Cairo Christmas “A Weary World Rejoices”

There is no Christmas tree and no turkey. We have not not heard “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” one time since arriving four days ago and our gifts fit inside small stockings. Our world is stripped of some of the traps that catch me at Christmas time in the U.S where slick advertising tempts all my senses with color,slogan and promise. With this stripping has come a delightful freedom and joy. Joy in cooking over a tiny three burner gas stove with my children and substituting ingredients to mimic familiar tastes; freedom to not put pressure on each other or on the day to be something it can’t be. Tahrir Square is but a block away from where we are preparing our Christmas feast and we are acutely aware of the struggles of many just minutes from our festivities. This is Christmas in Cairo.

At a late night service on Christmas eve we sang Christmas carols in Arabic and English side by side with refugees from the Horn of Africa, Egyptian Christians, and expatriates from around the world. My senses feel alive with the joy of being here and witnessing in person this time in Egypt’s history. Here I have to wrestle with the words of Christmas carols instead of blithely singing them. Here as I read the words “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of peace.” I ache with a longing that people may know how much God loves them.

As I watch the resilience of Egyptians continuing to hope in their world and future, I think of the hope that is personified in the birth of a small baby, helpless and fragile, yet history cannot keep silent of the joy that came that night. As night falls and I view the scenes around me from high balconies and close encounters I am reminded of the beautiful words that speak to that holy night, where a “weary world rejoiced” and woke to the miracle of a “new and glorious morn.”

Christmas Day - Cairo, Egypt "A Thrill of Hope, A Weary World Rejoices"

Beyond the Pyramids – Glimpses of Cairo

Jet lagged bodies and eyes are suddenly awakened through the comfort of familiarity. Traffic that would send many in the west into fits of frustration over “inefficiency”, crowds of people, and the sun and pollution hanging heavy over the city of Cairo have instead sent us into a state of contentment in that which is familiar. “Ah – this city, we love this city” If we don’t say it audibly, we think it so loudly that others can hear.

Arriving in early afternoon is the perfect time to arrive. We settled into the Diocesan guest house and were ready for the rest of the day. Initial glimpses of the city show old and beautiful American University of Cairo buildings with windows smashed in, other buildings and restaurants burnt during the revolution, and a car a few feet away from our daughter’s building crisply torched, an empty shell remaining.  All is evidence of a city and country that are resilient and continue to hope and long for a better future, despite the obvious obstacles. I will never be a political commentator; but when a “trusted commentator” of the New York Times talks about Egypt and wonders if they are ready for democracy, I want to throw up from the imperialism that flavors their words. Already we have heard from Egyptians two things – that no one wishes Mubarak back and that there is still legitimate concern and awareness that the future is uncertain. But for all of us, the future is a hope, never a certainty.

In the midst of the drugged mind of jet lag, we looked over Annie’s rooftop at glimpses of the city to the sounds of the Call to Prayer, echoing from mosques throughout the area. These glimpses are best captured through the camera lens so here is Cairo – a city that is so much more than the pyramids and King Tut.

View of the City
Cairo Rooftop
Another view - captures the Coptic church toward the right
Building across the way
Coptic church - Evidence of Egypt's large Coptic Christian population
Ancient window on the rooftop - I wish roof tops could talk
Steaming chai at a coffee shop. A perfect way to end our first day!

The Spirit of the Revolution

Party in Tahrir – courtesy of Lori Fredericks

The spirit of the revolution is alive and well in Tahrir Square. Just as it served as the epicentre for the protests, it could now be considered the largest party venue in the world! Throughout the last 18 days there have been many points that have astounded the international community. The strength of the protest from people known to be relaxed and full of good humor; the non-violence when it would have been so easy to use the strength in numbers and move in a direction of disorder and fighting; the insistence of demands, not settling for less than a reordering of a system; and the community spirit bringing order and safety to communities throughout the city.

Perhaps it is a characteristic of  western values and the tendency to constantly look ahead that hesitates  in allowing Egypt to have ‘their moment’ without warnings – both cautionary and dire. Or an ideology so focused on American interests that it is blind to the interests of others.

It’s almost like a wedding day – when someone says to you “Well you better enjoy today, because things are really going to get hard and marriage is not easy! Oh and by the way, do you know what the divorce rate is?” And you’re left with a sinking feeling as you look at your new husband in his wedding finery and think “I just said ‘I do’ to that?” Suddenly all the joy and celebration of the wedding is tainted  and the hope and vision for your future lives together is slightly clouded. Do we really want to do that to the Partiers in Tahrir?

Where I struggle as I hear the warnings, is the notion underlying some of the admonitions that Egyptians are not as capable as Americans to think, create, and move forward and that sounds like blatant ethnocentrism to me.

I believe the spirit of the revolution in all it’s creativity and strength will continue moving – first with celebration and then with hard work. More than that, in no way do I believe God has removed his Sovereign hand from either Egypt or the United States.

“I’ve been in Tahrir thousands of times. Wish I were there right now to witness the exquisite joy of freedom’s first taste.” Joel Atallah, Egyptian/Canadian

“Highlights of the gigantic party last night: shabaab chanting “WE’RE ALL GOING TO GET MARRIED!”; the dude on the horse dancing in the middle of Qasr el-Aini”. – Annie Gardner

“The people of Egypt have set an example–not only for the region but for the entire world–with their quest for freedom, human rights, and dignity, as well as their commitment to nonviolence. Throughout the 18 days of protest, the world saw clear evidence of the strength of Egyptian civil society and the eagerness of the citizens to take responsibility for their own future.” Hands Along the Nile Development Services, Inc. (HANDS)

“Americans could learn a lot from the respect and tolerance people here are showing to one another, never mind the incredible artistic creativity being displayed by long-suffering Egyptians as they celebrate their freedoms and attempt to tell other Egyptians, and the world … not to turn their backs on them.” Mark LeVine,  professor of history at UC Irvine.

Collateral Damage – A Lost Son

I’ve tried to write a post all evening.  I want to write something that will comfort, or inspire.  But all I can do is feel tired and sad since I, like many of you, watched in disbelief as Mubarak made his speech to millions of Egyptians on state television. I flipped through a Faith & Culture devotional thinking I could find a thought or idea, but nothing came.  I read a summary of “Paradise Lost” and while it helped my soul a bit (Good, evil,* “the breaking of all natural harmony, and the tragic flaw that underlies human history”)it gave no words to my heart . As I tuned in for a last listen to the news before going to sleep, the story came, absent of comfort but capturing the personal cost of recent events.

I heard the story of a 15-year-old shot on the 28th of January, a Friday.  His name was Ahmed and he was praying at a mosque at Tahrir Square when police entered, fired tear gas and real, not rubber, bullets. The bullet went to his chest so my guess would be an immediate death.  The story becomes harder as his father goes searching for him.

He spent 12 days looking for his child, his son, in every police station and every hospital he could find.  He found him on Wednesday night and yesterday was the funeral.  He was not the only one killed that day – at least 200 other people were killed and many are still unaccounted for.  (story from AlJazeera live stream broadcast from Doha, 2.10.11)

AlJazeera interviewed his dad and his poignant story of finding his son, washing him for burial as per Muslim tradition, and burying him “with his own hands.”  His mom, crazy with grief, said that Ahmed had wanted a motorcycle.

I have a 15-year-old son.  His name is Jonathan and he is a gifted musician whose head is 90% in instruments and composition and 10% in reality.  He is an amazing fun kid who at this point in his (and my) life, is driving me a bit crazy. Until of course I think of Ahmed’s mom and how much she would give to have her kid drive her crazy, just one more time.

If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him. He is terrified of being alone more than anything else. So God has not left us alone. And for that, I love him” (from interview of Lee Strobel with Peter Kreeft, Boston College)

*Gene Edward Veith-Faith & Culture

Tea Party in America~Brotherhood in Egypt

Bloggers Note: This is the second  segment taken from a larger piece written by Heather Keaney, a professor at the American University in Cairo and wife of an old friend of ours.  It is used with permission. Titles are created by me, while the content is from Heather. If you are just tuning in, please feel free to read The Battle of Perceptions where you will find out more about Heather.  She brings a great perspective from years of living in Cairo.

West: Keeping our Fears in Check

It is extremely unlikely that Egypt would end up a radical Islamist state if for no other reason than most Egyptians fear this more than Americans do. This is especially the case for Egypt’s liberal elite and 8 million Christians who are terrified of an Islamist regime taking over. The government knows this and holds this fear, along with the that of chaos, over the people’s heads making it that much harder for opposition to build or unify.

I think the West should prioritize process over outcome. If the Muslim Brotherhood (which is not an extremist group) wins in a free and fair election so be it. The country is 90% Muslim and religiously conservative. It is not for the outside world to decide what is best for Egypt. Egyptians need to decide for themselves. If the institutions and processes are put in place that is the important thing.

Current estimates are that the MB would win a third of the vote in an election. Much of their popularity is based on good

Men praying – Tahrir Square 2.1.11 copyright Christina Rizk

organization and social services for the poor. They renounced violence in the 1960s and have been one of the biggest and most consistent organizations calling for greater democracy in Egypt for years. Other opposition groups need to raise their game and actually do something for the millions of Egyptians they are claiming to represent. That is how democracy works. This is why I think the West needs to focus on ensuring a process rather than a particular outcome.

Thus I was frustrated when I heard an interview with Tony Blair a few days back in which he was very cautious about change here and warned against what might happen if the Muslim Brotherhood came to power. It sounded arrogant and imperialistic to me.

Europeans might dread Tea Partiers in America, but it is not their place to try and determine what happens in American politics. Egyptians deserve the same respect.

Indeed I had my own ‘Tony Blair moment’ when our friend Ahmed discouraged us from going to the demonstrations on Tuesday. I thought security concerns, or that the government would be able to manipulate our presence for its own advantage, were exaggerated and I really wanted to be there.

But we are guests here and all day I had to remind myself: it is not about me, or what I want, but about what Egyptians want! They are still trying to figure that out.

“Washington has been very anxious about what’s happening here, but it shouldn’t be. It should be happy. This will reduce terrorism. When people have their voice, they don’t need to explode themselves.” –Mohammed Fouad, an Egyptian software engineer. (from Washington Post, 2/2/11)

Products of Perceptions

Blogger’s Note: What’s in a title? As I hear so many voices in this country speaking to the fear of the brotherhood I decided to look into what other countries think of our very own Tea Party movement, a movement that is gaining more and more attention in American politics.  I was amazed and humored by what I found!  All of the excerpts below are taken from “The Horror, The Horror…and the Pity!”(See Foreign Policy, October 26, 2010 – fascinating article!)

PAKISTAN:“In Dawn‘s telling, the Tea Party has risen in tandem with the “Ground-Zero-inspired Muslim baiting frenzy” and is driven largely by the “bigoted rabble-rouser” Glenn Beck who attacks President Barack Obama as a “closet Muslim.” According to Dawn, the same “predatory instinct” that led Americans to enslave Africans and wipe out Native Americans is “gathering mass, once again,” this time with Muslims as the primary target. (Foreign Policy, October 26, 2010)

CHINA: “The Tea Party will lead to U.S.-China conflict. The government controlled China Dailydescribes the Tea Party as a “polarizing groundswell … based largely on suspicion of Obama’s background, policies and motives.” The movement is blamed for the high level of vitriol directed at incumbents in this election cycle.” “the newspaper sees the movement as a sign of the “US’ inability to find political solutions” to economic problems”

SPANISH SPEAKING WORLD: El Pais wrote. The author refers to the Tea Party as an extremist movement and notes that O’Donnell (for example) is “proudly extremist.” From there, the newspaper warns that “sometimes totalitarianism results from the best intentions and fanaticism grows in the most benign and public settings. The United States is living in one of these moments … in which its values are in conflict with one another.”The Spanish are less mystified and more alarmed. “We don’t know if we feel more profound horror or more profound pity,”

So… I am in no way saying the Muslim Brotherhood is totally benign – what I am saying is that we are all products of our perceptions, and the often strong voices that feed into our perceptions. Even though international media is fearful of the Tea Party movement and perhaps incorrect in their assessments – the Tea Party movement lives on – because  years ago we too had a revolution. And in that spirit, I’ll raise my glass and let the comments begin!

Related Articles:

When ‘Neutral’ becomes a 4-letter Word

neu-tral – adjective

[noo-truhl] not taking part or giving assistance in a dispute or war between others;not aligned with or supporting any side or position of a controversy; indefinite

I have heard the word neutral hundreds of times in the past week. Normally this is a benign word that I use  to describe good journalists or referees – those that keep unbiased, sticking to the rules of the trade.  To initially remain unbiased or ‘neutral’ on an issue can be a good thing – look at all the sides, weigh them out and then decide.  But this week I’ve learned to hate this word.

Cairo - violence from Pro-Mubarak demonstrators courtesy of Sarah Carr

The Egyptian army remains ‘Neutral’.  Administrations  stay ‘neutral’.  But as fires break out in Tahrir Square, government-paid police and civilians, beginning the day with stones and chaos , move on to gun fire at night, and the numbers of dead and wounded rise, neutral becomes a 4-letter word.  One that no longer belongs on the air-waves without censorship, a word that incites your mother to wrath and your mouth to a healthy dose of dishwashing liquid.

Pictures painting thousands of words have now been made available through restored internet services. The contrasts in the pictures from yesterdayto today can barely be comprehended. Protests begun peacefully with thousands growing in a week to millions  are squashed while the world community stays neutral?impartial?noncommital?undecided? What’s in your Thesaurus?

On Tuesday tears fell down my cheeks as I watched millions arrive at the epicentre of Cairo – Tahrir Square-Liberation Square – amazed at the on site reports of the diversity of people with voices and faces of hope described in other posts. On Wednesday tears of anger and disappointment fell as I saw courage and hope turn to anger and chaos.

At what point does neutral stop being an asset? Journalists remain neutral and we’re glad – we want facts so we can make up our own minds. But we are not journalists and we should have had time to weigh the sides at this point. History has given us tragic examples of nations sitting by, watching, playing catch-up while people on the other side of the world are dying because of ideology or ethnicity.  Is this such a time? I don’t know – I’m neither prophet nor politician, I have yet to take a single class in Political Science. But this I do know, from my deep connections through heart and life experience of an area of the world that the west just doesn’t get,  Egypt needs this 4-letter neutral word to be replaced with its antonym.

Annie Gardner, who is in now way neutral,in Tahrir Square

Authors Note: Please link to the pictures mentioned in this post – they are quite incredible and show the contrast between Monday and Tuesday. We knew the photojournalist Christina Rizk- when she was a little girl as she is a long-time friend of our daughter.  The journalist Sarah Carr is a friend of our daughters. Please spread the word – these pictures will not be seen on main stream news media – send them on!! My daughter is still there as are our other friends.  We are grateful for more contact through email.

Find me on Twitter @ Marilyngard

Related Links:

This just in from Cairo: Egypts Intifada- A Lexicon

Medical Supplies Needed in Tahrir Square

85 Million Silenced Voices Make Some Noise

Annie and I – Al Azhar Park, Cairo, Egypt March 2010

Author’s note: AlJazeera has a report that there are pro-Mubarak counter protests in Tahrir Square. The report stated they were in the area where my daughter is staying but I have yet to confirm that with her directly. But internet access is back up as of this morning so news will be pouring out.

 

 

A government blocks out the many and varied communication tools of 2011 to silence 85 million voices – the result? Over a million people converge on a square at the center of Cairo, an area just a bit larger than Times Square with hope and passion. (not to forget the millions more in other parts of the country)

One of my readers from yesterday commented “their ability to protest with all lines of communication severed is commendable. Shows when people want change nothing will stop them.” Besides being cut off from the rest of the world through modes of communication, their voices could have been silenced from many other sources. The economy has ground to a halt, there are gas shortages, ATM’s are rapidly running out of money, and food shortages in some areas.

But these actions, designed to silence and suppress, have just created more noise and my daughter described the mood yesterday at Tahrir Square as “the most optimistic yet”. As a show of solidarity she carried a placard written in ArabicAll the Foreigners in Egypt are with the People of Egypt – a statement appreciated for both the words and the spirit.We are finding it easier to get through by cell phone now and we are no longer talking the “E” word (Evacuation) I did have a moment of panic at work as I logged on to the US Embassy in Cairo and saw that all non-emergency personnel are being evacuated as of 2.1.11. The moment was squashed as I remembered her passion and heart.

By the time she left the square, a giant screen was set up broadcasting AlJazeera live offering people a distraction and a chance to see Mubarak when he addressed the country in the evening.  She said “The mood of the crowd was a celebration, as if he was already gone”. And then, he spoke.

Videos taken show anger and dismay at Mubarak’s choice of words and the message underlying those words: “I will die on Egyptian soil”. Evidently the crowd heckled all through the speech,(think shoes shaken toward the screen – the height of insults in Egypt) frustration mounting.

Part of me is frustrated to tears with what I view as stubbornness on the part of an 82 year-old man but I have lived too long in that part of the world to see it as that simple.  There is a complexity to this that involves shame and the idea that someone who has been in the highest office in the land for 30 years cannot and will not leave with his head low.  Almost as if he needs a way to leave gracefully – the problem is, it is a bit late.

I can’t help but hear in the words he spoke, words that countered the millions of calls  for change, the need to make sure that the last views on State television are pictures of a man with his head held high and not backing down, despite what all of Egypt is asking. A man who will not leave in shame. The concept of shame in the Middle East is not one that the west is familiar with but you don’t have to live long in the area to run across it. “Saving face” and guarding one’s reputation is paramount.  Honor and shame are both bestowed by the community.  And Egypt is a nation where community matters – that’s why the neighborhood watch has been so successful in keeping order.

Many would argue that the heckling crowds at Tahrir Square have no desire to give him a graceful exit , much less an honorable discharge, but I think there are those who could conceive of doing just that, if he were willing to resign. The notions  of shame and honor are part of life in the Middle East and there is an implicit understanding of how these work in public and in private. The army as a group trusted by the people could serve as the voice for that process. But until there is a concession on the part of the key player,  the words “Mish Aisinu, Mish Aisinu” (We don’t want you, We don’t want you)are the chant of the crowd. Maybe the last honor will be  State  Sponsored Television storing in their archives footage of a stubborn man articulating in flawless Arabic “I will die on Egyptian Soil”.

Take a look at these related posts:

Authors note – Take a look at the links below.  The first is a post written in response to the question “Where are the women” in the protests.The second is an excellent op-ed by David Brooks and the third is a refreshing perspective from an Egyptian Immigrant

Beside Boys on the Street: Women and the Egyptian Protests

Quest for Dignity

An Insider Analysis

A ‘Gathering of the People’ through Neighborhood Watch

Author’s Note:  My daughter Annie is currently in Egypt and has been for the past 2 years working towards a Masters Degree.  Our love and interest in Egypt runs deep from 7 years of living in the country and many trips back since we left.  Because of this my focus in blog posts will be on the crisis in the country for the next few days.  Thanks for reading!

Annie’s voice was clear despite the static surrounding the connection. It had taken both of us over 20 tries and a couple of cut-off connections before finally reaching her.  Snipers on rooftops and gunfire kept her awake much of the night and influenced the decision to move to another neighborhood about 2 miles away before start of the curfew at 4pm. What would normally have been a short ride to her friend’s house was longer due to road blocks and altered traffic patterns.

She spoke of  the neighborhood watch groups that have stepped up all over Cairo, impressed with their efficacy.  The presence of these self-nominated groups is allowing communities to feel a sense of care and safety in their immediate neighborhoods despite the uncertainty of the larger picture. In her view the neighborhood watch is how life should be all the time, not just in crisis.  Egyptians are stepping up, directing traffic in their neighborhoods, making sure people are inside if it’s not safe and in general helping out.  She confirms the word we had heard that much of the looting is done by plain clothes police confirmed through their identification cards.  Both Annie and a long-time  friend of ours who I just spoke with cannot say enough about these groups.  Our friend Ann described is as a “gathering of the people.  The men are out all night patrolling and sleep during the day”. She stated that these groups have blocked off their neighborhoods making it difficult for cars to easily move in and out of the area.

I wonder if care  of this type would occur in my neighborhood.  As I view people in our cities tiredly shoveling snow upon snow from the assault that this winter has brought, all working with little assistance from their neighbors I struggle to picture groups in Boston ensuring safety and care for the entire neighborhood.  Is it the difference between a collectivist view of life vs. an individual ‘pull up your bootstraps’ view?  Or is it the collective human response to crisis no matter what the cultural context?  I like to think it’s the latter and a snow-storm doesn’t fit the criteria for crisis.

There is something of a righteous anger in her and her friends as they watch a stubborn administration hanging on while hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in the streets of  major cities and smaller towns continue to say with their actions and words that something has to change. The recent cabinet appointments have only served to fuel the frustration as there is no faith in the men chosen. The chants in Arabic “Civilian government, Civilian Government” are loud and clear. Along with that is the dismay that the dreaded E word has been raised – Evacuation.  There is at heart a sense that they would be abandoning Egyptians and leaving protesters in a place where resolution is still several days of curfew and collateral damage away.

After ensuring phone numbers, passport numbers and contingency plans were all in place we said goodbye with the uneasiness of knowing the turning-point is still to come.

Authors note: If you have a sense of confusion and gaps on why there is an uprising in Egypt here is a link to a short but informative piece that may help – A Short Primer on Egypt. For other posts on Egypt feel free to link to these:

From Protests to Lattes

Egypt Demonstration – Harvard Square 1.29.11

Maybe the mark of an American protest is that the protester in a moment can go from  chanting pithy and informative slogans to the local coffee shop for a latte of their choice, be it caramel or hazelnut. Therein is the gift we have in our freedom. We are steps removed from wherever the trouble is and so even though we may care deeply about a situation, we easily go back to our normal lives without having to face real danger or show true courage.

The protest that my husband and I took part in yesterday at Harvard Square, while deeply desiring to support Egyptians, cannot compare to the amazing spirit shown in the Egyptian people and what they have endured to have a voice in the future of Egypt. Armed with banners and a couple of megaphones about 200 of us marched from Harvard Square through to Central Square. The march went on to Faneuil Hall but at Central we left, not for a latte, but for a shawarma at a tiny local spot called Falafel Palace.  The shawerma was delicious and we were in high spirits, having been with others who cared about the country and forced themselves away from Al Jazeera’s live stream to gather, but both of us realized we really don’t know what it’s like to not be able to voice what we think, when we think it, and where we want to express it.

It is sometimes tiresome to hear talk of how lucky we are to have freedom,hearing the largely clichéd phrase “freedom is not free”. But the reality is that participating in a peaceful assembly and openly voicing my views with no fear whatsoever (other than mispronouncing something in Arabic) is something I take for granted, and I think most of those surrounding me are the same. When it sinks in that my protest ends with a latte or shawerma, not stinging eyes from tear gas, soaked clothes from water cannons, and a blood filled eye from a baton then I don’t really care if I sound tiresome.  I still think it’s worth publicly documenting that freedom is indeed a not to be taken for granted gift.