Monday, June 18, 2012

Calvinball in Cairo

Sooner or later all revolutions turn into Calvinball too.

For those who didn't have the good fortune of reading the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes in your youth, it includes a crazy game called Calvinball, made up by (and named after) the protagonist, who simultaneously plays by the rules and make up them up as he goes.  Here is a synopsis of the rules, (in bold, as compiled on followed by a discussion of how these apply in Egypt, where the game is call various "SCAF-ball" "Tantawi-ball" or "Mubarek-ball," depending on what zone you're in, or whether it's a Tuesday or Friday, election day, or time for Hosni to take a nap.  This is politics when the rules break down and everything becomes a game of maneuvering to make up the new rules.  It will be a long time before there is one agreed-upon set of rules, and the interesting question now is how Egypt as a whole will come to an agreement on those rules.  This will involve a mix of processes--elections, protests, police crack-downs, constitutional conventions, court rulings, and foreign meddling--out of which will eventually emerge some new regime.

Permanent Rule: You may not play Calvinball the same way twice.  This is evident in reading through the news from Egypt, as the game changes on a daily basis:  first the military oppression version, then the bread and circuses version, then the "kill the rebels" version, then the "take to the streets" version, and so on--through a series of revolutionary and reactionary moves that have brought us to the latest election results.  With Morsy's victory at the polls, look for the rules to change once again (rapidly) with the SCAF and MB take turns every two hours to declare the parliament and/or the courts either in session or illegal.  One corollary is that the more desperate a player becomes, the more rapidly they change the rules.  Exhibit A: SCAF's press conference on June 17, in which they failed to make any reference to the election that had just occurred.  Election?  what election?   Apparently, according to their rules, the only elections that count are the one's that they win.

Primary Rule: The following rules are subject to be changed, amended, or deleted by any player(s) involved. These rules are not required, nor necessary to play Calvinball.

The SCAF and the Courts have been the best at following the Primary rule, but the Muslim Brotherhood have joined in, and the Tahriris have learned quickly that you have to make up your own rules as you go.  If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.  If they shut down the internet, start making signs, if they stop enforcing the laws, set up your own police force; and so on.  The latest rule changes were the "Lazarus Rule" that said that if Mubarek is in jail, then he is 'dead" and must be released.  Once out of jail, he is then miraculously alive again. The other rule change is that if you vote for Morsy you are either a) crazy, and therefore your vote is disqualified or b) you actually voted for Shafiq.  That is why they are having to recount the votes now, since some of the election officials didn't get that memo.

1.0. As George Orwell pointed out in 1984 and his Essay on Politics and the English Language, in politics and Calvinball, the following words are freely interchangeable:

·       Can

·       May

·       Must

·       Yes (this can mean maybe)

·       Shall
·       Should
·       Will (same as won't)
·       Would
·       Freedom (can mean "order")
·       Peace (can mean "the silence of the grave")
·       Security (can mean "lots of guys with guns running after you")
·       Democracy (can mean "Calvinball")

1.1. All players must wear a Calvinball mask (See Calvinball Equipment - 2.1). No one may question the masks.  Mubarek has the best mask (the sun glasses are a nice touch).  Here are some other examples:

This is where you can buy your masks in Tahrir.

1.2 Any player may declare a new rule at any point in the game. The player may do this audibly or silently depending on what zone (Refer to Rule 1.5) the player is in.

This can include new Constitutions, new Constituent assemblies, new elections, outlawing parliaments, outlawing the courts, changing the eligibility rules for running for office, changing how independent candidates are elected to parliament, overruling rulings outlawing the courts, or saying that you're sick and therefore the rules don't apply to you (cough, cough).  You can also ignore rule changes you just made, if they don't turn out the way you thought they would.

1.3. A player may use the Calvinball (See Calvinball Equipment - 2.2) in any way the player see fits, whether it be to incur injury upon other players or to gain benefits for himself.  This is what we call a "political football" and can include a foreign-funded NGO, Israel, Copts, tourists, bin Laden, soccer riots, gas prices, jobs, or bread.

1.4. Any penalty legislation may be in the form of pain, embarassment, or any degradation the rulee wishes to execute upon the other player.  This has been tragically the case in Tahrir, including for almost all the women there, who suffer from harassment and degradation on a daily basis.  One of the most insidious aspects of the "game."  The current SCAF is particularly worried about how this might go for them, should they have to face penalties for the actions they have taken.  They should be worried.

1.5 The Calvinball Field (See Calvinball Equipment - 2.3) should consist of areas, or zones, which are governed by a set of rules declared by players. Zones may be appear and disappear as often and wherever the player decides. For example, a corollary zone would enable a player to make a corollary (sub-rule) to any rule already made. Or a pernicious poem place would require the intruder to do what the name implies. Or an opposite zone would enable a player to declare reverse playibility on the others. Different zones established so far include the Parliament, the SCAF headquarters, the High Court, the Low Court, the Shura Council, the Tahrir Kushari restaurants, the Sadat Metro Station, any cafe that sells apple sheisha, the U.S. Embassy, Al-Karnak Temple, the Steigenberger al Dau Club, and the land surrounding the Pyramids (buskers rule!).  Completely different rules apply in all these places.

1.6 Flags (Calvinball Equipment 2.3) shall be named by players whom shall also assign the power and rules which shall govern that flag.  Here are some of the flags:

1.7 Songs are an integral part of Calvinball and verses must be sung spontaneously through the game when randomly assigned events occur.  This is where the Tahriris have been most successful.  SCAF can't sing to save their lives.  Neither can Shafiq (this was a problem for U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch as well, although he didn't know this);  Obama struggles with this, but has not completely bombed in the singing department.  Artwork has been an added dimension to the game in Tahrir, with the youth winning that battle without a contest.  Music exhibit A by Ramy Essam:  

1.8 Score may be kept or disregarded. In the event that score is kept, it shall have no bearing on the game nor shall it have any logical consistency to it. (Legal scores include 'Q to 12', 'BW-109 to YU-34, and 'Nosebleed to Pelvic Fracture'.)  See: election results, opinion polls, state-run media stories, all SCAF public statements regarding the political situation in Egypt, and government statistics, none of which have anything to do with reality.


2.1. Mask - All participants are required to wear a mask.  Here are some of the most popular masks for the stars:

Is it Mubarek, Tantawi, Shafiq, or Mousa???

2.2. Calvinball - A Calvinball may be a soccerball, volleyball, or any other reasonable ball. Bowling balls are accepted.  Sometimes it is also the bodies of protestors (see the video footage, above). 

2.3 Calvinball Field - The Calvinball Field should be any well-sized field, preferably with trees, rocks, grass, creeks, and other natural obstacles.  This is why Tahrir has been so popular, as it is an ideal setting for Calvinball--lots of natural obstacles, lots of concrete barricades erected by the military, lamp posts to climb, party headquarters to set on fire, and plenty of room for tents for those playing for long periods of time.  But any large, open urban space will work.  The Bedouin like playing this game on their own turf in the Sinai, using ignorant tourists as a "calvinball."

2.4 Miscellaneous - Other optional equipment include flags, wickets (especially of the time-fracture variety), and anything else the players wish to include, such as rubber bullets, rocks, tear gas, campaign posters, camels, batons, barbed wire, cell phones, camcorders, signs, graffiti, flash mobs, tweets, Facebook pages, and blog posts.

Were this not all so serious and deadly, it would be funny;  but sometimes you just have to laugh.  Egyptians know this all too well and have used humor and satire as one of their greatest weapons in the struggle against the old regime.  

2.5 Duration.  The game lasts until the players get either tired or bored.  Mubarek is there already, and the SCAF is getting there, but the youth of Egypt are just getting started.  For them, the game will be over once there is some minimal amount of justice.  That is one rule that won't change.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


The large lotus-shaped umbrellas in front of the Al Hussein mosque, as the noon prayers let out.

All good things must come to an end.  The Egyptian word we learned for when we were done or ready to go was "khalas"--enough, finished.  Yalla, yalla--let's go.  Meshi--OK.

The narrow alleys of Khan el Halily, the old market place.

The classic covered alley-way in Old Cairo, one of my favorite urban spaces.
 We sit in the Cairo airport in a daze at 5:00 am, having been up all night, with our final visits, and packing up, checking out, and bidding adieu to Oliver, who is staying on in Egypt and then traveling on to Jordan, Palestine, Israel, and India.  None of us wants to leave, as far as I can tell, but we’re too tired to put up a fight at this ungodly hour.  Instead we attempt to stay conscious long enough to get through customs and to the plane, as the yellow sun rises over the noisy city that will soon be 5,000 miles away.  It will be strange to be back in a quiet city again, without the cacophony of the taxis’ horns and steady drone of the city, the calls to prayer, the shouts and murmurs drifting out from the alleys of this great gathering of humanity.

Landing in Paris in a gentle rain, in my semi-comatose state, I am struck by the geography of water and dirt.  One of the revelations I had when working on boats was that once you left shore and washed down the boat once, you didn’t have to wash it again until you reached the next port.  The reason for this was obvious once you were out at sea, but had never occurred to me on land, as dirt was a given, a universal of life lived on soil.  But at sea, the only thing that could get on the boat’s deck was salt water.  No dirt, so nothing to clean, except wiping down the salt left when the brine evaporated. 

As we go from the thick dust of Cairo, to the greenery and rinsed pavement around the de Gaulle airport, the cleansing effect of rain is one of the first things that I notice as different.  Cairo is the opposite of the sea, as there is no rain and virtually all the Nile river water is used for things besides rinsing the surfaces we traverse.  Egypt has the raw materials for creating dirt and dust—lots of dry soil, wind, abundant agriculture, a huge concentration of human beings, and Soviet-era factories belching smoke—and none of the water that would help to clear the air, moisten the ground, or wash off the sidewalks, roads, rooftops, cars, and or any other surfaces on which the dust collects. 

The lack of rain and abundance of sun makes Egypt a pleasant place to live.  The temperature in Cairo varies between 50 and 90 F and is generally in the high seventies or low eighties, which might explain why it has flourished as a spot for human habitation for so long.  Having spent some time in the tropical rainforests, I can also see how it is much more hospitable in terms of other things that live there—the bugs, tropical diseases, poisonous creatures or what have you that are found in the rain forests.  So if you can take the water from the Nile, and spread it around the delta to grow lots of wheat, you can have a lot of people there, without too much competition from other creatures.  But you’ll have to put up with things being a bit dusty.  Not having slept in 24 hours, that is about as profound an observation I can muster while waiting for the flight to Atlanta.

At the Zenib Khartoum--our favorite outdoor cafe, in the neighborhood behind Al Ahzar.

More of the gang, hanging out, talking politics and life, drinking tea and smoking apple sheisha.

Amir, Mohamed, Andre, and Nihal

Sam, Nada, Mai Sia

Breanna, Oliver, and Ahmad Afifi

The whirling dervish at Wekit el Ghory--a mix of trance, Sufism, La Cage aux Folles, Bollywood, and classical Egyptian music.

After shopping in Khan el Khalily with Mohamed's mom and cousin Nadia.

Out to dinner in Heliopolis, for kufta, tameyya (falafel), and kebob.

Mia Sia, a sandwich, and an interested passer-by.

Sitting in Whekalet el Ghoury, waiting for the show to start.

So this improbable trip has come to a close without having been canceled or with anyone lost or injured along the way.  In retrospect at no point in the trip did it feel that we were in real danger.  Once, some street urchin tried to get my wallet from my backpack.  Once or twice in Tahrir, it felt a little unsettled, but not much different from going to a rowdy rock concert.  The street traffic in Cairo was the most dangerous aspect of our trip along with the novel bacterial content of the food and water.  Certainly the apprehension and concerns going into the trip were warranted, but the reality on the ground is not the same as what is printed in the papers or State Department travel warnings.  Generosity and hospitality were the predominant aspects of the trip, and nowhere more than with our wonderful friends from the youth movement.

Our journey concluded with a meeting hosted by Noor, Nada, Ahmed Affifi, Mohamed Issa, and other members of the EYouth team at the headquarters of the Egyptian Educational Resources Association (E-ERA), in a nice neighborhood of Heliopolis.  They began with summarizing the program and its origins, their focus on building communication skills, empowering Egyptian women and work on debating and other civic skills.  EYouth itself was formed under the umbrella of E-ERA.  Mohamed Mahmouz (a first-year engineering student who does a lot of their IT work) explained how they had formed several teams, each focused on a different aspect of their work—a multimedia team: a survey team, a team tasked with facilitating buy-in from parents, and a group planning the final summit and doing some research on things like Public Achievement and a summer program on sustainable development.

They had been trying to get approval from the interior ministry to distribute this survey to identify youth with high leadership potential and finally the ministry had taken so long to reply that the law gave them approval by default (even the most Kafkaesque systems have their limits).  The program has great promise, and we hope to continue to follow their work and be involved in whatever ways we can.  More importantly we need to work on parallel projects in our own communities.

After the EYouth presentation, our students gave some of their final observations about what they had learned on the trip—under three broad themes:  sustainable development, the revolution, and the economics of tourism.  The students had identified cultural, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainability and analyzed successes and challenges in each of these areas.  In terms of the economics, they raised the question of how to keep the money in the community, rather than have it leave the country and end up in a Swiss or U.S. bank.  In terms of environment work that identified Wild Guanabana, Sekem, HEPCA, and the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) as success stories.  They liked how Sekem had created lots of jobs and runs an organic farm, but had some misgivings about how the young workers there seemed to be educated with a “tunnel vision” without much other options to rise in the ranks.  But Nada replied that the jobs Sekem was creating were sorely needed and great progress over what had been there before.  Progress, we are reminded, is relative.

Despite the successes of HEPCA and Wild Guanabana, with its carbon neutral travel practices, the students noted how Omar Samr had described travel as the “cancer of the world.”  Part of this dynamic involved the problem of when cultures meet and indigenous cultures often are weakened. In terms of the challenges of economic development, we compared ideas on how to shift Egypt and the U.S. away from the skewed subsidy programs for food (and for fuel) as a way to incentivize more efficient and healthier consumer choices.  Discussions raised the ways in which the lack of adequate planning, the prevalence of corruption, and rapid urbanization complicate all these efforts.

In terms of the revolution and “all that jazz” the students were struck by the openness of Egyptian people to share opinions, in stark contrast to the reticence of Americans (or at least Minnesotans)  They noted as well the interesting fact of how rumors were powerful in Egypt.  In a country where information has been tightly controlled by the government, education and literacy are woefully underfunded, and the street and internet culture is very active, rumors have a lot of traction.  For instance, the rumor that Mubarek was dying or of Shafiq supporters who believed all Tahriris were criminals.

Sam noted that party politics in the U.S. is more centralized, and the Egypt it is highly decentralized, with a much weaker authority structure, which makes campaigning here different:  much more grassroots here, with posters covering every surface; in contrast to the big money media campaigns in the U.S.

There was an interesting discussion of post-revolutionary developments: wondering how to organize the Tahriri parties and avoid the fragmentation which hurt them at the polls.  We agreed that new parties would need time to strengthen their organizational structure.  The delicate subject of the relationship between religion and politics also came up, with the acknowledgement that it is hard to separate the two:  does religion provide a “moral compass” but can often lead to intolerance and antiquated moral prohibitions.  Amir believed that religion should be in politics, since you need morality in politics and you need religion for morality;  but you need a balance.  Nada argued that religion was generally used more as a sales pitch, like Shafiq telling the Copts that he will put some Bible verses in public documents.

We learned that in Egypt there are separate religion classes for Muslims and Copts: and that parents would not support “integration” at this time.  Noor suggested that maybe they could start with general classes on “tolerance.”  There was an interesting discussion about what democracy looked like in Egypt now and how the presidential debate between Fatouh and Moussa had hurt the participants:  cutting each other down; this has not been part of Egyptian culture;  and that there was no tradition of this here.  We wondered what would be the alternative:  not based on debating skills, but something that could have other ways to “test” the candidates, perhaps trying out projects, or demonstrated success in leadership.

We all noted the frustrations that there were no real revolutionary voice in the current government or elections.  But was it better now than a year and a half ago?  To be sure, our Egyptian friends replied, it is better;  people are allowed to think for themselves and speak their mind,  there are other choices besides Mubarek; but people have not been educated to make these choices.  Yes there were more freedoms, opportunities for expression, but economic indicators have gotten worse and public satisfaction is now worse:  expectations were raised but were not met.

From there we turned to our experience of tourism and as being tourists:  Oliver noted that we had recently began to feel less like tourists; but had felt very much like tourists when we first arrived.  A good bit of our trip had been on a “well-trod path” both for the visitors and their money: the Pyramids, Luxor, Abu Simbel, Hurghada, with most money going to big hotels, tour companies, guides, with others left scrambling for the crumbs.  In this economy companies like Thomas Cook and Hilton and big developers in Egypt, and the private water companies selling all the bottled water all do well;  we see this system clearly: fairly artificial and westernized.

But we also experienced the alternative in places like Tahrir; visiting with the Nubians, and hanging out in Cairo with our friends.  The students remarked as well on the problem of some Egyptians feeling like second-class citizens (a dynamic captured well in the recent Egyptian film “Molasses, about an Egyptian ex-pat who returns to Egyptian, only to discover he is better off with his U.S. passport than without).  Hopefully this is changing as well.

We ended with various discussions of plans for the future, including collaboration with the NaMaa’ Summer School for Sustainable Development, an initiative that does travel for a month to various areas of Egypt, Nubian, Beduoin, Marsallam.  For the future, we talked about partnerships with EYouth and iEARN:  setting up a buddy system, with some Egyptians travel with us;  possible travel of Egyptians to the U.S. for study abroad there.  In any case, we have a chance for Egyptians and Americans to get to know each other a lot better, have many new friends, and have lots of good ideas and plans for future trips and collaborations.  These dialogues were perhaps for me the most valuable time of our trip, when young people from different countries and cultures could meet and have a frank and well-informed discussion of the challenges facing their respective countries.  Seems like a success to me. Khalas. Meshi.

Group shot at Zenib Khartoum.  It is in gatherings like this that our hope for the future lies.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

In the City of the Dead

A woman walking through the streets of Manshiyat Naser.  This is where the mainly Coptic zabbaleen live, making their living by gathering, sorting, and then selling the materials.  A good portion of the plastic and other raw materials are now exported to China.

Originally the settlements were in and amongst the mausoleums and graves of the cemetery on the east side of Cairo.  From there, they expanded further eastward toward the cliffs of the Moqattam (the limestone bluff that originally protected the city behind the Citadel).  The original informal shantytown gradually grew into a densely populated neighborhood of brick and concrete apartments.  In the picture above you can see the bags of sorted recycling on the roofs of the buildings, along with tall pigeon coops, and pens for cows, goats, and pigs.  The community is incredibly efficient at sorting the garbage and have what appears to be a fairly steady source of income.  Respiratory diseases, hepatitis C, and cancer rates however are well above average, due to the highly unsanitary working conditions.

The community is about 90% Coptic, and posters of now deceased Pope Shonouda are everywhere, along with posters of the Virgin Mary, and of Shafiq.  The Copts have been marginalized by the mainstream Muslim authorities, and the Muslim Brotherhood is definitely not popular in this neighborhood.

The streets are lined with houses, cafes, shops, and the businesses that sort the garbage.  Everywhere are posters with Coptic iconography.

Our first stop on the tour, led by Wagdy, a young engineering student from the community, is at the Church of St. Simon, carved out of the sandstone.  It is the largest Christian church in the Middle East.

At the church is a depiction of a miracle said to have occured there sometime around the Fatamid period.  It was a enactment of the "moving of mountains, if you have faith the size of mustard seed."  Almost every site we visit has some kind of similar story marking it as a spot of divine significance.

Young girls curious about these strangers in their midst (note Mohamed in the background on the right, greeting some of the men at the local cafe).  There are lots and lots of kids there, a sign of a very high birth rate typical of poor neighborhoods.

 Goats in the stairway of one of the homes.  The Copts used to have pigs that disposed of the organic component of the trash collected by the zabbaleen.  During the swine flu scare of 2009, the government had all the pigs slaughtered (despite a lack of evidence that anyone was getting sick from them).  As far as I can tell, it was a thinly disguised form of discrimination against the community, reflecting the low-level tension and dislike between many Muslims and Copts.  There is a modus vivendi, but it does not work to the benefit of the Copts.

A roof scene, where cows and pigs (in the shade) live amidst the half-finished upper floors.  Like most houses in Egypt, these structures are left unfinished, awaiting additional floors to house the expanding families (or additional livestock).

 In Sabah's house, the wife of Hanna, who is one of the leaders of the Solar Cities project that has installed the solar water heaters and biogas generators on the roofs.  He is now in Sweden, part of the "brain drain" that is another challenge for Egypt.  By the time you get to the 4th floor of the building, it is clean and bright, and we get tea and hear about the work of the Solar Cities project.

 Here are the solar water heaters on the roof.  The one on the left was made from local, salvaged materials. Again, the government did not approve of the design, seeing it as unsightly, and required more "professional" looking version, imported from China.  This is a prime example of how government regulation can get in the way of creativity and local entrepreneurship.  On the right is the biogas generator.  5 pounds of food scraps per day produces 2 hours worth of methane for cooking in the kitchen three floors below.  In the background on the right is one of the pigeon coops.

 A typical truck, piled high with a load of plastic for market.  A young man sits perched atop the pile, talking on his cell phone.  Donkey cart on left.

 One of the women sorting garbage, also talking on her cell phone.

A local woodworker, planing the door to a cabinet he was building, and greeting us as we passed.

We met with workers in the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE), started by Laila Iskandar, which works with local women to produce handicrafts.  They have made a nice documentary about some of the young men in the community, called "Garbage Dreams" (worth checking out).

Anatomy of a street encounter

The scene in Tahrir mid-afternoon on the June 8th, the "Day of Determination," and what we see is a mix of vendors, commuters, marchers, casual observers, and political activists.  In the heat of the day, the numbers are light.  After sunset, the square fills further, but the numbers were disappointing for those hoping to keep pressure up on the old regime.  The revolution waxes and wanes, driven by the latest news or government actions.  It is largely reactive, which is part of the challenge (it is anti-Mubarek, but uncertain about what it is for).  Until the election results, things will probably remain relatively quiet.  Mubarek is in jail, the constituent assembly charged with drawing up the new constitution has been reformed, various court cases are working their way through the system.  These do not spark mass protest.  But whether it is Morsy or Shafiq that wins, the square will be full on the Tuesday and Friday after the results are announced.

We meet Samir (the tall one in blue t-shirt in the photo) and his wife (on left) and young daughter Sarah and stroll past the main government building (the backdrop to the scene below).  The government building is straight out of Kafka--this behemoth, with strangely gaping windows that one has a feeling does not yield much of anything to anyone.  It (and the burned out remains of the old NDP party headquarters) are a perfect backdrop for the protests in the square.

It doesn't take long for a few people to gather around us as the talk of politics begins.  Samir has the fliers he printed up, comparing Shafiq and Morsy, and someone asks to see one.  They begin discussing this, and very quickly more people gather around and want to see the fliers--hungry for information.  Samir has a certain charisma and people are interested in what he has to say.  They want to know what he thinks, but he turns the question back on them.  It is up to them--they have to make up their own minds on the issue.  He is simply providing information so people can make relatively informed decisions.  The crowd grows;  a woman selling kleenex passes by (she is holding up 2 packs in the picture above).  The two men on the right are reading over Samir's flier, while others in the group peer in to see what's going on.

A woman in a "niqab" (the full face veil) joins in.  She does not like U.S. policy and she wants the U.S. to leave and not interfere with what is going on in Egypt and the Middle East.  She is passionate about this--leave us alone.  Let us take care of our own affairs.  I can barely see her eyes behind the veil, but she is not at all shy about sharing her views.  The fellow in pink speaks fairly good English and joins in, translating for an older man who keeps repeating the basic message that Shafiq and Mubarek are the same.

 The older man smoking (on the left above between Sam and Oliver's shoulders), is a local merchant who approached me later that day, saying he was the leader of a group of 385,000 people (a political party? a religious sect? a fan club? he wasn't clear on this).  He had met with Hillary Clinton (really?); he was the public relations director for Sabbahi, and his daughter was getting married the next day, and Sabbahi and Foutouh were going to be there;  he could get us interviews with any politician we wanted.  This was all a lead-up to him inviting me into (you guessed it) his papyrus shop (just to give me his business card, etc.)  The grander the fiction, the harder it is for ignorent foreigners to challenge.  But once he said we should stop by his shop I parted ways with him, tired of these manipulations. 

They talk; we listen.  They wonder about American views of the revolution; we try to be diplomatic and find some common ground.  They are friendly and really want to understand U.S. policy.  The woman in black does not like Obama.  He killed bin Laden;  he is too supportive of Israel;  he came to Egypt and spoke of friendship, but has not followed through.

 A young boy comes up, wanting to paint the Egyptian flag on our hands (he has three small cups of red, black, and white paint), but we don't have any change.  The woman in the niqab offers to pay for Sam's flag.  Sam is Jewish and has never spoken to a woman in a veil, and now she is paying for him to get an Egyptian flag tattoo.  I get a flag on my hand as well, and it is paid for by other people from the crowd.  They like us and want to be our friends, but they are upset about American policy in the region.

The woman with the veil continues to eat her corn (note the bulge under her niqab) while making an ongoing critique of U.S. foreign policy.  The man in the middle was glad to hear that I was critical of Israel's policy in the West Bank and Gaza, and we could agree that the people in the U.S. were fine, but the U.S. policies in the Middle East were problematic.  Needless to say it is hard to find fans of Israel in the crowd, but it is easy to find pictures of both Hitler and bin Laden in the stalls set up around the square.

The man is very glad we have met and had a chance to talk.  He seems to really want to be friends and to be genuinely troubled by what he knows and has experienced of U.S. foreign policy.  He is not looking for a fight, but looking for connection and understanding.  Politics and the media separate us.  Standing face to face and talking, we are all just humans wanting to talk.

As we are leaving, there is a scuffle between some of the vendors, fighting over territory in the square apparently.  Not some grand political battle, but the mundane conflicts of the marketplace.  We walk back to the hotel, past the line of ambulances waiting on a side street, just in case.  The crews sit on their stretchers, which can be converted into chairs, and laugh with Samir about how boring their work is, and back to our separate lives.