Observations From Egypt

Henry Richards | March 10, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

In mid- November, I was with my spouse wandering around (and around) Tahrir square and thereabouts, lost trying to find the Egyptian Museum. That led to an adventure and a story of high chicanery and  deception that was a living allegory for life in modern Cairo. I’ll tell it to you later. Right now, I have so many feelings about the recent events in Egypt that I have been at a loss to put them together. I’ll post a few here now. Read all you want, I’ll make more (including the living allegory, I promise).

My fellow Egyptians, ask not what Baksheesh your country can give to you–Ask…

One impact the revolt in Egypt has had on me is that I see the tradition of baksheesh very differently now than I did when I was constantly expected to pay for nothing or an imaginary service, or a service I didn’t want. Baksheesh means sharing the wealth. It’s not begging. It’s the principle that if you have, of course you’d want to give, so the only pressure on you is your own estimation of the generosity of your character, not your judgment of the neediness of the person asking baksheesh. (In writing this, I learned from my writing tools software that Word will autocorrect misspellings of Mubarak and Baksheesh, but does not know Tahrir from a pile of beans. Also, did you know that Baksheesh is a fair trade wine retailer in Sonoma and St. Helena, California?) In Cairo whenever well dressed men in suits, including plain-clothes security staff, asked for baksheesh, I would cringe. (Baksheesh in the far south, near Sudan, was a lot less prevalent and intrusive. Oh, the gentility of Southern folk everywhere). I know now that a tourist has a very hard time imagining the hardship of even the middle-class and barely middle class people in Egypt, let alone the poor.

True, there are tall leaning towers of eesh baladi (flatbread) at a great government-subsidized price in every small shop and street stall. But man does not live by bread alone. The life giving transfusion of meaning that a reality-based hope delivers to all aspects of one’s life are surely as foundational as material sustenance. And Mubarak was not subsidizing hope. He was subsidizing bread and (no, not circuses) slogans, and security for other people and other nations, but not for the Egyptians. After my weeks in Egypt in November, I was surprised (like everybody) about what happened to Egypt and Mubarak. I am shocked and happy that it means that there is now more of that reasonable hope in the same shops and mini-bazaars, albeit maybe with less bread and with higher prices.

The Cairo Express to Women’s Rights:

One amazing aspect of the Tahrir square footage was that it was largely absent of the regimented separation of the sexes. My wife and I a difficult time taking the subway from our overly fancy and ridiculously expensive, hotel to Tahrir Square. Most of that was the usual Idiots Abroad kind of comedy of errors, but with one Egypt-specific addition. We missed several trains because we were running alongside them trying to find a car that seemed gender appropriate for us, that is a car that was neither all male nor all female. I didn’t want to get on the all female car and hold my wife’s hand like a kindergartner on a field trip, to show I had the “ticket” of being with a woman, and not out to be a lech. We didn’t want to go on the all male car, where my wife’s very modest dress would be a provocation for some guy to stare at her as he wipes the drool off his chin. I am sure we looked like idiots to the locals and anyone who knew what the informal rules were. When we asked Egyptians, they all said to get on any car, although some cars are reserved for women (what?). It’s just a courtesy, not a Sharia law punishable by public flogging or doubling your baksheesh for a month, whichever the rapscallion is likely to find more distasteful. Putting aside neurotic conflict about the right car on the train, the leadership and participants in Tahrir are male and female. It seems that the camera-persons (I bet they’re all guys) found many shots of women leading the men. Of course, they were the kind of cheerleaders you’ll never see having a “wardrobe malfunction” at a Super Bowl half-time performance.

Egyptian-Israeli Relations Late-November, 2010 and 407 BCE

During whole trip, we saw not one anti-Israeli sign. Unless we brought up politics, and the Israel vs. Palestine vs. Egypt situation was discussed “intellectually,” for all intents and purposes, it seemed that Egypt is to Israel what Mexico is to the US (I had tried on “Canada to the US”, but Canadians are not a rapidly procreating hoard of impoverished potential invaders, who are racially alien and practice an inflexible and inscrutable faith—Yeah, that’s what those Canadians want you to think! Also the analogy to the Canadian-American relationship doesn’t work for that part of the middle east, because there is no Higher Power pumping money and military goods to both Canada and the US. The analogy to US and Them—I mean Mexico, is more apt. There is a Higher Power, pumping money and arms through the Mexican-American border, it’s called The Drug-Gun-Cheap Labor Trade, a little like the triangular trade that kept Slavery going for a few centuries, but I wander…).

People were concentrating on the problems of living, not on being against any group or country. In fact, for about half of our trip, we travelled with a small group (less than 8) which included an Israeli couple. The male looked Jewish (I know, I know, what does it mean to look Jewish? I mean that he looked more Jewish than I look Black). The only possible “situation” showing Arab-Israeli conflict was when the wife of the Israeli couple asked a boatman on the Nile to translate the name engraved in Arabic on the side of his small sailing craft. The man was a Nubian Egyptian, for we were near Elephantine Island, Aswan where Nubia traditionally is said –said for 4000 years—to begin) His black face spread with a wide grin of gratification, clearly happy that a tourist was taking note of his boat, before announcing with pride “The Arafat!” The woman made a dismissive gesture and mumbled something about Arafat being an idiot and stupid . Before the trip was over she had called everybody stupid: the Egyptians, our Dahabiah captain (golden boat, a big yacht) who was a Mexican-American born in Mexico, the Americans, the French, and, of course, the Israelis, who she deemed “impossibly stupid”. Another American who was present (my name is Wes and I wouldn’t touch that mess) tried to save appearances (and I suspect he thought that instantaneous Jihad was pending on his response) by saying “He was a really important leader.” But the boat owner was noticeably crestfallen. His deflation didn’t affect the great tour he gave us around Elephantine Island, the place where a temple to YHWH was built in the 5th century, after one third of surviving Jews fled to Elephantine and surrounds to live under Persian (Iranian) rule, after the Babylonians (Iraqi’s) destroyed Jerusalem and the First Temple. Goes to prove that Sly and the Family Stone were right all along, “It’s A Family Affair”.

More observations of Egypt to follow.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: From Jefferson to Jihad – Listen Carefully to the Arab Streets (via ON MY WATCH – the writings of SamHenry) | Village of the Banned

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