When I first arrived here, I immediately loved the beauty of Egyptian culture. The incredible kindness and insuppressible hope of the people. The level of political dedication and public engagement. The natural beauty of the pyramids, of the view of the Nile and Cairo Tower from our apartment, of the ancient mosques and institutes of learning. The relaxed, communal lifestyle of Garden City.
We’ve been disappointed by the media’s and Western culture’s negative portrayal of events on the ground over here. But over the last couple weeks, as we returned to work and class after our long house arrest, we’ve started to get a sense of just how much is truly going on behind the scenes – in Egypt, in Cairo, in Garden City, at our workplaces, and even within our own little group. The emotional and physical toll of such sustained, intense effort is certainly becoming a factor, for me at least. I’ve come to see that there are some real, non-trivial problems with the culture here.
How do we reconcile that negativity with the inherent beauty of Egypt?
I’ve always thought that the stories we tell, the songs we sing, the pictures we paint about the world shape, in turn, the way we approach it. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about stories. We’ve heard a lot of them in our time here. Some are tragic. All are hopeful. I’d like to share a few with you.
“I will not be driven into submission”
A couple weeks ago, journalist Natasha Smith was sexually assaulted near Tahrir in the frenzy following the announcement of the presidential election results. Her blog post describing the horrific experience attracted widespread attention, particularly in the Western media. I’m fortunate enough to be isolated from this often violent, objectifying cultural attitude towards women, but it is a constant pressure on other members of our group.
Ms. Smith’s account describes a physical and emotional pain that I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around. But the language with which she ultimately chooses to characterize such unacceptable violence is that of hope, defiance, and assurance, not that of anger or weakness. She refuses to play the submissive, inferior role into which the mob tried to force her.
“My dad, my mom, and I”
One day this week at Ana el-Masry, our primary service partner, one of our little friends wandered into the English classroom, where I was relaxing with Amanda and MJ during a break in classes. I’m not quite sure where he was supposed to be at the time, but he was just drawing quietly, so we just enjoyed his company. After a while, he proudly showed us his creation. It was a simple crayon drawing echoing those produced by children all over the world – a house, a living room, and a family. He pointed out who all the people were: “Ana, wa baba, wa mama!” Him, his mother, and his father.
The staff at Ana el-Masry don’t know where his parents are. He may well be an orphan.
I told him “Gameel!” – beautiful – while trying to hold back tears. It was an incredibly poignant moment, one of the most powerful from a very emotionally moving trip.
We’ll never know this sweet child’s whole story, and it’s difficult to read too much into his mental state from an isolated incident. But it’s safe to say that his experience with family has been incredibly difficult at best. And yet, he knows what that loving relationship looks like, and wants that life for himself. It’s a tragic story, but one filled with longing for something better.
“We forgot everything”
Finally, and in a larger sense, I’ve been fascinated with how Egyptians have spoken of their experience of revolution in my conversations so far. They speak of the few months from last year when the Mubarak regime was overthrown as a time when the people forgot everything and turned out into the streets en masse. Their fear of the government was suddenly irrelevant. It’s an unparalleled tale of popular empowerment.
The promise of the revolution has been fulfilled, at least in part and certainly in the minds of many Egyptians, with the election of Mohammad Morsi as the country’s first ever democratically elected president. But when Egyptians tell this story, they often mention that they haven’t quite been able to recapture the same level of public engagement over the last several months. The military establishment still holds a significant amount of power over the current and future activities of the government, and the runoff election between two extreme candidates led to widespread disillusionment.
Despite all this, though, every time I’ve heard this story described, it’s told with extreme fondness, determination, and hope. No matter how much the extreme poles of the Muslim Brotherhood and the SCAF are criticized, that knowledge that the people can shape their nation for the better is always hovering just beneath the surface. And the more they remind themselves of that possibility, the more real it becomes.
A song of hope
It’s very easy to look at all the personal and cultural weaknesses of Egypt and label the entire country as somehow backwards, violent, or underdeveloped. And there’s some truth to those characterizations. But to do so is to ignore the massive cultural complexity at work here. There is more than one Egypt – there’s hardship, injustice, and struggle of all kinds, just as in any nation.
The common thread in these stories isn’t just adversity – it’s hope. To me, that’s even more inspiring than the superficially apparent, beautiful aspects of the culture. Understanding this is more than just realizing the hidden beauty of Egypt – it’s the recognition of a theme that can be applied to all cultures, no matter how ostensibly disparate. People the world over are striving for something better, and we’ve witnessed that firsthand here in Egypt.
I hope that when I tell stories about struggle in my own life, I can sing a song of hope, craft a narrative of defiance, and paint a picture of a better future.