Tag Archives: Egypt

How to Renew Your Tourist Visa at the Mogamma

After posting my rather tongue-in-cheek entry about my perilous journey to the Mogamma to renew my Egyptian tourist visa,  I noticed that a number of people came to my site wanting more information on how, exactly, to go about renewing your visa if you want to stay longer in Egypt. Here’s my step-by-step guide.

EDIT 1/3/2017–A reader who renewed her visa in December of 2016 provided an excellent update to this post–find it here!

What to Bring:

  1.  Yourself.
  2.  Your Passport.
  3.  A photocopy of your passport photo page.
  4. A photocopy of your passport visa page–if it’s not your first renewal, bring copies of your initial visa page and your most recent renewal.
  5.  A passport-sized photo of yourself.
  6.  A pen.
  7. Lots of patience.

I usually get the photocopies and passport photo done ahead of time at a local place, but if you forget, you can get them done when you get to the Mogamma. Photo and copy center is to the right, past the ridiculously crowded staircase.  You will probably need to use your elbows to maintain your place in line.

What to Do:

  1. Arrive at Mogamma, the earlier the better. The building opens at 9.  I highly recommend making sure there’s nothing major happening in Tahrir before you go.
  2. Go through security. If you’re carrying a camera, they’ll ask you to check it at the entrance.
  3. If you didn’t get  your photocopies and passport photo in advance, do so now.
  4. Go up the massive, crowded staircase on your right.
  5. Go down the linoleum lined hallway to the right at the top of the stairs.
  6. Look for the window for visa renewals–it’s near the end of the hallway.
  7. Get your paperwork and find a spot to fill it in.
  8. Find the window that sells stamps. The person who gave you your paperwork will tell you how much you need to buy in renewal-stamp currency.
  9. Give your completed paperwork, stamps, passport photo, passport and visa photocopies, and passport to the first window where you got your paperwork.
  10. Get the hell out of the building. (For the sake of brevity, I’ve omitted all of the wait-in-line-in-an-overcrowded-unairconditioned-hallway steps, but you should be aware that they’re a big part of the endeavor).
  11. Spend the next 2 hours doing something relaxing, preferably a little ways away for mental space. You’ll need the time to recharge.
  12. Return to the Mogamma, go back through security, back up the stairs and down the hall.
  13. Join the massive throng of people waiting for their visas.
  14. When the people behind the counter hold up your paperwork with your photo attached, your visa is ready. Elbow your way to the window to pick up your passport.
  15. Make your escape.

Congratulations! You’ve just renewed your visa for another 3 months!

Note:

This information is accurate at the time of posting. Egypt’s visa laws and procedures have been fluctuating wildly since the revolution started, and every few months there’s a scare within the expat community that visas will no longer be renewed. Several people have reported in the last week that the Mogamma told them that they were on their last 3-month renewal and that they would not be able to renew again. Three months from now, that may or may not still be the case.  Check with your friends before you go to renew your visa, just to be on the safe side. Good luck!

 

Reverse Culture Shock

I’ve been back in the US for about two months now, and as always, reverse culture shock is beginning to sink in. In many ways, reverse culture shock–culture shock that happens when you’ve returned to your home country–is often more difficult than the culture shock that you experience when you move to a foreign country. You expect, when traveling someplace new, for things to be different from what you’re used to. No one expects to find differences when they return to what used to be familiar, the place that for most of their lives was home.

I’ve navigated this issue several times now. The first time was the hardest. I had just returned–quite unwillingly–from living in France for a year. I’d felt more at home in Paris than I had anywhere else previously, and I felt that it was where I belonged. The art, the food, the culture all spoke to me. French felt like my mother tongue.  I had adapted to France to thoroughly that people were shocked to find out  I was American. France, from Paris to Saint Michel to Aix-en-Provence, welcomed me and made me feel that I was truly at home.

When I returned to the US, I felt that life was ending. Everything that I had grown to cherish over the past year was finished, and the shock manifested in unexpected ways. The cheese counter at the local grocery store made me want to cry. American English sounded harsh against my ears. I was despondent for a very long time, wishing more than anything that I could go back.

This time around, it’s a bit different. With France, I had fallen completely and unabashedly in love.  With Egypt, I had a much more complex relationship. There were many things I loved–the monuments, the desert, the hospitality of the people.  There were many things I hated–the traffic, the sexual harassment, the lack of trees, the fact that almost all of my hobbies in the US could be construed as scandalous in some way.  With protests happening on a weekly basis, I was ready to leave when I finished my practicum–but I stayed until the last possible moment, all the same.

Here in the US, I’ve gone from Boston to Florida to DC in the space of the 2 months that I’ve been back. Each one of these places has its own distinct culture, which both heightens and mitigates the sense of culture shock, depending how comfortable I feel with each one. Boston feels the most like my natural habitat in the US, and so I felt the most at home there. But it was also the first place I returned to, so it’s where I felt the brunt of the disconnect between my life in Cairo–circumscribed by the ongoing revolutionary activity and cultural politics–and my life in the US. Florida, where I grew up, felt strange in the way of childhood homes.

Now that I’ve finally settled in DC, with plans to stay for at least the next year, the disconnect grows stronger. Instead of feeling that my circumstances are curtailed by protests and sexual politics, I feel that my circumstances are curtailed by the economy and the terrible job market. I no longer have to check twitter to make sure that there’s not a battle going on downtown before I go out, or brace myself for graphic sexual invitations every time I walk down the street. The direct threats to my physical well-being are much fewer and less apparent here. The main threats I feel now are far more nebulous: looming student loans, the grinding process of applying to jobs and the fear of never finding one, the feeling of stasis that comes from suddenly ceasing to move after such a long time away.

Having gone through reverse culture shock so many times, I now know how to handle it. Focus on the good things about whatever place you’re in–the friends and family you’ve returned to, the old haunts that you’ve missed. Try to find at least a few people who have been to the place you’ve returned from, so that you can share stories and reminisce. Look for a cafe or grocer that specializes in food from the region that you’ve just returned from.  And throw yourself into your new location so that you experience it completely, like a new traveler in a new place for the first time. You’ll discover hidden treasures that you never knew about, and you’ll be able to preserve, for at least a while, the feeling of still being on the road.

 

 

 

 

 

Who to Blame? Understanding the Massacre at Port Said

When last I posted, I was cautiously optimistic about the anniversary of the January 25 revolution. As the days passed with only minor scuffles, I breathed an internal sigh of relief. The worst was over, and we were on track for a peaceful post-revolutionary year.  That relief, however, was premature. The bloodbath that I expected didn’t fail to take place, it was simply postponed.

On Wednesday evening a football match in Port Said ended in horrific violence, with 73 people dead and over a thousand people injured. Egypt’s population is grieving,  shocked, and outraged, and  they’ve  taken to the streets. Predictably, a number of these peaceful marches have been met with birdshot and tear gas from security forces. In the 48 hours since the massacre took place, at least seven people have died in Cairo and Suez.  I expect the protests—and the counterfighting that goes with the protests—to continue for several more days.

What actually happened in Port Said? It’s difficult to say. So many different versions of the story have circulated since the massacre took place that it’s nearly impossible to know the truth.

The verifiable facts of the situation are these: at the end of the match, between the local underdog al-Masry team that won against the powerful al-Ahly team from Cairo, people rushed the field from the al-Masry side. The doors between the stands and the field were open, which they should not have been. The security presence was lower than normal.  Police in riot gear failed to intervene. The lights were extinguished. The doors to exit the stadium were locked.

And fifteen minutes later, seventy-three people were either stabbed, suffocated, or trampled to death.

What actually happened? Who can we blame? Which of the many conflicting narratives can we possibly believe?

In the first version of the story, the massacre was just a football match gone wrong. Small fights are common at nearly every game. One of my Egyptian friends told me that random fistfights and projectiles were “part of the experience” of going to a match.  This game, for whatever reason, had insufficient and/or inexperienced security that made all the wrong decisions when faced with a commonplace sports riot. Tensions are running high in Egypt right now, and things got out of hand. It could have happened anywhere, in any country, without enough security to keep the fans contained. Shame that it had to happen here.  But why was the security so lax? Why haven’t other matches since last January had similar levels of violence? And why was the attack instigated by fans of the winning team?

In the second version of the story, the massacre was a premeditated event. Someone—the most popular candidate is SCAF and/or the remnants of the old Mubarak regime—brought in thugs from the outside, armed with knives, and positioned them near the open gates to the pitch so that they’d be poised and ready to do their worst as soon as the game was complete, regardless of who won. The absence of security was deliberate, as was the inaction of whatever forces were present. Doors were closed to prevent people from escaping. The lights were turned out so that no video cameras would be able capture the truth.

Motivations in this theory vary. The al-Ahly fans known as the Ultras have been prominent in Egypt’s ongoing protests. By attacking them, SCAF could get rid of some of its strongest and most vocal opponents. A number of Cairo revolutionaries see the attack as the beginning of a revenge plot against participants in the revolution. Others see the attack as part of a pattern of violent crime that has arisen since January 24, when the government revoked the “state of emergency” under which Egypt has been ruled for the last 30 years. In the last week, there have been multiple bank robberies—a type of large-scale crime nearly unheard-of in Egypt up until now. Many believe that the upswing in violent crime is being orchestrated so that SCAF can justify re-instating emergency law, and ultimately justify maintaining its own power rather than transferring power to a civilian government. But if SCAF wants to demonstrate how necessary it is for maintaining stability, why carry out such a breach in its role of protection?

And today, the state-run Nile News TV channel declared that the football massacre was orchestrated by US and German spies as retaliation for the raids on NGOs. Invisible foreign hands were at work to try to undermine the integrity of the nascent government and push their own political agenda. But would foreign spies really give a damn about a football match? And aren’t the people of Egypt capable of rioting on their own?

It’s hard to know what to believe out of all these conflicting information streams. Each one is plausible, to a certain extent, and each one is problematic. Like all situations with multiple narratives, the truth lies somewhere in between the different lines. We may never discover what the truth really is. But one common theme is that everyone wants to point the finger at someone else, to distance themselves from this horrible event. Whose fault was it? Blame the football fans, blame hired thugs, blame the police, blame SCAF, blame foreign spies, blame someone. Anyone. Because no one wants to accept responsibility for such a heinous event. No one wants to accept that they might have had a role, however small.

Everywhere, everyone makes the same refrain: “It was other people, bad people, not us.”

Not us.

I do not believe in such things as “good people” and “bad people.” I believe only in the existence of people, full stop. People, who are capable of both good and bad actions. People, and the choices they make, based on the situations that they find themselves in.

Whatever happened on Wednesday, it was the result of human agency. People. Making choices.

I do not pretend to know who instigated the attacks, whether or not they were premeditated, who made the myriad decisions that ended in disaster. All I know is that these decisions were made by people, individually and collectively. And the repercussions of those decisions will scar Egypt for a very, very long time.

 

 

January 25th Revolution, One Year Later

On this day, one year ago, Egyptians took to the streets to protest the regime of then-President Hosni Mubarak. Following the example of Tunisia, protesters gathered to demand “bread and freedom,” and later escalated their demands to “the People want to bring down the Regime. ” The independent paper Al Masry Al Youm reported that it could be “the start of something big.

And so it was.

Two and a half weeks later, Mubarak stepped down. People rejoiced–they had brought down  the Regime.

A year later, though, it’s clear that the Regime is still here–like a hydra, its head was removed only to sprout a dozen more in the form of the generals of SCAF. Mohamed El Baradei, Nobel Peace Prize winner and presidential hopeful, publicly withdrew his candidacy because “the old regime has not fallen yet.”

It’s been an interesting year. A year of hope and disappointment, of protests and violent military crackdowns reported as “clashes.” Of increasing confusion as to what the revolution has accomplished, and whether or not is has continued  or concluded or simply fallen into stagnation. A year whose official timeline is incomplete and filled with blood.

Today, people are gathering all over the city to remember this last year of revolution, to commemorate all those who died, all those who were detained, blinded, tortured, and sexually assaulted. All roads today now lead to Tahrir, and some reports from Twitter say that the square is already so filled with people that the marchers coming in from all over the city might not even make it into the  square itself.

Today’s marches and demonstrations, inshallah, will be peaceful. Indeed, I’m fairly sure that they will be, for as long as the daylight lasts.  But the worst military crackdowns have always happened after dark, and so I’m waiting to see what happens after sunset, and what happens over the course of the next three days.

Inshallah…

For real-time updates, I’ll be following the Egypt Live Blog on Al-Jazeera. I recommend that you do the same.

 

 

 

Happy New Year from Cairo!

This post originally appeared on the Planeterra Community Blog.

A lot has happened  here since my last update. Following my visits to Alexandria and the Sinai Peninsula, I went to Upper Egypt, home of the cities of Aswan and Luxor. From Aswan, I joined a group to visit the incredible temple of Abu Simbel, one of the most impressive sites in all of Egypt.  The temple itself is awe-inspiring in its size and grandiosity, but even more impressive is the fact that it was moved completely when the Aswan High Dam was built—each individual block was painstakingly transported and reconstructed so that the temple would be preserved. Pretty awesome!

Posing with Walid from G Adventures in front of Abu Simbel Temple

I also had the chance to take a daylong felucca ride down the Nile on the way from Aswan to Luxor.  Temples are impressive, but I found the felucca ride even better. In a sailboat, you can watch the palm trees and temples roll by, with scenes of daily life unchanged for hundreds of years.

A Felucca on the Nile

Following Luxor, I went out into the remote Western Desert to visit the 5 oases of Kharga, Dakhla, Farafra, Bahariya , and Siwa. I even got the chance to go camping among the mysterious rock formations in the incredible White Desert.

Standing with a Rock Formation in the White Desert

In each of these amazing places, I found a host of potential projects for Planeterra to support. Village associations with their own schools and health centers, women’s cooperatives for sewing and handicrafts, irrigation canals and sanitation projects…every place I went had a different priority, a different effort to improve local livelihoods. The sheer number of projects to look at was daunting, but also an incredible sign of local efforts to improve their own lives and situations. International media might focus on Egypt’s difficulties, but in my work and travels here I’ve been impressed by Egypt’s strength. Every village is full of possibilities, and Egypt’s people are full of hope for the future.

With Local Children in Aswan

It’s important to point out here that during all of my time and travels in Egypt, I’ve never once felt unsafe.  Despite all the unrest in Tahrir, Egypt remains a very safe place for foreigners to visit. I’ve been welcomed with goodwill and hospitality in every town and village, and the other travelers I’ve met here all agree with my conclusion: Egypt is an amazing place to be.

 

 

Sunset over the Nile

 

To the Mogamma! Visa Renewals and a Visit to Tahrir

The past two days have involved a great and perilous adventure known as Renewing my Visa. Permission to Remain in the Country needed to be Obtained. While normally this activity is not problematic in Egypt, since foreigners usually bring needed money, the matter of recent  events has made engagements with the bureaucracy less predictable than normal. Rumors were circulating that visa renewals were getting more difficult, with one Egyptian newspaper claiming (in sensationalist manner) that foreigners should just stay away or go home. 

Nevertheless, I had no plans for leaving, and my visa was expired. Which meant that I had to brave the journey to Tahrir to visit the dreaded Mogamma–an enormous government office building that is the scourge of everyone who needs more than a 30-day standard tourist stay. A gift of the Soviet Union in 1952, the Mogamma remains a bastion of Soviet-Era efficiency and charm in the heart of Egypt.

Hence the  dread.

I arrived  shortly after the 9am opening time on Tuesday, accompanied by my housemates (one of whom also needed her visa renewed–misery requires solidadrity). Tahrir was relatively quiet, but closed to automobile traffic and Occupied by a number of makeshift tents. In January and July of this year, revolutionary activities actually blockaded the Mogamma building. Fortunately, the current protests aren’t denying access.

Photos of Tahrir are currently frowned upon. I tried to be discreet.

El Tahrir Square, with the Mogamma in the background

My efforts at discretion were probably unsuccessful.

Tents in front of the Mogamma in Tahrir

Inside the Mogamma, there was first the fairly painless line to get my passport and visa photocopied.  Then there was the first window, to get the paperwork for a re-entry visa, followed by a second window to get the visa extension paperwork. A third window sold me stamps to pay for my visa extension, which I brought back to the second window, which sent me back to the third window because my first set of stamps was insufficient, and back downstairs for another photocopy of my visa page. Back at the second window, I dropped off my passport, extension paperwork, pile of stamps, photocopies, and supplemental passport photo, and was instructed to come back in two hours to window number 38.

While this process was annoying, it was actually made better by the fact that there’s a fairly low volume of tourists right now.  Last time I renewed my visa, the process was comparable, but complicated at each window by nearly endless queues. At least this time around, the queues were short.

Two hours later, after lunch in the khan-el-khalili, we returned to the Mogamma and the fabled Window 38, where a woman held up stacks of papers with passport photos attached. When you recognize your photo/paperstack in the window, your visa is done. In my case, though, because I needed both the extension (now finished) and the re-entry (unable to be processed simultaneously), I had to take my newly-returned passport back to window number one, where I was told that it would be ready the following morning.

So. They didn’t fail to renew my visa, or order me out of the country, or otherwise tell me that I couldn’t stay. My foreign self is still welcome. But because bureaucracy is never done, my visa was not actually ready the following morning.

It was ready ten minutes past closing time, the following afternoon.

Catching up on Egyptian News–Protests and Elections

I have begun and discarded half a dozen entries since my last post.  It’s hard to know what to blog about when the situation is changing by  the hour, and after a certain point things become too complicated to explain them in real time. At first, I followed the violence in Tahrir so closely that it became my full-time job. Then I hit a saturation point, in which I literally could not look at one more news article or twitter update without feeling that I might go mad. Ignorance was starting to seem like bliss.

I spent almost two days trying to ignore the news as much as possible, meaning that I only checked my news feeds and twitter 2 or 3 times a day, instead of hovering over them constantly.  It was  American Thanksgiving, and I decided that the holiday meant taking a break from the real world.  The real world, however, was impossible to shut out.  Even though I wasn’t physically present in the square, Tahrir was the only thing that really existed.

I tuned in to find news of a police officer called the “eye-hunter” deliberately blinding protesters and  American-made tear gas (plus  nerve gas of unknown provenance) being used against protesters in the square. Even the news itself became suspect. One of my favorite news websites, Al Masry Al Youm (to which I refer  positively in my post about Egyptian news sources) was taken offline for 48 hours.  When the site returned, it was full of state propaganda: “who will protect the people if not SCAF?”  So much for freedom of the press.

If I’d had any desire to go to the protests myself,  it would have been quickly quelled. Not just by the tear/nerve gas, but by the fact that as a foreigner and a woman I could have easily been turned into a pawn or a victim–and possibly both. Three American students were arrested near the square on bogus charges of throwing Molotov cocktails. At the same time, government representatives talked about “infiltrators” and “outside agents” stirring up trouble in Tahrir–as though the government’s own excesses weren’t enough to make people take to the streets on their own. The last thing I wanted was to be held up as one of those “outside agents.” Especially when there were female journalists being arrested and  sexually assaulted.
An Egyptian friend of mine took part in the protests, and I gave her some money to buy extra gas masks to distribute. It was the only concrete way besides twittering that I felt I was able to contribute to the cause.

And now.

Things are quieter. The first phase of elections is complete.

I went to stay with a friend in Alexandria during the elections, and we were prepared to hunker down under self-imposed house arrest in case of riots. But everything was calm. The day dawned rainy, and I took it as a good sign. Men and women lined up peacefully in separate lines and waited their turn to vote. They even managed to agree to disagree sometimes.  There were questions, among those who had been in Tahrir, whether the election as overseen by SCAF was legitimate; whether voting was or was not the next manifestation of the people exercising power as they’d done in Tahrir. A 62% voter turn out rate so far indicates that more people than not decided voting was a good idea.

Since the days of voting, we’ve returned to a semblance of calm. Which is not to say that there haven’t been protests. Just that they’ve been smaller, and the police and army haven’t seen fit to attack. Yesterday, protesters wearing eye patches marched to express solidarity with protesters who lost their eyes in the last week.  Today, more protesters marched with coffins to symbolically represent those who died. The marches right now are about mourning and acknowledging the sacrifices that people have made to free their country from military rule. Inshallah those sacrifices will not have been in vain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

News Sources for Egypt

Tahrir has been going from bad to worse lately, but there’s a limit to how much news reporting and commentary I can do at once. It’s exhausting just to follow current events in Egypt right now, let alone write on them.

So.

In the interest of giving other people the option to see what’s going on in Egypt in real time, here are the main websites that I’ve been using to get my news and information.

First, traditional news sources like the BBC (my favorite news source in general circumstances) and CNN (popular in the US). Articles here tend to be well-written and well-researched, but often late to the party in terms of real-time updates.

Second, Egyptian news sources. Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al Jazeera both update pretty frequently, and being the local news sources they tend to get the stories faster than other networks. In particular the Al Jazeera Egypt Live Blog has been my main source of information for the past few days, because it’s updated in real time.

My main source of information, however, is not a news site at all. It’s twitter.  There are a number of interesting hashtags to follow–mostly I follow #tahrir, as well as some Cairo-based tweeters. @cairowire, @protestwatch, @tahrir_news all post frequently (@tahrir_news posts mostly in Arabic, so google translate is a handy device).

Obviously, not everything on twitter is accurate–but then, not everything on the traditional news source websites is accurate either. On Saturday, Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that Tahrir square had been cleared after “light clashes.” This was a few hours before the shit started to hit the fan. (I would include a link to the article in question, but it’s been taken down).

As my housemate Lorna points out in her blog on this weekend’s events, pretty much every news source is biased in some way, whether towards the police or towards the protesters (though support for the police has been dwindling the more the violence continues).  Consequently, I’ve been a news junkie for the past several days, concurrently following all of the above sources and often several others, trying to get as complete a picture as I can from all sides. Following so many information streams so constantly is exhausting, though, and it’s not something I can keep up indefinitely. So in the interest of spreading access to information more widely, I’m writing this post on sources that others can use if they so wish.

In the meantime, it’s 3am. Tomorrow promises to be just as interesting as today if not more so. Meaning it’s time to get some sleep before another tension-filled day.

 

Tahrir, the US, and Democracy

A lot has happened since my last entry, and it seems that we’re going to need a lot more than wishes on rainy days to keep Egypt peaceful through the upcoming elections.  For those who haven’t been following, protests started in Tahrir this past Thursday, and have continued  up to today, becoming increasingly violent from Saturday on. Yesterday on my way home from a conference I passed near Tahrir, and saw lines of army vehicles on their way into the square, and lines of ambulances waiting outside. I knew, even before getting home and seeing the news, that things had gotten bad. Most recent body count that I can find is 35 for this weekend, with about 1700 injured (including at least 2 who lost their eyes).

I came home to the news of escalating violence after attending a conference on Sustainable Development in North Africa during the day. The conference was fantastic, filled with passionate people trying to help their countries. I met attendees from Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Sudan.  I couldn’t help feeling, with the juxtaposition of the conference and the news, that I was seeing both the absolute best and the absolute worst to be found in Egypt, all in the space of 24 hours. The disconnect made me dizzy.

At the conference, a young man from Ethiopia asked me why I wasn’t in Tahrir, joining the protesters in their struggles. “You’re an American,” he said. “America is the seat of democracy in the world. You should be there, fighting for democracy.”

He was nonplussed when I responded. It wasn’t my country, I said, it wasn’t my fight. I do development work. Aren’t we at a conference for Sustainable Development? I’m trying to build things for when the fighting’s over.

“But it is your fight,” he insisted.  I should be there, helping. As though my very American-ness, if present, would be the key to reversing the military dictatorship and restoring peace, harmony, and citizen rule. The fact that I am Very White, Very Female, Very Non-Arabic-Speaking, Very Obviously Out of Place, and would be Very Much Alone in the midst of tanks and live bullets didn’t seem to occur to him. Or simply might not be relevant, if my Democratic American-ness had the power to trump all.

In a way, it was nice to hear the confidence and esteem in which this young man seemed to hold the US, despite the political vagaries of the last decade. But it also made me acutely conscious of how the US has failed to uphold its own standards of First Amendment rights, and very acutely aware of how badly the US police was handling the Occupy movement. At the same time that I had been posting news about Tahrir Square on facebook, my US-based compatriots were posting pictures and news from various Occupy encampments that had turned violent—most recently, pictures of students at UC Davis being sprayed with tear gas, which look remarkably similar to pictures of police attacking protestors at Tahrir.

One of these two pictures comes from “the seat of world democracy.” The other comes from a military dictatorship. Can you tell which is which?

Tear gas in Tahrir
Tear Gas at UC Davis

As though reading my mind, he asked me, “what is this I am seeing on the news from the US? This Occupy thing?” He charged ahead before I could start to explain the movement. (For the record, it’s very difficult to explain OWS to people from developing countries. Materially, most of the 99%ers still have a lot more than the average person from the developing world.). He asked me, with genuine confusion, whether it was true that police were attacking peaceful protesters in America. In his view of the US as the seat of world democracy, pictures like the one above have no place. He was struggling to find a context in his mind for something that shouldn’t exist.

Sadly, I couldn’t answer his question. I don’t  know why First Amendment rights in the US, guaranteeing “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” are being violated. I don’t know why my country, which has claimed since the Constitution was written to hold a moral high ground with regards to citizen’s rights, has suddenly decided that its citizens are such fearsome creatures as to be tear gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and beaten because they happen to be camping out to make a political point. Egypt has the excuse of being a post-revolutionary state without a government. The US has no such excuse.

So I couldn’t answer, when my new friend asked me all of these pointed, awkward questions. Fortunately, he didn’t expect for me to have all the answers. He just expected me to find them out.

“When you meet President Obama, please ask him these questions for me.”

I will, friend. If and when I meet Obama, I most definitely will.

 

Contrasting Neighborhoods of Cairo

Today I went out in search of adventure, in the form of an unmapped wander through  two neighborhoods of Cairo. The city is a study in contrasts, and the juxtaposition of different areas sometimes feels like the juxtaposition of two totally different worlds. Though there are many indicators that show the difference between places, I’ve come to the conclusion that wealth in Cairo is measured in trees and pavement. These two factors alone will tell you everything you need to know.

The morning started in Zamalek, one of the richest neighborhoods of Cairo. Located on an island in the middle of the Nile, it hosts number of foreign embassies, meaning a lot of foreign diplomats and their retinues live here as well. The boulevards are wide, tree-lined, and evenly paved.  The buildings are all modern and mostly soulless. Very little trash is in the street. Boutique shops are full of expensive housewares, and multiple bookstores sell English-language books (hamdulilah!). I was able to take a yoga class today in this expat enclave, my first since arriving in Cairo, and it was wonderful to find something here that was so integral to my life back home.

This is what wealth looks like: broad, tree-lined streets paved with asphalt.

After yoga, I wandered until I felt peckish and found an upscale coffee shop, where my tea and carrot cake cost more than I usually spend on proper meals. Despite the exorbitant prices, the coffeeshop was packed with expats (and wealthy locals), presumably there for the atmosphere of a place that felt like the coffeeshops at home.

Wealth also looks like overpriced tea and carrot cake, plush chairs, and a spotlessly clean shop.

Walking around Zamalek, I heard almost no catcalls. No heckling of any kind. After two months of  near-constant commentary on every moment that I spent outside, it was almost surreal—like I had been transported into  a different universe from the one that I normally inhabited.  The island felt like just that—an island. A tiny, wealthy bubble of Euro-American sensibilities in the midst of the teeming chaos that is Cairo. It was nice, for a while, to have a small break from my normal reality. But after a few hours, it made me feel bored.

One of the things that I love about Cairo is the breath of the unexpected that pervades my experience here. I felt cut off, in Zamalek, from the real spirit of the city, so I decided to go back to the city’s roots. Back to Islamic Cairo, with its lively markets and minarets, with its history and soul. The streets are narrow, unpaved, and treeless. Space is a commodity here, and so is asphalt. Trees are too much of a luxury to grow.

This is what streets look like in Old Islamic Cairo. Narrower, unpaved, no trees.

Though the streets aren’t as nice here, the buildings are infinitely more interesting. I started out at Al-Azhar mosque, which was built in the tenth century and is one of the oldest mosques in Cairo.  It’s a glorious confection of white marble,  a wonderful break from the heat and the dust of outside.

The peaceful courtyard of Al-Azhar mosque

 

 

Details of the architectural confectionery

 

From there, I wandered in a fairly directionless manner, my main priority being to move in the opposite direction of the tourist market and its accompanying touts. I succeeded, moving through neighborhood markets selling produce, local clothing, and basic housewares, passing coffee shops where men sat with shisha pipes for hours at a time. These places were not designed to trap tourists, and so I walked unmolested and mostly un-commented upon until I reached the Mosque of Al-Mu’ayyad, a glorious structure with beautiful interior polychrome designs.

The interior of the Mosque of Al-Mu'ayyad

From there, I went to the neighboring Bab Zuwayla, the southern gate of Medieval Cairo. Above the gate stand two minarets , and I braved the narrow, unlit spiral stairs  to watch the sunset.

Sunset over Cairo

Looking out over the city, glowing under the light of the setting sun, I felt a surge of affection for my adopted city. There’s so much history here, so much life, so many different influences that come together to make the city vibrant. For all their differences, Zamalek and Old Islamic Cairo both have their place, as do all the other disparate neighborhoods here. Despite its many challenges, I’m glad that I can call this city home.

 

The minarets of Cairo's skyline at twilight.