Margins, islands, and homes

I recently moved from downtown to Zamalek, which feels increasingly like an island playground/food court. Running errands, I elbow my way through crowds of preppy young people standing around in brightly colored shorts, waiting for a table at a café or a burger from one of the half dozen new burger places. Past some designer jewelry and furniture stores, I am waiting to cross a busy intersection when a woman sitting on the sidewalk and begging for money grabs onto my leg, pleading with me for change.

Anywhere else in the world this might alarm me; instead all I feel is a deep shame. Because all I can do is give a few pounds to this woman whose baby is crawling over her shoulder, his small face smudged with dirt, in an almost unbearably typified scene. Because I know that afterwards I will go and buy overpriced food and sit at my overpriced laptop and go about my day.

Cairo does this to me all the time; it hits me with my own privilege, constantly reminding me of how big the city’s cracks are, and how many people live in them. It’s an experience I recall having as far back as childhood visits to the city.

My recent apartment move brings up memories of my first move to Cairo, more than ten years ago now. Seventeen and about to start university, I moved into the student dorms on Maraashly Street. My university experience would be turbulent, as I pushed against my family and the restrictions of social conservatism, and struggled to find real engagement in a student body that seemed overwhelmingly vapid to me. In both areas, I reacted by distancing myself, dismissing entire groups of people and situations, convinced I had nothing to learn, nothing to gain. I thought I would just have to operate according to my own code, owing nothing to anyone outside of my immediate inner circle.

Despite this very adolescent self-insulation, I fell in love with Cairo, distinctly and unmistakably. Eventually I grew up a little and opened up to the world around me. The city charmed me with its vastness, its intimacy, and with how it could sometimes be so forthcoming and revealing, and at the same time, mean none of what it reveals.

Throughout, however, there was a lingering, mostly peripheral sensation that I did not belong here. Part of this has to do with possessing a female body; this in itself means that just being on the street is always some kind of battle, let alone being able to feel any inclusion in or ownership over it. But that is a whole other topic for a whole other post, career, or lifetime. Beyond femaleness, I had grown up elsewhere, my first language was English, and, importantly for many: I had another passport. I could leave at any time and go to any place that I wanted. I think this gives the impression that one has less at stake in a place, and cares less about it.

To say that the revolution removed this unease would be inaccurate. I think what it did was show me how the structures of political and cultural oppression that ran the country – the security state, patriarchy, deep classism, religious prejudice, racism, economic corruption – marginalized everyone in one way or other. The very concept of citizenship was legally and philosophically absent.

It also showed me communities of people who were working for everyone’s inclusion, who had opened up their lives to unknown change, and this made me less afraid to do the same. It showed me how impossible it was to be away from moments of transformation here, or even just moments of loss.

There was a lot of loss this past summer. There is a new struggle against marginalization, as we are all hounded by messages that Egypt is a homogenous, male, strong state and anyone who says otherwise is a traitor. It’s a struggle not to feel muted by ubiquitous expressions of support for the generals. But then I remember that people don’t always mean what they say, and that we are quite skilled at performing. And this one is an easy jig, with a catchy song to go along with it. More deeply, I think that supporting the military allows people to see Egypt the way they always wanted to: strong, united, and robust. Simultaneously, they can blame the Muslim Brotherhood for everything that they hate about our reality: corruption, poverty, bankruptcy, violence. It is a perfect delusion, and one that cannot last long past the honeymoon.

These days I walk around the island, between its begging women and the iPhones and hormones of its teenagers, and I think about choices. Choice of neighborhood, choice of city. It mostly feels like I am here by default  – how could I not be? Where else would I be? But the truth is I have chosen Cairo over and over again. I’ve learned not to care whether it would choose me, sincerity not being a strong quality of any megalopolis. It is home, from whatever margin. 

Advertisements

Dispatches

This is the third time I’ve tried to write something about these nightmarish days in Egypt. The words that come out have been too hollow and disconnected to share, but I’m trying again. I don’t have a laser-sharp analysis to provide, and I’m certainly not going to take a wild stab at predicting what will happen. My physical engagement with politics has been restricted to my own couch, or friends’, ever since June 30, when I half-heartedly went out to an anti-MB, anti-military rule march.

Egypt has given me a life-changing political education in the last two and a half years. When the revolution started I was personally burnt out, and so numbed by the necrosis that characterized political life in the last years of Mubarak that it was not until January 28th that I fully believed that people could change the country. My cynicism was deep and heavy to budge, but it evaporated over the course of those weeks and I’ve kept it sternly in check ever since; choosing, every time things got violent or dispirited or stagnant, to see the possibilities people were working for all around me.

It’s hard, now, not to feel like something has been stolen from me. As I write this, I am deeply aware of how many others have had the much more devastating  loss, the theft, of a loved one or a limb.

The past days have left me with a feeling of uselessness and alienation. I condemn both the Brotherhood and the security forces in their inter-locking cycle of violence and lies. There is no place for me in the street, or in a national conversation determined to start and end with chauvinistic nationalism. So I stay in and watch the city descend into silence, the streets emptying of life as military curfew approaches. On days like yesterday, I can hear gunshots, explosions, and the occasional surreal chants. Friends come and go, and we oscillate between collective media monitoring and outbursts of humor and distraction. So many have seen gruesome death, literally counting bodies and wading through blood in the course of their jobs. I wonder what this does to us, to what we know.

This is not the first time the state has pushed us to the edge, to where we can see the possibility and feel the fear of continuous violence and chaos. Churches are left to be attacked, buildings to burn, and brute force is being used in part, I believe, to provoke. It’s not the first time, but it might be the bloodiest and the scariest – and the one receiving the loudest applause.

Image

(Inverted eagles, symbols of Egyptian nationalism, on a public wall in downtown Cairo). 

I do not know how we will move forward from here, or when we will stop flaunting our cruelty as a source of pride. How will the hundreds of families that bury their dead ever find peace in a country whose authorities bully them into accepting suicide as the official cause of death before releasing the body? Whose media refuses to call those they lost anything but terrorists? Elements of the Brotherhood are using terror, and its leadership is criminal; but it is not a monolith, and innocent people have surely been killed by the army’s own terrorism.

In the meantime, I will venture out into the quiet streets, in search of glimpses of the city I first fell in love with.

Egypt to Palestine

I am visiting Palestine for the first time. Coming here is something I’ve wanted to do since reading about the conflict and having Palestinian friends snapped me into some form of political consciousness as a teenager.

I’ve only been here a couple of weeks and had thought that I wouldn’t dare to write about something so politically and personally meaningful as the occupation after such a short time. What I didn’t know was that every aspect of life, every significant conversation, work of art, transaction or observation that is lived and felt is somehow tied to occupation. From the fruit you buy to the roads you drive on to where you can meet people.  I’d read this, people had told me, but I hadn’t fully absorbed it until I was able to be here.

Palestinians I meet express surprise that I am Egyptian. Very few Egyptians come here – they are not able to since there is no way to enter the West Bank without crossing the Israeli border, and Arabs are generally not allowed into Israel (by the Israeli government and their own).  Arabs are a noticeably absent demographic at large touristic and religious sites. The only reason I was able to cross the border is because I was accidentally born in the US, and became the only member of my family to acquire that blue passport. I played the role of a blithe, gum-chewing American tourist at the border to help balance my Arab features, and name.

Many people here say that they, or someone they know, have tried to travel to Egypt in the past year or two and were unable to enter. So Egyptians can’t come to Palestine, and Palestinians can’t go to Egypt.

Almost everyone I talk to asks about the situation in Egypt with genuine concern: كيف الأوضاع فى مصر؟    Is the country lost now that the Ikhwan are in power? Is there hope for the struggle against them? Are the Ikhwan able to go out and force their ways on people’s lifestyles?

On one of our first few nights here, a man in a bar asked if we thought that Palestine would be at the heart of the second, real, Arab revolution. This triggered more questions: Do Egyptians think about Palestine, do they connect the occupation of this land with their own struggle against cultural, political, and economic oppression? Isn’t our freedom inherently connected, as people in this region which is dealt with by governments and international brokers as a string of military investments, oil contracts, and power balances?

outside a bar in Ramallah

outside a bar in Ramallah: “we are hungry for freedom”

I’ve spoken to Palestinians who are still dedicated to liberation and whose activism, sometimes at the cost of their health, careers, and passports, cannot be dismissed. But there is a sense of resignation here; people say that nothing is happening, that nobody wants to fight. A shopkeeper in Ramallah (apparently the most depoliticized city in the West Bank) asked me how people in Egypt have the energy to go out and fight all the time, to protest, to deal with instability?

This all makes me aware of the advantages we have in our struggle, in Egypt. We have our mobility. Our security forces are often at odds with the ruling government. We have a population that is large, and that is still angry. Perhaps it’s also simply an issue of timing – the fight in Egypt is young, it is not one we have inherited from our parents or our grandparents. We can still dictate the narratives.  We have a plethora of frontlines, of causes, and while the problems might all share the same roots there is perhaps more traction to be gained from fighting a single cause in Egypt than here, where all roads lead to the dead-end of occupation. Of course this is not to say that there is no value for that kind of activism in Palestine, just that it might be easier in Egypt for issue-based action to have a broader impact or overlap with other initiatives.

So my friend and I speak positively of Egypt here, when we are asked. We tell people that the fight is ongoing, that the Ikhwan won’t last, that things can change and that people have a sense of this. We tell them that the Ikhwan cannot control Egypt the way Hamas tries to control Gaza; we are simply too many.  I thank people when they inevitably tell me they love Egypt. I tell them that we love Palestine, that I feel lucky to be here. And I think that rather than Palestine being at the center of the next widespread Arab struggle, as the man in the bar said, perhaps it is now Egypt’s turn.