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?