Thursday, February 16, 2012

Finding cross-cultural reality in a sweet pea

When I was young, my grandfather kept a large garden at the end of our yard. He grew many things, but my favorite was the sweet peas. They ripened in early spring, usually just before Easter, around the same time daffodils were sprouting bright and yellow among the spring greenery.

By the time I was eight or so I learned how to tell when the pods were just ripe. I wandered through the long, carefully-tended rows picking perfect specimens as the soft dirt, heavy with Virginia red clay, stained my bare feet a deep, earthy red-brown.

Dewy spring grass would wipe away the worst of the dirt as I headed back to the house, leaving a trail of pea-pods in my wake. Growing up, there was hardly anything better about spring than those juicy, crisp, fresh sweet peas straight out of my grandfather’s garden.

It’s been years since I was home in the spring to raid pea-pods from those carefully tended rows. I’ve lived many places during those years and I’ve spent the past two in Cairo, a sweltering city of cars, pollution, and some 20 million people.

Living in a different culture, sometimes the simplest things remind you of ‘home,’ alternately highlighting the similarities or the differences between ‘here’ and ‘there.’ I seldom find similarities between Cairo and small-town southern America, although they’re there: a genuine and humble hospitality, for one, and tea with mint, for another.

Yet this morning I sat in village an hour from Cairo with a pile of fresh sweet pea pods heaped on the table in front of me, popping the peas from their pods in preparation for tonight’s dinner. Each time one of those succulent fresh peas found its way into my mouth instead of the bowl in front of me, I was reminded of that old memory.

Sometimes those quiet, mundane tasks remind you that, wherever you are, there are intrinsic similarities among humans. Sure, this morning I was sitting in a rural Egyptian village with palm trees and fields of chamomile out the window, neither of which I ever saw growing up in Virginia, and the majority of the peas ended up in a bowl rather than in my mouth, but even so the similarities seemed more stark than the differences.

I once spent a week living with a family in a tiny community in Brazil’s southern Amazon basin. It was starkly different from anything I had grown up with: they had no running water, most of the family slept in hammocks, they washed clothes in a spring, and there were mango trees everywhere.

But even there I found familiarity: an elderly man in a t-shirt and baseball cap bouncing his grandson on his knee, everyone gathered around a (generator-powered) TV to watch a soccer match, each child expected to help with chores and the youngest crying when her mother left the house without her.

As scholars debate theories of globalization, giant multi-national corporations search for cheaper labor and politicians’ rhetoric expounds the virtue of “us” versus “them,” sometimes all we need is to take a step back.

Consider, for example, the simple joy of one fresh pea: surreptitiously pilfered from the pot before it is cooked, it is just as sweet in rural Egypt as in small-town America.

Friday, February 3, 2012

In Egypt, conspiracy theories sometimes have merit

Armed bank robbery. Scores killed in a football brawl. American tourists kidnapped.

One year after the uprising that sparked national pride and hope in Egyptians, the wave of unprecedented incidents – as well as renewed clashes between demonstrators and police in downtown Cairo – has many asking: What is happening, and why?

Many believe the incidents of the past few days are anything but coincidence, and with reason. Just days before masked gunmen robbed the HSBC bank in New Cairo, an upscale Cairo suburb, Egypt’s de-facto ruler cancelled the country’s three-decade-old Emergency Law.

Put into effect in the wake of late President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, the series of laws prohibit more than five persons from gathering in one place without prior permission and allow search and seizure without a warrant, among other things.

The first armed bank robbery in modern Egyptian history occurring just after the cancellation of the law seems unlikely to be pure coincidence.

And despite an age-old rivalry between Cairo football team al-Ahly and Port Said team al-Masry, Egyptians refuse to accept that mere team rivalry is to blame for the 73 deaths after Wednesday night’s match in Port Said.

Many have questioned the inaction of the country’s hated Central Security Forces, who stood by and watched the violence instead of intervening to stop it. One match-goer said he and others were not searched by security upon entering the stadium, perhaps explaining how some al-Masry fans were able to enter the match with knives.

The real question is whether recent events are an honest representation of Egypt without the Emergency Law or whether someone – the ‘who’ is as always unclear – is orchestrating events.

One theory is that the government or the ruling military council – in power since former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February 2011 – is stirring up trouble as an excuse to reinstate the Emergency Law. Removing the law was one of demonstrators’ primary demands during the 2011 uprising, and remained a source of contention as the military continually delayed its repeal.

Others blame the ubiquitous “foreign hand.” One theory reported on state television today was that the ongoing clashes in downtown Cairo are a US-German plot in retaliation for the Egyptian government’s raid on a series of foreign NGOs earlier this year.

Both suggestions may sound like conspiracy theories, but in Egypt conspiracy theories are selcdom as impossible as they seem.

In one example, documents “liberated” by Egyptians citizens during the so-called Amn Dawla Leaks last spring revealed former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly was involved in the New Year’s Eve bombing outside an Alexandrian church that shocked the country.

The government had tried to pin the incident on an al-Qaeda faction based in the Gaza Strip.

Today images of clashes between demonstrators and police glare once more from television screens. The upraised arms of demonstrators and the unfaltering wave of an Egyptian flag can be seen through a foggy haze of tear gas. Both sides throw stones, and the wail of an ambulance occasionally cuts through the dull roar of the clashes and the television presenter’s voice.

The images are painfully and eerily reminiscent of earlier clashes: the battle of Mohamed Mahmoud in November 2011, the June 28 clashes, and, perhaps most poignantly, the infamous Battle of the Camels.

On February 2, 2011 Egyptians watched and lived in horror as men on horses and camels and wielding clubs and machetes attacked what for nearly five days had been a peaceful demonstration in Tahrir Square. Yesterday, exactly one year later, the current clashes began, sparked by the deaths of more than 70 people at a football match.

Public opinion is sharply divided.

“This had to happen,” said one young Egyptian, watching the images today on the television in a small town an hour outside Cairo. “The revolution has to continue.”

Others fear the economic impact of continued clashes.