A few lessons I learned while my taxi was stuck in the desert

ImageLast weekend, three of my friends and I decided to make our way out to Wadi El Rayan, a beautiful nature preserve in the middle of the desert, about two hours from Cairo. This preserve is home to a gorgeous oasis, complete with waterfalls, and I was excited to spend some much-needed time away from the cramped streets of Cairo. We took a microbus from Cairo to the city of Fayoum where we picked up a feast of food and then hired a taxi to take us out to the preserve and spend the day with us.

We got to the preserve—an endless expanse of sand with a stunning lake in its center—and began making our way toward the waterfalls on a nicely paved road. Then quite suddenly, for reasons I still don’t understand, our dear taxi driver Mohammed slammed on his breaks, backed the taxi up about 10 yards or so, and took a sharp right—into the dunes.

We were all fairly surprised by this decision; I had certainly never thought of taxis as off-road vehicles. But if there is one thing I’ve learned in my time in Egypt so far it is to never underestimate what public transportation vehicles are capable of. So I laughed and cheered him on as we slid and fishtailed through the ochre colored sand. But about 100 meters off the road, the inevitable happened.

We got stuck.

After a few minutes of revving the engine, it became clear that no forward motion would be happening anytime soon, so we piled out of the vehicle to find our front tires half-buried in the sand. We then spent the next half hour digging, pushing, pulling, propping, revving, and spinning our way deeper and deeper into the sand until it was clear that we would not be able to get out of this on our own.

We were now very stuck.

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And I felt positively giddy about it. I looked around at all the space around me, mounds of fine, soft, Sahara sand in all directions, birds flying overhead, the crystal blue lake on the horizon. Aside from my three friends and our very frazzled taxi driver, there wasn’t another person in sight, and aside from our sad, stuck little taxi, there wasn’t a car to be seen. No high-rises stood between me and the beautiful sun, no smog and exhaust choked my lungs, there were no offensive horns to pierce the silence. And there was no car that could take me away from here for the forseeable future. I was jubilant 🙂

I took off my shoes and proposed that we leave the car for now and go down to the lake to enjoy our lunch. My friends, who thankfully seemed to share my glee with our current state of affairs, readily agreed with this plan. Dear Mohammed, who was not nearly as amused with our situation (perhaps because his livelihood was currently half-buried in a sand dune), declined and headed off toward the road to seek help.

And just like that, we were completely alone in the vast expanse of desert. I wasn’t sure how long we would be stuck. All I had with me was a little bit of water, some food and my camera. My plans for the day had definitely been derailed. And yet, I was utterly joyful. Instead of fretting about the uncertainty of the situation, I was just reveling in the beauty of my surroundings and the companionship of my friends. And though I had no idea how we would be rescued, I had complete faith that Mohammed would sort something out eventually so I was completely at peace.

 Lesson learned: Occasionally in life, we find ourselves unexpectedly stuck in a desert with no clear path out. We can either choose to fretfully try to dig ourselves out, which will usually only leave us dusty, frazzled and more stuck. Or we can choose to have a picnic and seek out what beauty there is to be found in our surroundings, resting in full confidence that there is One who is sorting out the situation.

Sure enough, Mohammed pulled through. Just as we were finishing up our lunch, an enormous army truck came lumbering over the dunes and out jumped five soldiers in camouflage pants who got straight to work digging the car out with their shovels and hooking it up to the truck with a large chain. Within a half hour, our car was out—and within 2 minutes after that, as Mohammed attempted to drive back toward the road, the car was stuck again. This time, the truck couldn’t reach it to pull it out and it would come down to pure man power that even all the army men couldn’t provide.

ImageLuckily for us, at just that time, a band of Bedouins came flying across the dunes in a pickup truck. The soldiers began waving their arms and shouting for them to come over, which they did. The scene in which I now found myself was so odd that I had to laugh out loud: five Egyptian soldiers (two of whom had now removed their boots), four Bedouins in traditional galabiyas and turbans and one mournful-looking taxi driver all pushing and pulling at a white taxi buried in the sand as four Americans watch on.

And as I watched, it dawned on me that out of the group of 10 men hard at work on our rescue, nine have typically be labeled as “bad guys.” Five were members of the Egyptian army, an institution accused of oppressing the Egyptian people and committing a number of different human rights violations, and four were Bedouins, a people known for kidnapping foreign tourists such as myself in Sinai. And yet, here they were, hard at work in the sun and the dust to help us for no benefit to themselves.

And so, even though the horror stories about the Egyptian army and the Bedouins are many, I have the privilege of telling a different story. A story about how 10 kind-hearted Egyptian men took over an hour out of their day to help a group of tourists stranded in the desert to dig their car out of the sand. The stories of injustice and violence must be told. But the stories of cars pulled out of the sand must be told too. And as a journalist, I want to do a better job of seeking out both.

Lesson learned: We should be wary anytime we are only being told a single story. While all the stories of ruthless Somali pirates, Muslim Brotherhood radicals and Wall Street moguls are undoubtedly true, I’m willing to bet there are other stories to be told. So we should seek them out.

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Let there be light

ImageIf you drive out past Helwan on the outskirts of Cairo, take a left at the large mound of trash and drive for about 15 minutes on an unpaved trail through piles of refuse, you will reach the “15th of May” settlement. With a church, a mosque and a restaurant, it is every bit its own village, with a population of perhaps a few hundred or so. A good distance from the noise and bustle of the city, the “15th of May” might make a charming place to live were it not for the unsavory surrounding landscape. So why the odd choice in locale, you might ask? Why would anyone choose to live in a garbage dump?

The answer is startlingly simple: because the dump is both their home and their livelihood.

Cairo is lacking in many things but garbage is not one of them, and there is a whole social class that makes a living off it.  The saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” could not be more true for anyone in the world than it is for the zabbaleen. By night, they collect the trash from around the city and by day, they sort it: whatever food can be found is given to their livestock and the rest is sold to recyclers.

 It is a well-established enterprise that has been given a clearly marked position in Egyptian class society. Often, the lines between the lower, upper and middle class can be hard for me to see in Cairo: all live in dust-colored high-rises on crowded, noisy streets. But unlike humble kiosk-owners or maids who live in poverty but rub shoulders with the rest of society, the zabbaleen live apart. They are outcast to a handful of settlements on the outskirts of the city and only come into the city to rid it of its waste by cover of night. They are not seen, heard from or spoken of.

So driving into the “15th of May” to me was like discovering a secret treasure trove. HiddenImage away where few others had ventured were some of the most beautiful, friendly people I have met yet in Egypt. Barefoot little girls with bright eyes and toothless smiles peppered me with questions about my family and giggled at my frequent Arabic mistakes. A group of young boys invited me to join their game of marbles and patiently taught me how to play. I talked with three teenage girls about school and their dreams of the future, and one told me with excitement about her recent engagement. I snuck into the back of a Sunday school class (it was called this even though it was held on a Friday hehe) and listened in on part of the creation story.

And I loved every minute I was there.

To be honest, I was so enthralled by the hugs and smiles that I almost forgot I was in a garbage dump until, at the end of Sunday school, the children were given twinkies and juice boxes and they began to discard the wrappers on the ground. Instinctually, I wanted to pick them up and find a bin where they could throw their trash instead of littering. It took me a moment to realize somberly that this place was the bin.

I was in a trash dump. And it would have been a horribly dark place, were it not for all the little lights.

ImageQuite poetically, my friend Amir was hard at work on the church roof to bring some light there—in the literal sense. He and his friends have discovered a way to make a lightbulb out of a plastic bottle, bleach and distilled water. You just fasten the water bottle so that the bottom half is inside the house and the top half is sticking up on the roof and then the water and bleach refract whatever light there is outside to light up the room as much as a 60 watt bulb. Because it depends on sunlight, it doesn’t work at night time, but it does provide ramshackle, windowless homes with much-need illumination during the day. So this incredible group of college students has taken on the project of installing these bottles bit by bit in the homes of this forgotten community– and I got to be there to see it start.

The jubilation on Amir’s face when he saw that his experiment worked lit up the room as much as the “water-bulb” itself. It was one of the highlights of my time here so far actually, and a good reminder: light can come in the darkest places in the strangest of forms.

 

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Egypt’s New Revolution: the Fight against Sexual Harassment

Yep, I’m going to write about this.

It’s been ruminating in my head now for a while as a topic I should probably cover in this blog because it has certainly become a topic of conversation here in Egypt in recent weeks. Before I begin though, I want to make it really clear that this is by no means a critique of the male species as much as it is a description and commentary on the anti-sexual harassment movements that have been started in Egypt. I have been blessed with fantastic men in my life, men who deserve all of my respect and honor.  So it is my hope that you will not mistake my contempt of sexual harassment with a contempt of men in general.

That being said, the topic of sexual harassment is one that unfortunately, I am quite familiar with. I can remember vividly the first time a man backed me into a corner and asked me for a kiss. I was six years old. I remember the smell of alcohol on his breath as he bent down and reached his arm around me, and I compliantly planted a kiss on his scruffy cheek. Kisses were something a child is expected to give liberally in Morocco so I honestly didn’t think too much of it at the time. But at just that moment, our neighbor and dear friend, Mrs. Reid, came walking past, and became very angry by what she saw. She forcefully told the man to go away and told me that if that man ever came near me again, I was to run away. This made no sense to me at the time—in my childish innocence, I did not see anyone as a threat, not even this scruffy, drunkard—but  I now look back on that moment as my first exposure to sexual harassment.

And sadly, it was far from the last. While all women in Morocco are subjected to verbal and physical harassment, my blond hair, fair skin and blue eyes made me even more of a target. It was impossible for me to fly under the radar, and the rampant promiscuity of American women as portrayed in the media did not help my case. I soon found that it didn’t matter how conservatively I dressed or how I carried myself; my blond hair alone sent the message that I was game for a good time and looking to be pursued. It was largely outside of my control. I could, and did, choose to make wise decisions about where I traveled and how I got around, but in the end, I couldn’t avoid the whistles, cat-calls, followers and occasional grabs that came with being a young foreign women in an Arab country.

So I accepted it.

Whenever I passed a man on the street, I put my head down, quickened my pace and did my best to ignore whatever happened next. I rarely responded or stood up for myself, even though I was plenty capable of doing so in Arabic. I figured putting up any sort of fight was likely to just aggravate the situation and the best thing for me to do was to just put up with it. For as long as I can remember really, harassment has been the norm. I didn’t enjoy it, but I just accepted as a fact of life that I would always be harassed by men and nothing could be done about it.

But my Egyptian sisters haven’t.

From what I am told, the sexual harassment in Egypt has grown progressively worse over the last few decades. One common line of reasoning behind this phenomenon is tied to the economic situation of all things: as the economy has declined, Egyptian men have struggled to save enough money to be able to get married, leading to a great deal of pent up sexual frustration which comes out in the form of harassment. Along with this, harassment has come to be seen as a validation of one’s masculinity and young men are often encouraged by older men to harass women as a part of achieving their manhood.  Rising unemployment not only makes it difficult for men to marry, it challenges their masculinity, making it all the more necessary for them to harass women. And on and on the cycle goes. From my analysis, sexual harassment is just as much a symptom of an attack on masculinity as an attack on femininity. In recent months, there have been conspiracy theories circling that the atrocious acts committed towards women in the revolution have been attempts by the government to keep them from participating (thereby dealing with 50% of the threat). And for many women, this has worked. I know the things I’ve heard have certainly been enough to keep any of my desires to go to protests at bay!

But an increasing number of Egyptian women have had enough. They are done complying, done putting their heads down and dealing with it. They are taking a stand and demanding to be treated with honor and respect. And they are calling their brothers to join with them in this fight. Anti-sexual harassment movements have begun springing up all across Egypt. Tahrir Bodyguard is a movement of men who have pledged to watch out for women at protests. Harassmap is a website that charts instances of reported harassment and offers help to women being harassed via a hotline. The Street is Ours is a movement of women who have pledged to hold men accountable for their actions by taking physical action against them: spray-painting the hair of harassers, threatening them with knives if need be… And these movements have gathered support not only in Egypt but around the world as well. Last week, 34 countries organized marches in solidarity for the women of Egypt.

There is beginning to be a shift in the way sexual harassment is seen in Egypt, both at the legislative and political level, and at the societal level. There is now a process by which a woman can press charges for sexual harassment in court (though it is nearly impossible to provide enough evidence to convict someone, and the sentence is fairly mild). But the true victories, the really exciting stuff is happening on the societal level. Both women and men are beginning to change the way that women are seen and treated. But it has begun with Egyptian women deciding on their worth and demanding to be treated commensurately. Such action is bold—much bolder than anything I would have dared to do. They are challenging a deeply-embedded social structure.

I am here to witness the very beginnings of social change; the sort of thing that thrills me as an Anthropologist, fills me with pride and admiration as a woman, and inspires me as a human. 

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A snapshot of my life in Cairo

I write this on a bus beginning the long trek back into Zamalek from AUC’s campus out in the desert. The drive typically takes about 45 minutes, but in the evening on a Thursday (the equivalent of Friday in the US), it can take up to two hours. I’m sincerely hoping that isn’t the case tonight.

I have now reached the end of my second full week of classes and work, and the cloud of dust from my initial arrival in Egypt is beginning to settle. I have hung up all my pictures on the walls of my dorm room—which by the way, is massive in size compared to the broom closets we’re given in the US. Dorm life here has a few notable differences. For one thing, there is a free housekeeping service that will come and tidy your room for you anytime you call them. I also just discovered that if you put your dirty dishes outside your door, they magically return to you clean. I’m being quite spoiled to say the least! Another major difference I’ve had to adjust to here is the strict segregation of guys and girls. There are guards posted outside the entrances of each dorm to ensure that no intermingling occurs! And if a man has to come up to a girl’s floor for maintenance or something, he is accompanied by a woman yelling “man on the floor!” at all hours of the night and day. I realize the main impetus behind this is that the majority of the girls I live with wear the veil in public—it’s only fair then that their living quarters be free of all males so they can remove it. 

I have been surprised by how much more noticeably conservative Egypt is compared to Morocco. Because Cairo is such a bustling city, I assumed it would be fairly similar to Casablanca where I was raised. But I realize now just how much European influence there has been on Morocco and Moroccan culture, particularly in the urban, coastal areas. Egypt, on the other hand, is not only geographically distant from Europe– the presence of the Al-Azhar religious complex in Cairo makes it the heart of the Islamic civilization. It makes good sense then that its people would be, on the whole, more conservative in their dress and perspectives. Alas, no shorts for me come summer time!

The differences between Morocco and Egypt are indeed many. For one thing, though the language spoken in both countries is called Arabic, the two tongues have very little in common! I’ve had to start practically from scratch, but with the help of my fantastic roommate and floor mates, I’d say I’m making promising progress. Egyptian food is also very different from Moroccan food. While the staple in Morocco was khobz, a round, yeast-dough bread, Egyptians tend to eat more rice and pasta. Their signature dish is called koshary, a blend of pasta, rice, chickpeas, lentils, tomato sauce and onions, topped with garlic sauce. Much to my delight, there is a lovely place right by my dorm that sells a big bucket of the stuff for 3 pounds—less than 50 US cents J Another common snack is fuul, a concoction of mashed fiva beans stuffed in a pita, and taamaya, commonly known in the US as falafel. One of my favorite sweets is fateer, a flakey, pie-like, delicacy that can be served with honey, powdered sugar, or Nutella. Vegetables are a little more difficult to come by in Egyptian cuisine… to get my daily dose, I typically go down to the vegetable stand, get a handful of peppers or carrots and eat them raw—without a knife since I don’t have one.

It’s been nice to develop friendships with the various shop owners around here: I’ve got my vegetable guy, my fuul and taamaya guy, my phone card guy, my baker… all have become part of my day to day life in Egypt. My weekly routine has become more or less solidified as well: class on Mondays and Thursdays, work on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and a three day weekend to look forward to at the end. With my free time, I usually explore the city; I am not likely to run out of things to see anytime soon! In the evenings, I enjoy going out to one of the million little cafes around here, getting some tea or coffee and just sitting with friends. That’s one thing I love about Egypt– there is somehow always plenty of time for a nice long sit at a cafe.

Hopefully, this blog post has given you all a little peek at daily life in Cairo as I’ve been experiencing it. (Note the absence of tear gas, rioting and molatov cocktails). The bus is inching its way onto a bridge to cross the Nile—meaning I should be out of this prison within the next 20 minutes or so.

*sigh* Traffic: now there’s a word to sum up the Cairo experience. 

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My First Day at the Daily News Egypt: Or How I was Thrown Into a Whirlpool and Ungracefully Doggy Paddled My Out… For Now

I walked off the rickety elevator and into the office of the Daily News Egypt. 

So, this is what a newsroom looks like, I thought. Rows of cubicles with computers, a small TV mounted on the wall at the rear of the room, a whiteboard at the front. Around the room, journalists were firing up their computers and popping on their headphones– real journalists doing what real journalists do. I was giddy and trying really hard not to show it. I introduced myself to Sarah, the editor of Politics– my new boss. I could tell from the first she was a no-nonsense sort of lady: friendly, but all business. She reminded me in every way of newsroom editors from the movies: brisk, authoritative, matter-of-fact, energetic… 

“Do you speak Arabic?” she asked.

“Well, yeah. Sort of,” I said. “I speak Moroccan Arabic fluently, Fousha decently and I’m learning Egyptian Arabic.”

“We don’t hire anyone who doesn’t speak Arabic,” she said. 

“Well then, I definitely speak Arabic,” I replied, swallowing hard. 

“Good. Then you can start today,” she turned to the rest of the room. “Time for pitches, everyone!”

Everyone gathered in a circle in front of the whiteboard and Sarah took her place at the front, wielding a dry-erase marker. It only took a few minutes for the whiteboard to fill with story ideas. I sat in dumbfounded silence, realizing I had no idea what any of these story pitches were about. I quickly realized just how big the gap is between being an avid consumer of news and a producer of it. The only “news” I could think of to contribute was what I’d read in yesterday’s paper… and the people around me wrote yesterday’s paper. And now, they were all on their smartphones, reading off intriguing tweets, sharing things they’d heard from friends– filling the whiteboard with news that wasn’t news yet. 

     –Lesson Number One: If you want to work for a newspaper, you can’t get your news from a newspaper. Where do you get it from, then? Twitter, apparently. 

Once the stories for the day had been decided, people began picking the ones they’d like to cover. I once again sat in terrified silence as all of these looked infinitely bigger than anything I’d tackled before. My vast journalistic experience consisted of writing stories about construction and service dogs in training for my school newspaper. The stories on the board included: the death of an activist who had been jailed and tortured, Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo, a protest near Tahrir square… I was in so far over my head. I almost ran right then. 

I was given last pickings: coverage of a press conference about some detainees in Alexandria. I wouldn’t actually be attending the conference, but I was to write a story about it: who would be there, what it would be about, etc. Then, I was given a cubicle and told to go for it. Right, I thought. It’s the same idea as writing about Fair Trade items in the dining halls.Except the editors at my student newspaper always gave me a list of contacts and ideas for questions to ask them. All I had in front of me was my laptop.

  –Lesson number two: Real journalists don’t get an email with an outline of how to write their story and a nice list of all the people they should contact.

I began frantically googling to try and learn whatever I could about these detainees, which wasn’t much. Before long, I had exhausted the information on the internet and was beginning to despair when some of my wonderful colleagues sent me the shared list of contacts and highlighted a few that would be useful. I was saved!

Until I dialed one of the numbers and the man on the other end answered in Arabic. Gulp. My Egyptian Arabic is iffy at best, and my Moroccan Arabic is useless here. I managed to stutter out my question and tried to simultaneously decipher his response and take notes on it. I was fairly certain he’d said that many of the detainees would be present at the press conference– but I wanted to be sure on that point. Accuracy is key– one thing I remembered from Journalism 101. So I passed the phone off to one of my colleagues, asking her to confirm that I’d understood him correctly. Turns out, I did– but Sarah was not pleased. 

“Hend has her own pile of stories she’s working on,” she said. “If you can’t understand the people you’re talking to, you won’t be able to do this.” 

I nodded and assured her I’d be fine, but I returned to my desk deflated. Maybe I’m not able to do this, I thought. Learning to do real journalism would be enough of a challenge without throwing in a complex language to boot. I could quit; the thought seemed very reasonable. I could tell Sarah I couldn’t do it, walk out and do a normal internship later, making coffee and writing obituaries at some nice newspaper in the Midwest. *sigh*

Or I could write stories about human rights violations against detainees in EGYPT. Yes. That is what I would do, or I would go down trying! I would make do with the Arabic I had, and what I didn’t know, I would learn. 

    –Lesson number three: Google Translate is God’s gift to those who have to do a phone interview in a language they don’t quite speak. 

I whipped out Google Translate and began making a long list of words and phrases I needed to know. Then I started calling people: spokesmen for political parties and activist groups, the lawyer of two of the detainees (who are both 14 by the way… and one has cancer and hasn’t been receiving treatment since being arrested)… And slowly,sentence by shaky sentence, my story came together. It wasn’t the best piece of journalism you’ll ever read but I did it. 

And this morning, I opened to the third page of the Daily News Egypt to see the headline “Alex Detainees to Testify on Human Rights Violations.”

And beneath it, those sweet, beautiful words: By Emily Crane. 

 

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Switching the channel

I stared at the TV in horror. The word “Live” in Arabic flashed in the top right corner of the screen; it was around 9:30 PM on Friday, the worst day of violence yet in Cairo. 

The camera showed a dimly lit street, empty aside from a crowd of around 6 policemen or so, dressed in riot-gear, standing in a circle around something on the ground– no, someone. A man, stripped of his shirt, crawling on his hands and knees. He seemed dazed and disoriented as he tried to break out of the circle of policemen who took turns whacking him or jabbing at him with their batons. At one point, he had nearly gotten away when one of them dragged him by his wrists back toward an armored police car. His pants came off on the process. He was now completely naked as he helplessly continued to try  to crawl away, only to be met with more blows.

“Live.” The word continued to flash at the top of the screen. This was happening right now. In the same city as me, not far from where I go to school everyday. I couldn’t look away; I kept hoping someone would come along and stop this madness, stop the raining blows on this man’s naked body, stop the–

The screen went black for a moment, then a band of skeletons crawled across the screen toward a frightened Brendan Fraser wielding a torch. It took me a moment, but I soon recognized it as a scene from “The Mummy.” I turned to see one of the Egyptian students wielding the remote and shaking her head.

“Khalas,” she said. Enough

Enough of watching her countryman suffer from behind an impenetrable glass wall; better not to watch at all.

———————————————

Earlier that afternoon, I had been chatting with Selma who had only just emerged from her room.

“I’ve been hiding all day,” she told me. “I tried to sleep for as long as I could so that I didn’t have to know about what was going on. And when I woke up, I just watched season 2 of Grey’s Anatomy. I’m tired of all this shit.” 

This from Selma, queen of the Twittersphere, always in the know, scoffing at tear gas and fighting fearlessly for freedom. I could hardly believe this was the same girl who one week ago, had been decked out in the colors of the Egyptian flag, eager to march to Tahrir to remind them that “the revolution is not over.” The girl before me now was weary, deflated. Worn from week of protesting that had yielded nothing but a growing death toll. And no response from the president. 

“I don’t know what to do,” has been the refrain these last few days among my Egyptian peers.

And so they switch the channel.

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My place in this revolution: right up close

The escalating violence in Egypt has drawn increased international media attention– enough to cause many of you to fear for my safety. But what is astounding to me (and hopefully reassuring to you) is that, here in Zamalek, my island in the Nile,  I’ve been watching the ongoing revolution solely through the TV downstairs in the lobby of my dorm. It is always tuned to one of the many independent channels, usually showing live feeds from all the main areas of conflict around the country. Though Tahrir is a walk away, I only ever see it on a TV and I read about it online just as you do where you are. However one major difference between my experience of this revolution and yours is the fact that I have immediate access to a myriad of different Egyptian opinions on the events as they unfold, and what a privilege that is!

For months now, my desire to go and “watch the revolution up close” has been very strong. Indeed, it was one of the driving forces that led me to Cairo this semester. When I first got here, I thought the only way to do that would be to spend a good deal of time observing the protests in and around Tahrir square. However, this desire was in direct conflict with promises I had made to all of you to make those decisions that would be best for my safety. As the news shows, these protests are dangerous for anyone. A permanent cloud of teargas has settled in the square and a rock thrown by a policeman can hit anyone– Egyptian, American or otherwise. However, foreigners have additional problems to worry about. If anything goes wrong, they are typically blamed, and police have made a habit of arresting and sometimes deporting foreigners who attend protests. As a result, they are more of a hindrance than a help to the activists. I soon realized that my “up-close” view of the revolution could not be from Tahrir square– at least not on a regular basis.

At first I was discouraged by this. If I were a man or had darker skin, things would be different! But I began to notice that I was not the only one watching Tahrir burn from the sofa in the lobby. Egyptian students, custodial staff and security guards would also pause to watch the latest updates as they went about their day. Around Zamalek, shop-keepers were in their stores, watching the news from small, portable TVs, bus-drivers drove their buses while listening to the radio, street-sweepers swept the streets, the banana salesman sold bananas. Each of these people had a stake in this revolution, much higher than mine, and yet here they were, reading headlines, listening to soundbites, and watching live feeds just like me.

Intrigued, I asked my roommate, Yousra about this.

“Do you think the protesters are right to do what they are doing? There is so much violence being caused as a result of it and they don’t seem to be gaining any ground,” I asked her. She thought about it for a moment.

“Yes. I think they are right,” she replied. “They continue to protest because they have hope.   Hope that eventually, Morsi will listen.”

“And do you think Morsi will listen?”

“No. But no one thought Mubarak would listen either.”

“So then if you think they are right, why don’t you join them?” I asked.

“Because it’s not my place,” she replied. “Two years ago, when the revolution first happened, I went to the protests because I had a reason to go. But now, I don’t have a reason to go. I cannot help my country by going to these violent protests. But I am graduating this semester with an Economics degree so I can help my country improve economically. I am not giving up on Egypt; I have no plans to leave.”

The truth of her words resounded in my ears. The revolution is not just going on in Tahrir square; it is going on all around me. It has been from the start. The revolutionaries are not only those who brave the tear gas, throw stones and chant loudly. They are students and maids and bakers and businessmen. Outspoken Selma is a revolutionary, but so is timid, sweet Yousra. All of them have a stake in this revolution and they’re all doing what they feel they must to help.

I still have my front row seat. In fact, I have a backstage pass.

I thought perhaps in going to protests, I would be able to give you all a new view of the revolution– but I’m fairly certain now that I’d see the same things as the reporters for the New York Times and CNN. A military vehicle in flames looks pretty much the same from all angles. But I’m starting to see now that the unique perspective I’m looking for can be found in the hearts and minds of the people all around me. The street vendors who don’t make the front page.

I think I may be beginning to find my place in this revolution.

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The 25th of Jan

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As most of you probably know, yesterday, the “25th of Jan,” marked the two-year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Thousands of Egyptians poured into squares around the country to march and protest resulting in 5-10 deaths and as many as 450 injuries, last I heard. I don’t know what headlines you saw where you are, but as promised in my first post, I intend to use this blog to tell you about my experience and perspective on the situation… to be taken in with the rest of the things you’re reading.

Over the last several days, talk of the 25th has filled the air. Whether it was the Director of International Student Affairs encouraging us to stay out of it, or young activists talking about their plans for the day, there was definitely a lot of hype about the impending protests. The sort of hype that piques a young journalist’s curiosity to say the least. I talked to as many different people as I could in the days leading up to the25th, and discovered that, as with most things in Egypt,  the protests were likely to bring a mixed bag of people with a variety of agendas and unpredictable reactions.

Though they were protesting in honor of the revolution’s anniversary, most had nothing to Imagecelebrate. Though they’ve successfully ousted Mubarak, most don’t see his replacement as being much better…  Especially since Morsi’s power grab in November and the creation of a new, lopsided constitution in December. If so many people dislike Morsi and disagree with the constitution, how did he come to be in power and how did the referendum on the constitution pass, you may ask? From what I gather, 56% of the population lives in rural areas and is very politically, religiously and socially conservative. Traditionally, Egyptian culture is non-confrontational, and authority is respected absolutely. Democracy is thought of as a scary Western idea that could open the door to homosexuality and all other manner of debauchery. What happened two years ago was an overhaul of not only a regime but of an entire set of cultural norms. And it was led almost entirely by my generation: 18 to 33 year olds, living in Cairo, with a lot of exposure to Western ideologies . These revolutionaries may be incredibly powerful but they only make up 44% of the population. They are the ones who overthrew Mubarak, but they are not the ones who ushered in Morsi or his constitution. And so their revolution is far from over.

Selma, an Egyptian senior living in my dorm, was an activist long before the revolution, using the blogsphere to criticize Mubarak and his regime. Now, she continues to fight to see what she started through to completion.

“That is why I am going today,” she told me yesterday morning over breakfast as she prepared to head to a long march from Mohandissin to Tahrir. “I am going to remind them that the revolution is not over, it is still going on.”

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Tahrir Square at 2:30 yesterday

The road ahead is long and difficult though, and like most of her fellow revolutionaries, Selma battles discouragement. A lot her zest had dissipated when I spoke to her this morning and she bemoaned the fact that all their marches and protests yesterday throughout the country had produced so many injuries and deaths, but only a tweet from their president.  At this point, my Egyptian peers find themselves at a bit of a loss as to where to go from here. Tahrir has become infested with squatters and hooligans that can turn a peaceful demonstration into a violent riot in seconds, and often muffle the true spirit of a protest. Selma marched to Tahrir yesterday but had to stay on the outskirts of the square because she’d received news of “sexual harassment mobs” going around and physically harming women protesters.

“There are men who will go to a protest willing to die for their cause, but then they’ll turn around and harass women,” Selma said. “It’s like women don’t really count in this revolution somehow.”

As a young, clearly foreign woman, I stayed pretty far away from the action—though I cannot lie, I very much wanted to see as much for myself as I could. Yesterday, around 1:30, I walked down in the direction of the square with a group of other internationals. In Zamalek, a small island in the Nile where we live, it was totally peaceful, and I would have had no idea there was a revolution underway were it not for all the TV’s tuned into live broadcasts. As we crossed the bridge toward downtown, I started to see street vendors selling flags—profiteering at its finest J And finally, as we came in sight of Tahrir square, I could see many people carrying or wearing flags, some wearing masks or wielding signs. The street was barricaded with a barbed wire fence and the revolutionaries had designated security volunteers to search protestors for weapons before they entered the square. This was as far as I ventured. From where I stood though, the square hardly looked like the angry mobs I’d seen in newspapers. People were walking around calmly carrying their flags and signs, some were having picnic lunches, and many children were present.

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Tahrir square at 2:30 yesterday

Of course, what makes these protests dangerous is that they can go south in an instant, so we didn’t stay too long. And sure enough, as we were enjoying some shawarma on a side street a block away, a huge mob appeared out of nowhere, running down the street we were on toward the square, many wearing black ski masks. We ducked into the shawarma shop and waited for them to pass before hopping in a cab back to Zamalek. As the day went on, things got more and more chaotic, both in Cairo and around the country, and the zaniness continues today.

 I am sitting in my quiet garden in my dorm though, while my Egyptian peers march on. For me, this revolution is a historical moment that I get to observe and brag about. But for them, it’s the difference between freedom and oppression. The fact of the matter is that while my generation in the US has been Keeping Up with the Kardashians, our Egyptian peers have been fighting to change the course of history in their country. And I’ve come right in the middle of it. This is not my revolution and it is not my place to join in protesting. But I do stand for the things they are fighting for and I want to do what I can to help.

Any thoughts on how? 

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“Unity in the Egyptian Revolution”

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Why Egypt and why this blog

Over the last few weeks, as I’ve told people that I’m heading to Egypt for a semester abroad, the question I tend to get a lot is: why? Why Egypt? Why now? And to be fair, those who don’t know me have good reason to think I’m a little bit crazy. Most normal college kids head to Europe or Australia for their big semester outside the US. But I’m not a normal college kid… and this definitely isn’t my first semester outside the US.

In fact, I only just finished my third semester in America. I spent most of my life in the beautiful kingdom of Morocco (though that’s really a story for another blog) and I identify just as much with that country as I do with the US, if not more. I attended Moroccan school for most of my time there, had mostly Moroccan friends, spoke French and Arabic every day and was otherwise totally immersed in Moroccan culture. Needless to say, my return to America after graduating high school was… bumpy. Culture-shock combined with adjusting to life outside my parents’ home has made for a pretty unique start to my life as an adult, to say the least.

Anyway, I knew within three weeks of starting college at Miami University of Ohio that I had to study abroad. I had already been to most of Europe and had no real interest in Australia, so from the beginning, I was drawn to countries like South Africa, Ghana and… Egypt. I had always been fascinated by its history, the American University in Cairo was a premier school, and the more time I spent trying to adapt to American culture, the more I found myself longing to be back in a familiar cultural environment. You probably can’t fathom this, but I feel way more at ease in a Muslim, Arab society than I do in white, suburban America (a topic that will likely come up again on this blog). I knew Egypt would be similar enough to Morocco to be comforting, but far enough from home to put me outside my comfort zone. And, as an aspiring journalist watching the revolution unfold, I ached to get over there and be able to witness history with my own eyes.

So that’s why Egypt.

As for this blog, I’ve gone back and forth over whether to commit to it, since I know I’ll be busy once I get to Cairo. But I have ultimately decided to give it a go because:

1) Lots of people have asked me to. Professors, relatives, and random acquaintances who hear about my upcoming adventure have all expressed an interest in hearing all about it… So let’s hope people actually read this thing!

2) Anderson Cooper has a blog… Really, all self-respecting journalists have blogs. So, as a young journalist going to a land in the midst of  a revolution, I really ought to have a blog don’t you think? Who knows what could happen next week? By the time I leave at the end of May, Egypt could very well be a totally different country. And if I’m going to be there to see it, I ought to report on it. It’s what Anderson Cooper would do, surely.

3) I have a pretty unique perspective. I know this sounds cocky, but it’s really not my intention… I just realized recently that there aren’t a whole lot of other 20-year old American girls who grew up in Morocco, speak three languages, have a solid understanding of Islam and identify pretty strongly with Arabic culture that are going to be spending a semester in Cairo in the Spring of 2013. (If you know of any though, please let me know– we’d be surefire friends). As I’ve read the New York Times, watched CNN and talked to my Egyptian friend, Amir, I’ve grown curious about whether I would see things the way that they do, were I there to experience them. I am certainly not belittling the stories told by either of these esteemed news sources, and I certainly would urge you to go to them first and foremost for updates on the region… but I encourage you to check back here too to add my perspective to the hamper, because it’s not one you’ll find anywhere else.

So there you have it. This is to be a blog from an American-Moroccan journalism and anthropology student about her semester in Cairo and all the things that happen along the way. So stay tuned and invite your friends because this is going to be an adventure…

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