Southern World

The last time I was in Cairo, I had dinner with a young Egyptian man who had lived for a time in Atlanta and studied with his wife at Georgia State University.  He pulled out his cellphone and showed me several photos of their beaming boy, then about 3, born soon after they moved back to Egypt.  The proud papa beamed, too.

Tanks guard the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. (Photo by Al Jazeera English)

We dined overlooking a small park where children frolicked with their mothers and aunts, and old men watched croquet being played on a long green lawn.

Now fathers in Cairo patrol the dangerous darkness with sticks and swords and baseball bats — this in a country where almost nobody plays baseball — to protect family and property from looters.  I wonder how the young couple and their small son are holding up in the chaos.

Watching revolution on CNN is more fun when you don’t know some of the people caught in the crossfire.

I have visited Cairo four times, and I have made friends there.  It remains one of my favorite cities for the very reasons some people don’t like it:  It is old, a little dirty and full of restless people.  And there is nothing more awesome than viewing the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza for the first time, even with a Kentucky Fried Chicken just across the street.

I watch the revolution on TV and look for sights I recognize.  I see armored trucks and soldiers under a viaduct.  I think it is the viaduct near Al-Ahram, Egypt’s largest newspaper and the place where I helped conduct a workshop on feature writing for Egyptian journalists in 2004, where my friend Leonard Ray Teel and I stopped by for hot tea and a chat with one of the editors in 2009.

Dr. Teel is director of the Center for International Media Education at GSU and helped found the Arab-U.S. Association for Communication Educators.  He has been to Egypt and many other points in the Middle East many times.  Occasionally, he lets me tag along.

Through AUSACE, I have met some of the men and women who built Egypt’s communications network.  I was at Nilesat one night when they were realigning one of their satellites in outer space to get a better TV signal.  At the AUSACE conference in 2009, one of the speakers was the manager of Google Egypt.

Now most satellite communication is shut down, and Google Egypt’s marketing director is missing.

On CNN, I see the bridge that we take from the heart of Cairo to a compound of fine restaurants across the Nile River.  I remember the fresh fish stacked on ice for customer selection at one restaurant and the excellent pasta dishes at another.

I see the bridge now in a fog of tear gas, and an armored truck is trying to run over demonstrators on the bridge.

When last we were in Cairo, we rented a horse and carriage to cross the bridge after visiting the U.S. Embassy and managed to beat most of the suicidal rush-hour traffic back to our hotel.  The sky was clear and the Nile was steel blue except for the occasional faluka taking tourists for a river ride.

Tanks surround the Egyptian Museum, already violated by vandals.  I went there on my first visit to Cairo in 1998.  I laugh now when some American museum announces the display of an Egyptian mummy.  The Egyptian Museum has more mummies and sarcophaguses in closets than are in all American museums.  The King Tut exhibit, sent to the U.S. occasionally to much fanfare, is represented at the Egyptian Museum in a small room off one of the huge hallways.

Because of the museum’s ancient treasures, it’s probably the one place tanks should be.

I see photos of burned-out cars on a street near Tahrir Square, one of the main gathering points for demonstrators.  Not far from there is Felfela, one of the restaurants we always try to visit in Cairo.  It has great lentil soup and fuul, a bean dish popular with Egyptians.  But, mostly, it has an odd connection to home.

The manager inevitably guides Western visitors to a shelf near the entrance that holds an autographed photo of Jimmy Carter, the Plains, Georgia, peanut farmer who brought the Middle East the closest thing to lasting peace that it has had.  It is unclear whether President Carter ever actually dined at Felfela during his talks with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat — whose assassination brought Hosni Mubarak to power — but it is a wonderful, simple monument to the Camp David Accords, which have preserved peace between Israel and Egypt for more than 30 years.

I see people marching.  Now what?

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Ron Taylor

Ron Taylor

Ron Taylor was born and raised in Georgia and worked more than 40 years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a reporter and editor and as an online producer for ajc.com and AccessAtlanta. He served for a time as the newspaper's regional editor, overseeing coverage of the South. He is co-author, with Dr. Leonard Ray Teel, of Into the Newsroom:  An Introduction to Journalism and has conducted workshops in the Middle East on feature writing.

5 Comments
  1. I love this layered piece. It makes me see and feel Cairo as none of the other coverage has and as I could not possibly do, having not been there. It also makes me hope that despite all the opportunists who rise to fill a power vacuum (and are already doing so), that the Egyptian people will come out ahead.

  2. Although AlJazeera has been off the internet since the 28th, you can access it via Youtube. In addition to segments that represent selections of their programming, as well as uploaded video from viewers, there’s a streaming page with their programming. HERE.
    Of course, Egypt is seven hours ahead of EST, so our over-night coverage is mostly a replay from the day before. If you get a chance to watch the Vice President’s news conference from this afternoon, don’t miss it. The Egyptian leadership is delusional.
    From what I’ve been able to gather, it wasn’t really Tunisia that ignited a spark. The popular revolt seems to have been brewing since the elections in November/December were rigged. And the reason the thugs descending on the demonstrators didn’t have the desired effect is because this tactic of sending thugs to intimidate the population is well know, but probably not publicized, from the elections. The NDP “won” by having multiple candidates on the ballot for the general election, as we have for a primary, and by sending thugs out to intimidate the people.
    What was perhaps most revealing about the VP’s rambling oration, in which he urged the “youth” to be content to have been heard and all their complaints answered, was the observation that elders protecting their households and neighborhoods had been impressive, but it was now time for them to also return home and rely on the state to provide security and stability. Never mind that even as he was speaking, snipers were shooting demonstrators from overpasses a mile away through the head. As one of the reporters for AlJazeera on the ground reported, “nobody has such weapons,” unless they have been provided by the state.
    Come to think of it, the VP probably didn’t know that AlJazeera had people on the ground using cell phones to provide verbal reports and uploaded video from independent sources, located in buildings off-site and using the zoom function on their cameras.

    1. Ron Taylor

      I think Al Jazeera is still live on the internet except in Egypt, but I could be wrong. They’re based in Qatar … And, yes, the VP’s speech was scary.

  3. Hollis B. Ball III

    I appreciate your personal reflections and can identify with a lot of what you say. I currently live in Cairo and can tell you that, despite an 8 p.m. curfew, life has pretty much returned to normal here in Heliopolis. The militias have left their posts, police are returning to the streets, and people are going back to work.

    Of course, the future of the nation is as yet undetermined, so the ONLY thing people talk about is the revolution. As you can probably imagine, views range from those fed up with protests to those who believe the demonstrators in Tahrir must remain strong. But everyone is more politically aware than ever before, and no one laments the impending departure of Mubarak. It’s an exciting time to be in Cairo.

    1. Ron Taylor

      Thanks. And thanks for your excellent perspective on the situation. I look forward to hearing more from you on what is happening there. As I mentioned, Cairo is one of my favorite cities, and I look forward to returning one day to a free Cairo.

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