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.

No comments:

Post a Comment