My daughter lived just a block from Tahrir Square throughout the Arab Spring. She learned what it was to wear gas masks, take care of eyes that had been tear gassed, and continue daily life despite soldiers in full riot gear and tanks ready for action at the end of her street.
So when a friend asked her what she thought about the “Occupy” movement she paused before making her reply.
“It’s ok.”….”But you need a martyr”.
He looked at her in shock.
While she doesn’t will anyone to die, I know what she meant. She meant you need a passion that hasn’t yet been identified, you need a common cause that moves people so deeply they are willing to die to see change, you need a tension that says “We feel this so deeply that we are willing to give all for this cause”.
A year after Occupy is there a passion and tension to the movement that demands action?
Protests began in Tunisia because a man set himself on fire after being systematically refused a permit to operate as a street vendor. It was corruption at the deepest level. Protests in Egypt began way before the 18 days in January, starting instead with the brutal beating and death of a young man in Alexandria, Khaled Said, who had a video that would expose police corruption. He was planning to make the video public when he was beaten in broad daylight outside of a coffee shop. He later died of those wounds. The nauseating wrong of this act was so evident it could not be ignored – so people rose up to protest his death and the environment that made his murder possible. In both cases, people could no longer be bystanders, they had to act.
So what do you do in a case where it’s “White Collar” corruption and crime? No one has died. No one has set themselves on fire. Instead the wrong is more insidious showing itself through its victims — a 26 year-old drowning in school debt, a 50-year old laid off 2 years ago who cannot get a job, young families so busy trying to make ends meet that, as much as they may believe in the idea of an “Occupy” movement, they can’t take the risk of losing their livelihood. These are victims too be sure — victims served live on china platters at the table of corporate greed. But are they martyrs?
Indeed you don’t have to die to be a martyr. The definition also means “One who makes great sacrifices or suffers much in order to further a belief, cause, or principle”
But who is the Khaled Said of the Occupy Movement?
Do too many of us still have too much that is good to give it all in sacrifice for an unknown outcome? Or Is it that we no longer know how to come together for a cause in this country? Are we so fractured politically and geographically that what makes sense in one area, namely Zuccotti Park, seems foolish in another?
A year ago I wasn’t sure what I thought about the movement. Having grown up in Pakistan as well as spent so much time as an adult in the developing world, my perspective often runs counter-culture. I may feel like I’m the 99% and the school loans from my children may look that way, but the reality is that when compared to most of the world, I have more than plenty. And so I’m still not sure what I think of the movement.
And I’m not willing to give my all for a cause that I’m not sure about.
What do you think? Have you been willing to “suffer much for a cause”? Why were you willing? And would you give all for the Occupy movement?
Bloggers Note – Thank you everybody who responded and chose to follow this blog following the post Tahrir Square – Walls and Graffiti being Freshly Pressed. I hope to respond to all your comments and appreciate that you decided to follow this blog. Here’s hoping you won’t be disappointed.
One of my readers and friends commented on the post “These are the Moments – Alexandria, Egypt” that she felt the stories from our trip to Egypt would tumble out once back in Cambridge. While they are not tumbling, they are swirling around my brain and I know I am not finished writing about them. A quote attributed to Mark Twain says that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Perhaps it is also fatal to contentment for it is hard to be content with the normal when you have experienced the extraordinary.
This post then, is an attempt to give glimpses of the extraordinary through pictures and narrative. Thank you for taking the trip along with me to Egypt, an extraordinary place with extraordinary people.
Arriving in Cairo on a Thursday afternoon is like arriving in a western nation on a Friday afternoon. There is a sense in the air that the work week is ending and as we arrived there was a celebratory feel that had nothing to do with the fact that it’s two days before Christmas and everything to do with the end of a work week. As I said in an earlier post, the comfort of familiarity greeted us immediately – we were, in many ways, home. We settled into the guest house where we were staying and then headed to Annie’s apartment on a busy street near Midan Falaki. The kusherie shop at the entrance to her building brought tantalizing smells of lentils, pasta, rice and spicy tomato sauce. Through a side entrance we took a rickety, ancient elevator careful to heed the warnings of a man who let us know that no more than three people should be riding at a time. The elevator stopped at the 9th floor, top of the building and we spent a good hour ooohing and aaahing over the view. It was incredible. The Mokattam hills stretched out miles away and a Coptic church was in the foreground. Across the street were the dusty remains of an ancient outdoor theatre, long gone but chairs still sitting ready for a show. Just below to the right we saw four tanks and ten army men in full riot gear, at the ready should any trouble erupt. This did not give us comfort but rather made us realize the force that is sometimes quietly, and other times loudly used against protesters. An early dinner of shawerma and fuul bean sandwiches was followed by chai and shisha in a coffee shop across a busy street and down a side street from the apartment. After hours of talk and laughter we headed back to Zamalek and a jet lagged sleep, fully of satisfaction and the comfort of belonging.
Tahrir Square, Bab Zuweila and More…
Friday is the Muslim Holy day and is a day off in Egypt. Sermons from mosques throughout the city are periodically heard and men gather in large numbers at local mosques to observe this holy day through prayers and meeting together. We headed out to get a lunch of fateer (Egyptian pizza) close to Tahrir Square where a large demonstration was taking place. Newspapers quoted numbers of 50,000 and more at the square. We were amazed by the passion and numbers, something that was quickly squelched during the Mubarak years and now a common occurrence. Graffiti on newly constructed walls and leftover from the uprising in January captured our attention and the lens of the camera. We took a slow walk from Tahrir Square over to the Nile where we took a boat ride, something that has long been a favorite family activity, on the Nile. Dinner at a Yemeni restaurant ended a day that will stay in our memories for many years.
We headed out to Bab Zuweila and the Khan el Khalili on Saturday, Christmas Eve. If you ever go to Cairo, Bab Zuweila is a must see, must do. Despite living in Cairo for seven years and many trips back, it was only in 2010 that I entered this medieval gate and climbed the minarets to the mosque beside the gates. The minarets give a 360 degree view of the city and it was an overwhelming sense of how small I am in this city of millions.
We took the short walk from Bab Zuweila to the Khan el Khalili market and walked into one of the many entrances to this well-known tourist destination. The spice shop we have gone to for years was still there, solid through change and revolution, pungent aromas and spices you never see in the west ready in large burlap sacks.
Despite the vendors constant shouts of “Let me help you spend your money!” “Welcome to Alaska” and “Come here, I have lovely things for you to buy!” I still love this market. I love the game of bargaining and finding treasures for pennies. I love being served tea while I pick out perfume bottles. I love ending the shopping experience with mint tea at Fishawy’s café.
After cleaning up from the dust of the city, we put on our Christmas Eve best and met at the Lebanese restaurant Taboula in the heart of Garden City. Mezzas of every kind, fresh pita bread, and aseer lemon (frothy lemon juice) was a perfect Christmas Eve meal, followed by a 10:30 pm service at the All Saints Cathedral in Zamalek. Time was rushing past and I wanted to hold it back, hold it tight so that it wouldn’t escape us like a dream. Now as I sit in Cambridge, it feels like a dream.
Christmas Day and Alexandria
No snow greeted us on Christmas day but clear skies and 68 degree weather were reminders of many past Christmases. Christmas dinner was roasted chickens from a street vendor with traditional condiments served buffet style in a high apartment overlooking Tahrir Square. We celebrated with friends of Annie’s from various places around the globe. Growing up overseas and then living overseas as long as we have makes us quite passionate and vocal about God not being an American, but rather a global God with an international vision. Christmas overlooking Tahrir was one more reminder of many of the truth of that belief.
The day after Christmas saw us on a train to Alexandria, beautiful city on the Mediterranean. You can read more here but this too was an extraordinary trip and an amazing time. The Alexandria Library is a beautiful building with a rich history and serves as both a place of learning as well as a cultural center. A must see in the city of Alexandria. This city has a different and more relaxed feel to it than Cairo – perhaps it’s the Mediterranean air that works its way into the psyche and affects everything from the pace to the general mood. It is another reminder of all that Egypt has to offer the world.
Pyramids, Bulaq and Al Azhar Park
Our last days in Cairo included family favorites. Egypt is best known for the ancient Pyramids,said to be the oldest and only remaining ancient wonders of the world. Built around 2600 BC, they are beyond what you can imagine – only this time, I stayed back for coffee and shopping with Annie while the others headed out for horseback riding out into the desert and another visit to the pyramids. I know some of you may be thinking “Are you kidding? You skipped a trip to the pyramids!” but let me assure you, I have been to them dozens of times and have been wowed every time. Plus – I didn’t want to put my 51 year-old body on a horse. The stories that came out of the trip for the rest of the family are not mine to tell but are great and include a falling horse and amazing pictures.
We ended our time on Thursday at Al Azhar Park. This park is my favorite place in Cairo besides Marty’s balcony. In a city with little green space, the park is an oasis with views that cannot be described. I wrote about this park in the post “In Praise of Green Space” so will not go into more detail here, but it is a calm and beautiful space in a city where you need to get refreshment.
Back in Cambridge Cairo feels like a dream but bearing witness in narratives is as old as life itself – so thank you for listening and letting me bear witness to our trip through this medium. I realize that even as I write, the words are far too many and I don’t want to bore. So I’ll end with pictures and hope that you want more! I have said this before, and I’ll say it many more times – it is a privilege to share just a bit of this country. It is so much more than you will see on Fox news or CNN. It is so much more than the pyramids and old mosques. It is a people and a place that move into your heart and mind so that you beg to experience more.
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It’s amazing that when I sit in Cambridge, Massachusetts with my computer and my thoughts I have no problem writing volumes about Cairo. Now as I sit at eleven o’clock at night on a couch in the guest house where we are staying, the cool night air busy with the sounds of horns, shouts of vendors and others on the street,and the hum of the city that never sleeps, I am struggling to put my thoughts into words and words into font.
Part of it is the understandable desire to live in the moment, knowing the moments are going all too quickly. They are speeding by like the cars and taxis on the corniche in Alexandria as I stand like a pedestrian trying to stop these moments like I try to stop the cars rushing by. And yet the other wish is to communicate the moments so that I have them next week as life settles into the more normal and the new year takes over with its demands.
So what are the moments? A speedy train to the city of Alexandria on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea; a city with a mixture of Middle Eastern and European flavors that breathes a rich history. Eating lunch at the Metropole Hotel in Alexandria where the ghosts of Christmas past linger in both the decor and methodical slow service of the staff. Walking on the Mediterranean Sea with the sea and palm trees to our left and minarets and old buildings on our right. Cappuccino at the Athineos hotel, known to seasoned travelers as number 47 in the list of 147 things to do in Alexandria, Egypt. A taxi ride to find a hotel that seemed real online but a figment of the internet and my excitement of a “cheap but beautiful” hotel as we drove…and drove…and drove, finally finding it off a dark alley called a street. Our fears that this would be a dive never materialized – the hotel was as beautiful as represented and the owner even more so. If you’re ever in Alexandria look up Alexandria Mediterranean Suites. And then the moments of talk and mint tea – moments that will be treasured a life time.
These are the moments. These are the moments to live in fully alive and present, the moments where there are no regrets.