The Teargas Chronicles

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Islamic street art in the Darb al-Ahmar

I’m sitting right now in Cairo International Airport waiting for my flight to Dubai to go visit my friend Uma, and I’m filled with an overwhelming sense that I am escaping something. Egyptian airport officials are visibly tense and quick to irritate. My taxi driver charged me double of what the ride should have cost even after we bantered in Arabic most of the way to the airport. I argued at first but when he was threateningly insistent I finally decided just to pay his price in exchange for the opportunity to try out some of the harsher Arabic words I’ve learned. There is truly a tangible tension in the air – it feels like standing in the horse stables right before the storm.

This past Thursday President Mohamed Morsi issued and constitutional declaration giving him unprecedented power over the legislature and judiciary in order to “sort out the logjam” that has prevented the constitutional drafting committee from putting forth a draft for referendum. The Muslim Brotherhood is supporting Morsi, but the various Liberal factions are understandably outraged and worried, especially since the “logjam” Morsi is referring to is largely the product of a very concerted effort on their part to prevent the Islamist parties from what some see as the “Islamisation” of the constitution. Of course, all of this came to a head last night when an estimated 300,000 Egyptians poured into Tahrir in scenes reminiscent of the revolution almost two year ago. Protesters are camped out and have vowed to stay until Morsi overturns his announcement and appoints a new constitutional drafting committee.

Soccer in front of Luxor Temple

Thankfully, things have remained relatively peaceful compared to the level of activity that Egypt has seen in the past two years. At least three protesters have died in the hospital after clashes near Tahrir and in a few days ago. I was invited to the American embassy for happy hour last Wednesday (my first legal beer on American soil!) and was slightly unnerved at the amount of barbed wire and security guards barricading the streets leading to the embassy. It is more now than it was in back when people were protesting the film. I imagine that they were expecting protests in support of Gaza, but the night we were there the protesters were focused on the constitution. Later that night we had to pause the game of corn-hole for a bit because the smell of tear gas became overpowering. To me it felt a little bit elitist – like I had slipped away to my parallel universe. Here I was drinking American beer and playing corn-hole while a mere block away from me Egyptians were having tear-gas launched at them as they were peacefully expressing concerns for the direction of their country. (Can you imagine if that happened in the US? #occupy). However overall I think Egyptians have shown remarkable restraint over the last two days, though there is no question that the situation could easily escalate. By my thinking Morsi will have to respond in a big way in order to maintain order.

Throughout all of this I have remained squarely out of the sphere of excitement and contented myself with watching the events from the TV screen from the safety of a café while working on my Arabic homework like a good boy. I got my kicks this summer round the time of elections and have retired to a comfortable disdain of other internationals as they strap on their cameras and gas scarves and head down to Tahrir for a few pics they can brag about. I don’t blame any of them for wanting a little adventure – that’s why most undergrads go for study abroad – but as a veteran Cairo study abroader (joke – stop that eye-roll Miss McClure) I’ve satisfied myself with the fact that this is not my country and these are not my politics. As much as I have grown to love the fighting spirit of Egyptian youth – the thirst they have for something better – as several of my Egyptian friends have expressed, foreigners only serve to discredit the protesters’ cause by their presence in the square. Vocal oppositionists have already pointed to foreigners in Tahrir propagating that foreign governments are instigating the protests to the ends of their own national interests. That being said my heart is squarely in Tahrir right now. I am inspired by Egyptians’ unwillingness to accept continued half-freedoms – they want the whole bird. I see this passion Egyptians have for justice, and looking modern examples of countries with like Turkey who have seen major advancements in civil and economic liberties in the last century I can’t help but see so much potential for the future of Egypt in this century. May God bless Egypt.

Temple of Karnak

In other news I finally made it down to the legendary southern cities of Luxor and Aswan two weekends ago. ALI put together a Nile cruise for students in which we stopped at all the major temples from Karnak in Luxor to Philae near the Aswan High Dam. The trip was led by my favorite Professor Chahinda – the only narrator alive whose silky soothing voice can hold attention longer than Morgan Freeman and the British dude from Planet Earth combined. Beyond this fact, Professor Chahinda is completely brilliant, possessing one of those unique airtight intellects that can retain facts and dates untarnished by her years. By the end of the four day tour all of the ALI students were competing for who could give the more complete description of the temple art because we had all absorbed so much from Professor Chahinda, despite coming to the trip totally burnt out on academics from intensive language classes. In my mind that is the mark of a truly talented educator – one from whom you learn without ever giving a thought to the effort of learning.

Me Hainer and Dillon keeping ancient rites alive in the temple of Komombo

My friend Hanna and I were so enthralled by Professor Chahinda’s brilliance that we requested to join her class on their fieldtrip last weekend to the Darb al-Ahmar. This is a street in Islamic Cairo that used to lead to the citadel and on which centuries of Islamic rulers built their mosques and palaces. It is renowned for its crafts and there has been an effort in recent years to revitalize the craftsmanship in the area through restoration efforts as well as more individual investments. Like much of Egypt Darb al-Ahmar is the picture of fallen glory. Mosques that once stood as the epitome of grandeur now sit faded and sand-blown between dilapidated two-story apartments and dirt roads muddy with wastewater and donkey poop. But if you manage to peek behind one of the dingy shop doors along the street there is clear evidence of the quiet work that has continued for generations to keep the unique arts of the street alive. This is evident in some of the shops in the nearby Khan al-Khalili as well where Hanna and I spent the afternoon bargaining for gifts, drinking tea, and competing over who could spot the most ridiculous tourist.

To end on a hopeful message: About halfway through the tour through Darb al-Ahmar I stopped by a bakery to grab a piece of flatbread as we hadn’t had any breakfast. I gave the man two ginea (about 30 cents) as he distractedly swatted at the young boys romping through the shop. I hurried to catch up with the group and I’m about thirty steps down the street when I hear two sets of short legs running up behind me. I turn to see the two boys from the shop smiling shyly at me. Their clothes were dirty and ragged, their only playground having ever been this muddy impoverished street. The boy held out one ginea in his grubby hand and told me in Arabic that I over-paid. I was caught off guard and took the coin from him, but then gathering my wits I crouched down and held it back in his direction and told him it was a gift for him. The boy put his hands behind his back and refused to take it until finally a man passing with his donkey cart convinced the boy it was ok. We exchanged waves and smiles and the boys ran off as I thanked the man and hurried to catch up with the group.

If that doesn’t restore a glimmer of your faith in humanity then I’m calling it a lost cause.


3 responses to “The Teargas Chronicles

  1. Fantastic writing and pics. Great perspective, too, Stephen. Thanks for sharing all these posts along the way. Can’t wait to see you in just a few weeks and experience some of it with you. Enjoy Dubai. Say hi to Uma for us. Love ya

  2. Stephen, You have been on my mind with all that has been going on in Egypt the last few days. Your timimg was perfect. I can’t tell you how happy I am for you. If it is not to strange to say I am proud of you, I am. You are amazing and I can’t wait to hear further tales over a beer in Boulder!! Be safe and enjoy! Mama Schav!

  3. Oh Stephen, you are so incredible my friend. It sounds like you’re really “in it” over there, and that’s the only way to be. I’m so proud of everything you are. Keep writing, you’re brilliant!!

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