Letter from Cairo
I have just returned to Cairo from a week in Prague. Visited 14th century castles. Learned about Charles IV. Ate pork, dumplings, and sausages, and other wicked, delectable things. Swigged dark beer out of a stein in a public park. Attended fine string quartet concerts in still, elegant churches. Felt far from crashing demonstrations, security and commando trucks, soldiers with shields and batons, and unpleasant conversations with taxi drivers and waiters. Casual conversation had gotten far beyond "Bush Bad." No, I was not happy about the U.S. military in Iraq. No, I was not happy about the fall of Baghdad. No, I was not happy to see pictures of maimed children and wailing women in front of coffins on the television. (After my experience in Syria, though, I could imagine the repression the Iraqis must have suffered under Saddam Hussein's rule.) Even my own neighborhood, Garden City, was blocked off with cordons of soldiers and commando trucks. More and more, I had withdrawn to my apartment. I felt depressed.
In Prague, there were a few moments of tight silence when I admitted to Europeans that I was American. Determined to have fun, I ignored the feeling. I wandered down cobbled streets. Bought myself a pair of old-fashioned garnet earrings. Browsed through bookstores and picked up a new supply of books and CDs.
I signed up for day trips to villages outside of Prague. In Kutna Hora, St. Barbara's, the Gothic cathedral with towering buttresses perched on a hill, had a spectacular view. (The miners from the town had donated the money for the cathedral. Many of the murals inside the church involved mining.) But stranger still than a cathedral with mining murals, was the ossuary in Sedlac, festooned with thousands of human bones. Skull-and-crossbone chandeliers. Bone bells. Bone crests. Bone crosses. Bone chalices. The bones of forty thousand people, stacked ingeniously into pyramids in three separate corners of the church. Who were they?
Victims of the bubonic plague of the 14th and 15th century Hussite Wars, who were originally buried in mass graves next to the church. This site was considered sacred, because the 13th century Abbot Jindrich had brought back earth from Jerusaleum's Golgotha, and scattered it in the graveyard. After being destroyed by the Hussites in 1421, the church was restored in the17th century. (The Czech Hussites, who were Protestant were warring against the German Catholic Church.) Only in 1870, were the bones brought into the church, and used for decoration by Frantisek Rint, a former woodcarver. He had even written his signature with femurs.
The tour guide had almost sneaked out of showing it to us, but an American lady, Deborah, who worked for the IRS, asked, "What about the bone church?"
He was counting on our ignorance.
After we wolfed down a greasy sausage for lunch, he had the driver swing us by the ossuary.
"Fifteen minutes," he said, as if we were children.
The children who were visiting tittered in the foyer. The bone decoration inside the church was Halloween history.
There were not many American tourists in Prague, but I met a few adventurous strays on the tour to Kutna Hora. I enjoyed their free, easy manner.
"Did people at home give you a hard time about travelling now?" I asked one.
Of course, the Czech Republic was nowhere near Iraq. Did anyone ever look at a map?
"Yeah, they told me to cancel. I said, 'I see dead bodies in crack houses every day. What do I have to be afraid of?"
She was a New York cop.
The other Americans I met on the bus all agreed the United States would never be the same after September 11. Had this sentiment been repeated so often in the media that it had fossilized into a cliché? Other countries had been invaded and attacked, and they had recovered. Czechoslovakia had been invaded by the Germans and the Russians.
Now that I have returned to Cairo, the security trucks have vanished. The front gate is open at the American University in Cairo. No officers lounging in front of the gates, drinking their tea, sizing you up as you go past. No hissing or catcalls or leers from the soldiers at the barred windows, pinned up all day in heavy trucks the color of dark forests. All gone. Only Latin America street, the street in front of the Embassy, is still blocked off, though minimally.
I held office hours for students for guidance on their research papers. A few showed: the earnest, the conscientious, the lost. (The lazy never showed, until too late.)
Gregor, an Armenian Egyptian student arrived with a passel of books under his arm. I had tried to steer him away from time travel before the holiday, but he was determined.
"It's flaky. A crank theory. What can you prove? Why don't you do something else?"
I scrolled down to the end of my e-mail. The Adham Center for Broadcasting and Journalism at AUC had published a journal on the media coverage of Iraq.
"What about this? The media's coverage of the war on Iraq. There are plenty of sources."
"I don't want to do politics," he said. His face furrowed into a frown. Really, how could I blame him? I had retreated to Prague to escape from Middle Eastern politics! (Although in fact, I had not escaped from history and politics.)
I directed him down the hall to my British colleagues, Charles and Chris, who always have ideas. Maybe they could help.
Chris, who had his feet on the desk, said, "Time travel is really fiction."
Gregor did not look convinced.
Casting around for an idea, I said, "What about something on your Armenian roots?"
Gregor's great-great-grandfather had fled to Egypt. His father had a business in textiles.
Chris, who is fluent in Turkish, and a scholar of art history, picked up the cue.
"What about how the Turks are trying to deny the Armenian genocide? Now that is debatable. They are destroying Armenian monuments in Eastern Turkey, except of course, the showplaces like Ani."
Gregor was adamant that he wouldnt write about politics. Did he mean someone else's politics?
He perked up. His intense, brown eyes were alert.
Charles piped up: "Of course, if there is time travel maybe there would not have been genocide."
While Charles was talking, Chris was reading about Iraqi torture chambers on the internet.
I said, "We have just about convinced him to write about the Armenian genocide. And you bring up time travel again!"
The day after I returned from Prague, Jozef, a Polish graduate student I had met in an Arabic class, called me. He was cat-sitting for some neighbors in my apartment building. He is only twenty-three, but is resourceful, emotionally mature, and has an impressive knowledge of history.
Jozef told me about his trip to Sinai with his girlfriend, Elena.
"I met an Israeli general on the beach," he said.
To escape from the nerve-wracking atmosphere in their own country, Israelis have come to Sinai, once a battlefield, as their holiday getaway. An article in the Cairo Times reported, "According to Egyptian and Israeli border officials, 15,000 to 21,000 Israelis crossed the border into Sinai during the Passover Holiday--something that hasn't happened since the start of the second intifada."
"The bedouins can't believe that an Israeli would speak fluent Arabic. They don't know the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews."
(Ashkenazis are from Europe and Russia; Sephardic from Africa, the Middle East and Iran.)
"The General knew every inch, every wadi, every dune of Sinai from the '67 war. But here's an interesting detail: in the '73 war, most of the generals were of Polish origin so they gave battle commands in Polish, not Hebrew; this confused the Egyptian Mukhbarat."
Jozef, the Polish Catholic, and the Israeli General, the Arab Jew from Iraq, chatted in Arabic: their common language.
An Egyptian political science professor noted, "The differences are political. Not ethnic." The Israeli general was an Arab ethnically.
For Chris, who teaches art history at AUC, I have brought back slides from the Jewish quarter in Prague. He had also wanted me to bring back slides from Poland.
"They have to be educated about Jewish history," I said. Many Egyptian students had latched onto the theory that there was no Holocaust. As much as I detested Sharon's government, I bristled at the anti-Jewish prejudices of my students, who often started a sentence in a political discussion with "The Jews in America" or "The Jews." They rarely made a distinction between American Jews or Israelis, much less the divisions within each. Most did not know any Jewish people (except for their American professors, who did not tell them they were Jewish) and they knew little or nothing about Jewish history.
For my current events in Arabic language class, I had chosen an article from the Al-Wafd, the opposition newspaper: America refuses conditions in Syria. May 3. Powell was insisting that Hezbollah be dissolved in Lebanon. Discussion of the "road map" in Palestine. He avoided discussing how long the U.S. would occupy Iraq.
Would the U.S. really be an honest broker between the Palestinians and Israelis? Would the cycle of violence ever stop? Would there ever be peace? The questions themselves had petrified. No one expected anything new, only the rhetoric of blame and more bad news. Political change requires courageous leadership and commitment.
There were only grisly stories of massacres, deaths of Palestinian and Israeli civilians, the razing of houses, shootouts, assassinations, and suicide bombers.
To keep up with current events in Iraq (it had been days since I had read anything), I read Robert Fisk's April 18 report on Iraq: The Americans couldnt care less about war crimes. Curfew in Baghdad. The empty torture chambers. Letting the war criminals go free. "President Bush promised that America was campaigning for human rights in Iraq, that the guilty, the war criminals, would be brought to trial. The 60 secret police headquarters in Baghdad are empty, even the three-square mile compound headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service. I have been to many of them. But there is no evidence that a single British or U.S. forensic officer has visited the sites to sift through the wealth of documents lying there or talk to the ex-prisoners returning to their former places of torment."
Why weren't they interested? Was the Bush administration's rhetoric about liberating Iraq a smokescreen for their interest in the oil fields, as many in the Middle East, and in the world, believed?
In my last writing assignment, the students were asked to compare the resignation letter of U.S. diplomat John Brady Kiesling and his interview on National Public Radio. In February Kiesling had resigned from his post as political counselor in Athens. He did so to protest the U.S. government's Iraqi policy. In a letter to Secretary of State, Colin Powell, Kiesling stated, "I have tried and failed to reconcile my conscience with my ability to represent the current U.S. administration."
One of my students, Yasmine, wrote in her paper: "As a U.S . diplomat Kiesling served as a representative for the United States in different countries for twenty years, this didn't prevent him from expressing his opinion if that was against his own country's opinion." In the margin, I wrote, "This is supposed to be the benefit of a democracy. Freedom of speech. As we are seeing, this right is affected during times of war. Recent attacks on journalists in Baghad. The attack on the Palestine Hotel."
What about the eroding of civil liberties, and state of 'war' in the United States since 9/ll? In her recent article in Archipelago, the editor, Katherine McNamara comments: "Will we desist from this course of aggression? And our domestic safety is to be secured by ever-growing secrecy of government, restriction of information, hiding of documents from public view, including increasing the difficulty of FOI Searches, classification of documents, and extending the length of time documents are left classified from public knowledge. Will our civil liberties continue being limited and reduced. Are we to live in a permanent state of 'war'? Have we the governed consented to this?"
For their fourth paper, my students begged me to be allowed to write on a non-political topic. Instead of "Media At Times of Conflict," they chose "The Fitness Revolution and Obesity." While I thought personal fitness important, the topic seemed small in comparison with the largeness of world events.
The local, too, had become epic.
On March 20, a colleague called me from main campus on her mobile around three o'clock. She had tried to have class, but they could hear shouting from the street. The students were frightened and wanted to go home. She went up on the roof to see what was going on. "Gretchen, the police don't have control. Waves of people are pushing forward, and then the police advance. Even the police are frightened. Some of them ran away and are hiding behind the trucks. I don't want to leave the building."
I looked out of the window from my office on the eighth floor. On the street in front of the Nile Hilton, I saw riot police with shields, running forward in formation. (The building was a few blocks away from Tahrir Square.)
There were very few people still on the corridor so late on a Thursday afternoon. Most had gone home. My boss, Falak, who had lived in war-time Beirut, was not easily rattled, but even she suggested, "Maybe we should all go home together." An Egyptian colleague drove us home, the long way, away from Kasr el-Aini, and dropped us at the back of Garden City. We walked the last few blocks.
I did not want to be caught up in a mob.
On Friday, March 21, this was what Chris saw and heard from his balcony downtown: "A huge crowd came surging down from the Lawyers Syndicate. They merged with a group coming from al-Azhar. They were chanting, 'Bush is the enemy of God. Mubarak is the enemy of God.' I heard shopkeepers pulling down their metal shutters. Shortly after, the police sealed off Talaat Harb so people couldn't get to Tahrir Square. The crowd was retreating down side streets and alleys. The police sealed those off, too. First, they used water cannons. Then, they started beating people with their batons. Next, they brought out the dogs and tear gas. I heard glass shattering. A few gunshots. This was the worst demonstration I'd ever seen. That night was sinister. The streets were completely empty except for the riot police running through them in formation. The only other people around were undercover spooks in cheap suits. They were carrying lead pipes and stopping anyone on the street. I.D.'s and then into the box. Arrested."
Apathy no longer exists in Egypt. Egyptians have found a voice. Chris observed, "This is a spin-off of the government's intimidation policy."
Every morning, there were security trucks in front of all the gates at AUC. The university felt like a military camp. A student cartoonist from The Caravan newspaper tried to make light of it: Three AUC girls walking by security trucks at AUC: "And yet another morning of humiliation by the eyes of 'Cairo Security.'"
One morning, I was suffering from a cold, and forced myself to go to the gym. Maybe that would change my psychological outlook. After a workout, I would read the newspaper and drink a fresh orange juice before I walked over to the university. While I was reading an article in the Tribune, the waiter pointed to the photograph of an American soldier, and asked, "What is he doing?"
"Praying," I answered. Probably better not to answer.
"Hmmph. Praying?" he said, contemptuously.
I called for the bill and left. Not a tourist in sight at the Corniche Café at the Semiramis.
The student newspaper The Caravan reported Low Turn-Out at Demonstrations in April.. One Egyptian professor commented: "AUC students are cooperating with U.S. interests." This was simply untrue: if the students were not coming, they were either discouraged or intimidated.
One student activist, Abu Laban was imprisoned for three weeks for his role in organizing student demonstrations at AUC. From an interview in The Caravan: "On Sat. March 21 at 2:30 a.m. Abu Laban found four soldiers, two with guns, in his home asking him to put on his clothes and go with them. His cell smelled of sewage, he said, and was infected with bugs.' He was told six times to get ready to go home. Later, the state security officer told him that he was not released because he is very charismatic and has a strong influence on students. (AUC was the first sector in Egypt to demonstrate against the American and British war on Iraq. The demonstration was broadcast on various local and international channels, which encouraged other sectors inside and outside Egypt to demonstrate.")
We did not know if the Famous for Fifteen Minutes Play festival (which I helped organize with two other colleagues) would be cancelled, but pretended it would go ahead, anyway. Many events in March and early April had been cancelled. On the day we had our run-through, April 11, the main campus was closed. All of Tahrir Square was cordoned off. Soldiers with shields stood at the ready in front of every street along the way.
The same day, we heard about a rumored coup d'etat the previous Tuesday, April 8.
True or not?
An Islamic website reported that twenty of "their brothers had been martyred in Katimaya, in a coup attempt against the American agent, Mubarak." An African newspaper also reported that the twenty had been "summarily assassinated on the spot."
An Egyptian friend corrected my interpretation of the anti-war demonstrations in Cairo from my last Letter from Cairo: "How can one explain the March 6 NDP organized rally? Public opinion is not a factor. It never was. It simply had everything to do with what really happened during the previous rally that you mentioned. The real turnout for that one exceeded 200,000. The Muslim Brotherhood swiftly and efficiently hijacked the organizational and logistical operation of the whole thing and managed to display such a show of force that it left the rest of the parties in the dust. In the past few months, they have clamped down on the Brothers so severely, forcing them to opt out of a couple of parliamentary (sure win) by-elections just to avoid massive arrests. The answer: let us show them we can muster (read: force/pay/threaten) a million people (read: gov. employees) to show up, not just 200,000."
So the NDP-sponsored demonstration on March 6 of 1 million people had more to do with the internal politics of Egypt than a genuine expression of public opinion against the war on Iraq. Government employees were told they had to attend.
Use of government force was less subtle on March 20. As Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, commented, "The crackdown many feared has come."
On March 24, Human Rights Watch reported: "Hundreds of anti-war activists and demonstrators have been detained in Cairo and some are being tortured by police. Hundreds more have been injured as security forces used water cannons, clubs, dogs, and even stones against demonstrators. Police have arrested leaders of movements protesting the Iraq war and Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories; journalists, professors, and students; and onlookers, as well as children as young as 15 years old. Some detainees reported hearing the use of electroshock torture in neighboring cells."
The atmosphere remained tense in Cairo until the fall of Baghdad.
An Egyptian friend observed: "If you think you are burned out, think about the Egyptians on the street. They were disappointed that Baghdad fell so easily. That burst their balloon."
An Egyptian editor of a local magazine added: "If I had to identify one thing as being the most significant event on everyone's mind since March 20th it would have to be the current events in Iraq. I think most people here and probably in the Middle East as a whole are still trying to figure out the long-term implications of what happened in Iraq. Liberation or occupation is still very much in debate and whether this is a template for the fate of other Middle Eastern countries."
If the Bush administration is interested in expanding empire, who will be next? Syria? Or, even Egypt?
Could such a threat be the reason why Dr. Saadeddin Ibrahim, the activist, was recently released after a third trial?
According to Human Rights Watch, "The government arrested Saadeddin Ibrahim and twenty-seven others and closed the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in June 2000. At the time, the center was working on a voter education project in anticipation of national elections in October and November 2002. Human Rights Watch said that the charges against the Ibn Khaldun defendants were designed to silence critics of the government and that the earlier trials were manifestly unfair at all stages of the proceedings."
One Egyptian friend joked, "We are next."
It is Egyptian to make jokes in the worst of times.
A human rights lawyer at the university: "Many of my students in the Foreign Ministry are demoralized. They see what is happening as a kind of cultural genocide."
In Arabic language class, we read an article by Yehia al-Gamal entitled: "What is the fate of the world?" The article was published in al-Ahram shortly before the fall of Baghdad. In the conclusion, al-Gamal points out that it is America's destruction of Arabic heritage and culture that is the source of different terrorist groups in the world.
The Bush administration plans to "promote democracy" in Iraq, as long as the Shias are not elected. How is this any different from the heavy-handed approach of the Egyptians?
There haven't been any demonstrations recently. People are still angry though. There was a temporary truce between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Brotherhood after the fall of Baghdad, but that, too, is over. Recently, the Egyptian government arrested twenty of the top people from the Brotherhood. The Egyptian pound has devalued further. Prices are going up. There are very few tourists in Egypt.
|© Gretchen McCullough 2003|
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 36 May - June 2003
Picks from Back Issues