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Michael Hammerschlag: Cairo Calm

Cairo Calm

by Michael Hammerschlag

CAIRO: “Ohh, isn’t it dangerous,” said an acquaintance as I was extolling Egypt, where Obama is scheduled make a historic address June 4. The Feb 22 terrorist bombing in Cairo that killed a French schoolgirl gives one the wrong idea. I was there, in Hussein Sq., a nice family park with palm trees, ice cream, and minaret-laden mosques; a couple of days before. Cairo is actually amazingly relaxed, peaceful, and safe, considering the grinding poverty many people live under. One can walk anywhere as late as 3am, and never feel threatened in the slightest, even girls. Try that in Rio, or Mexico City, or Sao Paulo- other 20 million person megalopolises- you won't keep your money or life long. Mark it off to the civilizing effect of Islam, which contrary to the image in the West, is a pervasive social contract with the people that punishes cruel, dishonest, or violent behavior. The general attitude towards America and the West, even after the carnage in Gaza, is universally warm and welcoming, maybe because a vote is actually possible there sometimes. “Ah, America”, they say softly and longingly,... “a good place.”

The American dream still burns bright in the Arab world despite all the negative stuff we are inundated with by media fear-mongerers: some will proudly say they have relatives in America- and Obama's election was a watershed event to Africans and the world that proved anything is still possible there (Egyptians are more African than Arabic). Egyptians remember the British and French colonial predations whereas America in the days of liberation (1952) was the anti-colonial beacon in the third world, including rolling back the 1956 Western power Suez invasion. In 2 months I didn't encountered one overt anti-American or Western person. The US gives Egypt some $500 million a year social aid and another $1.3 billion military, more than to any other country except Israel, which forestalls some of the most abject poverty, and promotes stability and friendship in the 80 million person Arab giant, the second biggest population in Africa.

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Personal conflicts are rare and generally resolved by neighbors who practice constructive nosiness; I've never seen any violence- in one argument the other guy just hugged the outraged guy who was yelling till he settled down- feel the love, brother.

The 28 year Mubarak government rules with an iron hand: any protests, including those against Islamic control, which the government might be expected to support, are summarily crushed. Recently by Talaat Harb Sq., 3 large police vans disgorged 60 black-clad police, reported whisking away 20 protestors about Egypt’s refusal to let in Gazan refugees.

Cairo is beset by choking pollution- fumes from the 2 million cars, many junky old Fiats- even at 3am on a winter night, and a fine desert dust that covers everything. A few hours on the street is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes, and one is literally slapped by particles as some cars zip by. On the pollution status board in Tahrir Sq. there are hazard categories colored orange, bright red, and blue... by which time you are presumably dead. Cars navigate, like schools of dolphin, by horn echo-location, honking constantly, repetitively, maddeningly. People cross streets of solid traffic by weaving through 10 lanes of cars- like flocks of birds the cars somehow part and let them through.

Egypt is one of the cheapest places in the world, with perfectly nice hotel rooms as little as $4 a night, 400 mile trains maybe $10, and decent meals or subs $1; and the treasures of 5000 years of civilization splayed out around you. (As anyplace with such vast income disparities, touts and hustlers will pester you to buy their goods.) It lives and dies on tourism, which is down 5% (till Dec) from the crisis, but luckily almost as many people are switching vacations to affordable Egypt as canceling them. It is a popular destination with Rukrainians because of the painless visas- the touts often speak Russian now.

In a good sense, Egyptians were the original master race, building the very first epic monuments, and since have been tempered and enriched by a dozen foreign invasions, like deposits of the rich Nile silt: Assyrians, Persians, Alexander's Greeks, Romans, Turks, French, British... that make the people open and generous to foreigners. The Pyramids were tourist attractions to almost every civilization on earth, so Egypt has always been a country of the world.

When you hear “terrorism, terrorism, terrorism”- remember it's a one in a million likelihood- you have a lot more chance of being hit by a car. Though surprisingly, in 2 months I never saw any examples of that.


Michael Hammerschlag (Hammernewscom) has spent 2 months in Egypt, toured Europe + Africa for a year, and is now based in Kiev. His articles have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, Honolulu Advertiser, Capital Times, Media Channel, Scoop; and Moscow News, Tribune, Guardian, and Times.

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