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In the Heart of Troubled Egypt

By Karen Kish

Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s 96 percent election victory marks another era in the new Egypt. As Egypt slowly evolves after the Arab Spring, my husband and I have anxiously watched Tahrir Square’s bloody protests and celebrations in our former adopted homeland on TV.
During our 1998–2001 expat teaching years, Tahrir Square was a raucous daily gathering point for masses of transient workers instead of today’s masses of defiant revolutionaries. Following the tense daily news updates, we flashback to this ancient land and the people we grew to love and respect during our years there.
The Egypt we know is a land of friendly, fun-loving, and hard-working people. In our Heliopolis neighborhood, the foul (pronounced fool) man hawks his beans from a donkey-driven cart. A boy with the brightest smile rings our bell to ask if we have any ironing today (15 cents per piece).
As we run along the military academy wall (now supposedly housing ousted president Morsi), we pass exercisers with Walkmans listening to Muslim prayer broadcasts. Seventy-five thousand avid males (only), armed with flame-throwers and firecrackers, cram Cairo Stadium for soccer matches.
Sadly, though, Egypt has long been a land of conflict. One time we rode an East Delta bus from Cairo to Taba, across the barren Sinai Desert, but it stopped mid-journey when the water pump inconveniently broke—no village within two hours in either arid direction. My husband dangerously decided to scavenge the dunes for 1973’s October 6 War memorabilia: a selection of bullets and shells, a defective 500 lb. bomb casing, napalm canisters (labeled in Hebrew), one forlorn shoe, and, thankfully, no land mines, although in 1999 Egypt harbored the largest cache of live buried mines in the world, estimated at more than 20 million. Vulnerable children regularly still “find” them while playing in Sinai villages.
As the muezzin’s call to prayer embraces the city five times a day, Egypt’s Muslim faith preaches the Koran’s peace. Our driver, Mohamed, once made a succinctly eloquent speech in English when we told him that our son’s Jewish girlfriend would not join us in December because her parents feared for their safety. “Allah is the same Muslim God as the Christian God, the same God as the Jewish God. He is all one. Allah tells no one to kill—no Arab to kill an Israeli, no Israeli to kill an Arab, no one to kill a Christian. Our one God wants peace only. Peace only.”
This universal peace is reflected in the Egyptians’ gesture to show appreciation or thanks: a hand solemnly placed over the heart. For extreme appreciation, hand to eyes and heart.
But many Cairenes are heart-wrenchingly poor. Bawwab “guards” sitting outside apartment buildings belong to the lowest caste of Egyptian society. They are paid a negligible wage and live, with their families, in alleyways and sleep on wooden palettes outdoors.
One spring, I took a photo of a neighboring bawwab’s wife. When I gave her a copy, the entire family whooped with delight and requested a group portrait. Accepting the eventual family pictures, her husband deeply thanked me: hand to both eyes and heart.
Now Egypt is a land in political transition. Having worked in post-communist Poland and Hungary, we have witnessed that the “transition” to self-determination is a long, intricate process. Mubarek’s 30-year, military-style “reign” is over. What now? New beginnings or another fait accompli?
Egypt’s transformation is unfolding, and, as the traditional gestures symbolize, the peaceful people in this ancient land still live in our eyes and heart.

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