Good luck, Cairo

Wrote this column for the Hungry Horse News this week. I’m reading the news about Egypt obsessively and I’m elated that the Obama administration has withdrawn support for Hosni Mubarak. I just hope Egypt can maintain its excitement for democracy and elect someone who will help them get there.

Watching the protests in Egypt over the past week has been a unique experience for me. Why? Because I lived there.

I spent the summer of 2007 living on Zamalek, the island in the middle of the Nile in Cairo where the majority of the embassies are (the American embassy is not). I was there on a Fulbright trip learning about what it means to be a foreign correspondent.

While there, the group I was with — other young journalists — met with a number of different people, ranging from journalists to political leaders. Including a man jailed because in the election several years before he’d had the audacity to win a mere 11 percent of the vote.

In our free time, we roamed the city, learning about Egyptian culture and digging up stories. We smoked hookah in crowded restaurants. We ate falafel and street food. We got sick, we got better. We took terrifying taxi rides in cabs driven by manic, chain-smoking drivers. We went to the mall, to the museums, to mosques, to churches. We took sunset falucca rides on the Nile. We sat on bridges over the river with thousands of other people on Friday and Saturday nights, enjoying the cool breeze in the sickening heat.

Feluccas on the Nile at sunset.

We took Arabic classes several days a week. We stood in the sweltering visa-issuing office for hours, waiting to renew our visas, pitying the women in their heavy, dark clothes and veils, and thankful for our T-shirts and shorts. We listened to the call to prayer rise above the city like smoke five times a day, echoing off the concrete.

We made friends with other foreigners we met in “foreigners only” bars. The bars and liquor stores restrict their clientele to non-Egyptians. Even the Egyptian Christians — Copts — are not allowed to even procure wine for religious ceremonies.

We made friends with well-educated Egyptians who spoke English and often worked as our “fixers,” the people who translate and procure tickets and a myriad of other tasks.

We visited Alexandria and toured the famous library there. We went to Luxor and visited the Valley of the Kings. We learned about the slaves that built the temples and the pyramids (we visited those too). We went to the Red Sea and snorkeled the turquoise waters. We stared across the Bay of Aqaba toward the brown smudge of Saudi Arabia. We spent a night around a fire in the desert with the Beduin, sipping strong, sweet tea and jabbering back and forth in our respective languages, not caring we couldn’t understand what the other was saying.

Sunrise from Mount Sinai (where Moses received the Ten Commandments).

It was a fascinating trip both from the eyes of a tourist and from the eyes of a journalist. I wrote articles about the election process (very corrupt) and articles about the Zabaleen, the trash collectors. I wrote about non-governmental organizations providing education opportunities to some of Cairo’s poorest residents.

So now, nearly four years later, reading about the Egyptian protests is a strange experience. Journalists whose bylines I recognize, and with whom I sat on a beach and drank cheap Greek beer, are covering the protests. One was recently interviewed on ABC. Of them, I’m jealous. They’re living the foreign correspondent dream. They’re in the action. And all journalists are action junkies.

And I scan Facebook daily, checking the status updates of my few Egyptian friends. One is a wife and mother. The other is a journalist for an English-language newspaper. I want to make sure they’re OK as the protests turn violent.

Here in the safety of my cush American newspaper office, I’m voicing my opinion. President Hosni Mubarak is a man who has no interest in democracy (he’s been in office for 30 years and there’s fears he plans to pass the “presidency” onto his son). Egyptians loathe and fear Mubarak. I know because many told me themselves. President Barack Obama said in his state of the union address that the U.S. supports democracies globally and now is the chance for the administration to back up its claims. Obama has urged Mubarak not to seek reelection this fall, effectively withdrawing American support for his regime. Now America needs to make sure it backs a person interested in practicing true democracy.

Inside the Alabaster Mosque (of Mohammed Ali).

It is vitally important that Egypt remain a democratic nation. Egypt is America’s foothold in the Middle East, our somewhat moderate partner at an otherwise hostile table. It’s vitally important that the U.S. continue to send aid to Egypt, to foster Western programs.

The Saudis are infiltrating the country, radicalizing it. Twenty years ago, very few women wore the veil. Now burkas are common (if a woman doesn’t at least cover her hair, she’s considered a slut). And though we journalists joked about the BMOs — black moving objects — it’s vitally important the U.S. maintains a presence in Egypt to protect women’s rights there and in the region. The U.S. should not back the Muslim Brotherhood, which would see the spread of draconian Sharia law.

Looking at pictures of the protests in Tahrir Square, my heart goes out to Egypt, to its people. They want freedom, the same rights that you and I enjoy daily. The right to read newspapers that aren’t mouthpieces of the government. The right to vote without fear of retribution because they made the “wrong” choice. Looking at pictures of those familiar places filled with protestors and smoke, I can close my eyes and I’m back, watching the sun set orange over the Nile. Good luck, Cairo. I hope you succeed.


Telling stories

The first thing I noticed was the smell.

Be happy, dear readers, that this column doesn’t come equipped with Smell-O-Vision. I’m talking about the stink that comes from mountainous piles of garbage.

The second thing I noticed was the heart-breaking poverty. Suddenly the smell didn’t bother me so much.

I’m talking about the Garbage City in Cairo, Egypt. Three years ago I spent a summer living in Cairo and writing an article for the Egypt Daily News — an English-language newspaper affiliated with the International Herald Tribune — about educational opportunities for the Zabbaleen, the “garbage people.”

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