The Egyptian journalist Mona Elthaway appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher a week ago. She has written for publications from Toronto to D.C. to Denmark to Israel, mainly about issues in the Middle East, and on her website, she calls herself a proud, liberal Muslim.
Elthaway came on the show during the middle of the history. What had simmered for a long time on Facebook and Twitter fomented into 18 loud days of demonstration. Her views embodied the spirit of the people jumping and shouting on our TV screens.
She and Maher discussed the protests and riots and the tear gas canisters imprinted with the words “made in the USA.” He asked her about the images we’d seen, the protesters in Cairo and Alexandria. He asked if these provided a true portrayal of the Egyptian people, if it would be like an international TV station showing crowds in the Upper West Side and the Castro neighborhood and calling it America. And, of course, she said Tahrir Square was not all of Egypt.
It was a trap. Maher ran down the statistics, citing that somewhere around 80 percent of Egyptians supported stoning adulterers and inducing the death penalty for those who left Islam and that a majority favored Shariah law.
I might’ve felt shock. I might’ve felt anger. I don’t know.
Either way, I wanted to yell at the TV screen.
I am not an expert regarding Egypt, and I want to make that clear. I am not politicizing or trying to push any agenda; I also would like to make that clear. I only want to tell a story about a place and a few people.
Two years ago, I visited Cairo. I was studying abroad in Italy, and a friend, Patrick, and I planned a weekend trip there during our spring break. We had talked about visiting Egypt for some time, probably since we had met two months earlier. The basis of our desire centered on the pyramids. We were a short flight away from one of the seven wonders of the world, one of mankind’s greatest building achievements.
But there was something else. I think the yearning to see Egypt was piqued by a wish to tap into exotica. The unknown.
I’d never been somewhere like Egypt, somewhere that wasn’t majority white, somewhere that was majority Muslim, somewhere I was a minority for multiple reasons. Even though Egypt was almost longitudinally equal with Italy, it wasn’t the West. It was a different world.
Upon landing, an overcast haze of cloud, sand and heat draped the city. A driver took us 30 minutes to our hotel, and I watched the neighborhoods close to the airport closely. I saw big houses, stately if not palatial, and somewhere next to the homes I could see a blurry pool of green splashed in the endless sea of tan, but I could not quite discern the sight. Then I figured it out.
It was a golf course.
You wake up at dawn in Cairo. That’s when the muezzins sound for the first time of the day. They are men, wailing men of the city’s 1,000 minarets. Their voices are scratchy but deep and assured, amplified by loudspeakers.
I listened to the hypnotic chanting bleary-eyed, thinking of fundamentalism and weary followers ritualizing their devotion to Allah and Muhammad.
Later that morning, our tour started. We had shelled out a few dollars to partake in an organized tour because if you don’t speak Arabic, Cairo, and its area of Giza where we stayed, is certainly not the easiest place to navigate. Fortunately it was the offseason for tourism, and we had our own personal tour guide, Hala.
Hala was middle-aged, her graying hair barely falling to the base of her neck. She wore glasses and plain clothes, generic to the point that today I can’t remember exactly what they looked like.
We went to the pyramids and the Sphinx and the museum containing the mask of King Tut and all the regular touristy Egyptian sites, and we went to the mosque of Muhammad Ali.
It stood on a citadel, looming tall, wide, bejeweled and proud over the crowded city. A winding car ride followed by a winding walk led us to the top. An alabaster courtyard signified the beginning of opulence. Inside, a sparkling golden chandelier hung from a sprawling ceiling, and the reddest carpet I’d ever seen flowed under my shoes. My socks, I mean.
“Take your shoes off,” Hala had said.
Before entering, we had slid them off our feet and started setting them down before another interruption. You couldn’t just place your shoes on the carpet soles down. You had to turn them to the side.
Hala’s words about the shoes seemed rehearsed rather than stern. She was merely reciting the company line, making sure someone who would have been angry didn’t have to tell us to take them off. After Patrick and I walked around for a while, Hala pointed to the second level.
“That is where the women stand,” she said.
She explained that the men prayed downstairs. At the holiest times, women couldn’t even stand in their presence.
“To me,” she said, “it makes no sense.”
Later that day, we were on the road, driving to Saqqara. Patrick asked her about the religious views of the Muslims and if any Christians or Jews still lived in Egypt, and I asked for her thoughts about Mubarak.
Hala didn’t say much, only that he had been around for a long time. Too long. She missed Anwar Sadat.
The Cairo life is not an easy one. Poverty lurks on every noisy block and corner. It begs and scams at street level and peers down below from the top stories of tenements, trapped, a lack of resources meaning an equal lack of freedom.
Cairo does have a strong middle class; that’s why there are golf courses and colleges and even the American University of Cairo, but optimal jobs haven’t been there for the young and educated. That was one reason for the revolution.
When I heard about the statistic – a majority of the country under 30, according to the Pew Forum, but a dearth of jobs for them – I thought of a young person I met somewhere along the way in Cairo. I can’t remember his name. He worked near the pyramids. He worked where so many others did.
Tourism accounts for about 10 percent of the country’s jobs. For the impoverished, tourism is the difference between near-starvation and the opportunity to earn a meal. Many offer camel rides at the pyramids. A man snuck inside one of the pyramids and offered to take pictures for a price. Others drive shuttles and taxis. Others aren’t as fortunate. They send their children running down sidewalks toward anyone who looks like he or she has money. The kids hold flimsy paper pyramids or glow bracelets in their hands. They beg.
For him, tourism was a step toward something greater. He stood pleasantly behind a counter at a store because he knew he wouldn’t be standing there in a few years.
He spoke Arabic, Italian, French and English. He was 18. The West, he said, would be a his vacation spot – Disney World, San Francisco and Miami – before he settled down after finishing his business degree at a private school.
Then he told me the simplest but craziest thing I’ve ever heard.
“I want to see a fox,” he said.
Buses, in the traditional form, don’t exist in Cairo. Not near our area at least. A bus was a beat-up van with an open door and a man hanging out, waving his arms and yelling at pedestrians with rapidity of an auctioneer. A willing passenger beckoned and the van slowed, never stopped, and the passenger hopped in.
This was a main street, always clogged. Horse-drawn carts meandered on antiquated wheels, cars honked in their own trumpeted language, walkers crossed whenever they felt like it. I once saw a runner in the road. He wore sweatpants in the heat and apparently wasn’t frightened by the traffic.
We walked the streets every day, but we weren’t supposed to. That’s what the concierge at the hotel told us it was dangerous. From the first night there to the final day we walked, two Americans enjoying the craze and enduring little to no sneers or stares.
On that final day, we were on our way back to the hotel stopped at a crosswalk. A middle-aged man approached me. At first I couldn’t understand him, and then his request became clear.
“What time is it,” he asked, pointing at my watch.
I told him. He asked where I was from and why I had decided to visit and we quickly parted.
“You’re welcome here any time,” the man said. “But study Arabic.”
Now that Mubarak has been gone for a few days, the conversation has shifted even more toward Egypt’s future government. That’s why Maher brought up the statistics of radicalism. He’s hopeful, but he’s skeptical. Many are.
Is Egypt ready for this? Will the country turn into a theocracy, a volatile state like Iran? Does democracy have a chance? When the world looks back on February 11 in 10 years, what will she see?
Not long after my encounter with the man at the crosswalk, I remember that the muezzins sang softly. The din of cars, walkers, businesses and shops, life’s music, drowned them out. In three days, after several calls to prayer, I hadn’t once seen a single person pay any attention and certainly not seen anyone get on their knees and pray. I had been wrong.
The muezzins weren’t men singing. They were ghosts. Whispering.