Sunday, June 10, 2012

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.


  1. Most of my life, it seems after reading this post, has been a series of street encounters of one sort or another, but I never had a class or a mentor or a Gandalf to help me tour the anatomy of my encounters -- though if I really read Kierkegaard I might have had a breakthrough. I am left wondering, flipping through the three-by-five cards of my life: Which encounter? Who did I really meet? What will my trip to the Square today present me with?

  2. The breakdown of a street encounter that one may run into in the Egypt (esp. in or around Tahrir) is displayed thoroughly in this post. It's interesting how you placed some emphasis on the lady wearing the veil and how she wasn't afraid to say what she felt and what she would like to see happen in Egypt. Perhaps now we may have a different outlook on what wearing the veil actually means? As we find in this post that even the women can be just as outspoken and forward as the men in Egyptian society. This challenges the western idea of the veil and proves it be rather short and misconceived.

    Great Post!