issue 35: march - april 2003 

 | author bio

March 2003:
A Letter from Cairo

by Gretchen McCullough


The last time the United States bombed Iraq in December 1999, I was in Syria on R & R. from Lattakia, a provincial town on the Mediterranean coast, four hours from the country's capital, Damascus.
     A mob had stormed the inside of the Ambassador's House, smashing glass bookcases, ripping out the pages of precious books, and tossing furniture out the windows. Behind the iron door, Christine Crocker, the Ambassador's wife, had listened and waited. The minutes must have seemed like years as she wondered what would happen if they got into the safe room. The rampage suddenly stopped when the mob started going through family photographs.
     The Damascus Community School and the British Council had also been trashed. The demonstrations organized by the Syrian Baa'th Party had spun out of control: retaliation for the U.S. bombing of Iraq. Americans saw the CNN reel of a young Arab man climbing up the side of the Embassy and taking down the American flag.
     As my associates and I headed back to friend's flat in Damascus, not far from the Embassy, we just missed a crowd of protestors. A crumpled, burned American flag lay on the ground. Two men eyed us. But we hurried by and they said nothing. At that time, we had not heard about the Ambassador's House, the British Council and the Damascus Community School.

I now teach at the American University in Cairo, where demonstrations – of a less frightening nature – are nothing new. Students here, as in the United States, are encouraged to express their opinions. In the past two years, there have been many protests about the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and U.S. foreign policy. Day after day, the images of Israeli bulldozers destroying Palestinian homes, and pictures of dead Palestinian children on television and in the newspapers make people angry.

     On March 3, the students organized a "teach-in" to protest the projected war in Iraq. The students wanted to cancel classes for the entire day, but the administration agreed to cancel classes from 12-1:15. The students wrote: "As students, it is our responsibility to take action and to demand a world where an infringement on sovereignty by a superpower is unacceptable, where colonialism, imperialism, and market-driven policies do not precede, override, and cynically manipulate human rights." The purpose of the teach-in was to inform people about the Iraqi situation. Ferial Ghazoul, Professor of English said, "This combination of activism and pedagogy is most appropriate for an academic institution. It is in the best tradition of American universities' anti-war protests." However - among Egyptians as well as European, American, and Arab expatriates at the American University in Cairo - there is a great awareness of the inequities and injustices of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
      What is new is the threateningly large number of Egyptian government security trucks and human chains of riot police armed with billy clubs that besiege the campus each time there is a demonstration. (The demonstrations range from one hundred to two hundred people.) Campus gates are locked. Students and teachers are not allowed to enter. Two weeks ago, students were allowed to march single file through the street to the main campus, but not permitted to carry banners.
      One British colleague commented, "The atmosphere is becoming nastier. The security forces were hurling curses at the students."
      At the recent teach-in, inside the American University campus, students, professors, and staff voiced their opinions openly.
      Some of the banners read: "No to the Occupation of Palestine"; "No to the Invasion of Iraq"; "10,000,000 Non-Arabs Spoke on Feb. 15; When will one Arab Speak?"; "No Blood for Oil"; "Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil: Definition of Arabs."
      An Egyptian reporter who covered the teach-in said, "People are angry and frustrated. Not only with the U.S. They are also angry with the Egyptian government. One of the speakers pointed out that there are marches in Israel against the war in Iraq, but here people are not even allowed to march."
      People were still speaking on the mike at the teach-in as I picked through the crowd on my way to class. I needed to hand back their critical analyses of Understanding Arabs by Margaret Nydell. They had to get started on their rewrites.
      In the middle of our class discussion, a student from the teach-in knocked on the door.
      "Please cancel your classes and join us," she urged.
      "Soon," I said. Despite my sympathy for the protest, I didn't want to cancel class because we were pressed for time. There were many holidays in the spring semester.
      One of the students peeked through the blinds to look at the crowd, "Still going on."
      Another student said: "The protests won't do any good. They are going to bomb anyway."

"Bush is an embarrassment, especially for Americans living abroad. We feel he does not represent us. British expatriates are also critical of Tony Blair."

After September 11, like an ostrich, I ignored news for days at a time. Sooner or later, someone would tell me the bad news: Woman Suicide Bomber in Palestine. Volunteer Team in Israel Searches for Body Parts in Suicide Bombing. Daniel Pearl Kidnapped in Pakistan. U.S. Boosts Military Spending.
      But now I am taking a course, Arabic of the Media: no way to sneak away from the disturbing and the unpleasant. Mubarak warns of instability in the region. Mubarak visits other Arab leaders to talk about strikes against Iraq. Strikes imminent.
      "I don't know if I can take any more bad news," I told the Egyptian man behind the counter at the Semiramis bookshop.
      "A war for lazy people," he commented, rather elliptically.
      Did he mean Americans were lazy?
      If I responded, I would have the usual conversation that I have with Egyptians. The American government was not serious about the peace process in Israel. (I agree.) The American government had given Sharon the green light to do whatever he wanted. (I agree.) The Palestinians were being slaughtered. (I agree.) The American government was after oil in Iraq. (I agree.)
      Sometimes I just don't feel like dealing with the bellicosity of my own government. After September 11, I told taxi drivers I was British or German. Now, it looks like I'll have to say German, since Blair supports the war in Iraq. I'll have to divert casual talk to the pollution or traffic in Cairo, always genial topics for conversation.
      One of my students brought in Thomas Friedman's parody of a Bush letter: To All The Leaders of the Muslim World, November 27, 2002. Perfect for my lesson on fallacies.
      A student raised her hand. "There is a threat in the opening paragraph - no salutation."
      Another commented, "There is also a fallacy – ‘Us vs. Them’."
      For Bush, threats always come first, not diplomacy or any expression of goodwill.
I feel as helpless as many of the Egyptians I talk to. I am angry that the Bush administration couldn't care less about the UN, or the opposition to war of millions all over the world. An international human rights lawyer who teaches at the University noted: "Bush sees the Security Council as irrelevant if it disagrees with the U.S. position. It's an undercutting of the international legal order. The U.N. was established in part to stop 'acts of aggression'."
      I agree with Egyptian taxi drivers who say, "Bush Bad." When I lived in Egypt is the mid-80's, Egyptian taxi drivers used to say, "America Good. Jimmy Carter good." Because of the Camp David agreement in 1979, Egypt receives hefty aid yearly from the U.S. (Israel receives the most.) However, the feeling that the U.S. ignores Israel's abuse of human rights, and is not serious about the Palestinian issue is deeply resented.
      Bush is an embarrassment, especially for Americans living abroad. We feel he does not represent us. British expatriates are also critical of Tony Blair.
      A British colleague said, "It's a little absurd to see Tony Blair, standing next to a Christmas tree, telling us it's our Christian duty to bomb Iraqi children."
      The demonstrations in Egypt have grown larger in the last few weeks. Two weeks ago, there was one of 100,000 at Nasser City stadium. On March 6, Mubarak's party, the National Democratic Party, organized a demonstration, and the Arabic newspaper el-Ahram reported that one million people had attended.
      According to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights report on February 18, eighteen anti-Iraqi protestors were arrested after the smaller anti-Iraqi protests that have taken place around Cairo: at the Book Fair, el Sayeda Zenab, El Sayeda, El Azhar, the American Embassy and the Arab League building. Those protests were not organized by the government.
      The Egyptian Emergency Law, which was extended on February 23, 2003, gives the Egyptian government the right to maintain martial law. The "emergency state" has continued since the assassination of Anwar El Sadat in 1981. The executive branch justified the extension of the Emergency Law for two reasons: the current international situation and the problem of terrorism. The Emergency Law grants the Egyptian government the right to clamp down on peaceful assemblies, and allows for "wide powers of arrest."
      A professor at the university observed: "The façade is so obvious, and so shameful; a people's lawful right to expression is upheld only to the extent that they say what the government wants. And everyone knows this government is kept afloat by U.S. aid. Meanwhile the contempt it has for democracy and human rights is made perfectly clear by the backhanded way in which it shuttled through another three years of martial law."
      I am also wary about the motives of my own government.
      Like other American faculty, I receive daily e-mails from our Warden at the University, who forwards the e-mails from the State Department and the American Embassy in Cairo. For example, one e-mail reads: "Private Americans should remain vigilant with regard to their personal security and exercise caution. Attacks on places of worship and schools, and the murders of private citizens and other westerners, demonstrate that as security is increased at official U.S. facilities terrorists and their sympathizers will seek soft targets…"
      How many of the threats are real? Or, is fueling fear in its citizens part of the current administration's strategy for maintaining support for the WAR ON TERRORISM and the WAR ON IRAQ?
      Other practical advice from the State Department: Vary your routes. Should I float by the Embassy and check out how many security trucks are there, or go on the crowded Kasr el-Aini and choke on the exhaust from the thousands of cars that clog the road?
      We received an odd e-mail after Thanksgiving about an attack on the ambassador's car. The cobbled story read like a piece of bad creative writing: "A suspicious vehicle challenged the ambassador's motorcade in the Sinai. Later, when the motorcade stopped for gas in Ras Sudr, a member of the ambassador's security detail spotted the vehicle and discharged his weapon in an attempt to disable it when it tried to run him down. Other agents, seeing events unfold, also fired at the vehicle. No shots were fired at the ambassador or his party. The ambassador and his party were not injured. This incident appears to be criminal in nature."
      Meaning, not an Islamic group? Who was in the suspicious vehicle? How did they get so close? Was there a shootout between the ambassador's security detail and the suspicious vehicle? Did anyone die?
      I never read about the incident in the local newspaper.
      Other alarming news outside Egypt, but in the region, in the last few months: an American civil contractor was killed in Kuwait, his jeep sprayed with bullets; an AID administrator was assassinated outside his home in Jordan. Would it continue to be safe in Egypt?
      There is a buzz about evacuation plans. One anxious student asked me, "Will the American doctors leave?"
      The question that Egyptians and expatriates speculate about: can the Egyptian government maintain control?
      For every demonstration, there are disproportionate numbers of heavy green trucks, filled with riot police with billy clubs. They have dead-looking eyes.
I was in Cairo for the riots in 1986. I was working as a teacher for the Ramses College for Girls. Because of violence which erupted between the police and the army, all of Cairo was put under curfew. People rode on top of cars. Buses were stuffed. Many people were on foot. Helicopters roared overhead. One teacher ran through the hallways of the school, shouting, "We’re going to die!" My boss, Maryanna Bodie, an old mission hand who had been in Iran when it fell, galvanized all of the volunteer teachers into action: calming screaming children, filling bathtubs with water, buying bananas and tinned food, answering phones. Later that afternoon, I stood on the balcony and counted the tanks that rumbled down an empty Ramses Street. It didn't look good. However, the Egyptian army regained control in a few days.
      The doormen in my apartment building are also upset about the possibility of a war in Iraq, but it has not spoiled their friendliness towards me.
      I usually practice my Arabic with Mohannet, one of the doormen, who is jolly. He forgives my mistakes.
      "The U.S. government is bad. Not the American people. We like the American people," Mohannet told me, as I lingered in the foyer.
      But wasn't a democracy supposed to be a government of the people?
      A month ago, I was at the Internet Café near my apartment. I was reading an e-mail about the American military plan to cremate American soldiers instead of shipping their bodies home.
      "The American government is insane," I exclaimed.
      Menna, the Egyptian receptionist, said, "All the news is depressing. Everywhere. Is it someone you know?"
      "Just delete the e-mails," she advised.
      Yet, you could not reduce everything to the personal, either. Soldiers and citizens who died in wars were people who were known and loved: this was the greatest damage of war. Buildings could be repaired.
      At the same time, there are hints that nasty politics might make for some nasty personal encounters on the street. More than a month ago, an American friend went to a more conservative section of Cairo to have a book rebound. She is a youthful fifty with blonde hair. She was wearing loose jeans, a long-sleeve shirt, and riding boots--dressed respectfully and fully covered. As she walked by, an old man in a gallebea spat on the ground.
      What is clear, though, is that Egyptians - like millions around the world – support peace and have demonstrated against the war in Iraq. Such an outpouring of visible opposition is proof that many are thinking about the suffering and misery of people that they do not know, and can never know.
      But as the Bush administration insists on ignoring the international community, will Egyptians on the street stop making distinctions between the American government and the American people?
      "Us vs. Them." Not a good place to be.

© Gretchen McCullough 2003

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author bio

Gretchen McCullough was raised in Harlingen, Texas. After graduating from Brown University in 1984, she taught in Egypt, Turkey, and Japan. She earned her M.F.A. from the University of Alabama in 1995, and was awarded a Teaching Fulbright to Syria from 1997-99. Excerpts of her novel The Cleopatra School have been published in The Texas Review and The Alaska Quarterly Review. Essays about Syria have appeared in Archipelago, Gloss, Iris, and National Public Radio. She teaches Composition and Playwriting at the American University in Cairo.


 tbr 35           March - April 2003 

-Short Fiction
      Alexei Sayle: Barcelona Plates
      Laura Hird: The Happening
      Barbara Lefcowitz: Medea, The Girl from Albania, The Walking Tree
  picks from back issues:
      Des Dillon: The Blue Hen
      Pedro Juan Gutiérrez: Buried in Shit
and Stars and Losers

      Gretchen McCullough: March 2003: Letter from Cairo

      Sue Thomas: Spivak

     with Scottish author Laura Hird

     All About Books
      Answers to last issue’s Graham Greene quiz

-Book Reviews
      Adios, Muchachos by Daniel Chavarría
     Strictly Casual: Fiction by Women on Love, edited by Amy Prior

-Special Links
      writers speak out on the issue of war

-Regular Features
      Book Reviews (all issues)
      TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

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