This post comes to you in two parts–first my thoughts on the second anniversary of the revolution and its accompanying violence, and then my thoughts on being an obvious foreigner here in Egypt.
Yesterday (January 25, 2013) was the two year anniversary of Egypt’s revolution. Sadly, due to opposition feelings that the revolution’s goals have yet to be achieved, the day was not one of celebration, but rather, one of violence. There were demonstrations and clashes throughout Egypt that left many injured and two dead. Today, Alexandria is calm once more, and we are allowed out of our dorm, but violence is ongoing and fatal in a city called Port Said. The violence underscores the sad fact that though Egypt united to topple the widely (though not universally) despised Mubarak regime, it remains deeply divided on what Egypt’s future should look like. I cannot state with confidence who I personally hope will ultimately prevail in Egypt, but I can confidently say that I hope Egypt regains peace and stability soon.
Ever since we arrived, the program had been warning us of the importance of January 25 in Egypt, and had indicated that we would probably be asked to remain indoors (which was in fact the case). A few of us were out shopping last week and a shopkeeper kept saying “Well it is a good thing you will be leaving before next Friday.” When we told him we would still, in fact, be here, he looked quite scared and said, “Well…I think that day will be very bad. Very bad.” Others seemed to feel that the 25th would be primarily a day of celebration, with perhaps some very small demonstrations. Having heard predictions ranging from no problem at all to all hell breaking loose, I was unsure what to expect.
The experience of January 25 from inside the dorm was a bit odd. I got my news primarily from a live feed of Al-Ahram (The Pyramids-an independent Egyptian newspaper) that reported every five minutes or so on demonstrations and violence in all of the major cities. The only remotely direct contact I had was in the afternoon a march proceeded about a block away from the dorms, and I could hear the chants from my room. They were the same chants I have been reading about for two years–most notably “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice” which was among the original slogans of the revolution, and is still one unifying aim of an often divided opposition (It is worth noting that slogan rhymes in Arabic and sounds much less awkward than it does in English).
I remember from reading news in the US two years ago hearing of a remarkable sense of hope throughout Egypt after the ouster of Mubarak. People wrote about a general belief in the power of the people to overcome their obstacles. Two years on, I think a lot of that hope has waned. I have had many shopkeepers tell me, “I wish you would have come a few years ago. Now is a very bad time. If you had come a few years ago you would have loved Egypt.” This nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Egypt seems odd given the jubilation with which Mubarak’s departure was greeted, but it seems that many here feel very little has changed despite all of the deaths and violence over the past two years. Certainly, I cannot say what the solution is to Egypt’s current woes, but I am hopeful that Egypt will find unity, stability and happiness in the near future somehow. My hope comes from how politically engaged people here are. It is not rare to see strangers strike up conversations about politics here–I cannot imagine people so engaged allowing themselves to sink into oppression again. Below, I have linked to a song called Bohabik Ya Baladi (I love you my country) which I think is very beautiful, and a fitting tribute on the day after this important anniversary.
I don’t want this post to just be about these tragic clashes, which, after all, I am by no means experiencing first hand. Something much more integral to my personal Egyptian experience is simply being a foreigner here. I don’t just mean that I feel foreign here, which is certainly true, but I also mean that, by virtue of being white, everyone else knows I am foreign wherever I go.
I suspect that one of the reasons that Middlebury, famous for its language pledge, chose to base its program in Alexandria, rather than Cairo is the extraordinarily small number of foreigners here. Outside of the TAFL center, which is after all the Center for Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language, I rarely pass any other obvious non-Egyptians at all. Our rarity perhaps contributes to the near constant shouts of “Welcome to Egypt! Hello! Welcome” we get as we walk down the street. My personal favorite is still the approximately 15 year old boy who on our first day of orientation shouted after us “Welcome! I am the Egyptian president!”
I was not really expecting to be so conspicuous on the streets, though I certainly had no illusions that I might pass for Egyptian. We spent a lot of orientation trying to strategize for how to respond to Egyptians who would honestly prefer to conduct their business with us in English. Our conclusion was that we should tell them that we are Finnish, feeling safe with the assumption that we would not stumble across the one Egyptian cab driver who had lived in Finland for three years. So far since the pledge though, I have felt too awkward to even notice when I am being spoken to in English, so I have simply replied in Arabic without acknowledging the English. The other night I was buying a water bottle. I asked the shopkeeper “Bikam al-maia?” (how much is the water?), and he responded “Three pounds” before his friend nudged him and pointed out, “No, habibi, she was speaking Arabic!” I love the look on people’s faces here though, whenever I do manage a moderately competent conversation in Arabic. It is a wonderful combination of shock that an American is even trying to learn Arabic and delight that the Arabic I am learning is their own beloved Egyptian dialect. These faces, whenever they occur, more than make up for the looks of frustration I get when I stumble across a conversation full of vocabulary I simply do not have (notably, I discovered the other day, buying shoes).
Anyway, that’s all for now from Egypt! Please continue to keep the Egyptian people in your thoughts as they continue to pick up the pieces. Especially be thinking of Port Said, where today’s clashes following a court ruling related to the soccer riot have so far left 30 dead and 300 injured. http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/63308.aspx