She cooked me fish: my encounter with the Muslim Brotherhood

I have a long assigned reading for my journalism class tomorrow that I ought to be reading right now on how to tell good stories, but I think I’m done reading for tonight. Instead, I have a story I want to tell. It’s a story that’s been bumping around inside my head for a while now, but I just read something that made me decide that it needs to be told tonight. 

I just read this article from The Daily News Egypt about Michelle Bachmann’s appearance on the Egyptian TV channel, ONTV, as a part of a visit to Egypt. According to the article, Bachmann used this stage to applaud the military for their overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood, “a terrorist organization.”

“We’ve seen the threat that the Muslim Brotherhood has posed around the world,” Bachmann said.  “We stand against this great evil.  We are not for them.  We remember who caused 9/11 in America.  We remember who it was who killed 3,000 brave Americans.”

Now, for those of you who’ve read this blog before, you know I’m not the hugest fan of the Muslim Brotherhood’s politics. I was certainly not a fan of Morsi  or the choices he made during his presidency. I whole-heartedly supported the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets on June 30 to call for his ouster, I rejoiced with them when the army helped them reach that aim, and I continue to watch eagerly as they nurture their fledgling democracy.

But one thing I do not support in any way is the labeling of the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists.

I have been outraged by the military propaganda calling the Brotherhood a threat to national security as a justification for their brutality and gross violations of human rights. I have been outraged by the Egyptian media that have spread this propaganda and added to the division and distrust between civilians, rather than doing their job of seeking out truth so that the public can be fully informed.

And now I am outraged by the words of this representative from my own home state. Bachmann has no idea of the effect of her words, the way in which they will deepen the divide within an already polarized population. And she clearly hasn’t met Salma’s mom.

Salma’s mom is just a little bit taller than me, with a round face and a sweet smile. She kissed me once on each cheek and welcomed me into her family’s modest 11th story apartment in Nasr City. She was wearing a simple, traditional galabaya with a blue head scarf. She asked me about my family and my studies and she cooked me fish. I don’t normally like fish, but I loved hers.

I didn’t get to spend much time with Salma’s mom. Most of the afternoon, she was in the kitchen making food for me, and while I ate, she was waiting on me and her family, moving back and forth between the kitchen and the living room, carrying plates of rice and pitchers of water and cups of tea. She made excellent tea.

And she is in the Muslim Brotherhood.

For reasons her liberal blogger-activist daughter will never understand, Salma’s mom cast her vote for Morsi in 2012 and stood by him throughout his presidency. Salma thinks her parents felt they had to vote for him because they identified with his strong Muslim faith and values—much the way many conservative Christians feel they must vote Republican.

But regardless of why, Salma’s mom believed in the Muslim Brotherhood, and she believed in Morsi. She used her hard-earned right to vote to elect him, and her heart broke the day the military forced him from power. Salma described the wailing that filled the apartment that fateful day as her mom watched it all unfold helplessly on the TV.  So when the sit-in began in Rabaa, a short microbus ride from her apartment, Salma’s mom decided to go. She was there the day that the military arrived with machine guns and tanks to disperse the “terrorists.”

By God’s grace, Salma’s mom made it back safely to her apartment, her husband and her four children. But other moms weren’t so fortunate. They weren’t terrorists. Salma’s mom isn’t a terrorist. She cooked me fish.

If we go by the Oxford dictionary’s definition of “terrorist,” as “a person uses terrorism in the pursuit of political aims,” then there are certainly terrorists within the Muslim Brotherhood. We can start with the people who mindlessly attacked over two dozen churches a couple weeks ago. By the same token, there are certainly terrorists within the military and the police who fired live ammunition into crowds of civilian protestors, killing hundreds in one fell swoop. And all the civilian vigilantes who joined in to assist them could probably fit under that label.

But you don’t hear anyone calling the *cough*American-funded*cough* Egyptian military a “terrorist group.” The Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t deserve that title either. And they certainly don’t deserve to be blamed for 9-11, Rep. Bachmann.

Because I know someone in the Brotherhood, and she isn’t a terrorist. She’s a mom. Salma’s mom.

 

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Why the rejoicing over a coup??

As most of you should know by now, the army ultimatum for Morsi expired yesterday and they made good on their threat to get involved. General Al-Sissi told Morsi that he was no longer president and the army took to the streets. US media immediately labeled this a coup on Egypt’s first democratically elected president. “So,” you rightly ask, “why the celebration? Why the jubilation in the streets? Isn’t this a step back for Egypt?”

The short answer in my opinion is yes, this is a step backwards for Egypt and her desires to establish a democracy. But sometimes we need to step backwards if we realize we’re heading down the wrong path so that we can get ourselves on the right track. The Egyptians who you see rejoicing over the destruction of their infant democracy are the Egyptians who believed it was so flawed it couldn’t be repaired and needed to be scrapped and started over.

What happened is a coup– it can’t be labeled anything else. But it came at the bequest of the people– millions of people. June 30 marked the biggest protests in Egypt’s history, millions across the country uniting and calling for the ousting of Morsi. The idealists were hoping he would simply resign and call for early elections but the realists knew from the get-go that Morsi wasn’t likely to leave unless he was forced to, and that the only one with the actual power to do so was Al-Sissi and his armed forces. These same realists also knew that giving power back to the army wasn’t a great alternative. But the people had placed getting rid of Morsi as their highest priority– an end that justified any means. And so, even though these same people cursed the army just a year ago for managing politics, they cheered for them when they decided to intervene this time. Thanks to their involvement, their main objective has been reached: Morsi is overthrown.

Reaching such a seemingly impossible goal is certainly something worth rejoicing over. Every Egyptian who participated in those protests played a crucial role in seeing it happen and they deserve to celebrate. I celebrated with them. But I think everyone realizes that now it’s time to face the fallout. Morsi is gone (hooray!)– but here’s what’s left in his wake: a broken democracy, a sectarian division that has just grown much deeper and more hateful, and a country under military governance for an indefinite amount of time (even though there’s an “interim president” put in power, he was put there by the army– not the people, so I consider that military governance). Sorry to be a party pooper but correct me if I’m wrong.

Egypt has chosen a long and difficult road, I’m afraid. They must now face the deep and seemingly irreconcileable differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and the rest of the population. The death toll is rising as clashes between the two entities flare up throughout the country. And with each death, the hatred is deepening. If Egypt ever hopes to be able to unite under one president, they are going to have to find some way to bridge this divide, otherwise the unrest is fated to continue, regardless of who is elected.

They must also face the truth that they have usurped democracy. They set democratic governance as their goal after ousting Mubarak but have decided to go around it now and have thus undermined it. I’m not saying this is wrong– but Egypt needs to face up to the truth that this is what they’ve done. They can justify it– and I too, will justify it if you want my opinion– but we all need to call it like it is if we want to move forward. Ousting Morsi was undemocratic, pure and simple. Those of you who know me personally will know that I’ve never been the biggest advocate for democracy anyway– so don’t take this as a condemnation of the Egyptians’ decision. I’m just calling a spade a spade.

Egypt has now had a taste of democracy– and didn’t like it. So now, they need to decide if it’s still their objective. And if it is, they’re going to have to rebuild it, which is going to be a long, difficult road, full of disappointments and hangups. I hope that this has taught them that democracy isn’t as romantic as it sounds. It’s frustrating! Because it is founded on the principle that the will of the majority is right– and sometimes the majority will make decisions that you disagree with, decisions you wish you could change. But to be a part of a democracy is to have faith– to have faith that you can bring about the change you want to see within the framework of democracy, over time, with hard work. Democracy doesn’t work quickly; it works slowly, particularly in a system that is divided along bipartisan lines.

Democracy doesn’t work to satisfy the will of the individual; it works to satisfy the will of the populace. Democracy isn’t clean and easy; it’s messy and difficult and painful and frustrating. America is supposed to be the model for modern democracy– so just ask any American. No one is satisfied with our government. No one. What I hope the Egyptian people realize is that even at it’s worst, Morsi’s presidency was democracy at work. And it kinda sucked, didn’t it? Whatever happens next, if it’s within the framework of democracy, it’s going to suck at times! No matter who’s leading it. The sooner Egypt realizes that, the sooner they’ll be able to move forward. 

So back to your original question: “Isn’t this coup a step back for Egypt?” Yes, it is. But as I said, sometimes, stepping back is the only way to see the path forward. I have every faith that the Egyptian people will choose a good path forward when the time comes– but I hope they realize that even the best path will be rocky and hard and long.

I can’t walk this path with them– all I can do is pray from wherever I am in the world and cheer them on as they take control of their future. 

 

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What in the world is happening in Egypt?? My best attempt at an FAQ

Alright, so I know I’m not in Egypt anymore and really am in no place to provide updates on what’s going on on the ground there… But I’ve been receiving requests from several different people to provide an explanation of the situation and some insight into what we can expect… So I’m putting together a little FAQ of the questions I’ve been getting and the answers I’ve been giving, based on what I learned during my time there and what my contacts on the ground are telling me now. Now, please note, I only spent 5 months there and I’m not there currently so I’m really not an expert on this… I highly encourage you to seek out further information from more knowledgeable sources (I’ll provide a list at the end here). Also, if you are IN Egypt and can provide more information/ better answers, I invite you to join in the conversation. If you are not in Egypt and have further questions that don’t appear here, I invite you too to join in by using the comments box below.

1) What is the Muslim Brotherhood?
The Muslim Brotherhood is a small religious group that was founded in Egypt in 1928 (I think?). Up until the revolution, they were banned by the various secular dictatorial regimes that ruled the country. They continued to work underground though, doing, I’m told, a lot of grassroots charity work, providing aid to the poor, marginalized people living in rural areas. Though they made attempts to get into politics, they were consistently shut out. Until the revolution. For the first time, the door was wide open for them to nip this secularism stuff in the bud and bring the country back to God by forming the Freedom and Justice Party (though the latter is officially not affiliated with the MB). Enter Morsi. Thanks to 90 years of work behind the scenes, the Muslim Brotherhood were able to convince those people they had helped that they ought to cast their ballot for them– and they may or not have led them to believe they would go to hell if they didn’t vote for God’s candidate. (Reminds me somewhat of conservative Christians and the Republican party in the US… but that’s for a different blog I suppose). So Morsi won. And when he did, so did the Muslim Brotherhood. They have been ruling the country through Morsi since his rise to power– or at least that’s what the opposition will tell you.

2) What has Morsi done to make everyone hate him so much?2
I personally can’t speak to Morsi’s character… But when I look at him on TV, I don’t see a tyrant or a villain, despite what some of my more zealous opposition friends might say… I just see a bad president. He was handed a huge mess and has done a pretty great job of mishandling it– and the Egyptian people have had no patience for him. It didn’t help that a huge chunk of the population hated him to begin with and was irked that after all their work to oust Mubarak, they ended up with a President they didn’t like… (imagine canvassing all summer for your favorite presidential candidate only to see someone you strongly disagree with come to power… and multiply that feeling times a hundred). So they jumped on his every blunder (and there have been quite a few) and in one year, have managed to turn a big percentage of those that voted for him against him.
So I would argue that what we are seeing now is more the result of steady campaigning and protesting by the revolutionaries who didn’t want to see Morsi come to power in the first place than it is the result of anything Morsi himself has done since coming to power.
That being said, he hasn’t done a great job. Some of his biggest errors include: pushing the boundaries with the judiciary and acting outside the legal limits of his power as president (for a list of his squabbles with the judiciary, check out: http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2013/06/29/timeline-of-morsi-and-the-judiciary-one-year-in-power/), making a series of promises he knew he couldn’t keep– and not keeping any of them, drafting and passing a pretty awful constitution that fails to outline protection for women, the press, and freedom of speech among other things, and allowing his police to abuse and repress his people when they gathered to protest against him. Since he’s come to power, the economic situation has also deteriorated rapidly, bringing the country careening toward bankruptcy, and the country has depleted its natural energy reserves without the means to really buy more leading to a worsening fuel crisis.
Now I doubt that most of these problems are the results of actual decisions made by Morsi himself but he’s the figurehead and thus the scapegoat. He gets blamed for everything that goes wrong. And I mean everything (“damn this traffic! it’s gotten way worse since Morsi came to power!”). Morsi is not Egypt’s biggest problem in my opinion, but he has come to represent all her woes.

3) What is Tamarod?
“Tamarod” (meaning “Rebel”) is a campaign that was launched by the opposition in my last few weeks in Egypt. I remember seeing black and white sheets of paper with the word “Tamarod” on them in big bold letters beginning to circulate around the city. It wasn’t long before I saw piles of them in nearly every shop and corner store, pasted on walls around the city… On these flyers was a small paragraph outlining the campaign’s goal: to collect 15 million signatures showing a lack of confidence in the president and calling for early elections by the 1 year anniversary of his election. Next to the paragraph was a form where you filled out your information and signed your name. I was there when the movement started and I have since gotten to watch it grow and spread throughout the entire country, gathering steam and momentum as it went along. By last count, they had gathered 22 million signatures.
Now, there was some question as to the legal potency of this petition… Constitutionally, it’s debatable whether the president can call for early elections and whether the supreme constitutional court could do anything much with these signatures. But regardless, the campaign accomplished something pretty major: it mobilized a huge mass of people to join in voicing their displeasure with the current government. The result: millions all across the country took to the streets yesterday with one word on their lips: “Irhil”… Go.

4) I saw that an American student got stabbed a few days ago… Does this mean Egypt is no longer safe for Americans?
My heart goes out to this student’s family and loved ones… that could easily have been me and I can only imagine the heartache it would have inflicted on my family. While I was in Egypt, I chose on a few occasions to attend protests for work. Every time I went, I went knowing that there were risks involved. I tried to choose demonstrations I thought would stay peaceful but I knew there was always the possibility that things could go awry and I could get stuck in it. I also knew there was additional danger to me as a foreigner and a woman. I knew these risks and I still chose to go because I believed I ought to, though I took as many precautions as I could. As a result, I put myself in a few hairy situations that could have gone very wrong for me. I thank God for looking out for me and keeping me safe.
That being said, in those circumstances, I could have easily avoided all risk and danger by simply choosing not to attend the protests. They were always pretty contained and I knew exactly where to be and where not to be. If I chose to be somewhere dangerous, it was a calculated decision, as I’ve already said.
From what I’ve read, the American student was stabbed at an Islamist protest in Alexandria. We will never know why he was there at that time, but I’ve seen no evidence that he was coerced into being there and so we have to assume that he chose to be there. He seems like he was a brilliant guy, with a real heart to understand the Arab world and I’m sure he went with the best of intentions. But I’m also sure that like me, he got plenty of emails from the State Department, his university and his parents telling him of the dangers of protests, and chose to go nonetheless. I do not condemn him for going or blame him in any way for his death– he shouldn’t have died and the people who killed him should be prosecuted, along with all of the thugs, extremists and police who have killed hundreds of other Egyptian protestors these last few years. But his death could have been avoided altogther if he had not been at that protest to begin with. If he had been anywhere else in the city.
Protests like the ones going on right now are highly volatile, risky situations no matter who you are or what your reason is for attending them. But they are also highly contained, and one can pretty much eliminate all risk of harm by simply steering clear of them. So… Are Egyptian protests safe for Americans? No. They aren’t safe for anyone. Anything can happen. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of the country where people aren’t protesting isn’t safe. At least that’s how it was when I was there.

5) What can we expect to happen now?
I have no idea. I’m on the edge of my seat, watching all of this unfold on Twitter and chatting with my friends on the ground on Facebook. In case you haven’t heard, the Egyptian military, which had vowed to stay out of politics, announced today that they were giving the presidency 48 hours to respond to the demands of the people, since such a huge wave of protest couldn’t be ignored. As I type this, the presidency is in an emergency meeting with the Freedom and Justice Party to figure out what to do.
Right now, it would seem the masses want nothing short of a military coup to take Morsi from power. But they seem to have forgotten that just over a year ago, they were cursing the military for ruling the country with corruption and injustice and demanding they put into power a democratically elected president. If the military DOES step in and oust Morsi, there will be huge rejoicing– but with this ultimatum now in place, there’s an ominous question looming: then what? I’ve yet to hear a well-formulated answer– which will inevitably translate into chaos and confusion on the ground.
At the moment, the mood seems to be pretty upbeat in Egypt. The protestors are feeling empowered because their voices are finally being heard (opinion: it shouldn’t have taken this much for someone to finally listen to them!), and everyone is waiting with baited breath moment to moment to see what will happen. From where I sit, it’s like watching an action movie– except I know there’s no screenplay. So by the time you read this a few hours from now, all of this could have changed. I can feel the suspense, the adrenaline and the euphoria from here. And if this all ends with Morsi leaving power, then I will cheer and chant and jump up and down along with my Egyptian brothers and sisters. My heart already swells with pride and awe at the way they’ve come together and made their voices heard.
But I cannot ignore this sobering truth. Egypt has a slew of struggles it’s battling right now: a busted economy, sectarian and political division, lack of education, a fuel crisis, high unemployment, a wounded tourism industry, tense foreign relations with neighboring countries… And removing Morsi won’t fix those problems. I have full faith that the Egyptian people can find solutions– but they must see that ousting Morsi would only be the beginning of a solution, not the solution itself.

Post-script: As promised, a list of sources for first-hand, reliable information:

-On Twitter, follow: @basildabh, @jgulhane, @salmats2al, @norabeh, @hendtrk, @sandmonkey, @tahrirsquared, @tahrir_news, @aaboulenein, @dailynewsegypt, @egyptindependent… and follow the people they follow

-Some local opinion pieces, analyses and articles: http://tahrirsquared.com/node/5137

http://www.mei.edu/content/june-30-tamarod-and-its-opponents

http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2013/06/29/timeline-of-morsi-and-the-judiciary-one-year-in-power/

http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2013/06/29/human-rights-achievements-one-year-in-power/

http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2013/07/01/tamarod-gives-morsi-until-tuesday-to-step-down/

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What Egypt Taught Me

I write this from the green, rainy, spacious land of Minnesota, in my parents’ lovely home in the suburbs of the Twin Cities. I’ve been up since 5 AM– thank you jet lag. I left Egypt five days ago and it feels more like I’ve crossed galaxies than time zones. This world is just so completely different! I’ve arrived just in time for the great Minnesotan tradition of grad party season, so I’ve spent the last five days going from house to house, congratulating high school graduates I sort of know, eating finger foods and attempting to answer the token question, “how was Egypt?” in the four seconds I have before I lose the asker’s attention.

My answer usually goes something like this: “It was so great! Worked for a newspaper, blah blah, learned Egyptian Arabic blah blah, went to the pyramids blah blah.” This will occasionally be followed up with some sort of question about Egypt’s security, but then the conversation shifts to the weather (“mmm, yes, I heard you had a snowstorm in May, this hail must not seem so bad”) or the person’s plans for the summer (“a mission’s trip to northern Minnesota, that’s really wonderful!”) or the food I’m eating (“great brownies”). But on the rare occasion when I can tell that someone actually wants to know about my time in Egypt, this is what I tell them.

My time in Egypt was a crazy ride. Some parts of it tested the limits of my toughness and tenacity and took me well outside my comfort zone. Others were just sheer fun. And still others were sobering, saddening and downright disheartening. I did a lot of growing up these last four months. And Egypt taught me many things.

It taught me that any place can be beautiful if you see it through the right eyes. My first few months in Cairo, I had written it off as an ugly, cramped, chaotic city. I was loving my time there, but I saw Cairo as a sore I had to put up with in order to enjoy all the adventures and experiences it held for me. I lamented the lack of color, the constant haze that hung over the city, the hours I had to spend sitting in traffic every day. But then a co-worker rebuked me and challenged me to give Cairo a second look. He took me to his balcony and he pointed out the way the light reflected off the thousands of satellite dishes, or the way his neighbor had managed to make a garden grow on her small balcony in the middle of the city– just a few of the many ways that the Egyptian people have adapted themselves to the chaos of Cairo. That’s beautiful, he said emphatically. And I saw that he was right. There was beauty in Cairo; there had been all along. I just hadn’t had the eyes to see it.

Egypt taught me a good deal about democracy and its shortcomings. America preaches the gospel of democracy as the be-all-end-all of governmental systems, but I have long questioned whether it is truly transposable into all circumstances (I for one grew up in a pretty strict authoritarian monarchy and am none the worse for it). And what my time in Egypt has shown me is that  democracy– or at least America’s version of it– has some pretty specific prerequisites to it. The fact of the matter is that America was built as a democracy from the ground up. The founding fathers had the unique chance to start from scratch and put into place all the cogs they thought would be necessary to power the democratic machine: education, freedom of the press, systems of checks and balances. And even with two hundred years of groundwork, American democracy is far from perfect. It is therefore absurd to think that putting a different end piece on the machine in Egypt (or Iraq or Uganda…) will make it suddenly start cranking out democracy. It takes a lot more than a ballot box to make a democratic government. It is unrealistic for anyone to expect Egypt to be able to do in two years what the US has been working on for two hundred. And I maintain that I am not all too sure that America ought to be the gold standard for governments anyway. This does not mean that I think Egypt cannot do any better than what it had under Mubarak– but I don’t think Egypt can ever have an American-style (or even French-style) democracy and they should stop holding out for one. If there is one thing I have learned about Egyptians it is that they are highly intelligent, tenacious, resourceful people and I have no doubt that they will continue to sort themselves out a great government. But it will take a long time to rebuild their machine and in the meantime, it should come as no surprise when it breaks down, bursts into flames or cranks out a dysfunctional product.

Egypt also taught me a few things about myself. It taught me that I am a lot tougher than I thought I was. People have always told me I’m a “sweet little girl” and I’ve always seen myself as such. But this semester, I taught myself a new language and used it to interview political figures, I survived a grievous head wound, I traveled across the country by public transport, I was teargassed and shot at… And with each new experience, I learned that I am much more than a “sweet little girl.” I can fend for myself and do pretty much anything I set my mind to. And for me, that was huge.

And finally, Egypt taught me that the Middle East/North Africa is my natural habitat. At the age of 20, I have lived in five countries and moved nine times. And if there is one thing I have become sure of it is that I do not belong to any one place or people. But boy, did I feel right when I was in Egypt, just as I feel right when I am in Morocco. It’s odd I know, because I do not look as though I fit in in the sea of olive skin and dark, curly hair, and I’d be kidding myself if I thought I ever truly could. But regardless of how they view me, I feel most at ease when I am surrounded by the gutteral utterances of Arabic, colorful hijabs, and sharp smells of the Middle East. This is where I thrive. Even though Egypt had almost nothing in common with Morocco and there was much I had to learn, I knew how to learn it and I was completely in my element as I did. There was a tension that rolled off my shoulders the minute I stepped off the plane into the wave of heat at the Cairo airport– and that has inevitably returned since my homecoming to the US. I can’t put my finger on what it is exactly, but against all odds, this very scandinavian-looking girl  belongs in the Arab world more than she belongs anywhere else. I see that now.

I don’t know what this next chapter holds for me, but I do know that I will always look back on Egypt and my semester there as its opening paragraphs.

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The Cairo Dance

Traffic. I feel as though I’d be leaving out a pretty significant part of my Cairo experience if I didn’t write about it: the hours spent making my way through the city at around the speed of pudding oozing its way across a countertop, the thrill of dodging mopeds and stepping out in front of buses to get across the street, and the gorgeous sunsets that only smog can produce. Yes, traffic is a defining part of the Egyptian experience.

At first glance, it looks like utter chaos. All the rules you learn in driver’s ed in America are thrown out the window. People create four lanes where there are meant to be two, completely disregard stoplights, turn left from the right-most lane, don’t turn their headlights on at night, never wear a seatbelt, and rarely use their turn signal. Markets spill out into the roads, microbuses stop in the middle of the street to pick up passengers, and donkey carts trot along amid the fray. You can see the evidence of attempts to create Western order: lane lines, stoplights, speed limit signs, one way signs, signs that say no double-parking… But Cairo has developed a system of its own. It’s not there is no order; it’s just not the order that the colonialists had in mind when they designed the roads years ago.

While life and traffic in other parts of the world are more akin to a dignified waltz, in Cairo, they have a dance all their own, more like a jazz. The rhythm is complex and the steps are always changing, and if you have never danced it before, you are likely to get your feet stepped on. At first listen, you hear nothing resembling the conventional three-beat flow of the waltz, nor do you recognize any of the steps you are familiar with. You may try to waltz all the same, only to find yourself lost in the jumble of screeches and honks, bustled and bumped by the other dancers who do not seem to care much whether their dancing makes sense to you. But just because they do not waltz does not mean they do not dance.

What sounds like a cacaphone of meaningless honking is actually the basis for a fascinating communication system. Drivers use combinations of beeps to mean “I’m passing you on your right!” or “@#$% you!” or “make way for the bride and groom!” In fact, I have observed that most drivers seem to navigate by sonar, using the honks of other drivers to determine where they are in the stream of traffic and thereby figure out when it is safe to pass or merge or turn. In vehicles where the side mirrors are the first things to go, such a system actually makes some sense.  It is then easy to see why such things as turn signals have little use.

And though it may appear as though drivers are constantly thoughtlessly double-parking each other in, what is actually at work is a clever solution to Cairo’s parking problem. When drivers cannot find a place to park, they double-park but leave their handbreak off so that whoever is parked on the inside need only push the car out of the way before backing out of the parking space. And so the dance goes on.

Nowhere is this dance more apparent than in crossing the street. At first, it might seem an impossible task with no crosswalks to be found and no real breaks in the flow of traffic. None of the steps you’ve learned in your waltzing lessons will work here and one misstep can be dangerous. But if you watch an Egyptian make his way across the street, you’ll see that there is some method to the madness. The crosser steps off the curb with confidence that the drivers coming at him will find some way not to hit him. Rather than waiting for the entire street to clear (an almost impossible thing in this city), he takes it one lane at a time (keeping in mind that lanes are shifting things), stopping in the middle of the road to wait for the next gap, dodging mopeds, while microbuses weave around him without skipping a beat. Just like any dance, the whole process hinges on the follower being able to interpret what the lead wants—something I don’t have completely figured out. More often than not, I weave right when the moped coming at me wants me to weave left and we only narrowly miss a collision. But those who have been dancing since they were children make the whole thing seem effortless—and kind of beautiful to watch.

Learning to cross the street is a pretty solid allegory for learning to do life in Cairo. All the zaniness might be hugely intimidating at first, and not much of it is likely to be familiar (even with 12 years in Morocco under my belt, I was taken aback by how different things are here). But you have to eventually step off the curb in confidence that though there might be some near misses, you won’t be hit. The people here will look out for you; some may even grab your hand and help you across. They’re always happy to teach you Arabic and show you how to get around. But what makes them happier than anything I think is when you show humility and a desire to learn, when you accept that they do dance even if it’s nothing like what you’re used to, you stop trying to fit your steps onto their rhythm and you just let them teach you how it’s done.

The Cairo dance is not the most efficient or safe way of doing things—not by a long shot. But it is totally unique and fascinating to learn. I’m far from mastering it but I’m giving it my best effort.  And despite my clumsy feet, the Egyptians just smile graciously and dance along.  

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A case for Egypt

I recently read a pretty disheartening blog post from someone who had been travelling through Egypt, describing how terrible the experience had been for him and his female friend. He complained of the sexual harassment she encountered and the persistent nagging from tourist vendors he had to deal with, and wrote Egypt off as an experience to avoid. Sadly, this seems to be the sort of press Egypt is getting these days. Between irked travel bloggers and sensationalist media reporters, it’s been awhile since something positive was said about this place. Now the thing is, I know that for every bad review Egypt gets, there would be two good reviews if people actually wrote them. But a page full of positivity gets a lot less hits in the blogsphere and it’s the negative things that stand out to us the most anyway.

But I’ve decided it was high time someone made a case for Egypt, so here I go. (This blog never really got too many hits anyway).

A case for the safety of Egypt:

2013-03-16 11.50.07The question I get the most in regards to Egypt (and the question I asked many people myself prior to my semester here) is, “Is it safe?” And it’s a fair question. The only time Egypt is mentioned in American media is when a protester lights a car on fire, or a tourist gets kidnapped, or a girl gets raped in Tahrir. As a young woman looking to study abroad here last semester, my family and I definitely thought we had cause for concern for my safety as we followed the headlines from Minnesota. But the fact of the matter is Cairo is really no more unsafe than Los Angeles or Chicago in my opinion.

The thing to remember about Cairo is that it is massive. And I mean massive. Words can’t describe the endless sea of buildings that spreads out in front of you in every direction as you descend on Cairo from an airplane. With over 20 million inhabitants, it’s hard to fathom the scope of this metropolis. And the thing about a city so big is that it’s easy to stay out of trouble. Everyone in Cairo is very well connected through phones and social media, so I can always know what’s going on in every part of the city– and if they’re firing teargas in one corner of it, I just won’t go there (err… usually, that is). It’s very comparable to living in LA or Chicago where there are sections of the city that are know for a lot of gang violence. You find out where the trouble is and you avoid it. And the few times I have placed myself in harm’s way either for my job (see “When the fight becomes the cause”) or out of my own foolishness (see “How I went sightseeing and ended up in the ER”), there have been Egyptians at my side looking out for me and seeing that I was well cared for.

So if you’ve wanted to come to Egypt but are concerned about safety, this I say to you: get someone to help you learn how to cross the street here, because by my estimation, the crazy microbus drivers pose the biggest threat to your security and well-being (seriously though… the fact that I still have all my toes attached is a minor miracle). As for crazy rioters? Just avoid them; unless you’re a member of the presidential cabinet, their beef isn’t with you.

A case for the wonder of Egypt:

I should hope that not much would need to be said in this regard. The awesome ancient wonders that give Egypt its claim to fame are DSC00062every bit as incredible as they’re described. The pyramids and sphinx here in Cairo, the awe-inspiring tombs and temples of Upper Egypt, the jagged mountains of Sinai, the Red Sea with its thousands of fish of every color and shape… With each new wonder, my admiration for this country and its incredible history has grown. I was blown away by the art and architecture that came out of the renaissance in Europe– so I leave you to imagine what it’s been like for me to visit the birthplace of civilization itself.

As a person of faith, Egypt also has had a lot to offer me. I’ve gotten to visit the world’s first monastery and a number of fascinating first and second century churches, as well as some beautiful mosques. As a lover of nature, the Nile river in Upper Egypt and the Red Sea in Sinai have captured my heart. Three of the five best diving spots in the world are in Sinai and snorkeling there was like sticking my head in a Monet painting and watching the swirls of color come to life: magical. Likewise, there is something strangely majestic about the vast deserts, and though I wasn’t able to make it out there myself, I’m told the Black and White desert is natural wonder. I also won’t soon forget the stars the night I climbed Mt. Sinai. There were more than I have ever seen in my life, with massive shooting stars streaking across the sky every few minutes it seemed. For much of Egypt, there has been only one word I could use to describe it: Awesome.

A case for the chivalry of Egypt:

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Just a couple of my favorite Egyptian men!

I can’t deny the problem of sexual harassment here in Egypt. It’s bad. As a young woman, there is pretty much a 100% chance you’ll encounter it and it probably won’t be pleasant. It certainly hasn’t been for me. Men here can be real jerks. But I have also found that chivalry is more alive here than almost anywhere else in the world. Yes, you read that right. Though I’ve had idiots grope me, whistle at me and otherwise harass me, I’ve also had true gentlemen rise up to defend me, go miles out of their way to see me safely home, lend me their jackets and insist on paying for my meal– some, men I don’t know at all or know only through a mutual acquaintance. And all of the young Egyptian men I’ve come to know personally have treated me and my friends with a level of respect, dignity and gallantry I have rarely experienced from my male friends anywhere else. Femininity is a valued and cherished entity that Egyptian culture is fighting  to protect, and any well-bred man I’ve encountered is willing to put himself in harm’s way to uphold the honor of the women in his life.

The problem of sexual harassment is real in Egypt– just like it’s real in so many other parts of the world I’ve visited and lived in. But unlike almost anywhere else, Egypt’s civil society is taking incredible initiative to counteract the problem (see “Egypt’s New Revolution“). It’s not something that we can realistically expect to see change anytime soon– but boy, the Egyptians sure are putting in the good fight!

A case for the tourist vendors of Egypt:

“Welcome to Egypt!” “For you, I give you Egyptian price!” “Special day today, everything half off!”

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Jaber, one of the Nubian men who took us down the Nile

It’s impossible to frequent any site that is remotely touristy without having to put up with the obnoxious tourist vendors. There will pretty much always be someone cajoling you to check out their wares or coming up with some sort of reason why you must tip them a few pounds (taking a picture of someone’s camel for instance, is a common and costly mistake). It can be downright aggravating to have your monumental visit to history be accompanied by a soundtrack of cheesy sales pitches (my personal favorite: “I don’t know what you want, but I have what you need!”). And when you do decide to purchase something, trying to sort out a fair price can be pretty frustrating for most visitors as well.

But the thing about these obnoxious tourist vendors is that their lives and those of their families depend on tourism, an industry that has plummeted since the revolution. I had many interesting conversations with tourist vendors on my visit to Upper Egypt over spring break. They didn’t go to Tahrir in January 2011; political games mean nothing to them. They just kept asking me, exasperated, “Why does no one come to Egypt anymore?” The hard fact is that these men must sell someone a ride in their horse carriage or a fake papyrus or their families will not eat that night. And with little understanding of some of the major cultural differences between Egypt and the West, they come off far more obnoxious than they intend.

It can be so easy to forget the humanity of these vendors when they and their camel are right up in your face, but the fact of the matter is, they’re people too. I don’t imagine they enjoy being ignored and blown off by every white person who comes traipsing across their monuments anymore than we enjoy being followed and heckled. Contrary to what your guidebook will tell you, throughout my time here, I’ve seen the value in stopping to say a “salam aleikum” to a vendor or two, and asking how they’re doing before firmly telling him I’m not interested in buying anything today. The simple gesture brings so much gratitude to their faces– and occasionally even results in a nice cup of tea.

In summary:

Egypt isn’t glamorous. It’s a densely populated, gritty, chaotic place. The cars don’t stay in their lanes and the appointments don’t start on time. The prices on most items aren’t listed and toilet paper in a bathroom is a rare find. It’s nothing like the West. But that is precisely what I love most about it.

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A philosophical rambling that comes of spending too much time afloat on a river

When was the last time you did nothing? I mean really and truly nothing?

If you’re anything like me, then “nothing” is not an activity that you engage in regularly. I feel this need to be constantly surrounded by people, with a long list of things to accomplish. Sitting still is not something I do very well. Last semester, the closest I came to doing nothing I think was driving 13 hours from Oxford, Ohio to my parents’ home in St. Paul, Minnesota. I would complain about how busy I was, but the truth of the matter is that I was never still because I chose not to be.

I think stillness in general makes me uncomfortable. Part of it is my extroverted, energetic personality I think, but a big part of it is cultural. I think aversion to stillness is a defining trait of Western society—one that I have inherited from my American side and that becomes all the more acute when I am on American soil.

Think about it. In America, we squirm at pregnant pauses in conversation, we cover white walls with paint or pictures, and we fill planners (or iPhones if you’re cool like that) with appointments. We wear watches that keep time down to the second and from a young age, we are taught how to responsibly “manage time” as though it were a wild beast that we needed to train. We of course, understand the need for leisure and good social interaction, but these quickly become just another sort of appointment: we carve out special hours for physical exercise and naps, and we schedule coffee dates with friends in the in-between spaces in our busy days, conveniently taking care of any otherwise useless “free time.” We value efficiency, strategic planning, and accomplishment. We don’t really value doing nothing.

This whole value system is flipped on its head though the minute you venture outside of this realm we call “the first world.” Nowhere is this more apparent than here in Egypt. Egyptians view time, and by extension, life, in a completely different way than Westerners do. It drives all the white people positively batty, much to my amusement.

I got to thinking about time and busyness and all this last week when my friend Raustin and I decided to go for a little cruise on the Nile from Aswan to Kom Ombo in the south of Egypt. We hired two Nubian boatmen to take us on their old-fashioned sailboat felucca on a two-day, two-night trip down the river. Nile cruises are a common activity in this part of the country, though most tourists opt to take big, lumbering, boxy cruise boats with 5-star restaurants, pools and plush rooms. These big boats zoom down the Nile, getting from Aswan to Luxor in as little as 3 nights. Onboard, their passengers watch the river go by as they sip their ice-cold lemonades from the deck, and the crew provide them with entertainment and activities throughout the cruise so as to keep them from getting restless.

We opted for the student budget option. Instead of 5-star restaurants, we got simple potato stews and fish cooked to perfection over a tiny gas burner. Instead of pools, we got the Nile itself, clear as glass stretching on for miles and miles, icy cool and inviting. And instead of plush rooms, we got one thin mattress to share between the four of us and thick, musty-smelling blankets to keep us warm. While we watched the big, boxy cruise ships lumber past, hurrying for who-knows-what-reason, we simply floated, carried by the current and the wind.

At first, I found myself squirming every so slightly at our slow pace. I am not used to being able to stare at the same patch of grass for very long whenever I am in a moving vehicle. But I realized that time and speed needn’t have any hold over me here. We had nowhere in particular we were going and no reason to get there in any sort of a hurry. Our Nubian captains certainly didn’t think so. Every few hours or so, they would tie our vessel to a rock and take off to visit some village or another under the pretext of picking up some supplies, leaving us to mind the boat and keep ourselves entertained. And it was thus that I found myself doing absolutely nothing. I drank a good deal of tea, read a book and a half and slept an average of 15 hours a day. I loosely kept track of time using the position of the sun in the sky, but it really didn’t matter much what hour it was, let alone what minute. I had no appointments to keep, no schedule to mind. After the sun set, we saw by the light of a huge full moon and a small candle until we decided it was time to sleep some more. I was aware of time passing but instead of trying to master it, I was simply floating along on it.

Sort of like the river, actually. The Westerners tried to harness the river and conquer it into submission in their big cruise boats, while it simply flowed beneath us, connected to us, but somehow very much apart from us. Likewise, in the West, we fight with time, we wrestle with it, squeeze it and try to box it into a force that can be used to suit our needs. But in Egypt and much of the rest of the world, it is seen as an entity that can be ridden, but not coerced. They are aware of time, just as we were aware of the river; aware that it flows, that it affects us. So they allow it to flow beneath them, but on-board their sailboat, they go about life as they please. They enjoy several cups of tea and many rounds of shisha. They talk and listen and enjoy each other. And yes, they work diligently as well.

Time just doesn’t have the same sort of hold over them that it does over us in the West. In an attempt to master time, I fear we have become its slaves. And when we whiz along against the current, watching life from inside a box, we miss out on the cranes looking for fish among the reeds, the boys splashing in their rowboats and the glorious feeling of taking a nap for no other reason than because you feel like it.

So I recommend doing nothing sometime if you dare. Defy your Western understanding of time just long enough to see if maybe our Egyptian friends might not be so crazy after all for daring to show up 30 minutes late to an appointment.

 

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Bombs in Boston as seen from Egypt

Thanks to Twitter, I found out about the tragedy in Boston minutes after it happened. Headlines from all the major news agencies and live re-tweets from witnesses at the scene flashed across the screen. And then the responses began. Within minutes, streams of shocked, sympathetic and outraged tweets filled my feed. It is worth noting that, having only gotten into Twitter since coming to Egypt, more or less all the people I follow are Egyptian. Many of them are activists in the thick of the fight here in Cairo. For them, 200 injuries is a semi-weekly occurrence, and yet they were sympathizing with the people of a city thousands of miles away. It was touching to say the least.

These reactions did not stay on the social media though. Over the next few days, everyone, from the man who cooks my kofta (ground beef) sandwiches, to my coworkers, to women I didn’t know on the metro, had the same message for me: “I am so sorry that this happened. I don’t know what sort of person would do this.” Though I distantly knew people who were injured in the event, I had no real personal grief over it. And to be truthful, I think these Egyptians may have had more sympathy for my countrymen than I did. With the overwhelming barrage of problems facing the people of Egypt, it would be easy for their eyes to remains fixed on themselves. But they didn’t. Their concern and grief for Boston were genuine, despite the fact that they undergo attacks with far greater magnitude on a consistent basis.

Perhaps even more inspiring were the responses from the people of Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine. For days, the Middle East echoed with sadness and outrage over the deaths and injuries in Boston. And this was right. When needless violence results in death and pain, everyone should grieve. But where is the grief for the deaths that happen in this part of the world? Just this morning, I saw that the most recent estimates list 70,000 deaths in Syria. 70 thousand. Hundreds fall a day in Damascus– where are the cries for justice? Where are their messages of sympathy and grief? They don’t even make headlines anymore. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

The media are of course, largely to blame for this. An issue is only covered for as long as it sells newspapers and every event has an expiration date in people’s attention spans. But we as individuals are not guiltless here. The information is out there and we should care enough to seek out. The bottom line is that we rarely have eyes to see beyond our own immediate problems, and we typically have to be connected to an issue in order to care about it. The people of this part of the world have proven to be an exception to this though. If anyone had an excuse to be absorbed in their own problems, it would be them. And we all have a thing or two to learn about compassion from their reactions.

 

 

 

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When the fight becomes the cause

I think maybe I understand war a bit better now.

ImageIt starts out with one person throwing a rock or firing a teargas canister or shooting a bullet and the next thing you know, lines are drawn, battle stations are set up, and the adrenaline kicks in. And from then, it’s the adrenaline that decides peoples’ actions, more than anything. It becomes more about the fight than the cause people are fighting for.

At least that’s what it looked like to me when I found myself quite suddenly in the middle of a battle on the streets of Cairo Saturday.

I had been following a peaceful march from one neighborhood in Cairo to the high court building downtown, covering it for my newspaper. We arrived shortly after sunset and joined up with several other marches from around the city to form a group of over a thousand filling the streets surrounding the court. They were chanting for the resignation of all the major government officials, waving banners and beating drums, but by no means acting violently. I met up with my coworkers who had been covering the other marches and we headed to a nearby hotel to send in our pictures from the day. I thought my work was finished and ordered myself a Turkish coffee.

But no sooner had I taken my first sip than I heard four or five loud pops, followed by the sound of masses running. My three coworkers’ heads jerked up from their laptop screens.

“That’s the sound of teargas,” they said. It was a sound I would learn to recognize myself before the night was over.

We threw our computers and cameras back into our bags and ran out into the street. I could hardly believe my eyes (which had begun to sting just a bit). Three bonfires cast an eerie glow on the street that had been teaming with people just moments before. Scattered clusters of angry men gathered around the fires, yelling and occasionally throwing rocks at the building.

Teargas and smoke filled the air, stinging my eyes and burning my lungs. I tried to hold my breath while we bought medical masks (the sort dentists wear) for one Egyptian pound each from a nearby vendor. I quickly tied my scarf around my head in a Bedouin turban, covering my blond hair and shielding my face ever so slightly from the poisonous fumes,  and followed my coworkers toward the court (lest you begin to fret, they were all strong, gallant, street-smart men who took excellent care of me the whole time).

I stood there, taking it all in, when suddenly, several loud shots emanated from the upper floors of the building. They’re firing at us! Everyone scattered and I retreated further down the street toward a parked ambulance, my hands over my head. Adrenaline surged through my veins. This is absolutely crazy. All around me, people were running, scrambling, like ants from an anthill. They hardly looked like the same people who had marched in a slow, organized procession earlier that afternoon, chanting in unison for their joint cause. Perhaps they weren’t the same people.

We followed the crowds of protestors as they regrouped down the street, but before the mass could grow too big, another canister of DSC09779teargas landed just in front of us and the scrambling began again. I breathed in quite a bit of the stuff and began to choke and cough. It left a sharp taste of pepper on my tongue and a fire in my lungs. We sought refuge in a nearby field hospital where they doused my face with some combination of vinegar and water, bringing instant relief to my stinging eyes. Wounded and unconscious people were brought in and laid on the ground. Minutes later, when we had wandered back out into the street a ways, we saw two streams of teargas land right where we had been.  They fired teargas into the field hospital. It was so wrong. All of it.

We took up position on a road around the corner from two armored police vehicles. I watched from a distance as a crowd of about 30 or so protestors banded together and charged down the road toward the police, yelling and beating their drums. What could they possibly hope to accomplish? All they had were rocks and sticks; the police had birdshot, teargas and armored vehicles. What is their purpose now?  Sure enough, no sooner had they rounded the corner, than the police fired a few rounds of birdshot at them and they were sent running back down the street.

The scene in which I now found myself began to feel like a game of “Capture the Flag” or Paintball. I watched again as the group reconvened, yelled and rushed back down toward the police. It reminded me of the times at summer camp when my team would decide our best strategy for “Capture the Flag” was to form a big group, gather our courage and run across the dividing line into enemy territory all at once, only to be swarmed by the other team immediately after crossing the line, scatter, and scurry back into safety.

It’s not typically a very effective strategy, I wanted to tell them. But then again, one only needs a strategy if one has a goal—and I certainly couldn’t see any sort of goal behind they protestors’ actions. Or the police’s for that matter. The cause that had brought the protestors here originally seemed to be all but forgotten amid the mayhem, and the police were certainly not fulfilling their purpose of defending the people and keeping the peace. No, I saw no purpose to either side; I saw no cause. I saw only a fight.

And in the moment, with the teargas choking my lungs, drums beating the smoke-filled air, and streams of people running around me, I felt it: the rush of excitement mixed with anger and fear, the energy of the crowd pressing around me, our feet hitting the pavement in unison, the surge of rebellion against a clear enemy who wanted my harm. It was enough to make me nearly forget why I was there: to be a journalist. I just wanted to run, to see the chaos, to beat the teargas.  And as I watched the pandemonium around me, I could see how the same spirit filled the wild-eyed men setting fire to the streets.

It was the rush that drove their actions more than anything I think; not a love for Egypt or a desire for democracy. It was the thrill of the fight, the tantalizing feeling of hatred and spite.  And it began to make sense to me why violence persists past the point of absurdity, why riots will last for days on end here and wars have lasted for years on end not far from here.

Somewhere, in the second it takes to pull a trigger, peoples’ focus can shift from the cause they are fighting for to the fight itself. And when that happens, everyone loses.

P. S. Check out the story we ended up writing about all of this: http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2013/04/06/clashes-mar-6-april-anniversary/

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How I went sight-seeing and ended up in the ER

Sunday, March 25–

I leaned forward out of the saddle, gripping the horse’s flanks with my calves, his powerful legs thundering beneath me. His hooves danced over the surface of the sand as we flew in the shadow of the Great Pyramid.

An equestrian since the age of 10, there are few places in the world where I am happier than on the back of a galloping horse. A grin stretched across my face as my hair blew in the wind. Cliché, I know, but if any of you have tried it, you’ll know it was every bit as romantic as it sounds.

I urged the horse on with my legs as we raced up the dune. Ahead, I could see a paved, asphalt road cutting through the sand. Maybe I should slow down, I thought. I knew the pavement could be slippery under the horse’s shoes. But I was flying and I didn’t want to stop just to cross 15 feet of asphalt. We could cut across that in one stride, my horse and I. Free, free, I’m flying free.

Then, slam. Blackness.

The world around me went quiet and my eyes opened slowly. I felt disoriented. What happened?  My horse was getting up and I was on the ground. I tried to raise myself to my knees but as I did so, I looked down to the pavement to see big drops of blood, my blood, falling like rain. I fought panic and pivoted myself to look for my friend, Raustin who had been riding beside me.

“I’m bleeding!” I called to him, thinking of nothing else to say.

I’m bleeding. A lot. I didn’t know what to do. My mind went numb, so I laid back slowly on the pavement, trying to remember to breathe. (I think looking back on it that I went into a mild state of shock at this point that lasted the rest of the ordeal). Raustin (who is trained wilderness guide) appeared above me and took charge of the situation, asking me questions, wrapping my head in my brand new scarf, calling for water. I laid there, hearing myself answer his questions, swallowing water as he commanded, aware of sharp pain all over my body, and yet, removed from the situation somehow, as though I were only half-present.

My friend Charlotte and our guide Said also appeared over me. I heard a car approach. They helped me to my feet and my vision blurred.

“I think I’m going to pass out,” I heard myself say.

“Don’t,” Raustin said. “You can’t pass out.”

He helped me into the car, and I leaned on his shoulder, wanting very much to just lose consciousness as he applied pressure to my wound. Charlotte (who is a trained lifeguard) began to talk about stabilizing my neck and put me in something resembling a full nelson (a wrestling move my dad taught me), wrapping her arms around my neck and shoulders. We drove down to the exit of the pyramids where I was transferred to a horse carriage that took off at a brisk trot down the street. A few minutes later, I was transferred to a taxi (yes, this is mode of emergency transportation number three) that drove me the rest of the way down the road to a tiny, hole in the wall clinic.

The nurse didn’t seem too phased by the gaping hole in my head, so I guess this must be a fairly regular occurrence in these parts. Without a word, she laid me down on a medical bed and poured some iodine on my wound. Then, the doctor came along and, also without a word, jabbed me a few times with some local anesthetic. I continued to sit there in a daze as Charlotte and Raustin engaged me in conversation and the doctor pulled stitch after stitch through the gash—somewhere around 15 in all.

No more than 20 minutes later, I was all stitched up, my various scrapes had been properly doused in iodine, and I was ushered to the reception where I was asked to pay 350 Egyptian Pounds (around 50 dollars or so). At this point, Said, who had been quietly overseeing this whole process, stepped in to object.

“I’ve brought people in here before and they never pay more than 150!” he said in my defense.

I chuckled to myself. Out of context, it would have sounded like he was a tour guide bargaining for rug for me in the souk. Lesson learned: there is nothing you can’t bargain for in Egypt—not even emergency health care. Dear Said managed to bring the final price down to 250, which was still, I’m told, a rip-off, but I wasn’t too concerned at the time.

He then brought us all back to the room where he lives at the stables, cleared off a spot for me on his bed and brought us a feast of chicken and tea—an incredible act of generosity for someone of whose livelihood has been all but eradicated with the terrible drop in tourism lately.

Incredible generosity: that is what I experienced in Egypt on Sunday. Incredible generosity, tender compassion and unbelievable grace… Friends and strangers alike stood by me and cared for me with pretty unconditional love.

And I cannot overlook the grace of my God who protected me and cared for me pretty supernaturally. A large horse fell on my leg which could have broken it, but it’s only just a bit bruised. My head bounced off the asphalt, but I have no brain damage, or even a concussion. My neck and back and undamaged. My stitches are healing nicely and I am completely without pain in my head, though I haven’t taken a single pain-killer. I have to give Him glory for taking such good care of me :)

So there you have it. My first injury and my first trip to the ER: a gallop through the pyramids, an emergency carriage ride through Giza, a few stitches, some pretty heroic friends and a very gracious God.

Post script: Right around this very same time, back in Chicago, a very dear friend of our family who is about my age was also hospitalized for some sort of heart failure. He, like me, was in full health, in the midst of exciting growth with great adventures ahead. However, unlike me, for reasons I don’t quite grasp, he was not given the grace I was given. My heart breaks for his family. May you rest in peace, Graham Stevens.

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