Friday, August 01, 2008
The drive to 6th of October City is a lonely one — for me and the thousands of other cars on the road. Despite the immense urban sprawl that has come to define Cairo, I jumped in a taxi on a major thoroughfare that runs by my apartment and was deep in the surrounding agricultural sprawl within ten minutes. Hauling through quiet countryside, I made my way towards one of Cairo's satellite cities fifteen miles away.
Years ago, recognizing the over-congestion of Egypt's capital, government officials launched an ambitious plan to build entire cities in the surrounding desert in the hopes of enticing some of the populace away from the city center. 6th of October rings a discordant tone when you first get to it. There are no neighborhoods or walking streets, just rows of quiet sandy apartment buildings, punctuated with a supermarket here and there. It doesn't seem like much of a city, rather it feels like an over-sized middle class housing development. Cruising through farmland, and then desert, a few nights ago, the pyramids distantly silhouetted to my right, I eagerly anticipated my impending arrival to the city, which hosts many of Egypt's 150,000 Iraqi refugees.
I had been put in touch with a guy named Abu Bashar, from Baghdad, for a story I was working on. Though I'll withhold some of the details of the conversation for the story I'm working on, I'll describe the bulk of my evening.
I found Abu Bashar's restaurant behind a shopping center which represented one of 6th of October's only lively night spots.
When I found Abu Bashar, I launched right into the traditions of Arab hospitality, which I always find a way to bungle. Trying to make small talk as we settled into our seats in a next-door restaurant (why we didn't sit at his restaurant is a mystery to me!), I asked Abu Bashar if his restaurant offered shisha. Thinking I wanted a shisha right then, he sprung into action, demanding a waiter come take my order. Trying to make good on my training in the ways of Arab culture, which demands generous hospitality from the host and scores of modest refusals from the guest, I repeatedly turned down the shisha. Ridiculous, I thought, since I had essentially just ordered a shisha. Abu Bashar, a short-ish stalky Iraqi with a surprisingly fair western complexion, demanded I take the shisha. Back and forth we went for a few minutes before I acquiesced and took the shisha, embarrassed that I had flunked round one.
Soon thereafter, we got to talking. Discussing issues pertinent to my story, we then turned discussion to the war at large, and I turned off the recorder in the hopes of eliciting a candid dialogue. Abu Bashar, a Sunni, had arrived in Cairo two years ago after Shia militia men took over his engineering company. Driving his wife and three children out of war-torn Baghdad, Abu Bashar stopped for some weeks in Damascus before taking a flight to set up life in Cairo. An engineer by training, Abu Bashar grinned as he discussed the challenges of setting up a restaurant.
Egypt, which has taken little of the refugee burden as compared to Syria and Jordan, hosts a more affluent refugee community since coming here since getting here typically entails air travel. Most, like Abu Bashar, arrive with some savings and struggle to set up businesses in the face of a hostile Egyptian government, hardened from its dealings with refugees of all stripes, be they Sudanese, Eritreans, etc.
As our conversation progressed, I began to ask Abu Bashar about his impressions of the war. His very bloodline, I soon discovered, represented an anti-sectarian view of his country. With a Sunni father and a Shia mother, Abu Bashar was quick to point out to this short-sighted American the sectarian mixing that defined Baghdad pre-war. He lived in a Shia neighborhood and, he explained, many of his friends and business partners were Shia.
This, however, is where he ran into trouble. As the war ran out of control and neighborhoods turned into sectarian bastions, Abu Bashar and his family soon found themselves on the wrong side of the wall, so to speak. Because he was unable to insulate himself from the hostile Shia militias, he was forced out of home and country, in search of a quieter upbringing for his children.
Abu Bashar today represents a moderate point of view on the war, not far from the mainstream of American politics. In 2003, with illegal satellite, he knew the war was coming, and though Saddam had provided security for the country, he wasn't opposed to an overthrow. After the invasion, he argued, the biggest mistake the Americans made was in keeping the troops infew massively fortified bases. This took me aback since it directly echoed pre-surge criticism of the war levied by many in the States. The troops, he continued, with whom he had nothing but good dealings, became anonymous and threatening. Then, articulating the Petraeus strategy without using the term, he discussed how much better things had become last year when troops began moving out into the communities and dealing with the people directly. Though he's still dissatisfied with how the Americans have handled the militias, he said that moving into communities has helped root out Al Qaeda. I couldn't believe how closely his opinions paralleled so many reports I've read about the new strategy from the western media. When I brought up Moqtada al Sadr, Abu Bashar derided him as a "boy," suggesting that the real Shia power in the country came from Iran.
After finishing our interview, my ability to navigate the waters of Arab hospitality was tested twice in quick succession. First, when I tried to pay for the shisha, Abu Bashar refused to let me pull out cash. Back and forth we went, in required form, until he won the argument and we walked over to his restaurant. Quickly, Abu Bashar invited me to stay for an Iraqi dinner. I refused. He insisted. I told him that I didn't want to impose on his hospitality. He demanded it. I made towards the main road. He called me back. Eventually, I caved and sat down at one of his outside tables. Before long, an embarrassingly generous feast arrived, and Abu Bashar began to walk me through the various dishes which, to my surprise, resembled nothing of the Egyptian or Lebanese food to which I had become accustomed. I worked my way through fried potatoes, fried rice balls, grape leaves and onions both stuffed with sticky yellow rice, a tomato-based stew served over rice, and a particularly stale tasting glass of milk. The milk, he offered, was boiled for hours, covered with cloth, left out over night, and then chilled.
As the meal drew to a close, over Abu Bashar's constant complaints that I hadn't eaten enough (I ate for about four people), Abu Bashar declared that we would be good friends. Pleased, and relieved that this new friendship seemingly let me off the hook from trying to pay, I invited him and his family over for dinner. Abu Bashar was convinced that American food was all burgers, steaks, and pizza, so I invited him for an all-American pizza feast.
How on earth I'll ever cook pizza is anybody's guess.
Posted by Theo May at 5:59 PM
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Over the past couple of weeks, many of you have been good enough to write in to the comment section of my blog with thoughts, questions, etc.
The format of a blog is meant to encourage discussion, and I'd be a fool to let your comments sit unanswered, so I'll do my best here.
1) From Matt Doyle: "Great to see your blog is back in action and I am going to link it to mine so we can try and increase our global influence."
Matt is one of my best buddies from Middlebury, and he's spending the summer in Honk Kong. When he studied abroad in China he kept a blog, which he's resuscitated for the summer. I recommend you all check it out here for lots of great insights into Chinese life. It's also posted on my blog-roll on the right column of this blog.
2) From Peggy Burns: "Any photos from Ras Shaitan?"
Go to the right hand column of my blog, open the 2006 tab, and click on the post titled "Cats, Camels, Ghosts, and More." As you scroll through, you'll see photos — the last I've taken — from Ras Shaitan and the Sinai. Or just click here to get to that post.
3) From Karen May: "How much alcohol is available in Cairo?"
Alcohol of all stripes is readily available throughout the city, though if you're looking for the high-quality stuff, you better be prepared to go the hotels and pay an arm and a leg.
There's a company in Cairo, a favorite among all expats, called Drinkies. Drinkies, which has outlets throughout the city, will deliver beer, wine, and hard alcohol until 2 in the morning. Beer is limited to two local brands, Saqqara and Stella, and Heineken. I tend to go for the Saqqara. The local wine is pretty bad, but hey, I'm 23, right? The hard stuff, from which I tend to steer clear, is all local and pretty awful.
Bars abound in Cairo because, I suspect, Egypt depends so much on the tourism industry. Interestingly, the bars, though not hidden, tend to keep the drinking invisible to the streets out of respect for the Muslim culture. Take, for example, my favorite local bar, Pub 28. It sits on a crowded streets and it advertises itself openly as a bar, but all the drinking is done behind a thick wooden door and frosted glass windows. This sort of concealment is common.
In the scheme of Arab countries, Egypt seems to sit right in the middle when it comes to drinking. Lebanon, by contrast, seems to have built a culture around drinking. Every corner store has copious supplies of beer and hard alcohol and many of the bars spill onto the sidewalks. Yemen, on the other hand, lies at the other end of the spectrum. When I visited Sana'a, I asked the management of my hotel, a French Mercure, whether they had any wine. Several gasps and awkward stares later, I was informed that Yemen was a dry country. I eventually found a couple of beers, in a convenience store, in a cooler hidden behind some local soda cans. From what I could tell, Syria and Jordan had adopted the Egyptian model, with low-key bars dotting a handful of street corners.
Finally, and most importantly, I was relieved discovered that I can, for 16 bucks a pop, get my bourbon fix at any of the major hotel chains here in Cairo (Are you reading this, Jim Gish?!). It's a little beyond the reach of a journalist's budget, but I think I'll treat myself to a nice Makers Mark every couple of months.
4) From Anonymous: "I am still trying to figure out IF I can figure out how to post a comment correctly...my last comment went only to me! .... Hoping this comment actually goes through!"
Anonymous, your comment did, in fact, go through. Thanks for writing. Next time, however, unless you want to remain a mystery, sign your name at the bottom!
5) From Tony May: "one: why is a camera man sitting in the front seat, designating a journalist to the "no leg room" section of the bus? second: is journalism REALLY a profession or really a time-honored way to have adventures? third: i am under the impression the library was never discovered.... so what did you really see to your right?"
As to your first question, I don't have a good answer for you! He took the front and that was that! Not even our intrepid reporter got front-seat status. I suppose the assistant-producer title doesn't get you more than a couple of nights at the Sheraton Alexandria on the company dime. And, hey, if I'd sat in the front, would I have had such a compelling story to tell?!
To your second question. As you've teased me about endlessly, I seem to have chosen a profession that is dying a slow death. To deny that international journalism really serves as a vehicle for adventuring would be to tell a lie. But if journalists weren't excited about the adventure, any international story could be covered from the safety and comfort of an air-conditioned office in downtown New York. It is precisely the allure of adventure that brings reporters to odd corners of remote countries with a willingness to dig for the fascinating story. Point it, adventure is the key ingredient that keeps a small band of wayward fools (note: dying profession) bringing the most important untold stories to your door every morning.
Finally, the Alexandria library of old is, in fact, lost to the passage of time. A bunch of years ago, though, Egypt contracted the building of a new library on the sea that opened in 2003. They meant it to be the modern incarnation of the ancient library. You can see a picture I found online here. It's not, as you can tell, meant to replicate the original library, but I imagine it was meant to recapture some of the remarkable innovation associated with its predecessor.
That's all from here. Please feel free to write in with more questions. Please also request any topic you'd like me to look into for a post.
Posted by Theo May at 4:26 PM
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
As I mentioned in one of my last posts, I spent a couple days last week up on the north coast on assignment with ABC News. We put together a piece for World News with Charlie Gibson about how Egyptians spend their summer vacations, which aired last night. It's part of a Small World segment that World News is doing each Monday in July. In each installment, reporters from around the globe file pieces on how different people celebrate weddings, summer vacations, etc.
I served as assistant producer on the piece, which you can see here. Scroll down to the Small World tab and click on "Watch Vacations around the Globe."
Posted by Theo May at 2:44 PM
Monday, July 21, 2008
This post is a hodge-podge of all things music in the Middle East.
Dueling musical trends, as best I can tell, rule in Egypt. The first, I'm not so fond of.
There is a thriving pop music industry here that has successfully penetrated deep into the culture. Walk into a cafe, any cafe, and you'll find at least one flat screen blasting the latest music videos. At the bottom of each screen is a rotating list of phone numbers, depending on your Middle East country, through which you can send in messages that scroll at the very bottom of the screen (a la breaking news ticker on any cable news channel). "Samir hearts Ranya," "Doha International School," etc. seem to be the norm.
For my ears, the music is kept far too loud. It makes conversation tough and reading a book even worse. Yeah, I'm in a cafe now, conveniently with my back to the tv, but the volume is near-suffocating. The Egyptians, though, love it. And I'm not really in a position to complain since these "music video cafes" are so much a part of the culture.
The other track, and the far more appealing one, is the deep and pervasive love of the old singers, revered by all age groups. Take singer Umm Kalthoum, for example. She was once dubbed the unofficial First Lady of Egypt, using her star power to ease diplomatic tensions between Egypt and Libya. She's long since dead, but her music is everywhere but Egyptians still speak of her with tremendous affection. In modern terms, she's a lounge singer, crooning about love lost and found. She heads a list of old-timers that even the teeny-bopper generation here appreciates in a way that our own Britney-loving kids in the States don't express admiration for our bygone singers. It's this affection for the past that makes me love this group of singers and their enduring legacy.
The music scene in Beirut, by contrast, is far more rock-based. The hot bands there, for the most part, tear through songs with a sort of reckless abandon that has come to represent the country as a whole. They've got a classic rock sound with a 21st-century Lebanese message. That type of music also works well in a country that loves its live music and loves to party.
I'll never forget my first trip to Beirut's Music Hall. It's an old cinema that was transformed by a young guy with a passion for music into one of Beirut's hippest clubs. I had made a reservation with friends weeks ahead and walked to the Hall with a great deal of anticipation. Arriving at midnight (early by Music Hall and Beirut standards), I walked past tanks and barbed wire on my way. Hezbollah had been protesting in the city on and off for weeks and the government had put the capital on lockdown. Sitting at the table inside, my friends and I ordered a bottle of Johnny Walker and a round of cigars. The height of sophistication. And then, with an uneasy truce holding on the streets, the program in the Music Hall began. Though this would be my first of many evenings at the Music Hall, the first, for all its novelty, was the best.
The routine there was twenty minutes of live music on the stage, followed by twenty minutes of DJ music, followed by twenty more minutes of live music, etc. The evening started slowly. A couple of lounge singers, belting Sinatra and the like, while the DJ led things off with slow rock. But the well-coordinated production began to take off, with performers and DJ alike building an arc of intensity. At one point, a Queen cover singer came on and rocked through the requisite greatest hits before closing with "We are the champions." This song elicited the requisite eye-roll from this American who had long grown tired with the over-played number. But my attitude quickly changed as everyone in the audience rose from their seats, some with tears in their eyes (no kidding), threw their arms around each other, and sang every word.
As the evening progressed, the tempo of the music and, no doubt, the booze turned the place into an full-out dance club — a mass of people jumping and dancing in unison.
As the curtain went up for the final act, I groaned. On stage was a band of traditional Palestinian musicians, dressed in traditional clothes, sporting beards turbans, and mandolins to boot. This, I complained to myself, was how the night was slated to end? But little did I know. Moments later, the band launched into a rousing rendition of the Pulp Fiction theme song, their signature, and the place went ballistic. As they raced through songs in both English and Arabic, they played like a rock band on a mission. It was a fitting, and thrilling, end to a terrific evening that encompassed the full spectrum of the Lebanese music scene — a scene, I'd argue, unmatched in its passion anywhere in the world.
Posted by Theo May at 6:07 PM
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Serving as a journalist in quiet Cairo is a far cry from working in conflict-prone Lebanon. I don't anticipate moving apartments, as I had to in Beirut, because road blockages and burning tires hindered my morning commute. I don't feel the urgency to spring out of bed in the morning to check the headlines wondering whether a bomb or a shooting will put my long-term story assignments on hold.
Still, though, life as a journalist in Egypt presents its share of the unexpected. Late last week, for example, I had to pound out a story for the Daily News on the construction projects springing up around Egypt (see the link in my last post). The story coincided with a trip I had to up to Egypt's north coast for ABC News. I'll stay mum on the ABC story so as not to cross any lines, but needless to say it was a fantastic two-day learning/working adventure. I conducted my interviews in the car en route to the north, and each pothole and car swerve is memorialized in the practically illegible notes I took.
After a stopover well west of Alexandria, we decided to head to the north coast's biggest city around 11pm. I knew I needed to get my story in that night so that my editors to spend the next day reviewing it, and my only window was the hour and a half long jog east to Alexandria. I sat in the backseat, passenger-side, with my MacBook propped open on my lap ready to write. I could only open the computer a little ways since our 6-foot 5-inch camera man sat in front of me had decided to put his seat back, practically in my lap. The car's windows were wide-open for the two smokers in the front, so little flecks of debris from the road kept irritating my contact lenses. So knees in my face, computer screen mostly shut, all sorts of crap flying in the window, potholes knocking my fingers off the keys, Springsteen blaring in my headphones, I wrote. With the Mediterranean in full view to my left, sites like the library of Alexandria to my right, I wrote.
It's a modest story, I know, but it's moments like those that put a smile on my face and make me love this profession.
Posted by Theo May at 4:46 PM
Interested in learning about the latest construction trends in Egypt? Read my article here.
Another post coming this pm. It's been a hectic few days....
Posted by Theo May at 11:42 AM
Monday, July 14, 2008
My conundrum: how to lead both a professional lifestyle and an Egyptian one, too. Side note: doesn't it say something that leading a professional lifestyle in Egypt is practically mutually exclusive from following an Egyptian way of life?
This thought came to me today on the way home from work during a triumphant cab ride where I found myself, for once, galloping a breakneck speeds down the thoroughfare on the way home from work, the car's five hundred nuts and bolts rattling violently. As we hit 30mph and I thought the 20 year-old cab might literally fall apart right there on the road (similar feeling to when I flew Yemenia Airlines), I achieved a moment of clarity. I was straddling two lifestyles, which together are wholly unsustainable. First, the professional way of life. It's not too dissimilar to the way a working person in New York might behave. I wake up at 8:30, throw a pot of water on the stove, and hop in the shower. After showering, and with water on the stove at a boil, I make myself a cup of instant 3-in-1 Egyptian coffee (yeah, that's right, one packet contains coffee, powdered milk, and sugar), and gulp it down as I pick through my clothes to find the least sweaty, least gritty button-down in my closet. A quick read of the overnight headlines and a brief check of my email, and I'm ready to go.
I hop a cab, paying 5 pounds (roughly 90 cents) for the fifteen minute hop across the river to my office in Dokki, not far from where I lived when I first moved to Egypt two years ago. The office is a quiet one on the fourth floor of a modern-ish building, and I set my MacBook up and get to work on my latest assignment. I spend woefully little time reporting and writing, and am instead obliged to pass the balance of my time bouncing around from person to person on the phone, trying, sometimes in vain, to find someone at a given government ministry or private firm to talk with me. Such is life for a reporter who has yet to establish a thick Rolodex of contacts. Yesterday, for example, I spoke with four people at the Foreign ministry, two at the Ministry of Trade, one at the Libyan Embassy, and six at the ministry of Petroleum before finding one person who'd give me an interview. I then supplement my interviews with as much research as I can muster (yesterday it was on Libyan-Egyptian trade relations) and get to writing. When the writing process starts, I throw a little Springsteen on the iPod and get at it. Some hours later, I wrap up the story, email it to my editor, wait to see if she has any comments, and hit the road.
Once back home, I spend the balance of the afternoon and evening plugging away at various ABC assignments and freelance aspirations. A quick dinner (I've learned to cook pasta) and beer (Saqqara, named after a pyramid south of Cairo, is the best local stuff), and I'm all done.
It's only then, though, that my determination to lead the Egyptian lifestyle kicks in. The shisha cafes, a ritual stop for me, don't get hopping until midnight, at best. Say I'm feeling lazy and unwilling to go far afield, I'll cobble together a group of friends and head down the block to Goal, a cafe on the Nile with acceptable peach flavored shisha and an apathetic wait staff. Lingering over my shisha and a glass of water (note: broke reporter on a budget), I usually play a game of backgammon or two, pay the check, and leave. If I have any interest in heading to see the downtown scene, where thousands of Egyptians nightly hit the streets on the prowl for a bargain on a pair of pants, sunglasses, etc., 1am is usually a good time. On any given work night, the downtown social scene stretches deep into the night as people adjust their schedules to beat the heat. I visited one of Egypt's slums, called Imbaba, the other night at 2am with a taxi driver from the area, and the markets were hitting their peak just as I was leaving an hour later.
Basic services also stretch late into the night. Imagine my frustration when, with a 10am interview, I searched unsuccessfully for one of the clothes ironing stands. 9:30am, and not a one to be found. Instead, I caught up with my local ironer at 1:30 that night and he worked on my clothes for an hour afterward and was still open for me to pick them up. Last night, I picked up my dry cleaning just after midnight and then poked my head into Osama's barbershop to find out his hours but didn't return for a trim since he planned to close at 1, and I had another engagement until then.
With these two worlds in Cairo, that collectively stretch practically around the clock, I find it difficult to squeeze in a few hours for sleep. Unwilling to sacrifice either my job or the world of Cairo that I've come to love, I live in perpetually sleep-deprived haze. At this point, I'm starting to get used to the way of life, and lack of sleep has become more of an annoyance than a problem. I can't complain, though, because it's the life that I've chosen and it's a hell of a lot of fun.
Posted by Theo May at 4:53 PM
Saturday, July 12, 2008
Thursday, July 10, 2008
I admit, though I try to do all things Egyptian, there's one trend I haven't gotten caught up in: the ritual summer pilgrimage to the North Coast. Egyptians are blessed in having two waterfronts, and Cairenes are quite stubborn about the seasonality of each. As a rule, Egyptians spend their summers up on the Mediterranean in the north and their free time in the winter on the Sinai or along the east coast at the Red Sea.
Every summer, like clockwork, the city's wealthy flock to a string of high-end resort towns, mostly to the west of Alexandria. Here's one you can check out; it's called Marina. They turn down the Red Sea cost mostly due to the scorching temperatures and social duties up in the north.
I've never been able to bring myself to spend much time up there, though. I'm still enraptured with the authentic Egyptian culture, and going to these places seems like a cop-out. Don't get me wrong, I've tried it all out, but sitting on even the most elite of beaches, drinking beer with five-thousand of my most high-end Egyptian friends does not add up to a good time for me. Instead, I elicit eye-rolls from every Egyptian I tell this to and head to the Sinai on a regular basis for 115 degree low-key weekends. I usually go either to a hippie town called Dahab or a quiet little Bedouin camp called Ras Shaitan.
Ras Shaitan (meaning, literally, "Devil's Head") is the best because it sits empty most of the year, and we arrive to a beach all our own, great meals, and personal cabins....all for $10 per night! It turns out that the place is practically devoid of tourists except for about five holiday weekends per year when Israelis (yes, Israelis!) seep over the border for a little r&r by the seaside. Ras Shaitan is at its best once the sun goes down. By tradition, I, along with whatever friends I've brought along, pull lounge chairs to the seaside, drink beers, and enjoy the unobstructed view of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel. There is little better in life.
Each time we go to the Sinai, we make a trip up to the north end, mere miles from the heavily fortified Israeli border, for dinner at a place called Castle Zaman. It's a re-created castle, where they pride themselves on their method of slow cooking (meaning three hours) their meals. We typically get a tremendous platter of seafood or an entire leg of lamb. Not bad.
I'll move on, though, for risk of sounding like a travel writer.
There's another summer phenomenon, though, that drives Egyptians away from Cairo for the summer: the arrival of the dreaded "Gulfies." Many upper-middle class Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Emiratis, descend on Cairo for the summer. In oil rich countries, these people may be fairly middle of the road, but they come to Cairo where they're suddenly some of the country's wealthiest. I dare you to find me an Egyptian that does not bristle at the term "Khaligi," which is Arabic for Gulfie. They're rude, obnoxious, Egyptians would tell me. At first, I thought this was all a little over the top, but I've had a few run-ins myself ... and not one has been pleasant. I'm still waiting to see the huge influx that I saw two summers ago, but I'm assured by many Egyptians, that it's coming.
So maybe I ought to get with it, join the ranks of Egyptians, and head north. In the meantime, though, I'll do my part to avoid the Gulfies ... but I'll do so with a massive sun-burn, staring out over the sea, keeping an eye on Saudi Arabia.
(Note to the technologically impaired: any word that appears in a lighter shade is a link. You can click on it and it'll take you to the homepage of whatever it is I'm talking about).
Posted by Theo May at 7:14 PM
Wednesday, July 09, 2008
I came over to the Middle East at the height of the '08 elections with mixed emotions. There I was, nestled in the belly of a British Airways jumbo jet, somewhere near south Greenland when the panic struck. How on earth would I get my daily fill of Matthews, Olbermann, and O'Reilly (yeah I'm a Factor junkie) from halfway around the world. Even if I did manage to get my hands on a TV that played MSNBC and FoxNews, would I really be able to stay up till 2 or 3 in the morning to catch my favorite shows? I'm a guy who needs to know every time Obama mentions arugula and McCain reminds us that he only deals in Straight Talk. I immediately threw on my headphones in an effort to let a little Margaritaville numb the pain, but the seeds of doubt had been planted. As Jimmy's chorus rang for a third and a fourth time in my ear, I tried to reassure myself that following the '08 election from the Middle East would be a unique opportunity.
Now, four weeks into my Cairo adventure, and with the help of my political blogs (which today told me that Obama attended a neighborhood barbeque near his house in Chicago over the weekend!), I've been able to begin to look at how Egyptians are viewing this historic election.
It all started about a week into my trip. I needed a trim and, lacking a favorite barber, found a little spot nestled in a back street in my neighborhood. About ten minutes after my barber offered me a joint of hash, which, through muffled laughter (and shock), I declined, he switched Looney Tunes on the TV and began riffing about the election. Despite my concerns that I had a stoner cutting my hair, I listened. "Obama is a very good man. A Muslim. Did you know?" My first instinct was to set the record straight, but I figured there'd be time for that, so I kept my mouth shut and listened. Switching to broken English, my scissor-wielding friend went on to tell me how having a Muslim president would be good for my country, which had so royally screwed up in his region over the past years. As he went on, essentially repeating his main thesis, I got began to grow excited about looking into how Egyptians viewed the Obama/McCain matchup. Here, issues of home foreclosures and tax cuts seem a distant reality and Middle East policy is king.
I left my barber a little while later, having barely dodged a run-in with two handfuls of hair-gel, unable to persuade him that Obama was, in fact, a Bible-carrying Christian. From that moment, I began asking around about the election, mostly among the ranks of the lower and lower-middle classes – taxi drivers, waiters, doormen, etc. — and the reactions have been surprisingly diverse. In fact, very few of the people I ask hold many illusions about Obama's religion. First and foremost, the prevailing attitude here is that people are ready to move past Bush. It's an attitude not dissimilar to the one in the US at the end of any eight-year president. Even with high approval ratings, people were ready to move on from Clinton in 2000, and I bet the same held true with Reagan in 1988. I've also been surprised by how many people simply haven't heard of Obama; I get a number of blank stares when I mention his name. Many, though, who know Obama and know his true religious affiliation, approach the election with a healthy dose of enthusiasm. There's something intangible, non policy-driven, that excites them about him. It bears mentioning that I don't have much to say about McCain since he rarely registers on the radar of your standard-issue cab driver.
While I can draw no over-arching conclusions from this initial assessment of how Egypt's poor view the presidential election, since opinions and levels of understanding are so varied, this mini sociological experiment has reinforced my belief in the importance of soft power as a critical tool in America's arsenal. Put, for a moment, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the rest of the extremist groups aside. While they have come to represent the face of the Middle East to the West, the real face of this region is the tens of millions of under-payed, under-represented Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, etc. They grow the food, build the houses, etc. They are critical in setting a tone for the region. And it was through these conversations I had with people on the street that I began to realize how open they are to moving back into the American camp. There is this deep, and somewhat amusing, affection among many in the region for Jimmy Carter. No kidding. He comes up often in conversation because they remember him as the last earnest American peace-broker in the region. As much as this may horrify many back home, people here are waiting for their next Jimmy Carter. It is a powerful sentiment, backed by millions, and forms the root of soft-power; and I think the next American President, whoever he may be, will stand a strong chance of reconstituting it. As the Egyptians grow to learn about both candidates, the door will open to begin a new chapter with them. I think, for example, Newt Gingrich's idea that the next President-elect ought to embark on a round-the-world listening tour, would be a powerful gesture to Egyptians up and down the ranks. The next President ignores the masses of the Middle East at their own peril.
Posted by Theo May at 4:16 PM
Well, I've been in Cairo for almost a month, and I figured it was about time to get this blog re-started. This time I'm going to do things a little differently, though. When I was last in the Middle East, I registered thirty-five posts over eleven months. Not bad, but going forward I plan to cut down on the length of my posts and instead focus on posting shorter posts far more frequently. Needless to say, when I have one of those groundbreaking epiphanies that suddenly allow me to see the Middle East in a new and fascinating light, I won't hold back. In the meantime, this blog will serve as a means of constantly updating you, the faithful reader, on a day-to-day basis. Count on many stories — the funny, the peculiar, the tragic — and some (I hope not too pretentious) thoughts on Egypt and the region. Some posts will be personal, some analytical. In the end, though, I hope that through these posts and the comment section at the bottom, we might be able to all share a little bit of knowledge in the study of this fascinating region.
Now let me tell you about my first month here. I spent my first days living with my friends Tom and Whitney at their place here in Zamalek, which is the neighborhood on the island in the middle of the Nile. I've since moved and found myself a nice little place just down the street from Tom and Whitney, across from where I used to live.
I've started work as a part-time business reporter for a local paper called Daily News Egypt, and you can check out my latest article here. Hey, whoever knew that natural gas could be such a blast. I'm also getting started right now with some work I'll be doing for ABC News over the course of the coming year. I'd tell you what I'm working on for them, but Charlie (you know, Gibson) told me to keep it under wraps. Just kidding.
My friends from Middlebury, Rowan and Justin came to visit near the end of June and we had a great time visiting the sites around Cairo, including the pyramids, the camel market, the Friday market (where monkeys come cheap!), etc. We also ventured to the Sinai for a few days of rest Bedouin style.
I suppose I'll leave it there for now. Nothing too exciting in this post, but I wanted to give you the full update in short order. Many more stories to come in the coming days and weeks.
In the meantime, I've put a few photos in the post below to whet your appetite. You should be able to click on each image to enlarge it.
Posted by Theo May at 2:40 AM