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.

1 comment:

  1. How many students do you have with you? How's the hummus?