Thursday, May 31, 2012

Scenes from Days 6-10

Here are a bunch of pictures from the last few days of visiting the heart of antiquities country from Aswan to Luxor.  I will add more captions and explanations as time allows, but the internet here in Hurghada isn't free, so my time is limited.  

On the Aswan High Dam--Nasser's grand gesture, not unlike Ramses II depicting himself as a god.  Here the state has tamed the river god, and now offers itself the electricity of Ra and waters of Honum.

 At the Phyllae Temple, where the temp in the sun had to be 120.  Everyone was kind of wilting.

The Phyllae Temple courtyard in Aswan.  From around 250 B.C.  Rebuilt on this spot after having been submerged by the reservoir created by the first Aswan Dam.

A Coptic cross and shrine carved into the Ptolomeic temple walls.

 The pylons at Phyllae.

The unfinished obelisk in Aswan.  Amazing to contemplate how they made these things.

 The family shrine in the home of the Nubian host we had in Gebelsheisha, near Aswan.

 A reed hut with Egyptian flag, near the Nile

The town center in Gabalsheisha, the Nubian community that hosted us for a day.

Saudi, our Nubian host.  An energetic man, with very few teeth.  At age 34 he was getting married this year.  He (and most Nubians) smoked a form of marijuana fairly steadily.

 The abandoned Nubian village. The result of the first, British-built dam at Aswan, competed around 1900.  It was a sad, eerie place to visit.

Dinner in Saudi's uncle's house.  We learned that his uncle is also his brother-in-law.  

Fardosa in one of the abandoned homes

Some Nubians kids, and a father's gentle hand.

Some new friends, having talked about religion and the impact of the dam and relocation on their lives.

Our dinner at the Nubian home.  They specialize in these clay pot dishes called tagen.

The sandstorm blotting out the sun.  It came in very quickly.

Swimming in the spot where the Phyllae Temple used to be, with the relocated temple in the background.
Four statues of Ramses II, at Abu Simbel.  We were glad to see he didn't suffer from self-esteem issues.

Ramses and Horus

Japanese tourists, fitting a stereotype (I'm sure I was fitting one too).

Morsy, Shafiq, and Political Story-telling

Visiting the profusion of temples and tombs along the Nile you see how good the Egyptians were at story telling.  Several familiar themes or narratives stand out.  One is about the importance of eternal life, and the elaborate process of successfully entering the afterlife.  It is a journey beset with challenges, strange creatures, and dangerous encounters.  In their tombs and temples, the Pharaoh’s attempted to create everlasting homes for themselves.  The futility of that task is made clear by our walking around their plundered and defaced sites.  Human attempts to separate themselves from the flow of time always have their limits, but the Egyptians sure gave it the old college try.  To build up this cultural edifice, this belief system, they created a wonderfully complex cosmology, and the walls and columns of the temples are covered with it.  To walk through any of these spaces feels like walking through the pages of an impressively old book.  Every wall and column is covered with stories of the greatness and piety of the kings.

One might compare it in a way to walking through Times Square in New York now, where every surface is covered, not with the stories of the power and piety of the Thutmoses or Hatshepsut, but the magical powers of the GAP jeans, Chase Bank, Big Macs, or other commodities being sold there.  Both the Temple at Edfu and Times Square create these totalizing spaces, leaving little room for other realities to intrude.  Both the jumbotrons on Broadway and hyperstole at Karnak are intend to leave visitors in awe, and to tell stories that people will find persuasive.  We have our story-tellers, who make big money on Madison Avenue telling stories that make us want to buy things.  They say “it is good to give us your money, for if you do, you will receive beauty, happiness, joy, and magical powers” from the energy drinks, iPhones, movies, or cars we are selling. The Ancient Egyptians had their high priests who told stories about the kings as gods, selling a political and economic order of a different sort.  They say “it is good to give us offerings and tribute.  We make offerings to the gods, and you make offerings to us.  In return the gods will favor us and we will  be able to gain passage to eternal after life.”

Both these examples make me think of the power and importance of story in the legitimization of politico-economic orders.  We are drawn in droves to these temples and tombs (and post-modern Meccas) because the stories they tell continue to fascinate us—the various gods and goddeses, the polymorphous beings, the tales of loss, revenge, rites of passage, and divine order all help provide answers to the large questions of life and provide a sense of order and meaning to the otherwise complex and unknowable reality we experience.  They still surface in our dreams and the commodified dreams produced by Hollywood.

Marwan, our young female guide at Luxor, expressed the determination we have heard repeatedly while here—we will do what it takes to get our country the government it deserves.  Not just another version of the Mubarek years, but real change.  To succeed in that regard will take all sorts of work and skills, and one of them is to continue to undermine the narratives of the old regime and to engage in the creative work of political story-telling.  It is here that we can find some linkages between the ancient temples and contemporary politics.  The story is being told on the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud Street and on Facebook walls—of martyrdom and oppression, justice and liberation.  For the ancient Egyptians, the passage to the afterlife involved a series of challenges, and to pass them, over the course of the night, required protection of the gods, and knowledge of the special charms and spells to defeat the creatures along the way.  From the Odyssey and Aenead to the Harry Potter books, this idea of an arduous journey resonates with our own experiences of facing challenges and mysteries.  For Egypt, we can think of the past few years as a rite of passage in which the people have to pass a series of tests, of which the January 25 Revolution was just one of the first (and most dramatic).  The latest chapter—the Presidential elections—is just closing and we are trying to decipher its meaning.  It will be important to keep in mind that the process is nowhere near over, and the patience and perseverance will be needed to successfully carry on what was started last January.

This week, as expected, given the election outcome, Tahrir has started to fill again—not yet with the numbers of last year, but some—unwilling to except that Shafiq has taken second place.  It remains to be seen how large the numbers will grow in the weeks leading up to run-off election, but they will help to keep the candidates of doing anything rash. 

The results are certainly disheartening, and we are trying to sort them out as we continue to talk with the people we meet along the way.  There is a sadness and a cynicism in the people that is hard to hear.  It’s fair to say that we have gotten a somewhat stilted view of the situation from our pre-election conversations, with most of the people we talked to being in favor of Fatouh.  More recently, especially around Aswan, we heard support for the Nasserist Sabbahi, and he will be an interesting figure to watch in the next few years.  The educated and more liberal electorate, which is the segment of the population with whom we mainly interacted, voted for Fatouh, but that is not a large segment of the population in a country with a 40% illiteracy rate, and something like 30 million people living on less than $2/day.  In our excitement about the revolution and elections, I and a lot of people here let our hopes get the better of us, thinking that a more thoughtful, independent and open-minded candidate might take the day.

There were reports of some manipulations of the vote, perhaps a small amount of fraud (but not enough to nullify the results, just to decrease their legitimacy so far, although this may change as the results are certified).  So we all left trying to figure out how Shafiq got as many votes as he did.  People are often motivated more by what they fear and by what they have to lose, and it looks like that helped drive turn-out for Shafiq and Morsy.  The secularists afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the Brotherhood (and lots of other people) afraid of the military.  The only institutions powerful enough to stop or limit either of those powerful actors is the other.  The Copts and Sufis feared any Islamist candidates (including Fatouh), and so voted for the secularists Shafiq or Moussa or perhaps Sabbahi.  Many (but certainly not all) in the tourist business, having taken such a hit in the last year, have a strong economic self-interest in law and order, so there was a lot of support for Shafiq there.  The near desperation we’ve encountered in the vendors would be a sign that they would settle for Shafiq, as long as it meant a return of the busloads of overweight, sunburned, Euro-laden Europeans.  One of our young hosts in Aswan, Mohamed El Batiti made the interesting observation that if the MB had followed through on their original claim of not fielding a candidate, then no one would have voted for Shafiq.  This fear is real for many in Egypt, and not without merit, given some of the more extreme versions and voices that emerged from or splintered off from the Brotherhood over the years.

For instance, one of the Nubians we spoke to had voted for Shafiq in the first round, because he felt the country needed someone with a stiff spine.  It’s certainly possible that both Fatouh and Moussa came across as too soft.  Our older, mild-mannered tour guide Amro also favors Shafiq over Morsy, noting that he was a decent guy who had not gotten his hands too dirty with the Mubarek regime.  His main fear is of the Muslim Brotherhood going too far, taking the country in the direction of Iran.  There is a lot of pent up energy behind the Brotherhood, after 80 odd years of pretty severe repression, and he is concerned that they would proceed to purge the military, police, and courts, leaving them with few checks on their power.  So with a parliament dominated by Islamists, a president from the only other institution with enough clout to balance them makes sense.  This would put a huge burden on Shafiq to deliver on the demands of the revolution, but this outcome is just unacceptable to the Tahriris.  Amro says that Shariq is not a stupid guy and he knows that a return to the status quo ante is not an option.  Perhaps it would take a military man to oversee the transfer to civilian control of the military.  Amro also liked that Shafiq has no sons (three daughters) and is a widower, so there is less of a chance of him trying to start his own family legacy, the way Mubarek had been doing with his son Gamal.

Explaining the vote for the Brotherhood is The Muslim Brotherhood is clearly very powerful as an organization here, so, despite the fact that Morsy was a last minute addition as their candidate (he is jokingly referred to as the “spare tire”), apparently that political machine still voted as a bloc for him.  That 25% of the electorate delivered, and few question that this vote was basically legitimate.  I have been impressed by the number of men with the distinct grey calluses on their foreheads, a sign of the frequency and fervor of their daily genuflection.  It’s a fair guess that they voted for Morsy (or maybe Fatouh) en masse.

But, reflecting the views of so many here, our young, and politically savvy liaison with the Nubians in Aswan, Mohamed Batiti, doesn’t like Shafiq at all—noting that he had no real accomplishments as the Minister of Aviation (just expanded the airport, while getting himself rich in the process), and was in power during the battles in Tahrir, when he stood by and let that happen.  A lot of people seem to like Sabbahi, as a “man of the people” who would have the interests of the poor at heart, a secularist, and someone with associations with a period of national pride and economic growth (the Nasser years).  Perhaps in 4 years Sabbahi will have had enough time to build up his political machine to run a more successful campaign.  The country is lacking in the If the new constitution sets adequate limits on military and state power, protects religious freedoms, and limits presidential terms, then the revolution will not have been in vain.  In any case it won’t have been in vain, as there has been huge progress already.  But these things always take a long time to sort out.

Marwa is determined to do what it takes for the sake of the country.  A great love for her country and a great sense of selflessness.  She has taken a great hit economically, but she says it is worth it.  She, like so many other young people we have met here, are determined to see the country do better.  People say they want Shafiq because he can restore order, but no one we’ve talked to thinks that electing Shafiq would quiet things down—quite the contrary.

At the end of the journey through the underworld, the last test of the dead was to have their heart weighed, to see how much good they had done.  The greater their crimes, cruelties, or selfishness, the heavier their heart.  Only if their heart was lighter than an ostrich's feather, would they be allowed entrance.  For this generation of Egyptians, they face a similar challenge.  If they can stay strong, their hearts light, perhaps they can enter  the political equivalent to this better life they seek—a just and sustainable social order.  There are great and difficult challenges ahead.  A new constitution must be drafted;  the new government carefully watched;  the economy rebuilt; people will have to keep making sacrifices in time and money, and perhaps even with their lives, to maintain pressure on the government to move forward.  And along with this their stories must be carefully crafted and told in ways that wide swaths of the people can hear them, be moved by them, and flock in droves--like tourists to Karnak--to live out those stories.  In the weeks ahead we will see what the next chapter will be.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Pyramidal Structures

Trying to remain standing long enough for the picture to be taken, in front of a structure that has remained standing for 4500 years, and has probably been photographed more than any other pile of rocks on earth.

The events, experiences, and encounters are coming faster than I can coherently record them, but the posts will keep coming.  This is a real challenge for study abroad courses, in which you are trying to learn and teach and travel all at the same time, and are absorbing so much new information all at once, it is almost impossible to process it all at once.  We're working on striking a good balance between having the experiences and having time to reflect and write about them--both of which are very important.  Fortunately, I have my health back and feel that mild euphoria that comes from being over an illness but still remembering how unpleasant it was to have it.  More posts on the election post-mortem, water politics, tourism, and the Nubian community are in note form.  I'm posting now what we did a few days ago.  We're now in Aswan and have been here two and a half days already, leaving tomorrow for Luxor.  This is high tourist country, and also about as hot as I've ever experienced (a balmy 115 degrees in the shade).  But for now, here is the account of our day at the pyramids, which begins from the overnight train we took that night from Giza to Aswan:

The train pulls out of Edfu, the “city of revenge” in Egyptian lore where their version of the Cain and Abel story (Set and Horus) ended.  Being mostly focused on the plight of the people and the planet today, I can't say I've had a great interest in ancient Egypt, but it is a fascinating part of traveling here. And my historian friends will be glad to know that we are finding all sorts of very relevant lessons and modern parallels to what we learning about the ancient rulers.  

At the train stations, men in galabeyas and turbans wait on the other track, where the 2nd and 3rd class trains are packed with commuters and workers.  We travel in sleeper cars that are at least supposed to be air conditioned, but didn't turn out to be.  But we are clearly part of a very privileged elite here and the gaps between our wealth and theirs are enormous.  The air is thick and hot, and the land heavily cultivated—I recognize the bananas, mangos, sugar cane, date palms, and alfalfa (I think).  I’ve only seen one tractor so far, and the rest is all donkeys, goats, water buffalo, and men and young boys working the land and harvesting the crops by hand.  Clearly it is a good idea to get a very early start to the work day here, as the heat in mid-day is formidable.

Yesterday we visited the pyramid of Sakkara and Giza with our guide Sammir, and I was sick as a dog.  I managed to make it through the tour, but my immune system and stomach were completely overwhelmed (it reminded me of how I felt when I had walked around with a burst appendix for a week).  The fever has broken this morning and it looks like I’m on the mend, but will need to take it easy on the stomach and stay hydrated.  The challenge of providing clean water is clearly evident here, and the problems that result from failing in that regard are dire.

The oldest pyramid--Sakkara--built as a "stairway to heaven" or an earlier version of Jacob's ladder. We saw similarly shaped rock formations in Upper Egypt that we speculate might have served as inspiration for this and the other pyramids. 
The pyramids were amazing in their massiveness and ancientness, in the degree of informality about the visiting arrangements, and the absolutely brutal buskers there, who managed to empty the pockets of several of our students within the first hour, despite us having very clearly advised them not to have any interaction with the vendors (who are all just selling trinkets made in China).  There is a certain amount of regulation of the place, especially when it comes to the white-uniformed tourist police, but other than that it is sort of like just stumbling upon the place out in the wild.  This was clearly the case for lots of earlier visitors who plundered or defaced or carved their initials in the stones at various times over the course of the last 4000 years.  There is no water erosion here, but there is human erosion.  We entered one of the tombs of a lesser official in which the 3,400 (or was it 4,300?) year old reliefs were brightly colored with ochre, and black, without a single sign, barrier, minder, or anything to keep someone from defacing it.  One of the students, without thinking, casually leaned up against the ancient art, before we quickly reminded him that probably wasn’t the best idea to lean on something crafted out of delicate materials by a craftsman three millennia ago.  Our guide Sammir is very knowledgeable about the sites and gives us interesting observations about the pharaonic cosmology and symbolism of the various structures, most of which have something to do with letting people know how important the head of state was.  Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.  As Shafiq or Morsy (or Obama or Romney) head to office as the likely next president, we can look forward to an updated and marginally more sophisticated form of the same.

The crowd at Giza: we are easily outnumbered by salesmen (no women) and camels.  The guy in the suit on the left is our "tourist police" who accompanies us everywhere with that bulge of a machine gun on his right hip.  He was a very nice guy, who actually helped us with some other rude police we encountered later that day.

The shape of the pyramid was supposed to symbolize the connection to the sun, and I do get that the sun is really powerful here (although I don't think I'd need a pyramid to figure out that).  It points to the heavens and indicates the ruler’s divinity and was part of a complex structure meant to facilitate the Pharaoh's passage to the afterlife.  But to me the pyramid is better seen as a representation of social structure of the day—one which largely continues up to the present. It is interesting this human (or perhaps more specifically male) infatuation with height, with impressing people, saying you are the greatest ruler.  It certainly hasn’t stopped—with the Burj Dubai and the new “Freedom Tower” in New York that we visited earlier this year, and so on.  It is the wealthiest societies and institutions that produce the tallest buildings as symbols of their egomania lack of concern for the welfare of the people.  In ancient Egypt it was the god-kings, in medieval Europe it was the churches, and now in the modern age, it is the corporation, trade, commerce, and oil.  Next up the Google tower or something like that (as I write this on a Google blogging platform . . . )

Clambering around at Giza.  The world's tallest manmade structures until the Eiffel Tower.  

Living in a place that was once great, but now in such a shambles leaves its mark on the people.  Sammir has the great pride in his homeland that I have experienced frequently from Egyptians.  He points out the great accomplishments of Hotep, and is quick to correct the mistaken presumptions of the Greek historian Herodotus or the string of other colonial scholars who have imposed their Orientalist outside views.  But at present the country is really struggling.  There is this great contrast between the splendor of the past and the abject poverty, squalor, empty buildings, and garbage strewn everywhere today.  Around the base of the great pyramid (which Sammir informed us is actually referred to as the “Eternal Pyramid”) it is littered with rubble, garbage, disgruntled police, desperate vendors, and a general sense of neglect.  It really does seem that it would be better to focus less on the past, and more on the future, as the Pyramids can only generate so much tourism income (as it is based on "rent" rather than real productivity and so can only produce so many jobs).  The future should include a new kind of sun worship, consisting of massive solar energy production.  There are some other big plans in the works, but more on that later.

The Sphynx that greeted vistors at the branch of the Nile that ran by here a few thousand years ago.  It certainly would have been amazing to show up at the dock.

I have such mixed feelings about the pyramids and temples themselves.  They are certainly glorious, and impressive, which was their intent, but they represent such a hierarchical and extractive social order.  Most of the temples and ruins have been defaced or ruined in some form or another, as dynasties have passed and looters, rabid early Christians, and imperial colonizers have taken their toll on the place.  I find it almost inconceivable how someone could show up at a place like that and decide that destroying, stealing, or submerging that art would be a good idea, but humans have no lack of disrespect, greed, narrow-mindedness, and lack of concern for the future.  That would go for the British as well, whose Aswan dam submerged the temple, or Nasser, whose high dam submerged 20 Nubian villages.  In ways they were the Tahriris of their day, challenging the powers that be, attempting to question and challenge the legitimacy of the particular oppressive regime of the day.  In these cases though the oppressive regimes produce some amazing art, architecture, and statuary, and it would have been nice if the protestors (let alone the vandals) would have found some other form of protest.  But perhaps this is asking too much.

My favorite discovery:  the oldest wooden boat in the world. Khufu (Cheops') Solar Barge buried next to the pyramids for his use in the afterlife.  

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Day 2 at the Polls

The results are now in, and we'll be trying to sort out the disappointing results as we go.  This is what we observed on the second day of the elections, along with an interesting visit to a successful eco-enterprise near Cairo:

Turn-out was lighter than expected, and the day was again as normal as could be as far as we could see.  Whatever else might be said about the outcome, that a new president would come to power through a basically peaceful process is a step in the right direction.  Many workers (including state employees) were given the afternoon off to vote, and there was a general air of excitement, but no sense of unrest.  There is nothing I am seeing or experiencing in the streets that would lead me to think that democracy isn’t working here (in contrast to what many in the West seem to expect from the “Arab world”).  Not that democracy is the answer to all the problems by any means (as Churchill once quipped, it is the worst form of government every invented—except for all the rest).
The Metro stops, with the "Murbarek" station named erased.  It is now officially known as the Ramses station.  His name has been erased from the city.

We drove out of Cairo in the morning to visit the eco-friendly company Sekem, seeing nothing of note in terms of voting along the way.  There were reports of long lines at some stations, but we didn’t see them.  Later in the afternoon we walked through Biladi, past auto mechanics fixing cars on the street, bakeries, perfume shops, and half-finished apartment buildings, seeing one polling station where an older man walked in with the help of a younger assistant.  The security guys wouldn’t let us take any pictures without a press pass, not that there was much to record anyway.

A political statement from someone with good aim and several balloons of black paint (the poster is for Moussa).  Note the "sun" logo. Each candidate has a symbol associated with them, for any voters who can't read.

As we continue to talk to the Egyptians we meet, we hear of support for Abou Fatouh, Morsy, Moussa, but no one saying Shafiq.  The fellow who is helping make arrangements for us here said he voted for several candidates to disqualify his ballot (but to make sure no one else came and voted for him).  Once bitten twice shy for him, it seems.  Certainly there is still a fair amount of cynicism for a people who have been let down by their government so many times.  I worry a bit about those that are disenfranchised, and about what appears to be a relatively low turn-out.  Some may already feel jaded (as has been the case in the U.S. for some time), and other perhaps feel that it is simply not their place to vote.  This leaves it then to those who feel they have some personal stake in the outcome and vote out of self interest (rather than the sense of social justice which has been such a large part of the impetus for the revolution).  With the results we are now hearing, eyes turn again to Tahrir, to see what the "street" has to say about the vote.
On our tour bus heading out of Cairo.  Along the way, we passed a number of businesses, may of them owned by the military.  They have a very large stake in the economy.

Our visit today was to the ecological business Sekem (the ancient Egyptian word for “vitality”) as an example of sustainable development.  They have taken a patch of desert west of Cairo and turned it into an oasis and garden where they produce organic crops, herbs, medicines, and clothing.  The company was started by an Austrian-educated Egyptian doctor named Ibrahim Abouleish.  He is a student of Rudolph Steiner, anthroposophy, and biodynamic farming.  It is Waldorf meets Egypt, and the result is what they call the “economics of love.”  2000 people work there, around 500 students attend an Egyptian version of Waldorf School (complete with the ethereal water color paintings on the wall and the pastel color scheme), and annual revenue somewhere north of 100 million dollars.
Yvonne (a German who has lived in Egypt for almost 30 years now) introducing us to the strikingly clean facility of Sekem.  The founder, Dr. Abouleish, has made a point of setting up the place as orderly and clean (evidently having been impressed by what he saw in Austria when he was in school there).

It was very clean and orderly, fragrant and we all started feeling healthier the minute we got to the place.  I had a striking experience when we went into the huge warehouse full of hundreds of sacks of peppermint, chamomile, anise, licorice, and calendula.  I felt my lungs almost immediately open up and I could breath easier.  My lungs and throat have really felt the effects of the air pollution in Cairo, and the change in that space was quite dramatic. 

Some of the students had some misgivings about the place, wondering to what degree the workers were underpaid or exploited, and about the neocolonial feel to it, with the German management eating lunch with us, while the young Egyptian workers stuffed organic cotton into cute little toys to sell to over-pampered babies in Santa Cruz, Berlin, and Boulder.  It may be problematic in some ways, but it’s hard to find a better example of “humane capitalism” out there.  And in terms of sustainable development, their large-scale organic and biodynamic farming practices are amazing. 

Sometimes I wonder about the cynicism of people who are critical of this kind of operation—seeing it as too idealistic or too exploitative—as if somehow this sort of thing just isn’t supposed to happen or is too good to be true.  Perhaps.  But I wouldn’t want us to reject such initiatives too quickly, at least not until someone else comes up with something better.  As with most things, it was a mixed bag, with the upper management being European, and the wages being low, but it certainly looked a whole lot better than what we were seeing in Cairo.  With 40% of the people living on less than $2/day, the workers there were making around $1.50/hr, with healthcare, day care, education, and pleasant work environment.

Back in Tahrir, we visited a tent set up in support of the Syrian opposition and bought some hand crafted goods to support the refugee families.  It was good to talk with the Syrian exiles, painfully aware of the contrast between the positive political developments in Egypt and the ongoing violence in Syria.  But it will be only a matter of time before Assad is gone, and Syria too is holding their elections.
A display of anti-Assad posters in the Syrian resistance tent in Tahrir.  At the door to the tent was a poster of Assad on the floor, so everyone had to step on his face to enter, a sign of great disrespect.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Election Day

Briefly, the last two days were as follows:  a briefing at the U.S. Embassy on post-revolutionary policy in Egypt, a great discussion of economic development policy with Ragui Assad at the Economic Research Forum,  our first taste of kushori (delicious), and then meeting up with our friends from EYouth, in the old market district of Khan El Khalili.  Then today, the elections began, and we took a tour of the Citadel, Coptic Cairo, the Cairo Tower, and the neighborhood of Maadi for lunch and ice cream.  We hit the wall this afternoon with everyone just about falling asleep on our feet, so this evening we rest, following the news, writing, catching our breath.

Election day is notable for its calm.  Everyone is voting and waiting; my sense is that people are still feeling that they are in a dream, not sure that this can really be happening, and wondering if they will wake up in the morning to find the military back in power, or in fact with a leader they have chosen.  The city is quieter than usual, less traffic and crowds, with people staying home to vote.  Many businesses have closed or let their employees take time off to vote.  We have not seen long lines, but simply the orderly process, with some heightened security presence around town.  The April 6 youth are monitoring stations all over the country and report a range of irregularities—stations opening late, members of various parties attempting to influence or pressure voters in various governorates, or offer bribes to voters.  Turn-out was lighter in some areas because of the high heat, and many people are waiting to vote until tomorrow.  Al Masr Al Youm reports that the candidate from the old regime, Shafiq, was attacked at his polling place, and now that a few of the April 6 youth election monitors were being detained.  A lot of people really do not like Shafiq, and the worst outcome for this election would be if somehow he gets a significant portion of the vote.  That would bring people back to Tahrir.  But over-all so far, it seems to be going forward without any fatal flaws in the process, as was the case with the parliamentary elections.  Our guide reported actually seeing Jimmy Carter at a polling station near his house, as part of a diplomatic contingent observing one of the polling stations.

Our guide for the day was this impressively large Egyptian named Sammir, who, it turned out, had been very involved in Tahrir, and also a gifted historian.  So as he told the group about the slaughter of the Mamluks at the Citadel by Mohamed Ali, he could compare those events to contemporary politics.  We visited the Citadel and the Alabaster Mosque to see what a symbol of power looks and feels like, and can then discuss how Gene Sharp contrasts two views of power—one as a “monolith” possessed by the state, and the other of power as social capital based on authority, obedience, and consent.  Rulers create monuments to “reify” or make real what is in fact an illusion.  The monuments can only be built with people who are willing to build them, or pay the taxes to build them, and the soldiers to follow orders, and so on.  So it is the ideas in people’s heads that is the source of power, and these beliefs can then lead them to agree to build a citadel or a pyramid or a mosque.  And those ideas can just as magically disappear, as they did here last year.

On Mohamed Mahmoud Street (just off Tahrir) yesterday, we saw the amazing street art, in the form of modern-day hieroglyphics, depicting the events in Tahrir, and deconstructing the hegemonic discourse of the dominant regime.  The latest installment was a picture created the day (or night) before, depicting Mubarek, Tantawi, Moussa, and Shafiq as all the same.  In Coptic Cairo we hear stories of the Christian martyrs, see the iconography which tells the story of Jesus and the saints, and then turn to the graffiti memorializing the martyrs of Port Said (in the riots at the soccer match).

One of our new friends from EYouth, Esraa, showed us along Mohamed Mahmoud Street, where many of the main clashes with police took place, recounting stories of the revolution and explaining the stories on the walls to us.  It was not unlike getting a tour of the ancient Citadel, but with the history being here and now.  That night we met up with more members of the Eyouth group for tea and sandwiches in the Khan el Khalili market district.  The students we meet here give one great hope for the future—great people, creative, lively, articulate, fun, and not waiting for someone else to tackle the problems they face.  The greatest tragedy here will be if the state gets in the way of them being able to pursue their interests and use their talents in service to the county they love.

Part of what we speak of is the police, and the ways in which they have lost legitimacy.  One thing we notice around town is how the police are disengaged.  If traffic needs clearing, or there is some argument, the police just sit back, uninterested, and it is the civilians who step in to direct traffic or break up the fight.  The people have turned on the police, and the police, like jilted lovers, are telling the people that, “hey if you don’t like us, well you can enforce the law yourselves.”  This is probably in part strategic too, as a way to send a message to the people that they (and the Presidential candidates who support them) are needed.  But I don’t think the people, by and large, think they are.  Crime is up some, but torture and corruption are down, and on balance, most people seem to prefer this new mix.

A bit of folklore around here that I found interesting has to do with the black-uniformed internal security forces, who were charged with trying to disperse the crowds at Tahrir, and are the least admired of the security forces.  The army wears green or camo, the regular police where white, and then the security forces wearing the black.  We saw several vans full of the “black suits” in one neighborhood on election day, along with about a dozen armored personnel carriers (with machine guns mounted on top), perhaps as a show of force, or just on alert in case anything started in Tahrir.

The urban legend is that when the government goes to recruit soldiers, it asks the new recruits if they are educated (or can read and write).  Those who say yes are to go to one side, those who cannot go to the other.  Those that are left in the middle not knowing which way to go are selected for the internal security forces.  Perhaps there is some truth to the story, to the extent that the internal security forces want to have soldiers who are easily manipulated and brainwashed, not sure of their place, and resentful of both the educated elite and feeling superior to the illiterate fellahin.  At a minimum, the story shows how low the regard for these forces has fallen.  The military, aware of this, do their best to forward a positive image, including most prominently the famous photo of an Egyptian soldier holding a young child during the revolution.

The general lack of law enforcement is manifest on the roads, and the traffic and movement through Cairo continues to be remarkable.  I am amazed that there are still 20 million Cairenes left alive, the way cars careen around town.  On our way over to Khan el Khalili, we took a ride in one of the infamous “microbuses,” which was as close to the kind of thing you see in a Hollywood chase seen or video game as I’ve ever had.  I’ve had a few wild taxi rides in NYC, but nothing even close to this.  The driver was amazingly skilled and pretty much crazy, a kind of deranged savant, hell-bent on getting through the mass of cars, people, scooters, and goats at any cost, and then, when stuck in traffic, getting his buddy in the microbus two lanes over to pass him a cup of hot tea.  The horn is used constantly with an elaborate coded language, the vocabulary of which one surmises consists of faster! get out of my way! you idiot! and then a series of increasingly colorful curses in Morse code.  Clearly the horn is a more important (and probably better maintained) part of the vehicle than the brakes (and the car kept stalling when we stopped).  With Arabic rap blaring on the radio, he simultaneously took change, talked on his cell phone, cursed at other drivers, and tore through traffic, missing cars on all sides literally by inches.  If this guy were running for president here, he’d have my vote.  With his skill set, I think he could get the economy running again at 10% annual growth rates in about two weeks.  The ride climaxed with a sprint up an elevated (one-way) highway, only to be encountered by cars and scooters coming back at us, to which our driver responded with a particularly blasphemous utterance on the horn.  But the vehicles were returning because there was a fire up ahead, and the highway closed,  so we turned around as well (no small feat on the narrow road) and returned, only to encounter the fire truck now heading to the blaze.  Somehow two lanes of traffic (heading the wrong way on the highway) were managed to be squeezed into one lane, and the fire truck passed.  Later that evening, we saw where the fire had been—an electrical transformer that had blown, right across the street from the famous old gate to the city.  Good thing the city is almost all stone, so the fire didn’t spread.

Here are a few pictures from the last two days:

The "commodification of revolution" in Tahrir.  With so many people in need of work, everything becomes an opportunity to sell things.
A brilliant new piece of political art (dated May 21, 2012) on the theme "like father, like son" making the argument that Shariq and Moussa are direct descendants of Mubarek/Tantawi (and yes, that's Mohamed in the foreground).

The multiplicity of flags, symbols and signs, in Tahrir, representing the splintering of the old symbolic order.

Modern hieroglyphics rewriting the hegemonic discourse.
Our guide Sammir at the Citadel, delivering a history lesson on a historical day.

The back story on the Alabaster Mosque of Mohamed Ali (modeled after the Hagia Sophia and used less for worship than as a way to impress his subjects).

A well-guarded polling station in the affluent neighborhood of Gazira.  Most polling stations are in schools.

The "recycled" columns in a 14th C. mosque in the Citadel.  I love that they had enough old columns lying around to build a mosque.  Note that the bases for each column are a different height, to make them work together.

Esraa telling the sad story of some of the martyrs of Port Said.  She was choked up talking about the young men who died there.  The hope is that all the deaths of the last year will be redeemed with the results of this election.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Welcome to Cairo

Walking the streets, the phrase we hear most often is “Welcome” or "Welcome to Egypt," “Welcome to Cairo.” Clearly outsiders, but clearly welcome to this bustling city, bursting at its seems.  Cairo is over a thousands years old, but amazingly one of the newer cities in this ancient place, through which flows the proverbial life blood of the Nile—a thin ribbon of the tropics that leaks northward through the vast, hot, dusty desert.

Early in the morning, walking along the corniche, we see young boys swimming in the Nile (putting into perspective any squeamishness about swimming in the Mississippi), 8-year olds driving donkey carts loaded with produce; busloads of men off to work.

In Tahrir, the revolution is clearly evident with graffiti, tents, debris, remnants of banners, and the hulk of the burned out Interior Ministry building to the northwest.  
Anti-SCAF graffiti on the government center in Tahrir.

Headquarters of the former ruling party (the NDP) that was set ablaze in March 2011.  Our guide Sammir was quite confident that the fire was set by the security forces, to destroy evidence and an unsuccessful attempt to pin this on the Tahriris to show how the protestors were violent.

Entrepreneurial vendors sell a whole mix of newly minted flags reflecting the fact that the old regime is over.  They sell harlequin masks (a reference to the V for Vendetta film) as well, used by some young protestors. And for some unknown reason, Sponge Bob Squarepants t-shirts are sold on just about every street corner.  

Election posters everywhere, each with a picture of a male candidate, with both his electoral symbol (a horse for Fatouh, scales for the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsy, a sun for Moussa, a ladder for Shafiq) and a cell phone number to call.  So both those who are illiterate and those with iPhones can connect to the candidate.  Everyone is talking about the elections, although those we hear from most readily are older men.  This generation is a mix of national pride, cynicism, and a seeming need to assert Egypt’s greatness, its inheritance from its ancient history.  The Tahriris (and our EYouth friends) almost all support Abu Fatouh as the most articulate and sympathetic to the revolution.  The cynics don’t trust any politicians or feel resigned to the military continuing their rule.  What is heartening in it all those is that this is democracy in action—people with the whole range of views, engaged in political discussion.

Talking politics in Tahrir with a supporter of Shafiq.  Tents in the background of those who are now camped out in the square).

 We have almost no interactions with women in public (besides our dear friend Noor who met us last night) and the younger people we have chatted with have been more interested in hamming it up for the fancy cameras we are toting around;  there appear to be a healthy diversity of opinions, and two “camps” outlined in the early blog (with Moussa and Fatouh leading candidates for the more conservative and progressive responses to Tahrir).  There will almost certainly be a run-off, with the top two vote-getters facing each other in the next round.

But whether or not they are in the midst of a revolution, there is still the day to day business of life to attend to.  This is always the difference what is “news” and what is real.  99% of what happens in the world does not make it into the news, and so if we are not there to experience it, all we think of is what is in the headlines. 

The city is full of life--vibrant, moving, fast-paced.  crossing any road here is an act of faith.  Inshaa Allah you reach the other side intact.  It is so crowded that ordered movement of the sort we are used to in, say, New York City with its grids and stoplights and crosswalks, is simply not possible here.  There is no alternative than watching the current of the traffic and just weaving through it.  It entails a constant dance and interplay—in a sense requiring learning how to live together.  This proximity needs a certain amount of extroversion and engagement.  This is not a place to be shy.
The "river" of traffic.  

The city and the air are dry, dusty, and impossibly dirty by Minnesota standards.  If "40 maids with 40 mops, swept it for half a year," they wouldn’t make a dent in it, which is part of what was so heartening about the clean-up efforts organized by the Tahriris.  But you could see that without a whole lot of time and support, there’s no way to change that. The main exception to that rule was the bucolic setting of Al Ahzar Park, a beautiful public park up on the western hills near the citadel overlooking the city.  Well-dressed couples, and lots of families there enjoy the respite from the city’s otherwise frenetic pace.  The city is one of stark contrasts between the hustle and bustle and noise and dust of the street, and the tranquility of the mosque and park.

Our visit to one of the oldest educational institutions in the world, Al Ahzar Mosque and University, was a wonderful opportunity to learn about Islam and experience the history, peace, and tranquility of that space.

At Al Ahzar Mosque, founded in 972 by the Fatamids.

Breanna, Mai, Amir, Shakur, Mohamed, Jerimiah, Oliver (front), Sam, and our guide showing as around the minaret at Al Ahzar.
 Spend a day in Cairo and you get a sense, that here, like many other parts of the world, there are more people than there is money.  Economic pressures are clearly evident, and how Egypt will provide decent lives for its citizens without polluting the city even further is the real challenge of the day.  Tourism is certainly a mainstay of the economy and as tourists we experience how Cairians have cultivated a persuasive and persistent set of sales pitches, often involving some story about a family member’s impending wedding or birthday, and always involving an invitation to have some tea.  A few students have been sucked into conversations in which someone’s sister is getting married, or it is someone’s little brother’s birthday the next day, and then there’s some tea, and then something is brought out (some papyrus paintings on which your name is promptly painted making it worthless to anyone but you), and then you can have it at any price, and you get it for a special price, and so on. It involves a banter, a persistence perhaps driven by economic necessity, honed over the centuries, and we quickly having to develop the kind of good-natured resistance needed to have any money left for the rest of the trip.

Conversations on the street in Old Cairo

Part of the traffic.

Dresses for sale before an ancient doorway in Old Cairo.
Next up, off to the U.S. Embassy for a briefing, and then on the Economic Research Forum, to hear about work on addressing these economic challenges.