Friday, March 27, 2009

The Three People You Meet in Egypt (A Long Post)

Just over a year ago I was traveling in Egypt with a friend. Not only was the trip amazing, but because my traveling companion spoke Arabic, with her help I was able to have a somewhat deeper connection with people we met than had my co-adventurer not spoken the language.

Three people we spoke with stand out in my mind. I've been wanting to write about them for a long time.

The Guide

We hired a tour guide for our day trip to Alexandria. Our guide was a young woman who had given up practicing law for the greener pastures of tourism. She was religious and wore a hijab.

To begin, our tour our guide oriented us by showing us a map of Egypt with Alexandria on it and then a map of the larger middle east: 'here is Egypt, here is Syria, here is Lebanon, here is Palestine...' she said while pointing to the land where Israel is on the map, which showed Israel the West Bank and the Gaza strip to be a single entity.

Throughout the day there were comments about Egypt winning the war in 1973 but being forced by the Americans to make peace, against Egypt's will. There was also the comment encouraging my companion and I to imagine Egypt having won the war in 1948 (the Israeli war of independence). Had Egypt won, we were told, there would be no war in Iraq or Afghanistan today. The implication being that Israel is somehow responsible for both these wars. We also heard comments of how American Jews who come to Alexandria look at her with her hijab as though she were 'some kind of animal' (I'm not sure how she knew these 'Americans' were Jewish.) There was also a quip as we drove past, what I think is the only synagogue in Alexandria, that there was really no purpose for that building to exist in Alexandria, that there was no need for it because there were no Jews in the city.

Other than this, our guide was really quite pleasant, nice and other than these few moments which were, for me at least, a little uncomfortable (I did not wish to challenge this woman on her political views at that time) she showed us a very nice time in "Alex," going far beyond what we may have expected of her to ensure we enjoyed ourselves. Nonetheless, her distaste, and I daresay hatred for Israel was palpable and she mentioned how after Hamas had broken thorough the Egypt-Gaza border fence a few weeks earlier she had gone into Gaza. Her facebook profile picture was the leader of Hizbollah.

The Bedouin

In the Sinai, we hired a Bedouin driver to take us in his car between (I think it was) St. Catherine and Dahab. My friend sat in the passenger seat next to him and began a conversation which she translated for me. She asked him if he had lived in Sinai when it was occupied by Israel and what that was like. His answer surprised us both.

He said that had we asked that question in public, his response would be that he hated Israel, hated the Jews and is so glad to have Egypt back. In private, however, he wishes the Israelis were still around. In the time of the Israeli occupation, he reminisced, there was nearly full employment. Education was good and health care was so good, that if you got sick, and the doctor they brought you couldn't help, you would be flown to Tel Aviv for medical care. He even noted how the road we were on was built by the Israelis and that infrastructure was nearly non existent prior to the occupation. Our driver lamented that the Egyptian government didn't care about the people and that the reality is, times were better when Israel was in charge.

The Veteran

In our last cab ride in Egypt, from Zamalek in Cairo to the airport, our driver was a friendly, older man. He told us that he had been a soldier in the Egyptian army in 1973 and was in the Egyptian Third Army that had been surrounded by the Israelis after they crossed the Suez canal and needed UN convoys to bring them supplies so that they wouldn't die of thirst or starvation.

He spoke more or less unprompted for most of the long ride. He told us how in his mind, Israel saved his life. He said that in that salient, surrounded by the Israeli army, the Israelis could have bombed, shelled and strafed every last Egyptian to death. That the entire pocket could have been wiped out and he would no doubt have been killed. Instead, he said, the Israelis decided that human life was more important. That there was no reason kill defeated people, and so they allowed the UN through, to provide the supplies that saved his life.

He said that the Egyptian people and the Egyptian government want him to hate the Israelis and love the Palestinians. He didn't understand that. "Why should I support the Palestinians" he asked "when they are killing each other?" (referring to Hamas-Fatah violence.) He maintained that the Israelis saved his life and he has no reason to hate them and doesn't think that anyone else should.

The Others

We heard a mix of such stories throughout our time in Egypt. When we would go visit most of the beautiful mosques in Egypt and my friend would mention to anyone who actually worked at the mosque that she was Lebanese, often the first words out of their mouth would be Hassan Nassralah--the leader of Hizbullah. I met a young man from Columbia who was converting to Judaism and living in northern Israel walking around in a bright red t-shirt with Hebrew writing on it and unabashedly telling people where he was living. He said often he received very hostile reactions. My friend met another young man who hired horses and he told her how if he could go anywhere, one of his top choices would be Israel, because he's met so many Israelis who are so nice and he hears the country has beautiful beaches. He couldn't go though, because he couldn't risk getting an Israeli stamp on his Egyptian passport. There was even the run in I had with someone who turned out to be a member of the Egyptian secret police who told me that he was going to name his adorable puppy either "Sharon" or "Bush" because he hated them both and thought that they were names suitable only for dogs. He wanted to know my opinion. We even met an Israeli tour guide leading a group of Nigerians who argued that the peace treaty between his country and Egypt was terrible, because it didn't stop weapons from flowing into Gaza and prevented Israel from taking its own interdiction measures.

What struck me about all these people, especially The Three, was that the one who hated Israel and disparaged Jews, was the only one who had never actually met an Israeli. She accepted what she was told, and that was it. Her understanding of the world was so skewed that one could not help but wonder where her information was coming from and what the motives of those informing her was. Even more alarming was that this was a young, educated woman.

The Bedouin and the Veteran were both older, perhaps wiser and stood out, like some of the others, because they had both actually met Israelis. One of them even fought against them in a full scale war. Having seen Israelis, having realized that Israelis are people not much different than Egyptians, having realized that propaganda is just that, propaganda, these latter two had more reasonable opinions and views on the world.

The Three are not representative of Egyptian society. Traveling for two weeks in any country does not an expert make but these encounters were eye opening. In my mind, they drive home the opinion that the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, just a shade over 30 years old as I write this, as well as the Jordan-Israel peace and any future peace that Israel may sign with its neighbors, to be a true peace between people, as opposed to politicians, requires the population to contact one another.

If Israelis go to Egypt at all, it's to the resort playgrounds of the Sinai, almost never to Cairo, Luxor or anywhere else. Egyptians traveling to Israel is almost unheard of. There are almost no academic, cultural or other exchanges and so the populations remain alien to one another. This needs to change for the peace to flourish.

The state of relations between Israel and Egypt is not where it was expected to be thirty years after the treaty was signed. The Israeli foreign Minister Livini expressed this very well in her comments on the anniversary of the peace treaty:
"While the historic images and voices of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty are those of leaders, I would wish to see that the associative context of the words "peace with Egypt" would not relate just to voices from the past. I would also like to see that for every Israeli "peace with Egypt" would connect with images of Egypt today, voices of conversations with Egyptians, tastes and aromas of dishes, and sights and sounds of places. Likewise, I would like to see that "peace with Israel" for the Egyptian people would connect with images of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and phone numbers of their friends in Israel."


Jack said...

It is a cold peace. While it is preferable to outright warfare, it is not nearly as good as it could be.

I know a lot of similar stories to the one you shared about the three. Nice post, I liked it.

PSim said...

Very perceptive.

Good post

Charlie H. Ettinson said...


Thanks for the comment.

You're right, it's a cold peace, and while it's better than a cold war or a hot war, it's not where it ought to be.

It's good to know you've heard similar stories. It means that what I experienced was not necessarily isolated.

A real peace requires a density of relations. For example. Canada and the US will likely never fight a war because there is so much interaction on so many levels: commercial, political, cultural, personal, environmental, that neither country would benefit from disrupting such a relationship. This "density" should be the goal for Israel and its neighbors.

Steve Lieblich said...

"...the one who hated Israel and disparaged Jews, was the only one who had never actually met an Israeli..."

That says it all ...

Anonymous said...

Well said