And the politicians throwing stones singing ashes, ashes all fall down

It almost did not seem possible, but indeed Egypt has a new constitution. It is no doubt deeply flawed. It fails to protect minority rights, leaves many questions about the role of women, privileges Islam and Shuria law and fails to dislodge the state within a state status of the military. The latter is extremely concerning, as the Minister of Defense will be chosen not by the President but by the military, and there is no true civilian oversight of the military budget.

The 2nd round of voting was held on December 22nd, and we were what seemed like an eternity away from Cairo in the Siwa Oasis, about a 10 hour drive from Cairo, and only 40 kilometers from Libya. Though Cairo and other governates voted the week before, Siwans voted on the 22nd, and our very informal survey of residents suggested overwhelming support for the new constitution. Though our affluent neighborhood of Maadi voted over 60% against the constitution, this was not the case in Siwa. The man selling the freshest, hottest, cheapest, greasiest and best falafel that I have had has told us that everybody in Siwa, “even the children” will vote to support the constitution. Some expressed support simply because they wanted to get this stage of the painful birth of democracy over, others because they truly embraced the thrust of this constitution.

To say that Siwa is conservative does not begin to capture this magical place. Though all Siwians speak Arabic, they also have their own oral language. The culture shares much with Tangiers in Morocco. Nearly all the men wear gallabayas and married women are totally covered, without even the opening for the eyes as the Salafists have. Once married, women rarely leave the home. Much of the building material of the Oasis is mud. There is rubble everywhere, and I am still trying to reconcile Leah’s apt observation that the place looked like it was bombed with our shared observation that it was one of the most beautiful places on earth. Date and olive trees are nearly everywhere and these two crops seem to sustain much of the local economy. Tourism, like everywhere we have visited across this vast land, is down.

Noah stayed up all night before our drive to Siwa, so he wore pajamas the whole way.

Noah stayed up all night before our drive to Siwa, so he wore pajamas the whole way.

Perhaps the biggest adventure of this trip was our night in the Libyan Desert. Accompanied by our intrepid guide Aloush, we left our house in Siwa at about 10 am. He and our host Penny commented that the clouds and wind were incredibly unusual. We set out and had a wonderful ride through the largest sand dunes I had ever seen. We enjoyed lunch overlooking a lake, and then set for a ride through the desert. Because the desert is ever changing, Aloush would climb the dunes and then stop at the top, peering over to make sure the downhill was safe. Imagine a natural roller coaster. Leah and Noah took to sand boarding quickly, though the climb back up the dune was more difficult than we had imagined.

Noah and Leah sand boarding.

Noah and Leah sand boarding.

After finding shells and sand dollars across the desert floor, the wind continued to pick up as the sun began to set. “This is not a good night for camping,” Aloush shared with me as he gently dropped sand from his hand to measure the wind. In retrospect, I think he was saying maybe we should head back to town. As we unloaded the blankets, mats, sleeping bags and food from  his Toyota Land Cruiser, it began to rain, the first time Aloush had seen rain in the desert in his 17 years of taking people camping. We loaded things back in to the car so they would not get wet, he amazingly lit a fire and cooked a delicious chicken stew with potatoes and zucchini. He abandoned the idea of grilling the chicken as he said it would be full of sand. We ate, set up the sleeping bags, and settled in for a most uncomfortable night under the clouds in the midst of swirling sand that I am days later still finding in my ears. Indeed, the sun could not come quickly enough, as we packed up and abandoned the idea of making breakfast as it was bitterly cold and windy.    We returned to Siwa village where we showered, shook out the sand, and chalked yet another set of events up to memory.

Leah, Noah and Judy wrap their heads to protect their faces from the blowing wind.

Leah, Noah and Judy wrap their heads to protect their faces from the blowing wind.

Leah with our guide, chef and protector Aloush

Leah with our guide, chef and protector Aloush

We rented a villa in Siwa, built in the traditional mud style of houses in the village. We cooked breakfast in the morning, and I enjoyed going out early to buy eggs, oranges, hot bread and one morning even strawberries. Donkey carts were ubiquitous, though I was told that increasingly the tuk-tuks we saw were becoming increasingly menacing in the town square. This town was only connected to the rest of Egypt by a road in 1986, and did not have electricity  24 hours  a day until the 1990s. The cafes seems to be open early, with men (only men) sipping tea and smoking shisha. A climb to the top of the Shali yielded a wonderful view of the town, the palm trees growing in the Oasis, and the desert dunes just miles beyond.  Even though December and the temperatures were mild, when the sun shone brightly I was reminded we were in the desert.

viwe of siwa

Siwa has an abundance of wonderful historical sites to see, largely empty, no hassles, no tickets, just history. As we began our 10 hour drive back to Cairo, I was reminded that we  have over the course of our time here in Egypt and Jordan and Lebanon toured ruins, tombs, pyramids, museums, catacombs, grottos, caves, monuments, mosques, churches, monasteries, synagogues, villages, treasuries, oracles, citadels, libraries and palaces. One cannot help but be reminded of the vast and slow pace of history, of the rise and fall of leaders and religions and beliefs and practices.  As we have been witnesses to intense and sometimes violent political debate over these last five months, this backdrop provides at least a temporary reprieve, a reality check if you will on the winds of historical forces.  I do not say this to at all lessen the intensity or importance of the Arab Awakening that we have witnessed here over the last five months, not at all.   But the historical backdrop that we have seen does make me take pause to think.

A street sign in siwa

A street sign in Siwa

As we drove back in to Cairo last night I noticed that the few protesters who had been in front of the Constitutional Court here in Maadi since November 22 had left their tents. After Morsi’s controversial decree on the 22nd, his supporters gathered here in order to prevent the Court from meeting and threatening the planned constitutional referendum.  Though there were initially thousands who blocked the entrance and camped out, I had noticed each time we drove down the Corniche to downtown that the numbers had been dwindling.  Now that the vote was over, the last stalwarts had gone home. Egypt has a new constitution. Its place in history will be determined by what the politicians do with it, as is true of all constitutions.  And no matter what your view of  how good or bad it is, history will no doubt take note of the lively and rancorous and public discussion and debate that has been a constant of our time here, and will I sense be a constant here for some time to come.  I cannot help but think that this is a good thing. Not easy, but good.  For now at least.

The northern sky it stinks with greed you can smell it for miles around

I had just finished grading final papers and exams and submitted my grades to the AUC registrar when I went to Yahoo news and saw that Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi has been named a runner-up for the Time Magazine person of the year.  Looks like the other Muslim President won it this year.  I had quietly been hoping Morsi would get it but was glad to see that he got the important recognition he did.

Like all campuses at this time of year, it is quiet here. The emails have slowed, the appointments dwindled, and the lines at various campus eateries disappeared.  I went to my favorite place on campus today, Beirut Express, for my typical two falafel sandwiches and Diet Pepsi.  They were out of falafel, so I had egg sandwiches with french fries and salad and a regular Coke since they were out of Diet Pepsi. Can’t say I loved it, but it did fill me up.  I told the friendly man behind the counter that this was my last day on campus.  He asked for clarity. “You will not come back. And what about your daughter.” I said no, not for a while, and he said “Sir, I will miss you so much.” Right back at you my friend, who even though he came to know my order gave me the wrong thing nearly every time, and always gave me a break when I did not have the right change.  I will miss you too.

AUC as the semester ends

AUC as the semester ends

I am not sure how big a story it will be here that Morsi was a runner-up.  He has lost so much support in the time that we have been here.  I spoke the other evening with a man who has been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood for 25 years, who knows Morsi personally and had been a very eager supporter.  He was disenchanted and disappointed that the Brotherhood had called on its members to surround the Presidential Palace over two weeks ago in order to protect it from protesters.  He felt that the nine deaths that resulted from this conflict were the President’s responsibility.  Still another colleague here who teaches at AUC and also runs an important NGO, who had shared with me months ago that we needed to give Morsi a chance, had lost all confidence in the President because of his all of his missteps and miscalculations.  I am not sure if people have judged this to be a result of incompetence, which is not unusual when repressed political forces take power, or the result of a real power grab by Islamist forces.  I am not sure either, but I too share the concerns of my colleagues about the course of this government.

As I write, colleagues are stopping by my office to wish me farewell.  I am deeply impressed by the important and relevant work of the Gerhart Center and its role in the Arab Awakening (I am told that spring is not a pleasant season here so I am now call it the Awakening).  The birth of democracy here has led to the closing of the downtown Tahrir campus which has disrupted many of Center’s programs, the rescheduling of some finals because of the national holiday declared because of the constitutional referendum, even worse than usual traffic because of constant protests and a general sense of unpredictability. But my colleagues here carry on, knowing that their work has always been important, but now certainly more important than ever.

I have so much to say about our time here, but I want to gather my thoughts a little more.  For now, I close up this office, which has a Koran on the shelf above me, and head home on the bus.  The trip might be an hour, might be 2, depending on traffic.  We leave for the Siwa Oasis on the 21st, and then back in the U.S. late New Years eve, where we sill trade the smell of burning plastic for the smell of North Carolina.  I have always been convinced that smell is the most nostalgic of senses, and have already I will be happy to share with you pictures and stories when I see you, but how will I share the smell?

 

mohmen

A mutual toast with our Arabic teacher Mr. Mohmen as we finish dinner at his home and I present him with a DukeEngage t-shirt

Some folks trust to reason, others trust to might

Last night Judy was pretty comfortable sitting on the sofa with her glass of red wine catching up on Homeland on the Ipad so when I said at 8:30 let’s go downtown because it was the eve of the first round of voting on the constitution, she was hesitant.  We had just had three men to the house who were looking at things that we are going to sell before coming home. It turns out that they have a little business buying and then selling things that expats get rid of upon their return home. Though I am the political one, Judy is the direct one and asked how they would be voting tomorrow.  Two against the constitution, one for it.  They offered to buy some of our alcohol and ibuprofen, and though we were not yet ready to part with these, I did offer them a drink.  One took Arak with me, one vodka and orange juice. They gave us a down payment for the toaster oven and washer and dryer and agreed to pick up the items on December 30th.  And with that interaction I think I convinced Judy that going out and talking to people on this night was better than settling in to the sofa. So we got on the subway and headed to Tahrir.

The first round of voting on Egypt’s new constitution is today Saturday, with a recently added second round to be held on Saturday the 22nd. The constitution itself and the process behind its drafting have deeply polarized political forces here, and at times the Byck-Mlyn family, who has been heard to raise voices over dinner and early morning and late night conversations that have invoked questions and passion.

The anti constitution forces, made up of mostly liberals, secularists and former regime supporters announced on Wednesday that they urge the opposition to vote no rather than boycott the voting as they had been contemplating. Even with this agreement, the opposition to the regime remains fragmented and leaderless, which only in part explains why the they do not currently hold power and a large majority of Egyptians are very likely to vote yes on the constitution.

Yesterday afternoon, on our way back from a picnic in the Wadi Degla we came across a small protest in the rotary just two blocks from our house, with liberals urging a no vote. There are multiple protests across the country today, though the epicenter of the protests seems to have shifted from Tahrir to the Presidential Palace outside the center of town. This is I think symbolic that these are no longer protests of hope and aspiration but instead of fear and polarization, of stopping something rather than starting it. This is much of what I talked about with my class when we reviewed the constitution on the last day of class..

class photo

I have had troubling conversations with people we have met, many secular women, who fear that Egypt will soon become a place deeply inhospitable to women, non-Muslims and foreigners. I did a double take the other day when over lunch a young who represents a prominent foundation told me that President Morsi will become worse than Hitler. A former colleague was convinced that the lack of cell phone service many of us were experiencing days ago was a conspiracy by the government to limit communications.  And somebody Judy struck up a conversation with last week was convinced that the current strife in Egypt was all due to a conspiracy by the United States to support the Muslim Brotherhood as a way of balancing Shiite power in the region, sounding more like the famous realist Hans Morganthau than Morganthau himself. Finally, an acquaintance who is a Copt and comes from an accomplished family is urging her children to leave Egypt and stay in Europe as this place will only get worse.  Hitler. Iran. Saudi Arabia.  There is such a palpable sense of fear, one that I think is extreme and runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And there was the very thoughtful conversation that Judy and I had with our Arabic teacher Mohmen and his wife ShuShu.  He has been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood for 25 years.  Despite his clear support for “Dr. Mohammed Morsi,” whom he knows personally, he is deeply critical of his fellow brothers who surrounded the Palace last week in order to protect it, arguing to us that is not the job for people but for the Army. He also felt that President Morsi was to be directly blamed for the deaths that resulted from the protests last week.  But when it got to a conversation about the opposition, especially Mohamed Al -Baradi, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and now the perhaps de-facto head of the opposition, he said Al Baradi was not for Egypt, but was doing the bidding of the United States.  When I suggested that perhaps Al-Baradi was not against Egypt but might have a different idea of what would be good for the country, Mohmen would have none of that. Though I think this is overstated, I do think that Al-Baradi’s actions and rhetoric, refusing dialogue while predicting dire outcomes, has only inflamed and exacerbated current tensions.

And I guess that one of the most interesting things that I heard from people on all sides of the debate is a uniform belief that somehow the United States is behind everything and deserves much of the blame for the current strife.  And this comes from all sides – both the liberal and Mubarak supporters who are now united as the opposition, and the Muslim Brotherhood, as cited above. That is no small feat to be blamed by everybody with different conspiracy theories blaming the United States for doing different things!  To the extent that I think U.S. policy is incoherent here and should support basic democratic trends and institutions without getting close to any single faction and party, the appearance  of incoherence is probably apt.

A poster last night in Tahrir

A poster last night in Tahrir

After talking to people in Tahrir, Judy and I got lost headed to the bar El Harreya (Freedom) to meet our friend Gillian for a beer.  Leah hangs out at Harreya a lot, and took me and my friend Kenny there the other night.  It is 120 years old, crusty around the edges, and a lovely mixture of expats and Egyptians. We sat at a table with two young professionals who told us about all of the travel that we had not done, and advised about how cold it would be when we visit the western desert of Siwa next week.

As the night wore on, we met a number of people, both clientele and waiters, who knew Leah, with one waiter going up to Judy and asking if she was Leah’s mother.  Ah, infamy.  Also, I asked our table mates if they were going to vote tomorrow, and they said indeed they would be voting no on the referendum.  They had hope for Morsi, but felt that he was not listening and no longer spoke for all of Egypt.  I felt and shared their disappointment, the replacement of the euphoria of January 2011 with the reality December 2012.  They had no hope in any of the national figures claiming to speak for the country.  One of the men even wished that Mubarak would come back, because under his regime things were safe and stable.  This was the first time that I had heard a direct lament for the good old days, but it silenced me.  I could understand why he would want this, but it saddened me. We exchanged phone numbers as we shook hands, thanking each other for the good dialogue we had shared. We agreed to meet and talk again, insha’allah.

Judy enjoys a Stella at Harreya.

Judy enjoys a Stella at Harreya.

We walked out into late night Cairo, with the streets still filled with men sipping tea, smoking shesha and stopping for a quick shwarma or falafel.  I recently read of the term “Arab Spring Tourist” describing those who come here to observe from a distance and then go home.  I am starting to feel like this may apply to me, as we begin to sell our belongings and leave this fragile democracy to sort things out.  I do not of course have the hubris to think that my presence here makes a difference, or that this is my fight.  But damn it is sometimes tempting.

PS: With my thanks to my fiend Bill Deegan for the title of this blog and for his barrage of texts and emails suggesting various Dead lyrics for titles.  He has put a lot of time into this and for that I wonder about his sanity and I thank him,

Nothin shakin on shakedown street,used to be the heart of town.

We had not been to Tahrir for a while. There has been what seems like an endless series of protests, starting about three weeks ago with the anniversary of the death of 47 protesters on Mohamed Mahmud Street one year ago, followed by protests over the war in Gaza, followed by outrage over the President Morsi’s decree that consolidated executive power, followed now in protests over the proposed constitution.  It’s kind of hard to keep track.  My old friend Kenny is visiting from the states, and he really wanted to see Tahrir on his first day in Egypt. We also wanted to share with him koshary, the uniquely Egyptian meal, made of pasta, rice, lentils, chick peas, tomato sauce and fried onions. Our favorite koshary temple is Abu Tarek, a place we had not visited since our first night in Cairo nearly four months ago.

Judy was a bit reluctant to go to Tahrir, so I proposed that we take the metro to Sadat, the stop closest to the iconic square. We would check it out, look around, and not hang around if it felt dangerous or out of control. As we climbed the street, with the Egyptian Museum and Intercontinental Hotel hovering around us, Judy insisted that she smelt or felt tear gas, I was less sure.  There were maybe 5,000 people in the square, maybe 100 hundred tents in the center sheltering those who were in for the long haul, either insisting that President Morsi rescind his constitutional decree or even resign. Neither of these demands is going to be met.

The scene was like the North Carolina State Fair, or as some of you probably expect I am going to say next, like the parking lot, or “Shakedown Street,” of a Grateful Dead concert.  Most people were milling about, and there were a lot of vendors selling tea, koshary, cigarettes, pretzels and popcorn.  There were pockets of mainly young men in circles, energetically chanting protests about something. Some were painting there face with the Egyptian flag, and one vendor offered to pain mine, which I did not think was a good idea as it is probably best not to “take sides” in what seems to have become a culture of protest and opposition.  And it certainly was not the same Tahrir that I had seen weeks ago, as the entrance to Mohamed Mahmoud street was blocked with barbed wire, so we were not able to see the latest round of graffiti on the street or enter the old campus of the American University of Cairo, which has now been closed for three weeks because of the latest round of protests. The campus has received a few Molotov cocktails that have been thrown over its walls and withstood some damage to its buildings.

I had two feelings as we walked around for 30 minutes.  The first was that we were indeed witnessing history, watching people embrace the right and thrill of protest, something that had been dangerous during the 30 years of President Hosni Mubarak. I was reminded at a very gut level of the profound importance of freedom of speech and assembly. Also, I felt that on this particular night, which had not been called a major night of protest, that this routine has become so regularized that it had taken on a much different meaning than it had on those historic days that began in January 2011. It was of course still full of meaning, still an expression of previously inexpressible sentiments, but it was less urgent, less specific, and without the near unanimity that had led to the remarkable ouster of Mubarak in 18 days almost two years ago.  I think history will not grant this kind of dramatic change so quickly again. In that sense, the seemingly “easy” removal of Mubarak may have created unrealizable expectations for the scope and pace of political change here, and maybe in other parts of the Middle East as well. (For this latter point, I watch with deep sadness and horror the destruction of Syria, which began with street protests where many probably felt this was going to be easy. Oh my god were they wrong.)

As we left the square and made our way to the koshary temple of Abu Tarek (it is to me the Carnegie Deli of Cairo), most of the men sitting sipping tea and smoking sheesha were glued to the television.  President Morsi was delivering a speech to the Constituent Assembly, the body that had a day before hurriedly finished its drafting of a new national constitution. The move toward the finish line had been accelerated because of the fear the equivalent of Egypt’s Supreme Court was about to invalidate the entire drafting process. Though it had been meeting for over six months, the work of the assembly has been called into question as most women, liberals, Christians and secularists that were part of the body had resigned in the face of their own perception that Islamists were dominating the deliberations.  In his speech, Morsi announced that the constitution would be put to a public referendum on Saturday, December 15th. Election day is not far off.

My class will be talking about the constitution on Wednesday of this week, and I am making my way through it now. I will write more about it later I hope.  But for now, the country is likely to experience two weeks of debate, protest, civil disobedience, charges and counter charges, campaigning, conspiracy theories, rumors of impending doom and even civil war, dislocation, even worse traffic and emails from home urging us to leave this laboratory of democracy.  But I realize that for me, as a lapsed political scientist, this is somewhat akin to being a crack addict in a crack house. I receive my political fix at almost every moment, and the next two weeks promise to flood the streets with more.

We found our way to Abu Tarek, which was empty compared to the first time we were there.  We climbed to the second floor of the three floor restaurant, and ordered from the waiter.  There are not really many choices to make, only koshary or koshary “special” (the latter has extra chick peas, tomato sauce and fried onions). We all ordered the special, Judy and I indulged with a 7-Up, and Kenny ordered just a water. Kenny, who loves food more than almost anybody I know, was not quite as taken with the carbohydrate orgy as Judy and me. Being the good guest that he is, he finished his plate, while overhead President Morsi finished his speech, launching yet another round in the painful (aren’t they all?) birth of Egyptian democracy.

All the dancing kings and wives assembled in the hall…

This is one if many times that I wish I could speak Arabic. We are in the airport in Hurghada, on our way back from a long Thanksgiving weekend on the Red Sea where we snorkeled, go-carted( Noah went so fast on his first lap that he drove off the track) , and ate Nathan’s with great disappointment as the french fries were good but not authentic and the hot dogs virtually inedible. I told the man at the counter that the hot dogs were not good – and indeed I used my limited Arabic – but he was not impressed.  He just said OK.

photo.JPG

We ate the fries, but not the hot dogs!

On the television in the waiting area here at the airport is a broadcast of a meeting of the judges’ syndicate, who are objecting to the recent Presidential decree that make presidential decisions not subject to judicial review. I don’t know what they are saying, but they seem angry and defiant in the face of President Morsi’s presidential decree that seeks to consolidate power in his office by side stepping the judiciary and firing the general prosecutor.

It seems that President Morsi was riding here after upstaging Hilary Clinton here in Cairo and fired the general prosecutor who refused to be fired and sent to the Vatican months ago. ( I just asked the man sitting next to me what they were saying on the television. He told me not much, that it was a lot of posturing and words with no real action. Mahmoud, a 1993 graduate of AUC, had a theory that Noah heard on television, that in fact the US gave the green light to Morsi to consolidate power in return for his restraint of Hamas in Gaza. I personally tend to reject these kinds of conspiracies, but given the very mild statement that came out of the US State Department about Morsi’s actions today, who knows?)

What I do know, according to Leah who stayed in Cairo this weekend, is that some are saying there will be a new revolution. I doubt this. Unpredictability and some potential for chaos seems to be the norm now here. I don’t say this lightly, as each one of these eruptions and disruptions is deeply dislocating for so many. Images once again on CNN showing angry men on the street was of course not good news for Max, our British guide who took us snorkeling this morning and said that this kind of news kills tourism, and told us that during the revolution he had no business and spent most of this time drinking beer and watching CNN. He suggested to us that if things get bad in Cairo that we should just come hang out in El Ghouna. Were this to happen, I would definitely take up wind surfing as if looked like great fun out on the turquoise Red Sea.

President Morsi does seem to have overstepped a bit here, and his subsequent conciliatory tone toward those liberals and secularists who have taken to the streets bodes well for a peaceful resolution of this latest governmental and constitutional crisis. I would not be surprised to see Morsi continue this tone as tensions hopefully calm. There are few who would argue with the fact that that this accidental president (called a “spare tire” by some) was elected in fair democratic elections, a first in this country. As such, he enjoys legitimacy until he totally squanders it. Thus far, he has proven to be more politically savvy and astute than most thought he would be. In August few understood his audacity when he fired General Tatawi, but this held and is now seen as a very positive step for the revolution.

I remember when we flew from JFK to Cairo months ago that I chuckled to myself as I read an article in the English Egypt Daily News that suggested that protests should be banned. How silly I thought, don’t they understand what democracy is? That protest is a fundamental right and that you can’t ban it? Well, I do at least have some understanding of where this desire came from. Democracy is a real hassle. I am reminded yet again of the complexity and fragility of democracy as I suspect President Morsi is as well.

We remain engaged in all that is going on around us, and though I know that some of you are wondering why we are still here, I want to assure you again that the images on CNN belie the fact that life goes on. It is often disrupted, and from far away must look scary. But at this point it is not, only deeply interesting and challenging. Keep in touch.

If I had my way, I would tear this old building down

It is always so quiet on Friday mornings here, and the quiet is punctuated by the fact that it is usually so noisy in this city of 18 million people.  I am up early watching from by window as the Bowabs wash cars and a few people make their way down Road 200. The morning smog is not as bad as it is on week days, so I can make out some of the buildings that lie on the Nile’s Corniche just a few miles away.  Later, the call for prayer will come from the Mosque just 50 yards from our apartment building, beginning with “Allah is great” repeated four times, and ending with “There is no God but Allah.” And I suspect that the Friday talk by the Imam will somehow involve the latest version of the tragedy that is adding yet another act in Israel and Gaza. Unfortunately, my Arabic is not close to being good enough to have any idea about what he will say, though I can probably imagine.

We have heard from some friends and family with concerns for us as Israel seemingly prepares for a ground invasion of Gaza.  Hamas is closely allied with the Muslim Brotherhood here. Egypt’s President Morsi addressed the nation yesterday, saying that “The Israelis must realize that this aggression is unacceptable and would only lead to instability in the region.” I would have to say that I agree with this assessment. He has recalled Egypt’s Ambassador from Tel Aviv and the Muslim Brotherhood has called for large protests today in Tahrir Square and across the country.  It is hard to predict how big these will be, as there are now protests nearly every Friday, some large and some small.  It is interesting I think to note that even when political and civic participation was limited by fear under the Mubarak regime, the youth of Egypt would often protest what was seen as Israeli aggression in the Occupied Territories and raise money and collect goods for their Muslim brothers.

 

The big difference now is that under Mubarak these were anti-government protests that were tolerated by the regime, perhaps as a way to let people blow off a little steam without directly threatening the regime.  Today, this will be a pro-government demonstration, as Egypt’s new foreign policy forcefully aligns, at least at a rhetorical level, with Hamas and the Palestinians.  Just how assertive this becomes will say a lot about the future of Egyptian/Israeli/US relations. We will I think avoid downtown today.

Two weekends ago, Judy and I visited a Palestinian camp in Beirut, and the conditions were horrendous.  Nearly 10% of the population of Lebanon lives in the Palestinian camps. I am not really interested in this space of ascribing blame, but I think that we can all agree that there is plenty of this blame to go around.  In Lebanon, the refugees, who first came in 1948, are not citizens of Lebanon and do not enjoy any of the basic rights of citizens. The U.N. which runs the camps, describes the situation here. Conditions in Gaza are worse, in fact are some of the worst in the world, as this recent U.N. report makes clear. (Please read this.)   With 25% unemployment, 51% of the population under 18 and a per-capita GDP of $1,165 (88% of what it was in 1994), desperate does not begin to describe current conditions in Gaza.  This does not for a minute justify lobbing missiles at Israel, but it sure helps one to understand why they do it.  As Bob Dylan reminds us, ” When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

And as we plan a trip to Jordan in December, I note with interest unexpected large protests in Amman and elsewhere in response to the government announcing an increase in energy prices (something that the Egyptian government has also recently announced by reducing certain fuel subsidies.) We watch Syria descend further into what looks like it will be a long and horrible Civil War, Lebanon try to hold on to its recent but fragile peace, Iraq continue to try to recover from the US invasion, Iran threaten and be threatened, Afghanistan look no more stable than it did 10 years ago, and on and on and on.  Surely I have forgotten somewhere nearby that is unraveling or will soon unravel. My god, what a tragedy.

Please don’t get me wrong.  Israel’s deserve to live in peace and to be not  threatened by missiles from Gaza.  But what I just don’t understand is how this recent operation (an odd term?)  gets us any closer to anybody being safer or more secure, anywhere.  As we watch in the US as the purported greatest military hero of our time did some incredibly stupid things, I am reminded that indeed our leaders are all too capable of acting against their own and national interests through misjudgment, hubris and excessive testosterone. Interestingly, this operation has different names in Hebrew and English. For an interesting discussion of this, see this piece from the excellent newsletter 972, which amongst other things reports on the peace movement in Israel.  Apparently Israeli leaders are using the biblical reference “Pillar of Cloud” in Hebrew (from Exodus) but the English is “Pillar of Defense.”  Whatever you call it, it looks like war to me.

There is more going on outside my window now.  I hear loud music coming from down the street, though I cannot make out its source nor the words, though it sounds like English pop music. The man who comes by with his donkey and cart every Friday yelling loudly for people to bring to him things of value that they might throw away is making his way down Road 200. My family is all still sleeping, but they and this city will be awake soon. I am so curious to see what this day will bring. We plan to visit the pyramids of Saqqara today, the oldest in Egypt.  I will seek wisdom from these buried leaders.

My baby gives me the finance blues

I write this with the primary goal of sharing a video with you.

Judy called me yesterday with the shopping urgency she sometimes gets. I was at home catching up on email and some writing, and Judy was with a friend who is an American psychiatrist with whom she visits the local psychiatric hospital a few times a month. This has given Judy a very interesting perspective on mental health in Egypt.  She was at a jeweler on Road 9, about a 20 minute walk from our apartment.  She wanted my opinion on some gifts she was contemplating.  Judy has a nearly indefatigable ability to shop, so I agreed to meet her, but only for a brief amount of time.

The walk was typical for this neighborhood.  Walking mostly in the streets because of non-existent or busted sidewalks, withstanding the nearly constant honking of horns by taxis looking for a fare, and working up a bit of a sweat as the afternoon sun is still warm and desert like, I traversed Maadi as somebody who might even be familiar with the area.

The owner of the shop goes by the name Carlito, a charming Egyptian with two Obama  posters in his store and nearly perfect English.  He offered me tea which I politely declined.  I did not want him to think I was going to stay in his shop very long. He was clearly pleased to meet Judy and her eager shopping energies. She had a number of items out, I offered my quick opinion, and hoped to quickly move on.

Carlito began to talk about the speech Obama gave here in Cairo in 2009, the one I referenced in a post weeks ago and that I assigned to me class here.  He also told me that he had recently been interviewed for a New York Times video, which you can link to here. He showed it to me on his phone and then  emailed it  to me on his iPhone so I could share it with you and my class.   It is noteworthy to me for a couple of things:

1)      It is more anti-Obama than I have encountered here. Most learn I am American,  say “Obama”  and give a thumbs up.

2)      Israel is simply central to everybody’s feelings here about the U.S. and our foreign policy. There is no escaping this central fact. (By the way, despite Romney’s attempt to outflank Obama on the Israel issues, 70% of American Jews supported Obama, and a huge majority of Jews do not identify Israel as the most important issue to them.)

3)      Carlito is an articulate, intelligent man.

4)     The video gives a nice and I think evocative picture of Cairo.

So we agreed to buy some of this and some of that, lovely items from a nice man with deep thoughts about our political system. In the end, I probably wished I had agreed to have some tea with him. I think I will take that walk again soon.

I’m Uncle Sam, how do you do

I started writing this weeks ago, but I have been busy with many things so this is at least partly out of date. We have been on a Nile cruise to see the temples of Luxor and Aswan and Abu Simble, and this weekend Judy and I went to Beirut to visit a DukeEngage project that works with Palestinian refugees and for some good food and wine in what is a troubled and remarkably beautiful city.

Sunrise at Abu Simble

Two weeks ago I had halvah and Noah had three Oreo cookies and a glass of milk. It had been Noah’s idea to wake up at 3 am Cairo time to watch the last of the presidential campaign debates, this one focusing on foreign policy. We had missed the other two so we agreed to get up. After all, as Noah said, “they will talk a lot about where we are.”

And indeed they did, with no doubt that the Middle East was the most focused on region, with Israel getting 32 mentions as each candidate did their utmost to prove that they were the most pro-Israel. I was struck when Romney criticized the President for not only not visiting Israel during his trip to the Middle East but for using the trip to apologize, and Obama recoiled at the thought that he might apologize. In fact, I assigned Obama’s soaring speech that he gave here in Cairo in June 2009 to my class at the American University of Cairo. I thought it was a remarkable speech at the time for its attempt to address US relations with the Middle East in an even-handed way. And indeed, it was almost an apology when he said:

We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world — tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.

And what, may I ask, would be so wrong with an apology?

And then for something completely different. On the heels of a presidential debate that yielded very few significant differences on the issues, Judy and I went to the old campus of the American University of Cairo in Tahrir Square to see Noam Chomsky, the man who has been arguing that there is no difference between the Deomcrats and Republicans  for many years.  The scene on the beautiful downtown campus was more akin to a Dead show then a campus lecture. The lines to get in were long 90 minutes before the talk began, and Judy and I waited for a long time before being told that we would not get in and should sit in the courtyard where the talk would be simulcast. We sat down, only to see a rush for a side door. We got in and in typical Judy Byck fashion, she calmly found a seat in the front row of what was a dangerously full auditorium.  I had seen Chomsky many times when I lived in the Boston area, and though I think his critique of the US has some validity, his talk was disappointing. In many ways it was the same talk that I saw him give thirty years ago, and his hour-long talk barely mentioned the historic square that was only 50 feet away. In may in fact be that in terms of the superstructures that Chomsky thinks are important, the world has not changed much since the end of the Cold War.  But the analysis misses so much of what is important in the world and what part we can play to build peace and justice. Chomsky’s only idea for what we can do was to work for a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, the same idea I heard him advocate thirty years ago. I agree that it is a good idea, but not any more likely than if was 30 years ago.

The crowd at AUC Tahrir trying to get in to see the 84 year old Noam Chomsky

I am trying to find a place to watch the election returns , though nothing meaningful will be reported here until 3AM. Leah told me that the Maadi House, an expat hangout near our apartment, is having a 7 pm to 7 am event.  In a talk I gave at AUC recently, I noted that our countries had two things in common. First, youth who yearned for and created political change had become deeply frustrated by the lack of change, and second, that we both had Muslim presidents. Did not get a huge laugh. Given the accessibility of information, I do not feel like I have missed much except for all the ads you have to see. Many people in the streets here ask us where we are from, and when we tell them America, they often say “Obama” and put their thumb up. I am just not sure what their reaction to Romney will be. Finally, I am struck by all of the difficulties voter registration and related issues in the US, and many of my Egyptian colleagues are puzzled about why it is so hard to vote  in the US, and talk about how all citizens here are registered to vote and that they have run a series of free and fair elections.

The rhythms of the days and weeks are taking on an increased familiarity. As Judy and I finished our Arabic lesson tonight, we heard the call to prayer. I asked Mr. Mohmen what these now familiar words meant, and he was eager to not only print out the Arabic and provide an English translation, but to play us a mournfully beautiful version by a well-known Muezzin. We entered the night, still warm but getting cooler, hearing the final words of “there is no god but Allah.”

May our elections be free and fair, and may the best man win. My students want to know who I voted for.  As we learn and talk about democracy in my class, we also talk about that must be private. We all I think have lessons to teach about democracy. Maybe that is what Obama was trying to say in 2009.

Leah gets her ballot scanned in my office

Test me test me, why don’t you arrest me

  • I was grading my class’ first exam and came across the following answer in response to the question “please talk about the obstacles to effective philanthropy in the Middle East.” Y, we will call him, wrote ” Arabs are as stingy as Jews.” He then crossed this sentence out and appended a note to it which said “pretend I did not say that.”  He proceeded to provide a very good answer to the question.
  • On his trip to Stratford-upon-Avon Noah roomed with an Egyptian student from his theatre class, who upon learning that the hotel they were staying did not provide free wireless blurted “they are a bunch of Jews.” Noah objected, since was not the first time A made an anti-Semitic comment, nor the first time a student in his school had done so. A apologized, indicating that this kind of comment was really done from instinct and that he did not mean anything by it.
  • A few weeks back, while Noah was getting his hair cut downtown, Judy was connecting with the young men in the barber shop. They told her how much they liked Americans, she told them she was Canadian and they said Canadians were good people. Judy told them that she liked Egyptians as well and commented “all people are good people,” to which one of the young men commented “Yes, but not Israelis.”
  • In Arabic class yesterday, after a very intimate exchange about his relationship with his deceased father and how he had watched him die and performed the ritual washing of his corpse, we commented to our teacher that we do something similar. “You are Christian?” he asked. “No Jewish,” I responded. He looked shocked. We then had a wonderful exchange where he told me how happy he was that we told him, that he had a former student who told  him of his Jewish identity only when he was leaving Egypt. He let us know that he understood the difference between Jews and Israelis, noting that he did not like Israelis because they kill children. He also urged us a number of times not to share our religious identity with any other Egyptians.

We have not been very public about our Jewish identities.  We did go to high holy day services in downtown Cairo, in a synagogue guarded by the Egyptian army, but that was pretty private until we saw a picture of the back of our heads in the English language Daily News in an article written on Rosh Hashanah that featured the small Jewish community that remains here. And in my travels in the region I have always been cautious about revealing my religion, but have done so many times after I have gotten to know somebody. I recall after telling a professor colleague of mine in Jordan that I was Jewish, she asked “how often do you visit your homeland.” I quickly realized that she was not talking about New Jersey.  I also realized that for many American Jews, Israel is indeed their homeland.

 

And that  seems to be the issue here. Jewish is equated with Israeli by many, and Israel is seemingly universally vilified here. For those who do understand that Jewish does not equal Israeli, they express openness to Jews but an unequivocal hatred of Israel and Zionism and the catastrophe. But if you think about it, doesn’t Zionism actually create this merger, or doesn’t Israel do so by making all Jews automatically citizens of Israel actually encourage this merger of identity? And don’t my conservative Jewish friends who ask for unyielding support for Israel from the American Jewish community also propagate and encourage this merger of identities? In this perhaps odd way, the perception that I experience amongst people here is in some ways similar to what many American Jews encourage.  So some here understand the difference between Jews and Israelis, and some do not, but even for those who do I am not always sure I believe them.

The anti-Semitic/anti-Israel sentiment amongst the Arabs that I have met is not at all dissimilar to the intense Islamophobia that exists in the United States. I nearly lost my breath when a family member upon learning that Leah would be studying Arabic here asked “why, so she can speak to the terrorists?” And the recent cover of Newsweek with   featuring Arab rage, or the post 9/11 racism that so easily emerged in the United States is far too close to the knee jerk anti-jewishness I hear here.

I am frankly not interested at this moment in having conversations about moral equivalence. For now I am discouraged by the deeply entrenched views on both sides of this persistent and unwavering hatred. And though one of my goals in my time here was to somehow bring a fruitful dialogue to this enmity, I think that was both naive and the result of a bit of hubris.  If nothing else, however, I am a little less ignorant about this part of the world than I was two months ago.

 I asked Y to come speak to me after I read that line in the exam.  He responded to my email by asking if there is anything he should be worried about. I said no, but that I wanted to talk to him about something in his exam.  We agreed to meet after class. When we ran into each other before class in the men’s room, he said to me that he thought he knew what I wanted to talk about. After class we sat down, and I told him that his line about Jews took my breath away. He earnestly apologized. I told him I was Jewish, he said that he thought that might be the case. That actually did not make sense, so I asked him how he knew. He said that he had never seen a last name like mine so he thought I might be Jewish. He told me he did not mean to offend me, that he likes to use humor about this issue, that he has many Jewish friends and that he differentiated between Judaism and Zionism. We talked a bit about the films of Sasha Baron Cohen.  I told him that there was a place for humor, and exams like this were not such a place.  He agreed.  We walked to the bus together, shook hands, and agreed to continue the conversation.  I very much hope we do. Perhaps one small drop in a large and rough sea.

I was Born in the Desert, Raised in a Lion’s Den

We took a journey to another world this weekend.  Five hours west of Cairo is the Baharyia Oasis, on the outskirts of the White Desert. The Oasis, one of five in Egypt, was cut off from the world until the early 1970s when a two-lane road from Cairo was completed. The town was before that totally self-sufficient except for fuel, and relied solely on the barter system.  The completion of the road created a tourism industry, largely focused on taking people camping into the white desert.  Of course, tourism is a complicated enterprise, bringing with it many of the hierarchical relationships that are endemic to colonialism, and it sometimes seems like colonialism but in a different form. I can’t pretend that we have figured out how to navigate these colonial dynamics, but they provide a lot to think about and can serve as a window on politics, economics and social relations.

            Our first night in Baharyia was at a new hotel recently opened by an American women with a Ph.D. in Archeology andan interest in ancient astronomy. She had lived in Cairo for many years, but found it too noisy and busy so decided to move to the Oasis. The 23 room hotel is lovely, decorated with Nubian and Bedouin art, with modest rooms, a lovely rooftop restaurant, and a Bedouin tent in the back. She has built her dream.  As we sat in the tent drinking a beer waiting for the hotel owner to join us, we engaged in a lovely conversation with Muhammad, who was from Baharyia and seemed to be the manager of the hotel.  His English was excellent, his desire to share the joys of the oasis abundant, and his perspective on life open and mutual. His wife had been educated at Cairo University in Commerce, but did not work out of the house. In fact no women in Baharyia worked out of the house, and most did not go outside during the day at all, and certainly never without being covered.  His wife, he told us, was “shy,” and only went out at night, and then only with another woman to visit her mother.  The conversation was fascinating as we reflected on the word “shy”, which Judy took to mean modest which made a lot more sense.  The conversation radically shifted when the hotel owner joined us for a beer (Muhammad was not drinking) and though deeply in love with this country enough to invest in it and make it her home, proceeded to tell us how the medical system sucked, how nobody could understand the creativity she brought to the hotel design, and how she had brought a level of sophistication to Baharyia that did not exist before.  I think all of the was probably true, but could not help but notice that Muhammed, who had previously been very talkative and engaged, became absolutely silent while she was talking to us.  I could not help think of the subtle and not so subtle power relations that were taking place right in front of us.

 After meeting our guide Amar and seeing the town and its environs which included a “natural pyramid” and seemingly endless date trees (nargala) with the sweetest succulent dates, we ate dinner at the hotel, were driven to a hot spring which proved to be too hot for our immersion, and retired for the night, ready to leave in the morning for camping in the desert. Amar is a talented man.  He was about our age with four children ranging in age from 3-12, and had spent his life taking people into the desert.  For many years he would walk with people, but now took people in an all wheel drive vehicle. He told us that he had not used English much since the revolution as that has taken a real toll on tourism across the entire country. (Tourism has historically accounted for about 5% of Egypt’s’ GDP, and had taken a significant hit since the Revolution.)

Amar was a jack of all trades, and I could not help but think of the Bruce Springsteen lyrics from the song Jack of all Trades:

I’ll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain
I’ll mend your roof to keep out the rain
I’ll take the work that God provides
I’m a Jack of all trades, honey, we’ll be alright

I’ll hammer the nails, and I’ll set the stone
I’ll harvest your crops when they’re ripe and grown
I’ll pull that engine apart and patch her up ’til she’s running right
I’m a Jack of all trades, we’ll be alright

 He was our driver, guide, cook, knot tier, navigator and chief contexualtizer.  He was pleasantly not very talkative with us, though he and his assistant Muhammed, a 20 year old veteran of the Egyptian army talked endlessly about many things, but given the different dialectic in the oasis, Judy and I were not able to pick out many words. (I did constantly imagine that they were talking about the dumb Americans who did not even know how to set up a tent.)  it is hard to describe driving off road in the desert with no “obvious” landmarks to mark the route, though Amar never got lost, at least not that we knew. He also cooked us three meals all with fresh salads, tea with mint, and warm bread. When we asked him if he cooked at home, he seemed almost offended. Since his wife does not go out during the day, he does all of the shopping, but she does all of the cooking and chores at home. Judy told him in the US we tend to split these duties. I think that this seemed so perplexing to him that it warranted no further conversation. I include some pictures here from our trip, which do not come close to doing justice to what we saw:

The western desert

Sunrise in the white desert

Judy at peace

On our night ride back to Cairo from the Oasis, we stopped at a truck stop where 4 or 5 men were drinking Turkish coffee and huddled around a television watching President Morsi give a speech celebrating October 6th, the holiday celebrating the “victory” over Israel in 1973. The speech was given in a football stadium to over 60,000 people. Morsi noted to the crowd that he still lived in his flat in New Cairo and that reports that it cost 3 million Egyptian pounds ($500,000)for security each time he went out were grossly exaggerated. He also reflected on progress made thus far, including the amount of trash that has been picked up and efforts made to relieve traffic congestion, with 1.5 million traffic tickets given in his first 100 days.  There is actually a “Morsi Meter” where one can track his progress. It is hard to imagine what it would really take to address all of the serious issues this country faces, which are daunting on the face of it, but somehow make sense in light of the vastness of the desert that had hosted us for a small blip in time.

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