It was a quiet winter’s day, and as I was on my Laptop checking e-mail and posting nonsense on fBook when the phone rang. “Would you want to come with me to Egypt?” came the voice of De Sam Lazaro, Frederick, the International correspondent for the PBS News Hour TV show. “We are doing a story on social entrepreneurs in Egypt, and we could use your help there.” Social entrepreneurs–which is very much everyone in Egypt, I thought to myself; Mubarak has–by way of keeping his absolute power for 30 years–abandoned the people to fend for themselves, so Egyptians learned early on to survive. Everyone has to be resourceful and innovative. “We are doing a story about recycling and the zabbaleen (garbage collectors) in Cairo,” Fred explained. It took me less than one second to accept his challenging offer. “We need to work with an ethnic media”, Fred explained. “You will come with us as a cultural consultant, and also witness the covering of our international story. You can also do a story of your own there.” “Count me in Fred”, I said. I had been trying to do the story of my village’s Coptic grave for years, and here was a great chance dropped on my laptop. Learning from the best is the way to go.
We had a few meetings to plan how the trip would go and what needed to be done, and then I took off for Egypt a few weeks early. I needed to prepare a few things before the PBS crew arrived, arrange meetings, and massage a few government officials’ egos.
Two days before the News Hour crew arrived in Egypt during my visit, a tragic incident took place at the Coptic Christmas celebration. Six Copts were killed in a drive-by shooting during late mass in a church in the busy town of Naga Hamady in Upper Egypt. A Muslim man was arrested, resulting in more rioting and more killing. The relationship between Copt and Muslim was complex and troubling to me, especially in the post 9/11 era. As a Muslim American living in the States, I witnessed the profiling of Muslims in America; for the 7-8 Millions Coptic living in Egypt, it is the reverse role. I needed to talk to someone to understand the nature of this relationship, someone who has no religious or political agenda. My friend Magda Said the chairwoman of the Anna Al Masry, (I’m The Egyptian) a human rights organization in Egypt recommended Dr. Rifat Lakousha, a professor of economics at Alexandria University, wrote extensively on liberalism and lately had published a book by the same title. I met him at a friend’s apartment in Zamalek, an affluent superb of Cairo. I needed to talk to him about the most volatile topic in Egypt these days. The interview itself took more than an hour. I found him calm and gentle with a brilliant intellect, and he was generous, articulate and insightful. His analysis of the Coptic/Muslim tension was deep and historical. His choice of words was breathtaking. I asked him about the core reason behind, this Coptic/Muslim tension, and he explained that “any incident, big or small between Copt and Muslims, is recorded differently in the collective memories of the two communities.” If you asked any Copt about the name of any of the victims in the last shooting in Nag Hamady, or asked any Muslim about the name of the victim of the young Muslim woman who was allegedly raped by a Copt, no one would remember. For the two communities, these victims are martyrs in the larger struggle.” I asked why these tensions kept on surfacing and had survived all these years? “The intellectual elites in both camps failed to articulate the problem to their respective communities and, unfortunately, both are benefiting from this tension.” At the end I asked him if he is optimistic about the future, “Sometimes optimism or pessimism has nothing to do with the course of historic events,” he explained with a shy smile.
When Fred asked later if we could talk to someone about Coptic/Muslim relationships, Dr. Lackusha was my first recommendation and an interview was arranged, which Fred later did.
A few weeks later, I arrived at Cairo International Airport at 2 a.m. to pick up the News Hour crew, Fred, his producer, Nikki and Tom, the quiet cameraman. Fred seemed very happy to see me–a sign that he had a rough flight. After I greeted them the Egyptian way, with hugs, they didn’t seem to mind; they had passed the first culture encounter. Straight to the Ramses Hilton Hotel and a working meeting scheduled for 11 a.m. Wow, it was already 4 a.m. Those over-functioning Americans were still operating under the American linear time. Enjoying your visit in Egypt, two things you need to leave at home, your watch and your ethnocentrism attitude, and bring lots of patience, Trying to work with the American time culture; I came back to the Ramses Hilton Hotel at 11a.m. American sharp, called the room, and found them still asleep. “Could you come an hour later?” came the sleepy voice of Nikki. She is working on Egyptian time already, I thought to myself. The first course of action was to go to the foreign press office and get the shooting permits at the most guarded and congested building in Egypt, the TV and Radio tower. Then we had to arrange for our first shooting at “Garbage Collectors’ City” and maybe a visit to the Pyramids if we had time. Hey guys, getting anything done in a government office in Egypt ; first prepare yourself to waste a whole day doing it; you need to get the blessing of the head office, he/she needs to feel important and absolutely nothing would get done without his/her personal endorsement . To meet any official in Egypt, you need to know someone who knows that person who would then take you there. The ritual of the meeting is a little different in Egypt; regardless of whom you going to meet and whether you have an appointment or not, the person you want to see always seems busy meeting other people in his office. Nobody is alone in Egypt, people are always in groups, although, forming groups in Egypt is hard to do, and takes time, once you get into one, it is even harder to break away from it. You walk into the office for your business meeting, you will find what it seems a permanent group, who are friends of the person you are meeting. It is not uncommon to have the meeting while the group is sitting there, and maybe get involved in the conversation if needed although this may seem strange. So don’t fool yourself to think that because you have arranged a meeting that you will actually have one, or you will have one for yourself alone. Your meeting will be constantly interrupted by answering phones calls, multitasking, and people coming and going in with such strange normalcy . So things take time, which is what I’m trying to say.
The TV tower was in walking distance from the hotel–once you found out where to go and which person to talk to. One of the perks I get when visiting Egypt is that nobody asks to spell my name, and I don’t get frisked at the airport. “Are those Americans with you”, they asked me at the TV tower gate. “Yes sir.” “The passport please,” asked the security. No racial profiling here, but it is very important to have personal ID, even a Minnesota driver’s license would do. The main entrance of the TV tower is always a mob scene of hundreds of people constantly going in and out through revolving entrances looking as if you are at a busy subway station. Egyptian security are the best in the business. As you are going by the “metal detectives,” it seems they very relaxed, more clever and effective than the Americans. They don’t rely on technology that much, and ignore the beeping red lights but they look in your eyes and study you. “Just go, don’t worry” the guard said, unlike in the States with the homeland security paranoia, where I have been picked out ‘randomly’ at the airport each time I’ve flown since 2001. I even started losing my faith in the theory of probability. In Egypt, there’s no racial profiling, but there is context profiling, with this simple human-based security system. Still Egypt seems to have a much better national security record than the Americans; the U.S. spends billions of dollars every year on so-called home land security, however Mubarak will arrest more so-called “terrorist suspects in one day than American security catches in a year,” said Salah Hammad, an Egyptian sculptor who is also a friend. Most of your official meetings, you spend your time waiting, but the amount of time you wait depends on the importance of the person you are waiting for; and you have to go through the hierarchy before you get to the head office. An hour later, we finally reached the main office, the chair of the foreign press office. After hearing his traveling adventures, and his affinity to America, the head of the foreign press office gave us his blessing. Thank you so much for all your help.” We needed to go; we still had to arrange the people and places where we were going to shoot. “Zabbaleen City”, if you ever going to get the shooting permit, you need to stop saying “Zabbaleen” say: “Trash collector” city, I protested. People are very sensitive, especially government officials–they really don’t want to hear about Zabaleen stuff; which amazingly has made it into the English lexicon. I guess I’m getting sensitive myself.
The Pyramids Visit
If you want to see the Pyramids today, we need to leave now it is almost 4pm. A white Taxi (complete with meter) was summoned. “Take us to the Pyramids, please.” Driving from the TV tower to the Pyramids, we had to go through the heart of Egypt on the Corniche Street along the Nile River, which very hard to see from the congested road and sidewalks. The first thing you notice once you get into Cairo is the landscape of neglect extends as far as you can see.All around you everything is violated:people, streets, traffics, sidewalks, cars, parks, dogs and cats, nothing has been given any reverence in the Cairo street, and nothing you could see has a minimum of acceptable familiarity.What might be a liberating cultural experience for the over-organized westerners, in the Cairo street, everything runs on a logic that only the Egyptians could understand.
The driver took us through the 6th of October highway; the crew was relaxed in the back of the cab. An hour later, it seemed, we were getting closer, on our right you could see the three great pyramids reflecting the setting sun and forming the most impressive panorama you would ever see in Cairo. “Wow” came the voices of the crew in the back, “Are those the ones “asked Nikki. Yes, it took Khufu 20 years to build the big one. Then the middle one by Khafra , and the smallest one was built by Menkara,” who must have run out of time or money. As the highway turned and twisted, without any warning or explanation, we saw what seemed a replica of the same three great pyramids, this time on our left. There is no way we could have actually circled around them already, we were still far from them; it was physically impossible. “. . . and what are those?” asked Nikki. “Those are for the new Egyptians Pharaohs; the big one, Nasser pyramid, the Middle is Sadat’s and the last one is Mubarak’s ” I jokily explained. I didn’t get the reaction I expected from the crew in the back, however, the look on the driver’s face convinced me that I went too far. “Why are you saying that in the front of ‘Al Aganeb” foreigners; comparing those midget leaders to our great Pharaohs,” he complained quietly. A brief apology was sufficient to keep him in the driver’s seat. Finally, arriving at the Pyramids entrance gate, once they realized there were foreigners in the car, people congregated around our car, yelling and demanding our attention, offering private Pyramid tours, “The gates are closed, but we can take you from the back,” shouted one. The gates are closed? It wasn’t yet 5 p.m., and the sun was still shedding its light over the whole area. I needed to investigate. I had never heard of closing the Pyramids before dark. I used to go there and even climb them late at night. I got out of the car, went to the security officer, who seemed unmoved by all the commotion and people’s complaints. “We close at 4pm; all the staff has left already, I wish I could help you but I can’t,” he said. “Listen officer, I know you are doing a marvelous job, but I have those Americans with me, they came all the way to see the Pyramids, and they are leaving tomorrow,” I pleaded. “I understand you are embarrassed now, but there is nothing I can do for you, I’m just a security officer,” he casually replied. Back to the mobs, who were our only chance to come even closer to see the Pyramids. We struck a deal, took horses and went around through the city of “Kerdasah.” “You will be close enough”, they promised us. I had visited the pyramids many times, but never from the back door, but this visit was the most enjoyable one. It is a different world out there, dominated by the horsemen culture, which gave us a unique perspective of not just the ancient Egypt of the Pyramids, but going through “Kerdasah,” where you can see a great coexistence between horses, Camels and people. Kids who barely could walk were riding the horses with such pride and skill. We finally got to the top of the hill, looked across and saw the most panoramic picture of the Pyramids and the Sphinx. Everyone started taking pictures of the distant Pyramids with the help of the horsemen, who seemed to know exactly what to do with the right angle and profile. Everyone seemed to enjoy the backdoor Pyramid visit, until I told Fred I had to use his hat as a bargaining chip to close the deal. The English Logo did the trick.
Trash Collectors City “Medinah El Zabballeen”
At the Trash Collectors City, “Medina El Zabbaleen”, as the western media likes to call it. Arrangements for a private car and private driver were made. Most taxis refrain from going there–too crowded and too many garbage, they usually explain. The driver was a half hour late, “ I fell asleep,” he casually explained. Kareem, was his name. “Do you know “Medina El Zabbaleen” at Muqattam Mountain, Manshiyat Nasir,” I asked him. “We will find it, Prince”, he said. I said you will find it because we have no idea where it is, Kareem. “You worry too much, Prince.” The road to “Medina El Zabbaleen” is congested and tricky, and people are everywhere, cars, carts, cats, and everything in between. I had lived in Egypt for 25 years, but as most Egyptians, I never been there. We finally arrived at the forbidden city–“Medina El Zabbaleen” at Muqattam Mountain,. The narrow, congested city is where almost 30,000 people live—most of them Coptic Egyptians. “They came from impoverished Upper Egypt , and took garbage collection as their preferred vocation in their new home,” said Dr. Laila Iskander, the godmother and the founder of the recycling and training centers at the city, who we met there. We drove through the narrow streets where cars, garbage, people, and animals formed a colorful collage of vibrant life. The city’s topographic maze was full of turns and twists, up and down creating a security zone to discourage foreigner intruders. We finally reached the big gate of St Simaan monastery on the hilltop of the city, where the famous Cave Church is built in the mountain. Of course, the name gave it away. Mansour Boutros, our guide, was waiting for us. We were led to the cave church, kids with their beautiful new dresses playing all around, and they seemed well adjusted around foreign visitors. Growing up in Egypt, as a kid, I enjoyed going to churches a few times with my Christian friends, the solitude, the remoteness, the colorful indoor pictures, and, of course, the more ‘visible’ girls. But one thing that both church and mosque share is boring sermons. The first interview was with Dr Laila Iskandar. I shared with Fred my concern about my presence as a Muslim. It may have some bearing on the interviewing Coptic there. “Dr. Iskander was a great person to talk to,” said Fred. She was indeed bright, insightful and she had a lot to say. After the long interview, it was time to go back to the hotel. We had another interview at 5 p.m. with the Egyptian novelist Dr. Alaa Alaswany in Garden City, an upscale section of Cairo and the location of many embassies. But where is the car, and where is Kareem? No place to be found. Calling him proved fruitless, but after a few nervous minutes, finally we found his car parked away under a make shift awning designed for sheep to rest under; during the H1N1 flu scare, the panicking Egyptian government killed more than 400,000 pigs in “Medina El Zabbaleen”, these pigs were used for eating organic garbage and also as a main source of protean to the city inhabitants, now you can see sheep rooming everywhere replacing the pigs in doing the most efficient recycling job.. Kareem was in a deep asleep, again. Knocking on the car window didn’t do the trick, but pounding on it did the trick. Kareem, who hadn’t slept for two days, was in a deep asleep. “Come on, Kareem, we need to get back to the Hotel.” “Okay Prince.” I wished he would stop calling me that. In Egypt everyone has a social title that defines your social status and position. For men, you can find the Turkish influence in titles such as “Bey”, and “Basha”; not so much for women, as they have the title that defines their family relationship status; Madam, or simply “El Sayedah,” the Lady. In the long Egyptian history that extends thousands of years, Egyptians unlike the French, ,are not known for their violent revolution, using their own way of launching velvet revolutions for social change and achieving social freedom. Instead of using violence against the social elites, they just take the upper class titles and make them available to everyone. So everyone is equal, either Bey or Basha. Lately, with the satellite Arab media, new Anglo-Arabian social titles are creeping in, and that why Kareem is calling me “Prince.” We got to the hotel, all needing a break to freshen up and rest for an hour, and agreed to meet at 4 p.m. in the hall. I asked Kareem to come by 4 p.m. sharp. “I won’t go anywhere Prince,” he replied “I will just wait here in the car,” he added. Okay, we will wake you up by 4 p.m. Don’t go anywhere.
Fred “The boss”
I stayed with Fred in his room talking and reflecting. I knew Fred from his years of excellent work on underreported stories and his well-balanced journalistic style, but I got to know Fred in this trip much better. I learned a lot–not just about his interviewing style, and his insight, but also that he is fun to spend time with. He is someone with a mellow demeanor, never seems upset and is always thoughtful and generous with his advice.. His multicultural background and ethnicity made him more accessible, not just to me, but to most Egyptians, people in the street and cafes. Once they saw him, they shared their unsolicited comments trying to get him engaged in a conversation. “From India, right?” “Oh India, wow, they worship cows there,” they explained with such confidence. At a local café, the waiter whispered into my face, “He is from Bangladesh.” I told him no. “Yes, he is.” He insisted, and I didn’t care to argue. Americans may ask you where you are from as their way of saying you are not from around here. Egyptians cut to the chase and declare where you are from. I asked Fred if he gets offended by this overt racial profiling. “Absolutely not,” he quickly replied with a smile. Fred fell in love with Cairo. It must have reminded him of his birthplace, India. “Egyptians have lots of characters,” he told me. “I don’t mind it at all”, he added. For me, Egypt is so old and chaotic, loud, polluted, and confusing at times, but everything smells right. I never worried about Fred because he always managed to find something good about anything he saw in Egypt, except only once, in my village when it was cold at night. The new brick houses there are not made to warm you up, but the other way around, Fred. The Minnesota Ice Box native couldn’t take the Egyptian delta cold. I had to give him my London Fog black coat. He never took it off until we left for Cairo..
Garden City, brought painful memories
At 4 p.m. we all congregated in the hotel hall.. Then, again, as if we wear playing the game of “where is Waldo” we asked where is Kareem. I remembered he told us that he was going to wait outside, asleep in the car of course. I woke him up and without saying anything Kareem started the cars, he took us to Garden City where Dr. Alaa El Aswany’s office is. Garden City was built in 1905 by an agricultural architect named Jose Lamba,. They said that his vision was of a leafy urban setting with a layout drawn up more using a compass than a ruler. Unless you know your way around you are lost. I always thought the people lived in this area of the city because they couldn’t find their way out. It is also the city where I had my first brush with police ; Growing up in Cairo in the 60’s, As I was walking aimlessly through this area enjoying its elegance and mystery and European flavor. It was the next best thing to being there. I was rounded up by the Egyptian secret police (The Mukhabarat), who were zealously trying to fill their daily quota of random arrests. A tall handsome police colonel standing at the front started shouting the worst kind of profanities at us, his harsh words quickly extended to our families and parents. Without thinking and in a fearful voice I mumbled, “my parent did nothing wrong.” Unfortunately, the colonel overheard my soft protest; what happened after that has changed my life forever and shattered my faith in authority; my innocence was tarnished forever.
The angry police colonel stopped his verbal humiliation and without looking at me, he ordered one of his guards to take me away to … “the room.” The guard knew exactly where to take me; inside the prison, it was a small dark smelly windowless cold room, naked room stripped out of any human sign, the dark silence in the room seemed as if it has witnessed lots of broken souls.
Shortly, the colonel entered the room, where he calmly and without uttering a word or acknowledging my presence, closed the door, picked up a big riot stick and started hitting me savagely and indiscriminately. I stood helplessly overwhelmed by the colonel’s outrage; the severity of the beating escalated, until my skin start peeling off my body before my own eyes. I lost my feeling and any connection to my body; my confusing thoughts were trapped with no place to go. I wasn’t trying to be a hero, I couldn’t muster any words, I couldn’t scream or resist. I couldn’t understand the colonel’s anger and outrage, but I knew he had a free hand to do to me whatever he pleased in that room. He didn’t ask about my name, he never looked me in the eyes, he never explained my crime. I was reduced to a nameless, faceless object, as I stood motionless and void of any rights or expression. Until today, I often wondered how my brief confrontation with this colonel could generate so much fury against a helpless 16- year old young boy. I now realize we were both victims. I was a victim of unjust violence and abuse. He was a victim of his sadistic obsession with violence and his intoxication with power. I was physically paralyzed for weeks. He was morally paralyzed for life. Sorry for changing the narrative here. Now the city has more cars than people, business and embassies have taken over what once was a magnificent section of the city. We kept asking for the El Dewan Street, but no one knew where it was. “What place are you looking for,” asked a bystander that noticed our presence. We are looking for Dr. Alaa (that’s how they say it in Egypt, title goes with first name not the last name), “right there” he pointed across the street. Duh, there was a sign declaring the name, “Office of Dentist Dr. Alaa Al Aswany.”. I guess he was more known than the street name. We all got out and jammed into the small elevator in the lobby. Egyptian elevators don’t give you any extra room than standing and barely breathing. If there is a smoker in the elevator, you are doomed. I avoid taking Egyptians elevators at any cost, and as a result I lose 15 pounds climbing stairs every time I visit Egypt. We arrived early to Dr. Alaa’s office, a dentist by training. “I still practice because, I love to talk with people while I’m working,” he explained once. I guess you he would be doing all the talking, I thought. Tom and Nikki set up the camera and lights in the small room to accommodate Dr. Al Aswany’s special seating arrangement as he had a back problem. Dr. Al Aswany was generous with his time and his answers. The interview went well until it was interrupted by the call for prayer (Azan) from a nearby mosque, which something you can always count on at least five times a day wherever you are in Egypt, even in “Medina El Zabbaleen,” which is mostly Coptic. Mosques all over Cairo are competing with each on which one calls the loudest and how many people they irritate. Fred asked Dr. Aswany if we could take a break until after the call for prayer. “Sure, a smoking break for me,” Dr. Alaa said. Most people in Egypt will take a praying break at this time, I joked. After the interview ended, we thanked Dr. Alaa for his time and left. We took the tiny elevator down.
Kareem, “where is Waldo”
Kareem, the hired driver, took any chance to sleep, even intentionally choosing to take congested streets so he could snooze at every traffic tangle. After coming down from the Dr. A. El Aswany interview, he was–as expected–asleep inside the car. The doors were locked, and trying to wake him up proved to be useless. Finally, we pounded on his window, he woke up looking confused. I asked him to open the trunk to put Tom’s equipment in. I went back toward the trunk, waited and nothing happened. I screamed at Kareem to open the trunk, please. Nothing happened. I went back to the front, and Kareem was asleep again. I frantically woke him up. This was amazing. “You can master sleeping while you are talking to us, Kareem,” I said. “I sleep while driving too Prince” he replied. Why do you keep calling me “Prince” Kareem? I’m not a prince. “You are my prince,” he replied with a smile. During all my time sitting next to him driving around, even to the forbidden city of trash collectors, Kareem never complained, or unlike most Egyptians gave any unsolicited opinions, Egyptians are the only people on the planet if you asked for direction, they give you an opinion! Kareem was basically a quiet, gentle young man. He didn’t talk much, but he shared with me once his dream of leaving Egypt and living abroad. “I need to finish the military service first,” he said. “Would I find work in Amreeka (America) Prince? he asked. “Yes Kareem, you could work at a hotel there and sleep all day,” I told him kiddingly. “Sleep, don’t say that prince, I’m really serious,” he protested. “I sleep a lot, because I work too much” he explained, the first Egyptian Yogi Berra.
Meet The fockers, my Family
We were very hungry; how about taking us to a real Egyptian restaurant to eat real Egyptian food. Kareem, take us to Al Hussein, a wonderful place for any visitors, with local bazaars and local foods. My family’s house in Cairo wasn’t so far from Dr. Aswany’s office. How about stopping by my family’s house for a quick visit? It is only three blocks away. All quickly agreed to the surprise visit. After my parents passed away, and all my brothers got married and left the family house, one of my brothers moved back into the family house with his children and wife. We still think of it as the family house. I knocked on the door, and the family were all assembled there. The uncovered women had quickly left the guestroom to find their scarves. We sat with my nieces and my nephews for a chat with the American visitors, with lots of snacks and drinks (no alcohol) offered even on such short notice. Everyone in the family wanted to see the Americans. They always have a mixed feeling about America and Americans, but they could easily separate between those nice Americans, whom you could get married and live with from the American government that is helping Israel against Palestinians, and invading Muslim countries. The visit went smoothly although not much English is spoken in my family, but eye contact and smiles were sufficient to get everyone relaxed and enjoy the surprised visit.
The Dahan Restaurant, where is the beef, no pork.
After a while we needed to leave for the El Hussein square as it was getting late. Where is Kareem? No place to be found. He asked me if he could go and drop something at his father house. “One half hour. I will be back. I promise,” Kareem pleaded. “Okay, a half an hour, that is 30 minutes, Kareem, we need to leave for El Hussein. Please don’t be late.” After an hour and a half, he is still missing. When Egyptians feel they are guilty of any social misdemeanor, they don’t answer your calls. “I don’t like this, and I don’t want to wait for him”. Nikki said. With my niece and nephew who wanted to tag along, we needed another car anyway. “Why don’t you take a taxi, and Magda will go with you to find the place.” So in this way we divided the group into two camps; those who disliked Kareem and didn’t want to wait, and those who didn’t dislike Kareem and were willing to wait for him. “I’m Kareem neutral,” said Fred. Nikki led the disliking Kareem group. The Kareem neutral group had to wait another half an hour until he showed up. Scolding him wouldn’t get us anywhere since he still had to drive us himself. We arrived at the famous Egyptian restaurant, “El Dahan,” located in the heart of El Hussein square where the restaurant seating bleeds into the middle of the square. The line between what is private and public is very much non-existent. You practically are sitting with everyone else in the square. Then lots of food was ordered. The menu was so long, but basically all the menu items were similar, either kabob or ground beef. The difference is in the amount you want; ¼, ½, 1 kilo. Nikki still managed to order her favorite “fava bean” (foul) dish with her food. Foul is definitely the most democratic Egyptian dish since everyone eats it. They say that foul is eaten by everyone in the morning, poor people in the afternoon, and horses at night. Egyptian restaurants, no matter what you order, will offer a whole assortment of appetizers (Mezah), like fresh salads, hummus, pickles, and bread. We asked the waiter not to bring any fresh salads (thinking of our digestive tracts), just hummus and tahini sauce. We talked, laughed, exchanged stories, and everyone enjoyed the local experience. The food was tasty, free entertainment was all around us, staff with lots of character. I asked the handsome, energetic waiter, you should be acting in movies. ”What do you think I’m doing now?” he fired back. After the meal was done, everyone needed to go back to the hotel and rest. We had a big day ahead of us, leaving for the Sinai to see Engineer Sherif El Ghamrawy, the social entrepreneur genius.
Sinai, Go East Young Man
I arranged an airport service shuttle to come and pick us up at 6 a.m. for our one-hour flight to the Sinai. Everyone was up and ready and waiting for the airport shuttle. It was getting late and everyone was getting nervous. I kept calling the airport service, and he kept telling me, “He is on his way,” which in Egypt means, “I don’t know where he is.” I finally asked him for the driver’s number to call him myself, which I did a few times but there was no answer. I called the office again and I asked the agent to tell me exactly where the shuttle was. “On his way won’t cut it,” I screamed. “Sir, I’m very sorry, but the driver seems to have fallen asleep, and I sent you an emergency one.” What, the plane will leave in an hour. “Don’t worry sir you will be there on time.” “What did he say?” everyone asked nervously. “The airport shuttle driver fell asleep,” and before everyone could start throwing their luggage at me, the emergency shuttle service just pulled in. The driver was the most pleasant Egyptian you could meet, a genuine apology was offered, and a commitment to get us to the airport on time was made. For once, going through security was a piece of cake. For another nice surprise, we were flying first class, which meant a short waiting line and good service with a smiling agent. I had never flown first class in my entire life. This was great. The seats are wide and you can actually ask for extra service without being reprehended. Too bad that the flight took less than one hour. After arriving at the airport in Sharm al Sheikh, a quick check out and short walk to the waiting shuttle was all it took to be on the way to Basata Village. The foreign press officer was not waiting as arranged; he would come the next day they said. We don’t work on Fridays. Okay. So we took off to meet Mr. Sherif El Ghamrawy, the chair of the Ecolodge Basata Village, and the Egyptian social entrepreneur who turned trash into gold they said. After a two-hour drive through Sinai’s monotonous roads, where we encountered few check points where the security asked the driver where and what, and all the driver had to say, “We have the Americans.” That seemed to be the code word to get us through, no questions asked. We finally arrived at the Ecolodge resort. The pleasant, cheerful Mr. Sherif came to great us with his tight short shorts (which is coined as Halal shorts). As we sat on the floor in what looked like a tent-like Arabian seating, and before we could introduce ourselves, two very serious men walked in unannounced. They asked to talk to Mr. Sherif, and for a strange reason they asked to talk to me, too. Who are those Americans and why they are here, one of them asked. “They are a TV crew from the American TV show News Hour on Public Television, the most respected TV show in America,” I explained. “They are here to do a story about recycling in Egypt, it is a positive story about social entrepreneurs, so you don’t have to worry,” I explained. He wasn’t fully convinced, but had nothing to say, so they left without saying anything, leaving us with the Terminator “We will be back” look. We spent two days at Basata resort, a great place for those who want to get away from it all, where there are no TVs, Phones, or any modern disturbances, just you and the magical serenity of the desert, the clean blue water of the Red Sea and desert fresh air. The lodging is designed with environment and history in mind, villa style, with lots of Arabian designed windows and space. All the materials used are eco-friendly and are locally produced here,” explained Mr. Sherif. You wake up smelling the heavy, fresh air; you make your own breakfast or lunch with what is available to you there. Everything is fresh; bread and pastries are provided. Nikki, who fell in love in with the Egyptian national dish, foul medames (fava beans), which I proudly made every morning. Breakfast is a culturally-specific meal, so everyone made his own. The Egyptian breakfast–unlike the typical American one–doesn’t involve any violence, no cracking eggs, or frying meat—no animals need to die to satisfy our cravings. An Egyptian breakfast would usually have foul medames (fava bean dish), feta cheese, tomatoes, black olives and pita bread The dinner is provided by the resort, a communal eating experience, which is usually a massive meal of fresh fish and other Egyptian cuisine. You also get the chance to meet other visitors. The only drawback to eating outdoors in the desert is that you are never eating alone. The flies land on your food in droves, so we had to eat fast. That is probably how the McDonald brothers started their fast food empire a 100 years ago back in the State–too may flies in California at the time. After lunch, we left to visit the head of the city council in his massive office. We first needed to get his blessing before we could interview anyone in the area. He was a very friendly, simple man with a massive body and mustache, much like Saddam Hussein. He wasn’t alone as at least six people were in his big office, none of whom left during our visit. Tea was served, and the interview was conducted, and finally we left the office. I’m always grateful when I finish anything at an Egyptian government office. I always feel I need to celebrate, but we needed to go to the recycling center of Mr. Sherif and his Hemaiah (protection) organization. There we talked to the people who worked for him about their ambitions and their dreams. I made a new friend there, a white dog who seemed to have broken away from his captivity with a piece of rope still wrapped around his neck. He looked as if he had never been patted before. I untied the rope around his neck while he patiently waited. After that he followed me around and I played with him most of my stay. He was a very cute dog with a great personality. He played with everyone in the center, even the stray cats roaming all over the places. I named him Oliver like my dog at my home in America, and as we are leaving he made sure to accompany us with a sad look. Mr. Sherif was a cordial, energetic man with an infectious smile. He was cool and always friendly no matter what the situation was, the electricity was out, the security agents’ intrusion, or officials who seemed to want more than the service fee.
The Flood, and the Doomed Crossing
Egyptians are very resourceful people; they can deal with anything: 100+ degree heat for days on end, rationing food, drought, a crush of cars, even open electrical boxes. The only thing that Egyptians can’t deal with is rain. Life in Egypt stops, everything, work, buses, cars, phones, and electricity. Although, it doesn’t rain much in Sinai, but on our last night, the rain never stopped. At first it didn’t seem a problem for us. You could even golf in a rain like this back in Minnesota, we assured ourselves. The rain stopped in the morning, however, people were talking about flooding in Sinai, which was a concept that was too hard for me to understand. As far as I knew, the last flood in Sinai was 4,000 year ago, and that hadn’t stopped Moses from crossing the Sinai. So we left needing to get to the airport to catch our flight. The information about the condition of the road was sketchy to say the least. In an oral culture like Egypt and especially in the Sinai, no one knows enough about anything. There was no one or no place to call and get information. “They heard that the road is open,” said one, and “ I heard that a road is closed,” said another. Egyptians are the only people on the planet, who if you ask for directions, will give you their opinions, not necessarily the facts! So with great uncertainty, we took off to the airport. There was water streaming down the sides of the mountainous South Sinai, but never enough to stand in our way, until we got to the city of Nuweibaa. There was a long line of cars on the road and people everywhere. In this location, the water was coming down the mountains so hard and with force, so cars could not go through. I had never seen flooding in an area where everywhere else it is dry. So we waited along with everyone else. Almost two hours later, cars started making their way across the flooded piece of road through the decreasing flood. At least six cars made it safely to the other side of the flooded road. Now it is our turn, and we needed to make a decision. The driver seemed confident that we could do it since he lived in the area and knew a thing or two about driving through floods. We decided to go ahead and cross the flooded road. We had a plane to catch after all. I talked to the driver to watch how the other cars were crossing, stay to the right, whatever you do, don’t turn the wheels, and drive directly through the incoming water. He started moving but immediately veered to the left. Everyone in the back screamed to the right, to the right, asked him what he is doing, stay to the right. The driver panicked, and, amazingly, without any warning, turned the vehicle completely to the left toward the wrong side of the road where the water was rising forming a down flow of water. The driver got totally disoriented and started mumbling what seemed to be verses of the Qur’an. If I wasn’t familiar with how people panicked in Egypt, I would have entertained the idea of suicide car. This wasn’t the case as the driver was more terrified than any of us. It was too late to bring the car back on track, and the screaming in the back didn’t really help. All I heard was “oh my god” and something that sounded like “shit”. Then we were all in the thick of it anyway, the car tipped on its side, the side of the driver, and I was sitting next to him in the passenger’s seat. I felt partially responsible for all this, thinking why did I let him even drive, let alone veer to the left where the water was flowing fast and deep. I didn’t have enough time to question my decision; whatever it was I needed to come up with a better one. “What should we do,” screamed Nikki from the back. That was a timely question. We needed to do something in the next few seconds; otherwise, we wouldn’t have the luxury of raising any more questions ever again. The water was coming strong and fast at us in our tipped and half-submerged van and pushing with great force . If I opened the door, what would happen. We could all drown inside the van, but again, if I didn’t I wouldn’t be able to open it once we get deep in the water. I took my chances, I opened the door, and, surprisingly, it wasn’t too hard to do. I grabbed the driver from his seat; he was in the lowest side of the van, and the water was coming inside. I got out of the van, stood on the raised, hanging tire, and the driver came after me. Nikki opened the window and peeked out of it. All of this took less than three minutes. Then out of nowhere a tractor came steadily and surely through the water toward us, and there were people everywhere to help. They threw a rope toward us, and we tied this life line to the car’s window frame. It was chaos, and everyone screamed, “Jump, Jump,… !” Where and how, we didn’t know. The crew in the car was looking at me for lifesaving answers. I explained to Nikki what she needed to do, jump down as far as she could toward the rope. She didn’t think it was such a good idea, or she was scared, but she was holding the line. I knew I was going to be the last one to jump as I was their culture captain of this sinking ship. A young man realized the dilemma that we had. Nikki’s terrified look gave it away. He told me, if he could come as close to the car as possible, the American could jump on his back. The water was rushing down so hard now that any miscalculation could wash you away and under the van, or if you were lucky, into the massive stream. I explained to Nikki what she needed to do, “Jump on his back and he will take you away,” she quickly agreed, trusting the young man holding her more than the rope. It worked; the cheering crowd testified to that. We got the American from the car, screamed a few. I hoped that I could fall under this racial-profiling category of “American” as the Bedouin were being very generous to their visitors. I have an American passport in case they needed to see it before they could save me, which I moved to my upper pocket in case. They took Nikki away to safety. Next was Fred, who was hanging from the window; they asked him to jump again, and he didn’t need to be convinced. His small frame was flying over to the rope with such elegance, I envied him. As he was hanging on to the rope by his armpits, they grabbed him out of the water. He climbed on the tractor, and as journalist, he never forgot his profession. He took his small video camera out and stated shooting the rest of the rescue, a behavior that some of the Bedouins didn’t completely understand. “During a crisis you should be helping not videotaping,” one Bedouin said jokingly. Tom’s rescue was so smooth since he had seen a few before him, so I didn’t have to give him any instructions. He knew the drill, no sweat, in seconds he was in the other side in safety. Now, it was me and the driver left. I asked the driver to go next but he refused. Besides he was behind me in the order of things. I knew what to do, and I wasn’t afraid to do it. Fear never crossed my mind through this entire ordeal. Fear only comes when you have options, which I had none. I jumped, but it wasn’t far enough from the van. One of the young men tried to grab me, but he was almost washed away. I had to grab him and pull him back from under water. Finally, with the strong arms of his brother helping me, I made it to safety. They had to work harder on this one, the water was deep and stronger on my side of the car. The driver came last and his rescue was much easier and safer than the way he had driven the car. Although we lost our van, some of our equipment, our gifts and clothes, we gained many Bedouin friends–those amazing strangers who risked their lives to save us. I thank you all. I may not know your names, but l will never forget your faces. We wear trapped between our resort and the Airport, so we looked for any place that had electricity, we stayed one more day. The airport was still closed, we were informed later that the road open, so we had drive back to Cairo in the evening, the policeman at check point told us, the road still close, there are a few troubling flooded spots ahead of you, but if you must go, “drive at you own peril”, said the young policeman. This time and knowing what happened with the ill-fated crossing the day before, I made sure that our new proud driver “Soukar” sugar, is fully awake and extremely careful, this was the most stressful 4 hours in the entire trip, we finally made it back to Cairo ; and “Al Hamd Allah”, thanks god .
My Village … where is my house!
Before we left Egypt, I was working on a story of my Christian friend’s grave in my village cemetery. This idea came to me when I was mourning the death of one of my friends standing at the Muslim cemetery located in a remote corner of a Christian cemetery in Burnsville. In the United States, unlike in European Muslim “ghettos”, the members of the integrated Muslim-American community are very much free to choose where they want to live, and actually do live just about everywhere in the state of Minnesota; however, with our dead ones, we only have one choice. The Muslim “ghetto” grave is usually located inside a remote section of an existing Christian cemetery. I never understood the religious proximity taboo between the Muslim and Christian dead, and no amount of interfaith dialogue could bring the dead ones together; it is hard to argue that much when you are dead.
I couldn’t help to reflect back more than 40 years, remembering the one Coptic-Christian family grave in the heart of my primarily Muslim village cemetery in Meet Swaid, Egypt. We never questioned it, and we never thought of as something peculiar or unusual. So what is the story of this Coptic family? How did they live as a minority in my small village? As a hyphenated Muslim American living in the US, I wondered what it like was to be a Christian living in a majority Muslim village. After all the years since I left my village, I decided to go back to find out more about the history of this Christian family and why my village was immune from the rift between Copts and Muslims that periodically surfaces on the Egyptian scene, especially in upper Egypt. So I asked Fred if they could come with me and help me in doing my story there, which he gladly agreed to. We hired a shuttle service, took our camera and headed to the Nile Delta region, taking the three-hour drive to my village. It took us one hour just to leave the congested Cairo city and reach the outskirts but only two hours to get to the village 150 miles away. Driving along the freeway through the heart of the Nile Delta, the road was surrounded by massive orange orchards with fruit peddlers lining the road. They dotted the landscape with a burst of color displaying their oranges and tangerines in shapes of pyramids ambivalent to the ominous piles of trash everywhere you look.
We finally arrived at my village. It was dark then, and I couldn’t find my house. My cousins had to come out and show us the way there. My brother, nicknamed Sheik Obi, was waiting for us with a massive Egyptian meal, which was quickly served. An Egyptian dinner meal involves a lot of killing: duck, chicken and pigeons and, of course, water buffalo as our beef, but no pork for sure. Of course, a lot has happened since I left 40 years ago–places and people seemed to have moved on and the village now is taking the shape of a small crowded town. My village, as I remember it, was a small, unassuming place. Many people’s lifestyles hadn’t changed that much since the time of the pharaohs, and local demographers couldn’t find any dramatic census changes for a long time.
Before CNN and Al Jazeera, villagers lived the simple life of a farming community, and their interest in the outside world went only as far as the edge of their fields. The men left with their animals for work at dawn and came back at dusk, while their wives stayed home, busy preparing hearty meals and raising kids to work in the farm as soon as they mastered their first step.
People seemed to consult the same fashion designer, go to the same mosque to pray, eat the same food, celebrate the same holidays, and for generations, villagers kept the gene pool very much confined to the area’s families. I was interested to know more about the Coptic family who lived among us where my family and relatives lived.
The Christian family’s peculiar lifestyle was intriguing to me; in fact, it was a breath of fresh air to invigorate the monotonous village life. “They seemed friendlier than most, and they easily smiled,” commented Haj Abdullah, one of the few relatives left with a sharp memory of the Coptic family history.
Unlike other villagers who worked on the farm, the Christian family was still in the hunting-and-gathering age. “They made their living chasing wild wolves lurking on the outskirts of the village,” continued Haj Abdullah. “The Christian father’s name was Kariaquos, an exclusive Christian name, which indicates that he was born and lived in a golden era between Coptic and Muslims to secure such a Christian name. Kariaquos would vanish into the remote fields for days and suddenly resurface with his kill,” he added. “The Coptic family would drag the dead wolf around in the streets for show-and-tell, describing the grave danger they had just faced and the heroic adventure they had encountered, which earned them considerable admiration from villagers and a handsome handout of rice, corn or whatever the season offered at the time,” explained my cousin Ezzat. “I knew Karyaquos, the father; he had a great since of humor,” Hajj Abdullah added, “he was a joker.”.
“I never thought of them as Christian or Copt, just my neighbor”, shared my brother Abdel Rafaa. Growing up in my village, I liked to hang around with Samir Kariaquos, one of the Coptic brothers, known simply as the Copt. Although I had the privilege and perks that came with being of the majority religion, my alliance with him was personal, and it might have resulted from our both being somewhat social outcasts by most of the villagers. Both of our families had chosen a career other than farming. My family members were the educators who ran the only village elementary school for years. We visited the school where Samir and I went, I always envied him for being a Copt during our religion class; he was free to choose to stay or to leave to the school playground. I wished I could, too, if only to spare myself the abuse of our religion teacher. Besides his great personality, Samir had a unique skill: he was a sharp shooter, exceptionally good at using the BB gun and I was good at using the slingshot. In the summer, hunting small birds was our pastime. We both left the village early in the morning and spent the whole day roaming the field hunting for these “asafeer”, or sparrows. The solitude of the field greenery and the empty roads gave us the emotional space to be close and good buddies; we talked about anything, kissing girls and other dreams.
Years went by, and since Egyptian Copts have the same life expectancy as Egyptian Muslims, the father suddenly died. The family was not prepared for this eternal fate, and neither was the rest of the village. Although the cultural tradition of the Muslim villagers accommodated the Coptic family while they were alive, the religious burial traditions were not flexible enough to accommodate the mixing of their dead in the same cemetery. “The Coptic family wanted to bury their father at their cemetery located away from the city, as most of them do across Egypt”, said Haj Abdullah. However, “before his death, Karyaquos, the Coptic father asked your uncle (my uncle Abd Elhafeez) to be buried with him at the Muslim cemetery,” he explained. My uncle kept his promise to his Coptic neighbor. “There was some reluctance and hesitation from the villagers,” my brother Refaat said. “Both religions prohibit mixing the dead in the same graves or cemetery,” he explained.
Before the Wahhabi-oil brand of Islam that is sweeping Egypt these days, there was more tolerance. Nowadays Egyptian Muslims and Copts alike are expressing their frustration with their lives by using religious symbols and formalities; even the Egyptian soccer team (all Muslims) are known for their trade mark goal celebration now: they kneel down for a group prayer, thankful for every score and victory. Members of my father’s part of the family were not known for their religious zealotry, but for their kindness and generosity. ”If the Coptic family had lived in peace with the rest of us all these years without any trouble, there shouldn’t be much trouble while they were dead,” explained my cousin Fekary about Uncle Abd Elhafeez’s view at the time
“My family consulted no one in the village”, said my brother Nasser. The burial ceremony was completed quietly in my family cemetery grave. Now and after all these years , like all Muslim graves, which lack any religious symbols or eulogy—only a name and date — just a Coptic family name remains, “Kariaquos,” and the dates: “Born in 1911 and died 1962.” What is so amazing today is that with all the rift between Christians and Muslims, and Islam and the West, and also periodic flair ups between Egyptian Copts and Muslims, this has never translated into any hostility toward the Coptic family grave; no act of defacing or expression of graffiti on the unfenced Coptic grave can be found, which is remarkable in the age of the internet and global village and religious fundamentalism. All those years ago, in my village, Muslims and Copts had lived together and died together in peace and harmony. As my brother Abdel Rafaa put it, “No diversity programs were required, no axis of evil was declared, and no crusade or jihad was launched.”
My brother, Abdel Rafaa, nicknamed Sheikh Obid, who falls into the gentle camp of my family, had no trouble welcoming the Coptic family alive and dead. He told me in a reflective voice, “I stop by the Coptic family grave every time I visit our family cemetery.” I jokingly asked my brother if he also recites Sourah “El Fathah” on the Coptic grave, which is customary for Muslims to recite when they visit their dead relatives. “No,” he replied, “out of my respect to their faith.”
“Please relate this story to your friends in America,” he pleaded. I just did.
We quickly left my village and after a brief stop in Cairo, we headed straight to the Airport, my job was done and I needed to go home and visit with my family, and spend some quality time with them.
The farewell party
On my last day in Egypt, my family, who complained that I hadn’t spent much time with them, always working and running around, put together a farewell party for me. At my sister’s house, more than 25 of them started trickling in, family by family, kid by kid. We talked, laughed and cried; there was plenty of food and plenty of emotions. I really enjoy my brothers’ children. They had grown up nicely in spite of all the restrictive conditions around them, and everyone had a distinctive personality. They always waited for me in their apartment, which was located on the first floor in the same bulling where I was staying with my sister in her apartment on the 4th floor. No matter how late I stayed out, there they were–waiting behind the ajar door to hear the slightest footstep so they could hear me coming home. Then they grabbed me inside to sit with them a little longer.
The farewell celebration lasted until 2 a.m. Then I had to leave since my flight was at 4 a.m. No one was coming to the airport with me, I declared to the group. I had arranged for an airport service shuttle to pick me up. The drive to the Cairo International airport was surreal. The Cairo streets were too quiet, enveloped by the fresh cold morning air, a rarity that you should embrace while visiting Egypt. The procedure at the Cairo International Airport is very relaxed with security seeming to share your sadness at leaving. The flight left on time.
Welcome back, you are in America now
Now, fast forward 18 hours later when I landed at the St. Paul/Minneapolis airport. As I was getting out of the airplane’s tunnel, I heard ‘Step over here please,”–the soft voice of the young security guard for the U.S. Customs was directed only at me out of all the passengers. Now I realized I’m back in America. Amsterdam also does a thorough security—but one that everyone goes through. After a brief line of questioning, he marked a code on my claim form. After getting my luggage, every time a security person looked at my claim form, he singled me out. Finally, I was instructed to follow the red line. That doesn’t sound good, I thought. What are they afraid of–the plane has already landed and I can’t possibly cause any harm to anybody. “Did you bring any ‘Lebb’ (Arabic for seeds),” asked the customs official, proud of his Arabic proficiency. No, I usually get them from the Holy Land store in Northeast Minneapolis. They took my luggage, opened and searched every inch of it. “You took lots of videos,” commented the overly-friendly female security, and started her interrogation, “What do you do, Sir, and where did you go and why,” the young security who first greeted me at the airplane, joined the search. He found my interviewing notebook, the one I had through the ordeal of the Sinai flood. It was dirty and yellowed with traces of sand all over, but the security was overly-alarmed by the Arabic writing. He kept staring at my notebook as if he found the Al Qaeda manual. “What is this,” he casually asked. It is not food, I fired back. No, no I didn’t fire, just responded. To ward off any more questions, I dug through my stuff to find the parts to the “baladi shisha” which was a dried coconut shill, a piece of bamboo and a small ashtray. I quickly assembled it for the guard who continued to stare at my notebook. I explained the use and function of the shisha, but he was unimpressed, still intrigued by my Arabic writing in my notebook. They kept me standing for more than 40 minutes, while they took my case apart, all my stuff, my underwear, tapes, personal stuff lying all over the search table. Finally, the disappointed security guard asked me to pack up my stuff again. “I don’t want to break anything for you,” he explained. Thank you, Sir; it is kind of too late. You have already broken my trust in the whole homeland “in” security business. My wife was waiting patiently outside the security area, happy to see me walking alone even if I was the last one out. “Welcome home,” she said and we quickly left the airport. As we walked into the parking lot, my face was by the frigid Minnesota weather. Snow was covering everything; wherever you looked it was white. I felt like I was in a gigantic hospital room. I realized that I had left Egypt too soon.
Ahmed Tharwat is host of the Arab-American show “Belahdan,” which airs Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. on Twin Cities Public Television (Ch 202).
Ahmed Tharwat/ Host