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.