02.02.07

Snow, Cardinals...and Ideological Exclusion  -  @ 12:15:36

Snow comes with an oddly festive air here in the Southern United States, where it is so rare. Schools are closed, events cancelled, everybody sleeps in. You are woken in the morning to the joyful cries of children "sledding" in their driveways, and you look out your window, and there they are: two scarlet Cardinals, a crested male and a female, against a backdrop of white. By noon, though, it has all melted into sleet and the treacherous "black ice."
I was relieved the snow had melted early enough yesterday not to have to cancel the ACLU-sponsored reading on "Ideological Exclusion" in which I'd been asked to participate that evening at a Raleigh bookstore. But I had serious doubts, on the thirty-minute drive, that the audience would outnumber the five panelists and the moderator.
I needn't have worried; the place was packed: overwhelmingly white, a few scattered Middle-Eastern faces. The theme was scholars who had been denied entry to the United States on the basis of their political views. The most current case, presented by the ACLU organizer, was that of Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss professor prevented from taking up his post at Notre Dame after he had moved his wife and children there. All the readings that followed were from poets or writers or political figures who had at one time or another been persona non-grata. The first reader, a Turkish-born professor of Engineering, read from turkish poet Nizam Hikmat; the second, an Iranian-born professor of Social Science, read from Nelson Mandela; a blonde young ACLU lawyer read from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who had been my first choice, but the organizers suggested I read instead from Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, whom I had not read at all.
Finally I read from his description of waking up to bombing and shelling, and praying for five minutes grace, five minutes only, to prepare himself for life or death, whatever came next. Five minutes, not to pray, but to make a cup of coffee.

02.01.07

The Tenth Day...A Holy Day Bloody or Joyful?  -  @ 12:13:02
Ashura was commemorated by Shiites in Iraq and Iran two days ago, a bloody commemoration with a procession of men and boys re-enacting a ritual self-flagellation in some atavistic expiation of the guilt of having killed the Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, in Karbala in Iraq, some fourteen centuries ago. It always reminds me of scenes of Latin Catholics carrying crosses or even crucifying themselves on Good Friday.
Although the Prophet's grandson Hussein is a revered figure to all Muslims, the Shia ritual of Ashura is one of the very few denominational particularities that set them apart from the Sunni majority. Growing up in a Sunni country, Egypt, my associations with Ashura were very different. I remember my grandmother sending over her driver with a white-napkin covered dish of barley and raisin pudding, decorated with pistachio nuts, a very festive dish. Ashura- literally, the Tenth Day, that is the 10th of the month of Muharram- was a happy occasion, although I had no idea what was celebrated. How, I wondered, did that fit in with the Shia mourning of the martyrdom of Hussein?
A little fact-checking reveals that according to tradition, Muhammad found the Jews of Medina fasting on this day, in gratitude for Moses' deliverance, and decided that it would be a day of celebration for Muslims as well, since Moses is one of the greatest prophets to Muslims. Some sixty years later, Hussein ibn Ali, Muhammad's grandson, was killed in the battle of Karbala, and the Shia of Ali, or Ali's party, turned the day into a day of mourning and self-flagellation.
For my grandmother, raised in the Sunni tradition, Ashura remained a day of celebration, even if she may not have known the origin of the barley-raisin pudding custom.
A couple of years ago I gave a talk at First Presbyterian Church of Durham, aroung the time of Ashura, and I suggested that there was a moral to this: if Jews and Muslims looked beyond their differences, they might glimpse their common origins.

01.24.07

Plantu and cartoonists for peace in the Middle East  -  @ 17:38:21

I had a good reason to return to North Carolina last weekend after a two-month absence: Plantu, the world-famous editorial cartoonist of Le Monde, would be arriving a day later, and I needed to be there to pick him up at the aiport. After all, I was organizing his visit, co-sponsored by Alliance francaise and Duke University. When I juggled the dates last Fall, it seemed as though the scheduling would be tight, but feasible. In fact, of course, it turned out to be very hectic, but worth every minute.
Plantu, alias Jean Plantureux, has for thirty years now drawn the editorial cartoon that takes up half the front page of Le Monde, France's foremost daily newspaper, and the only one owned by its journalists and staff, and therefore independent and bold in its opinions. I was very familiar with Plantu's positions- on everything from the war in Iraq to the controversy over the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad- and they are usually progressive, never comfortable, and invariably sharp, carried off with the suave signature of his trademark mouse. In person he is curious, considerate, modest in spite of the accumulation of international awards and world recognition. He is quick-thinking and speaking, a man who finds it easier to illustrate his thought with a pen than with his tongue; he went through a prodigious pile of transparencies during his lecture at Duke, which he gave in a combination of rapid-fire French and slower English.
His passion, his dream legacy, is to bring about peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict: he sees that as key to peace not only in the region, not only between the West and Islam, but in the world. To that end he is organizing, under the aegis of the United Nations, an on-going series of conferences bringing together cartoonists from around the world but especially from the two sides of the Middle East conflict, in venues as far apart as Genoa and Kuala Lumpur. If we can stop seeing the "Other" in cartoonish terms, we can stop dehumanizing the enemy and perhaps come to see him as a fellow human being and a potential neighbor.
At the private dinner that followed the lecture, I was seated between Plantu and Hodding Carter Jr, who, as President Jimmy Carter's undersecretary of State, had stood on the lawn for that historic picture with Sadat and Rabbin. Hodding Carter seemed less sanguine than he had been in those days about the chances for a resolution. Plantu, on the other contrary, told me he would bet on peace in our time. That is one bet I hope I will live to lose.

01.21.07

Charlotte airport, and Big Brother...  -  @ 14:42:50
Charlotte is one of my favorite airports. Especially after the crowded, claustrophobic airports of Europe, it is such a relief and a pleasure to land in Charlotte's wide-open central concourse, with its sunlight, its spaciousness and its white rocking chairs lined up in front of the long stretch of windows. Charlotte airport represents everything I miss about the States when I'm abroad: the sense of air and space and the smiling faces. Once more my theory about American men holds up: as a woman traveling alone with baggage, you will find that they are by far the most gallant, helpful and friendly of any nationality.
I nab one of the white rocking chairs by the windows, and lean back with a cup of cappucino to wait for my connecting flight. And that is when I hear it: the whispery message repeated over and over at five minute intervals, warning travelers not to leave baggage unattended and to report any suspicious-looking people or behavior. It is Big Brother personified in that mechanical, whispery female voice over the loudspeaker, over and over, and it sours my moment of joy in home-coming. Until, that is, I notice that people are going about their business, hurried and unhurried, and paying no attention to the exhortation to beware of "suspicious-looking people and behavior."

01.20.07

London: the Big Brother furor  -  @ 20:59:27

There were many things going on in the world when I arrived in London, indeed many things going on in the UK and in London itself, including a gale-force storm in the offing- not to mention an ongoing war in Iraq. But every headline of every paper and every television newscast blared out the same story: "Big Brother racism scandal! Shilpa Shetty attacked! India erupts in riots over Big Brother and treatment of Shilpa Shetty!"
Shilpa Shetty, as the UK now knows and no one outside of India knew before, is a glamorous young Bollywood star who is currently taking part in the "Big Brother house" television program in the UK. Over the past few days, several of the other inmates, all Anglo-Saxon and foul-mouthed, have been calling her names. Thousands of spectators called in protesting "racist" treatment of the Indian actress, and demonstrations broke out back in India. The political classes sat up and took notice: sponsors of the program withdrew, members of Parliament called for sanctions, and, in a moment of supreme surrealism, Tony Blair himself made a statement on the issue.
Meanwhile, paradoxically, the two big winners were the producers of the program, who doubled their audience, and Tony Blair, who welcomed the distraction from the daily attacks on his Iraq policy.
Since the story was inescapable, I took the pulse, so to speak, of the London cabbies I encountered. One, a regular beefeater type Brit, dismissed the whole thing as all trumped up for publicity, and was more interested in exclaiming over David Beckham's obscene contract with a Los Angeles team. The other cab driver, an unusually thoughtful North Indian, felt that the issue had more to do with class than racism, and that the Bollywood actress was to be faulted to some extent for not knowing how to deal with the rough backgrounds of some of the other inmates. Young Brits of that background, he said, gloried in being "rude"- their word- because the economy was good and they knew the welfare state would take care of them, even if they were on the dole.
The economy in the UK is indeed so good there are alarming predictions of skyrocketing inflation.
The whole silly Big Brother row made me think of flying high up in a plane, looking down at the earth below, and wondering, if there was a God, whether he, like Big Brother, had locked us all up together on this small planet, and watched us fight each other like so many mindless inmates?
This small planet that is getting smaller every day; I could hardly believe that this was mid-January in London: green, green everywhere, flowers in bloom in the gardens, nature confused as to the season, and the English mumbling about global warming, with a wry smile: "Mind you, nice while it lasts, isn't it?"
But the weather didn't last, after all, and Thursday saw the predicted gale-force winds, with disruptions in travel, and eleven dead of the storm. I rode out the weather in the infinite world of luxury that is Harrods, where the January sales had not missed a beat.
Meanwhile, the British media engaged in soul-searching re the Shilpa Shetty affair: is this what young Britain has come to?

01.05.07

A New Year resolution from a paradise manque  -  @ 05:22:51
What with a raging flu and chills, I almost didn't make it on the small, black, two-propeller plane at all, and there were moments during the two-hour trip south to the Red Sea when I wished I hadn't: it was the smallest, noisiest, most cramped aircraft I had ever boarded, a thirty-passenger private plane belonging to the developer of the new Red Sea airport of Marsa Allam, one of the new airport/resort ventures that foreign investors launch in Egypt to jumpstart tourism on the Red Sea and Mediterranean coasts. The investment comes from Gulf petrodollars, and the tourists come from Europe, along with occasional Egyptians like the group I was traveling with.
When the little plane lands in the desert, though, we are immediately transported into a world of all-inclusive luxury, carefully studied to cater in every detail to the proclivities and sensitivities of the Western tourist. No Tipping, the sign proclaims at the airport, a radical departure from the culture of the bakshish.
At Coraya Beach, the Arabesque-inspired, lush resort, not only is there no tipping, but everything is included, from the extravagant open buffets for breakfast, lunch and dinner, to the bars and coffee shops for snacks in between. The rooms are bungalow-style, with a view on the sea, and the beach is a few steps away.
But the crucial element- the weather- refuses to cooperate: it is unusually blustery and cool, the palm trees on the beach sway wildly in the whistling wind; the guests wander about gamely swathed in layers of sweaters and coats instead of swimsuits. The two huge outdoor pools are deserted, and the one indoor pool, the gymnasium, the jacuzzi and sauna are busy, as are the two (male) masseurs and the pedicurist, all inclusive. (The few Egyptian guests tip, out of cultural compulsion, inspite of the signs.)
Everyone avoids staying in their room and watching the satellite news, dominated by images of Saddam hanged on the Feast of the Sacrifice.
The tourists at the resort are predominantly Italian, raising the glamor and joie de vivre quotient of the ambience considerably; the rest are German or Russian, plus the rare Brit.
The New Year's Eve party, held under a gigantic heated, tented pavillion, starts abnormally early by Egyptian standards: it is already in full swing by eight in the evening, whereas Cairo New Year celebrations do not get under way till just before midnight. The buffet is spectacular, the entertainment typical- Middle-Eastern exotic- but for the Lord of the Dance sequence.
Day after day, the multilingual staff try their hearts out, but the weather, the main event for a tourist at the Red Sea, remains stubbornly uncooperative.
On my last morning at the resort, I wake up and look at the view out of the French doors of my room: the palm trees are immobile, the sea is dead calm, the sun shines down like lead. I jump up and walk down the beach all the way to the pier that jutts out into the coral reefs to look down at the glorious mauve and purple corals and the stunning, freakish fish flitting through the rocks. I don't join the snorklers and scuba-divers, in deference to my still-inflamed sinuses, but I take a dip in the shallow, clear water of the bay.
On the flight back on the little black plane, the noise precludes all conversation, and I am finally free to reflect on my New Year's resolution: to let go of what I can't control in life, like the weather, the flu, or the debacle in Iraq; to enjoy the day at hand, and not wait for the perfect moment of sunshine, blue seas, clear sinuses, and peace in the Middle East.
Saddam and the Feast of the Sacrifice: symbolism gone awry  -  @ 04:14:46
There is tone-deafness to cultural sensitivities, there is symbolism gone awry, and then there is the hanging of Saddam Hussein on the Feast of the Sacrifice, the holiest day of the Muslim calendar. The day when millions of pilgrims from all corners of the planet stand on a mountain outside Mecca, and pray for forgiveness. The day when a billion plus Muslims around the world observe Abraham's sacrifice in the emulation, sacrificing an innocent beast in exchange for the safe-guarding and blessing of their innocent children.
Executing Saddam on the Feast of the Sacrifice is like the execution of a criminal on Easter morning. No matter how richly deserved, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It leaves a question mark, why the rush? A question mark apt to be answered with the most cynical of knowing nods, depending on people's politics, when the news is closely followed by the release of unprecedented figures of American casualties in the Iraq War. We should have been spared this.

12.29.06

An auspicious coincidence of dates, in troubled times..  -  @ 11:17:02
It's the eve of the Feast of the Sacrifice, the most important day of the Muslim calendar, memories of which formed a focal point in my novel. This year it coincides with the New Year's Eve weekend, followed soon after by the Coptic Christmas, January 7th. Suffice it to say that pretty much the whole country will be on holiday, officially or unofficially, for the next ten days at least, and it will be useless trying to get anything done.
Many Cairenes are heading out of town, some to Europe, most to Egyptian resorts on the Red Sea or the North Coast. The traditional visits to family and friends, such a strong ritual of my childhood, have been reduced to phone calls. The once-ubiquitous sound of sheep baa-ing in backyards is a thing of the past: performing the mandatory ritual sacrifice is now prohibited in Cairo proper, and city folks either have it done on country estates, if they have them, or order prepackaged, pre-weighed portions of meat delivered by a licensed butcher. The poor who used to line up before dawn at the gates of the homes of the rich, waiting for their share of the freshly-butchered meat, now have to make do with cash handouts.
Meanwhile the Coptic pope Shenouda pays a visit of well-wishing to the director of the Azhar University, Shaykh Tantawy, and the shaykh takes the opportunity to pray for guidance for the presumably misguided Muslim Brotherhood associations which supported the recent student demonstrations.
President Mubarak, for his part, takes the dissidence-free opportunity of schools and universities being out of session for the extended holiday, to announce "radical amendments" to the constitution: the fact that these "democratic reforms" are imposed by the president, and that the Parliament and the people have no say in the matter, is sufficient indication that business as usual continues with the regime. Only the lawyers' and judges' syndicates dare to protest one amendment, the abolition of the Supreme Court, a "reform" they see as intended to eliminate the last bastion of resistance to the government.
Most people simply shrug off the headlines and prepare for the holidays. But social solidarity is still a priority for many: before they fly off for a Red Sea resort, friends of mine make the long drive to an orphanage they patronize to take the children on a shopping trip for new clothes for the Feast.
Every little bit helps: there is a crisis in orphan care in Egypt, and some orphanages are closing their doors for lack of funding. Meanwhile the man in the street, not easily shocked, is nevertheless shocked to read that in those very same streets roam 3 million homeless children, according to the estimate of an opposition paper. Many of those children, the ordinary citizen reads, are drawn into organized gangs, and there is no denying that lawlessness in the streets is increasing. Part of the problem is that the police forces see their mission, not as the protection of law-abiding citiziens, but purely to protect the state from dissidents. The police themselves are currently on trial in the opposition papers for acts of brutality against the same law-abiding citizens they fail to protect.
And so it goes. Headlines in government newspapers trumpeting economic good news and democratic reforms, headlines in the opposition press warning of homeless children on the streets, and the harassed Cairene paying his dues before he escapes the city for the limpid waters and white sand of the seacoasts.

12.19.06

Heads or tails? That is the question.  -  @ 08:57:19
The Financial Times published its special report on Egypt December 13th, and got most of it remarkably right: "A nation moving at different speeds," one headline read, and "Cairo inhabitants driven further apart" read another. Every article highlighted the anomalies: on the one hand, impressive economic growth over the past two years, driven largely by foreign investment, especially from the Arab Gulf, and on the other hand, a dismal informal economy in which the poor are getting poorer and more desperate. The well-to-do flee the crowded, polluted, noisy chaos of central Cairo to plush new suburbs and vacation resorts, while the beleagured poor turn an open ear to Islamist rhetoric. What any Cairene can attest is the alarming rise, in a country that was once a byword for safety, in insecurity and crime, from robberies to sexual harrassment in broad daylight.
Last night at the Four Seasons Hotel in Garden City, arguably the most sumptuous of Cairo's new hotels and a stone's throw from the venerable Shepherd's and my Cairo House, lavish parties were in full swing, attended by local and foreign investors. The newspaper headlines that morning in the Egyptian press- not a whisper in the international- were of the arrest of a crowd of Islamist student protestors at the Azhar University, who had demonstrated, wearing black ski masks, against the current regime and its monopoly on political and economic power. The Azhar University, a millenial religious university and a global authority on Islamic thought, is directed by a president who adheres strictly to the government hardline on the student demonstrators: he refuses to intercede for their release and instituted surveillance of professor/student encounters to prevent future deviations from what he terms "the line of moderation."
Lavish parties for investors at grand hotels, student unrest at an Islamic university; all in a day's headlines, two sides of the same coin in Egypt. Whether the country will come up heads or tails is the great question on everyone's mind.

12.14.06

Always running late and sometimes never  -  @ 02:47:10
Bulgari, the famous jewelers, gave an invitation-only party at First Mall at the Giza Four Seasons yesterday. The invitation specified "Christmas brunch" at noon, but Cairenes in the know warned me not to show up before 1 PM and also urged me to join them for lunch after as there was never any real food served at such affairs. They turned out to be right on the first count, wrong on the second: we found a very lavish buffet piled high with smoked salmon, sushi, sashimi, etc, not to mention mounds of my favorite macaroons from La Duree. Waiters circulated with trays among the guests standing at little tables just in case the ladies were too lazy to serve themselves from the buffet. The only men there were the somewhat beleagured-looking Bulgari executives, French and Egyptian. Many of the women wore the latest designer fashions, fur, leather, and long, coiffed hair predominating; a handful wore headscarves, but they were the ones most likely to be able to afford Bulgari jewelry.
Later that evening, I was to participate in a television program called: "My Family", in which a personality hosted the television crew at her home and introduced her friends and family, moderating a discussion on a particular topic. I had never before met the lady whose family I would be presented as part of, so, at her suggestion, I went a little early, 5:30 for a 6 PM appointment. I had no trouble at all finding her house, since it is practically across the street from my family home in Garden City, the Cairo house of my novel. My hostess is a philanthropist/political persona who hoped to put in a plug for her favorite educational charity. Her "family" included her young nephew, who would introduce her, and about seven women: some friends, some acquaintances, all more or less related to the theme of education. It turned out I knew or had met all but two of them- that's Cairo. The proceedings could not get started until we were served tea with chocolate cake and petits-fours- that also is Cairo.
Some of the original guests had dropped out, others replaced them, and we went from having too few to having too many participants, at which point everyone offered to cede their place. The hostess was very stressed and kept rehearsing over and over with her nephew how he would introduce her and her work. The television crew showed up a couple of hours later and were served tea and chocolate cake, after which they began to set up lights and take down names and particulars. After about an hour in which the hostess sat on the sofa perspiring under the lights, the crew decided there was a technical problem with one of the lenses on one of the cameras and the lights were turned off. There was some discussion about sending for a replacement lense, but by then several of us, including me, were running late for other engagements and begged off, and the whole program was shelved.
That's Cairo: always running late, and sometimes never.

Some guests

12.07.06

Rain in a dry climate  -  @ 02:58:16
Rain in a dry climate is disruptive. So for two days and nights now, Cairenes have been battling the complication of off-on showers added to their regular commutes and traffic chaos. The main bypass, or Periphery Road, as it is called, that links the new suburbs to the city proper, was shut down yesterday evening on account of accidents.
Yet nothing stops the Cairene from her appointed rounds- not even when an unexpected, but mandatory, memorial service, intervenes just before the Givenchy fashion show at the Ramses Hilton. The cars pile up three deep in front of the Shazliya Mosque, disgorging hundreds of mourners, men and women, there to pay their condolences to the extensive family of a lady of ninety-some years. Half an hour later the harried women reappear, cell phones to ear, calling their chauffeurs, who are circling round the block, to pick them up.
Many of the women go directly from the memorial service to the Rotary dinner/Givenchy fashion show gala at the Ramses Hilton; it helps that the invitation ticket suggests: Black and White. Some of us bring a change of clothes on a hanger and go change at a friend's house, only to be stuck in rain-disrupted traffic.
But not to worry, this is Cairo: the dinner that precedes the show and the show itself are held up till the guests arrive. The dinner is heavy on smoked salmon and avocado. The Givenchy winter collection is sober and luxurious, in tones of espresso and blond caramel, the models European but for two fresh-faced girls who look Egyptian. Many of the women in the audience pay only intermittent attention to the show, greeting each other across the room, waving and blowing kisses and calling on their cell phones; they barely interrupt their socializing to applaud perfunctorily when the business sponsors are announced and the show comes to an end.
The next morning we wake up to more rain. I wonder about the engagement party I am invited to that evening in one of the new suburbs; it is planned to be held out on the lawn under a tent. Rain in a dry climate is disruptive but welcome: it washes the dust off the leaves of the trees. The real concern for the future is the inevitable water shortage that will affect those sprawling new suburbs, the gated compounds built around non-sustainable golf courses and green swards. When I went on a guided tour of one of these compounds seven or so years ago, I remember looking at the huge, lavish villas standing in the desert around a golf course and thinking it was madness to think anyone would want to go live out there. I was wrong. Build it and they will come. In droves.
Come evening, under a light rain, we head for the engagement party in Qattamiya; the villa is big enough to accommodate the guests indoors, but the hosts stick to the original plan: the party is held under a white tent set up over the lawn overlooking the pool, around an elegant buffet beautifully catered by the Four Seasons hotel. You could have been in Beverly Hills, except for the fact that half the women, young and old, wore filmy hijabs coordinated to their outfits.
Like rain in a dry climate, the agreeable round of Cairo social events is a welcome, but deceptive, diversion from the realities of coming drought and economic unsustainability...

11.29.06

The other Riviera  -  @ 13:21:16
The sea is electric blue, the sky at sunset mauve, the bougainvilla red and yellow, the palm trees on the white sand beach gently dishevelled and heavy with the hard, ruby-red dates of the season. The Mediterranean coast of Egypt, stretching for two or three hundred miles west of Alexandria toward Libya, is idyllic at this time of year: temperatures in the low to mid-twenties Celsius, clear skies flirting with puffy purple clouds on the horizon at sunset, deserted beaches, soothing quiet broken only by the lapping of the waves.
And "the North Coast", as Egyptians call it, is no longer a well-kept secret: it is being built up as fast as it can be. The Minister for tourism announced that it would be "the other Riviera" of the Mediterranean, the Southern shore, and that Europeans would flock to it as they once did, and to some extent still do, to the Red Sea. But meantime Cairenes, fleeing the crush, chaos and pollution of the capital, are building summer homes there, villas or condos in resorts with names like Marina and Haciendas. In summer, the beaches will be crowded, there will be lines at the check-outs of the one supermarket in a hundred miles; the cinemas and hotels, the ice-cream shops and the hairdressers, will be bustling. And that's the way most Egyptians like it: they are nothing if not gregarious.
But for now, it is deserted, and, from my point of view, perfect.

11.26.06

A city of odd juxtapositions  -  @ 11:56:43
Cairo is a city of odd juxtapositions: looming over the downtown overpasses, a huge billboard advertises a new clothing line: "Style is a matter of instinct", next to a huge billboard advertising a relgious radio channel:"If you seek compassion and tenderness, turn to the Ikraa channel." Appealing to "tenderness" is novel in Islamic ministry, as opposed to justice and mercy, traditionally the two complimentary aspects of the Divine. The next billboard features Benjamin Franklin on a dollar bill, placed like icing on a rectangle of cake, and the logo: "Hard currency made easy."
Twenty minutes from downtown Cairo and its billboards, at a weekend "farmhouse," a lawn party is in full swing, and we might almost be at a modest English country house: about a hundred people mill about a green lawn dotted with white-slipcovered chairs and tables decorated with potted roses. The buffet is twenty yards long and features family favorites like stuffed pigeon and chicken in lentil sauce. The party is in honor of three recent appointments: two cabinet ministers and one opposition party chairman; one of the cabinet ministers and the opposition party chair are brothers. The party, the New Wafd, is the one with which my family has been associated since its inception in the 1920's- notably my uncle, deceased six years ago- but he has been succeeded by new blood.
Succession is the topic of the day: succession to the presidency of the country, that is; and while no one is particularly enthusiastic about the current regime, no one is enthusiastic either about the prospective options: the "Bambino", the Islamists, or the Army.
The subjects of Iraq and Lebanon elicit expressions of sorrow, but also frustration with the Iraqis and Lebanese for engaging in destructive internecine conflicts instead of pulling together to extract their countries from these messes.
Mostly, though, people speak of business, of real estate, of the price of currency...and the upcoming holidays, with New Year coinciding with the first day of the Bayram Feast, in a particularly awkward juxtaposition...

11.25.06

Existential musings on the baggage of life  -  @ 03:06:59
Living without your luggage is one of those experiments you never wish on yourself, but when it happens to you it's a learning experience: just how little can you make do with? I arrived at London Gatwick early in the morning a week ago, but my one piece of checked luggage didn't. The agency to which several U.S. airlines outsource their lost luggage complaints had me fill out a form, and I left for Central London, confident that the inconvenience would last only a day or so till the next USAir flight.
Since new hand luggage regulations were in effect, I was carrying nothing with me but my computer and a one-quart plastic zip-lock bag's worth of toiletries. I had left a few emergency article at the friend's I usually stay with in London- lingerie, toiletries, hairbrush- but those had also gone missing. So I ran down to the shops and bought PJ's, etc, just for the night; at the hotel, there was a bathrobe and slippers, at least. That evening, I was invited out to dinner, and I improvised by wearing my black cashemir cardigan as a top instead of an extra layer.
Going to the shops in London is never a bore: La Duree tea shop at Harrods had several new flavors of cream-filled almond macaroons to try: rose, rose-anisette, mint...and Harvey Nichols had Marie-Antointette mannequins decked out imaginatively in "dress" made of plastic forks, spoons and wrapping bows. Nowhere was there any vestige of the my favorite American holiday, Thanksgiving.
The next day, I called the number I was given by USAir, and the unhelpful person at the other end told me there was no flight that day, and that they knew that when I spoke to them yesterday, but for some reason chose to mislead me. His general attitude was more than unhelpful, rather as if it were my fault for "losing" my luggage. Tomorrow, he told me, I could check again.
At this point I ran down to Harrods and bought a new shirt to go to dinner at Mr. Chow, as I had been wearing the same pair of pants and shirt I had travelled in. I contemplated buying a new outfit to go out to dinner, but- as men rarely realize- for women it is a complicated matter, since buying a dress or skirt and top also means buying the coordinating dressy shoes, pantyhose, underthings, accessories, etc, and that takes more time than I had to spare that day.
To cut a long story short, only by circumventing the unhelpful luggage-handling agency and appealing directly to the airline, did I finally manage to have my luggage- mysteriously misdirected to Manchester- sent by courrier to London twenty minutes before I took a taxi to Heathrow to fly to Cairo.
The moral of this: one can survive on a one-quart zip-lock bag's worth of toiletries for several days (although I missed wearing perfume); and never travel without a change of nightwear and one dressy outfit in your handluggage, even in this age of carry-on restrictions.

11.18.06

chameleon farewells  -  @ 12:41:52
It's time to go away again for a couple of months, change continents and climates and lifestyles, and every time, although I do this regularly, I go through a ritual of farewells. There is much I will miss about my life in Chapel Hill, and some things I will not miss. I will miss Thanksgiving: the walk in the forest in the crisp autumn air, while the turkey takes it time in the oven; I won't miss the cooking, or the leftovers. I will miss the interfaith Thanksgiving service at a local church, and the sight, from the window, of the turkey-bowling contest a neighbor across the street holds in his driveway. (Bowling with frozen turkeys, literally.)
I will miss the thoughtfulness of my fellow yoga-class members at the gym, who accommodate my claustrophobia by leaving the door of the room open; while I am away, they will be able to shut out the distracting noise from the squash court. I won't miss the obliviousness of a neighbor who blows his leaves onto my yard, year after year.
I will miss the John Stewart show and National Public Radio's "Wait, wait, don't tell me." I won't miss the "War Room" or "Situation Room" type of 24-hour news cycle. I will miss the Christmas concerts, many free, that proliferate in every chapel and church; I won't miss the maddening "holiday" shopping jingles that assault your ears in every commercial space, including the airwaves.
I will miss driving; I don't drive in Europe and only when absolutely necessary in Cairo.
I will miss peace and quiet and time alone with my thoughts; I won't miss the occasional loneliness. I will be happy to go, happy to shift into high gear, to wear different clothes and a different skin, to speak different languages and lead a different life. And I know I will be just as happy to return.

11.17.06

What's in a name?  -  @ 08:28:11
Last night, this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunis, was a guest on the Jon Stewart television show. The Bangladeshi is a Muslim Santa who deservedly won for revolutionizing banking for the poorest of the poor, yet not a single article or television interview I am aware of- not even the sympathetic Jon Stewart- mentions that he is Muslim. Is it irrelevant? I wish it were, and before 9/11 it might have been. But today, having a clearly Muslim name and nationality are certainly not irrelevant: not at airport security checks, nor at job applications and interviews, nor even in the U.S. congress; yesterday, Congressman Keith Ellison, an African-American convert, was asked on television if his religion made it reasonable to suspect him of being in league "with our enemies."
So when the story about a Muslim is a positive one, as is the case of Muhammad Yunis, perhaps his affiliation- not necessarily faith- should be mentioned, as it surely would be if it were a negative story. Particularly since, in this case, he won the Nobel prize for helping the poor, and whether or not Yunis is a man of faith, he was fulfilling the strongest moral imperative in Islam.

11.11.06

Profiling revisited, sadly  -  @ 11:31:16
It's so sad that the issue of profiling Arab and Muslim travelers is being revisited, this time by the U.K. Understandable too, as increasingly arbitrary, irrational, and arguably unnecessary restrictions are being imposed on travelers at airports, with the net effect of sustaining the climate of fear. But, as I wrote earlier on my blog, and as I reiterated recently to the State department's representative at Duke University during an informal lunch, one of the most important reasons that consistent discrimination and profiling are counter productive, is this: the real breakthroughs in unmasking terrorist plots have never come from airport security, and have always come as the result of good intelligence. Good intelligence relies on good relations between intelligence agents and Arab/Muslim communities abroad, and alienating those communities by systematic discrimination would compromise this critical cooperation.

11.09.06

Nothing like it!  -  @ 10:38:09
Isn't democracy wonderful when it works? Like a minor miracle to those who were losing faith. But more than faith in the system, optimists hope to find in these election results a reassertion of the fundamental decency and rationality of the American people and a rejection of the demagoguery and terror tactics intended to control the masses like so many Pavlovian dogs trained to respond with paralyzing fear to the shadowy, omnipresent threat of "terrorism", and with silence to the ready charge of "unpatriotic" flung at questioning or dissent.

11.07.06

Notes from a Blue Moon Election Day  -  @ 14:02:23
I meant to walk over to the church across the road to vote today; it's that close to home. I'm used to voting in churches now, but when I first started voting in the U.S., some twenty years ago, the location came as a surprise. And I have never missed voting at a presidential election since I became a citizen, even when the stakes were low; coming from Egypt- where my family had been disenfranchised of the vote after 1952 for belonging to the "old order"; where presidents ran unopposed and always announced referendum results of 99.9% approval; where thugs beat voters at polling stations;- the privilege of voting in real elections where my vote would count was one I never took for granted, and always honored by showing up at the polling booth come rain or snow. In 2004, the first time the stakes were so high for me, I even voted early, waiting in a long line on the campus at the University of North Carolina.
But this year is a "Blue Moon Election Day", a non-presidential election in which, at least for N. Carolina, there are no Senate seats contested. So I had meant to vote at leisure, taking a five minute stroll to my voting station, the church across the road, in what had been perfect Fall weather: brilliant skies and a burst of fuschia, magenta, gold and pumpkin-colored leaves. But this morning turned out to be relentlessly rain and chill, so I drove over instead.
The evangelical church across the way is a huge building with a vast auditorium and plenty of parking spaces, almost all empty when I arrived at 11 am. There was no line, in fact no wait at all. One of the poll workers looked up my name on her list of registered voters, verified my address- no paper I.D. required, as usual- and handed me a paper ballot. I went and stood for a moment at the booth, filling in the ovals with black pen, turned around and took two steps to the machine that reads the ballots and slipped mine in; I had the satisfaction of seeing the counter move from 386 to the 387 as my vote was counted. Had the rain kept people away, I asked the poll worker as she handed me a "I voted" sitcker. No, she said, it had been ticking right along.
Nothing about the process could have been smoother; voters in my district are lucky compared to elsewhere in the country: no punching holes, no hanging chads, no electronic voting machines so easily vulnerable to human error or abuse. And of course, no intimidation or deliberately long waits.
And yet, in the run-up to today, there were things I should have done, would have done six years ago, but did not dare to do in this divisive and ugly national mood. I did not put up on my lawn the party signs sent by my congressman, whom I support, because no one else in our neighborhood puts out signs, and I don't know how they would feel about it- or if, in fact, there is an ordinance against it in the homeowners covenant. I didn't host a "bring out the vote" party, because I was afraid to have strangers in my house. I cringed when I saw the ugly attack ads on television aimed at a N. Carolina congressional candidate who was tarred with having the support of the Muslim Association for Public Affairs, but there was nothing I could do about it.
And like so many others this election season who were turned off, or intimidated, out of doing everything they could, I wonder if, when election results are announced tonight, I will have only myself to blame.

11.03.06

Rhetoric and Reality behind the push for democracy in the ME  -  @ 10:50:05
I attended an interesting talk yesterday by Ambassador Diana Negroponte at Duke University: "Rhetoric and Reality behind the foreign policy push for liberal democracy in the Middle East." Negroponte works for the U.S. Institute for Peace History Project, and Freedom House, institutions established to promote democratic transitions around the world. The Middle East part of the title of her talk was slightly misleading; in fact most of her examples came from her long experience in Latin America and the former Soviet republics, but that, to my mind, made her point more valid by removing from it any reference to "Isamic exceptionalism." In fact, to her credit, I only heard her mention the world "islamic" once; in referring to 9/11, for instance, she spoke of the need to confront and eradicate "Arab malignancy."
But her thrust was this: "democracy", both as a term and as an ideal, is being invalidated and rejected around the world at the moment, as the tide rolls back and reverses the Orange revolution of Ukraine and the Rose revolution of Georgia, to give only two- deliberately non-Muslim- examples. Whether in Latin America, Eastern Europe, or the Middle East, the historical, cultural, and ethnic soil does not lend itself to wholesale implantation of Western-style "democratic" values.
The solution, to Dr. Negroponte's thinking, is to disassociate "Liberal" from "Democracy" as a goal for the developing world, in U.S. foreign policy. She reminded the audience that the two ideologies were not always linked, and that this fusion happened in the late 1880's. Our foreign policy should aim to promote "Liberal", i.e. rule of law, women's rights, economic liberalism, and leave aside "Democracy", i.e. electoral, representative, free speech, majority rule.
An interesting hypothesis.


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