Tag Archives: Cairo

#Jan25

I wasn’t in Egypt yesterday because I’m in Turkey, but I have been glued to Twitter, Facebook, my Gmail contacts list, and the media reports, trying to get a grasp on the situation and getting inspired by everything I’ve seen and read.

The most exciting aspect of yesterday’s demonstrations is the sheer scale. Accurate crowd estimates are difficult to ascertain, but even the Ministry of the Interior put the number of protesters in Cairo at 10,000, which makes me suspect that the real number is much higher. Some activists suggested that there were over 100,000 people there, which seems a bit dubious. No matter what, though, the number is clearly the biggest in a long while, perhaps since the bread riots of 1977, though maybe comparable to the demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But there are important differences between the 2003 protests and yesterday’s: First, in 2003, Egyptians were demonstrating against an external issue, even if it is one tangentially related to their US-backed dictator. Second, those protests were almost exclusively in Cairo, whereas yesterday demonstrations took place throughout the country.

Related to the size and geographic diversity of the protests is that they were a decentralized movement. Much of the organization and mobilization may have taken place on Facebook via the We Are All Khaled Said group (through which 90,000 people said they planned to attend demonstrations), but the turnout seems like it was much more diverse than the usual web-savvy crowd. I’ve been to a number of pro-democracy demonstrations in Cairo and it’s typical to see the same handful of activists at each. Yesterday seemed to attract a different crowd.

A friend in Cairo who was in Tahrir Square yesterday, the site of the main protest, put it this way in a Gchat conversation: “you can find cooperation between youth with beard and girls wearing foreign clothes.” Check out the video below from Al Jazeera English at around 2:05, where a older, middle-class-looking woman goes on a rant about the government. She’s not the typical Cairo protestor.

The question now is what will happen next. Can Egyptians, inspired by Tunisia, sustain a month-long rebellion and bring down their dictator? Everyone I have talked to is taking a very wait-and-see approach. An activist friend in Cairo wrote to me:

I think this is a ripe moment to call for a nation-wide strike so that no one goes to work and more people empty into the streets – but I somehow doubt that will happen. It is much easier for people to go to a mass protest/rally than to miss a day of work – a nation-wide strike really assumes certain privileges that most people (including most of the people that were out yesterday!) do not have. That’s why 6th April and 5th May and all those movements never really got anywhere.

It is still early in the day in Egypt as I write this. Demonstrations may pick up again after school and work get out. On the other hand, I’ve heard people say they fear that Egyptians will now sit back, satisfied that they made their point yesterday and unwilling to continue. Moreover, I think that after yesterday the regime will want to clamp down quickly. Mubarak, I fear, has learned from Ben Ali’s mistakes. (Good thing the New York Times was willing to give him advice!)

Yesterday’s protests were, without a doubt, violent. See this video of the police evacuating Tahrir Square with tear gas and rubber bullets for evidence. But they weren’t nearly as violent as they could have been or, for that matter, as violent as I would have expected. But the Ministry of the Interior has already stated that they will not allow more protests and if the day of anger turns into a week of anger or a month of anger, I think the government will be more heavy handed as they try to prevent a Tunisia situation. I’m afraid the future could hold lot more beatings, arrests and maybe even live fire than we saw yesterday, when three people died.

For now we have to wait and see. I’ll be sitting at my perch in Istanbul, aching to be in downtown Cairo as I watch videos of the much-hated Central Security Forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets at crowds that include my friends.

Photo by Sarah Carr from Flickr

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Filed under Democracy, Egypt, Human Rights

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

Azaan on an iPod?

BBC ran a short video yesterday about the call to prayer in Egypt. I can’t figure out how to embed it, but the link is here. They report that the government plans to sync the call to prayer in every Cairo mosque to a radio broadcast.

They do this in Amman, Jordan, where I lived and studied for a semester. This means that throughout the whole city the call is more or less uniform, with the same start time, the same accent, etc.

In Cairo, by contrast, the call to prayer is as chaotic as everything else. Each mosque, from Al Azhar to the one room storefront down the block from my apartment, does the call to prayer on its own. Naturally, this leads to cacophony as each mosque tries to drown out the other in enthusiasm and volume. Some mosques have a muezzin with a beautiful voice and clear diction; the aforementioned mosque on my block has a muezzin who sounds like he has emphysema.

I know that it’s cliched and it’s probably Orientalist, but I love the call to prayer. It’s one of my favorite things about being in Arab countries. The sound is haunting and it’s beautiful. I often tune it out completely, but sometimes it grabs my attention and I stand at the window and–man, this is getting corny–feel a little spiritual. Incidentally, the call for the fajr, or dawn, prayer is a good indication that you’ve stayed up way too late.

I like the way the sound bounces off the buildings and, in certain parts of Cairo, builds toward a crescendo that resembles thunder as each mosque joins in, one by one. It’s pretty cool.

So I guess I’d vote against syncing the whole city’s calls to prayer up to someone’s iPod at the Ministry of Awqaf offices.

But I obviously don’t have a vote.

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Filed under Egypt

Hot, flat, and crowded. (But not that bad.)

Cairo has a pretty shitty reputation.

Westerners who visit the city are awe-struck by the endless chaos that is Cairo traffic. (See Anthony Bourdain’s episode of No Reservations in Cairo.) The Lonely Planet warns in great detail about the air quality and the overcrowding.

Arabs don’t have much more love for the city, either. When I was living in Jordan and told people there I was going to Cairo, they would invariably say, “Cairo is too dirty! So crowded! Why go there?” I’ve heard plenty of Palestinians and Lebanese say the same thing. For that matter, Egyptians will often disparage their capital. My Arabic tutor had me repeat a sentence the other day that translated to “New York is cleaner than Cairo.”

Even expats who have lived here for years talk about what a challenging place it is. But you know what? I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as everyone says.

Yes, it is dirty. Yes, it is crowded. Yes, it is hot. Yes, the air is full of particulates that leave you with black boogers at the end of the day. But living here is not the Herculean struggle that people make it out to be. Sometimes the gridlock traffic makes me want to tear out my hair, but that happens in North Jersey, too.

Cairo is a big city and in a lot of ways it’s not that different from New York. I wouldn’t expect it to be as comfortable as, for example, a small college town in northeast Ohio. But in Cairo you find a way to make it your own, find calm in the chaos, develop systems for yourself, just as you do in any city. Drink a glass of orange juice and watch the traffic. It’s kind of fun.

It’s worth noting, though, that I am not a woman. This seems like an exceptionally unpleasant place to be female, particularly as a white woman. Sexual harassment is ubiquitous and appalling. A few days ago I was walking along a main street on my way back from work about ten feet behind two Egyptian women wearing hijab. For the whole half mile that I was behind them I watched as groups of men—old, young, unemployed, police, any kind of man you can think of—yelled catcalls at the two girls. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if they were blonde girls in T-shirts. (There will probably be more posts about this topic in the future.)

But precluding that, I think this city gets an unfair rap. I find it pretty damn livable. Then again, maybe you should check back with me again in another six months.

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Filed under Egypt, Life Abroad

Egypt’s most overrated band

Last night I had the opportunity to see Wust el-Balad a band that, according to Wikipedia, “is considered to be the most successful rock act in Egypt, and the whole Arab world.” I’m not sure if that claim is true, but they’re certainly very popular and often talked about. But I have to say, at the risk of offending thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of nightclub-loving Egyptians, I thought they kind of sucked.

Wust el-Balad sucks? They’re like a Cairo institution!  Yeah, I guess. But really they sound like Phish. (Sorry Levi, habibi, you know I love you but even when we hang out I want to listen to anything but Phish.)

Rather than playing Arabic melodies in a modern-rock style, Wust el-Balad played pseudo-Latin rhythms that incidentally had Arabic lyrics. They used cheesy “jazz” breakdowns and gratuitous James-Brown-style-“Can-we-count-it-off?”-moments to prove that they are a “tight” band.  The effect, for me at least, was thoroughly unimpressive.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t have a good time.  I saw Wust el-Balad at After 8, a popular Cairo nightclub. And I love dancing on top of broken beer bottles in a smoke-filled room as much as any other Oberlin grad. (Which is not to say that the vibe at After 8 was exactly like 16.5 South Main…) But loving a good dance party didn’t make up for the fact that Wust el-Balad was a totally boring, slightly cringe-inducing band.

I’ll give them another try.  I probably won’t have a choice. They seem like they might be hard to avoid. But next time I go to see live music in this city I’m going to make sure it’s either Arabic folk music or something at least a little bit edgy. Because I don’t want to pay a hundred pound cover to listen to the Egyptian version of Phish.

If you’re skeptical about my assertion that Wust el-Balad sounds like Phish, I suggest that you watch the two YouTube videos below:

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Filed under College, Travelogue

Misreading Egypt’s garbage problem

There have been two pretty good pieces in the American mainstream media about the ongoing garbage crisis in Egypt recently, but it seems to me that they’ve both missed the most relevant part of the story: the privatization of the garbage industry and subsequent strikes by the foreign owned companies due to the Egyptian government’s incompetence.

Michael Slackman published an interesting piece in the New York Times last weekend that used the garbage problem to tie together a number of important issues in contemporary Egyptian politics and society.

Yesterday, Daniel Williams of Bloombeg—whose Egypt coverage I generally really like—published a similar story to Slackman’s, also focusing on the pigs.

Christopher Hitchens even jumped on the garbage-pig-slaughter-connection bandwagon to put forward his familiar (and quite annoying) criticisms of religion.

None of these journalists is wrong, per se. The garbage that is piling up in Cairo is indeed related to the senseless slaughter of the pigs last May. It is also a symptom of Egypt’s feckless government. But let’s not leave out the important facts.

The garbage is piling up in the streets of Giza and Cairo in large part because the Italian sanitation company responsible for trash collection is on strike. They have stopped collecting the garbage.  And so garbage is piling up in the streets.  It seems fairly straightforward to me.

Of course this is its own story of the Egyptian government’s fecklessness. For whatever reason they felt it necessary to abandon a perfectly decent, if informal, system of garbage collection wherein individual citizens of Cairo collect garbage for their own profit, and replaced it with a Western-style system of highly paid private contractors. Guys in jumpsuits with dump trucks rather than Copts in galabiyas with donkey carts.

Was this an attempt to be more “modern?” Was it, like the pig culling, a backhanded form of sectarian oppression? Or was it some corrupt business deal?

I don’t know why the privatization of garbage collection occurred, but it did. And now the privatized garbage collectors are on strike and no one is picking up the garbage.  That, it seems to me, should be worth more than a few words from Daniel Williams or Michael Slackman, even if it’s not as “good” a story as the dead pigs.

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Filed under Egypt, Media

New neighborhood, familiar feeling

At this point I feel pretty familiar with central Cairo and the nearby neighborhoods, since that’s where I’m living, working and hanging out, etc. But I’ve barely seen any of the suburbs. So yesterday I decided to take a trip to Maadi just for the hell of it.

It took about a half an hour on the subway from the station closest to my apartment and when I got off the train I felt like I was in… Park Slope. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. It’s still Egypt and most of the people there are Egyptians—but only barely. Many of Cairo’s expats–embassy people, corporate types, who knows what else–make their home.

What am I talking about? I went to a decent used book store where I almost bought a book of interviews with Woody Allen. Then I walked down the street and saw a place called—no fucking joke!—Jared’s Bagels. As I marched down Road 9 I passed smiling couples with blonde babies in babybjörns. A totally surreal experience.

I’m glad I don’t live there. (Longer post on the discourse of “authentic” and the Western traveler to come later, I promise.) Maybe if I were older and bringing my family to live with me in Cairo Maadi would be my choice. But why the hell would I move halfway around the world to be surrounded by American yuppies? If that’s what I wanted I could have just moved to Brooklyn like so many recent Oberlin grads.

Incidentally, Maadi is also home to the best hamburger in the world, at least according to Time’s Scott MacLeod. I haven’t been yet, but obviously will go. I haven’t been out of the US for half my life like MacLeod has, so I might be coming at the Lucille’s burger with clearer eyes. I will report back, of course.

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Filed under Egypt, Food, Travelogue