Letter from Cairo

Thursday, March 19, when American attacks on Iraq began, I was in Egypt for the 29th annual meeting of the African Literature Association. Delegates from Europe, Africa, Latin America, Asia and the United States occupied the red plush seats in the auditorium of the new Alexandria Library, rebuilt after 1,500 years. We were being welcomed by the Governor of Alexandria, His Excellency Mohammed Abdel Salam El Mahgoub. War was near, we thought, but until the actual moment, we kept hoping something would happen to avert the conflict. Maybe Bush would change his mind. Maybe Saddam would abdicate for the sake of his people. Maybe the Pope would fly to Baghdad to stave off the bombing. Maybe.

“It’s true, they’ve started bombing,” said an Egyptian scholar sitting near me. “My husband called from Cairo on the cell phone.” We congregated on the marble paving between the conference center and the library itself, talking, questioning, worrying. The library, opened only last year, looks like nothing so much as a giant seashell on its side, facing outward to the Mediterranean, blue water, blue skies, children frolicking in the white caps that lap the beach under the noonday sun.

So it had begun. What now? I had arrived March 16 on a nearly full British Airlines flight to Cairo. The city seemed calm, or as calm as any city of 16 million people can ever be. When I’d walked out from friends Tom and Randa’s house next morning for the papers, I had no idea what to expect. Open hostility? Stones thrown? Curses on me, as an American? Nothing like that happened. Egyptians have always been able to separate individuals from their governments. We sat in the beautiful garden of the Cairo Marriott for a late lunch. Wisteria and jacaranda were beginning to bloom: The flame trees would come later. A few elegant Cairene ladies sat in the cushioned wicker chairs of the garden, with some middle-aged Scandinavian tourists, two or three freelance writers who, as Tom said, “always hang out here looking for stories.” And us. A strong wind rose suddenly and unpleasantly. We finished lunch quickly and left the garden.

Tuesday, March 18, the wind was much worse, a late spring kamseen or sandstorm that battered at the trees along Sharia al Gezira, darkened the air, and whipped up everything moveable on the streets: bits of paper, dust, sand, dry leaves from the ancient banyan tree near Tom’s house. I set off for my friend Amira’s and stopped to buy yellow roses at the flower vendor where we had shopped years ago. He wrapped the roses in two layers of cellophane and stapled it shut. The wind split the cellophane in two. Even the usually placid Nile was stirred and roughened by the wind, the forerunner of the sandstorm that hit Kuwait and Iraq two days later.

The train to the conference in Alexandria was full of Egyptians, polite, quiet, helpful. The hotel Helnan, in the beautiful gardens of the old Montazah Palace was welcoming. An anxious doorman in a red and black elaborately-frogged uniform rushed to open the door. Egypt depends on tourism for a good slice of its national income, and the war threatened to dry up the source, as it had during the Gulf War.

I had the strong feeling from everyone I met or talked to that Egyptians were worried. And for good reason. It is not just the war with Iraq and the decline in tourist income. For Egyptians have seen it all. Since the beginning of the Christian Era, they have been ruled by numerous invaders, including the Romans, the Byzantines, the Fatimids, and Umayyads, the Mamelukes, the Ottomans, the French, the British, and now, finally, themselves: Gamal Abdul Nasser, son of a postal clerk and hero nationalizer of the Suez Canal; Anwar Sadat, friend of America and co-architect of the Camp David Treaty; Hosni Mubarak, But Egyptians are not really independent. Their survival depends on others–huge amounts of American surplus flour to keep local bread within the reach of the population; USAID grants under the terms of the Camp David treaty. Egyptians are subject to America’s whims and must support them. This is not a position anyone likes or of which they feel proud.

The prognosis for the future is not good. The Egyptian pound, as economists put it, is floating. In March 2002, the pound stood at 3.30 to the dollar. By March 2003, when I arrived, I was given 5.79 pounds to the dollar at the banks. The black market rate is as high as 7.29 to the dollar. Unemployment is at record levels, and the cost of everyday commodities like sugar, rice, and oil has risen 25 to 30 percent in the past six months.

In this uncertain economic climate, one might expect spontaneous demonstrations and protests against everything–the war in Iraq, yes, but also the government’s increasing suppression of political opposition, U.S. foreign policy in general, Israel, food prices. And actually, several demonstrations did take place in the 10 days I was there, demonstrations that were well-contained, harshly well-contained, by President Mubarak’s well-trained and not particularly benevolent police. Egypt is used to political protests, which have been going on for more than two thousand years.

What was different in 2003 was the underlying uneasiness I sensed among our friends. I was glad to be in Egypt again, where Bob and I had lived for so many years, where our children were born. Once you drink from the waters of the Nile, says the old proverb, you keep coming back. That was certainly true of us. In the past, we had admired Egyptians for their cheerful acceptance of the vagaries of the world, their penchant for laughing at themselves, their ability to deal with serious problems like meat shortages and political repression by making fun of them. This time, the old cheeriness was gone. No new jokes were circulating, although I asked and asked.

“Not a time for jokes,” said an old Egyptian friend. “Nor for us, but also not for you, B.J. What is your government doing in Iraq anyway? Is that something to laugh about?”

I subsided, properly chastened. He was right. There is nothing to laugh at these days, for Egyptians, for Americans, for Iraqis, for anyone. I left Cairo with regret and sadness, wondering whether, if ever, I would return.

Elizabeth (“B.J.”) Fernea is Professor Emerita of English and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and the author or editor of many articles and books, including Children in the Muslim Middle East, The Arab World: Forty Years of Change, In Search of Islamic Feminism, and Guests of the Sheik.

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Published at 12:00 am CST