others mere distractions from my homework.  I was relieved that our weekend novel was not dealing with the tired Egyptian themes of sexual tension and the clash between east and west.  I felt oddly drawn to this novel, The American Granddaughter, about an Iraqi girl turned American citizen who goes back to Iraq to do translating for the US military in 2003; themes of identity crisis and twists in relationships with the military - that’s my thing!  It fell somewhat short, seeing as the main character didn’t really change the way I wanted her to, but it was an exhilarating read nonetheless (albeit at a turtle’s pace - imagine 200 pages of Arabic in 3 days!)  I love the way I can read through a full page and create a picture with time and place, even I if there are certain words whose meaning I don’t fully grasp.  It is incredibly rewarding, for all the daily frustrations this language presents me with.

I slipped on my flip-flops, asking my roommates if they needed anything from the pharmacy or corner store, yelling that I’d be back in 5 minutes.  Little did I know that an attempt to buy toothpaste would turn into an hour-long conversation with the Coptic pharmacist about the proclaimed impossibility of love before marriage, the Bible, the 5-10% of Muslims he claimed were good people, and the events of October 9th, Bloody Sunday, where the Egyptian army ran over Coptic protesters with tanks.  I returned to my apartment beaming at my new friendship and the new opportunity to practice my colloquial. 
Last night, I went down to pick up some medicine for the kitty, this time prepared for a marathon talk session.  Nabil was thrilled to see me, and I didn’t refuse his offer of tea.  We passed the time discussing parliamentary elections in Tunis and Egypt, Qaddhafi’s death, and the history of Puerto Rico.  A stream of different neighborhood characters popped through for various reasons, introducing themselves to me, marveling at the fact that I spoke Arabic (and laughing raucously when I proved I could even write it), and teaching me nonsensical Egyptian proverbs.  I feel remarkably at ease in my corner pharmacy, a safe nook where I can inquire and explore.  This weekend, I will go to church with Nabil, his wife, and their four children.  It promises to be quite the occasion.