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.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Where is Egypt Going?

by Carlos Latuff

On the evening of October 9th, the Egyptian people tried to tear themselves out of the army’s iron grip.  The facts will assuredly be debated in newspaper columns and cafes for weeks to come, but as of now, 25 Egyptians, mostly Copts, were brutally killed, and around 300 were injured.  Coptic Christians, 10% of Egypt’s 85 million, have faced state-sponsored persecution throughout Egypt’s ancient and modern history.  Although they stood by their Muslim brothers in the height of the revolutionary days, they have since feared a possible Islamic government.  Old sectarian grievances have been stirred, recently in the form of a burned church in the south, where much of these tensions are sown.  Local Muslims purportedly prevented it from being rebuilt, a common episode over the years.  Copts in the Cairo neighborhood of Shubra started a protest toward downtown in the afternoon, only to be heaved into a one-sided battle versus the army’s live ammunition and rampaging tanks.  There is disturbing footage all over the web.  This took place upon reaching the abhorred state television building, Maspero, which spent the evening spouting more lies.  Muslims, too, came out, some in response to state TV telling them to defend their army, others to stand by their Coptic compatriots.  Thugs in plainclothes were rumored to be inciting clashes.  Soon enough, downtown Cairo was aflame with burning cars and tear gas, and the Coptic hospital was flooded with the blood of its children.  Accounts of the nightmare still feel muddled, and I am no journalist, so I leave you with a number of eyewitness accounts and commentaries:

Although the facts are important in that they must lead to justice served (and many are calling for a non-military investigation), the “facts” of this tragic incident are being abused as a tool of distraction from the real issues at hand.   Furthermore, few disagree that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which now runs Egypt, fomented this incident in order to justify their continued implementation of the emergency law.  The emergency law was the centerpiece of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship, and he wielded it to forbid other political parties, stifle freedom of speech, and arrest and torture any dissenters.  SCAF has since beefed up this scandalous law, which is nothing short of an insult to the Egyptian people and a nod to Mubarak in his cushioned jail cell.  And the SCAF is indeed using this law to shut down media outlets airing footage of its tanks running over protesters on the night of the Maspero protests, try civilians in military trials, and stay in power.

Why?  As I cry for Egypt and her stolen children and revolution, I ask myself why the SCAF is doing what it is doing.  I wonder what they want.  I see only greed.  The military controls anywhere from 30 to 40% of Egypt’s economy (official statistics are rarely available for anything in Egypt), in the form of factories that manufacture weapons, toy, and even food products.  Safe from investigation, it is hard to fathom how its generals must lavishly live.  The Egyptian military also enjoys top of the line war toys, as it receives 20% of its military budget from the United States.  Coupled with the military’s greed is total political ignorance, in that these generals have never had to answer to the people and release political decisions.  In that vein, I wonder why they want to say in power, when their mandate to do so (granted by the post-revolution March referendum) has run out.  People are ready for a civilian government, and they want a timetable as to when that will happen.  Instead, SCAF is stating that presidential elections may not happen until the end of 2012.

I recently saw a short video that is a brilliant allegory for the chaotic traffic jam that is Egyptian politics today.  It tells the story of a group of Egyptians who get on a bus, all heading to the neighborhood of Imbaba.  When the bus driver, who is just trying to make a living, overcharges for the fare, one passenger refuses to pay, so the driver stops the bus in the middle of the street, and what ensues is a classically Egyptian argument, with everyone talking at once and trying to express their own needs and priorities.  They all share the same goal - to get to Imbaba - but they cannot agree on a common path to get there.  It is generally understood that most want Egypt’s uprising to blossom into a functioning democracy.  They want the end result to be a civil state couched in Islamic values.  They want jobs, security, and their human rights.  But agreeing on how to get there?  Well, that’s another matter.  The video is in Egyptian colloquial, but I suggest you watch a bit - Egyptians convey so much, even if you don't understand the language.
Now, I fear that this bus carrying Egyptians toward Imbaba is being rammed on all sides by military tanks.  Instead of continuing their quest, the bus has been stopped in its tracks by violence and hatred.  Even if it takes them years to get started again, the yelling match amongst the bus’s passengers must go on.  There are so many issues to discuss in order to ensure they make it safely to their destination.  Now is not the time to let the military dictate traffic.  I pray that Egyptians will unite, not in their demands for how they want Egypt to look, but in their opposition to a military that is not “one hand” with its people, as the refrain commonly says.  They must oppose the dangerous distractions the military is trying to divide them with, and they must move forward with discussions about the electoral law, the new constitution, the inclusion of minorities in civil society, workers’ rights, and so much more.

I leave you with two requests.  I ask that you keep Egypt in your thoughts - her murdered children, but more importantly, her way forward.  I also ask that you think about a question my Egyptian friend asked me the other day: what about the Americans’ bus?  Where does it want to go, and what’s the best way, Wall Street, or what? 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Key to 9/11

One of the most vivid images I have of September 11th, 2001, is a TV screenshot of people in the Middle East celebrating the successful terrorist attacks on American soil.  I was too young at the time to comprehend the intricacies of bin Laden’s network, the crimes America had committed to warrant this attack, or the way international relations had just shifted forever.  But with the clarity that only a pure young heart can possess, I was dumbfounded by the hatred fuming through America that day.

When I tell people I study Arabic, they always ask me why, or what I hope to do with the language, expecting to hear a well thought-out answer about the CIA or something.  I shrug my shoulders, and all I can muster is that, for me, language is the key to culture, muftaah a-saqafa.  How else can I sit with Ahmed, a traditional Egyptian man, discussing love and politics, only to have him tell me that he never thought he would be capable of liking an American?  How else could I have lived for months with Muslim girls whose conceptions of America once revolved around only Twilight and fashion?  How else could I have animatedly discussed Israel & Palestine with my revolutionary friend in Tahrir Square the other night, only to walk away still friends afterward?  My ability to show these Egyptians America’s true values of diversity, family, service, and compassion - and not just plundering capitalism and tyrannical foreign policy - is derived from my capacity to communicate with them.  Each word we share in the course of our exchange vanquishes ignorance and wariness, both of which lead to hate.  If I never again use Arabic in my professional or personal life, I will be satisfied knowing I used this treasured key, language, to unlock our commonalities.

This is what we, as Americans and global citizens, must strive to do in order to prevent another act of hatred like 9/11.  We can no longer afford to see only the other, and I mean that in terms of both our wallets and our souls.  Whether it’s through language, traveling, teaching, eating, praying, laughing, or writing, I ask that you dedicate yourself to overcoming the boundaries between America and other cultures.  I know many of you already do this in your daily work, and I am in constant admiration of you.

I was planning to write on my proximity to the protests at the Israeli Embassy the other night, but I refuse to have my spirit trodden upon by that sad event today.  Today, I want to hold my head high, as an American and as one of the world’s children.  I want to reflect on the sorrow, yes, but also on the gratitude I carry for what I have been given:  I have so many people to love, and I have the ability, the key, to make this world a better place.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

So many questions, so little Turkish!

Turkey has got it down.  Tilled farms or undiscovered hills and fields juxtapose clean cities with lively central squares.  Wind farms dot the horizon, and I hear of plans for hydro energy.  The men don’t stare, nor do the women for that matter, and they are eager to welcome me with an extra piece of gratuitous fruit.  God mostly stays in the mosque, the home, or the heart, and it seems that your faith is not decided so much by what you wear or how you love.  The government carries flaws, particularly in regards to censorship and human rights issues, but clean elections seem like a good place to start.

Travertines at Pammukale
Our journey led us in a crazy eight around Turkey’s landscape for almost the whole month of Ramazan.  We hopped from seaside village to city on the west coast, swimming in the Aegean’s tides and soaking up her salt while gazing upon Greek islands in the horizon's hot haze.  We visited sites brimming with history, including the Gallipoli Peninsula, where Ottoman forces bloodily fought back Allied forces in brutal trench warfare that eventually cost both sides 340,000 casualties in WWI, and Ephesus, where the legendary ruins truly allow one to visualize the ancient Greek/Roman city’s grandeur as a pillar of trade and royalty in empires of old.  We scrambled up limestone travertines shelved in the village of Pammukale, and climbed into rock chimneys converted into churches in Cappedocia, both in central Turkey.  We then headed east to Kurdish territory, where we paid a visit to the ruins at Ani, once the ancient Armenian capital, now on the modern nation’s border, as well as a volcano’s caldera on Lake Van’s shores in the southeast.  From Diyarbakır, capital of the Kurdish world, we flew to Ankara, where Atatürk, father of the Turks, established his state’s capital and an ostentatious mausoleum to himself.  We bid farewell to Turkey after 4 days in Istanbul, a magical world sitting on the most coveted waterway in history, gracefully spanning both Europe and Asia.  The city is a tantalizing mix of antiquity crossed with cosmopolitan sass, with aging Ottoman minarets cropping up from her cobblestone streets while the trendy meander her rich cultural life.  And so I irrevocably fell in love with another city.
Cappedocia, by friend Chris Opila 

Turkey had so much to offer that Egypt cannot.  The gastronomical odyssey we took was much too flavorful and lacked far too much oil for Egypt’s street food; we ate clay kabaps, herb cheese, clotted cream, Iskander, Turkish delight, and kumpir.  My roommate and I wore sleeveless and short things no sane woman would wear in Egypt.  Buses left on time and cars stayed in the lanes, both impossibilities in Egypt’s chaos.  On vacation from Cairo’s noise and pollution and traffic, my friends and I kept a never-ending list of things that were better in Turkey, and when we guiltily tried to make a list of the reverse… well, let’s just say we didn’t need more than one hand to count the few things we liked better in Egypt.

The most significant thing Egypt gives me that Turkey cannot is access to its people.  This trip reaffirmed for me how key language is to even scratching the surface of a society.  Without Turkish, there was only so much I was able to comprehend about Turkish culture, a fact exacerbated by my blinders as a tourist.  In Egypt, I have been painstakingly working at just this - accessing Egyptian culture - for years, and I am just now realizing how rewarding it is, aided in no small part by my ability to speak Arabic.

If I had spoken Turkish, I would have asked more Turks about Atatürk.  Do all see him as their savior and the guider of modern Turkey, as the mainstream national narrative puts forth, or are there those disillusioned by the government propaganda (such as Kurds and the array of other ethnicities in the east and south)?  One man in the small town of Göreme in central Turkey described to me feeling as though Atatürk was his father, even though the leader died over 70 years ago.  The notion of a nation and its founder feeling like parents is fascinating to me, and I hope to explore this national obsession with Atatürk more in an upcoming blog post, perhaps by comparing him to other revolutionary leaders such as Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt or Fidel Castro in Cuba.  If you care to know more about the man whose knickerbockers and fountain pens are on display in national Turkish museums, read M. Şükrü Hanioğlu’s intellectual biography of Atatürk, which I am currently in the process of devouring.

If I had spoken Turkish, I would have asked Turks what they most feared for their country’s future.  As I arrived in Turkey, a handful of top military brass stepped down in protest of the civilian government’s witch-hunt of military personnel accused of attempting to orchestrate a coup against them in the early 2000s.  It seems as if Prime Minister Erdoğan and his Justice & Development party, which recently won by a landslide in elections, have finally sidelined the Turkish military, long an overseer of the country’s politics.  I would have loved to find out Turks’ reactions to the news.  Or perhaps they are frightened by recent Kurdish rebel activity in the southeast, which resulted in 9 Turkish soldiers killed and a subsequent and ongoing Turkish incursion into northern Iraq to seek retribution.  A friend living in Istanbul recounted on her blog a protest she saw today downtown, in which Arabs and Turks protested the Assad regime in Syria - perhaps spillover from the Arab Spring is what Turks fear the most, in the form of both refugees and sentiment.

If I spoke Kurdish, I would have asked Kurdish Turks in the southeast how they felt toward the Turkish government.  Do they feel like equal citizens, are they now allowed to listen to radio in their own language?  Do they feel close to their brethren over the arbitrary border in northern Iraq?  Are they as outraged as the rest of the world seems at the Turkish military’s recent use of force?  What do they want a Kurdish state to look like, or has their allegiance to Turkey indeed grown?  As if to evidence my point about language, my travel buddy Mike had an interesting encounter with an imam in Diyarbakır - check out his tale here.

If I spoke Turkish I would have asked one of the women in the northeastern mountain village of Yusufeli what her dreams were, that farmer in the undulating eastern steppe about his daily tasks, and my waiter in Van when mutton’s head was traditionally eaten.  So many questions, so little Turkish!

Cairo is doing her best to remind me why I chose to study Arabic and not Turkish.  In all honesty, this city is challenging to readjust to, what with the sensory intensity (smog, heat, car horns) and the constant commentary from the male peanut gallery whenever I decide to step foot outside.  Egyptians are now celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, so the streets are relatively calm, as is the political scene.  I am looking forward to the fall's renewed political drama - protests have already been called for 9/9, and parliamentary elections will be in November.  I will also start intensive Arabic classes again this Sunday (a novel a weekend, yes, in Arabic, eep!)  The routine will be comforting, and I'll soon be reanamored with Egypt.  My new role as a Mami will also be fun - I am adopting 2 kittens tomorrow!  And thoughts of visiting home for the holidays keep me afloat, too - I can't wait to see you all!

Check here for more photos from Turkey!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

This doesn't feel like January 25th...

Egypt is panting, furrowing her brow, and throwing her hands up perplexedly.

Caricature by Waled Taher
Since July 8th, when tens of thousands citizens poured into Egypt's squares to protect their revolution, there has been an acute political tension mingling with the polluted Cairene air.  The performance that is Egyptian politics continues with thrill and bated breath.  Front and center stage, you have the myriad of liberal groups staging sit-ins nationwide, regularly issuing demands, sometimes clashing with security forces.  Itching to remain in the spotlight are the Muslim Brotherhood, flip-flopping daily on who they support, trying to appease the revolutionary masses but stay on the military's good side.  Behind the curtains, you have the "transitional government", composed of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the Ministry of the Interior, the Cabinet, and Prime Minister Essam Sharif.  Every day, one thespian performs a scene, another cuts in on his lines, and another pulls the curtain down on it all.

Last weekend, it finally came to the crescendo the audience was waiting for.  I can't be sure of the order of events, but it had something to do with SCAF accusing a popular movement, April 6th, of inflaming public feelings against SCAF, then the army forcibly dispersing protesters in Alexandria, then protesters in Tahrir reacting to that by starting a march toward SCAF headquarters, which was stopped by an army cordon.  In the late afternoon of Saturday, July 23rd, a peaceful protest set out from Tahrir Square back to SCAF headquarters, chanting against the army's untrustworthy and underhanded rule: they met the same blockade of army tanks and guns.  What unraveled in the following hours was a miniature war-zone: thugs attacking the protesters with swords (were they paid by SCAF to do so?), the hated police showing up to fire tear gas, and ultimately, around 250 injured protesters surrounded by enemies, the army mocking them from behind their barbed wire.  Read one protester's account here.

March to MOD by Gigi Ibrahim
March to MOD, a photo by Gigi Ibrahim on Flickr
The bruised and battered returned to Tahrir, and the sit-in goes on, as does the political drama.  The liberals seem exhausted, still disorganized politically, and maybe less unified after the latest April 6th scandals.  The Muslim Brotherhood has called for a million-man protest this Friday, but that's liberal territory, right?  The masses just need to get to work and feed their kids.  Ramadan starts next week, and I wonder if this means the protests will abate some, or regain their vigor (in the evening, after breaking fast).  Trials for Mubarak & Adly (the former Interior Minister) start August 3rd, and could be cause for aggravation, but Ramadan is also a time of reflection and forgiveness.  Whatever the case, I sense very little is moving forward, and I think many in this political sphere agree.

Of two things, I am sure.  First, SCAF is criminal, and they will get away with it.  Military trials for bloggers and activists number in the thousands since the revolution, more than in Mubarak's era.  Trials for the real villains of the fallen regime are postponed without reason.  Virginity tests were conducted on women protesters.  No, the army has not yet fired directly on protesters, but they do not stop the Central Security Forces (CSF) or hired thugs from doing so.  It is clear they have an interest in maintaining the former system, as it guarantees their significant economic holdings and military toys from abroad (mainly the U.S.)  SCAF is continuing Mubarak's nefarious legacy, but the Egyptian public adores the army for what they perceive as its excellence in previous wars (they think they won '73), as well as because it is a draft army made up of the people.

On a more optimistic note, the second thing I am sure of is that this is only the beginning.  Political parties do not spring from the ashes, rather, they need tending that was forbidden in Egypt's previous system.  The masses do not jump up from their couches, rather, they need to first be given some bread, then coaxed into civic society.  As a friend recently reminded me, the path to democracy is full of blunders, and for all we know, Egyptians and Arabs may be on the verge of creating a form of governance we've never seen before.  Yes, patience is a virtue, so I will walk as the Egyptians do, or do their notorious hand motion for, "wait a minute". 

I'm off to Turkey tomorrow, to explore for almost a month a country that has reached a fascinating blend of Islam, military, and democracy.  Many praise it as a model for the Arab world.  I will be curious to see what Turks think of the recent uprising in their neighborhood, and I am salivating to travel a new land with some friends, an empty stomach, and an open mind.  It will be hard to be away from the Egyptian revolution, which has become dear to my heart.  Part of me hopes they can save the juicy stuff for when I return, so that I can continue to be witness to the earthquake that is rocking the Middle East.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Truth Is Out There

Media is one of the thickest cogs in the wheel of democracy, a constant energy field disseminating the news to every axel and spoke so that communication between the masses and leaders rolls smoothly.  In a participatory system that by definition is supposed to be of the whole population, there must be an effective mode of accumulating and imparting information.  This will subsequently serve to promote national unity.  This is particularly true in this age of digital wizardry, where an interconnected global citizenry is able to feel part of something continents away.  In Egypt’s case, we’re talking about a country of about 85 million, from the farmers sand dunes away from Cairo in Upper Egypt, to the Bedouins running the tourism a canal away in the Sinai peninsula.  It is easy to think that Egypt is Cairo, but a geography as vast as this antique land, traversed by the Nile and the Sahara, and a peoples as assorted as Egyptians, some still without access to modern technology, makes the task of sharing information within a nation that much more challenging.

Fathy Abou Hatab, the Managing Editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm’s website, understands these tests to Egypt’s unity, and he is innovating to find solutions.  Al-Masry Al-Youm is Egypt’s most widely read newspaper, an independent publication that defends liberal values, as opposed to state-run media outlets.  My program’s journalism club, of which I am a member, had the privilege to meet with him a few weeks ago, during which he detailed the reforms that he feels need to take place in the Egyptian media in order for it to align with the values of the January 25th revolution.

One of the most formidable obstacles to an Egyptian free press is access to information.  Hatab told us that there have always been red lines between the truth and what the public can be privy to; for example, Mubarak’s health was always off limits, as were the army’s inner workings and business ventures (those still are).  This line of defense has been strengthened by MASPERO, Egypt’s state television, whose “legacy has become one of distortion of the truth, spreading misinformation, and enforcing its regime-mandated ideals on a public with little or no access to alternative outlets”.  By way of the Minister of the Media, a position reserved only for authoritarian societies, news has been stripped of meaning and stuffed into a jeweled box sealed with a kiss by Mubarak and his National Democratic Party. 

In revolutionary Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) guards this giant box of state secrets.  They decide whether or not to publicly air the trials of the criminals responsible for Egypt’s dire poverty and murdered protesters (link).  While those trials are inexplicably delayed, bloggers and journalists and activists are tried in military courts for exercising their right to free speech.  SCAF dictates the fate of media personalities brave enough to criticize them, as recently happened when Dina Abdel Rahman lost her job after reading on air a letter by an activist openly denouncing the military council.  A general had a word with her boss, and fear and censorship once again clapped its hand over information’s mouth.  SCAF’s announcements are heard by most, so the way it decides to distort the picture is often taken at face value by much of the populace.

In addition to state controls, Hatab also detailed how the newspaper has, over decades of adapting to a corrupt system, created boundaries for itself in a variety of ways.  For example, each area of focus is assigned a particular person who alone is responsible for covering the people and events related to it; this seems to me to inhibit journalists from branching out and obtaining that much-needed general knowledge about their society.  It also encourages cronyism and creates more corners for information-seekers to cut around.

Hatab was full of ideas for his country’s media that seemed aching to burst out the building’s walls: how could Al-Masry Al-Youm incorporate more of Egyptian society into the sphere of knowledge?  How could they encourage readership?  How could they bring more Egyptians into the conversation about the nation’s future?  He lamented that there is only one edition of the newspaper for the entire country, as opposed to regionally focused editions as found in many US newspapers.  This would encourage readership, although Egypt’s astonishing 40% illiteracy rate will complicate this.  He also spoke of integrating “citizen journalists” into mainstream media, ie. making space for bloggers and users of new social media.  The day we spoke to him, he was launching another imaginative idea called “Conversation with the Square”, an attempt to facilitate dialogue between those conducting a sit-in in Tahrir Square and those average citizens removed from the square.

Like many facets of Egyptian society in wake of the revolution, the flow of information now has an opportunity to move through society as it should, facilitating exchange of ideas for the new Egypt, promoting education, and championing a national dialogue.  SCAF needs to get out of the way of the turning motion of this wheel.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Egyptian Woodstock

“Do you want a tour around the square?” Mahmoud asks eagerly, draping an Egyptian flag around my shoulders.  I enthusiastically agree, and off we go, rounding the square and its guests, buying a cactus fruit from one of the many vendors, politely refusing the shabab (young men) offering to paint an Egyptian flag on our sweaty arms, not knowing where to turn for the five stages spouting different political tunes from all angles.  Mahmoud, doing duty on one of the popular committees securing the square, is our guide, allowing us to get away with fewer stares and more photographs.  “Taalou, let’s go into the campsites,” he gestures toward the canvas teepees littering the square’s rotary, swathed with massive posters and banners stating demands and clever commentary.  Before I know it, I am sitting on the doorstep of a few revolutionaries’ tent, being offered cigarettes, chitchatting about past and present, my heart pounding the whole time.  I meet a doctor who has been here from the beginning, January 25th and who treated many of the wounded after the pigs’ crackdown, and even though Mahmoud is just meeting him, too, he assures me that they are brothers, everyone is family here in Tahrir.  I am shown the square’s hospital, complete with a variety of drugs and emergency equipment.  I spot a satellite that some agile Egyptian has managed to attach to a pole to ensure that the square has wireless.  There is even a Tahrir barber (check out all those photos to get a vibe for the square's life).  “Like a 5-star hotel,” I comment.  “Not quite,” laughs Mahmoud, but the spirit of the people is as happy as if they were bathing in luxury.  No one can take Tahrir away from them.

Or can they?  Reports are that the army has forcibly dispersed protesters sitting in in Luxor and Suez (where clashes have erupted amidst fierce protests at the release of a number of policemen accused of killing martyrs).  Many are starting to wonder when the same will happen in Tahrir, when the pedestrian’s paradise blocked off to traffic will be broken up by the nefarious orders of the Ministry of Interior and its wicked police puppets.  Of late (summary of the latest political events), the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Ministry of the Interior have appeared to make a number of concessions to the protesters, including dismissing hundreds of police officers (who they are remains debated), delaying parliamentary elections until November, and reshuffling cabinet positions (with possibly just more of the same old).  It remains to be seen whether these are merely empty promises, or if the military will actually follow through.  In some ways, continuing the process of this revolution is the steepest hill in this battle, because the army, entrenched both economically and politically, will be hard-pressed to budge.

Some nights later, I find myself in Tahrir again, waiting for the voice of the revolution, Ramy Esseim, to come and regail the crowd with his music.  Esseim became famous at the peak of the revolution when he performed a song in the square; he was subsequently arrested and beaten brutishly when police broke up the protests.  Before he performs, a plump woman takes the stage and vehemently begins denouncing the tazweer (rigging) of the bureaucratic system that is still imposing itself on the Egyptian people.  Her fervor snakes through the crowd, eliciting whistles and cheers.  Then Ramy Esseim… kulana yeed wahda (all of us are one hand, united.)

This is the Arab Woodstock, with a whole lot of politics thrown in.  Making the rounds of the square, I hear average citizens reading delicate Arabic poetry on stage, pronouncing every letter and accent, so far from Egyptian Arabic.  Activists from Twitter hold seminars to meet one another.  Artists delegate corners for their work, depicting cartoons berating politicians, the revolution’s martyrs, memories of January 25.  Every so often, an exodus leaves the square, heading toward the cabinet offices or the Ministry of the Interior with heads and voices raised high.  A movie of Gamal Abdul Nasser’s 1952 revolution echoes across the pavement.  Socialists hold mini conferences outside of their tent to discuss labor rights and Mubarak’s rampant privatization.  Angsty shabab boys with nothing better to do wonder the square, running into old men shouting at each other about elections and new ministers.  There is a tension to the square, in that no one is united or even sure of what they want to accomplish by being there.  There is a sense of both disappointment and renewed vigor, in that Egyptians left the streets too early, leaving the crooked system in place instead of replacing it with a revolutionary government.  But despite all this, there is a simultaneous cohesion, a desire to build something - the new Egypt.

Welcome to Tahrir.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

You cannot sleep without dreaming; you must dream so vivaciously and fiercely that it becomes your waking life

I have never gone through an efficient checkpoint in Egypt; rather, they tend to be jokes where a security guard will glance at your bag and ignore the metal detector that goes off.  Not at Tahrir on July 8th.  Average civilians had formed committees at every entrance to the square, splitting attendees into male and female lines.  Egyptians were protecting the revolution, refusing to let anyone in to corrupt their day of expression.  No bultagiya (government/army-hired thugs) here!

The atmosphere inside the square was a mixture of apprehension and eagerness, no one knowing quite what they were waiting for, everyone expecting something momentous nonetheless.  Graceful and poignant Arabic script billowed across the square on banners raised high, the wind moving the heavy heat and pollution across the faces of the banner bearers.  Children decorated with Egyptian flag paraphernalia posed for patriotic pictures, and young men leaned against one another chain-smoking incessantly.  A series of stages encircled the main square, reeling people in with Allahu Akbar and chants of freedom.  Back toward the Egyptian Museum, the road crawled and swarmed with the masses, bulging toward the square with the force of the River Nile.  Here it came, they were coming, it was happening, I was there. 

After the noon prayer, the energy surged and people lurched forward demanding the fall of Field Marshall Tantawi, the “purification” of the putrid system still festering in Egypt’s new political order, and the transparent hurrying of the trials to punish the former regime’s old bullies.  I was merely standing witness.  It was hard to comprehend all the nuanced political and social interactions taking place on the ground.  First of all, my guard is always up as a foreign woman in a potentially tense environment, and that necessity sometimes prevents me from fully appreciating or experiencing something.  Second are the mere logistical barriers of language and physical space.  It is a testament to the power of the internet that I get more information by sitting at home on my laptop.  But the persistent spirit of the revolution does not get transferred through wires across miles; the aura reigning in the square was unique only to the cloisters of people circulating that political and patriotic energy, only to the activists’ tents standing guard, “sitting in”, only to the relentless sun blaring over Tahrir.

I was most struck by the importance of this process to the Egyptian people.  No, not everyone supports these protests.  Yes, over 100 parties had come with no unified request.  Yes, it must ultimately be about the result - social justice, bread, dignity, and a few ginea to pocket - but it is just as much about this rich undertaking they call democracy, this up and down, step by step chaos that has people in the throes of debate and argument at all times.  It may not be perfect, and it may not ever reach an ideal anywhere, but I truly believe it is what we must all keep stumbling toward as a global society.  It can only be better than the alternative, the oppressive laziness that Egypt suffered under for so long.  You cannot sleep without dreaming; you must dream so vivaciously and fiercely that it becomes your waking life.

I am living and breathing this revolution.  I wake up and wonder how the activists in Tahrir slept in their tents.  My classes revolve, even ever so tenuously, around the revolution; they even take place based on what happens in Tahrir Square.  Every single Egyptian measures time in “before, or after” the revolution.  My social outings consist of at least stopping by the square to witness the happenings, or more likely, to wonder around for hours talking to people, to catch whatever I can understand of the political sloganeering.  Down time is spent obsessively and somewhat guiltily gobbling up whatever news I can gather from my various blogs and newspapers.  Before I shut my eyes at night, my thoughts wonder to the next step, the next incident, my next run-in with this machine they call the Egyptian Revolution.

I claim to not want to participate, but a growing chunk of my heart yearns to feel the pride and emotion Egyptians are feeling for their homeland.  A muffled part of my voice wants to cry out in unison against the system like I did so long ago in the streets of DC and New York against the Bush administration.  I am so eager to sink myself into this inspiring dilemma that it is beginning to consume me. 

Tonight was overwhelming, and never have I felt so tossed and turned by the mélange of politics and emotion around me.  It started as many afternoons and evenings have in Tahrir, with my foreign friends and I being approached by Egyptians every so often, curious as to what we could possibly think of their revolution.  There have been people conducting a sit-in in Tahrir for some time now, certainly since July 8th.  Dusk grew thicker, and so did the crowd around us, more and more men drawn to the cluster against the backdrop of the somewhat empty square.  Once they saw a tall white man and gold locks (my friends), they were tantalized enough to stay and find out what these people speaking Arabic in strange accents had to say.  Trendy young Egyptian men hovered around me, grandfathers shoved their way to my side.  I grew frustrated with the same questions haranguing us: why did America support Israel, how did she feel now that she had lost her longtime ally Hosni Mubarak?  I was expected to not only speak for the American government’s foreign policy, but for the entire assumedly homogenous and unified American public.  I bit my tongue, struggling not to sarcastically comment that if they waited a moment, I would call Obama and ask why American did this or didn't do that.  I tried to speak as only one American, a Puerto Rican, an activist, a liberal interested in their language, culture, revolution.   But the constant bombardment was not sustainable.  That is not to say I felt in danger - most of the Egyptians around me were engaging in productive conversation and protecting me from the few that harassed or criticized - but I was not comfortable.  We extracted ourselves from the crowd around us that had swelled to perhaps 40-50.  We thanked Tahrir for an exhilarating evening, and with a couple Egyptian friends accompanying us, we left the revolution in the square for the evening.

I must find balance, as in every facet of life.  This is not my revolution, and I must take solace in being a mere witness to history.  Even if I want to spend my free time buried in newspapers and political conversations trying to decipher the latest, I must make time for the other things that brought me here, including my language studies, my search for my ambition, and the exploration of the world.  I must make space in my lungs for the wind that doesn’t blow only through Tahrir.  It’s all about balance.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Revolution Will Be Graffitied/Hummed/Acted

Artistic expression in the Middle East has always found its innovation in the dark alleys of despotism, with literary geniuses and artists ducking around corners to avoid the harsh hand of authoritarians trying to wrench away their freedom of expression.  Novels have told of Arabs trudging through a life void of jobs and bread, always stagnant, never progressing.  Poems have railed against the Israeli occupation and the acquiescence of every Arab regime to foreign powers, lamenting the lack of revolt among the populace.

And now?  Now, the revolutions will be spray-painted, sung, monologued, stanza-ed, brush-stroked, exposed in the dark room.  Naturally, art is one of the most meaningful ways to record and process the outpourings of expression that have bubbled over in this so-called Arab Spring (quite a long spring.)  In Egypt, art has been the constant camera throughout the revolution, faithfully recording Egyptians’ pride, persistence, and passion.

It has functioned simply to document what happened, to ensure no one in Egypt or the world ever forgets the Feb. 2nd battle between government-hired thugs on camels and protesters trying to enter Tahrir Square, or the unity on display between Copts and Muslims, or the hundreds of martyrs that fell during the bloodiest days. 
The Revolution Artists Union has made sure of that.  The group formed during the revolution, often creating work directly from Tahrir, and since then, they have had multiple exhibits, one of which is in the metro station at the square.  Egyptians gather around the paintings daily to stare in awe at their revolutionary handiwork; I have seen many a mother holding her child up to a painting and explaining lovingly explaining its salience.  No one will easily forget the spirit of unity pervasive throughout the square, thanks to “Sout al-Hurriya”.  The song is actually made up of a number of slogans shouted and held up on signs during the height of the uprising, and every single Egyptian knows the words, and I guarantee you every single Egyptian gets goose bumps and tears in their eyes when they hear it.  In the streets of my country, the voice of freedom is calling...

But I think the most important role the paintbrush, the pen, and the guitar can take up is that of the teacher.  The Revolution Artists Union states that among its goals are to teach the morals and principals of the revolution: social justice, freedom, and dignity.  A revolution must not merely fell the corrupt system, rather, it must rebuild, and that restoration of an entire society begins with the individual.  I recently read an op-ed of Alaa al-Aswaany’s (in Arabic!), author of the Yacoubian Building  (and whom I saw speak the other day!), in which he wrote of a lull during the height of protests in Tahrir, when he threw a cigarette box on the ground; a woman admonished him to pick it up.  He then realized, "We are building a new Egypt... it must be clean."  It is changing the way you live - picking up trash, not driving as to endanger others, not trying to rip others off - that paves the way for a society that will not stand for another dictator.  Art serves to remind Egyptians, and all of us, of the innate goodness we all carry within.  Art's raw beauty, its truth, its reflection of humanity, bring out the best.  Call me an idealist, but I think that this sort of integrity will save the revolution, and maybe start another one.

Graffiti has become a common sight on just about every block, chronicling the revolution and its sentiments.
Tear-gas poems, by Kareem Abdul Salam.
A tribute to all the literary artists of the Arab Spring, courtesy of Words Without Borders.
Tahrir Monologues, a performance of revolutionary testimonies.

Tomorrow is July 8th, another day of rage/persistence, a day to speed up trials of murderers, to demand a new constitution, to expose the police for their abuse, to tell the military and the still criminal system that the Egyptian people are still in the midst of their revolution, and that neither their voices nor their paintbrushes will rest until justice is achieved.  Please keep Egypt in your thoughts and prayers - may it be a peaceful and successful protest.  Please take a minute to also think of places like Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, where people are filling the streets with their cries for freedom and their blood.


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Update on Tahrir Clashes

Sabah al-eshtebaakaat! Good morning of the clashes!

My classes have been cancelled for the day, since clashes between protesters and the police are still going on, and their focal point is right outside the gate to the American University of Cairo, where I take classes.  Last night, Egyptians came out throwing rocks and chanting anti-police slogans - numbers are hard to peg, but I'd say they probably got to 3000, although no more than 4-5000.  As morning crept in, protesters slugged home, leave perhaps a few hundred in the corner of the square by AUC.  There seems to be a sort of a stalemate at the moment, with protesters unable to do more than hurl sidewalk tiles, and the police defending the Ministry of the Interior, but not advancing.  They police have been given orders by the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) to stop, so perhaps that explains their halt, or they just don't have the manpower to take all of Tahrir.  Either way, that is where things stand as of this morning, with clouds of tear gas billowing around Tahrir as the rest of Cairo goes on its daily hustle & bustle.

I gathered some of this from my friend Chris, who bravely/foolishly went to Tahrir this morning, as well as Twitter (#Tahrir) and some other bloggers.  Part of me - the part that painted peace signs and bussed down to DC to protest the invasion of Iraq and did cartwheels in front of Westover Air Force Base - is dying to go down there, just to be witness.  The revolutionary spirit gives me the jitters, raises the hair on my arms, brings tears to my eyes.  I want Egypt to succeed so badly, to flourish into whatever peaceful and providing country Egyptians want it to be.  But I know it is not my fight, and I know I would not feel safe or comfortable being there right now - Chris said he got some critical looks, perhaps as a result of all the expired tear gas canisters with "Made in the USA" written on them.  Plus I want to respect the wishes of my friends and family to stay away.

Power to the people, yes, but I don't see the utility in these spontaneous clashes, in and of themselves, since no unified message is being broadcasted and violence is reigning.  I see the reasons behind them: people angry about the martyrs' postponed trials, frustrated with SCAF's lack of progress or transparency and their crackdown on dissenters, and fearful of the revolution and the constitution being hijacked.  Their value will be apparent in coming weeks, I hope, in re-rallying the populace to make noise about the stagnation.  Those extremely active in the hopping Egyptian left and those doing the most rabble-rousing are a small segment of Egypt's 80 million.  I hope these protests serve to mobilize other Egyptians to come out to protests July 8th in Tahrir and around the country and keep the pressure on SCAF, politicians from the old system, and nascent political representatives, too.

I would just like to emphasize that Cairo is huge, and in my neighborhood, life continues without sign of police or tear gas.  My program will likely air on the side of caution, so I don't expect to be in Tahrir any time soon.  I am being careful.  Check out the links I've included here: I would read them over any Western sources any day!

Keep Egypt in your thoughts,