Monday, August 20, 2007

The Adventure Begins

San Francisco International Airport
August 18, 2007, 9:47pm

Today I begin my adventure. I just finished a summer internship at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, and now I can turn my attention to the academic year, My Year in Cairo, the title of my blog.

Three days from now, I will board a plane in Detroit, Michigan, and fly 6,000 miles to Cairo, Egypt, one of the most ancient and intriguing hubs of civilization in the world. What child doesn’t grow up in awe of the great Pyramids of Giza and the legends of the Nile? Egypt, it seems, is ubiquitous; just take a look at the cover of a National Geographic or explore the exhibits of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Travel to the heart of Egypt and you will discover Cairo—the largest and most populous city in the Middle East. Cairo truly is a nucleus of human history.

My knowledge of Cairo—and Egypt in general—is rather limited to tidbits of information I’ve collected through conversations with native Cairenes, perusings of Internet travel sites, and brief formal studies in Arab culture and politics. But what I do know is that Cairo is situated at the tip of the fertile Nile delta. It is a bustling city of 20 million people, is harmfully polluted, and is subject to infamous traffic jams because there are no traffic lights. Ninety-five percent of Egypt’s approximately 80 million people live along the banks of the Nile. It’s no wonder Egypt has been called the “Gift of the Nile.” With 20% of the world’s Arab population, Egypt has always played a prominent role as de facto leader the Arab world. From the Arab nationalism of Gamal Abd al-Nasr to the modern celebrity of the Egyptian movie industry, Egypt is very influential among all things Arab.

Despite the large revenues from tourism and developed film industry, Egypt remains quite poor. Egypt has very few oil or natural gas reserves like its Gulf neighbors to the east. Instead, it relies on the economic benefit of the Suez Canal, one of the most important canals in the world. As I found out last semester, the importance of the canal is better understood after studying the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the wars fought over this region, and the effects of European colonialism, that like the entire continent of Africa, has suffered tremendously from such foreign incursions. But there is some good news as well. The Camp David Accords between Anwar Sadat and Menachim Begin, hosted by President Jimmy Carter, remains the longest and most robust peace agreement in modern Middle East history. Although the Accords are controversial in some cirles, it is my personal opinion that this model of compromise and cooperation gives humble hope for further advancements of peace in this region.

Of course, I cannot possibly live in Cairo without grasping a better understanding of religion. The American public, I feel, has a tremendously skewed and misunderstood view of Islam, one of the world’s great monotheistic religions. Egypt will provide a unique opportunity not only to study Islam, but also the role of the Christian minority. Approximately 10% of Eygptians are Coptic Christians (the government says less, the Coptics more. Being neither the Egyptian government nor a Coptic Christian, I believe the middle ground is solid ground). Cairo is a bustling metropolis where church bells and Islamic calls to prayer can be heard simultaneously. Religion provides much tension in Egypt: every citizen is required to “have” a religion, and government-issued ID’s reveal this information. Therefore any cop that pulls you over or company that wishes to hire you knows your religious affiliation. As an American who highly values our Constitutional principles, this is a challenging concept. Other political tensions exist. Egypt is home to the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization with a violent, extremist past that is gaining wide political support. In the most recent elections, the government outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and had to step in during the election to prevent the de facto members from winning too many seats. The party claims that it has reformed its violent past; opponents disagree. But what is certain is that if Egypt were purely democratic, the likely winner would be the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization the United States would classify as a “terrorist organization.” This is just a hint at why simple, idealistic views of democracy and peace are so misconstrued, and why I must live in Egypt to fully understand the situation.

As I prepare to depart for Cairo, I cannot grasp the realization that I am about to spend an entire academic year in Middle East. The thought of improving my Arabic three fold or more in a single year is exciting, as is the thought of studying the Middle East in the Middle East. The best thing to do, I believe, is to stop speculating and start opening my mind. I will observe, and then I will comment. I will have questions, and then I will seek answers. That sounds like a good itinerary to me. See you Cairo.


Teague Neal said...

Paul this is extremely well written, as someone who's highly interested in global affairs and tourism, going into travel & tourism a year in Egypt truly is an exceptional experience. Study abroad cannot be undervalued. I wish you nothing but the best and wil l look forward to reading this. Check out my blog when you can. Cheers

RON HAYES said...

Bon Voyage, Paul! Have a great trip to get to Cairo, and a year of great experiences and learning. I have to believe this will be one of those life-changing challenges. I also believe you will help many of us to better understand the cultures you explore. Mary Anne and I wish you the very best. We will be following your experiences. Peace and love, Ron

RON HAYES said...

Hi Paul. Looks like you are having some great experiences. I love your photo at Fishawi's Coffee House. I will go to Google Earth and see if I can find this place :-) I am already wishing I could visit you at Fishawi's and have a Turkish coffee. Is it a lot like the coffee Eddie makes? He makes some very good java. We are having some nice weather for our Labor Day weekend -- and for a bad start for Michigan football season. The Naysayers (like Mitch Albom) are saying that it's all over for UM this season (because they let this game slip past them). They might have done better if you could have been there with the band. :-) I think Michigan will get over this, but maybe they could use some Fishawi's java. You are doing a great job with your blog. You will have some terrific memories stored here. Have a great time! Peace & Love, Ron