Friday, June 10, 2011

First Words from Egypt

Greetings from Um a-Duniyya, the mother of the world, as they call this gracefully chaotic city.  It feels like almost an eternity that I’ve been here in Cairo; I don’t know if that has to do with already having been here, the ancientness of the city, or the mere amount of stimulation I’ve absorbed in 9 days.  Whatever the case, there is much to share.

“I’m surrounded by concrete slabs, windows and porches etched into them.  Blankets and hijabs wave at me from neighboring balconies, and way off in the southeast distance, my eyes barely make out the pyramids, standing silent watch.  Two crows caw at one another across the way, while the streets below them beep and hiss and haggle.”
This is Doqqi, a neighborhood across the Nile from downtown Cairo where I live.  It is thankfully dotted with shade-lending trees that provide an imaginary respite from the choking car fumes that the city is rank with.  Negotiating our apartment and signing the contract was an amusing and relatively painless ordeal that introduced us to a gruff broker and his bigmouth wife, who now regularly pops by to bring us curtains and drink tea.  My two Tufts roommates and I have a balcony from which you can dimly make out the pyramids’ in the distance, and on which we have already enjoyed dominos and cards with friends.  Our entire apartment is incredibly gaudy; the headboard to my bed is extravagantly and absurdly wonderful.  I have meandered the neighborhood some, encountering a number of produce stands, kufta and other meat sandwich shops, as well as the Yemeni and Bulgarian embassies.  It seems to be a middle class neighborhood with a little bit of everything.

My first 10 days seem to have both flown and crawled.  The sweltering days are quickly filled here, but I also feel I have been giving my body - lungs and mind, legs and heart - time to adjust to this journey.  I have certainly been seizing the day: I have seen two of my close Egyptian friends from Alexandria, met my classmates at various rooftop bars and hole in the wall eateries, seen two movies in Spanish with Arabic subtitles (culture meshing!), and have walked all over the city looking up and down and all around and talking to anyone I can.  My to do/see list is endless, as this city is a culture hub; I plan on doing Islamic and Coptic Cairo, going to a Libyan festival at al-Azhar park, visiting many museums and galleries, and going salsa-ing.  But I have a whole year here, so I am not rushing to see this and that.  Time is the friend of simplicity, calmness, and peace, all forces I want to guide my life, particularly in a city as overwhelming as this one.

I have started classes with CASA, the Center for Arabic Study Abroad, which is housed at the American University at Cairo (AUC), right in Tahrir Square.  Our facilities are very nice, and on top of that, we have access to their swank and modern campus, although it is an hour outside of the city.  My peers seem nice enough, and many of them at higher Arabic levels, so that has been daunting when it comes to vocabulary in Fus-Ha, or the Modern Standard Arabic classes we take.  Our only other class for the summer semester is Amiyya Masriyya, Egyptian Colloquial.  Our teachers seem top-rate, as do the language materials, and this academic year will undoubtedly challenge my Arabic skills.

I know, I know, you all just really want to hear about the revolution.  Are things different?  What do Egyptians want?  Was the revolution successful?  These thoughts consume me daily, and I am trying to gobble up as much as I can about the situation here.  The streets and their faces don’t necessarily reveal the fact that a massive political change just shook the country, but there is a hopeful atmosphere about that I can’t really describe.  I went to a conference at AUC last weekend entitled “From Tahrir: Revolution or Democratic Transition?”, where Egyptians and foreigners alike discussed topics such as the vibrant youth movements and the role of the judiciary in the “New Egypt”.  From that, my perusing of numerous Egyptian blogs, and my conversations with Egyptians, I have gathered the following:

1.) The revolution has only just begun.  Although its most symbolic success to date was obviously the fall of Mubarak, his demise does not mean Egypt is now free of oppression.  Many of the activists and average citizens involved in the January 25th movement fear that their revolution will be hijacked by the military (its Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, SCAF, is running the country) or by status quo political powers still lurking, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s old party, the National Democratic Party (NDP). So there is still an old and faulty system to overthrow, and then there is so much to build!
2.) Yes, the revolution will be tweeted/blogged/Facebooked, but the forces of the internet were not and are not causal in the revolution.  I was really frustrated back when the revolution was first blossoming by everyone’s claims that this political change was because of Twitter and Facebook.  No.  These internet sites were merely tools used by activists, but the demands and actions were concrete and acted upon by real people.  In fact, for much of the revolution, there was a telecommunications shutdown that prevented the use of Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Many of the protestors instead tuned into Al Jazeera to find out where their fellow countrymen had been staging protests and to know where to go the next day.  Additionally, many of the labor strikes that have been going on for years now are led by folks without access to the cyber community.
3.) This didn’t come out of nowhere.  Although the west was blind to the grassroots activism that had been taking place for years before the Arab Spring, it was undoubtedly laying the foundations for this sweeping transformation.  Its roots are found outside of formal institutions, in Kefaya, the April 6th youth movement, and the We Are Khalid Said movement.  Kefaya (meaning “enough”) was formed around the time of the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, and it subsequently staged actions to oppose the U.S. invasion of Iraq and then in 2005 around parliamentary elections.  In 2008, activists formed the April 6th movement and called for labor strikes nationwide.  In summer of 2010, two plainclothes policemen brutally murdered a young Alexandrian named Khalid Said, setting off a series of protests focused on police abuse, long rampant under Mubarak.
4.) The above descriptions of Egypt’s activists lead me to realize that there is true activism happening here.  Much of it is tied to labor.  I have walked by a couple strikes at the subway station at Tahrir Square, where I take classes, and others happen daily in factories, the airport, and government.  Protests are called for almost every Friday in Tahrir, and although they are too small, they are important because they keep SCAF on its toes and provide a necessary forum for Egyptians to gather and share their latest political musings. 

Some of the issues Egyptians are concerned with are:
1.) A-Dastour awlan, ow al-entekhabat?  The Constitution first, or elections?  In a referendum on March 19th, Egyptians voted on a package of constitutional amendments.  They passed overwhelmingly with record voter turnout, and 77% of voters decided that elections should be held in the fall, after which a council of experts would be organized by the new parliament in order to write the constitution.  But many are calling for the constitution to first be revised.  Check out one of my favorite bloggers, The Arabist’s, post about this issue.
2.) The Egyptian army has long been extolled as “being one with the people”, and its actions reflected that during the January 25th uprising, as it refused orders to fire on citizens (if any were given) and in fact appears to have convinced Mubarak to go.  Not only are they strong in terms of military acquisitions, but they wield a great deal of economic might within Egypt, as they own large plots of land and are now making a big for Egypt’s lucrative gas fields.  But now many Egyptians are worried that SCAF will be the new authoritarians in town.  The SCAF has made protests or strikes illegal in Egypt, continues to arrest journalists and activists and try them in military courts, and could even field a candidate for the presidential elections later this year.
3.) Trying Mubarak and all his NDP cronies.  One of the panels I went to was on the role of the judiciary, which is now expected to monitor elections in the fall, and try Mubarak in August, in addition to many involved in the state apparatus responsible for the torture, disappearance, and death of many.  While justice seems the logical path to follow, can the country economically and emotionally undergo a series of intense trials as such?  Will they be fair, or is SCAF just trying to appease protesters by saying Mubarak will be tried?  What if Egypt tried something like South Africa did, where politicians were given immunity from prosecution if they came forward about their crimes?  Check out this article by a Middlebury student who spent time in Syria's jails.

I’ve linked to a number of good blogs and articles above, and you can find a list of the blogs I read to the right of this one.  Jadaliyya chronicles events awesomely in the region, and has a great interview here with Hossam Hamalawy, long an activist in Egypt.  Hossam’s blog is Arabawy, and although it carries specific details about protests and people that might be hard to follow, it is worth taking a look to witness the workings of a true Arab revolutionary.  I heard this man speak at the AUC conference after having followed his blog for a while: he is a labor activist and has been imprisoned and tortured by Mubarak’s thugs.  At the conference, he spoke of Che and Lenin, saying that the Egyptian revolution was not peaceful because the protestors needed to defend themselves (as in most revolutions), and stating that "every Egyptian institution now has to purge itself of the mini-Mubaraks".  He is my Egyptian idol.  Also check out Egyptian Chronicles, very detailed and specific, but enlightening.  This NYT Magazine piece is stellar.

I’m sorry to have gone on so long, but as you can see, I am quite ecstatic to be here.  Despite the discomforts life in Egypt can present, and the constant homesickness I feel, I know I am very fortunate.  What better moment for an Orientalist such as myself to be in Egypt?  I hope to share it all with you along the way.  Please comment and banter and disprove me!

Besos pa' todos,

Yamila جميلة


  1. Yami,

    Beautiful written and very interesting, I am teaching my student groups about revolution in Nicaragua and across Latin America here in Nicaragua and joyfully take your thoughts back to them.

    Cuidate much, un abrazo!


  2. I love you Yammy and the beautiful imagery I have through your writing. Be safe and enjoy life!
    - Mariah xx

  3. Yamu,
    Great writing and very informative. Keep it coming!
    Sending you love.

  4. Yami,

    This is a beautiful blog and your narrative is rich with all the real details that color and give life to Egypt. So happy for you and thinking of you always.

    Much love,

  5. Yamila,
    I thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed your first post from Egypt. Your descriptions and opinions are beautifully expressed and give me a wonderful picture of what you're experiencing. I attended a talk on the Middle East and the Arab Spring yesterday at my 40th Trinity College Reunion and your words are a perfect complement to what I heard. Please keep me informed via e-mail of your subsequent posts. You are clearly already making the most of your incredible opportunity.

  6. Yammi!

    Thank you for sending the link -- please keep reminding us because the combination of your keen observations from everyday life (the landlady) and from the political scene up-close is so fine. We'll be looking forward to hearing from our favorite Mideast correspondent any time you have time to write. Much love,
    Pops & Mama U

  7. أعجبتني قراءة مدونتك هذه وأتمنى لك سنة رائعة في "أم الدنيا". أعرف أن فترة الاقامة في مصر ستكون تجربة جميلة جدا لك يا جميلة ....مع تقديري وتحياتي الطيبة,

  8. Yamu, me alegro mucho estés en un lugar donde tanto cambio cultural y social está ocurriendo. Acabo de venir de una semana en Puerto Rico, y el caos social, impulsado por décadas de gobierno colonial, y ahora por el que parece ser el gobierno más corrupto Puerto Rico haya tenido jamás, es escalofriante. El nuevo chanchullo es una tubería de gas natural de 92 millas (¡en una isla de 100 x 35 millas!) que atravesará la cordillera central y destruirá una cantidad enorme del nicho ecológico de esta pequeña isla bendita por la naturaleza, y maldita por el lucro y la falta de conciencia ambiental. ¡Ojalá hubiese un cambio social en mi querido Puerto Rico como el que tu estás presenciando!

    ¡Me encantaría ver tu cuarto, caminar contigo por la ciudad, visitar Alejandría y saludar a Alejandro Magno! Te echo tanto de menos...

    Tu padre

    ps. ecstatic

  9. He leído tus palabras una y otra vez, tanto para recordarte, escuchar tu voz, ver tu cara, como para reflexionar sobre el significado de tus palabras con respecto al lenguaje, la cultura, y el odio del uno por el otro. ¡Buen trabajo! Queriéndote siempre, P.