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Archive for February, 2011

On Being Evacuated

Surprise surprise I haven’t posted for a bit. In part it’s due to the fact I’ve been overwhelmed doing nothing.  But also being overwhelmed with a sense of loss causes heavy duty focusing problems.  It’s getting better. I’ve actually had some good days this week.  Met up with my boss in North Carolina at the head quarters of the company who pays our checks. That was really good.  She’s a stellar human being.  How I wish she’d been in Egypt with me when this all happened.  She’s so CALM and I sure could have used that. It definitely is NOT a personal trait I have.  She’s also very wise and eminently fair which I really really value.  It was good to talk to her and try to flesh out some next steps that leave a footprint behind.  She’s big on footprints….and it’s always nice to know you’re leaving something behind of value.

Of course, in the larger scheme of things I left LOTS of things of value behind.  That’s part and parcel of being evacuated.

  • The last photo of mom and dad together taken at my nephew’s wedding.
  • A bag Annika (my granddaughter) drew a picture on and sent to me for Xmas.
  • Jonny’s  (my youngest) “But I digress…” story.
  • Ted’s (my third kid) convoluted story and drawing of why he like macaroni and cheese.
  • Danny’s (my oldest boy) necklace he gave me the year we “resolved” our differences.
  • The handpaintings of my grandkids.
  • A necklace Rana gave me for Thanksgiving.
  • A wooden herb grinder Heather (my daughter) gave me for my birthday.
  • The charger to my kindle that Bill gave me for Christmas a year ago.

These are the things that I wish I’d brought with me.  You can’t think too straight when your brain goes into the ice-cream-freeze-headache  type of paralysis when you’re running about trying to decide what to do. But I continually remind myself that no matter how sentimental these things are they are just things.  And like all the other things there I left behind (which I hope to see again at some point but have gotten to the point where it won’t be a life crisis if I never see them again) they are insignificant when compared to the bigger more important components in our lives.

And then there’s the people–my family and friends who I left behind.  It’s the lack of closure with them that really haunts me.  To my TPD Cairo team I am so so sorry I wasn’t able to tell you I was leaving and never got to give you a hug and handshake and say good-bye and tell you how incredible I think you are and how proud I am of you and your phenomenal professional growth.

To the gender team—you are doing good work. Georgina and Nermine–you have made me so happy at the way you have taken the little bit of training I’ve given you and turned into such girls’ education warriors and advocates at the school level.  Sherine–you are a good leader.  You bring such knowledge to our work

To my CPSGL colleagues—I learned much from you.  And your friendship was so valued.

 to be continued

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What comes next?

Well, the word is out so I can finally talk about it.  I’m leaving Egypt.  I can honestly say this was in the works before all hell broke loose; indeed it made it harder not easier to leave.  I couldn’t say the good-bye to all my dear friends and cherished colleagues like I wanted. I also left fully accepting I was probably walking away from all my household effects–and it made be feel incredibly shallow that I should be bothered by something so insignificant as that when folks were losing their lives over something so important as freedom from human rights abuses, protection of children and women, the right to have a decent life with three meals, a decent education and home.  I guess it’s in moments of stress and turmoil like this you see yourself for what you really are and it makes you frustrated you’re not a more meaningful person.

The doctor I saw the other day told me I’m experiencing a form of post traumatic stress syndrome linked to something like survivor’s guilt.  I call it “getting on the plane to safety and leaving them behind” guilt. It’s hard to walk away (or in my case being thrust through the airport) from folks who mean so much to you when you know they are facing a really tough if not life threatening situation.  But I did.  And now I need to come to grips with not going back.

Their courage and tenacity to remain firm to the principles that were the foundation in this continues to amaze me.  I am so proud that I was able to commune so closely with them and consider it a tremendous honor they are my friend and I am theirs.

So, now I watch what is taking place in Egypt and remind myself that one day it will be better.  My hope now is that change comes quickly and comes smoothly.  Enshallah.

So, what comes next?  Similar kind of work in Tajikistan, Cambodia, East Timor and India.  All new places.  All new challenges.  I’ll be working with at-risk groups of students to keep them in school.  Even as my heart aches for those I’m leaving behind I am getting myself geared up to meet a whole new set of challenges and to build relationships and hopefully bridges with new friends and colleagues.  That’s the beauty of this work–my world just keeps expanding.

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Faces of a Revolution

 

 

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I have no idea what it must be like to be so young and feel such responsibility for the future of my country.  I think as Americans many of us are ambivalent about our country, our politics and certainly the plight of all those around us.  From the moment Rana first spoke to me about what was going to happen I have been both incredibly proud of her for her vision and courage but scared to death for her as well.  I asked her to share a message with you–to let you hear “her words” rather than my interpretation of them.   Please leave comments for her–she needs our support.  I urged her to start her own blog but maybe it’s better for her this way and gives her a bit of a filter and protection if she does it this way.  Here’s what Rana has to say–please listen:

I am not good in writing Diane plus I am either in the street or glued to the TV or talking to my friends who I left in Tahrir square. I will write something after this ends. I will send it to you I received calls yest. night from people I worked with in NGOs and friends from slum areas , they were suffering from the food increase prices so I took money from my family and food and went this morning to give it to them I also took food from your house to them as you asked me to do. I asked them about how they feel and they say it’s a good thing what happened but it’s enough please don’t go again to Tahrir square and tell your friends not to go there again pls. they say they have commitments like house rent and they can’t buy food as food prices are increasing and they don’t have money. They are paid on daily bases and their work is stopped because of what is happening in Tahrir. One laughed and said stop before we make a demonstration “To Stop what’s happening”. They told me we know how much you care about us and people so please stop and if things didn’t go well Tahrir square will always be there.

We are so confused Diane, I don’t know what’s wrong and what’s right. I don’t know whether we should continue going to Tahrir square or not, especially after what I heard in slum area today. On the other hand I say that if Mubarak stayed the Cancer will spread (using your example) but I don’t want that people I care about suffer. I meeting my lawyer friends this afternoon because some say that the constitution states that in case Mubarak left and the vice president was responsible. The demands we want can’t happen like the amendments of constitution. But what I’m sure of is still people who are in Tahrir square are not driven by Muslim brotherhood or any other opposing parties as they claim.

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I was out of my room when the call came.  When I heard the voice on the message I knew it must be important.  For Rana to call long distance from Cairo to London signaled to me something was terribly wrong.  The moment I heard her voice when I called her back I knew immediately Rana was struggling to maintain her composure. The strain of the past week was taking its toll. So was the division that is dividing her country. And the stinging barbs and cruel accusations the role the protesters played in creating chaos in her country were leaving their mark and doing their damage.

It was difficult to understand what she said but her alarm and hurt was communicated more by the convulsive sobs on the other end than by her words. What I did hear between her sobs was “They’re calling us murderers. They’re saying we destroyed Egypt. Diane we didn’t want violence.  It was so important it was peaceful.  There was almost no aggression until the other ones came to confront the protesters.  We were holding hands and chanting in unison together and now they are fighting. It’s horrible. It’s so awful. They are dying Diane–it’s terrible. We never wanted that. I am so scared.  I don’t know who to trust. They are targeting the protesters.”

What do you say to a young visionary who didn’t know, didn’t understand there are some things that will inevitably happen when you start on the journey to force change even through a peaceful movement?  How do you tell someone who has lived in a repressive regime all of her life and most of her mother’s life the dictator will not step down gracefully; there is bound to be armed resistance? How do you prepare them that some will die?  How do you cushion them from the guilt they will feel and the hate they will face when things begin to topple? How do you prime them for a revolution?

Prepared with a degree in law, Rana’s dream was to become a human rights lawyer and focus on the rights of women and children. Her job before joining our project addressed child’s rights.  Shortly after she became my program assistant she swamped me with articles and documents on the abuses to children taking place in Egypt.  I was stunned to learn that although Egypt was a signatory on the Convention to the Rights of the Child they excluded three categories of children from protection: children employed in domestic services (Article 4), children employed in family businesses if they are supported by the employer (Article 4) and children employed in agricultural occupations—especially the cotton industry (Article 103).

The more I read of these abuses the more I shared her outrage. I learned that many children who work in farms are exposed to two deadly pesticides. These children ranging in age from 7 to 15 years old worked in cotton fields for little more than 5 to 7 Egyptian pounds per day–barely more than a US dollar. They have no legal protection, social insurance or official supervision protecting them from unscrupulous employers. Most of these children are well below Egypt’s minimum age of twelve for seasonal agricultural work. The ones employed during the summer months of July and August work when the temperatures are brutal. Indeed, over one million children between the ages of seven and twelve are hired by Egypt’s agricultural cooperatives in cotton pest management. They work in excess of eleven hours a day with only one break seven days a week. In addition to the exposure to the heat and pesticides they also face routine beatings by their foremen.

(http://www.ddrn.dk/filer/forum/File/Child_Labor_in_Egypt.pdf Nadia Itani, July, 2009)

I later learned that children who worked in the brick factories not far from Cairo were also exempted from the laws protecting children. Listening to the conditions under which they worked sickened me and I shared Rana’s–and the others telling me of these abuses–anger that the government was allowed to find ways to exclude Egyptian children from international laws created to protect them.

Rana, who grew up in a middle class home and had all the advantages that came with that status, was determined no child should be exposed to such a harsh life. Although she realized poverty and ignorance were the real cruel task masters she firmly believed something could be done to break the hold on the corrupt system that literally enslaved the children of the poor and disenfranchised.  So, from the moment I first met her she was endlessly involved in one activity or another—forums, conferences, signing petitions—to break down the silence and lack of awareness that allowed abuses like these to continue.

But her concerns reached well beyond the rights of children and women. She was a Donna Quixote jousting at her many windmills.  Guarding the environment was another one of her causes. At her own initiative she began a paper recycling program in our office—personally collecting the paper and dropping it off at a center where paper was recycled. She was one of the few Egyptians I knew who didn’t randomly throw out paper trash along the road and worked hard to enlighten others about ways to save water—a priceless commodity in a water-poor country. It was a marriage made in heaven when she was able to partner with another of our colleagues, Laila, a well known activist in Egypt for her efforts to address environmental issues and recycling in particular throughout the whole MENA region.

And now, the visionary with dreams of making her Egypt a better place was being charged with making it worse—indeed, with destroying it and murdering those she loved so much.  Sadly, I had no answers for her, no way to ease her pain.  One of our last conversations we had—my talk with her about the exact point in which a movement turns into a revolution—haunted me.  Clearly, I failed to help her understand that what they started that Police Day so long ago would not be undone and without a doubt they were going to face considerable pain and hardship along the way.

During my home leave this past August my daughter, Heather, her brother, Danny, and his wife, Amy, got me hooked on Tevana.  As a special treat I brought back to Egypt some Tevana with me that I savored on particularly tough days. My sister, Barb, stocked me up with some more at Christmas and Heather had her brother, Jonny, carry a tin of the most wonderful Wintertime tea with heavenly aromatic mulling spices.

I wanted to share my bounty with my friends so one Thursday afternoon just a few very LONG weeks ago I hosted a Ladies Tea Party for the women of the Cairo office.  The men complained bitterly they were being discriminated against much to the delight of all the ladies.  I bought some cookies and we spent the last thirty minutes of the day bonding and sharing like sisters with one another.  Their chatter and laughter made me feel particularly good since even then I was sensing an undercurrent building—a different pulse to the beat of the office.  And my solution to things like this is always to eat something special and spend some touchy feely time reaching out to one another.  It seemed to work as we all hugged before we left and promised to do this again very soon when our lady boss returned.

As Rana’s sobs eased she began to talk with more composure. Ever the devoted assistant, she told me she had been to my apartment earlier that day and had washed up the few dishes I left dirty in my sink, taken out the garbage, done a load of wash.  I reminded her of the tea party we all shared that afternoon at the office and the symbolism that tea we shared together represented.  She told me yes.

I then asked her if she could see my kitchen and the cabinet next to the sink by the food processor Jonny hand carried to me when he came to visit this past Christmas.  She told me yes.  I told her that behind the doors just behind the food processor were the bags of tea we all shared together. I told her to go there and collect it all and whenever she was discouraged, whenever the fear overcame her, whenever the angry words were more than she could bear—to make some tea and share it with her mother and sister and remember our tea party.  Remember the bonding; remember being together.  She promised me she would do that.

So, when does a movement turn into a revolution?  I think it begins the moment people begin to turn on themselves and forget who the real enemy is.  And what do you say to a visionary who has been forced to grow up lose the innocence of youth in a week?  The words “I care for you deeply and I am so proud of you,” seems so meaningless in the context of the world she is facing right now.  But anything else would be a lie.

 

 

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Egypt: A Call To Prayer

I realized last night for the first time I wasn’t hearing the call to prayer. The call to prayer was probably the thing that most captured my attention after moving to Cairo.  You would hear the muezzin’s chants “Hasten to prayer” echoing from one mosque after another at five intervals throughout the day.  Their chants would blare from loudspeakers across the city each with a slightly different sound and tenor.  The first muezzin would almost be musical but as the different calls to prayer intermingled at a slightly different place in their chant it could almost overwhelm you if you really focused on the sound.   It woke you up in the morning, came again at midday, rang out in the late afternoon, again at sunset and the final one lifted up around two hours after sunset.  Each time they would hear it believers stopped what they were doing, kneel on the ground and bow their heads in submission.

From talks I had with my Islamic friends and colleagues I came to understand the call to prayer was meant to help them focus on the meaning of their spirituality and beliefs. From most of the Islamic believers I know I personally believe the core of their prayers was to aid them to become a better person.  The call to prayer was a continual reminder of the holy commitment they had to live a good, a peaceful, a kind and generous life.

But it finally got to a point where I really didn’t register the calls to prayer that often.  The daily rituals of my own life blocked out the sounds around me as I’d focus on the work I was doing.  Oh occasionally I would hear them especially the midday call to prayer as I would work in my office. And sometimes the first call to prayer of the day would awaken me out of my sleep but even that one I began to block out.  After all, the call to prayer had no religious meaning for me nor did it hold any symbolic significance in terms of my culture or traditions.

Until last night that is.  It was last night as the sun was setting I realized I wasn’t hearing the call to prayer anymore.  And when that realization hit home I started crying because I realized that indeed it symbolized everything to me. Not in the same way it did to someone who is Islamic. No. Instead, for me it symbolized that everything was moving forward in an orderly fashion, the daily rhythms of our lives were in step, things were as they should be.

But that is all gone now. Things are not moving forward in an orderly fashion and nothing is as it should be.  The routines, the cycles, the daily structure of our lives—their lives—has disappeared.

I often teased my Egyptian colleagues their day didn’t have 24 hours in it—more like 20.  They would invariably ask me why I say that and I’d tell them because time passed way too quickly in Egypt. I believed their ancient pharaohs must have negotiated some kind of pact with the sun for a shorter day.  God knows why they would do such a crazy thing like that but I had no doubt something bizarre had tampered with the normal passing of time the rest of the world enjoyed. I was fully convinced of that!

Indeed, the last conversation I had about my “theory of time” was in a director’s meeting with three of my colleagues the week before our world fell apart.  One of them, a particularly fun loving man, demanded again to know why I felt this way. When I yet again expressed concern at how rapidly the year was progressing and pointed out all the work we needed to do and how quickly the months had passed since I had returned from my home leave, Moshen pondered my statements for a minute and then soberly acknowledged that indeed I was right.  Time DID pass more quickly in Egypt, things did move at a faster pace.

The events of the last week would seem to confirm my theory of how time moves faster in Egypt.  Despite all the decades of suppression there was an orderly fashion to their oppression. But once they had enough their push for change came at an alarming rate that caught the world off guard. And once the opened the floodgates of their anger and frustration there was no stopping them and the events moved forward at a pace that defied what could happen in such a short span of time.  In less than one week the world just toppled apart.

I have a house that sits on a river in South West Florida.  My husband is there with our crazy dog Brinkley.  If I walk to the end of my street and then across the road it comes out to I can see the local  mosque a short distance away. I think I will be back in the US on Friday.  One of the things I’m going to do is to go over there at noon  on Friday and just sit in the parking lot listening to the muezzin call them to prayer.  Maybe when I hear that I’ll be able to cling to some shred of hope everything will once again get back to the daily rhythm of living for all the Egyptians caught up in this struggle.  Enshallah.

 

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In retrospect it’s easier to see when things began to change. I’m not a political analyst but I think it really began weeks before the Tunisia revolt. I think the seeds of “enough” burst into life on New Year’s Eve.

I claim to be NO expert on Egypt; its politics; or its people. I am just someone who was somewhat of a wayfaring stranger just another khwaga living among them. But I watched and observed from afar and for me there was a difference after the bombing in the Coptic church in Alexandria.  From what I observed it symbolized the fatigue, fear and frustration that had been building up for decades.  It symbolized the government’s failure to meet all its promises to protect the Christians and in particular the Coptics from extremists who wanted them out; gone; destroyed.

No doubt those sentiments were there but most Egyptians who are Islamic living there didn’t share those radical and bigoted views.  Of course, they could not fully understand the fear the Coptics daily live with on how they were discriminated against.  That’s a very difficult thing for any majority group to understand.  And because our understanding of the world around us it’s almost guaranteed someone from the majority group will be dismissive of things that signal to the minority of how they are not being treated fairly. We all know it’s very hard to get “out of your skin.”

But everyone Coptic, other Christians and Islamics alike where shocked at what happened and dismayed–horrified it had not been prevented. There was a massive outpouring of sympathy mixed with outrage that once again the government had failed to protect their people. Indeed, the murders of Coptics that had happened over the past year were revisited and anger swelled that once again there was no response to find those at fault or to blame it on outsiders hoping to foster unrest and destabilize the country. People were tired of the empty promises and failed obligations. Then came the attack on the innocent Coptic family traveling on the train from Minia. The outrage that a police officer could do such a thing further fueled the fires of discontent and the growing awareness something had to change. Indeed in an effort to prevent another disaster many young Islamics (my dear Rana included) created a human chain around Coptic churches as a shield on Coptic Christmas eve the week following the New Year’s Eve blast.  It was a compassionate action that signaled their fear was turning to anger.

Two situations stand out in bold relief for me of the psyche of the nation and demonstrate the state of mind of its people.  A car accident on the street in front of the hotel where our project staff where working in a conference room during a project retreat was very telling.  Everyone ran to the windows overlooking the street fearful of another bomb blast. Their relief was audible. My own son who was visiting me there shared with me later that even he thought it was a bomb.  It was the feeling in the air—it was the expectation at the time. A bomb going off seemed more reasonable than something as common and ordinary as a car accident.

About two weeks after the massacre of the Coptic family on the train one of my advisors who regularly visited his family living in Minia on the weekends returned to the office. When I saw him slowly climbing the stairs I could see that this normally jovial, gentle, kind-hearted man was visibly shaken.  His face was pale and dazed. When I asked him, “Sherif what is wrong?  Are you okay?” His reply and our reaction shocked us all.

“There was another incident on the train from Minia with a police officer” he continued. Our initial shock of horror there had been another massacre of Cops turned to one of amusement when he continued, “He was angry the train engineer was slowing down at the stations and stopping at some and attacked him to prevent him from stopping.”

When I later contemplated how unsympathetic we were to what clearly was a terrifying situation for Sherif, most of the people on that train and certainly for the poor engineer who had been attacked I realized it was prompted by our relief that it wasn’t another incident like the previous one.  It was prompted by the climate of fear we were experiencing.  We expected the worse and were tremendously relieved it was an ordinary, a normal kind of outrage and found amusement in the bizarre no matter how unacceptable the behavior was

Egyptians are a good people; they are a long-suffering people.  An image that symbolizes for me the way they live came during the Friday demonstration when the aggression was heating up between the protesters and the police.  Late in the afternoon the call to prayer rang out from the mosques all around the city.  Everything came to an immediate stop.  The protesters immediately fell silent. Large numbers dropped to their knees, bowed their heads to the street and began to pray in unison.  Police quietly watched and waited for them to complete their prayers before again taking up an aggressive stand against the protesters. Prayers completed the protesters jumped to their feet, picked up their sticks and began chanting the slogans that have come to symbolize their fight for freedom and to hurl a rock or two at the police who in contrast symbolized for the protesters the decades of human abuse and a government’s failure to protect their rights.

Was Tunisia a factor?  No doubt it was.  It was a catalyst for something that was going to burst apart sooner rather than later. Egyptians had come to a point where they had enough.  They could no longer stand aside as the plight of the disenfranchised or minority was ignored.  Some say they got their dignity back.  From the perspective of this Khwaga I think they always acted with dignity.  I think they finally found their voice.

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