I have wondered, as have friends and family, how it is that my family and I ended up in Cairo for my sabbatical. I can’t say that I really weighed various options, all that I know is that when I visited this city in the summer of 2011 it got under my skin in a serious way. When I checked out of the Marriott hotel after my five-day visit, the bellman who loaded my bag into the taxi urged me to return. “Please go home,” he said, “and tell your children and grandchildren (sic!) that this is a safe city and that they should come here.” I noted his plea, and a plea it was as the 1200 room hotel was nearly empty in the wake of the political turmoil that pervaded the city.
But I suppose it was not just the bellman’s urgings that convinced me to want to go back. This is a part of the world that I know very little about and that feels very foreign to me. And yet is a crucially important part of the world not only to the United States but also for global stability. 1.3 million Muslims and lots of barrels of oil are just two factors in this region’s centrality to world politics.
In my work building experiential programs for undergraduates over the last 15 years, I have found that the most challenging and impactful environments for students are in places that are undergoing rapid political,l economic and social change. Places like post-apartheid South Africa and post-Katrina New Orleans are just two examples of such places, as if of course Egypt. Despite the slow pace of history, places inthe midst of these kinsd of changes often seem hyper-charged, with time accelerated.
I also reflect a bit on the fact that I used to be scholar of the Cold War, and that as John Meaersheimer warned in his provacative 1996 article “Why we will soon miss the Cold War,” I do miss the Cold War a bit, that raison d’etre to be concerned about the course of U.S. foreign policy and in a very real way the future of the planet. And with the horribly damaging and short-sighted wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, this region is in fact the location of the new Cold War and too many hot wars, and in some way I guess I just want to be part of it, witness it and learn about it. It is terribly important to have Americans in this part of the world without guns in their hands.
Finally, I am an American Jew. This is not something that I am advertising while I am here, but it an essential part of my identity. As such, I need to understand this part of the world much better, and I hope, over time, for this part of the world to understand jews much better as well. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is always cited here as being at the roots of so many of this region’s problems. And though I have no doubt that this of often exaggerated, and that there is plenty of blame to go around for the poverty and conflict that is part of so much of this region, it does often appear to be front and center.
I don’t much believe in synchronicity, but just last month as I was emptying my night table at home in preparation for our semester in Cairo, I came across a father’s day card that Leah had written for me when I was on my visit to Cairo in 2011. It read in part “I wish I could be with you in the Middle East, but I know that one day we will be there together.” And so we are. yet another reason to be here.
Judy, Leah and I were at that same Marriott last weekend, and I looked for that bellman, as I wanted to tell him my story and to tell him that I was indeed back. “Welcome back,” he said as I approached him in the very same place I left him 15 months ago. This is a phrase that many in the tourist industry say to foreigners, so I am not convinced that he remembered me. But I remembered him, and was so happy to make his acquaintance once again.