Sunday, December 16, 2012

Last Cairo Sunset

Farewell: I'm looking at the last sunset over the Cairene skyline that I'll see for awhile. I don't see the pyramids as in the photo; but the two huge picture windows on the west side of my apartment do face toward the Nile and give me a chance to view the sun setting whenever I'm home. Like so many Egyptians and others, I had such hope for the country and the region during the Arab spring. Egyptians were much more somber and pensive during the first round of voting on the constitutional referendum this Saturday (Dec. 15) than when they approved constitutional amendments in March of 2011 in a joyful and upbeat manner. There's much more concern about where the country is heading and what the nature of Egypt's identity will be. I can't help but have some fears. The last piece of the sun is showing out from behind a building. I leave for the airport at midnight. Soon, I'll watch the country's events from afar over the internet and television programs. I have some wistfulness about leaving but would not look forward to the continued turmoil many are predicting to continue after the vote finishes on December 22.

Poll Splitting Egyptians

First Stage of the Vote on Constitution: Many Egyptians turned out to vote in the ten governorates where it occurred yesterday. The others will vote next Saturday. Unofficial reports announce that a majority of voters voted "yes;" however the National Salvation Front is already declaring the process rigged. I like this post by Steve Gregg to an opinion piece on Al-Ahram Online today: "Unfortunately, the Muslim Brotherhood's ascent to power in Egypt repeats the history of liberal revolutions in that the revolutionaries are more violent and authoritarian than the despots they overthrow.
The French revolutionaries who overthrew King Louis XVI instituted the Reign of Terror. The Russian revolutionaries who overthrew Nicholas II instituted a regime which killed twenty million Russians. When the Kymer Rouge overthrew King Sihanouk, they instituted a regime which executed two million Cambodians. The Muslim Brotherhood is likely to make Egyptians pine for the despotism of Mubarak. I fear the worst is yet to come as they consolidate their rule. Then, Egypt will be lost for generations before it can find its way back to freedom and self-rule." Of course, in Egypt's case, the "real" revolutionaries got hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood who were better organized. They didn't get a chance to show whether they would be more open to discourse or not. Thomas Friedman's editorial in today's New York Times is well worth reading.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Advent in Cairo

Christmas: There aren't many signs of Christmas around Cairo; but here's the advent wreath and the altar flowers from St. Andrew's Church, where I attend. Today, there were decorations during fellowship hour in Guild Hall, since one of the seminary's teachers, who is a member of the church, and often serves as guest preacher is returning to the United States. They also made it a send off for me because I'm also returning in two days. The church is intimate and like a small family, especially given the drop of visitors to Egypt. The pastor said I was also like a ministry to them. What a compliment. There were racks and racks of clothes in the streets outside the stores in the intersection and streets close to the church. Evidently, this is because Egyptians expect taxes and costs to skyrocket after the referendum on the constitution, when the country's agreement with the IMF goes into effect. People are stocking up now.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Last Minute "Adventure"

Leak: Ibrahim Abd El-Hafez came to inspect my apartment so I will get a deposit refund. He wasn't concerned about any issues and didn't actually do an inspection. He did ask me if there were any problems, so I mentioned that I had turned the hot water to the kitchen off, since the hose coupling leaked. So he decided to fix it. In the process, Ibrahim got sprayed with water and the small bathroom, where the water heater is, flooded. He had to go out to get the replacement for the upper portion of the hose. Did I need this three days before I'm leaving the country? The hot water heater is not adjustable so has two options: cold or scalding. I don't have that many dishes and had been washing them with lots of soap in cold water. The bathroom sink is available as a backup. I'm glad I didn't tell him about the leak under the kitchen sink or in the big bathroom. Overall, I've been lucky. I have a nice, large apartment on the 14th floor and a handyman available when something goes wrong. I've had a good situation.
Drifting Toward a Storm: I liked these editorial comments from the Daily Star (Dec. 13). "Egypt is a ship without a captain, sailing in uncharted waters. None of its supposed leaders seem to have a road map or a plan for the direction the country is taking." "A clear plan eludes even the opposition, which flits between positions on the upcoming referendum and lacks a clear leader. This lack of direction will take its toll on the country, both politically and in terms of unity, but also economically and socially." "Egypt cannot carry on unmanned for much longer before it drifts into a storm."

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sequoia

Farewell: In five days I'll be leaving Cairo, so it was nice to have been invited to lunch at the Sequoia with the Fulbright staff (director and administrative associates) and a few other Fulbrighters at 2:00 PM today. We had a plentiful mezza, a selection of small dishes, that included: tabouleh, fattoush, hommos Beiruti, muhammara (hot pepper dip), ta'amia, tomeya (garlic dip), baba ghanouj, vine leaves, grilled halloum cheese,
sambousek, spinach fatayer, chicken liver, fried calamari, hawawshi (meat minced and spiced with onions and pepper, parsley and sometimes hot peppers, chilis, placed between two circular layers of dough, then baked in the oven or grilled in a panini press), Alex-style liver, mini shawerma (chicken), spiced cubed chicken in individual small pitas, Arabic bread. The hawawshi was my favorite; I'd not had them before. Afterwards was dessert; the creme brulée was the real thing. Tomorrow my apartment gets inspected so that I can get my deposit refunded. Also, have to close my Egyptian bank account. Will see how that goes.
Good News: Egypt's opposition announced today that it would support voting in the upcoming referendum on the constitution, ending speculation that the fractious coalition would boycott it. The vote will take place over the next two Saturdays. The leading opposition party, the National Salvation Front, asked that the vote be postponed for a month, but said supporters should turn out to vote against it if the referendum proceeds as scheduled.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Khan al-Khalili

Bazaar: Khan el-Khalili (خان الخليلي‎) is a major market (suq) in the Islamic quarter of Cairo. It's notorious for its aggressive merchants; but I hazarded forth. My time is running short in Egypt; and I wanted a few souvenirs. It's a mistake to confront their hyperactive vendors when you actually want to buy something; but that's the stage I was in. I walked around awhile, getting lost in its outer perimeters which are not touristic and are where Egyptians actually buy items at a lower price. There, sweet potatoes are baked in an oven on a cart and sold on the street, tea vendors sell the drink from large aluminum or glass urns carried at their sides, boys pedal through the lanes on bicycles balancing pallets of 'aysh (Arabic bread) on their heads, men hoist heavy sacks of goods on their backs, while others wear the traditional galabiyya–a long cotton robe that comes down to the ankles, bear turbans on their heads, and have scarves wrapped around their necks due to the cold. Many of these scenes look like souvenir photos out of an old album–a main difference being that many of the products in the shops cater to modern needs and styles.
I finally settled into my task and sat down in a café in the sun for some ta'miyya, 'aysh, hummus, and hot qarqaday (hibiscus tea). A scarf seller was directly across the lane. If you want an easy Arabic to learn, here's one: "shal" means shawl. I could decide which of his wares I wanted while an assistant brought me various dolls to choose from. I looked in the area for some cartouche necklaces but couldn't find what I wanted. By this time, the selling was getting very pushy; and I decided I'd better escape while I retained a bit of equanimity. Several men came up to me with brushes wanted to shine my shoes, the last one saying: "Please, there are no tourists, for only one pound ($.16)."
Smart Move: In a smart move and probably deft political maneuver, Muhammad Morsi, Egypt’s Islamist president, has scrapped tax increases hours after they were announced in a noticeable bid to persuade the electorate ahead of Saturday’s controversial referendum on a new constitution. The ordinary people of Egypt are desperate for political stability and an upturn in their nation's economy. New taxes were certain to be unpopular in a country where poverty has increased over the past two years of political turmoil. The tax increases aimed at reducing the deficit and increasing government revenues in line with Egypt’s commitments to secure a loan from the IMF. The imposition of taxes and their quick revocation point to the difficulties the Islamist authorities are likely to encounter implementing an economic programme negotiated with the International Monetary Fund during the political transition.Wind The wind is especially strong today, howling around my towering building and rattling the windows. Temperature is 70°. Writing a Constitution: While the current constitutional draft doesn't directly impose any more Islamic restrictions than Egypt's last constitution, opponents think it leaves the way for later amendment and change that could do so. It is evident that a country's constitutional process reflects its political culture; and western constitutional values will only take or be adopted as far as these have taken root in the culture. An exquisite balance of powers might be present on paper but become a farce in actual practice. Egypt's constitutional assembly did not take a long time and attempt to establish consensus (minority members withdrew) and did not examine the examples and experience of other countries. Egypt’s constitution-writing assembly, rushed by President Morsi’s Islamist majority, has generated a mess of boycotts, street clashes and confusion where consensus and legitimacy are desperately needed. Egypt has a strong sense of geographic coherence but a weak concept of nationhood, no common sense of purpose or responsibility. Instead of Egyptians, people see themselves as Sunnis, Shiites, and Copts compounded by secularism versus Islamism.
Sweet Potato Street Vendor. Interesting comments from the International Crisis Group: "Morsi’s decision (constitutional declaration which has since been rescinded [my clarification]) arguably enjoys broad support from a citizenry yearning for stability. Opposition calls to rally in Tahrir Square belong more to the realm of nostalgia than to that of effective politics: the revolutionary zeal of 2011 has long exhausted itself, and any violence likely would rally a majority to the president’s side. Without meaningful grassroots popular backing, the non-Islamist opposition typically has resorted to obstructionist politics rather than formulate a positive agenda. Its demand for a complete rescinding of the declaration is unrealistic, as Morsi has staked much of his political capital on this move." "Efforts in the coming days should focus on remedying the fundamental flaws that have plagued the transition from the day President Mubarak was ousted: the absence of an agreed-upon set of principles and a political roadmap that sets the final destination and a safe pathway for getting there. The onus lies not on the president alone, but equally on an opposition that must prove itself a serious and responsible political actor (www.crisisgroup.org, 11/26/12)."
Islamic Cairo.
Old Cairo.
An old lock leading to a caravanserai like the one founding the market, built in 1382 by the Emir Djaharks al-Khalili in the heart of the Fatimid City. A caravanserai is a resthouse built of storage rooms for trade goods around a courtyard to stable animals; it includes bedrooms on the upper floors for merchants.
In the khan.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Heat On

Return from Aswan: Turned heat on in my apartment in Garden City, Cairo, upon my return from Aswan. Saw the pyramids out the plane window on the left; always an experience felt deeply. Hard to believe that less than a month ago it was so hot in the city. In Aswan, 589 miles to the south, it had started to be chilly in the morning. The southernmost Egyptian Temple just outside Aswan–Philae, is situated more or less at the Tropic of Cancer. The Tropic of Cancer is the circle of latitude on the earth that marks the most northerly position at which the sun may appear directly overhead at its zenith. This event occurs once per year at the time of the June solstice. Heat in Egypt: Politically, the temperature in Egypt has been rising as crowds, supporters and opponents of the president, form, pull back, and react to the maneuverings of President Morsi. Fortunately for me, although tensions near the presidential palace and in Tahrir Square are running high, most of Cairo is proceeding normally and with business as usual. Apartment Across from Me: In my building, there are two apartments on each floor. I had never seen anyone coming out of the other apartment on my floor. Now, I know why. With the weather cooler, the place is getting a complete overall. Supplies are coming up on the elevator; and a large pile of sand and a stack of ripped up flooring sit on the sidewalk immediately in front of the complex. I hear a lot of hammering during the day. The workers can be really noisy; sometimes I hear a crash–a construction item dropped. December 9: Fighter jets flying and roaring over the area today. Wonder why?