Monday, June 25, 2012

Thoughts from Tahrir

The energy of Tahrir last night was so tangible it became contagious. Whether you were happy with Morsi’s election as president or not, you fell under the spell of the excitement of change brought about by revolution, despite knowing that Morsi is not the desired conduit of change of most revolutionaries who fought with their lives for freedom from dictatorship, nor is he anywhere close to having the power currently held by the SCAF (military).

My friends (left to right) Saad, Hamada, Bizra, Basbousa
After some prompting from a dear friend and ex-roommate now wanderlusting around Turkey, I decided to go to Tahrir. A few of my friends had mentioned they were going so I made a plan to meet them there. I took the metro and waited inside Hardees', on the corner of the square, for them to arrive. After my friends arrived at Hardees’ I was able to move about freely and without worry.  No one bothered me for the rest of the night, as I expected [I'll explain as a post script what I mean by this].The air was celebratory and remnant of the 25 January anniversary celebrations, but in many ways very different. Whereas the 25 of January celebrations were very much similar to a festival or 4th of July event in America, the celebrations last night reached a euphoria I did not expect given the remaining political predicaments facing the new administration.  Regardless,  the fireworks, chanting and sea of smiles amounted to a level of liveliness I had never before witnessed.

A fair amount of chanting and singing was directed directly at Morsi, yet the broader energy seemed to be from the election of a president not connected with the old regime; the old regime that had ruled with an iron fist for 30 years. For the first time, Egyptians have, it would seem, a democratically elected president. This is the song many were singing, the chant that for me seemed to rise above the others. I can’t say for sure this is true, but that is how it felt to me. I am, however, no expert.

I can’t help but then wonder when the vigor will fade and turn to disillusionment at the power retained by the SCAF (military). Those supporting Morsi, I predict, will come to resent the restrictions on movement of their new leader and those supporting a change from the old regime, I predict, will resent the remaining legacy of authoritarian rule. This does not even include what will happen if and when Morsi begins making changes seen as too conservative by many. But last night, those who ventured to Tahrir were set on celebrating what they saw as a first step in self-rule; whether or not you view the situation through the same lens is up to you.

My friends and I left Tahrir together via metro after an hour or two of walking around, listening to familiar ULTRAS chants from the Zamalek and Ahly fans (popular Egyptian football teams), taking pictures and videos of an eager-to-be-documented crowd and of course being gifted with an Egyptian flag balloon in the shape of a heart, perhaps poetically serving as a symbol of my feelings towards this country and its people.

I know many of you will have a reflex reaction to reprimand me for going to Tahrir last night. I would like to explain my decision before you rush to judgment. Firstly, I did not go in the afternoon when the president was announced. Had Shafiq won, the backlash could have been catastrophic as I think most people there that afternoon were praying for Morsi’s victory.  I waited until the night, when it was clearly celebratory and highly unlikely to have any violent or protest-like undertones. Secondly, I carefully crafted a conservative outfit that covered everything, yet was fashionable enough to blend in and not look like a foreigner trying to cover as much as possible. And yes, I wore a veil to cover my hair. Thirdly, I went to meet up with some of my male Egyptian friends before entering the square. Now, my calculations there were slightly flawed, as I insisted to my friends that I could meet them just outside the metro station at a Hardees’ restaurant on the corner of Tahrir without any problems. They reluctantly accepted my persistence as it seemed at the time that I knew the metro situation better since they were all on buses.

I was off by about 2 minutes worth of walking. That night, Tahrir began at the stairs going up from the Metro and the clamor up the stairs was slightly unpleasant. Luckily, there was a sizeable group of men helping the unmanned women get up the stairs and out of the bottleneck of hands. I was guided up the stairs and then behind a fence of men leading to Hardees’.

 Regarding the male-female tensions of the night, my observations are as follows: the men in Tahrir were divided into three main groups. Firstly, there were the men (and of course women too) celebrating, singing, chanting, bouncing with excitement and waving flags. Then there were the barbarians that seem to creep out  in large crowds and high-tension situations like repulsive creatures only a science fiction novelist could invent. The only ones I saw were in that bottleneck getting out of the metro, but I’m sure there was a handful more that I was fortunate enough to have my friends to keep me from. Women with Egyptian men, or wearing the Naqab seemed unbothered by these "men."

 Then there were the men who had voluntarily put on hold their celebrations to form human fences, barriers and bodyguards to protect women and store fronts. I have a lot of respect and gratitude for those men, especially the ones that assisted me in getting out of the subway. Whereas one group ignorantly and selfishly gives Egyptian men a negative reputation, the other attempts to redeem that tarnish through their commitment to ensuring all genders are able to join in public gatherings.

Regardless, I am completely fine and have absolutely no regrets about going.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Back in Cairo, the City that Never Sleeps

The suns hot rays hit the humid air in what seemed to be an attempt to cook me alive as I ran back and forth from the Egyptian Consulate to my hostel in Eilat. I had arrived just in time for a wave of humidity. Back in the hostel, the thermometer read 90 degrees Fahrenheit, in the shade and relative comfort of the upstairs lobby. Walking back into the sun was like stepping into a microwave and putting the power level on high. Despite the heat I felt surprisingly comfortable in my tank top and shorts, baring my limbs for the first time in a while. It could have been 10 degree hotter and I would have been more comfortable than I had been walking around in 80 degree heat fully clothed. After I treated myself to a western omelette sandwich, salad and filtered coffee, I made my way to the border, splurging a little on a taxi, as my boss had given me additional money for travelling that I had not been expecting., much of which I still managed to save for Cairo anyway. As soon as I had gotten my exit stamp from Israel, after only a few awkward glances as they looked, I assume, at the notes next to my name, I threw on my Handala (symbol of Palestinian liberation) shirt  and got ready to cross through the final barrier between Israel and Egypt.

After wrestling my bags through the endless bureaucracies on both sides of the border between Israel and Egypt, I finally made it into the hot Egyptian sun—for some reason it felt hotter there than it had in Israel, but that was perhaps due to the additional clothing I had donned crossing the border. I knew the bus station was just a few kilometers down the road so I refused offers for a taxi, restarting my budget traveler mode. However, after about 200 meters, the hot sun and weight of my bags started to wear on me, and I had begun to wonder why I so quickly refused a 2 dollar ride to the station. Pride goeth before a fall. I did manage to make it there, and the extra time it took me was to my benefit in the end since I had a 2 hour wait before the bus to Cairo would come. I turned into the bus station--or outpost rather, as it was not much of a station—scarlet red, sweaty and probably panting. As I got closer to the waiting area and ticket stand, I noticed my audience and attempted to pull myself together. With what little energy I had I dragged my bags through the sand and one at a time and with as much dignity as is possible when a handful of men are staring at the spectacle I must have been, I lifted my bags onto the platform and bought my ticket. As I sat there in the shade waiting for the bus, my head pounded from the rays the sun had stung me with earlier, and although I had been drinking water, I was most likely dehydrated. I sipped my now hot water and waited for the pounding to subside. I heard the trees rustle and waited eagerly for a cool breeze, only to be smacked instead by a wave of heat, hotter than the air in the shade. I winced slightly each time the waves rolled in, and began planning my funeral for sometime this summer in Cairo, as I know it will only get hotter. There were a few moments where I wondered what had possessed me to move further south in the summer, but quickly concluded that the experience would be good for me and hopefully thin my blood a little.
When the bus finally pulled up I got on and prepared myself for the 7 hour ride, and ascended into the cool, air-conditioned bus. I have a lot of friends I haven’t seen in a while, a lot of best friends I haven’t seen in 8 months, so the prospect of getting to talk to and see one of them gave me an extra burst of positivity as I stared out the window at the shadows of the Sinai mountains. When the bus rolled up I got out and sat down with my bags, politely refusing help with my bags as I was in “I’m a strong woman, I can do it myself thank-you-very-much mode.” That mode quickly disappeared as soon as I was greeted by Bata and Hoss who quickly scooped up my bags and put them in the car. Driving through Cairo again filled me with a strange concoction of feelings and thoughts which swam around in my head circling like sharks about to feed. It’s been two weeks almost, and those feelings have much subsided.

I am currently living with Bata’s mom, Eman, who is an incredibly sweet and wonderful woman. She likes the company, and I have quickly felt right at home with her. The commute to work is tiresome: 45 minutes to an hour on crowded public transportation, but the area I live in is quiet and safe. The only real downside, besides the commute is that I can’t host events at my house, and getting back late at night can be tricky if I don’t have a friend with a car around. So far I’ve been lucky to always have a friend with a car to take me back at least part of the way. On the other hand, new friends from work have already generously offered up their places as crash pads, should I ever not be able to get home. We’ll see how it all pans out.
As previously stated I’ve been here nearly two weeks now. On the one hand, time has flown by and I haven’t been bored for a second; on the other hand it feels like I have been here for ages because I’ve so quickly adjusted to life here. No doubt I miss my friends and family in both Palestine and America, but at the same time, I feel very much at home here in Cairo for now. You know me though—I can’t seem to stay in the same place for all that long. I never fully unpacked in Palestine. I haven’t fully unpacked here. I think for me fully unpacking is a sign of commitment; commitment to a flat, a city, a country. Apparently that kind of marginal commitment is something I’m just not ready for. I’m interested to see if Cairo transcends the pattern or ends up another notch on my suitcase.

My internship is incredibly interesting and intense. Last week was training for 4 hours a day in the morning. It was by far the most I had sat still consecutively in about a year; since I graduated university. I have since conducted two solo intake interviews and my first follow up interview. I am currently handling three resettlement cases, and despite my previous knowledge that survivors of such unsettling circumstances would have shocking stories, nothing could have prepared me for the distress and desperation flowing through their words. Having to ask the hard questions and coax clients into revealing gruesome details of their past and current sufferings to the point where they break down into tears is something no amount of preparation can account for. A now single mother breaks down and tells me she has nothing, no way to care for her children, is one step away from camping out on the UNHCR steps because of imminent eviction, and all I can do is tell her that I will do my best in submitting her claim to UNHCR but ultimately it’s in their hands and the process takes months to years. Remind me to never complain about my life again. And I’ve only conducted three interviews thus far.

I’ll start teaching English classes at a center in a week or two to earn a little pocket money. The woman who organizes the classes is incredibly nice. I wasn’t looking forward to teaching again so soon, but with curriculum, materials and a potentially conversational-based class, I’m not so opposed.

On the other hand I’m having a blast here in Cairo. There are great evening venues, like the Jazz club where my friend Ahmad’s band played the other night. A bunch of my coworkers and I went and had a great time. When I’m not out experiencing live music or the like, I’m hanging out with new and old friends at cafes, on the street or in Cairo traffic. I miss Palestine, but I’m not going to lie; right now I’m really happy to be in Cairo. I just wish a certain group of ex-pats were here with me too (shout out to ol’ Nablus crew).