Political grafitti at Tahrir Square
“Don’t worry if you see blood in the streets this week,” Shorouk tells me. “it’s normal.”
But Cairo is not my normal. Not the traffic, the language, the dress, the smells, the color of the evening sky. I have been here two weeks now, and just as I start to feel I am getting into the cultural flow, I am hit by a rogue wave.
Take last night for example. I just finished teaching a Making Compelling Videos workshop to Shorouk and a few other Egypt activists and journalists. They really got into the training, and you could watch their editing and videography skills improve by the hour. Everyone is now making plans for the evening, and there is talk of the Tahrir Square protests tonight. There are two issues of concern, I am told. One is protesting President Morsi’s lack of any measureable progress in his first 100 days. The other is the injustice of the government-aligned horse and camel riders who trampled and killed several protestors last year and were just declared by the courts to be innocent, despite damning photo evidence. But they warn tonight is not a good night to go to Tahrir, the Muslim Brotherhood is said to be organizing to come en mass, and it’s not clear what their intent is.
Mena creating "Dogs of Cairo" video
I am pooped anyway after the two day workshop so I walk the few blocks home as darkness settles in. I get ready to cross a street I have now crossed 5 times and have named it “The Gauntlet”. It is 8 lanes of highway with an island half way across, and it’s clearly the most dangerous thing I must regularly do to get home to my hotel.
But tonight as I approach I hear loud, live music above the roar of the traffic.
I stop just at the edge of The Gauntlet, and look over the black, wrought-iron fence surrounding a beautiful mansion and expansive yard. Inside the gate are hundreds of people crowded in, African looking, not Egyptian, the music is some kind of Afro-hip hop funky thing, and the women are dressed to the nines, in tight short skirts like it’s prom night.
Long story short, a very well dressed man, who turns out to be a pastor in Uganda, invites Curious Greg inside, gets clearance for me past the guard despite my backpack banjo on board, and proceeds to escort me up on stage where just two other dignitaries, including the Ambassador of Uganda, are sitting. After more music and speeches and trophy giving, as they celebrate Uganda’s 50th year of independence, I am then invited into this Ugandan Embassy for dinner with the Ambassador and 30 of his closest friends.
Goats and lambs on Cairo streets
Now understand, during the entire evening, I am clearly the only white guy anywhere.
I sit down for dinner with a representative from Nigeria, and a Zambian man, Fahad, who just graduated in Islamic Law here in Cairo. We have a pleasant enough conversation over dinner, given my 12 words of Arabic and his only slightly better English. At the close of dinner, I go to shake his hand. And as I do, he flips his hand slowly, palm up. So I am thinking, maybe this is the Zambian form of “Give me some skin”, which I begin to do. And as I start to touch his hand, he pulls it back, and looks hurt and confused. As am I. “Islamic Law Thing” I wonder? I know not to offer my hand to Muslim women unless they first offer theirs, but religious men too? I step away awkwardly, apologize using universal face language, say my quick good byes to the Uganda Pastor and Ambassador and Aide, and go home.
This morning I wake up and turn on CNN to find out what happened in Tahrir Square last night. Basically the story is “Protest in Cairo again. Hundreds injured. Muslim Rage.” Nothing about the complexities of what I was told last night. Nothing about a new democracy’s early struggles, after 30 years of oppressive government. To get that, you have to go somewhere else.
Because Truth, like Beauty, is NOT found in the eye of the beholder. We all tend to be blinded by our own cultural lens. The mistake is when we can’t suspend our preconceived assumptions long enough to dig deeper, and go directly to the eyes of those who use a different, and more familiar cultural lens. Because its then that our kaleidescope of Truth and Beauty becomes both more complex, and more clear.
I don't know really know why I was seated on the embassy stage, or why there are no traffic lights in Cairo, or why Morsi over promised what he would do in his first 100 days. I still don’t know why Fahad refused my handshake. Even the Muslim activists I later asked thought it was weird. I do know why there will be blood in the streets this week though.
It’s Eid, a major and sacred holiday, so its lambs to the slaughter.
Turkeys in America, take note. And run. Thanksgiving is coming.
Greg Tuke teaches and travels internationally, working with university faculty in India, Indonesia and the MIddle East, sharing strategies for implementing international collaborations within course work. This blog chronicles key experiences and insights about those experiences. All opinions expressed are mine, and represent no other institutional affiliation.