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.


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

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