Egypt Updates

Egypt Updates

Since August 2000 the city of Cairo, Egypt has been where I’ve called home.  I came with the intention of a one-year adventure.  Now, thirteen years later, I’d have to say that adventure is definitely what I found!  There’s no real easy way to live in this country, but yet there’s been no way that I’ve found to live without it.

Explaining it has been even more challenging.  It seems I’m always trying to dispel myths, clarifying misconceptions, even rationalizing my presence.  Prior to January 25, 2011 my efforts to describe life here were focused on demystifying fantasies of roads filled with camels and neighborhoods made of tents.  The watershed events of the revolutionary movement have shifted the topics of discussion, but have only resulted in more questions than answers. 

Those of us who have been living the experiences, who have been in Egypt long enough to be able to compare the ‘before’ and ‘after’, who have chosen to stay and continue our lives in this incredible place, are eager for those that haven’t to hear our realities.  Newscasts are not reflecting the situation fully or even accurately.  The good, the bad and the ugly all seem to be disproportionally represented. 

My Egypt posts on this site will hopefully redress that situation.  I intend to share the wonders I continue to discover as I live my day-to-day.  And

on this page in particular I’ll be keeping you all informed on current events and my opinions of them.   You’ll find a mix of reflective articles and simple updates.  I welcome questions and encourage discussion, either through the comments or by direct email.

My love for Egypt is not easy for even me to understand sometimes.  But I hope my words reflect the deep appreciation and true admiration I feel for the people who have welcomed me in this amazing country.

A great coffee shop in Khan El Khalili

An Open Letter to the Egyptian People

Egyptian sunrise, or sunset? 

I'm not trying to get rid of you, I swear.  But I've written an article on another site (my Examiner page) that I'd love to have you look at.  I posted it a few weeks ago and so much has happened since then.  Yet, the questions are still valid.  Partly because the English-speaking media is not providing as many details as the Arabic venues.  But also because there are still many, many decisions to be made.  So take a look.  I've received some very thoughtful comments from Egyptian citizens that you can read as well, just below the article.  Thanks for taking a look, and remember to come back and visit me at Tuesdayat2!

Why you should know who Bassem Youssef is....

There are two reasons why this man is important for you to know:

1.     For the sake of Egypt’s democratic development

2.     So you can be a better citizen of the country you live in (wherever that may be)

Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.  Knowing about this guy will give you the proverbial two birds with one stone.  You’ll be helping others as you’re helping yourself.  It will turn you into an uber-citizen of the world, an almost-superhero!  How cool is that?  

So lets get this transformation of yours started.  Why should you check him out?  The first reason requires a bit of background.  In Egypt this man’s name is on the tip of everyone’s tongue.  He’s been a hot commodity ever since the revolution began two years ago, and he’s been controversial this whole time.   His words and actions have brought certain aspects of democracy’s development in Egypt to the fore of conversation. 

Pretty much everything in the news regarding Egypt lately has been focused on the mass protests and the violence they tend to spawn.  Yet so much of the revolutionary movement is actually about the interpretation of ideals.  Bassem Youssef’s situation crystallizes the challenge Egypt is facing in the hearts and minds of its citizenry.  If you learn about what he’s been doing, and how it’s affecting Egypt, you’ll be knowledgably supporting Egyptian efforts to move towards democracy.  That’s pretty cool.

But even cooler still is the second reason.  Bassem Youssef generates controversy because he’s blatantly pushing the boundaries of traditional comfort zones regarding freedoms.  “Freedom” is a heavy word with fuzzy edges.  It’s a word that even after hundreds of years the citizens of western democracies are still trying to sort out.  Its definition in the dictionary may be black and white but its implementation in active societies is very much about shades of grey. 

Balancing rights and responsibilities is tricky-sticky.  Observing and recognizing the struggles that Egyptians are going through to find their own community’s sense of balance will give you a fresh perspective on your own country’s challenges.  If you think the west has figured it out, take a look at the current debate on DOMA in the States, or religious headwear in France, or medical abortions in Ireland, or media rights in England.  All of these issues represent communities attempting to fine-tune the definitions of freedom as it relates to their culture.

This is what’s going on in full force in Egypt right now.  Bassem Youssef is forcing an entire country to determine how it will define freedom of speech: a core freedom of all democracies, yet one that has its own unique history of shaping and being shaped by cultural ‘norms’.  This ‘Arab Spring’ that Egypt is a part of isn’t taking place in a bubble.  Struggles to self-identify have been going on for thousands of years under all forms of government.  Egyptians are joining an ongoing party.  Their efforts represent all of us: past, present and future. 

So who is this guy exactly?   Look him up.  Do a search.  Read and watch and listen to multiple sources as you develop your opinion.   Be an active participant in the democratic process.  Support Egypt’s efforts.  Engage in respectful discussions.  Represent for your community.  Become a citizen of the world who acts globally AND locally. 

Your Batman cape is waiting.

My Life in Cairo

“But you’re coming back again, right?”  The tone in Mona’s voice reflected the look of sadness in her eyes. “Yes, yes!  Of course I am.  How could I not?”  My efforts at comforting her were genuine, but they only moderately succeeded in changing her demeanor.  Since the revolution began she’d seen so many of her friends, Egyptians and foreigners alike, make the decision to travel outside of Egypt and not return. 

"My rights have not been returned!"  Graffiti on the walls of the presidential palace, Cairo, fall 2012

It’s been almost two years since the infamous date of Jan 25 sparked a momentous shift in Egyptian life. My choice to live and work in this Middle Eastern country had always generated curiosity, not just from loved ones in the US but also from all of the friends and families I have grown so close to over my 12 years in Cairo. Since the revolution began so many residents of this country, Egyptians and expats alike, have made the decision to travel outside of Egypt and not return.  The curiosity about my choices has firmly shifted from the straightforward “Why did you move to Egypt?” into the much more challenging, “Why are you staying?”

Christmas with Mona and her girls, 2012

Admittedly, there’ve been moments when I hesitated in my response, not quite sure of how to explain.  There have also been times in which I questioned my own resolve.  I’ve had the opportunity recently to travel extensively in other countries and so the question is faced frequently.  The near constant eruptions of protests and targeted violence seem to erase the effects of the quieter, return-to-daily life phases in between.  The grounds for relocating are strong.  And yet, I still come back, time and again, to this hotbed of discontent and hominess. 

My favorite class for hugs!  Grade 1A, 2006

I arrived in Cairo with no plan to stay beyond my contracted teaching year.  While my original intent in moving to Egypt was adventure in an exotic land, I kept discovering reasons to stay “just one more year”.  More than a decade on, the life I’ve made here can no longer be described as an accumulation of excuses for not leaving.   Somewhere along the line, I shifted from visitor to resident, and it had nothing to do with the visa in my passport. 

Excavating mummified dogs, Abydos 2009

Why have I stayed?  What has made this swath of sand and stone my home?  How is it, that in spite of all the chaos, the violence, the confusion, the instability….I look to this country with a sense of pride and responsibility?  I have no clear answer for that.  Or rather, I have hundreds of answers that change constantly.  Some days it’s the phenomenal history that I now feel a part of.  Others it might be the fact that the fruit vendor on my street missed me when I skipped a few days of shopping.  I’ve worked as an educator in schools across the major cities so I’m invested in the country’s future.  I’ve been employed as an archeologist at sites that explore Egypt’s ancient past so I’m dedicated to highlighting the details of its history.  I am daily shaken by events connected to the ongoing revolutionary movement. 

Sunrise swimming in Alexandria, Eid Kabir, 2012

I’ve cried at funerals and births, attended many weddings, invited and hosted hundreds of international students, camped at desert destinations, celebrated holidays, found and lost love, purchased my own appliances, gone through many phases and shifts of careers, been treated in hospitals and attempted to bake my first soufflé.   In short, I’ve been living a life.  I happen to be living it in an extraordinary community full of extreme beauties and tribulations, and one that currently is undergoing tremendous upheaval.

My Alexandrian family, growing fast and furiously!

I think most of us have a family member who defies explanation, someone who requires a lot of extra patience and often induces eyeball rolling or knowing glances between the rest of us.  Yet their presence, however quirky, ultimately rounds off the dynamic that defines our community of relatives.  For many expats in Egypt, this is how we love the place.  Even at its best Egypt is a chaotic jumble of inconsistencies, unclear objectives and curmudgeonly charm.  And lately, one could argue that Egypt is not at its best. 

Baking holiday cookies with kids I cradled in my arms as babes.  

My loyalty to the community that I’ve developed in Egypt is fierce and full of mixed emotions, especially these days.  When I’m asked by my Egyptian friends if I’m returning when I travel, I do respond in the affirmative, but cautiously.   When I explain to my American family that I am staying in Cairo, I’m forced to validate my choice.  When I read the abundance of online articles touting the ‘amazing price discounts’ now available on Egypt packages and encouraging travelers to take advantage of the current ‘short lines’, I cringe.  And then I write lengthy replies highlighting the need to be fully aware of the security issues.

Planting pomegranates, definitely thinking long-term.  Imagine Farm, Alexandria

If asked directly about the safety and stability of Egypt today, I have to pause and gather my thoughts before proceeding.  This saddens me.  For years I’ve been one of this country’s most ardent recruiter of travelers.  I have a vested interest in Egypt’s success and I long for a return to the days where I can eagerly and without hesitation encourage journeys to this incredible place.  For now, I take the opportunity to promote caution, beyond-the-surface research, and above all greater awareness of the intricacies.  Short lines and discount packages do have their advantages, but they also have their good reasons.

Safety is still a substantial concern of the day-to-day living in all parts of Egypt.  Tourists and the traditional destinations they seek are still targets of politically motivated extremists.  The media still over and under exaggerates events.  And Egypt is still an amazing place to explore.  My heart is full of it.  My life is full of it.  

(Originally published on Examiner, Dec 18, 2012)

The Surprise of Egypt

Safari in Egypt, the White Desert. Notice the jeep?

"The stars that could be seen were uncountable….so numerous and bright that they more than made up for the lack of a moon as our jeep bounced through and around and over sand dunes of various sizes.  Our driver claimed he could see better without headlights.  As the mushroom-shaped chalk monuments the White Desert is famous for became obvious in the distance, I gave up my fear of accidental cliff diving and surrendered to the thrill of whipping wind....."

The full post can be read at my InTheKnowTraveler page under the title "An Expat in Egypt"

Fourth of July in Egypt

Fourteen years.  That’s how long it took for the United States to go from declaring independence from England, to adoption of the document known as the US Constitution.  The years between were filled with revolutionary zeal, political infighting, more battles, temporary policies, public name-calling and outright rejections of federal law.  One could argue that this cycle is still being experienced.

History books tend to condense those early experiences into a straight-line sequence: Boston Tea Party, Declaration of Independence, George Washington at Valley Forge, victory over England, and a new country is born!  However, even a cursory look at the events will demonstrate that the birth of the American nation was chaotic, confusing and far from guaranteed.

What form will democracy take in this country?

As Egypt moves forward and takes its awkward steps towards a new system of thinking and doing, comparisons with other democratic experiments are inevitable.  The Middle East region is currently filled with examples of nascent and active movements, each with their own definition of ‘freedom’.  The colonial experiences and cultural heritage of the early Americans forged their philosophies and framed their debates.  This is very much what is taking place in Egypt today.  Egypt’s colonial experiences and extensive cultural history are all influencing the present conversations. 

The timeline of Egypt’s revolution will not match exactly with that of the United States, or of France, or of Tunisia or Lybia.  They all share concepts and fervor, sometimes even terminology.  They also share a need for patience and persistence.  Yet every resulting new system will have its own flavor.  The whirl and swirl of the revolutionary process will settle uniquely in each country. 

Respect for the right to self-govern was the pillar of the American Revolution.  Sorting out what that actually meant has taken a very long time.  It’s been over 200 years and the current Presidential elections are highlighting that the discussion is far from over.  Egypt’s sorting process is just beginning.  Its right to self-govern is going to take time to frame.  The coming years will be filled with revolutionary zeal, political infighting, more battles, temporary policies, public name-calling and outright rejections of federal law.  As Americans, we are bound to both acknowledge and respect this often painful process. 

How can we support the Egyptian people as they participate in their own Grand Experiment?  Travel websites and tour companies would have you believe that its as easy as choosing Egypt as a vacation destination, that by shoring up the Egyptian economy the dominoes of democracy will neatly fall into place.   If only it was as simple as that.  Financial stability is certainly a core aspect of any community’s growth plan.  However, adding money to the mix is not enough. 

Providing historic perspective, offering positive encouragement, presenting accurate information, supplying examples of respectful citizenship are just as important.  When visiting Egypt follow Ghandi’s advice and “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”  Stand as a representative of our American version of democracy and respect the efforts that Egyptian people are making to figure their own version out.  Listen.   Know your own history.  Be patient. 

Traveling within Egypt during this fascinating transition does have added cautions for security, as well as cultural expectations.  The best advice for a visitor is to go with extra wide eyes and open ears.  Egyptians are an incredibly warm and welcoming people who are genuine in their appreciation of visitors.    They wear their passions and ideals on their sleeves.  They will not hesitate to engage in conversation about the current events and will wholeheartedly share their opinions on it all.

Being able to knowledgeably speak of the American experience, in all of its long and turbulent glory, will provide your hosts with great insights.  Considering cultural context and how the Egyptian community is unique, will provide you with great insights as well.  Ultimately, the best kinds of travel experiences are when both guests and hosts make inroads towards understanding each other better.

Is Travel in Egypt Safe?

“How big of a risk taker are you?”  When I am asked about the safety of traveling to Egypt these days, I always ask this question back.  A quick scan of current articles on the internet will yield a number of encouraging posts, all stating how important it is to support businesses in Egypt right now, how low prices are at this time, how friendly and welcoming Egyptians are to tourists that are willing to make reservations. 

All of these facts are true.  However, there are many additional facts being left out in these posts that every traveler has the right to consider when making decisions about safety.

Giza Pyramids from the west, Cairo, Egypt

Foreigners are being kidnapped in Egypt:  The majority of these kidnappings have taken place in the Sinai near the popular resorts.  Tourists traveling independently by car as well as a full busload of travelers have been taken.  All were eventually released after the military intervened.

Foreigners are being killed in Egypt: In one incident, a Canadian traveling in Luxor was shot.  In a second, a German in Cairo was stabbed to death.  There are frequent stories of others, however I have personal connections to these incidents and can vouch for their validity.  Violence does occur in every country and tourists are not immune anywhere.

Residents in Egypt are dramatically increasing their security precautions: People who live in this country, Egyptians and foreigners alike, are being extremely safety conscious in the day-to-day living.  Selecting which roads to drive on, and the times of day to be on those roads, carrying weapons in cars, hiring bodyguards to ride on school busses… If concerns of the locals have increased so drastically, this should be a factor considered by visitors as well. 

The violence is ongoing: Articles that discuss the values of visiting a destination after a major upheaval do not take into account that the Egyptian revolution is not over.  In addition to the daily protests, strikes and crimes, recent elections have stirred the pot again and tensions are very high.  Police presence and involvement is still extremely minimal.  Violent incidents occur regularly and general crime has increased considerably.

Tourism has long been the staple of the Egyptian economy.  The radical drop in visitor numbers has cost jobs and closed businesses.  Workers lucky enough to receive a visa leave their families in search of work abroad.  Most simply remain unemployed.  Without a doubt this country desperately needs a return of tourists.  It must also be stated that it is possible to travel throughout Egypt and complete a journey unscathed.  Choosing to travel here again is certainly a legitimate decision and tourists who do so will be rewarded with great appreciation and attention. 

However, to select Egypt as your travel destination without knowing the full picture is a dangerous game.  Articles that deny the security concerns are doing vacationers a tremendous disservice.  When researching how to invest your family’s time and money on a holiday, be aware of all factors that will affect your experience. 

A day will come when the warmth and graciousness of Egypt’s people will again be the main reason tourists select Egypt as a destination.  Those of us who have chosen to make Egypt a home, have a true love for this land and its people.  We are eager to once again speak without hesitation about this country’s security.  Until then, travelers must be aware when making decisions, and be cautious of articles ignoring the safety realities.

 (Originally published on Examiner, June 19, 2012)

Egypt's 'Revolution' is Alive and Well

The elections have brought many things to Egypt.  Peace of mind is not one of them.   Regardless of the final ballot count, the winner has not received a clear mandate.  The margin of victory was not large.  And as is so often the case in elections, votes were not cast for candidates as much as they were used as strikes against another. 

The weeks leading up to the presidential vote were not at all calm.  Now that the election has taken place, the situation is not any more relaxed.   Tension is extremely high.  Statements such as “The revolution is dead!” are coming from all directions.  Nobody is happy. 

But the revolution is far from dead. The movement that began in January 2011 is actually in full bloom.  Revolutionary events do have beginnings and endings but the necessary transformation of mindsets is ongoing.  The majority of the citizens in this country have been experiencing the politics of choice for the first time.  In less than one year they have gone from passive acceptance of authoritarian governing to an active restructuring of the entire system. 

Chaos is to be expected.  Emotions are going to run high. Family and friends will argue about candidates.  People full of opinions will take to the streets to convince others.  Decisions will be made and changed.  This is all part of the process.

It is tempting to cookie-cutter the current situation and label the revolution in decline, but this current chaos is part-and-parcel of a major transformation.  Dramatic change cannot be accomplished quickly or easily.  Adding public choice to the process of government is a messy, emotionally charged, time-consuming procedure.  Important democratic concepts such as respectful debate and fair play are hard to come by even in societies much more experienced with the process. 

In my 12 years living in Egypt I’ve witnessed change here in all forms and at all paces. The building of highways, the opening of schools, the availability of products, access to technology, shifts in fashion and music, train schedules, employment opportunities, the price of bread, and so much more: evolution has never been a smooth process.  I’ve occasionally described it as being similar to driving a car with highly sensitive break and acceleration peddles: you’re pretty sure you’re going to end up getting t

o your destination, but the staggered ride is full of lurches and stalls. 

Egypt’s revolution is not just about who sits in parliament or where tanks are stationed.   It’s about thinking and considering and choosing and vocalizing and choosing again.  It’s about experiencing the power of voice.  It’s about learning how to live with the thinking and considering and choosing and vocalizing of neighbors and friends.  It’s about sorting out the balance between responsibilities and rights. 

Egypt’s revolution is alive and well.  It is lurching forward as its citizens sort out destination, itinerary and drivers.  The recent elections are necessary stops on the map, but they will not be the only aspect of the journey that defines the revolution’s success.