Today, January 25th, is Police Day in Egypt. The Internet is running slow. The streets are eerily quiet. And we’re staying in to avoid any accidental brush with demonstrations. But across the city, I see laundry hanging out to dry which reminds me that this city I’ve seen so many times in the news is a place inhabited by real people and not just sensationalized caricatures. Egyptians do laundry. They cook and they clean and they go shopping for groceries.
I’ll never forget walking down the street in Cairo last year (after having weathered weeks in hostile and unfriendly Tunisia) when I spotted an aging woman trying to cross the street. She was cloaked entirely in black except for her face. She was struggling to step up onto the median in the traffic and two men ran out into the street and took her by the arms and helped her up onto the tall curb. I almost cried. I hadn’t seen a gesture of human kindness in so long by that time, particularly cross-gender kindness, that the situation made a strong impression on me that I’ll never forget.
But this year, before we left home, I felt scared to come here to Egypt. Not because there was any tangible reason to be afraid. Egypt is not Syria. It’s not Tunisia and it’s not Iran. It’s an extremely friendly place for tourists where there’s occasional violence, like a lot of other large cities in the world. There are problems here, especially for the Egyptian citizens themselves in relation to their government and to each other across gender lines, but there was no reason for us to avoid Egypt as Americans. And yet, before leaving, after the umpteenth person in the U.S. asked me, “Is it safe to go there?” I started to worry. Was there something I was missing? Something all these people knew about this place that I didn’t know?
But no. On the contrary. There are different types of “knowing”. Like, I can “know” what I saw on TV. I can “know” what I read in a book. I can “know” what I’ve experienced directly. The distinction between “knowing” what’s true based on what someone else told you and “knowing” what’s true in terms of your own experience and your own story is an important one. Never in the history of our planet has it been so important to recognize the difference between buying into someone else’s bull shit and buying into your own. If you’ve never seen a bull and you don’t know where the bull shit came from, how do you know it’s bull shit and not bird shit?
If you grew up thinking that bird shit was bull shit, you wouldn’t know the difference. You could point to a pile of bird shit on the sidewalk and tell me, “That’s bull shit.” And, if I had never seen a bull or bull shit in real life with my own eyes, I’d probably believe you. And I’d even probably pass the misinformation along to others in blissful ignorance. This is what the media does (more or less all the time in big or small doses). It preys on what people don’t know and focuses on what will be most entertaining to the masses. Egypt has fallen victim to media hype and the Egyptian people are suffering for it.
But still, I acknowledge that the problems in the Middle East are complicated equations.
Egypt this year is much as I remember it from last year. I’ve seen the bull and the bull shit already. The question people at home kept asking me (“Is it safe there?”) comes from a misrepresentation of this place by the American media. There are occasional bombings by radical Egyptian citizens inclined toward violence. This appears roughly analogous, although much less prolific than the violence in the United States that mostly involves shootings (because guns are widely available in the U.S.—here in Egypt, it’s easier to make homemade bombs than procure a gun). Most places in the U.S. are peaceful, if not downright boring, but violence still happens there. What isn’t analogous to the United States is the fact that Egyptians can’t speak out against their government. Should one of them insult key government officials directly by “crossing the red line” they are likely to “disappear behind the sun” (as they put in Arabic). And women don’t have equal rights to men, even if the government says they do. Tradition dictates what women can and cannot do. Sexual harassment is perfectly legal. Indeed, women may be blamed for their own rape depending on the girl’s family and their decree about the event. But as tourists, we exist only on the fringes of these problems. We can ignore them if we want and focus instead on the pyramids.
But as I see the difficult choices ahead of us as members of the free world, I hesitate to write prolifically about my political thoughts because there’s a human side to the drama that is mostly invisible to people who have never traveled in the Middle East. While political turmoil may make a particular country seem dangerous on the nightly news, it’s the person-to-person interactions that determine whether that place is friendly or not. And it’s the human side of it that interests me most. The men helping the old woman cross the street. The little boy on our jogging path who eagerly comes out to say, “Hallo!” (the only English word he knows) whenever he sees us. People offering us tea. People saying, “Welcome to Egypt!” and showing interest in us as we’re walking down the street. An old man in the park who visits daily to feed the stray cats.
John is currently working for an orthodox Jewish man in New York who told John a story about a friend who visited Israel recently. His friend (also an orthodox Jew), accidentally fell asleep on a bus that crossed a border into a territory that was hostile to Jews. The Palestinians on the bus, when they realized this Jewish man was in danger, took their coats and blankets and covered him so that he would be hidden at the check-points. The man laid very still under the pile. The Palestinians, (technically his enemies), kept him safe until he was out of danger. When John told me the story, it gave me chills. What a surprising demonstration of how there can be a conflict in general between two opposing groups, or two governments, but how on the person-to-person level, it happens that people can see beyond their religious or political beliefs and relate to each other as humans.
Often, when Americans travel, it’s like they go into a travel agent and say, “I would like to go see only the things that confirm what I already believe to be true about the world.” And then, they end up somewhere in Western Europe or in Cancun or Cozumel at a high-scale resort with a tour guide shuffling them around from one pristine tourist destination to the next. It’s a missed opportunity if we, as Americans, spend thousands of dollars on an outing that doesn’t challenge our prevailing beliefs about the world. And I’m not even talking about being challenged in a way that makes us kinder or gentler or humbler or meeker or any of those soft-ish things that we, as Americans, generally regard as virtuous. I’m talking about challenging ourselves in a way that makes us smarter, more flexible in our thinking, stealthier, and better able to use force, but whenever possible to use these skills mercifully.
I really love Egypt. The Egyptian people have been nothing but hospitable and welcoming to us, as Americans. On a human level, person-to-person, I don’t feel threatened by the core beliefs here. I don’t want to hurt these people and I don’t want to change them as individuals. But there are cultural changes that have to happen here in order for them to find happiness and peace with the rest of the world.
As I listen to women on the street talk about their experiences growing up in Egypt, I know that there’s a problem that won’t fix itself. It’s not just an Egyptian problem. It’s not just a problem in the Middle East. It’s a problem that Humanity is going to have to address. Protecting our rights and freedoms as individuals throughout the world hinges on our willingness, as Americans, to be role models for how individualism is wrought and how it is maintained. Protection in this case is not about waging war, but about educating individuals one-by-one about the science of peace without the smothering influence of religious evangelism and radicalism gumming up the works.
Out of complacency, we, as Americans, in our large homes with comfortable furnishings and big lawns, full pantries, and bursting closets full of stuff, have stopped thinking because we can. When a bomb explodes or a gunman downs a movie theater full of people we’re appalled that such a thing could happen, but so numbed are we by our lifestyles that we settle back into our complacency soon after. It’s a bad habit. It’s tiring to see the daily deluge of cookie cutter thoughts coming from people with full access to all the information and thoughts that exist in the world. Is this really the best we can do? I cringe when I see the knee-jerk reflex of xenophobia or evangelism from politicians and everyday people in response to Syrian refugees. Patriotism is about more than just wearing a t-shirt with the American flag printed on it. It’s also about difficult decisions and the willingness to evolve to incorporate new and challenging information.
As Americans, we’re privileged to live in a society that doesn’t censor what we can read, what we can find on the Internet, what we can say to each other on Facebook, or what we can watch on TV. We can travel virtually anywhere in the world. Ours is a country that permits full exploration of the planet. But people stay home. And instead of exploration, we’re content to watch the nightly news and believe that the rest of the world is a scary, dangerous place without ever having explored it ourselves.
When you watch the news tonight, realize that what you’re observing is tunnel vision. Go see the news scenes that happen close by in your own area, so long as they’re safe enough to do so, and you’ll see that there’s always a bigger picture to consider. Inevitably there will be real people living their lives in the background. There will be smells and small dramas going on nearby within a wider panorama. Realize, if you’re watching the news about the Middle East, that you’re watching the news through a tiny lens in a big world. And the information you get from the news is probably skewed for your entertainment. Scary things entertain the most Americans and so this will almost always be the focus if you watch the news in the United States. But in real life, the world is full of kindness and brutality, poverty and hope. People are people and they can be incredibly cruel to each other, but they can also be incredibly kind.