Friday, April 27, 2012

Jordan Challenge 31: Making a Cairo Top Ten List (Part II)

So, I've posted numbers 10 -4 of my Top Ten List earlier, but the post was getting so long, I thought it made sense to break it into two.  Here is the rest of the list -- that is, the three best things about my recent trip to Cairo.

3.  Travel with Grace.  As an avid traveller, one thing I came to realize a long ago is that travel companions often make or break the experience.  I have almost always been blessed with awesome travel companions (though some, like my sister Katrinka and friends Jamila and Berit, might not feel the same about me and would be happy to tell you stories about how I almost killed us all with some ridiculously miserly moves that wound up being penny-wise and pound-foolish). As far as I'm concerned a good travel buddy is someone who has a great, sunny attitude; never sweats the small stuff (and considers my legendary (as in terrible) sense of direction an example of the "small stuff"); thinks it's just as fun to bounce onto a sweaty crowded form of public transportation or wander through a crazy chaotic market as it is to go somewhere in the guide book; and agrees with me that the only reason a traveller ever has a right to be cranky is when they are hungry, in which case the nearest scruffy-looking place that gets a lot of local traffic is probably a good bet.

Turns out Grace maxed out on all my criteria. Plus, she was constantly being complimented by everyone and their uncle for her excellent Arabic; had infinite energy and patience for the endless parade of vendors offering free goods and then reneging with demands for baksheesh; loves talking politics as much as I do (I highly recommend her blog, which can be viewed here); and generally charmed all of Cairo with her winning ways.  The moral of the story is that as travellers go, she is positively top-notch, and anyone reading this blog who ever has the chance to hit the road with her should jump on the opportunity immediately.  You will never regret it.
Still another of Grace's amazing travel skills is that she has perfected the art of the jumping picture in front of the world's major landmarks.  She can now add her pyramid jump shot to the ones she did in front of the Taj Mahal and the Siq of Petra in recent months.

Grace with her two new police buddies about one minute before learning the crucial lesson that police, too, feel that baksheesh and the pyramids go together in perfect harmony.

And here, showing off her happy temperament as we embarked on our felucca ride.

2.  Seeing a whirling Dervish performance. Thanks to our friend Kat, this one made it onto our travel itinerary.  The performance was free and held in an amazing building, the Al-Khouri Mausoleum.  The only drawback was that lots of other people also wanted to get in on the fabulous free performance, so although we arrived 45 minutes early, that wasn't early enough to avoid a nail-biting wait outside the giant doors in the hopes that we'd be admitted from among the throng outside.  But the wait was so completely worth it.  The whole performance was not like anything I'd ever seen.  It began with several musical numbers by white-clothed musicians, some of whom also did some spinning, and then they added the spinning dancers in fabulously bright costumes.  It was incredible how long they could maintain their spinning, and the whole thing is pretty mesmerizing.  I feel like I could watch it for hours.

In fact, it's a funny thing.  I've done a lot of religious tourism since coming to this part of the world.  I've visited Mount Nebo, where Moses is believed to have talked to God, Bethany beyond the Jordan where Jesus is believed to have been baptized, and a variety of other holy sites and mosques, churches and synagogues in Jerusalem and elsewhere.  But nothing has felt as spiritual to me as watching the dervishes spin, maybe because they seem so joyful. Although this performance was clearly created with the audience in mind, the practice of spinning was developed by the Sufis, a mystical branch of Islam, as a form of moving meditation. If I have the chance to see more of it (hopefully in an upcoming trip to Turkey with my friend Elizabeth), I surely will.  And I would strongly recommend that anyone who can, should check it out as well.
The musicians were as important as the dancers (and at some points were one and same).

On top of everything else, the performance space, complete with a balcony on the stage, was quite amazing.

My favorite image from the whole trip.

1.  Visiting Tahrir Square. One of the greatest gifts of my time as a Fulbright has actually been it's timing.  The Arab Spring and its aftermath is continuing to unfold around me.  Since the first hopeful manifestations of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen, optimism has been replaced with cynicism, fear and violence in many places (with the notable exception of Tunisia).  And many of the people I've talked to have cynical interpretations of events as well, wondering aloud, for instance, what role foreign elements (including the US government) have played. Yet, despite these developments and suspicions, I think nothing captures the imagination, the optimism and the idealism of the original revolutions so well as the phrase "Tahrir Square".

Having Grace around to translate the tons of graffiti on the government buildings behind me added a whole additional layer of meaning to the experience.
The Square is actually a very big traffic circle and is bounded by a number of notable buildings, including the Egyptian Museum, the headquarters of the National Democratic Party (NDP), the party of which former President Mubarak was head, the headquarters of the Arab League, the old main building of the American University of Cairo, and the Mogamma government building, that housed many government bureaucracies and in some ways symbolized the bureaucratic labyrinth of the state. On the 25th of January, 2011, an estimated 50,000 people occupied the square to protest then-President Mubarak and by February 1 that number had swelled to at least 300,000. Decisively, the Army swung its support to the protesters when ordered by the government to attack them, and Mubarak resigned on February 11, (Obviously, there is a whole lot more that happened, but that's my two-sentence oversimplified summary.)

Although the ousting of Mubarak, which was led by a secular youth movement in alliance with many other groups that had been repressed by the state, including the Muslim Brotherhood, was seen as an inspiring victory to supporters of democracy in many places, today, the outcome of the revolution remains to be determined.  The Army is running the country through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), it says, on a temporary basis until elections have been completed.  Parliamentary elections have already happened, and the secular elements that were at the forefront of the revolution, including many female activists, are concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood and the more conservative religiously-base Salafis won the largest numbers of seats, and are proposing legislation at odds with some of the secular movement's demands.  The Presidential election will happen around the third week of May.  In the meantime, Tahrir Square remains a focal point for demonstrations held just about every Friday, as various elements of the revolution continue to try to consolidate their gains into the actual structuring of a democracy that respects the rule of law.

There are a few tents still pitched in the Square which protesters continuously occupy.  This one is a solidarity tent for Syria. The boy in the picture is 13 year old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, who has come to be a potent symbol of Syrian state oppression when he was tortured, murdered and mutilated by government forces after being detained for participating in a May 2011 protest.

No translation needed on this one -- protesters say it is time for SCAF (the military "temporary" government) to transition out of power.

One of my favorites -- highlighting the equality of girls with boys.

Ironically, though these were my three favorite things of the whole trip, none of them cost me a dime (or in Egypt, that would be a pound).  Yet each was priceless.  In a sense they collectively represent the components of travel at its best-- the opportunity to share the experience with others who are as excited about it as you; the chance to be moved by something beyond your own experience, and the chance to appreciate the experiences and actions of others that had before seemed distant and disconnected.  However the Egyptian Revolution resolves itself, it is impossible to go to Tahrir Square and not be moved by the collective courage and imagination of the thousands of people who demanded (and are continuing to demand) democracy and human rights for everyone. Cairo has always been a major tourist destination for people the world over.  I hope that the inspirational actions of Egypt's citizens give the rest of the world one more reason to want to come and see Egypt's contributions to world civilization.

1 comment:

  1. Anyone telling about his travels must be a liar, . . . for if a traveler doesn't visit his narrative with the spirit and techniques of fiction, no one will want to hear it. Cheap Flights to Cairo