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I started writing this weeks ago, but I have been busy with many things so this is at least partly out of date.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


Well this job I’ve got, is a little too hot

For those of you who are interested, the students and administration reached an agreement on Sunday to open the campus. I have a million thoughts and observations about this, more later.  You can read more abot the agreement here.


Sometimes we visit your country and live in your home

Learning Arabic over the last weeks has been a humbling, revealing and joyous experience.  I have spent far too much time traveling the world with so little knowledge of local languages that Judy and I decided we would do are best to learn this aesthetically beautiful language. Though I  have not been able to learn or remember much thus far, the experience has been edifying, and has served as a window on to so much more than the Arabic language.

Judy and I are taking two two-hour classes each week at Al Diwan, one of the language schools where DukeEngage students study when they are here in the summer.  Its newly opened Maadi branch is a four minute walk from our apartment. The branch manager Mo’men is teaching us, and his support and enthusiasm buoys me when my aging brain can’t remember the word or pronunciation that I have learned for the 25th time. His warm welcome, the tea with mint from the garden and the family atmosphere that pervades Al Diwan has made this part of our week most welcome, despite my overwhelming feelings of incompetence. For our first class Mo’men invited us to share bread, cucumbers, tomatoes and mesh (old cheese) with him, introduced us to his wife Shu Shu who also teaches at Al Diwan, and beamed about his sons, one of whom is studying Engineering at Cairo University. Last week Judy and I joined all of the Al Diwan students for koshary in the courtyard of the school, and last week, upon learning that we liked hollowa (hallava) he summoned his colleague Omar to buy some for us which we shared while learning how to read and write. Al Diwan has become a place of comfort, where we learn not just about language but about prayer and revolution and family and friends.

Holowa at Al Diwan

The New faculty orientation at AUC provided us with about 4 hours of basic language instruction, where we learned some survival words and phrases. All of the instruction was phonetic transliteration, so though we were exposed to new and unfamiliar sounds, we were not exposed to the Arabic alphabet. When Judy and I were deciding what to study and how to study it and where to study it, our major predicament was whether or not we should learn the Arabic alphabet or simply learn words and phrases. (Also, one can study classic Arabic or Egyptian Arabic, we are doing the latter). I am glad we took much of the advice that we got from friends and colleagues here and that we are studying the alphabet, for though I will probably never be able to read or write, the alphabet and broader structure of the language has for me served as a window on Egypt, an unveiling if you will of the very form and structure of this place. Letter by letter and word by word, what once appeared to be utterly incomprehensible is now just slightly discernible.

I am familiar with Hebrew so have the experience of reading from right to left, but it is good to be reminded of this here.  So it does remind me of Hebrew as do some of the letters and words. This linkage is important to remember as we also see and observe and sometimes experience the continued schism between the Arab world and Israel. The direction we read in here is an important reminder of similarities amidst the differences.  Also like Hebrew, vowels are not often used and are placed above and below consonants. Many letters connect to other letters, and to add to my confusion, take a different form depending on whether they appear at the beginning, middle or end of a word. And so though knowing this has not really helped me to read per se, it has allowed me to look at what previously looked like beautiful scribble and to be able to discern discrete letters, words and logic.

And that in so many ways mirrors my experience and what I have learned during our six weeks in Cairo. Whether it is the traffic without lanes, the various forms and colors of the hagib, or the cacophony of the emerging political (dis) order, there is indeed a logic and form. It’s just not my logic and form, nor one that I know. And that lesson is the most important of all.


Snow Days in the Desert

Many of you have emailed me  to ask is the American University in Cairo (AUC) is still closed, and I am sorry to say that the answer is yes. It has been over a week now that students have chained all of the University gates closed, blocking access to the new campus for all students, faculty and staff.  The students’ demands are not always clear, but they center on asking for this year’s 7% tuition increase to be rescinded, and sometimes include demands for better faculty, higher pay for AUC staff, amnesty for the student leaders of this strike, increased budget transparency and more student voice in all decisions. Students suggest that the University wastes money on “leakage,” which I think means corruption. Though some faculty have urged President Lisa Anderson to call in the police to remove the students (there are not really that many of them at the gates), she has understandably decided not to do so for fear of violence. The last thing AUC needs at this point in history is images on CNN of Egyptians with guns fighting with young people.

Some background is important here.  AUC is the elite institution of Egypt, if not the region. It represents an attempt to export our belief in the value of a liberal arts education to this part of the world. It is by regional standards outrageously expensive, with full cost at  nearly $30,000 a year, or more than 8 times the average Egyptian yearly salary. (For comparison, that would be like charging about $320,000 a year at Duke.)  Three years ago, AUC opened a new campus in New Cairo, about 10 miles from downtown.  The total cost of the campus was $400 million, $100 million of which was paid by the US government. There is a plaque on campus that thanks the US for its support, and random computers and printers have a USAID sticker on then, reading “a gift from the American people.” Also, as you can see here, there is a plaque that thanks Hosni Mubarak:


While I was doing some reading on the history of AUC, I came across this hacked Wikipedia entry. Read the first paragraph carefully:

Interestingly, in the past students have raised issues about AUC’s relationship with the Mubarak regime.  Here is an article from last year about this. Mubarek’s wife and children  attended AUC and until the revolution it had a Susanne Mubarak Hall. I believe it is now called just room P071.

When it is not locked down by students, one can start their day on campus with a decaf skim latte and have lunch at Subway or McDonald’s, though I am happy to report that the new Beirut Express that recently opened on campus behind my office serves wonderful koshary and shwarma where one can get lunch for less than half the price of the ubiquitous American chains. The choice is yours! The architecture is breathtaking, respectful of the style of the region with a subtle nod to the colors and tile of a boutique hotel


Judy on campus during new faculty orientation

I did see many of my students yesterday, asking them to meet me in a room at the old AUC Campus off of Tahrir Square. About half of them came. The topics of my class – leadership, the relationship between the liberal arts and democracy, civic engagement – are all so ripe for conversation, and for making this a teachable moment. And I continue to search for the real causes and meaning of this strike, as I sense that many of the students can indeed pay the tuition increase and that there is something deeper and more profound going on here.  I have asked my colleagues and students about this and have gotten varying responses. Some believe, as I suggested in my post last week, that indeed this is an extension of the revolution, that these young people who had all efforts at protest and criticism suppressed are now – without fear – taking advantage of every opportunity to oppose “the man.” I think that by physically blocking the campus they have gone too far, but I do understand it.

I also asked my students if there is a certain anti-Americanism implicit in this student strike. They did not think so, but I am not sure I agree. AUC pays different wages to Egyptians and foreign nationals. My feeling is that these students have a love/hate relationship with this school – that they love its physical presence and freedom to explore the life of the mind, and the ticket that it represents to good jobs, but are troubled by its explicit link to the US and its history of support for the old regime and damaging meddling in the region. So just as the protests across the region are about more than the absurd film that became the focus, so this too is about more. And it is for this reason that it is crucial that we reopen the University as soon as possible, because I cannot imagine a better place to have this conversation in a free and open way. To me, these closed gates equal closed minds. If a liberal arts education does nothing else, it helps us to develop empathy, to see how others see things and to take that into account when we act. To close the campus when we most need it open is perhaps the most tragic part of this episode.

I can see how many of my students are seeing this  strike as a break, the way we at home perhaps treat snow days. I never did like snow days, especially in the desert. I’ll keep you posted on developments.


A note from the AUC Provost

Received this today and it struck me as a voice of reason.
Dear Colleagues — The AUC Faculty,
These are sad days in the long and bright life of AUC.  The action taken by a few students to block access and occupy the premises of the New Cairo campus cannot be justified under any circumstances.  Over the past few days, and especially yesterday, we have witnessed heroic and courageous efforts by our faculty (staff and students alike) who tried to force themselves into their “own” campus.  While this is understood and appreciated, we are fearful for your own safety.  Accordingly, the University Cabinet has decided to suspend all operations (including all academic activities) at the New Cairo campus until further notice.  I am writing to confirm that the New Cairo campus is closed today; please do not go to the campus.  A similar message is being sent by the other Vice Presidents to their constituencies.
Please be assured that we are doing our best to resolve the conflict, but only by upholding the valued principles that made AUC such a great university over its 93-year history.  If and when we can operate the campus safely, you will be notified.  In the meantime, I will continue to update you by short messages as this.
With my best regards,
Medhat Haroun


I have been wanting to write something here about the American University of Cairo, where I am serving as a Senior Fellow at John Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement. I will have more to say later about the mission of a liberal arts education here in Egypt, but just wanted to post now that the University has been closed for three days by students who are protesting this year’s 7% tuition increase.  Because this campus takes security very seriously (I have to show my ID and go through a metal detector each time I enter the campus) there are a limited number of gates that allow entry to campus. As a result, it is easy to keep secure AND I am learning relatively easy for students to lock people out. Student protestors have put chains with locks on all of the gates, and despite negotiations between the Administration and students, no progress has been made.  Though the cause is hardly as noble, it seems that just as the Tahrir protesters would not leave until their singular demand – Mubarek must step down -was met, the students say they will not open the campus until the tuition increase is rescinded.

For now, AUC has officially suspended operations. I am frustrated not to be able to continue my class and am contemplating meeting them off campus. Civic Engagement? Not sure about that.

Another blocked gate

AUC students block a gate


I Need A Miracle Every Day

This is a challenging city to figure out. In a quest for increased understanding, I am reading Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control by David Sims, which despite its title actually marvels at how things kind of work in what some people claim is Africa’s largest city. Sims offers some interesting explanations for what I observe every day, for example why it seem that 50% of the apartment buildings along the road on my 45 to 90 minute bus trip to the American University in Cairo are half built and largely empty. (The explanation is complicated, but has to do with how housing is financed, the lack of cars, real estate speculation, mass transit and poorly thought out zoning regulations.)

So I am still agnostic on whether this place works or not, though leaning to yes. That does kind of amaze me given the density of this quickly growing city of 17 million people and the fact that we are in the desert. And thought it can sometimes be maddening to try to get something done quickly, taking deep breaths and appreciating when things do work helps a lot.

When we first arrived here, I withdrew money from the ATM in our neighborhood, right in front of the   Cairo American College where Noah goes to high school. I got my money, but alas my card was not returned.  I stood around for a while, watched another person use the machine, and then called the phone number on the machine to see what I should do. My lack of Arabic did not help, though I think the man on the phone suggested that I wait a few days and go to an address down town. That seemed both complicated and a long shot, so I called my bank at home and they told me they would have a card Fed Exed to me in 5-7 days.

The next day, while on the AUC campus, I decided to stop in to the CIB bank where I had been earlier to open an Egyptian account.  I saw the man who I had met the day before and told him my predicament. He listened carefully and began to repeatedly call a number that seemed to be busy. After about 15 minutes, he reached somebody, spoke for a while, and hung up. “Mr. Eric,” he said with a half smile, “I will have your card in a few days. Please give me your phone number and I will call you.” I hoped, and wondered, does this place work well enough that this will happen? I don’t know that it would have happened in Durham.

So as Sims concludes about Cairo:

And it is a near miracle that such a huge agglomeration has been able to grow from four to seventeen million inhabitants in less than fifty years on its own, so to speak, counter to government intentions and plans….[there are] efficient neighborhoods where two-thirds of all Cairenes live and almost half of them work, where housing is minimally acceptable and quite affordable….and a majority of inhabitants can live modestly respectable lives.

Back to me. I had grave doubts I would ever see my card again.  You mean to tell me that in this city of 17 going on 18 million people, that somebody will find my ATM card at a machine that is 45 minutes from here and deliver it to campus? Please! Well, I stopped in to the bank every day on my way to the office, checked and he told me he would call me. And indeed, 4 days after I first made the request, this very kind bank employee handed my ATM to me.  “Shokrun,” I gushed, “ma salaama.” It does kind of work, a little differently perhaps, but it does kind of work.

(Note: Just learned that Leah, on her way back from Ain Soknah on the Red Sea, is stuck on a bus with other AUC students at a stand still on the highway because of an accident that will not be cleared until tomorrow. They are turning around and going back to the hotel.  OK, I did say kinf of work.)


Summers Fade and Roses Die

Despite the images on US television, it has been a quiet weekend for us here in Cairo. I have been thinking a lot about the images CNN shows, and they are of course at one level real and important. And as US embassies and other symbols of American influence are the scenes of protests and violence, the images take on an added intensity.  It did remind me that Wolf Blitzer’s regular show is called “The Situation Room,” and he is always breathless no matter what he is reporting on. (I have always thought he would have made a fine weatherman). Do you remember when the situation room was reserved for the President when he met with his national security advisors when there was a real global crisis?

The Morsi government has come under criticism from the West for its response to the embassy protests here. Commentators have said that he and his government stressed the negative aspects of the film rather than the need to protect US interests. I find the prevalence of this reaction to be incredibly myopic. Morsi is building domestic support for his presidency, and whether one believes in free speech or not, he had to outright condemn the idiocy of this film. He and others from the Muslim Brotherhood quickly condemned the violence and as of tonight have secured the Embassy and the surrounding streets. Seems like a job pretty well done to me, though perhaps not according to the timeline we would have preferred.

I was pretty surprised at Obama’s statement that Egypt is not an ally. And I was not surprised that those around him had to quickly retract this statement to stress that indeed we were partners. This statement undermined Morsi domestically at a time when this was a very dangerous thing to do. Obama does not usually make mistakes like this, but the heat of the campaign season seems to have gotten the best of him on here.

It is instructive to reflect back on Obama’s soaring speech that he gave here in Cairo June of 2009, a speech I was moved by at the time for its idealism and vision. It was also the first reading that I assigned to my class here. In the speech, Obama said:

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.

(Do read the whole speech at the link above, it is one of his best.)

I guess sometimes you need to be careful about what you ask for. Despite widespread disagreement about politics here, most agree that the last elections in Egypt were fair and democratic.

So as a calm descending on Cairo while the US withdraws non-essential personnel from Sudan and Tunisia, I suspect that these protests that were ignited by this offensive movie (it is still blocked here so I have not seen it) have and will morph into a more general expression of opposition to the US for its legacy of support for repressive regimes across the region and of frustration for the widespread hardship that life in this region brings to so many. For a nuanced and balanced discussion of this, I encourage you to delete CNN from your favorites and to add AlJazeera, and this discussion of the recent events in the region.

All seasons pass, don’t they? I will watch with great curiosity as the Arab Spring gives way to summer, fall and winter. To quote John Barlow from Weather Report Suite , who wrote many songs for the Grateful Dead:

Winter rain, tell me why.

Summers fade and roses die.

The answer came; the wind and rain.


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