Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Eighteen Days: A Revolution, Surrealism and Jetlag

Sitting back here in Alexandria trying to fend off the jetlag that seems to have engulfed me and taken over my entire being, I am trying to sort out the past three weeks to see if I can capture what has been going on both in Egypt and in Washington, DC. A daunting task, I’m afraid, but I am willing to give it a whirl.

After my last posting, I spent another week in our nation’s capital where I was wined and dined by friends from as far back as my high school days. I would have gained several pounds had I not been walking everywhere and taking the Metro across the city. As each of my friends asked me about how things had been in Egypt and how I felt being back in the States, the only word that I could come up with consistently was “surreal”. Perhaps it was the jetlag again, or maybe it was just the juxtaposition of leaving a world in chaos and arriving in a world of order. I think it struck me most one evening when I was walking home from the Metro up a DC street and I realized that it was quiet…almost deathly quiet. No honking horns, no prayers from a minaret, no people yelling, no dogs barking or cats yowling, no babies crying, no vendors seeking used goods, no trams rattling or train whistles blowing or any of the constant background noise that is Egypt. In fact, there was virtually no noise at all except the heels of my boots on the concrete sidewalk. And why would there be? It was 10 pm on a weeknight, and everyone was safe and snug in the house settling down for the night. I now know how Dorothy felt-- I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Adding to the surreal nature of the experience was the sense that I had been here before, but in a very different context. I used to live in DC and I pride myself in knowing all the Metro stops (except those in Maryland, which don’t count), how to stand to the right on the escalators, how to use a Metro card, that the Mall is not where you shop and that you really need to add NW or NE to an address if you want to get to the right place. And it’s not the expat repatriation thing. I have visited DC several times from my homes abroad and experienced what it feels like to have this town not seem quite like home anymore. But never have I felt so out of place and so profoundly dazed by being in the US. Perhaps it was because this was an unplanned trip, somewhat hurriedly put together? Was it because of the underlying uncertainly of what was going to happen to Egypt? Was it simply that the differences between my life in Egypt and my life in DC are so much further apart on any number of levels that I couldn’t reconcile them in such a sort amount of time. Or, is it just that I was so jetlagged that I never found my chi? Probably a combination of all of the above.

So, while Hosni Mubarak was playing a game of political “chicken” with the people of Egypt, I stayed dazed and confused in DC reading three newspapers each day (Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal) and checking the live feeds from Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN, trying to make sense out of this revolution. I’m not sure I have been successful on that front, and as everyone knows, the initial thrill of removing an unresponsive, abusive leader is only the first step. In talking with my students here in Alexandria, the sense of euphoria is still with them and they are rightfully proud of this youth-generated, social network supported revolution. However, they are not so good at coming up with what the next steps will or should be and have difficulty imagining how things will be different. While many of the newspapers articulated the events of the past few weeks as the “birth of democracy” I am reminded that birth is a very difficult, painful and messy process and most of us would do well to stay in the waiting room smoking a cigar until it arrives…and hope that there are no major complications.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Standing on the Shifting Sand

What a difference a day makes. On Friday, January 28, I was sitting in the Hague, drinking a double espresso and thinking just how clean, organized and orderly Europe was. By Saturday, I was sitting in the middle of a firestorm as the streets of Alexandria and Cairo erupted in riots over the recalcitrant Hosnai Mubarak and his government’s failure to resolve the problems of Egypt. On Tuesday, I was evacuated from Alexandria to Washington, DC, via Prague and Reykjavik and by Thursday I had walked from the US Capital to the Lincoln Memorial, bought a local cell phone, an ITouch, and had a glass of really lovely California Chardonnay. The surreal nature of the past week is only now catching up to me, so this posting may or may not be the definitive version of events. But it is the best I can do right now.

Who knew that the people of Egypt would finally boil over? But talk about a slow burn! For those of you who remember, Mubarak came into power in 1981 (the year I graduated from college!) when Anwar Sadat was assassinated. Keep in mind, Mubarak was not elected by the people of Egypt; he was appointed as Vice President of Egypt by Sadat in 1975. He was “elected” president on three occasions where he ran unopposed and one in which he had his closest rival jailed after the fact. So he has effectively managed to hang on to absolute power in a “democratic” country for nearly 30 years without ever being freely and fairly elected. During that time, he has strengthened the police power, legalized censorship, suspended constitutional rights, been accused of all manner of corruption, and, not surprisingly, survived six assassination attempts. In addition, the economic status of many Egyptians has deteriorated at a time when food prices are soaring and unemployment for Egyptian youth is staggeringly high. It's no wonder that, to paraphrase a 1980’s movie mantra“they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore!”

So the protesters took to the streets while looters, who always seem to crawl out of the dark corners of society, created havoc in Cairo, Alexandria and the Sinai Penninsula. It was the looters and the potential for armed conflict that had me the most disconcerted in Alexandria. Since no one trusted the police (too corrupt, too brutal), groups of men would go out on the streets with bats, clubs and kitchen knives as a sort of vigilante neighborhood watch to make sure no one looted their businesses or broke into their homes. On my school campus, we had members of our staff running around looking for bottles , baseball bats and golf clubs to use as weapons. There was a major altercation out in front of our campus gate, during which warning gunshots were fired to stave off potential looters. We were safe for the most part because our neighbors were protecting the school. Still, when the offer came for us to take a charter plane to the US, most of us decided that it would be better to be in the US saying how we really didn’t need to leave than to be sitting in Alexandria saying how we really should have gone.

End in all, I have a great deal o faith in the people of Egypt. They are good, kind and intelligent people who will settle down and make some necessary changes in the government. However, the sooner Mubarak gives up the ghost and lets loose the reins of power, the more likely that scenario becomes. Even now, it seems that the safety concerns are decreasing and I fully expect to be back in Alexandria teaching in a week or so. But not before I have a few more really great cups of coffee, some pork products and a few more glasses of California wine. Inshallah.