28 November, 2012

2X Cyprus

The seven hours of walking in Northern Cyprus was extremely taxing.  Leaving Famagusta at 17h00 with my two rucksacks, I walked silently for 20km on the Cypriot coast.  Though the night brought thick fog and a cold breeze from the Mediterranean, I labored each step forward, and had to rest frequently.  To alleviate the pain, I took to counting light poles, and my journey  progressed 20 meters at a time.  Arriving at my intended campsite, I found the spot to be completely deserted, and currently squatted by a colony of camper vans.  At least deserted beaches in this part of Cyprus are as ubiquitous as boulangeries in Paris.

My original plan was to have no agenda, and simply desired to take in what I come across. Starting the day in Larnaca, I reached the United Nations buffer zone between Greek and Turkish Cyprus by bus, and walked the 5 km through the British Sovereign Base to reach the Turkish Cypriot border.  Never have I crossed three countries in such a short distance!

* Originally written in April 2012

21 March, 2012

Of overbearing parents and Andalusian poets

As the proverb goes "once you drink from the Nile, you are destine to return."  Though I leave Egypt in less than two weeks, I already feel the urge to return as quickly as possible. As a whole, Egypt is frustrating, but the people are welcoming, and my work here is intriguing.

Instead of being satisfied with my inquiries about the Muslim Brotherhood's parliamentary campaign in specific, and the politics of Egypt's Islamist current in general, I find my data incomplete. Rather than an overview of the body politics here, I have snapshots of my subject; my examination is unfinished, but the subject is fascinating. I want more time in Egypt.

Egypt's Islamist parties do not cleanly fit the prototype concepts of political organizations. Both the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and al-Nour Party are organizations geared to compete for political power.  However, while there is legal separation between the party and the parent organization, there is no practical firewall between their resources and their decision-making process.  At least for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), it was the mothership who determined the FJP's political leadership and decisions; and it was the MB who commanded the financial and manpower resources during the parliamentary elections. As Nathan Brown submitted, MB: the helicopter parent.

Barricades in downtown Cairo
Though the MB's messages and ambition have evolved since 2005, their campaign methods have remained largely consistent, and their strength is entirely within their grassroots organization. With operatives in every constituency, every neighborhood, and every precinct, the MB commanded human resources unmatched by any other political force in Egypt.  As other parties refrained from competing for votes in certain constituencies, the MB knew their base, mapped out their universe of possible supporters, and methodically deployed resources to secure and drive those votes to the polling stations.  Most importantly, while other well-funded parties and their candidates pontificated, the MB spoke to the voters on the streets, in the cafés, in and around the mosques, and visited their homes.  In short, the Brothers kept their ears to the ground, and talk with, and not at the people.

One major question that remains unanswered is campaign financing.  Though Egypt has legal spending limits on political campaigns, there are no reporting or enforcement mechanisms. While the MB has been traditionally funded by membership dues, the political scuttlebutt is that Islamist parties, including the MB and al-Nour, are financially backed by Persian Gulf supporters. Until parliament adopts legislation to require more transparency in campaign financing, or the subject becomes a future campaign issue and compel candidates to self-disclose, how parties pay for their campaigns will remain as mysterious as the sphinx's inscrutable smile.      

Riot police posted outside the People's Assembly

* * *

Live music @ Sufi Bookstore

As for the more pleasurable side of being in Egypt, I often find myself in a self-induced Yacoubian daydream, wandering around Talaat Harb Square. I admire Egypt's historic pluralistic society, have reservations about the former Europhile establishment, and find myself wondering about historical social and economic exclusion of the majority of the country.  What would have happened had Cincinnatus triumphed in 1954, the army went back to the barracks, and the country developed lasting democratic institutions?

Sometimes I contemplate further back in history, and think about Fatimid Egypt, when Sunnis lived under a Shia Caliphate, and Egyptians enjoyed the country's cosmopolitan offerings next to elegant Sephardic poets and Venetian spice and silk traders.  

Groppi's, founded by a Swiss immigrant in 1908, was once
the most celebrated pâtisserie south of the Mediterranean

15 March, 2012

Pubbing in Cairo

The increased social conservatism and the Islamicization of Egypt during the 1970s and 1980s made enjoying a pint in public verboten. Indeed, at Huriyya (freedom in Arabic), my favorite bar in Cairo, the boisterous and mostly male clientele, with a healthy mix of Egyptians, travelers, and expats, consume their beverages in a formerly eloquent salon, behind cheap wooden boards thoughtlessly nailed to the windows.

In his 2002 novel "The Yacoubian Building, Alaa Al Aswany described Egypt's social transformation, and how it affected the Cairo cityscape.  Below is a passage from the book:

An inexorable wave of religiosity swept Egyptian society and it became no longer socially acceptable to drink alcohol. Successive Egyptian governments bowed to the religious pressure (and perhaps attempted to outbid politically the opposition Islamist current) by restricting the sale of alcohol to the major hotels and restaurants and stopped issuing licenses for new bars: if the owner of a bar (usually a foreigner) died, the government would cancel the bar's license and require the heirs to change the nature of their business. On top of all this there were constant police raids on bars, during which the officers would frisk the patrons, inspect their identity cards, and sometimes accompany them to the police station for interrogation.

Thus it is was that, as the 1980s dawned, there remained in the whole of Downtown only a few, scattered, small bars, whose owners had been able to hang on in the face of the rising tide of religion and government persecution. This they had been able to do by one of two methods – concealment or bribery. There was not one bar downtown that advertised its presence. Indeed, the very word “Bar” on the signs was changed to “Restaurant” or “Coffee Shop,” and the owners of bars and wine stores deliberately painted the windows of their establishment a dark color so that what went on inside could not be seen, or would place in their display windows paper napkins or any other items that would not betray their actual business. It was no longer permitted for a customer to drink on the sidewalk in front of the bar or even in front of an open window that looked on to the street and stringent precautions had to be taken following the burning of a number of liquor stores at the hands of youths belonging to the Islamist movement. 

At the same time, it was required of the few remaining bar owners that they pay large regular bribes to the plainclothes police officers to whose districts they belonged and to governorate officials in order for those to allow them to continue.  Sometimes the sale of cheap locally produced alcohol would not realize them enough income to pay the fine, so that the bar owners found themselves obliged to find "other ways" of adding to their income.  Some of them turned to facilitating prostitution by using fallen women to serve the alcohol, as was the case with the Cairo Bar in El Tawfikiya, and the Mido and the Pussycat on Emad el Din Street.  Others turned into manufacturing alcohol in primitive laboratories instead of buying it, so as to increase profits.  This happened at the Halegian Bar on Antikkhana Street and the Jamaica on Sherif Street.  These disgusting industrially produced drinks led to a number of unfortunate accidents, the most celebrated of which befell a young artist who lost his sight after drinking bad brandy at the Halegian Bar. The public prosecutor's office ordered the bar closed but its owner was able to reopen later, using the usual methods.

Consequently, the small remaining downtown bars were no longer cheap, clean places for recreation as they had been before. Instead, they had turned into badly lit, poorly ventilated dens freqented mostly by hooligans and criminal types . . .  

10 March, 2012

More on the NGO trial, and Egypt's permanent political campaign

In speaking to a friend who had also worked in politics as a professional, we compared the chaotic nature of Egypt's transition to the immediate years after Gorbachev's departure, when Yeltsin and Russian parliamentary factions squared off in a lethal power grab.  However, with all of Egypt's talented and motivated activists working to achieve a more lasting democracy, I refuse to be a pessimist and submit to the possibility of a cold coup d'état, a post-Mubarak scenario outlined by an European Union Institute for Security Studies report.

It seems that all political factions in Egypt continue to function in perpetual campaign mode.  Though the parliamentary elections have concluded, the presidential contest is heating up, and the fight over the appointment of the Constituent Assembly continues.  It is this body that will shape Egypt's civil institutions, and control of the constitutional drafting process may be a prize bigger than the momentary capture of the presidency or parliamentary majority.  But in this critical moment, where are Egypt's statesmen?  The former colonials did not realize the American republic because Washington and Jefferson only minded the ambitions of the Whig Party or the Democratic-Republican Party.    

The political donnybrook that is consuming public attention in Cairo seem to be the NGO trial.  It appears that the government grabbed a tiger by the tail, and find it impossible to let go; while upsetting the sensibility of American lawmakers may have placed U.S. aid to Egypt in question, the real danger is the uncontrollable public anger the military council engineered.  In an environment where Egypt needs more cooperation from abroad, and more deliberation and institutional development from within, public attention is consumed by this case, and all political factions seem to be in a race to pronounce its nationalistic credentials.  

Protests during the NGO trial
In the meantime, though the international media focuses on the predicament of the foreign NGO workers, what happens to those who stayed behind to fight for Egypt's future?  I admire their courage, and wish them well.  I wish I could do more to help.  If the United States and the European Union are keen to encourage democracy in Egypt and the Arab world, more deeds than words and money are needed.  Unlike domestic political considerations, such as building highways or schoolhouses, international engagement requires more than increased funding and press releases.            

NGO trial defendants in the cage during court session

04 March, 2012

Visa renewal, politics, and the prosecution of civil society workers in Egypt

Renewing my visa in Egypt was a relatively simple affair.  My host from the Boomerang Hotel accompanied me to the Luxor passport office, and "expedited" my application by talking to one of the officials; a 4 EGP "baksheesh," or tip, was slipped into the civil servant's hands sotto voce to grease the wheels of bureaucracy.  I dropped my passport and application at 9h30, and was told to return at 13h00 to collect my new visa.  

On the visa renewal form was a question about the applicant's religion, something one would not see in North America or Western Europe.  But the question of faith is an omnipresent consideration in a region layered with milleniums of sectarian complications.  Moreover, though I presented my American passport, the visa official questioned me rather extensively about my nationality, and seemed to be challenged by the notion that a non-caucasian could be from the United States.  Was it ignorance, provincialism, or simply the challenging state of Egypt-American relations that led her to her inquiries?

Discussing politics has been a complicated affair.  Egyptians on the one hand are warm and welcoming, want foreign investment and assistance, but are also at times suspicious of our motives. During the past month many individuals I have spoken to are especially uneasy about the government's ongoing prosecution of international civil society workers.

"Why would they be arrested and charged," some have expressed to me, "if they are not guilty of violating Egyptian laws?"  Opinions have ranged from the assumption of guilt based on the NGO workers' recent flight, to public outrage in reaction to the government's decision to permit the Americans and Europeans to leave Egypt before the trial.  Charges of political interference with Egypt's judicial process were brought forth, and the Muslim Brotherhood-led Parliament have promised inquiries to investigate those who may be responsible for releasing the non-Egyptian defendants.  Nationalist sentiments are running high, with a range of parliamentary factions expressing dismay that Egyptian sovereignty was once again compromised under foreign pressure.

03 March, 2012

A Theban night

Luxor Temple by night
Luxor to the West, it is al-'Uqsur (الاقصر) in Arabic.  Under the Ptolemaic era, Egypt's ancient capital was known as Thebes.  Common literature informs that when French troops dispatched by Napoleon marched within sight of the temples, the legionnaires spontaneously formed up and presented arms to the famous pile.

The Karnak Temples
The structures left by the ancient Egyptians seem strangely familiar.  Perhaps it is because I spent the better part of my adult life in the shadows of the Washington Monument or Place de la Concorde in Paris, it felt like home to see classical Egyptian architecture.  At the least, I can feel the passing of history, from Egypt to Greece, to Rome, ultimately making its mark on modern Western civilization.
The Luxor Temple
The Luxor Temple, though inspiring with its massive pylons and flood lights outlining the edifice, was not as pleasing as a chance encounter with a group of university students from Alexandria. Eager to engage visitors, they wanted to find out where I'm from, my thoughts about Egypt, and most interesting of all, many wanted to be photographed with me.  The young ladies of the group were gracious, smartly dressed, and indulged me with a wee bit of subtle flirting.

A café at Luxor

01 March, 2012

Cairo to Luxor: the overnight express

Before boarding the train, I fortified myself with a kefta from this gent's side-of-the-road grill.  BBQ meatballs with minced onion, wrapped inside Egyptian flatbread, and topped with cilantro, more onion, and tomato, this sandwich makes a glutton happy.
As I write, I am on the overnight sleeper train to from Cairo to Upper Egypt.  Though it is no luxury car by French or German  standards, having my own clean cabin and bed for the nine-hour trip is just grand! Now only if the obnoxious and drunk group of Americans in the dining car can disappear.  In a country where public intoxication is not a commonly acceptable behavior, I find it quite appalling that this group of obscenity-filled American soldiers were openly carrying a case of cheap beer at the Giza Rail Station.     

But the romance is still here.  The experience of travelling by rail is something airplanes simply cannot duplicate, and I relish the notion that as Egypt Rail #84 rumbles south towards the source of the Nile, I am passing through 5,000 years of Egyptian, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish history.  

22 February, 2012

Twooney Ibn Maadi

Twooney playing 

He was the first friendly face who welcomed me to my new neighborhood.  I named him Twooney Ibn Maadi because he never leaves Maadi, my neighborhood, and Twooney because of his two lives; he got hit by a car yesterday morning, but got away without a scratch.  The lad can't be more than four months old.  

The only times to catch Twooney and his band is early in the morning, before people appear in the streets.  I'm afraid of feeding him and the other dogs too much.  I can't take him back to France with me, and he would not learn the necessary scavenging skills if I consistently provide him with food.  

16 February, 2012

Of basketball and football

Since I have been in Egypt, I have felt rather isolated.  It's not that I don't follow the news or maintain contacts with friends and family; my interests require that I closely track world affairs and I have daily chats online.  But aside from talking with people about my curiosities, I am at the university library, the gym, and in between I eat and sleep.  How I would really like to set out for the Nile, the dunes, and explore Egyptian history!

But in skyping my mother the last few days, I'm rather relieved that my safety in Egypt is no longer her only concern.  All she can talk about is this Linsanity business in New York City.  Never having much  interest in sports, the mother is suddenly subscribing to New York Knicks cable package and talking about going to the Madison Square Garden for basketball games.  Her answer - Jeremy Lin is Taiwanese.  "Actually," I said to the mother, "Lin is American.  His parents are Taiwanese".      

I have always found the question of identity rather challenging.  Being ethnically Chinese with Taiwanese heritage is a part of me, but not the entirety of my being.  I carry American and Taiwanese passports, I call myself Californian and live in Paris, and my travel DNA thus far include footprints on five continents; I am happiest in multicultural and cosmopolitan settings, but sometimes find my peace in the middle of a desolate desert.  But for many, no matter their citizenship, ethnicity equates nationality.  I wish Mr. Lin success in the NBA, but I much rather watch 6 Nations Rugby with a good pint of bitter.

Protesting AUC students
Since I arrived in Cairo, though my inquiry relates to Egyptian politics, I have stayed away from publicly commenting on the subject.  But Egypt's frustration and anger seem to be everywhere.  This morning coming out of my neighborhood, there was an unannounced police checkpoint, massively backing up traffic and upsetting quite a few motorists.  Just yesterday at the American University in Cairo (AUC), protesting students continued to mourn for the loss of one of their own from the Port Said football violence, and demanded that the military government (SACF) step down.  I asked another student next to me, who happened to be Saudi, and he very politely told me that he is in Cairo to study medicine, and does not want to get involved in politics.

In response, SCAF accused AUC as a tool of foreign intrigue, and charged students and professors of aiming to bring about the "downfall of Egypt".  In the meantime, the wee matter of US$1.3 billion and SCAF's persecution of civil society workers continue to influence the development of Egyptian democracy and Cairo's relationship with Washington.  A proper and lovely mess the world is.          

12 February, 2012

My muezzin is better than your muezzin

Students breaking for lunch in Maadi, Cairo

A new apartment and a new neighborhood.  Perhaps it is my illusion, but the muezzins of each mosque seem to project their calls to prayer in a different rhythm, with a subtle but distinct interpretation.  I find these appeals to worship rather soothing, a bit like the Gregorian chants.  

After a week of searching I am finally moved into a proper apartment.  To be able collect something without searching my entire backpack - what a luxury!

Though I remain in Cairo, my new neighborhood is a world away from Tahrir Square, the location of my former hostel.  The city center is rowdy, full of pedestrians, taxis and buses, protestors, the homeless, and the heavy presence of security forces; my new home in Maadi is relatively peaceful, the home of embassies and expatriate havens like the ACE Club and the British Community Association.

I remain conflicted about these expats' clubs.  It is good to have a few pints, relax, and watch 6 Nations Rugby.  However, I am not in Egypt to pass my time with Americans and Europeans, but to conduct my inquiry on an Egyptian subject.  Moreover, while I understand the desire to feel at home, club prohibition of the hijab struck me as odd.  What if a person is American or French but would like to preserve her accustomed sense of modesty?  That club policy seems to me as illiberal as the comment of a Salafist member of parliament, who demanded that an al-Ahram reporter veil herself prior to speaking to him.          

# # #

Toledo craggy and sorrowful.  Glory of Spain and the light of her cities. *

- Miguel de Cervantes

San Roman Church, Toledo

Just a little over two weeks ago, I was in Madrid and Toledo for four days.  Partly to relax but also curious about Toledo's heritage as a city of all three Abrahamic faiths, I went to the former taifa and Castilian capital.  First under al-Mam'un (King of Toledo 1043-1075), then Alfonso the Brave (King of Galicia, and Castile and Léon 1072-1109), it was in Toledo where Peter the Venerable commissioned the first translation of the Qur'an into Latin.  Until Ferdinand and Isabella's abrogation of Granada's 1492 treaty of capitulation, Christians, Jews, and Muslims in Spain were largely free to practice their faith and speak their preferred tongue.  Some even claim that Cervantes was no author of Don Quixote de la Mancha, but merely the promoter of an earlier Arabic work.    

Synagogue Maria la Blanca, Toledo
What beauty the Toledo of the past created!  San Roman, a church built well after the reconquista, is decorated with Arabic calligraphy and Christian icons; some swear that the horseshoe arches and the decorative arts of Maria la Blanca and the Synagogue of el Transito (Sinagoga del Tránsito) resemble the architecture of the Great Mosque of Cordoba or that of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.       

* I hope my translation is faithful to Cervantes' original words.  It was "Toledo peñacosa pesadumbre.  Gloria de España y luz de sus ciudades".

10 February, 2012

The grace of poverty

The Coptic Museum in Old Cairo

Though many Egyptians live on less than US$1 a day, their willingness to share is continuously on display.  Just last night a distressed looking gentleman and his wife received alms from nearly every person in my Metro car.  They would scarcely receive a second glance in the Paris Metro or the Buenos Aires Subte.  I continue to question the source of this charity; is it faith, basic human kindness, or both?

Though some expatriates I have met have cautioned against using public transportation at night, it remains my preferred mode of transportation.  It is through this lens where I get a brief view of Egyptian life, and I want to seize every moment of it.    

Some Egyptians aren't too keen on the military government

08 February, 2012

You say coffee, I say كافية

Nasser the hero, Mubarak the enfant terrible

18C and sand was the weather prediction yesterday.  Growing up in Taipei, I remember days when sandstorms from the Gobi Desert would blanket the sky with an ominous cloud of dust.  But it was never like Cairo.  Here the desert is much closer and does not have to cross an ocean to reach me.  New York City may be dusty, but at Cairo I return to my hostel everyday with a film of grime on my face.

For the past two days, a friend and I have been crisscrossing Cairo, meeting realtors, and looking at possible housing options.  Walking and taking the Cairo Metro is a fine way to explore the winding alleyways and sample street food.

As I am drafting this entry, the Egyptian government's prosecutor is discussing on television the prosecution of foreign NGO workers.  While I do not understand the unfolding discourse in Arabic, from talking to the Egyptians in the hostel, it is their belief that foreign funding is enabling criminal elements to destabilize Egyptian society, and should be punished under Egyptian law.  Although I know that American foreign assistance is never given without an agenda or strings attached, the concept that organizations dedicated to democratic and civil society development would participate in criminal enterprise is challenging indeed.    

06 February, 2012

A Cairene symphony

The one constant of Cairo so far is the car horns.  There are short protesting ones, long loud blasts, or a series of rapid honks as if they are Italians racing to say "ciao!"  I am told that they each have their own significance, like "I'm passing get out of the way," or simply "I'm on your left, don't move over!"

A small kitten adopted me this morning, and was keen to share my breakfast.  So she got almost everything except for my tea.

American University in Cairo Tahrir Square Campus

Breakfast by Tahrir Square
Tahrir Square looked much like a neighborhood under siege this morning.  On the way to the Sadat Metro Station, evidence of street violence remained in plain sight.  The American University in Cairo's (AUC) Tahrir Square campus remains shuttered, with concrete barriers immediately next to the school's buildings.  All through the night I heard the distant explosions of tear gas canisters and shouts of anger coming from the streest.  Though Cairo is relatively quiet at the moment, there is a restive ambiance about the city. 

Mubarak the Terrible?

But the famous Arab hospitality continues.  On the metro, an older gentleman asked me in Arabic if I am Chinese.  He was amused by my answer, and insisted that as the guest, I must take the seat. I also blindly stumbled into the AUC conference "The Arab Spring: One Year On," and got to reintroduce myself to what seemed to be the entire University of Oxford Middle East Centre faculty.   

Tahrir Square is so alive!

First night in Cairo and the city is still very lively at close to 01h00.  Young Egyptian men and families are spilling out of cafés, shisha bars, and restaurants.  Arriving at my hotel at close to 23h00, I ducked out for a chicken shwarma and a soda, and easily found all the food I wanted in less than five minutes walk.    

Except the airport, Egyptians I have met have all gone out of their way to be friendly and helpful.  Even with my limited Arabic, just a simple "shukran" or "asalam alaykum" drew big smiles from those I met on the street.  I briefly walked around Tahrir Square, and took in the street food stalls and signs representing various social and political movements.  

With travel fatigue setting in, I am turning in to get some rest.  Tomorrow I will sort out library privilege at the American University in Cairo, and start looking at apartments with a former Oxford classmate.  More photos to come.  

26 January, 2012

The Toledo waiter

The waiter offered my a small discount. The kindness and grace of random strangers I meet while traveling. The conversation when something like this:

Waiter: "It's the least I can do. We Chinese must take care of each other. Where are you from?"

Me: "That is very kind. I live in Paris but am from California."

Waiter: looking confused, "But you are Chinese. I mean, your face . . . and we have been speaking Chinese."

Me: "Actually I'm American."

Waiter: "No worries. You speak Chinese,your family came from China some time ago. You're Chinese."

Me: "Well Ethnically I am Chinese I guess."

Waiter: "How it is in Paris? Is it hard to find a nice Chinese girl there?"

Me: "Umm, I really just fancy a nice girl."

Waiter: "Oh you're like one of them, the foreigners (meaning any non-Chinese)."

I guess I lost my Chinese membership card on account of the last question.

Cultural differences.