Asmaa says hello

The look and feel of Cairo

Downtown appears as a rotting corpse of noble old buildings built in a riot of styles from pure Islamic Arabesque, to Italianate to spectacular Art Deco and on to the horrible ugliness of the
Nasser/Soviet modern. Parts of it look a bit like many U.S. inner city ghettos prior to gentrification. It is hard to find evidence that anything has been done to them is the past 40 years, rotting plaster everywhere, falling balconies, abandoned buildings in the heart of downtown. Who knows, perhaps as a result of the revolution it will get hip with Europeans scooping beautiful old flats for a pittance.

On the street level Cairo has a wonderful madhouse feel. The sidewalks in the busy areas are packed with street sellers. One man sells socks next to a woman selling bras from a cardboard box. Next door are youths selling t-shirts and newly minted flags and emblems of the revolution. At the bottom are the poor souls pushing packets of tissues in your hand hoping for a coin. The are many places where the sidewalk is so dense the only option is to walk right through traffic on the street.

One one block you can pass folks dressed in a rainbow of outfits. In the men you can see typical western garb, then the long native tunic. This can be in any shade till you see the dandy in a starched bright white one. The fundamentalist are recognizable by their skull caps and full beards. How that stays clean in Cairo I’ll never know. The men range from having nothing on their heads to turbans in colors and styles reflecting all of North Africa. For the women the range is from western garb with no scarf to stylish scarves on top of spiked healed shoes and tight jeans. Women in full black robes, gloves and the covered face veil were more rare in our part of town. I have been told that 30 years ago only 20% of the women were veiled, now over 80%. For some it’s a defense against sexual harassment, others a political statement against the west and others religiosity. The social psychologist in me is thinking it is also basic social pressure. One wears what allows one to fit in with the others.

In general the feel of Cairo women is that they have significant strength and dignity. My friends from Istanbul felt quite a difference from Turkish women. The thing that hit them the most was how out in public and vital to public life women were as compared to more homebound life for many in Turkey. No doubt there are wide differences I am not seeing.

The air is so bad that a local quipped that it if you smoke cigarettes at least you have a filter between you and the air. This is compounded by the near complete lack of green spaces or parks (save one beautiful one we visited that you had to pay to get into) to escape to. We spoke to one youth who said he feels terrible when he goes home to the quiet suburbs. He craves the noise and constant human contact. The heart surely beats faster in Cairo.

We only drove through the rings of slums never getting the time we wished to explore them. We wanted to go to a whole community of garbage workers. The buildings in the slums go up cheap, fast and incredibly dense.

We never did get out to the outer ring of new suburbs where the rich live in gated communities carved out of the desert. These were built in crooked deals with the military which owns all public lands. It all goes by the name of crony capitalism.

The last time I saw this density amidst poverty was in Saigon. In Asia there has arisen cultural norms of suppressing public anger displays to grease social cohesion. Jerome Kagan, the famed temperament researcher has gone so far as to say that Asian children have evolved to have slower responding fear/arousal systems. Egyptians will tell you they are on average quite open to emotional display including anger. We saw a number of public dustups, most often beggars or shoe shine kids being run off by the waiters with related screaming. In general the surrounding folks move in to restrain the two combatants.

One would think this level of constant stress (trying to get by on $2 a day) would create interpersonal aggression and brutality as we see in many hyper dense urban environments. Time and time again we were amazed at the level of kindness and the matter of fact going about one’s business without that aggression. How this combination of stressors can still produce a kind and gentle people on average remains a bit of a mystery to me.

As we were driving through Alexandria we are faced with a car heading straight at us. I ask my friend Mostafa how he managed to stay sane while driving. He said the trick is to expect the mad driving. This frees him from the road rage that comes with an expectation that the others should drive as you wish them to. Because you expect it, you can accept it. When the frustration starts to build in you, you can let it go. It was a sensation that began to grow on me the longer I was there. When you are stuck in traffic, your cab driver is both lost and not understanding the bad directions you are giving him, your late for your meeting, you don’t know if you will make it at all ……… just let it go. Allah must have been looking out for us because we finally did make it to wherever we were going.

Here is where I wish I could time travel back to Tahrir in the heady days after Jan. 28th. Take all I have said about people and density and super concentrate it by packing a million people into one intersection and have a bunch of them camping out for 10 days. Filth, cold, noise, little sleep, constant danger of attack and what did it produce – paradise ! The verdict from all who were there was it was the greatest of times for them and the nation. An explosion of creativity, organizations, sharing, heroism and commonality with your neighbor no matter from where they came producing pure joy. An instant gift economy sprung up providing free everything from food and medical treatment to haircuts. The last time I saw that was at Burning Man in the desert in Nevada. But Burning Man has no purpose beyond a massive party. Tahrir had the critical ingredient that only comes along rarely in history – hope born of thirty years of longing combined with a sense that this is the critical moment to act (talk about living in the present !). And their collective action won a great victory.

This is why I referred to the revolution as the Stanford prison experiment in reverse in my first blog. The lifting of the police state created a rapid and profound shift in behavior. In psychology the power of an experiment is a function of the number of subjects. In the Stanford case it was about 30 and never repeated. Here the number of subjects is in the millions and it is being repeated with significant variations throughout the Middle East. The biggest question that remains is how long these changes will last. Were they just a temporary effects of extraordinary circumstances for a fundamental shift in the mindset of a population ? Perhaps only time will tell. Cairenes are said to be cueing up in lines for the first time.

Pyramids instead of textile workers

Thursday was to be the day to fill in the biggest void of the trip, the chance to talk to workers on the job. We had a contact in the giant Mahalla textile mill (25,000 workers) an hour outside of Cairo. We wait and wait for our translator Ahmed. Finally he calls “feeling too sick” in what sounded suspiciously like a hangover.

Not to be deterred we head to the bus station to try it on our own. We must be in the wrong place I think. No busses that say Mahalla on them. We are told to take a shared cab or a jitney. David starts saying “Mahalla ?” to the various drivers. Arabic is a bit like Chinese where you can have the right word and the wrong tonality and miss it entirely. My memory begins to flood me with horrible trips in third world jitneys where the driver says yes, you hop in, you may leave an hour later and he may or may not be going where you are going at all. Meanwhile you are crunched in a sardine can in Cairo traffic. I convince David to give it up and head to the pyramids instead.

The pyramids of Giza are no longer set in a picturesque beautiful desert. The last of the seven wonders of the world still standing sits a few hundred yards from the sprawl of Cairo. As one the top tourist attraction in the world I am expecting big signs that point to an entrance, perhaps a visitor’s center (how about a Pharaohland amusement park?) and blocks of tourist schlock shops as we get closer. Instead it is a dusty little burb with horses and camels wandering the streets. Pass through entrance, give the woman selling tickets ten dollars and suddenly your staring down the Sphinx’s rather large face. Perhaps there is a beauty to it being so little distorted by development. In the past the police tried to keep the hordes of camel drivers, guides, trinket sellers and hustlers at bay. With the collapse of the police they now rule the place. My strategy when approached was to just keep looking ahead and pretend I was mute. Part of my lack of friendliness came from the fact that the camels and horses that were used for the brutal February 3rd attack on Tahrir came from here. They were desperate from the loss of their livelihood with the exit of tourists.

If you put all of that aside you can lean right on the great pyramid of Giza while staring up at a pile of 2,300,000 stones. It is mind boggling to see each row of two ton stones laid dead straight horizontally and at a perfect diagonal all the way up. This engineering marvel was done 4,500 years ago with what some are now saying was free labor. The new theory is it was not slaves but farmers making the best of the three months when their lands were inundated with the annual flooding of the Nile. There’s no end to theories about aliens building them.

No Asmaa ?

That night brings more bad news. Our flight home has been cancelled, “due to the political situation”. We have to reroute on a flight that leaves on Friday when we had hoped to catch Asmaa. A $60 phone call fixes that. We hang our hopes on the e mail from her handler that we can get time with her after a meeting in a Al Alhazar Park from 2-5.

The morning starts with a visit to a demonstration of media workers in front of the state TV building against new laws banning some strikes and demonstrations. This being the Friday morning prayer time the whole demonstration takes a break at noon and marches to the nearest open air mosque. This consists of a street temporarily covered with mats and a sound system. We take it as a chance to skip out for our next meeting.

Al Alhazar park takes some getting used to. It is the first time in two weeks I am standing on grass and there is no one beeping at me. Peace and quiet on a spectacular hill in central Cairo. Families and lovers are picnicking in circles everywhere. After an hour of aimless wandering we spot two women with cameras looking like they have serious business to attend to. “You don’t happen to be going to the meeting with Asmaa ?” I ask. “Follow us” they say.

I can’t quite believe it. A month ago I am seeing her on a Youtube in my apartment in Portland and here we are shaking her hand as she invites us to sit down for the meeting. She has a radiant smile and an intensely calm presence. About 60 young Cairenes are sitting in a circle talking intensely for two and half hours. We are filming without the slightest idea what they are talking about. What we can see is intense interest in each others’ ideas and no problem sharing the speaking time despite a few that go on and on. Feels exactly like any meeting of people with a mission in the U.S. only a bit more animated. . People will answer their cells, even get on line and get distracted about on par with folks back home. We later hear that they were having a general discussion of where to go next with the movement. They spoke of how to deal with the media and how to overcome the problem of communication with the majority of Egyptians who live outside of the major cities who are more under the sway of the Islamic church.

People get up, now’s our chance. We move in. My third question is about women (who had played a major role in the meeting) and the revolution. Being the perfect busy diplomat she pulls over the most outspoken feminist to answer my question and she is off to other business.

We celebrate our victory with Stella beers at to the local activist expat watering hole. The place is mobbed with hip activists and folks from all over the world who came to Cairo as we did wanting to learn from their experience. An Australian joins us along with his Egyptian journalist friend. We proudly tell them of our encounter with Asmaa. The journalist is not impressed. He thinks she was put up as a spokesperson by the media. That automatically can get anyone in trouble with activists. The reasons are complex. The media is all state owned and universally despised. This is supposed to be a leaderless revolution. So if you are asked to be on TV no matter what you say there is a great danger of suspicion, envy and a “Who are you to speak for us ?” thrown at you.

One more post coming

I am back in Portland now gearing up for the spring semester. I will post one more time with a more extended discussion of where things seem to be going now and into the future in Egypt.

As I said in the first blog, for political analysis you can get better writing from places like Al Jazeera and Democracy Now.

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One Response to Asmaa says hello

  1. Carl Finamore says:

    Hi John & David,

    Very much appreciate your vivid descriptions which transported me right back to the streets of Cairo.

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