2016 Fellows Leisel Bogan and Katherine Tan with Mr M Shafik Gabr
28 October 2016
A Childhood Preoccupation with Egypt Lived
By Leisel Bogan
My first impression of the Egyptian Fellows, upon entering the small enclave in the bar of the hotel where they stood ready to greet us, was that our appearances were somewhat startling. Or maybe it was just my appearance. We were all jet-lagged and exhausted. Many of us hadn’t slept in several days. I had miscalculated my flight to NYC, and after arriving from California, spent seven hours on a cold pleather chair in the breezy lobby of a large, dilapidated airport, keeping watch over my bags while homeless men snoozed around me, a custodian methodically waxing one square foot of the grimy floor. I then boarded a plane, flew to Turkey, landed in Istanbul as the first pastel shades of dawn creased the dark horizon, and then sat for a few hours in another waiting room before boarding the flight to Egypt. As we flew over the Mediterranean, I leaned in to the drafty window, trying see the coastline. I had dreamed of visiting the country since I was a child. I was fascinated by it—not because I knew the stories and movies of Moses, Joseph, Cleopatra and the Holy Family, but because of the tombs, mummies and most importantly, the female Pharoah. Female leaders fascinated me, and Hatshepsut, dressing as a man in order to do the job, even to the point of wearing a beard, was the most captivating of all.
I thought about my childhood preoccupation with the country as I looked down at the pale perimeter of Egypt’s coastline slowly coming into view. I searched the geometry of the agricultural landscape for any sign of the Pyramids, other tombs, or perhaps the Sphinx. I saw nothing but checkered fields and large swaths of desert. When we landed, I was struck by the vacancy: only nine planes were parked in the airport.
The ground beyond the tarmac was the color of rust, and the buildings we passed en route to the city took on a similar hue. Cars did not congest the roads as they would a few days later when it wasn’t a holiday. Few people were outside. Something about the stillness reminded me of being in an urban, desert-like version the American South on a quiet, leisurely Sunday afternoon.
Operating on 50 hours without sleep, I, and my American counterparts, must have looked to the Egyptians nothing like our bio photos. One tiny Egyptian woman in the group greeted me in the lobby of the hotel with a quizzical expression, but gracious disposition. She would later tell me that when she learned I was her roommate, the other Egyptians were a little concerned for her.
“They kept texting me “Are you okay? Is she mean?” she laughed to me a few days later.
“I thought you were going to be really serious, too,” one American added, in her defense.
“So did I. You seemed very serious,” another chuckled.
Unlike my generally jovial personality, I had been serious on my way to Egypt, as well as during my first few hours there, and not just because I was starting off sleep deprived. In graduate school and in my career I had traveled globally, sometimes in proximity to conflicts and in very dangerous parts of the world. I was never apprehensive about traveling anywhere. But I had been inexplicably apprehensive about going to Egypt. That fear was absurdly flipped on its head when, during the U.S. portion of the Fellowship, the Egyptians arrived in Manhattan only moments before a bomb exploded a few blocks away from us.
I now think that my apprehension had to do with the fact that my visions of Egypt were not filled with the colorful imagery of childhood preoccupation, but were suspended in the year 2011, when violent scenes from Tahrir Square spread on the internet and television screens across the globe. The case of Lara Logan, a U.S. broadcast journalist who was brutally sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square, was seared in my mind. What I knew about modern Egypt also included: Mubarak’s imprisonment of his political rival, Ayman Nour in 2005, which caused protests and police killings; Secretary Rice’s account of imploring Mubarak to give his people a voice before they demanded it; the Bush Administration’s Extraordinary Rendition program; its social and economic struggles; the fact that Coptic Christian, Egyptians or course, had been beheaded in Libya. Most perplexing of the data points, though, was the 2011 Revolution and its outcome.
Many Americans welcomed and were excited by the Arab Spring, including when Egyptians began protesting against an authoritarian ruler. Despite the dismal history of revolutions, Americans love the idea of them. I suspect this is largely due to the fact that the United States was established through a revolution, and partially due to the romantic way revolutionaries are portrayed in films and in literature. But the United States is one of the few examples of a revolution not devolving into a power vacuum of chaos and bloodshed and then greater authoritarianism. Dr. Billington, the Soviet expert, historian and former Librarian of Congress wrote of revolutions and the ideology that spurs them:
“The heart of revolutionary faith, like any faith, is fire: ordinary material transformed into extraordinary form, quantities of warmth suddenly changing the quality of substance. If we do not know what fire is, we know what it does. It burns. It destroys life; but it also supports it as a source of heat, light, and—above all—fascination.”
The Arab spring began with fire, literally, and continues to be a source of fascination. After the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in a street to protest police cruelty and government corruption, several Egyptians followed suit, as did demonstrators in Mauritania and Algeria. In Egypt, at least in the U.S. media, the protestor’s motivations seemed clear at first—they wanted Mubarak out. But then the point of the protests became murkier— what did they want after Mubarak was gone? Did they want western-style democracy? Freedom? Greater economic opportunity? Something else? After the overthrow of Mubarak, the media began reporting that the military turned on the protestors. Some were rounded up, arrested, and tortured. The revolution that seemed so inspiring to Americans suddenly became very confusing. It became even more mystifying to many in the West who watched when Morsi, of the secretive Muslim Brotherhood, was elected into power.
By 2013, when Morsi was overthrown, I was still emailing with my friends about what was happening in Egypt, using familiar data points found in the media or economic reports, but having no actual context for understanding the events. None of us were clear on what, with all their different protests, Egyptians wanted.
Three years later, after ten days in Egypt, some of the darker pieces of what I knew about Egypt have now been filled-in with actual experiences, context, and with many other, brighter, data points:
I now know of the most famous actor in Egypt, and have heard him laugh in person. I know what Coptic Christians do with their leisure time, and what some of them value most. I know what a MENA city of 20 million people looks like. I know how a Muslim prayer shawl is worn. I also know that there is such a thing as a “Supreme Council of Culture”. I know that some women in Egypt choose to wear veils against their father’s wishes, yet also believe in women’s empowerment and reject the notion that to be devout women must be considered inferior to men. I know that you can go out at night in Cairo, as long as you have a throng of tall, protective, considerate young men looking out for you. I know that French fries in a falafel is an actual meal item. I know that there are some unbelievably large Russian men working on the Suez Canal, and that the towns surrounding it are peaceful and pretty. I now know that shisha is something you are supposed to inhale, and that beautiful veiled Muslim women enjoy it. I know how men and women typically get engaged to be married in the Middle East. I now know conspiracy theories pervade the public conversation about government, the world, and public life, and I have a better idea of why they are believed and sustained. I know that to many in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule of Egypt was an existential threat. To others, their treatment by the military in Rabaa was a grave tragedy and abuse of power, though perhaps only referred to obliquely. I know that the Minister of Tourism is incapable of answering a direct question. I know that Egypt’s military controls too much of its economy, and the country’s current political organization might possibly offer a Middle Eastern version of China’s economic “opening up” combined with social repression. I also know that the military prides itself on the fact that it is trying to improve human rights and democratic rule in the country. I know that the Egypt’s Jewish neighborhood does not have any Jewish people in it, but it does have lively people who handed me a beautiful baby to hold while taking pictures. I (sort of) now know how to do a Middle Eastern dance. Most importantly, however, I now know that there are 11 people in Egypt who are extraordinary. And because of them the ominous information that created my entire picture of Egypt since 2005, has been completely transformed.