Listening to Egypt

By Guest Contributor

I got back from Alexandria, Egypt almost three months ago.

“Wow, you were in Egypt? How was it?”

“Incredible.”

“Did you see the pyramids?”

“Yeah, can’t miss ‘em.”

“Were you ever in danger?”

“No, the violence is pretty isolated.”

“Was it crazy?”

“Yeah, man.  Really crazy.”

That’s usually about it. As you can probably guess, my experience goes a bit deeper than any small-talk conversation will reveal. So, where to begin? I like to think I took in Egypt with my ears, so I’ll tell a few things that I heard.

I heard the call to prayer echoing through the streets, broadcasted from loudspeakers affixed to mosque minarets. Five times a day, the enchanting song would ring out: “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great.”  Around 3:30 every morning, at least for the first month until I grew accustomed, I lay awake listening to the pre-sunrise prayer. I thought of the most devout of my friends rolling out of bed to pray on the floor in their rooms and I thought of the rest who, like me, pulled a pillow over their heads and tried to fall back asleep.

The incessant honking sometimes kept me awake too. Alexandria has no stop signs, so cars approaching an intersection simply honk their horns rather than slowing down. I picked up on the nuances of lawless driving after countless taxi rides. Cheap and convenient — like just about everything in Egypt — taxis provided my transportation to and from class every day. Fourteen weeks of class makes for 140 taxi rides, not to mention weekends. At 15 to 30 minutes a ride, depending on traffic, I spent at least a day and a half cruising through Alexandria in an old, Russian-made, yellow-and-black taxi cab.

I heard a lot of things on those taxi rides, each short conversation serving as an assessment of my language development. These abrupt introductions were characterized by polite but aggressive curiosity. The first question was almost always “Are you Muslim?” For girls, it was “Are you married?”  Few topics are inappropriate for casual conversation. “I’m Christian,” I would always reply.  The truth is I’m agnostic, but it wasn’t until I learned the words for “doubt” and “spiritual” that I was finally able to tell the truth to my new, taxi-driving friend. This driver, like many others, refused to accept payment from an honored guest in his country.

Abiding by my language pledge, I spent a lot of time listening. The more I listened, the more I understood. My greatest triumph came one night while sitting in the dorm common room and watching television. I was quietly doing homework and hoping that the ambient newscast would seep into my brain through some sort of knowledge osmosis when a crowd joined me to watch a popular program. Modeled after Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” this program presents topical political satire.

Students travel to study at the University of Alexandria from Cairo and rural towns in the Nile delta, representing every political opinion out there, from indifference to membership in the Muslim Brotherhood. On this night, they all watched as the show’s host insulted Morsi. To say I understood half of what I heard would be an exaggeration, but the video clips he showed made his point fairly clear. The crowd’s reaction varied; some laughed and others booed. An argument about the media and Islam unfolded before my eyes and I jotted down one evocative comment that, quite to my pleasure, I was able to understand: “This episode will bring him to his knees.”

One night, with the country engulfed in protests over Morsi’s declaration and escalation in Palestine, I listened as a small rally formed outside my window. In the dorm courtyard below, a crowd had formed in front of the mosque to hear someone speak in support of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. When I leaned out of the window to get a better look, I saw hundreds of others doing the same. Soon, people began chanting insults and throwing trash at the crowd below. I turned to my Egyptian friend and asked, “Why are they so angry?”

His response speaks to the nature of the current political and social turmoil in Egypt. “I don’t know … This conflict is dividing our country,” he replied with a look of deep sadness. “We are all Egyptians,” he said, echoing the nationalist slogans festooned around the courtyard below. Indeed, Egyptians have great pride in their “homeland,” a term distinct from “country” or “nation” in the Arabic language, endowed with a sense of identity and personal stake. Some would portray today’s Egypt as a nation crumbling under the weight of an irresolvable conflict of religious and political ideals. My experience suggests a different metaphor, one of more optimism: Egypt is bursting at the seams, unable to contain its citizens’ desire for a better homeland. The popular revolution granted the people a voice, and I was lucky enough to hear it for myself.

JEREMY KALLAN ’14 is from Washington, D.C.

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