Because I am a writer, and can only process things as I write them, my friend Carey set this up for me so I could share some thoughts on the Egyptian revolution. I don't know what will come out here, but I know I need more space than the tiny box allowed for Facebook posts. So, here goes.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What We Can Learn from the Revolution

I’ve always believed in the struggle of human beings to determine their own future and to claim their rights to dignity and freedom. These struggles, all too often, end badly for the people who fight them, but I try to keep faith in seeing the bigger picture: the individual struggles are part of a bigger one, one that makes life worth living. Often the struggle results in a better life for the generations that follow. To see a people’s struggle realized in real time, to see them actually get to witness the fruits of their brave labors is rare, indeed. So it is that the Egyptian revolution is not only inspiring but immensely gratifying. The people have won, and they get to begin now to reap what they have sown. I know what lies ahead is complex and far from easy. And there are many talking heads out there that are hashing out the dangers of what may come. I’ll leave the heads to talk. What I want to think about is the little, human details that I’ve watched these last few weeks which might inspire us all to be better people.

What can our culture learn from Egyptian culture as it has been expressed in the trying days since January 25th? Plenty. Here are a few that I’ve been thinking about:

Bravery. This revolution worked because the people became fearless. They did not wait for someone to lead the way for them. The fact that there was no clear leader was actually a great asset. No one person can claim the revolution’s victory. The people themselves decided they had had enough, and they faced incredible consequences in taking a stand. Some were killed, some beaten. I remember a video of an old man lying injured on the street shouting “I will die for you, Egypt!” There was a point where it seemed thousands, maybe millions, faced imminent attack, the military jets zooming over, the police thugs at the ready, the army unclear in their intentions and their stance. And yet they kept coming. They would not be intimidated. Look at this man:

The picture, for me, has all the aspects of a saint on a holy card. There is peace, resignation, faith in his face. He raises one hand to the heavens because his other arm is apparently broken, along with his ribs. This is the force the forces had to deal with, and it was unstoppable.

Joy. In the midst of the chaos and fear, Egyptians made constant jokes. One day I hope to translate some of the signs that were held. One of them, held by a guy with voluminous, poofy hair read: “Come on, already. I need a haircut.” Others joked that Mubarak had set himself aflame in front of parliament demanding a change in the people. There were stand-up comics and singers to entertain the protesting crowds. I have always loved the easy laughs and outrageously infectious smiles of Egyptians. That they could manage that same benevolence in the midst of such hardship and uncertainty is truly inspiring.

Generosity. I love that the Hardee’s in Tahrir Square was taken over to give out free cheese and bread. And another moment, captured in a picture, that struck me was from the clean-up after the victory celebration. It kind of says it all. As part of a lost and found for people to be reunited with their belongings, a man held out an orderly tray of wallets for the owners to claim. Could you imagine that happening in the U.S.?

Resourcefulness. Did you ever think about where people used the bathroom in Tahrir Square? How the throngs of people even got there without working trains or buses? Did you see how people used aluminum cooking pots and crushed water bottles to make helmets for themselves when the thugs began to attack them with stones from the bridge?

Peace. Perhaps the most enduring image of the whole revolution for me is the moment on Kasr-El Nil Bridge when the people were praying and the thugs began to attack them with water hoses. No one even seemed to flinch. They just continued, bending, bowing, lifting their hands and faces as they were pelted by the pressure. The calmness, peace and defiance as they continued praying rivals any image I’ve seen of Buddhists sitting in calm meditation as they were attacked in Vietnam. I hope the West can remember this scene when they fall back on the conflation of Islam and violence and know that this religion, just like this country, has been hijacked and is now in the people’s hands.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Here's to the Future of Egypt


Our joke was to call him “ashabi,” “my friend.” Or, at least, it was my joke when I first visited Egypt in 2005 to work with a group of artists and writers to form Meena, our bilingual Arabic/English literary series. My friend, Khaled, to whom I’m now married, and I were trying to create a much-needed “port of entry” between our cultures (“meena” means “port” in Arabic). Of the many culture shocks I experienced on that first visit, one of the most persistent was the omnipresence of Hosni Mubarak’s huge face. His gush was plastered everywhere: on street corners, train stations, brick walls by a market. He was inescapable. And he always looked, to me, like he was smelling something. Something, maybe, not so pleasant. Perhaps it was the whiff of revolution that would erupt years later. It translated as a look of indignation, even disgust, and I found this face, and its pervasiveness, extremely disconcerting. In the U.S., we don’t usually see such in-your-face images of our leaders except at election time, when they are not yet our leaders.

The other writers and I would meet for hours upon hours in coffee shops, smoking shisha, drinking tea or sweet, black coffee, in order to iron out our translations and decide on the order of what would be our first issue. Because the face would accompany us wherever we met, I began to mention it, uncomfortably, as if to try to nod to an uninvited and annoying member of the group in order to get an explanation. Or to see if anyone else noticed. It was somehow understood that we did not mention his name a lot, or directly reference the pervasive hatred of him. My instincts led me to come up with a code name, hence “ashabi,” as in “oh, I see ashabi has come to join us,” or “it seems things smell bad for ashabi, here, too.” I don’t know that anyone thought it was funny but me, but my actual friends played along.

I realize, now, that it was nervous humor. I was uncomfortable. My animal instincts sensed the danger represented by this forced encounter with such a hated man. And he was, as he is now, pretty much universally hated. I wondered how someone could not know that. Or how one could know that he was hated and somehow want to stir that emotion on a constant basis by waving it, quite literally, in people’s faces. Silly, na├»ve me. I had never been to a dictatorship before. And, though my best friend/now husband had suffered as a journalist there and, in fact, left because of the repression, though my new friends were all, in some way, involved in some kind of activism and resistance to the status quo, I just didn’t get it. I thought of dictatorships as gray, cold countries where people peered nervously from cracks in doors, not U.S. allies visited by Americans and Europeans for luxury vacations.

Though I knew, logically, that elections were rigged and that martial law was a constant reality, I could not line that up with the outrageous outpourings of generosity, humor and artistic expression I encountered every moment. Thus, I was hurt and perplexed when I heard that one of the artists I had met was suspicious that I was a spy working for my government. Perhaps more people thought this, but he was honest enough to let me know. It took a while to earn his trust, to show him (and maybe others) that I was genuinely interested in sharing a dialogue, in rendering Arabic voices into English.

Now I see how pervasive the fear was, how deeply the people were pitted against one another and how it was actually a natural suspicion for someone who was unaccustomed to not only free expression but genuine interest in Egypt’s living people and not just the ancient artifacts. Now I see that the quiet conversations, punctuated by laughter, which happened over the puffs of smoke and steam of tea and under the watchful eye of “ashabi,” were the prelude to this huge explosion unfolding before our eyes: the revolution that will birth a new Egypt. And I was privileged to be invited to the table.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Alexandrians behind the torn face of the once-future leader

Revolutionary Trash

This is a reflection from last week....things are changing so quickly all the time, and it is a full-time job to sift through the information. Khaled and I "debrief" nightly after the kids go to bed, and this is when I find out what is really going on as he tells me what has happened in the Arabic press. I hope to catch up on some more thoughts and synthesize them. For now, here is a small bit from last week.

As an Egyptian-American family, we’ve been glued to the internet for the last week, watching in disbelief, fear and wonder as the Revolution unfolds. For us, there is nothing else happening. The need for moments of lightness has emerged. One day I joked with my husband, Khaled, that clearly it was the real and promised revolution as evidenced by the most shocking sight of all: Egyptians were picking up trash.

During our visits to Egypt, I had never understood the propensity of Egyptians to litter. Even Khaled would drop a wrapper in the street without a thought, a gesture he would never do at home in the United States. People’s homes, however humble, were always fastidiously clean and cared for. Yet the streets were filled with garbage one had to step around. In Bahari, the fishing section of Alexandria that is our favorite part of the city, we stayed in an apartment overlooking the Mediterranean, spread out in all its roiling, changing, glory. Outside the apartment building, refuse filled the street, overflowing trash bins, cats scrounging through the piles for their food. Trying to teach my child to take responsibility for her own messes was pretty much impossible when surrounded by her Egyptian family who casually tossed trash out of train windows or in the street. I’ve always been mystified by this as it seemed so out of tune with the generous, non-imposing spirit of the Egyptians I know.

Now I get it. The streets were not theirs. Now they are. And now, as we watch the truly incredible explosion of bravery and pride and pent-up aspirations of the Egyptians taking back their country, here are the men and women of the revolution, the same Egyptians who probably tossed their Molto wrapper or newspaper down onto the same street a month ago, lovingly cleaning the streets when the space temporarily clears of demonstrators. It is their country now. And this simple act of care-taking—alongside, of course, the overwhelming sentiment that the majority is unflinchingly willing to die for their cause—should ensure everyone that they will serve its best interests.