A frustrating question

The past few days, I have woken up to handfuls of messages from concerned family and friends back at home regarding the escalating situation here in Cairo at the US Embassy. Was I safe? Should I get on a plane back home? What would I do if the Embassy closed? The irony of the situation is this: had it not been for those messages, I would have had no idea what was going on.

Waking up Thursday morning, I found eight messages waiting for me. I nervously pulled up CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera to see what was going on and found that alas, the riots downtown outside the US Embassy were continuing with no real sign of an end. What scared me the most was how different these protests were from previous, politically-charged riots. Usually, protesters are demanding some sort of reform. This time, they were fueled by anger and didn’t seem to be demanding anything, which raised the question of how long this fire would keep burning.

I’ll preface this entry by saying that I am, as of now, just peachy. In lieu of the pub crawl downtown yesterday, I enjoyed a happy evening at the men’s rugby coach’s house after getting my hair done. I traveled alone in a cab to the hair salon, a posh little boutique tucked away behind some formidable hedgerows off a midan I can never remember how to get to. My cab driver was patient, despite having to drive down the same street more than once. He smiled. He laughed. He spoke rapidly in Arabic, and I understood bits and pieces.

This morning, I spent two and a half hours grading and sipping a massive latte. I would have spent the day there had it not been for a text from Kilian inviting me to join them at the Sakara Country Club fifteen minutes later. I walked home, hopped in a car, and spent the day playing touch rugby barefoot on a spongy lawn when I wasn’t floating in a pool.

After a dusty sunset behind fingers of palm fronds – the sun a wild pink, crushed open like a grapefruit between weathered sand dunes and a bleached sky -, I got back in my friend’s company car and observed the scenery on the ride home.

The Sakara Country Club is a good 45 minutes from Cairo. Many of the roads we trekked down today were the ones I ran during last year’s Pharonic Run. They are unpaved, dusty paths at most, severed with potholes and jagged enough to give your stomach a queasy rumble. So there we were, a guilty paradox: two sleek cars with hired drivers, occasionally scraping a speedbump on the underbody, pushing along with the donkey carts, minibuses, and tuktuks. My biggest discomfort was the wet bathing suit I’d crammed into my backpack and the nauseating trance music that was on the radio. Outside, children and their parents gathered on steep steps, leaning against the cement doorframes and looking out on the stagnant canal infiltrated with mosquitoes, the flat water choked with encroaching heaps of rubbish. (The country club had been suffocated with a white haze at dusk when they sprayed for mosquitoes an hour earlier.) Boys gathered in the road. A barefoot man sharing a donkey cart with vegetables and fruit passed by two massive cows on our left, the cows’ tails brushing the window. Later, when we drove over the Nile and back into Cairo, I felt that strange sense of being home and being inlove with a place. And with it comes an equally strong sense of guilt, because as much as I live here, I am not from here, and I do not live here in the same sense that Egyptians live here.  I have always felt this strange liminality living abroad: expatriates exist within the same culture and society as native Egyptians, but the chasm between how we live our lives is gaping.

When I say I love Cairo – or, like the other night, I tell someone that La Paz was my favorite place in the world -, there is a massive sense of guilt that suddenly overwhelms me. I am just passing through, and I can’t claim to occupy the same space as the people I meet who spend every day of their lives here and have little possibility of experiencing otherwise. Tonight, as we drove through Sakara, it became apparent that it is my education that has gotten me to where I am today and that seems to be the root of so many of the problems that exist in Egypt – and the rest of the world.

Last week, I stumbled upon this article on BBC concerning the sexual harassment in Egypt reaching “epidemic” proportions. With a fury only a woman can understand, I lashed out and tried to find an outlet for my anger. It wasn’t Egyptian men. I know quite a few wonderful Egyptian men. So who was to blame? I sent the article to my friend Rebecca and she hit the nail on the head with one word: uneducated. Uneducated men were to blame.

And when, a week later, I began researching the riots downtown on CNN, I came across this article that quotes a street vendor as saying that it is the “undereducated, poor people who are out here causing problems.”

This isn’t remarkable. The idea of uneducated people “causing problems” isn’t new or unique or surprising. But it’s a hard concept to struggle with because there isn’t a simple, tangible solution. I immediately thought back a few months to the conversation we had about rhino poaching while driving through Botswana. I remember feeling enraged when we talked about poaching and feeling happy when G told us about the new poison initiative that would cause consumers of rhino horns to become ill or die. And how, of the fourteen of us, it was only Andrew who mentioned a different solution: educate people on the dangers of poaching.

What’s increasingly frustrating is that I don’t know how. I can’t even begin to think of a way to educate people. I don’t even know what that means. Do you distribute literature highlighting the deleterious effects of poaching? Do you offer classes teaching the poor – who are often also unemployed, hungry, and/or malnourished – that fighting injustice with hate is counterproductive? How do you teach tolerance? How do you teach someone that it is disrespectful and demeaning to hiss at a woman or follow her home? How do you teach someone that it’s wrong to hate an entire country because of a film that was produced by one person? How do you teach someone that it’s wrong to kill someone because you’re angry?

I have no idea, and as an educator – and a global citizen -, it is incredibly frustrating.

I advocate peace. I harbor immense respect for people like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela because for them to inspire nations and promote peace, they had to stand up to hatred and violence with civility and nonviolence. That seems profoundly difficult.

When we are attacked – verbally or physically – or our values or rights or morals are attacked, the easiest and most natural response is self-defense. And when the media reports that protesters are attacking a building that has come to symbolize home and freedom and security, it’s easy to feel angry and, unfortunately, to project that anger onto an entire group of people. (And it goes both ways. A friend told me yesterday about a time in Bolivia when, after saying he was American, he was asked by the owner of a cheese shop if he liked Muslims.) Egypt is a country of approximately 82 million people. A few thousand were protesting at the Embassy. The entire country of Egypt is not joining forces to wipe out Americans. At least, I hope that’s not the case.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is, although it’s difficult and perhaps a bit idealistic, I’m trying to see this whole thing through a lens of hope. I am a teacher with a mere 70 students – a glorified teaspoon of the population – but I am certain I can hear the positive values and opinions they have, and encourage peace and tolerance through the classroom.

I’ll end this on a less idealistic, more reassuring note. The other day, I asked my students to write an essay on my favorite Gandhi quote: An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. What resulted was a refreshing discussion that demonstrated the students’ comprehension of the quote and their eagerness to accept it. They were quick to point out to me that Gandhi’s quote has a sort of counterpart in the Koran, which roughly states that an eye for an eye does make sense, but the better person will forgive instead. It made me think, and it was the only time this week that my entire class was paying attention and all on one page.

5 replies »

  1. Interesting to read about the current situation from your perspective. I agree that lack of education and poverty are key factors. Glad to know that you are safe and well

  2. ‘liminality’…Nicole, the human thesaurus–I always learn something new.

    Ultimately, your biggest impact is not on the 70 individual students you teach, but how those values/skills/views you have taught are paid forward for the rest of their lives.

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