On the Nile
Seen from the air, El Nil is a thread outlined by green, and even though the Nile no longer floods, much of the farming and rural economy is still tied to the fertile land on either side of the great river. My first visit to Egypt in the early 1980s was with my friend Noorhan, a young woman from Yemen, who lived in Saudi Arabia. Noorhan’s family lived in Cairo, in a small, three-room apartment, and they were the lucky ones. Even then, jobs were hard to come by, the middle class was rapidly disappearing, and we could see the enormous disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Anwar Sadat had recently been assassinated, but the children still talked of Baba Anwar (father Anwar).
On my next trip to Egypt, I went down the Nile to explore Luxor, Karnak and the Valley of the Kings. It was hardly the way Shakespeare described Cleopatra’s voyage:
The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water; the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them….
Rather, I found it hot, sweaty, and with lots of flies, but still a magnificent journey. Yet I saw in the midst of the splendors and beauty of ancient Egypt great poverty and its partner, resentment–anger towards a government seemingly tone deaf toward the needs, wishes and aspirations of its own people.
Anger in Cairo
Most recently I visited my daughter, who was studying Arabic in Cairo. I was again struck by the daily struggles in that city–the rising discontent among Cairenes born of increased frustration against the government, bureaucracy and corruption at every level. Prevalent was poverty, unemployment and very few prospects for the young, even those who had managed to get an education. Peoples’ anger deepened daily.
Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author writes of Cairo in the 1930s through the 1960s. Several of his novels stress how morality depends on a secure material base and often simple good fortune. Through the lens of ordinary people, he shows the vulnerability of their lives that are subject to pervasive government corruption.
A more recent and equally illuminating book is The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany, a journalist who also made his living as a dentist in Cairo, where his first office was in the actual Yacuobian building. The tenants provide a microcosm of Egyptian life, giving insights into the problems that have directly contributed to the current uprising against Mubarak and his government in Egypt. Exploding from beneath the surface of modern day Egypt comes the rage of a people living in a state of near constant humiliation. Some humiliations come with life under a dictatorship – the corruption and petty harassments, but others are specific to Egypt.
For many years, Egypt, especially Cairo, was the center of intellectual and political life in the Middle East, and under Nasser, Egypt led the Arab world to a sense of pride in its culture and traditions. Now in a land of one of the world’s most fabled civilizations, the average Egyptian struggles to gets by on less than $1,000 a year, if that. Almost the only opportunity for most Egyptians to advance economically is to labor as indentured servants for their far richer Gulf Arab cousins or to cater obsequiously to the foreigners in their midst. Humiliation is the daily bread of most Egyptians, and we see this week the results of that humiliation in the streets and squares of that complicated city.