Tag Archives: Egypt

The Urgency of Travel

I came across an article recently about the growing phenomenon of students who spend almost every weekend of their semester abroad traveling somewhere outside of their host city, and often outside of their host country.  I immediately thought of my students last fall in Greece, many of whom spent exorbitant sums of their (or more often, their parents’ money) to leave Thessaloniki as often as possible.  I know they did this because I was responsible for knowing their general whereabouts.  I know about the exorbitant sums they spent because so many of them told me, almost proud, about all the last minute flights they booked.  

The article details this extreme sense of urgency, the idea that this is a once in a lifetime experience.  On most of my trips leading study abroad students or being on myself, I have heard this urgency expressed in a variety of ways.  Some students spend little time sleeping in order to see it all and do it all, and inevitable crash or become ill or get sun sickness.  Others never get to know their host country or host city because they only see it in Monday-Friday terms.  Face it, if you never spent weekends in the place where you live, it would seem to be a very different place.  Then there are those who are so busy cramming in all the “right” “must-see” sites that they never see the best stuff.  The everyday things, the regular people who aren’t in the service industry, the places that no one writing for Lonely Planet noticed because they were on deadline and quite frankly weren’t being paid to linger and discover.  

For me, the lingering and the discovering is the thing.  That’s where the nature of a place is hiding, where the most worthwhile friendships have cropped up, and where I’ve seen the kind of beauty that makes a permanent spot in my heart for that place.  

I certainly do go to many if not all of the places on the must-see list, but that’s for the first day or week or month, not for your settled-in stay.  The people you meet there will likely be fellow tourists, so judging a place based on those crowds is unfair.  Often, those landmarks are old.  There’s nothing wrong with old, but I find something perverse in worshiping a place only for its past, while ignoring all the amazing things that are happening in the here and now, ignoring all the people and innovation and art and history, ignoring the current identity of a place.  Basically, if all I did in Egypt was go to the pyramids and king tut’s tomb, I would have missed out on thousands of years worth of Egypt to fall in love with.  

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with people who work in the service industry (in fact, they almost never let me down with friendliness, patience, and recommendations, at home or abroad), but it’s no accident that Americans have a reputation for “befriending” every cab driver and bar tender, and no one else.  If the only time you see a person is when they are paid to not only do something for you, but do it with a smile and inviting personality, perhaps this is not actually friendship.  

There is nothing wrong with traveling while you’re abroad, and I understand that many people see it as cost-effective since they have already paid for the “big flight,” which in these conversations is almost always to Europe.  Because let’s face it, even though other sites are gaining popularity, most study abroad participants are still going to Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.  But for those who want to travel, I recommend getting to know other parts of the same country.  See something beyond a capital city, because good lord a country is so much more than that.  Go to the country, go where residents of your city go on vacation, go to the secondary cities that matter a great deal to locals but outsiders seem to ignore.  Your time in your host city and your time studying your host country has created an outline.  Let your time traveling around familiarizing yourself with the nooks and crannies fill in the picture, slowly.  

I feel that urgency too, and I try to fight it.  That urgency makes a person look to the next thing on the list instead of noticing what’s happening around you in the present.  That urgency makes you competitively compare at hostels, instead of just happily share.  That urgency will always leave you feeling you missed out, even as you were doing or seeing something amazing, or meeting someone amazing.  

When I feel that urgency hit, I think of something a professor said to us toward the end of our time in Egypt: Do not think of this as goodbye.  Don’t think of this as leaving Egypt forever.  You can always come back, and you will come back, if it means that much to you.  There is nothing to stop you from coming back here, if you want.  

And to be honest, almost all of us have gone back.  And it was exactly what I needed, and it will be again when I return.  So when I get to feeling frantic, I tell that urgent, Fear of Missing Out voice to shut up.  I hold onto the feeling knowledge that I will be back, and try to do what makes sense in the moment.  Sometimes that means going to a foreign city.  Sometimes it means staying in to get some rest.  Sometimes it means reading a good book in the sunshine.  And sometimes it just means lingering and discovering a new side to the same old place I’ve seen a thousand times before.  

Return Traveling

I never meant to be a return traveler. The allure of more and more exotic passport stamps is pretty strong. Almost as strong as the allure of new and different countries. But at this point, I sit firmly in the category of a return traveler. I went to France in 2006 and returned in 2010. I went to Egpyt for six weeks in 2009 and returned for a long weekend in 2011. I went to Cuba in 2010 for three months and returned in 2012 for a month. I went to the Dominican Republic in 2011 and went back six weeks later. I have been to Canada and most of my domestic travel spots countless times.

It makes sense that I’ve become a return traveler. In many other ways, I am not like the typical traveler, or travel blogger. I prefer my stays to last a month at a minimum. I almost always speak the language. I research the history, culture, and politics heavily and before and during my stay. This is just another way of settling myself deeper into the places I go.

One value is that I get to see the changes. Pre- and post-Revolution Egypt look incredibly different, and I loved seeing how the place and people had changed. The progress in Cuba has been amazing, and I’ll be writing about it more later on. With the Republica Domincana, the two trips were close together but that meant everyone remember me. I had the great experience of keeping my promises and seeing Mata during the rainy season we had heard so much about. France is just a second skin, and getting to know that for sure forever erased any doubts I felt when I first visited in a sleep-deprived 16 year old haze.

If return traveling seems like a waste of time, I think it either means the place doesn’t work for you or you have a very different set of travel priorities than I do.  Maybe someday this will change for me, but for now I couldn’t be happier spending my last traces of un-adult life in Cuba, for the second time.  And I can’t wait to make my way back to Egypt, France, the Dominican and Cuba once more.

If I Wrote for Thought Catalogue, this is what it would look like

Paris is like that first love that will always hold your heart. You two can fall easily back into each other’s arms, where everything comes quickly, lasts long, and feels right.

Canada is like that guy from your hometown that you paw around every once in a while just to feel alive, or to remember how it felt when you were sixteen and everything you did with him was new and dangerous. You may go back every once in a while, but honestly sometimes you get more out of not even bothering.

Egypt is like your first time: different for everyone. But no matter how you found it, it will always have a grip on you. It will always make your pulse quicken and give your stomach a jolt like an electric shock. You may wander back when you’re not sure what else to do, and while it may welcome you back, it could just as easily chew you up and spit you out. You will always wonder what if, and Egypt will always be there to remind you and tempt you.

Benin is like a bad fling: been there, done that, no regrets and no returning. Unless it was for a really good reason…

Greece was like finally getting with the most popular guy in school and not really getting it. What’s all the fuss about? I was too tired and busy from the pursuit to even enjoy it. And anyway, shouldn’t he come to me?  Maybe someday it will be time for a reunion…

Cuba is that guy your mother wanted you about. Some call it abuse; others are jealous. Sometimes, those people are one and the same. He’s frustrating, mean, fickle and generally beyond human comprehension. He may depress you, confuse you, and even cheat on you, but he makes you feel like a queen. With him, you are a woman no one else ever see or creates in you. With him you are wild, free, fun, and young forever. You are powerful, flirtatious and just a wee bit dangerous. Anyone who tells you they’d rather be alone than by his side is lying or they don’t know what they’re missing.

For reference, this is Thought Catalogue.

The Cat that Ate the Canary

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Over our fall break, my friend Kathy selflessly took on my duty shifts so I could go away for a few days.  I spent a glorious time sneaking off to Cairo and getting reacquainted with one of my favorite cities in the world.  Of course, when I say I “snuck off” I mean all my coworkers and students knew where I was and friends at home and in Cairo knew of my whereabouts. What I was really sneaking away from was the stress of NUin and the worries of everyone related to me, all of whom were in the dark until I was safely in a cafe in Cairo.

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As soon as I was in the cab I felt a relaxed sense of calm, even though the ride was long and jerky.  I knew he was scamming me and complementing my feeble Arabic for a tip, but it still felt nice to flex those muscles.  I had spoken in Arabic on the plane but the Greek flights attendants looked at me like I was crazy until I addressed them in their own language or mine.  The entire trip was marked by an unloosening of the spine, and unclenching of the fingers and toes, a relaxation of my mind.  I didn’t look over my shoulder for students or staff, I didn’t have to think before every word I spoke and every feeling I experienced.  I didn’t pause before hugging or dancing or kissing.  I slept when I wanted to, drank when I wanted to, and dressed how I wanted to.

I loved seeing the overwhelming pride in all things Egypt.  Trees that had once been naked or painted white were painted for the flag.  Most public surfaces were covered in graffiti calling for freedom, celebrating the people, and calling for religious tolerance with the symbol of the cross and crescent.

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Something that was missing this time was the firearms.  In 2009, men in white uniforms (or black, depending on their purpose) were on every single street corner in Zamalek, in 2s or 3s.  There’s a slow, eroding unnerving that happens to a person when they see so many men with guns as part of their everyday landscape.  It was nice to see Cairo unmarred by so many guns.  But make no mistake, word on the street is that for the first time, regular Cairenes are starting to carry guns to protect themselves.  And the lack of law enforcement on the street corners doesn’t mean that there are no soldiers or that they aren’t dangerous—we saw them marching in formation toward the US Embassy, and their handiwork is all over Tahrir in the form of injured, abused and sexually assaulted citizens. 095The whole trip was beautiful and made me feel simultaneously light and so much more like myself.  Something about Sarah and Cairo makes me feel like my course has been righted, like I’m not wasting my time, like I’m home.  When it comes down to it, Sarah is one of the people who is home for me, and everyone in her life opened themselves up to make me feel home with them, too.  I can’t express how thankful I am that I was able to have conversations about politics and play with kittens and drink wine and eat reese’s pieces and088 snuggle in a giant bed with four other people.  Cairo was like one long exhalation, like one big hug you’ve been waiting so long to have.
Until next time, Cairo,
Ma’salaama

Today, I am Not Proud to be an American

When I was in Tahrir Square and a gun went off, I remember being afraid of the cops.  I instantly knew that the gun was not from a civilian, and it crossed my mind that the scariest thing in the world may just be the feeling of living in a place where you can’t trust the people whose job it is to protect you. Certainly the scariest thing about that day, for me, was knowing that if I were in trouble, no one in uniform was going to help me or anyone else.

Last night, I read the moving open letter from Nathan Brown, a member of the UC Davis faculty to  Chancellor Linda Katehi, calling for her resignation.  The chancellor called in cops to break up peaceful protesters, and the cops came wearing full riot gear and beat the defenseless protestors with batons.  A week later, students and faculty came together to protest this brutality, and again the chancellor called in those same cops.

A few images stick out in my mind from the videos I’ve been watching, and one of them even made me cry.  A professor holds out her wrists for a zip-tie arrest, and instead a cop grabs her by the hair and drags her to the ground.  After, a young woman hides in the bushes and every cop who passes her jabs her at least once with a baton, but several due it more than that.  When a young man tries to stop them, he is put in a headlock, and goes limp, but is then hit repeatedly with a baton.  While he is incapacitated.

One of the more disturbing clips is of a cop intentionally pepper spraying students who are sitting crouched on the ground, their arms linked and faces blocked.  He even does it with a flourish, presumably for the crowd of students watching.  They have no weapons, they aren’t even standing up or in any way in an offensive position.  They are just sitting there, and they take it.  The cops use this moment of physical pain to try to drag students apart by their clothing and limbs.  When they do separate them, the cops lean on them with what appears to be their full weight, knees in their back and yelling at them to get on their stomachs, even when they already are.  One cop even l;laughs and smiles as students are lead away. If a person has no weapons, is on their stomach and can’t use their arms or legs, what danger do they present?

Later in that same video, cops slowly back away from protestors.  They are in full-on riot gear, with their pellet guns drawn (which, as we all know, are horribly named and can in fact be deadly).  How can they possibly think that they are the ones in danger here?  They are wearing thousands of dollars in protective gear, armed with weapon, some of which they have already used (pepper spray and batons).  Their opponents are shouting, “You can go,” and, “We will give you your moment of peace, we will not follow you.”  Their opponents are armed only with their voices and their cell phones, cameras and ipads, trying to capture this for the world.

I dislike the way crowd control weapons have been named.  And yes, they are weapons.  The LRAD has been more aptly referred to as a sound cannon, for the way its frequencies are aimed at crowds they then debilitate.  A pellet gun sounds like a fun toy you could perhaps buy at a dollar store, not the object that killed a college student in Boston in 2004.  Pepper spray sounds innocuous and fun, and we see it as a joke so often in movies and television that it seems like a mild inconvenience and an entertaining story afterwards.

I don’t want to live in a country where we must fear the people who enforce our laws.  I want law enforcement professionals to live in fear of breaking the laws that define their roles and existence.  Aren’t we supposed to be better than countries like Egypt?  Isn’t that what we keep telling ourselves all through our economic crisis, and as we sing that we’re proud to be American, where at least we know we’re free?

In the final video, at least seven cops can be seen hitting students repeatedly with batons.  The students are unarmed and have their arms linked together.  The students are peacefully protesting on their own campus.  The Berkeley cops keep hitting them, and even after they stop, two in the corner of the video keep beating the same woman who was stuck in the bushes before.

I don’t care what the students were protesting.  I don’t care what they said to the cops.  I don’t even really care what their orders were, or what you think about politics in general or the Occupy movement.  Patriotism means being proud of your country, and making sure your country stays a place you can be proud of.  Our tax dollars pay for police brutality, while students, union members, academics and parents are subject to this kind of behavior we look down upon around the world.  I’m not proud right now, are you?

Protest

I knew that if there were any demonstrations while I was in Egypt, I was going.  Absolutely, 100%.  So when

Ever wonder how everyone has face paint on for the news?

Sarah got the call to cover a march to the Maspero Building, where 27 people were killed and about 300 were injured just a week and a half ago, I was excited.  We started at Tahrir Square, somewhere I went a lot back in 2009, and a place that became the epicenter of the Egyptian Revolution.  I photographed some demonstrators and signs, and Sarah conducted a few brief interviews. She annotated the entire thing for me. translating a speech here, or pointing out the photo of a martyred blogger there.

We came upon a Salafist demonstration.  I was surprised by how many families I saw, and the carnival-esque atmosphere.  People were selling food and painting faces.  I was embarrassed to admit it, and maybe it was just all the years of training from Western media, but when I saw so many people jumping up and down chanting “Allah u Akhbar” it made me nervous.  And the more Sarah told me about the Salafists, the more comfortable I became with that reaction.

At Sarah’s direction, we (Sarah, myself and her brand new intern Hayden) walked toward the Maspero building.  What was happening at Tahrir was interesting for me to see, but was not newsworthy.  Sheff says there are protests and demonstrations every friday, and that they’re overusing Tahrir.  It took a lot of waiting for Maspero to heat up, but it did.  Music, chanting, and watchful law enforcement.  In Sarah’s attempts to get interviews, we suddenly found ourselves between the Egyptian version of swat (2-3 large vans) and the protestors.  It’s weird the way a crowd takes on a life of it’s own, and moves in fits and starts.  I was glad our position made Sarah nervous, because it made me nervous too.  She was very protective the entire day, holding my hand in crowds and shepherding me around.  I kept getting lost in my lens and not noticing the crowd movements around me.

Joey and Manarcalled and we decided to meet up for dinner, somewhere downtown.  Joey reported through

At the Maspero Building

the Lebanese civil war in 2006, and had war reporter training in DC.  He started Bikya Masr, which makes him Sarah’s boss.  Manar is an Egyptian and also writes for Bikya.  She reminds both Sarah and I of our beloved Alex Chapman, with their calming demeanor and purposeful nature.  We waited in Tahrir for them, and I snapped a few more pictures.  Suddenly Sarah yelled, “do you have your camera?” and we were all running, but only a short distance.  I didn’t even know what I was getting; I just kept clicking the shutter.  An ambulance went past, and apparently the coffin of Essam Atta, but I didn’t see it.  By the time we met up with Joey and Manar, Joey had texted again because he heard someone was shot.  Sarah and Hayden asked around but everyone just kept explaining how Atta died (he was tortured to death by the Egyptian military using water hoses.)

Back at Tahrir, Essam Atta’s coffin passes by for the first time.

After that everything went quickly, but with big lulls in between.  At some point I came to know that someone had been killed, but not right in Tahrir.  He had argued with a cop, and the cop had just shot him. He was 19.  The coffin came back around and with it came crowds and chanting.  We were at high ground, on the edge of the grass in the middle of the square (which is really a circle), but we were still surrounded on all sides by over a thousand people.  After going around the square with the coffin again, the crowd headed off, but no one understood their aim.  We eventually set off on foot, and realized they were going toward the American Embassy.  Just the night before I had been to the Halloween party there, drinking Western alcohol and watching adults make fools of themselves.  As we followed behind, Joey kept checking to make sure we had escape routes, and were at a safe distance.

We were crossing another, smaller square when we heard gunfire.

I think it was just one shot, but I read after that there were multiple.  My heart went double-time and I moved away while looking in the direction of the noise, without thinking.  All five of us were, although Joey and Manar seemed entirely in control of the situation.  The weirdest thing is that we were the only ones doing this.  When we realized we were far from the gunfire, it had ceased, and no one was moving toward us, we stopped to watch Egyptians run toward the sound of a gun at top speed.  I think it takes a lot for a person to run toward the sound of a gun at top speed.  I have a feeling they know by now that if they don’t go investigate something for themselves, they will likely be lied to about what happened.

It turns out the Egyptian military shot into the air, probably blanks.  We got closer, and watched protestors try

Atta’s coffin

to climb over the barricades to get onto the street where the US Embassy resides.  Did I mention we oddly ran into several members of the Egyptian army the evening before, marching in formation down the (closed-off, barricaded) street of the US Embassy?  Strange days.

I was thoroughly nervous and uncomfortable at this point, which is when Sarah started telling me Joey’s credentials and asking if I was alright.  Manar spoke a lot with an older woman, and filled us in on what was going on.  Apparently, this portion of the demonstration was in solidarity with Occupy Oakland, which is in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street.  For those who don’t know, the police in Oakland took violent action against protesters a few days before this, arresting some and using batons and tear gas to break up the peaceful camp.  Joey seemed to also be a bottomless pit of knowledge.  He shared such gems as, “don’t rub your eyes if there’s teargas; use coke,” and, “it was just like this with Maspero, but then out of nowhere the army killed a couple dozen people.”  Smart guy, but not the best for quieting nerves.

Onlookers from an office building as we followed the crowd toward the US Embassy

Eventually it became clear that nothing more would happen that night.  We went to an internet cafe so the reporters could upload and post.  I felt all jangled, and jumped about a mile when the men behind me cheered the soccer game on tv.  I couldn’t believe that just a few streets over, children were laughing and playing with toys.  Someone had been shot, a 19 year old was killed, and Cairo didn’t even blink an eye.

Manar went back to listen to Atta’s mother speak, but we couldn’t find her.  We went to find where the man (boy, really) had been shot, but we deemed it a long walk for no pay out.  Just before we turned around, though, we saw young men running as fast as they could back toward the square, dragging the metal barricades with them.  They opened up the square to cars, making the hundreds of people gathered there vulnerable.  We were all a bit stunned by that move, and kept looking back over our shoulders, waiting for screams or scattering.

In the end, we went home, feet aching.  I was keyed up, but for Sarah, Joey and Manar it was another day at the office.  For Hayden, it was the first of what will be many days at a rather unusual office.  The three journalists went to work spreading truth, and I drank tea and checked facebook.  Later, we put on Halloween costumes and drank beer and partied by the pyramids like nothing ever happened.  I updated my status, like that was the most important thing I could do with what I saw–turn it into and experience on a list, a fun fact, bragging rights.

It was strange being with journalists.  They were much more calm and controlled than I was.  They didn’t raise their voices or pick up signs, and they didn’t allow anyone to paint flags on them.  I was with Sarah, so out of respect for her I followed suit.  To some extent, I had this weird thought that my camera would protect me, that being a journalist would protect me.  I know that’s not true, but it felt like a pretty good get out of jail free card, the way my little blue book used to make me feel.  I also know that I’m not a journalist, not even close.  I put myself at the center of every story.  I apply motivation when I don’t necessarily know it to be true.  I am not in any truly dangerous situations.  I don’t write on any kind of deadline, and these days I don’t write at all.  I don’t even particularly write about anything that matters.  Watching Sarah work made me feel small and incompetent. She compartmentalizes her thoughts and opinions, she is thorough and efficient.  Her Arabic has improved greatly, and the articles she writes get the facts out to a population of Americans who would otherwise not read the truth.

Through it all, I saw so many little acts of civic duty.  People directed traffic, or helped us and others to cross the street.  They protected each other, like the man who stood in front of an open man-hole so no one would fall in.  That’s what he did, he just stood there while we all rushed past, nervous and following the growing, quickening crowd.  Any one of us could have easily fallen in and snapped an ankle at the very least.  People helped each other up onto structures and walls for better vantage points, and so many Egyptians beckoned for me to take their photos.

I’m glad I went to Tahrir.  I’m glad it all became real to me, instead of a liberal pet project, one that is so easy to support from a safe room thousands of miles away.  Feeling the terror of just the noise of one single gunshot, and then feeling the insignificance of that compared to those who have witnessed murder in the street, those who have heard hundreds of gunshots with live ammunition, those who were at the Maspero building and those who suffer in the prisons.  It’s so easy to say that there are things worth dying for, that we should stand up for democracy and freedom no matter what.  But to see a minuscule fraction of what “no matter what,” can really mean magnified for me the true courage of Egyptians and freedom fighters all over the world.

Structure

This Dialogue has been reminding me more and more of the Egypt trip every day.  And it must be so, because people who aren’t here have been commenting that it seems like I feel the same way about this Dialogue as that one.  After Esther asked me about the trip that has had the most impact on me personally, I began thinking about it more directly.  I’ve loved all the travel in between, but this trip seems to align the ever-fickle planets of academics, leadership, location and group members.

I love the books we read.  Why the Cocks Fight is maybe a little boorish and poorly written, but is nevertheless entirely necessary as it’s the only real history of the island of Hispaniola as a whole.  I can’t understand why there aren’t more books about this topic, and why the author (Michelle Wucker) didn’t arrange the book chronologically instead of thematically.  But alas, we are able to bypass so many basic overviews of DR/Haiti history when we are on site visits or in the field, and instead move on to deeper issues.  With Drown and The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (DR) and The Farming of the Bones and Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), we have been able to see the contemporary lives of Haitians and Dominicans at home and abroad, and just how important history, race, nationality and poverty have been to their lives.  I highly recommend all four of those books, and those two authors in general.  Nothing could make the 1937 massacre come to life as much as Farming of the Bones, to the point where I know flinch when I see the word perejil.

It seems that being informed about where you go is a basic form of respect, much like learning hello, goodbye and thank you in the native language.  It is a small token of effort and understanding that is overwhelmingly appreciated by every local population I’ve encountered thus far.  When Haitians learn I’ve read a few Danticat books they take me more seriously, and raise the intensity level of the conversation.  While I’m not in expert in the languages, history and culture of Hispaniola, at least I’m making a good faith effort.  I love that in this group, we named our traveling parrot Tousaint (l’Ouverture) and no one has to ask why.  When Junior references “the election thief” in Wao, no one is unsure about whom he is speaking.  We are better travelers, better students, and better…helpers? because of the reading we’ve done.

Beyond that, it is invaluable to my education.  Our discussions are more enriching, due in part to the books as well as to the overall attitude of this group.  I’ve mentioned before that we have a large proportion of freshmen (1 in 4 students on the trip) but that has only been an asset.  On the whole, the group mixes well and frequently, and is full of people who are dedicated to and excited by social business.  People are practical and enthusiastic, and have their head in the game.  Drinking hasn’t been an issue, no one complains about our long or fruitless bus rides, and everyone has taken the workload in stride.

I was a little nervous after our spring break Capstone trip, because there were a lot of areas for improvement.  I enjoyed myself, but I had various concerns and often felt like an outsider.  It turns out that the issues worrying me also bothered the SEI leadership, and are simply not present on this trip.  The readings were required before and during the trip, the intentions of our trip have been clear since the beginning, and everyone in this group is amazing.  On the whole, this is one of the best run trips pf which I have ever had the pleasure to be a part.