Friday, August 12, 2005

Cairo, Egypt/London, England/Quincy, Illinois

It is from a feeling of obligation more than enthusiasm that I sit down to write this last travel write-up related to my recent trip to Egypt. This is not to say that I do so reluctantly, for despite being there before I feel that I gained a better understanding of the contemporary Middle East during the past two months than I had in the past several years - my advisor was right to send me there. Instead, the lack of enthusiasm springs from the nature of what I gained from the trip, an amorphous mass of knowledge and impressions which I still haven't found words to describe accurately in some neat little essay form, but which especially when capped off with the events of July 30 have left me in at least a few ways darker and more humorless than before. Enough of that, however. If what I say below seems a neat and coherent picture, fine, and if it doesn't, then it doesn't to me, either.

There is, as usual, much I could describe if I had time. The experience of sailing the Nile on a felucca, which we did on my friend Greg's birthday, will have to wait for the live "director's cut" version some of you have access to, as will mention of the free hospital in Manial with poor people all sitting on the sidewalk outside waiting for a chance to receive care. I can, however, briefly pass over the City of the Dead, Cairo's vast cemetery to the east of the medieval city north of the Citadel where for centuries - at least since the late Mamluk period - the city's homeless have made homes within the walled gravesites, using the graves and monuments themselves as furnishings and turning it into a neighborhood with everything one would expect of life in Cairo, just a little creepier than most. I went there one morning to see the 15th century Mosque of Qaytbey, and think I missed the heart of it, but what I saw was interesting enough. Several of the structures had different types of vehicles painted on them - Lonely Planet said of such drawings in Farafra that they meant the place belonged to one who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca and used that to show it, though if this was the same thing whether the hajjis were the people living there now or the ones buried I don't know.

For the most part, however, enough has happened during the nearly three weeks since I left that my most salient memories already seem disconnected from one another, as though experienced through a pensieve in a Harry Potter novel, and it is in that spirit that I ask you now to step with me to the Anglican cathedral I went to in Zamalek. Despite the impression I may have given, I wasn't really a regular, but I did go several times in my first two weeks when I was trying to meet people and several in the last two when I realized time was slipping away and there were things I wanted to learn. All Saints, as it happens is the center of a program known as Refuge Egypt, one of the main charities working with Sudanese refugees in Cairo, originally Dinka and other Christian groups from the south, more recently people from Darfur.

The services provided by Refuge Egypt are the ones usually associated with charity groups - emergency nutritional and medical services, self-help programs, and legal advocacy. Apparently they're violating some sort of Egyptian government regulations in the way they operate, but the government (often known in my writings as the "Mubarak regime") turns a blind eye to and often even supports their work and that of similar organizations. Bishop Mouneer, the guy who runs it, told me that sometimes get accused of proselytizing, but that those allegations were false, and anymore (presumably since Darfur heated up) they serve more Muslims than Christians. A number of southern Sudanese were at the English-speaking services, and the liturgical fusion of the English high tradition and Anglicanism as adopted to the livelier religious culture of sub-Saharan Africa was...really weird, if interesting in places.

The experience I have two relate is from one evening when I had arranged to go out for coffee with two German girls I had met there, and we were to meet at the church after an evening service they were attending. I show up to find the service was actually a long way from over, for there is a special united service of all three congragations (English, Arabic, Sudanese) related to the visit of some pastor from California. For a while I hang out in the courtyard between the gate and the actual church building. The place is filled with Sudanese, for to them the church is a social gathering place where they are more than just refugees - when I went there one weekday morning to grab a couple of things from the craft shop the African-style cafe was filled with people socializing and watching TV. This night, however, the crowd outside is smaller.

I talk for a time with a 50-something Arab who, it turns out, is actually Catholic, but there working with the refugees. Soon he is called away, and I find myself face to face with a Sudanese man in his early 20's in jeans, and red shirt, and large yellow sash around his neck and down his front that marks him out as an usher. Now despite feeling the need to know, I have never really talked much with any Sudanese about the past - if they had happy life stories, they wouldn't be refugees in Cairo. For the first time, however, I decide to take the plunge, and after answering his questions about how long I'll be here for and why he hasn't seen me before, ask how he came to be in Egypt. He looks away briefly, saying "Ahh, my life story..." Then, after a pause, looks back at me and begins to speak.

G grew up in a Dinka village in southern Sudan. During the war, his parents were killed, then all his siblings, leaving him the sole survivor of his family. Shortly thereafter he was captured, forced into the military, and hauled up to Darfur to fight in the war there. What happened next is vague - he says, "Then, when I was often praying to be saved, Jesus came and brought me to Egypt." I blink and ask what he means by that; he makes a brief thinking sound, then goes on as if I hadn't said anything. He came to Cairo, found a place to live in Ma'adi (where I was invited to go to his church), and while putting up with the hidden racism of many Egyptians who view people from sub-Saharan Africa mainly as people who will take jobs by working for really cheap wages sought ways to occasionally eat, ideally once every couple of days.

Despite all this, G radiated an intense optimism and hope for the future. He has a plan - to open a school to educate people in the village where he grew up. With this in mind he has gotten the aid of Refuge Egypt in trying to get a college education, a project which involved a lot of time spent begging at the British Embassy. He also had a certain urgency about this because the UNHCR, in light of the recent peace deal which led to southern Christian leader John Garang's becoming Vice President, had determined that the war in the south was over and all the refugees could go home now when he and many others felt the lull was temporary and fighting would resume as soon as there was sufficient spark. As of our conversation in late July, however, he was very optimistic that he would be going somewhere before the end of August - I think he mentioned Leeds. His ultimate goal, however, is to live in Chicago, which he believes is the world's greatest city. He asked about the cost of living there and was stunned when I told him, but recovered and figured he'd deal with it. His view of the United States was very idealistic - we allegedly have no racism whatsoever, for example - but there was absolutely no way I could have disabused him of any of these notions, for when he said that stuff his face changed, and he looked desperately into my eyes with what I can only call need - this was something I picked up from a few other Sudanese refugees, the need to believe in a United States that was a sort of earthly heaven, even if they had no ambition or hope of ever seeing it, I think because if such a place did exist somewhere, there was in a way hope for them, too, that people anywhere could eventually be happy and at peace.

There are times when travelling the world outside the usual tourist track can feel morally overwhelming, and upon learning that he had last eaten the day before yesterday easily conceived the idea of inviting him to eat with us, but there was somehow an awkwardness in that as well, and he seemed to sense it, too, brushing the offer aside firmly and repeatedly and turning the focus to the friends I was meeting - when I told him who they were he said he knew them and knew where they were sitting inside and offered to take me to them. This offer I accepted, and we went inside where the they quietly but eagerly greeted me as I sat down, thanking G who replied only, "God bless you" before disappearing.

Inside the service has just reached communion, though that still took awhile given the huge crowd. There was also a point where Sudanese would go up somberly in groups of 3-5, each gathered in a circle with one of the priests all with arms on each other shoulders. One of the Germans asked the woman next to her what they were doing, and was told it was confession. Then they finally got to the benediction, which gave me a taste of what the service had been like - the main All Saints priest involved was the one who worked with the Arabic congregation (previously noted as followers of Billy Graham), whose demeanor was totally that of a fundamentalist TV talk show host as he thanked the Californian visitor, a large man with thinning brown hair dressed casually in blue shirt and khakis and a huge silver watch; when the visitor went to say his final words to the congregation, it was a heartfelt reminder that they should never forget that there were people all across America praying for them. While the Europeans seemed generally not to think to much of the fellow, the Sudanese ate it up, responding to his words as medicine, for while they have a lot of pride, their emotional need is also great, and I think clearly Mr. American Pastor made far more of a connection and inspired far more hope and confidence than someone like me could have with whatever I might babble.

That is all I have to say about that night, though for flavoring let me add that even here in Egypt the war to the south follows them. Once I talked to an All Saints priest who was actually from Sudan and now ministering to refugees there. He told me that among the Darfur refugees several had asked to convert to Christianity, so he helped them do so. Islamic militants, however, threatened to kill him for aiding converts - someone later told me they had followed him from Sudan into Egypt for a similar charge. He went to the UNHCR, but like most people in those parts he seemed to find them utterly useless, and in any event at the time of my departure was about ready to flee to Oklahoma. (He asked me about Wisconsin, but decided it would be too cold, especially when he found out I was describing May and not January.) He, presumably, has escaped, but those he baptized are still in danger, meeting secretly in apartments on weeknights while often publicly pretending to still be Muslims. Officially in Egypt anyone can choose their own religion, but government power in these cases is far from absolute, and there is no special security force to protect refugees.

The issue of Sudan would deserve a separate trip, but that is all I can say based off this one, and I must hurry on - this is already shaping up as one of my longer write-ups and there's a lot of ground to cover yet. So briefly let me situate you in the AUC courtyard, a reasonably pleasant space where foreign students and the children of Egypt's elite frolic behind the guarded gates and walls which are the university's face to the city. I had made my last trip to the Dar al-Kutub a few days before, and was spending my one of my last days there reading a book by Kemal Karpat while sipping a latte purchased from the coffee stand.

In this I was interrupted by a tall girl wearing gray-blue jeans, a pink shirt, and light blue headscarf asking if she can sit down. I assent, and after brief introductions we talk for a time on topics ranging from Harry Potter to Sudanese refugees to the weather. She was a business student who recently reconfirmed her Islam after spending much of her teenage years as an agnostic save for a brief period as a Buddhist. Her critique of Christianity was typical for Islam - the Trinity makes no sense - though she also expressed sympathy for the view of another Muslim friend who when my friends Greg and Joanna tried to explain the concept of original sin responded with a shocked incredulity. (Islam's view of human nature is that we all have a fitra, or internal compass driving us to always do what is right.)

The girl I was talking to, though, despite her recently rediscovered Muslim piety, was unhappy with some of the Islamic revivalism currently sweeping Egypt. I actually ran into some of the consequences of this in my professional work - there were a few standard books on early Islamic history I couldn't find in the library, and I later read that they had been banned by the Ministry of Higher Education at the insistence of students and parents as contrary to the teachings of Islam. She was more troubled by certain among her peers who tried to force everyone to be their version of a good Muslim. I asked if she meant people connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, but she said: "No, though they might say they are. The Muslim Brotherhood are professionals, and they have studied their religion and how to promote it. These people really haven't." And here one of my stereotypes was exposed, for I was picturing bearded young men wandering around campus trying to intimidate people, but her example was women in the locker room lecturing everyone who didn't wear all black and veil themselves.

That was short, but I include it mainly for introduction into the Egyptian social context among the educated classes of society who, thus far, are what matters most politically. And with that in mind, let us look at the last protest I went to, the one spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood under the banner of their "National Front," an attempt to unify all the opposition groups going into the elections. The MB is different from most of the other groups protesting over the summer. For one thing - they're actually illegal, having been banned and suppressed by Gamal Abdel Nasser during the 1950's - Youth for Change and Co. in the Kefaya movement haven't really become important enough to ban. Nonetheless, the Muslim Brotherhood is larger, more professional, and more disciplined than any of the other groups which have sprung up during the past couple of years, and because of that they've developed an uneasy understanding with the government that allows them to function, albeit with a certain level of harassment and within certain red lines.

It is this relationship, perhaps, which led them to negotiate with the government in the days leading up to the protest, coming to an agreement over the location and size of the protest. The location selected was the Syndicate of Lawyers near Midan Ramses, where the security forces could more easily close off the street than they could at the original site outside Abdeen Palace. With the Kefaya leftists, too, they came to an understanding - the Muslim Brotherhood would eschew Islamist slogans as long as the Kefaya people agreed not to criticize Husni Mubarak.

I arrived at the protest somewhat late, as I had trouble finding out the site, and when I got there it was already in full swing. This was easily the most impressive of the lot. Much of this impression sprung from its size - estimates ranged as highas 5000 instead of the usual few hundred. Muslim Brothers were arranged all out in front and along the roofs and balconies of the syndicate building, ironically under a picture of Gama Abdel Nasser. Their slogans were different in style as well as content - regrettably I can't remember them, but in any case the impression comes from the fact they were longer and impressed you with their sense of verbal power rather than the cleverness Kefaya usually went for. What's more, they were chanted in much better unison than Kefaya was usually able to achieve, with the total effect being that the MB leaders had brought out this small street army which was firmly under their command, and at any time they could bring out not just a few thousand but tens of thousands if not over a hundred thousand who would be just as disciplined.

Several people commented on how relaxed the CSF was - because of this MB discipline, they didn't have to worry about lone leftist activists deciding to try and start something, nor was the MB inclined to direct any verbal fire at them - they had bigger fish to fry than calling miseducated farmboys terrorists and trying to attack them because they can't attack anyone meaningful. Many of the leftists, however, were unhappy with their agreement, feeling that not criticizing Mubarak defeated the purpose of holding an anti-Mubarak protest. Some tried to sneak in their slogans - when this kept failing, the whole lot of them went next door to the Syndicate of Journalists to hold their own protest with all the usual Kefaya slogans.

Not all the Kefaya activists stayed there, however - a few snuck over to the try and infiltrate the MB crowd and bend it to their will. They failed, and it back-fired, as the Muslim Brotherhood leadership decided they'd had enough. An order was given, and in neat and orderly rows their thousands of people filed out - the total crowd went from 5000 to 500 in about 5 minutes. The Kefaya crowd then started moving toward the Lawyers' Syndicate building with obvious ambitions of breaking out and holding another march. The CSF guys, relaxed no longer, leapt into action - quite literally, as they jumped over the sidewalk fences to confront them more directly. There were a few minor shoving matches as younger activists challenged the security forces before being restrained by older ones - for the most part the protest just drifted along like a large fish trying to find a hole in a fishing net before it finally began to dissipate, at which point CNN showed up. (Note: I didn't find out a couple of these details until later from friends in the Greek Club. Which brings up my usual obligation to credit all the people whose insight and experience went to enhance my own during this trip, most especially Josh Stacher, Praktike, and many others who hang out in the Greek Club, but also the UW-Madison undergraduates studying abroad in Cairo, who had been there for a year and were especially helpful in my understanding of the Coptic community, several of the clergy I met at All Saints, as well as the two German girls mentioned above, the staff of the Garden City House Hotel, and a few Egyptian AUC students whose acquaintance I was fortunate enough to make in my limited time there.)

For all intents and purposes, that was the finale to my Cairo trip. I remember feeling like my nerves were shot the last few days - in particular, on Thursday or so strange psychological forces drove me into a fit of neatness that had me picking up litter around AUC and its immediate environment in a futile attempt to clean downtown Cairo. The last day, too, was marred by the terrorist attack in Sharm al-Shaykh that as of my departure had killed 75 Egyptians and 8 foreigners. It was Revolution Day - Egypt's national holiday - so I really can't ascribe anything different I observed to the attack itself, but the words "Sharm al-Shaykh" were spoken somberly on a lot of tongues gathered around televisions. It was a somber thematic segue to the next leg of my trip, for in an economically unwise decision, I had elected to spend a day and a half in London rather than take my fourth layover there without actually seeing the city.

My trip to London was itself marred by the fact that I managed to lose my passport there, and the full day I allowed was spent at the embassy getting a replacement. (Do not lose your passport overseas - it is a significant problem. Furthermore, always carry a photocopy of your data page just in case you do - I think mine is what saved me from a lot of hassle.) Despite all that, I got the feel of the place, on the carefully-watched-by-police tube from Heathrow to my "cheap" hotel in Belgravia near Westminster, within walking distance of pretty much everything I wanted to do. The Thames riverfront was wonderful - everything Cairo could have been had not successive Muslim dynasties moved their urban core further away from it instead of along it. Most sites were closed on Sunday, but I did get to see the two main cathedrals, St. Paul's where I attended a free organ recital, and Westminster, where a number of stations had candles for the victims of July 7 - I decided to light one, then added another for Sharm.

It was after my return home, I think that my perceptions of the trip were sealed. After a brief time in Madison I went down to Quincy for my brother's wedding. It was fun, hanging out with some new people and playing at salsa dancing. One person there was a marine, talking eagerly in macho marine style about his forthcoming tour in Iraq - I wondered vaguely how much he understood of the U.S. in the world, it's sources of strength and weakness, and the perceptions of all involved, and further how much he might come to perceive in his time in Baghdad, a city with issues all its own yet tied inexorably to the rest of the region, a city our occupation of which led to the Kefaya movement in its embryonic form as an anti-Iraq War movement, yet in which our project is the same as what Kefaya and others like them want to do in Egypt.

But it was also on the day of the wedding when I felt the pull my emotional connection to the people I had met overseas. I forget when I learned what, glancing at news in between events. I know in one matter I mistook the significance because I hadn't realized the exact status of the situation, but I quickly came up to speed, for that was the day a helicopter crashed somewhere in Sudan, taking the life of Vice President John Garang and threatening the still tender peace between north and south. CNN had pictures from the air of gangs in Khartoum out seeking blood - whether they were Christians seeking Muslims or Muslims seeking Christians no longer mattered. Even more directly troubling were the reports of the Kefaya protest that day near Midan Tahrir, where the security forces decided they could go ahead and crack down on the protestors even more than they had in May, with CSF officers directing plainclothes people in beating the activists, and when beaten hauling them into the backs of security trucks and taking them away, all the while confiscating the film and notes from journalists in hopes that word of the deed would not spread far. I knew no one in Khartoum; I did Cairo, and now when I look through my pictures of that trip I'll be able to notice one in which a girl sits holding a beer while looking at a cake, and know that just two weeks later she would be one of those attacked, though she escaped with little more than shaken nerves. I have read of no protests since - I'm sure no one's given up, but it can be hard to organize something when distracted by your own kangaroo trial.

Life, or perhaps I should say history in this case, is a story that never ends. The fact I am writing this now instead of three weeks ago or a year from now doesn't mean that the final word is in on the civil war in Sudan or the politics of Egypt. In fact as a medievalist I sometimes can't help but take the long view and look at everything as a blip in the pan unless it still stands out a few centuries from now. But this is travel writing, not history or politics, and the story of this trip, like all those of all true travellers, is one of gaining understanding. The understandings I have gained in Egypt are not happy, optimistic ones, but nor do they embed a deep cynicism. In an LAT blog post I suggested parallels between the Youth for Change and the Friends of the ABC Cafe, but I am not yet ready to give up the fight. Rather, I have internalized that life and the issues of the world are serious business, and easily slip out of attempts to capture them through the relatively simple ideas and values which characterize my own life. As I said at the beginning, I feel it has altered me some, though I still can't put my finger on how or why. But if as a student of the world I am to learn all I can that I might serve the world, then I can claim to have gained new tools and understandings, and am better prepared for more.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home