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I started writing this weeks ago, but I have been busy with many things so this is at least partly out of date.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


3 thoughts on “I’m Uncle Sam, how do you do

  1. Thanks Eric…I’ve enjoyed getting to know Egypt through your eyes. Enjoy the rest of your time there and I look forward to hearing more over lunch. I’m off to China Wednesday…leaving as we elect a president and landing in Beijing just as they select a premier. Quite the times…Larry

  2. Is Leah wearing a cackalacky necklace? Shame about Chomsky being a rock star to liberals, but with an out-of-date world view. Daniel is at a conference in Mexico with some really awesome up and coming thinkers that deserve a bigger stage like Chomsky gets.

  3. Perhaps at 86 Chomsky’s vision of building peace and justice has been dimmed from disappointment. We need the likes of young wippersnappers like yourself. I am off to Durham tomorrow, home in time to watch the show. Christopher

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