Thursday, April 10, 2008

The sand of silence

Last Sunday Egypt's many malcontented voices finally rose to the surface in a nationwide protest against high food prices, low wages, and Mubarak's general mismanagement of the country. Egypt's government spends $3.1 billion annually subsidizing food prices. However, unusual weather and higher demand in China and India have made food prices skyrocket worldwide. Since unsubsidized Egyptian bread can now cost 10 to 12 times what the subsidized version costs, more people are going to government bakeries, which makes for long lines and angry consumers. Read: this article. However, contrary to the impression one might get from this NY Time's article, the entire nation did not fall into mass chaos last Sunday. The most startling element of the protest was that, for the most part, there was no visible protest at all.

In some northern regions like Mahalla al-Kobra, hundreds of people did take to the streets. However, in Tahrir Square just outside of AUC, rows and rows of policemen stood sentinel before a gaping open space. With the exception of three...yes, three...AUC students carrying signs, the policemen were unopposed. Reportedly Cairo University had a lot more activists, but most people in Cairo just protested by not going to work.

I didn't have class on Sunday, so I stayed in the dorm. But when I stepped outside, I was immediately greeted by an eerie silence. The air was thick - I could actually see a yellow tint everywhere, and it smelled stale. I then realized that we were having a sandstorm. Cairo has a few sandstorms around this time every year. I was surprised the first time I saw one, because it wasn't what I was expecting. There is no high wind blowing buckets of sand into your every orifice while you cover your face with a cloth. The sandstorms in Cairo just look like there's a lot of pollution in the air - except it's sand - and it comes with an odd smell. The sand has the same effect a snowfall would; it muffles things. That the sandstorm coincided with the day of the protest only made the lack of noise that much more conspicuous.

People are saying that this protest was seminal, not only because it was a widespread manifestation of Mubarak's low approval ratings, but also because of how it was organized. Most of it was done entirely through e-mail, text messaging and facebook. I couldn't get online for a long time on Sunday because the bandwidth was overloaded. I haven't been talking to a lot of non-AUC (read: non-privileged) Egyptians about the protest, but apparently the general sentiment is that people are happy with how the protest went. AUC was largely unaffected, but for the 20% of Egypt's population below the poverty line, it was certainly an interesting Sunday.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Where roads converge

If thou wilt be observant and vigilant, thou wilt see at every moment the response to thy action. Be observant if thou wouldst have a pure heart, for something is born to thee in consequence of every action.

Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
-Excerpt from 'Ulysses' by Alfred Tennyson

It's hard to believe I've already been in Cairo two months; that my time here is more than halfway done. Sabrina and I were eating dinner together the other night and talking about how as you get older, you absorb more of the world and find more homes away from home. We talked about how it's hard to feel grounded. When you're in one place, a part of you wants to be someplace else. When you're in the other place(s), you want to be back where you've been. Cairo has been amazing thus far, but I miss my water and trees. I know when I get back to the states, though, I'll want to be right back here in this crazy city. I love traveling and intend on doing a lot more of it in the next few decades. But I've realized that part of being a good traveler is embracing the inherent state of limbo. I want to be here, and there, and in between. At the same time, though, if each place latches onto me a little bit, I can't help thinking that I'll become more rooted; that I'll grow more connective tissue between me and the earth. It's comforting to know there's so many places I could belong.

As of right now, there's no doubt in my mind that Cairo is where I'm supposed to be. This last month has just been one long string of it's-a-small-world-after-alls.
Case in point 1:
-When I went to Luxor and Aswan, I met someone named Jack. He also happens to be from Washington State, and goes to Whitman. I only know about five people who go to Whitman, but he knew all of them. He's from Spokane, but knew where Mercer Island is. In fact, it turns out that his aunt, Kathy Morrison, was my Elementary School principal. Go figure.

Case 2:
Before I left for Cairo, my friend from Seattle, Kate, told me her friend Melanie from Kenyon College was coming to Cairo on the same program. I hadn't tracked her down, but talked about her again when I went to go visit Kate in Istanbul. A week later I went to Luxor and was talking to some new people on the roof of our hostel. One girl and I started chatting, and then she said, "Oh, I'm Melanie, by the way." I asked if she was Melanie Butcher (which she was), and then told her I was one of Kate Gunby's best friends from home and that she had told me all about Melanie before I came! It was so weird that I ran into her just a week after I'd flown a few countries away to see Kate.

Case 3:
When I went to Dahab and Sinai last weekend, there was a kid named Marshall in my group. Apparently he goes to Amherst. I asked if he knew Sam Grausz (from my high school), and he said that yes, Sam was in fact his freshman year roommate. Crazy.

Case 4:
There was a case 4, and it was really good...but I forget it. Crap. Maybe I'll remember later.

It's just amazing to me that people who know people from all different parts of my life have ended up here. Not only is it a small world, but it seems like all roads converge in Cairo, at least for the moment. Interesting how little twists of fate set you up for that. Part of me wants to be elsewhere, but for the most part, I know this is exactly where I want to, and where I should, be. It's nice to realize that in the moment instead of looking back in hindsight.