Monday, February 4, 2013

The January Revolution: Unrest Continues Two Year Later.

My intention was to post part II of last weeks post, but with all that is happening in Egypt right now I think there are more pressing topics that should be discussed at the moment. The best way to tackle the current events of Egypt and my experience living here at the moment is to break it into two parts, first dealing with the events themselves, how they are being portrayed, and what it could mean for the country. Next is to talk about what the protests mean to me as a foreign student in Cairo. I will link to articles for more in-depth discussion on a topic when appropriate.

Part I.

Images and stories about the growing unrest throughout Egypt are widely circulated, and Egypt’s political situation is becoming a common feature in the news of the world. Over the past months street politics has reemerged as a feature of the Egyptian political process. December saw the opposition leftist and liberal parties clashing with police and pro-Mursi /Salafi groups over the fast tracking of the country’s controversial new constitution. Aside from the resurgence of anti-government demonstrations, this flash of violent unrest was significant because it featured deadly clashes between citizen groups, which many thought could lead to full scale civil war.
The latest protests began on the eve of January 25th, the two-year anniversary of the revolution that ousted the Mubarak regime and ended his thirty-year dictatorship. Since then it as become more complex, especially with the January 26th court verdict which dispensed the death penalty to twenty-one citizens of Port Said for their involvement in the February 2012 football riots that killed more than seventy people. To many in Port Said this sentence is excessively harsh and an attempt to pacify the threats of reprisals against the accused if the courts did not issue capital punishment. The violence in Port Said escalated when police interfered with a funeral precession for those killed in the riots of the previous day. The conflict between the demonstrators and President Mursi, in his efforts to stem the violence, seems like a tour de force to determine where the true power lies.
Egypt’s youth have taken to the streets to express their discontent with the current state of affairs in Egypt. At the heart of the problem is the deep seeded feeling of betrayal of the revolutionary ideology by Mursi’s government, which has been accused of hijacking the revolution and imposing the Salafist agenda on the country. Rather than work to rebuild the countries ailing economy, President Mursi is seen by many to be solidifying his power to insure the longevity of his party. 
The government’s mismanagement of its police forces in its attempts to quell the unrest has led to greater dissatisfaction, as the security forces are being sent into situations vastly understaffed and ill equipped to effectively handle the situation. This has forced the police to become increasingly violent toward the protestors in order to protect themselves and carry out their orders. The police forces feel that the government has abandoned them, as they have become the focus of the protestors’ anger.
A sign of further deterioration of civility in the demonstrations is the increased activity on the part of Baltagiya, thugs. During the waning moments of the Mubarak era, similar groups roamed the streets of Cairo, harassing and beating citizens. It is and was widely suspected that the government had turned to these groups in a last grasp at reestablishing control through coercion and intimidation. Now the baltagiya intermingle with the protestors acting swiftly to subvert their efforts. They use intimidation tactics in hopes of frightening away the support base for the protests.  The presence of Baltagiya in the latest rounds of protests has fueled the sentiment that the Mursi administration is nothing more than a continuation of the Mubarak dictatorship.
It is an ugly reality that the baltagiya are targeting women, and accounts of sexual assaults and rape in Tahrir Square are prevalent. Some of these attacks have been impulsive acts of aggression expressed through mob mentality toward vulnerable women, however the majority of these attacks can be attributed to organized thugs, attempting to use brutal sexual violation as a means of deterring Egyptian women from voicing their opinions and exercising their right to assembly. Fortunately citizen groups have responded to this loathsome violence and have begun to organize with the mission of protecting female protestors, aiding women in distress and proving services and support to the victims of sexual assault.
The atmosphere is emotional and anger has taken hold. The lack of trust between political factions has resulted in the weakening of political power as a whole. The left has accused the president of reinstating the autocracy that the revolution sought to over throw, and the right accuses the left of subverting the democratic process. Both sides of the political spectrum declare themselves as the standard bearers of a Democratic Egypt, and both sides are pushing each other further toward the actions they have been accused of. Over the last week both sides have escalated their efforts, and now each side is fighting with fire, which has resulted in a much bigger fire. Neither side wants to back down, and thus is forcing the other to meet the challenge, and the results could be catastrophic for the country.

Part II.

It is a nearly daily occurrence that I receive an inquiry about my safety and the political atmosphere from a relative or friend. And I have developed a go to explanation of the situation and reassurance of my safety, ‘the situation is pretty dynamic, but Cairo is a very big city and the violence is not as widespread as the news might make it out to be. It is taking place in pockets around the city, focal points if you will. But yes it is an exciting time to be living in Cairo.’ Describing the political situation as ‘dynamic,’ is my diplomatic way of stating that there is little certainty about the current state of affairs. I am certain that unless I go looking for it, trouble is not immediately apparent.
In order to stay informed about the finer points of the current events, I have spent the last week and a half devouring every article and piece of information I can get my hands on. I have become much better at skimming news headlines looking for the latest reports about the current bout of unrest. If I were to rely on this coverage I would think that I was living in a war zone and in order to get home I had walking through the burned out hulls of patty wagons and the smoldering remains of governmental infrastructure. These articles have an eye for the dramatic, and reading them can often provide as much misinformation as information. They cultivate a sense of imminent doom for everyone in Cairo because it is exciting and that is the kind of headline that moves newspapers. I am not going to say that doom is not a possibility, but it is very improbable. The exception to the dramatization of events are the reports of sexual assault, these articles deserve as much headline space as possible. Because of how despicable these attacks are is impossible to sensationalize this aspect of the situation.
The articles reporting on the street violence fail to illustrate that the protests and riots are focused in isolated areas. The majority of the city/cities is/are not affected by the unrest. Depending on location and interest it could be possible to be totally ignorant of Egypt’s political unrest and street politics. If not for my own interest, the twenty-four hour news cycles, the bombardment of emails from the AUC and US embassy providing updates and offering obvious safety tips, and the increased commute time from point A to point anywhere else, I could be completely oblivious of the current situation.
When it comes to attending the demonstrations I am torn. There is a part of me that is drawn to the energy and enthusiasm of the movement. To be apart of the crowd and add my voice to the chants, to be a part of the revolution, to be a part of history. It would be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Furthermore, it would make a great story. But in the end the story is the only motivation. I have nothing at stake in regards to Egyptian politics and even less to offer. My presence would add little to nothing to Egypt’s pursuit of democracy. When all is said and done I will get on a plane in June and return to California. Whether or not I ever return to Egypt is my decision. The masses in Tahrir Square do not have the luxury of returning home, they are busy rebuilding theirs. Attending the protests would be totally self-serving, not to mention carelessly dangerous. Gawking at the ‘spectacle’ of it all in order to add the story bank only cheapens the efforts of the protestors.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Bribing Doomsday: An Evening at the Pyramids (Part I)

It been far too long since I sat down and thought about writing for JunketAbroad, and I have missed it. Since we last spoke I applied to graduate school, a significant drain on my creative energy, studied for and took my final exams, and traveled around Turkey. Now that I am settled back in Cairo I have been working on a couple of new posts that I hope will get me back into the swing of things.

The Pyramids of Giza are the kind of mysterious that forces the mind into action in hopes of discovering their forgotten secrets. These secretes tease the tips of the imagination, as if through deeper thought and imaginative exploration it could be possible to ascertain the exact manner in which the Pyramids were constructed, and their true purpose. Part of the mystery comes from the nagging feeling that there is certainly more to them than meets the eyes because it is nearly impossible to accept that there is nothing special about them apart from their immense size and beauty. It is inconceivable to imagine that things so extraordinary were built solely to house the decaying bodies enshrined in their depths. But perhaps this is their greatest power, to excite the imagination.
It is my opinion that our current understanding of the Pyramids is superficial at best. I say this because the explanations do not effectively address many of the questions that plague any discussion of their origins, especially with regards to their construction. As a result speculation is rampant and creative. Perhaps they are actually the remnants of long lost power and understanding bestowed to the ancients by aliens. Perhaps there is a lost codex that will shed light their true nature and provide context for unlocking the mysteries of the universe. This seems just as plausible as hundreds of thousands of slaves dragging the enormous stones cut and polished to perfection with other stones across the sand in the desert heat. Ok well maybe not just as plausible, but as long as we are making things up why not get creative.
Whatever the case may be it is undeniable that there is something extraordinary about them, but it is almost impossible to put it into words. This undefined quality makes your skin crawl and your body tingle with excitement and foreboding. They are huge. They are old. They are perfect. All of the superlatives capable of describing the Pyramids have been exhausted, and they are all true.
I will freely admit that I want to believe the Pyramids posses magical powers or play a key role in a larger phenomenon. What can I say I get excited by the implications of the speculations. My experience with the Pyramids has made me pretty confident that if the world is going to end as a result of something other human agency, the Pyramids will be the epicenter of some pretty spectacular stuff. Potentially. So naturally I planned to be at the Pyramids on December 21st, the latest in doomsday predictions, just in case, and because I could.
 I intended to go to the Pyramids in the early evening, just in time to watch the heavens open up and the mother-ship return to enlighten us, and/or to watch the fire and brimstone rain down upon us as the faithful are raptured away from the blooming hell-scape that was earth. I was also petty confidant that the apocalypse would be an evening affair, its more dramatic that way… and there had been no mother-ship nor fire and brimstone when I woke up that morning.
Preoccupied with my theories on the likely schedule of destruction I did not thinking twice about hours of operation of the Pyramids, it was doomsday after all who could think about something so trivial at a time like that! I climbed into a cab and said, ‘Al-Ahramet (the pyramids) and step on it,’ (I didn’t actually say that last part, my Arabic is not that good yet). Its good to know that even on doomsday, when every last moment of existence is precious, Cairo’s traffic is still so unbearable it made me beg for the end to come quicker.
It was a stroke of luck that our taxi was flagged down by an Egyptian man standing at the side of the road. He spoke to the driver in Arabic for a moment and then hopped onto the trunk of the cab and proceeded to give the driver directions through a maze of side streets and allies. From what I was able to gather from their conversation there may have been some kind of protest or demonstration that was causing the back up, and by following his directions we would avoid a prolonged wait. Whether or not this was the case, our self appointed navigator was actually directing us to his business in hopes of enticing us to hire his services as a guide on a camel tour of the Pyramids. I should not have been surprised that this was his intention, and though I was annoyed by his ploy I did not see the opportunity that his actions had provided. And after our detour through the back allies of Giza we found ourselves at the back gate of the park.
My lack of foresight in regards to the hours of operation meant that we were going to arrive at Pyramids after they had closed for the day, and perhaps eternity. Until then I had not considered the possibility that it would not be possible to see the Pyramids up close because they were closed. Before even stepping out of the cab we were approached by a man who told us that the park was closed for the day, but offered to get us into the park for the price of admission, sixty Egyptian Pounds, paid to him rather than to the ticket office. This payment would not only get us in, but he offered to be our guide and personal attaché for dealing with the park’s security staff who would surely question our presence at the park after dark.
In the waning hours of daylight on the last day of the world as we know it I found myself on a private tour of the nearly deserted park, which is usually swamped with tourists and vendors. Needless to say the world did not end while we were there, oh well, but the experience was still pretty unforgettable, highlighted by a spectacular sunset. By standing in just the right spot the Sphinx was silhouetted against the three Pyramids, aligned and bathed in a warm glow.

To be continued…

TL;DR I bribed a guy to let me see the Pyramids after they were closed. It was great!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Trick or Treating for Leftovers: Halloween in Egypt.

Trick or Treating for Leftovers: Halloween in Egypt.

I have never been the biggest fan of Halloween. Even when I was younger the appeal of amassing a years worth of candy in one night was overshadowed by the inevitable tomfoolery and hooliganism of masked and unsupervised teens. In college I continued to be underwhelmed by Halloween, as the amount of shenanigans and hooliganism remained the same but with considerably less candy. Now, as far as I can tell, Halloween is just another excuse to get drunk on a weeknight. So when Halloween came and went this year, I didn’t get too excited.
Apparently my feelings about Halloween are not widespread, and even in Egypt I was unable to escape Halloween celebrations. The US embassy hosted a Halloween costume party for Cairo’s expat community and a select number of Egyptians. With a whopping one hundred pound entrance fee, one hundred and fifty without a costume but only fifty pounds for women, the party could be nothing less than an extravaganza. Partygoers were promised a night of fun and dance, and perhaps the most anticipated attraction, non-Egyptian alcohol. Needless to say the party was packed.
Not wanting to pay the no costume tax, but also not wanting to spend too much time on a costume, and being that I am in Egypt, I decided to wrap myself in toilet paper and go to the party as a mummy. After raiding the men’s bathroom at the dorms, and with the aid of some friends, I was able to get impressive toilet paper coverage. My costume looked pretty good. Much to my surprise the toilet paper proved to be significantly softer and suppler than my previous encounters would have led me to believe. As a result, the integrity of the flimsy material rapidly deteriorated as I moved, and within minutes I had streamers of toilet paper hanging from my body in authentic mummy style.
Unfortunately, I did the majority of the toilet paper wrapping before I went to the embassy, which meant that I had to walk around the streets of Cairo covered head to foot in toilet paper. As I walked down the street with my streamers of toilet paper whipping in the wind, I became very aware that every Egyptian had stopped whatever he were was and was looking at me. The expressions showed a mix of surprise, amusement, and disgust. Children pointed and laughed, some of the preteens yelled out to me in Arabic, and the adults tried and failed to ignore the tall, blond toilet paper mummy walking in the street with leaving a trial of tattered toilet paper in his wake. I would not have felt self conscious if the rest of my friends had worn better costumes. But most of them went as frat kids, nerds, or college students… I was alone in the outrageous costume department. 
Security at the US embassy was impressive, having been bulked up following the protests and breaches of security in September. No cabs are allowed to go within a block or so of the US embassy… for security reasons. The front gate of the embassy is hidden behind a fearsome maze of barbed wire coils, cement block barricades, and armored personnel carriers. After navigating thought this hostile terrain all partygoers had to present ID, sign in, pass though metal detectors, and check all cell phones, cameras, pagers, iproducts, etc. at the security checkpoint. My choice of costume was not ideal for complying with this high level of security, snagging on the copious barbed wire, and littering floor of the checkpoint as I tried to remove my illicit cellphone and belt.
The party was actually pretty fun, but the majority of the costumes were pretty much par for the course. There were the slutty mime, the slutty Egyptian princess, the slutty regular princesses, slutty pirates, slutty… However, the embassy’s Marines, the party’s hosts, had some of the best costumes that I have ever seen. The highlights include Link from the legend of Zelda, Maverick, Jackie Moon, and an especially well done slutty black swan, I will leave that one up to your imagination.
My vote for best costume of the night went to the American beer that was being serving. In the true spirit of Halloween, the American beers, like Budweiser and Coors, dressed up as good flavorful micro brews, and with a little imagination and momentary suspension of disbelief, the beers totally pulled it off. I can say with nearly total confidence that I have never been so happy, or excited to drink a Budweiser. I guess there is something to be said about absence and a fonder heart.
Anyway, that was Halloween in Cairo. Oh yeah, I nearly forgot to mention, we celebrated it on the 19th not the 31st. I am not sure why, but at this point, in this part of the world, does it really matter? I wonder what Thanksgiving will be like.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Its Eid al-Adha and My Brain Hurts.

Its Eid al-Adha and My Brain Hurts.

It is the Eid al-Adha holiday in Cairo right now, which for me means a much-needed four-day vacation from school. Aside from providing an extended weekend, I knew nothing about the holiday, so I decided to do some research.
Eid al-Adha, the festival of the sacrifice, commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son, Isaac, as a way to demonstrate his obedience to God, who, just in the nick of time, stays Abraham’s hand and provides him a ram to sacrifice instead. To celebrate the occasion, wealthy families are expected to provide their best animals for slaughter to feed themselves and their community. The meat from these animals is divided into three portions, one third of which is kept by the family, one third is shared with relatives and neighbors, and the final third is given as charity to those in need. During this wholesale sacrifice more than 100 million animals are slaughtered in the span of two days.
In celebration of the holiday the streets of Zamalek are decorated with colorful banners and strings of lights that twinkle spastically with no discernable rhythm or pattern. Beneath the manically festive lights, the gruesome carcasses of freshly slaughtered cows, sheep, goats, and rams hang from meat hooks. Other animals awaiting a similar fate are tied to light posts and fence rungs, or held in makeshift pens, sometimes in the middle of the street.
In the evenings the atmosphere is electric with the anticipation of the coming celebrations. Fireworks punctuate the charged air, and group of youth laugh, dance and sing together on the street corners. I have enjoyed the spectacle of Eid from street side cafés, where I can watch the festivities and review flash cards at the same time. The people watching is wonderful, the flash cards are not.
The last couple of days have been pleasantly quiet. The usual din of traffic, and the incessant car horns are muted, and it is actually possible to hear and enjoy the birds. Except for the stray cats the side streets of Zamalek have been empty. These strays seem to be enjoying Eid as well. Now that there are no cars to dodge and no nagging taxies, I even found it in myself to go for a stroll. However, aside from a few short walks, and the relative quiet, I have not been able to take advantage of these lovely days because I preparing for the GRE.
While everyone that I know is taking advantage of this holiday by traveling, adventuring, and exploring, I am cooped up in my room studying my forth coming GRE examinations. It took every ounce of my will power and forward thinking to keep myself from exploring the wonders of Egypt and the rest of the Middle East during Eid, and while I know that I made the right choice, it sucks. Instead of sleeping on the beach in Dahab or hiking to Petra, I am getting up at a eight o clock each morning, eating a bland breakfast, drinking a filthy cup of Nescafe before I settle into six and a half hours of ridged study.
            Although my Eid has not been fun or exciting, it has not been too bad either. By imposing ridged structure for the day, I have been incredibly productive, and though I am a million miles away from have it in the bag, I feel much more prepared for the GRE. It is scary to think what I could accomplish if I would impose the same structure to other aspects of my life! I guess all I needed with the impending doom of rejection from graduate school to motivate me. The lack of distractions helps as well.

Pro Tip: Taking the GRE while studying abroad.
            Thankfully ETS, the company that produces the GRE, has testing centers all over the world. There is a complete list of testing centers out side of the US on their web site. Depending on the country and city, taking the GRE abroad might not be a possibility, in some cases the test is not offered in the desired country or city. If you have any inclination of taking the test while abroad, make sure it is offered in the desired location. In my case, there are two testing centers in Egypt, one in Alexandria and in Cairo, only a couple of miles from where I live.