Category Archives: Holidays

This year in Egypt

Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. Exodus 22:21

Last night marked the beginning of Passover, the holiday where Jews around the world celebrate the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt. I am, of course, in Egypt.

I’m not really celebrating this year. In fact, I’m not celebrating at all. Last night I tried to go to a seder at one of the few remaining synagogues in Cairo, but I wasn’t allowed to enter. (I suspect that at least part of the reason I was turned away was because I told security outside that I’m a journalist. I won’t prove them right by writing on the Internet about the seder or the synagogue.)

I understand that security is an important issue for the small (and shrinking) Jewish community here. It was just a few weeks ago that some crazy threw a homemade bomb at the main synagogue downtown. But I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to celebrate one of my favorite holidays—particularly one in which observers open their doors to symbolize inviting guests to the table.

Then again, I’m not sure I how I could celebrate Passover in Egypt. An important part of the seder service is, basically, celebrating the Jewish victory over the Egyptians. At its most grisly, this involves commemorating the ten plagues that God cast upon the Egyptians, culminating in the death of the first-born. The killing of civilians is something I always object to.

Of course we’re dealing with Biblical times here, when things were bloody and there was a lot of smiting going on. But there’s still something uncomfortable about glorifying the punishment that befell the Egyptian masses, especially when you’re in Egypt, surrounded by the Egyptian masses. Yeah, my boss can be a slave driver, but does that mean I want his first born dead? (As an interesting and relevant side note: “Pharoah” is the word sometimes employed by hardline Islamists to describe the Mubarak regime and other ‘secular’ dictatorships in the Middle East.)

And then there is Israel, which has been an ever-present issue in my mind for every Passover in the last few years. Passover is not just about the escape from Egypt, it is about its end point: the promised land of Israel. This doesn’t mean that observing seder is an endorsement of Zionism, but it gives context to notions of Jewish “homeland” in Palestine. The seder ends with the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem.” It’s a concept I’ve always found problematic but fascinating (hence the name of this blog).

Jerusalem is the holy city for Jews. Does this justify house demolitions and land confiscation, arbitrary arrests and restrictions on movement? Of course not. But it helps, again, to give a context to the Israeli attachment to the city, an attachment so strong that the Israelis will take their policies to the heights of belligerence. This year, we’re having this discussion even more than usual. For a more a more religious and sentimental take on the situation than I usually have, check out Bradley Burston (a Zionist, but a bleeding heart) on how to think about Jerusalem at your seder this year.

Despite its problematic contemporary subtexts, I love the holiday. I appreciate its message about freedom and oppression and liberation. These are the values I find most important in my religion. And it’s a good opportunity to be with family and friends, drink wine, eat brisket and the gefilte fish (like a fish hotdog), and discuss the finer points of oppression. I’ll miss that this year.

I also like to keep kosher for Passover, something I have done with mostly success for the past ten years. I’m going to try to do it this year, though it will be especially difficult in a country that is one of the world’s largest per capita consumers of bread. (Macaroni sandwiches, while not exactly common, are more readily available in Cairo than they are anywhere back home.) Not to mention the difficulty of getting a decent macaroon anywhere in this city.

But so it goes. I am a stranger in the land of Egypt and I guess I’ll have to adjust to the peculiarity of my situation. Next year in.

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Filed under Egypt, Holidays, Israel-Palestine, Jews, Life Abroad, Personal Stuff

L’shana tova tikatevu

It’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, which seems like as good a time as any to revive Next Year In.  So come back soon for new posts.  I promise to deliver.

(L’shanah tova tikatevu, in case you don’t know, means “May you be inscribed [in the book of life] for a good year.  It’s a Jewish thing.)

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Out of Africa

I’m back to the blog after yet another hiatus. Keeping a blog is harder than it seems, especially while traveling. The trip was excellent. I feel like I got a much better sense of Egypt than I did the last time I was there, which was good because I will be writing a honors project about Nasserism. Seeing contemporary Egypt gives me a better idea of how the country works, though perhaps it would be more accurate to say it gives me an idea of how the country doesn’t work.

Egypt is a poorly run place with a government that seems pretty much indifferent to its citizens. Millions of Cairenes live in complete poverty, and, in the words of one Egyptian they “go to bed at night without dinner.” At the same time, a drive along the Mediterranean Coast to the West of Alexandria reveals an expansive corridor of upscale resort developments. Beach condos in gated communities with names like “Alegra Bay”. My examples here are random, but suffice to say that the whole country seems royal fucked up. I will probably write more on this later.

Royally fucked up

Royally fucked up

But wait, you might be asking yourself (because if you read my blog you probably know my travel plans), I thought you were going to Senegal, not Egypt! And to you I would reply, “Yes indeed. I had planned on going to Senegal.” But I am forbidden from entering.

Why am I forbidden from entering Senegal? Because I have been to Ireland. That simple fact, which the mustachioed Senagalese border police were able to discover from a simple sticker on my passport, was enough to keep me from entering Senegal, possibly forever. Does this make me regret having gone to Ireland? No. Does this make me more sympathetic to the Senegalese state? Not at all. When I went there previously, I came away impressed with the country’s economic independence, its large middle class and its friendly citizens. (Which is not to say that I wasn’t trouble by some of the police state aspects of the country.) And now, I am left with only resentment of Senegal’s government.

Does my time in Ireland somehow prove that I am not sympathetic to Panamanian national aspirations? Of course not! It proves nothing of the sort. Furthermore, it is actually a great injustice that Senegal inflicts on the Panamanians through this draconian law. I once met a Panamanian-Irish woman who had much of her family living in Senegal and the border laws prevented them from ever seeing each other.

So in the end, their absurd rule left me resenting them and left their country without the cultural goodwill (and money) that my tourism would have brought. At its worst it adds to injustice against the Panamanians.

It’s good to be back in America where things at least kind of make sense to me.

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Filed under Africa, Holidays, Personal Stuff

Happy Holidays!

I apologize for the hiatus from the blogosphere. (Did you notice?) I’ve been writing papers about Nietzsche and historiography, the ‘origins’ of the Cold War, just war in the twenty-first century, and all sorts of other bullshit that is just a little too boring to blog about. But I had to post today, in honor of three reasons that make May 1 a special day.

1.
May Day
It is May Day. I always wished that I celebrated this holiday for workers and communist. I think it’s still observed in Latin America, though. Anyway, I recommend a Mother Lager from the Magic Hat Brewery in Burlington, VT.

2.
Today is the five year anniversary of the end of major combat operations in Iraq.”What the hell are you talking about?” you might say. But it’s true. General George W. Bush said so himself on the aircraft carrier. Watch it here:

Also, read Juan Cole’s excellent commentary on this somber occasion here.

3.

Finally it is the birthday of a very fine squirrel, who has unfortunately disappeared from New York City. I suspect that he’s lost on the Continent.

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