Before Egypt became a country Americans and other Westerners could no longer visit without serious concerns for their safety, my husband Kurt and I were rushing to the Cairo International Airport for our British Airways flight to leave the country. I cannot recall the reason we were running late, but it could well have been Cairo’s notoriously chaotic traffic which is certainly a strong candidate for the worst traffic in the world. In this ancient city, no one in a car or donkey-drawn cart gives any attention to traffic lanes. Everyone is everywhere at once, meaning no one gets anywhere quickly. And, of course, we missed our flight.
The night before our willy-nilly dash to the airport in 2000, Lena, a young Lebanese woman from one of Kurt’s training classes drove us to our hotel from the restaurant where we had eaten dinner.
“Hey, listen to this song!” she said. “Isn’t it the best?”
We had never heard the song with its irresistible Middle Eastern instruments, but we immediately recognized the unmistakable voice of Sting, the British singer/songwriter.
I dream of rain“Desert Rain”, Songwriter: Sting, 1999
I dream of gardens in the desert sand
I wake in vain
I dream of love as time runs through my hand
We were hearing Sting’s “Desert Rose”, which was on its way to becoming a huge hit in countries around the world. Later I read that Sting wrote the song as an homage to the Rai clubs he had visited in Paris that featured a melting pot of musical influences including Arabic, French, flamenco, and jazz. It was ironic that we were introduced to this song by a British musician, in Egypt by a woman from Lebanon who loved her country, but could not go home.
Lena explained to us that she could not live in her homeland, although she visited it as often as she could. Once famous for its intoxicating natural beauty, healthy economy, and rich architectural heritage, by 2000, Lebanon had been devastated by a civil war that had been going on for at least 15 years. In addition to the civil war, Lebanon had become ground zero for proxy armies fighting each other over control of the Middle East.
Although more stable than Lebanon, Egypt had become less attractive as a tourist destination after the Luxor massacre of November 1997. During this terrorist attack, at least four Egyptians and 58 tourists, the majority of whom were Swiss and Japanese, were killed by Islamic militants trying to overthrow the Egyptian government led by President Hosni Mubarek. The killings occurred on the west bank of the Nile near the Valley of the Kings, an archaeological site and one of Egypt’s most popular tourist destinations.
By the time we came to Egypt three years later, its tourism industry had taken a major hit. There were metal detectors manned by Egyptian soldiers with machine guns at the entrance to our hotel. Soldiers with automatic weapons were stationed at regular intervals along the major highways around Cairo, in shopping malls, and anywhere else where large numberd of tourists might be.
My husband Kurt had been employed by the Middle East Management Centre to lead training classes in Cairo for MobiNil, an up-and-coming Egyptian cell phone provider. On our next visit, we were in Cairo for a week before we flew to Sharm el-Sheikh, an Egyptian resort town located between the Sinai desert and the Red Sea, for Kurt to provide training for another group.
The Egyptian people we met were open, friendly, proud, and generous. The women who worked for MobiNil assured us that Egyptian women were the best belly dancers in the world and, according to my research, they are correct. Our Egyptian friends were very proud of their cuisine, history, and culture. And they were proud of their company which they believed was the best cell phone company in Egypt.
For over 3100 years, ancient Egypt was a super power, a fantastically rich country with its pharaohs wielding power over great swaths of land and people. From around 3100 B.C. until its conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.—Egypt was the dominant civilization of the Mediterranean world. The architectural splendor and ingenuity of their great building projects–including their pyramids, obelisks, and monuments–as well as their art, medicine, belief system, and funerary rites, are still studied today. Ancient Egypt was one of the world’s most influential cultures.
Present-day Egypt? Not so much now. My husband Kurt spent a good deal of time working in the Middle East, and he learned that Egyptians were disdained by their fellow Middle Easterners, especially the Saudis and Kuwaitis. Why? Racism. “Pure Arabs” look down on Egyptians as mixed-race peoples. And despite Egypt’s cultural heritage, it does not have the oil reserves of its richer Middle Eastern neighbors.
In 2000 when we were in Egypt, its relative poverty and political instability–with terrorists attacking tourists–had taken its toll on Egypt. Even the jewels of Egypt’s history were difficult for me to enjoy. While Kurt worked, I visited the Cairo Museum where the world-famous Tutankhamen artifacts were on display in a tiny, stifling room, enclosed in plexiglass with so many people filling the room that I could not enter it. There was no air conditioning in the museum, and I was grateful that I was not visiting Aswan, a tourist destination on the banks of the Nile, when the record temperature of 124 degrees F. was reached. When I visited the Great Pyramid, just outside Cairo, an Egyptian chased me on a camel begging for money.
Great civilizations come and go, with the Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Incas, and British on the short list of once-dominant cultures that no longer rule the world. During the early part of my life, the United States and the Soviet Union (the U.S.S.R.) were the two superpowers divvying up the world into spheres of influence. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, there was a few years of shining hope that glasnost would prevail and Mikhail Gorbachev’s more open government would end the Cold War between Russia and America and its Western allies. It was not to be, and Vladimir Putin’s Russian invasion of Ukraine is the proof of that.
What happens when a country becomes unstable? Egypt is a prime example. Hosni Mubarek became president after Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. For 30 years, Mubarak ruled his country with an iron hand which led to increasing unrest and protests that brought down his government in 2011. He surrendered rule to the military, and the next year the Muslim Brotherhood took power with Egyptians electing Islamist Mohamed Morsi to the presidency in 2012. Soon the Morsi government overplayed its hand and attempted to pass an Islamic constitution which ignited strong opposition from secularists and the military. In July 2013, Morsi was deposed in a coup led by the minister of defense, General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, as millions of Egyptians took to the streets in support of a democratic election. El-Sisi became Egypt’s president after an election in 2014 that was boycotted by opposition parties, and he remains president to this day. I worry about my Egyptian friends and how they weathered the storms of their country’s oppressive leadership, punctuated by instability, then another round of oppressive leadership. Apparently their only governance choices are between autocratic rule by the military or autocratic rule by religious fundamentalists.
Increasingly our country has also devolved into metaphoric war zones of competing interests that cannot be easily resolved. We have been at this juncture before. In the mid 19th Century–157 years ago–our country endured a civil war as we killed one another over power, sectarian dominance, and the idea that owning human beings was a perfectly reasonable way to accrue wealth. The fissures bleeding openly at that time continue to this day. Who will have the power to decide? Who matters and who does not?
A few months ago, Irish actor Liam Neeson was interviewed by AARP magazine regarding his ability to continue being successful as an action movie star when he will be 70 years old on June 7. About Neeson, the reporter, Allison Glock, wrote:
He was raised to believe that everyone matters and by showing someone your humanity, you pay yourself the best compliment. . . . On top of that, he says, ‘there was a war going on where I lived for 30 years.’Allison Glock, writing about Irish actor Liam Neeson in “AARP: The Magazine”, March 30, 2022
When he grew up in County Antrum, Northern Ireland, Neeson was a Catholic boy living in the predominantly Protestant town of Ballymena. Catholics and Protestants had been killing each other in Europe for centuries dating back to the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. In Northern Ireland the two main factions of Christianity continued that religious and political war. Thousands died or were imprisoned during what has been euphemistically called The Troubles, which lasted from the 1960s until 1998, when a formal agreement was reached to end the civil strife. Neeson kept his head down as a teenager and was quoted in 1999 as saying he felt as if he was a second-class citizen.
Our country is not Egypt or Northern Ireland, but civil strife and bloodshed are happening on our streets. And in our schools, grocery stores, churches, movie theaters, shopping malls, nightclubs, and anywhere else people gather.
As an Irishman who lived through the unrest in his homeland, Liam Neeson knows a few things about what works and what does not work when it comes to hatred and fear erupting into violence. He now lives in upstate New York and has spoken out on his views about unrestricted access to guns, calling U.S. gun laws a “disgrace”. Practical, sane gun safety laws would ban automatic and semi-automatic assault weapons that can kill hundreds of people in a few minutes, require background checks of individuals before they can own a gun, and raise the age at which teenagers can own a weapon. Other countries have mentally ill teenagers and young adults, but they do not have mass shootings every other day because they limit who can own a gun to those who have proven themselves to be responsible to handle such a weapon, and their laws seek to keep automatic and semi-automatic weapons out of the civilian population entirely.
In his AARP interview, Neeson was quoted as saying, “Everyone matters.” Of course, he meant everyone should matter.
In Ireland, if everyone matters, then not just Catholics, and not just Protestants–but both–should have power and agency over their lives and livelihoods.
In America, if everyone matters, then not just white people and not just Black or brown people should have power over their own lives, but everyone should have power over their own lives.
And in Ireland and America, women as well as men should have power over their own lives.
In December 2018, Irish women achieved the right to have an abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, as well as later in the pregnancy if the woman’s life or health is at risk, or in the case of fetal abnormality. Before that time, Irish law held that the life of the fetus and the life of the mother had equal value–not surprising, perhaps, since Ireland was a predominantly Catholic country and the Catholic Church held sway over the lives of all the Irish people whether they were Catholic or not.
What was the catalyst for Ireland to finally change its law? A woman died while having a miscarriage. In 2012, Ireland’s abortion law received worldwide attention after Savita Halappanavar, a dentist by profession, was denied an abortion while she was suffering a septic miscarriage. Because the fetus and the woman were valued equally, the medical professionals caring for her would not perform an abortion until after the baby no longer had a heartbeat, which meant both died.
On 21 October 2021, Halappanavar, then 17 weeks pregnant, was examined at University Hospital, Galway, after complaining of back pain, but was soon discharged without a diagnosis. She returned to the hospital later that day, this time complaining of lower pressure, a sensation she described as feeling ‘something coming down,’ and a subsequent examination found that the gestational sac was protruding from her body. She was admitted to hospital, as it was determined that miscarriage was unavoidable, and several hours later, just after midnight on 22 October, her water broke but did not expel the fetus. The following day, on 23 October, Halappanavar discussed abortion with her consulting physician but her request was promptly refused, as Irish law at that time forbade abortion if a fetal heartbeat was still present. Afterwards Halappanavar developed sepsis and, despite doctors’ efforts to treat her, had a cardiac arrest at 1:09 a.m., on 28 October, at the age of 31, and died.Wikipedia, “Death of Savita Halappanavar”
When everyone matters, common sense reigns instead of absolutism. Common sense, compromise, and the good of the people are the hallmarks of effective governance. Not packing the Supreme Court with judges who are out of step with the mainstream values of the American people and who are willing to turn back the clock to 1787 when slavery was legal and women were property.
Who matters? Only one group of people with one color of skin? Only men?
Who decides? A woman and her physician? Four judges, appointed by presidents who did not earn the popular vote of the governed–judges chosen for their extreme religious and political views? The government? The state legislatures?
I dream of rain“Desert Rose” – Sting, 1999
I dream of gardens in the desert sand
I wake in vain
As time runs through my hand
There is a sadness that rises within me when I think of the friends I made in Egypt and that their lives may have been devoured by men thirsty for power who may have destroyed their ability to navigate their own lives. There is a great sadness that rises within me when I think of my three grandchildren–Lincoln, age 4; Penny, age 3; and Walker, 3 months–and that their lives may be devoured by men (and a few women) thirsty for power who will destroy their ability to navigate their own lives.
May they be able to bloom in the desert sand. May the predators who seek to lead–fueled by their overwhelming ambition for absolute power–not keep my loved ones from flying as high as their dreams can take them. May they soar. May we all.
~ Anna – 5/31/2022