Letter from Egypt
A letter from a professor at a Middle Eastern University
For several years I have been a professor at a university in the Middle East. In this position I have been able to make some interesting observations about the Arab reaction to September 11th and its aftermath. The editors of the DNI web site have asked me to report on these observations, and I am happy to do so. Given that my remarks will include both positive and negative assessments of the Arab viewpoint, I have asked that this report remain anonymous, as I wish to avoid painful misunderstandings with my many Egyptian friends. My perspective is perhaps an unusual one. On the one hand, I have a deep personal interest in Arabic and Islamic civilization, perhaps unlike the majority of American citizens. But on the other hand, unlike most of my Arabophile colleagues in Cairo, and unlike any of my Arab friends, I am adamantly supportive of a military solution to the current crisis. This puts me in the strange position of deeply and sincerely loving a culture, while also believing that this very culture has serious internal problems that it is not facing in a responsible manner.
Since arriving in Cairo, I have formed a largely positive impression of the Egyptian people. They tend to be warm with strangers and rather mild in disposition. Perhaps the perfect year-round climate has helped to form this aspect of the national character. Despite the famous terrorist incidents here in the early 1990's, Cairo is free of most of the crime that plagues large American cities. I often tell worried family members in the U.S. not to worry about my being harmed by terrorist, but to worry greatly that I might be hit by a car—the traffic is sheer chaos, and nobody yields to pedestrians.
It is surprisingly easy for a male foreigner in Cairo to mingle with the working-class: one need do no more than head to one of the corner ahwas, the cafes specializing in tea and water-pipes. The tea is always brewed red hot even in July, and is sweeter than first love. The best sheesha-smoking gives a fine draft of apple-scented vapors, the tobacco having been soaked in apple juice and set out in the sun to dry. The primary social life of the male working class in Cairo involves a combination of sheesha and tea with spirited games of backgammon or dominoes, especially among older men. The nation still struggles with poverty, often the very grimmest forms of poverty: donkey-carts mix with Mercedes limousines on every street, and shoeshine boys often have their faces grimed with soot, like Arab versions of the orphans in Charles Dickens novels.
Religion, of course, is visible here in a way that it is not in the United States. In addition to the five daily broadcasts of the call to prayer in every neighborhood, one often has to leave the sidewalk and walk in the street so as not to disturb those Muslims who have spread out their prayer rugs on the spot. During Ramadan, beautiful colored lights and lanterns hang over many streets, and numerous tables are set up providing meals for the poor, in accordance with Islamic duty. At the Ramadan-ending feast, vast and loud public prayer sessions are held at dawn, echoing throughout the city.
During my first year in Egypt, I had only a few brushes with political discussions. Suspicion of Israel is still widespread here, and the Palestinian uprising is covered by the media in a very emotional way. If one were to assert that the American media presents only one side of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the opposite is even more true of the Egyptian media. I had worried about what might happen following the election last spring of Ariel Sharon as Israeli Prime Minister. But the reaction here was unexpectedly muted, for the ironic reason that Egyptians believe that all of the Israeli leaders are equally bad (though an occasional lonely voice will say good things about Yitzhak Rabin).
The views on America here are largely positive, despite overwhelming disagreement with American policy in the Middle East. Egyptians love to eat our fast food and wear our Nike gear, and even small children love practicing their limited English on any Western-looking person. One thing that surprised me here, and continues to surprise me, is there is still a great deal of affection for the Bush family. I have heard George Bush Sr. praised by numerous taxi drivers and cafe workers ("Good for Egypt! Good for Egypt!", is how they remember our 41st President in heavily accented English). Presumably this has a lot to do with the large debt write-off offered to Mubarak's government as a reward for participating in the Gulf War coalition.
Almost all Egyptians were pulling hard for George W. Bush to defeat Al Gore last November. This seemed to have less to do with Senator Lieberman's religious background (though it was sometimes mentioned) than with an unexpected fondness for the then-Governor of Texas. Since September 11th, I have frequently had a the strange experience of hearing anti-war Egyptians defending President Bush (as a person) to pro-war Americans. I wouldn't say that Bush's repeated reassurances that Muslims are not the target of this war have convinced 100% of Egyptians, but they do seem to have convinced a majority of those with whom I have spoken. Something about Bush's personality resonates even with many Egyptians who detest his policies: they often describe him as "sincere" or "good." By contrast, I have only heard one Egyptian say anything good about Bill Clinton, despite President Mubarak's personal fondness for our previous President. On the morning after the election was decided, I even had a taxi driver shout "Mabrouk!" ("Congratulations!") as excitedly as if he had been a GOP campaign worker.
Before describing the events of September 11th as seen from Cairo, I would like to mention two other brief encounters with the political reality of the Middle East. One was in Luxor, which I first visited exactly three years after the brutal massacre of tourists at the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut in November, 1997. Luxor is a fantastic site, and is now ringed with heavy security infrastructure of a kind that was apparently absent at the time of the massacre. But still, the citizens of Luxor will tell you that the tourists have not returned in their former numbers, and they are hurting. This hurts the country as a whole; I seem to have read that tourism trails only Suez Canal revenue as a source of hard currency for the Egyptian government. The people of Luxor still seem almost apologetic or ashamed for what happened in their city to the mostly Swiss and Japanese victims of the attack (no Americans were killed). The terrorists, or at least some of them, were later ambushed in the desert by special security police. The bodies were trucked into the center of Luxor, where the devastated workers of the tourist economy are said to have kicked and spat upon the corpses.
My other brush with the political reality of the Middle East came on an unexpected trip last Christmas to a city in the Eastern Nile Delta, where I was invited by a proud middle-aged Egyptian man, a friend of a friend. Let's call him "Ahmed." Ahmed is something of an international figure in a field which I will not name; he has traveled around the globe, quite frequently to America, and speaks excellent English. His early life was shaped by events in the region. His first wife and child had been killed by bombs during the so-called "War of Attrition" between Egypt and Israel during the early 1970's (or "The Bleeding Combats," as the Arabs call that twilight aerial war). Ahmed himself had been one of the naval commandos who surged across the Suez in the surprise attack on the Israelis in October, 1973. In the initial combat, his brother was killed not far from his side. Ahmed admits to having killed numerous Israelis in the fighting, and his voice takes on a reflective tone when he raises this topic. "At first, you are angry because they have taken your land [the Sinai]. But then you realize that you are killing people. And after the first time that you kill, it becomes very easy to kill." His voice trails off, deeply disturbed, and he understandably changes the subject.
I traveled with an American friend to Ahmed's home, a surprisingly run-down flat in a surprisingly abject neighborhood for such a successful and well-traveled man. We were greeted at the door by his young son, who shouted out a well-scripted political diatribe against Israel. Then the little boy hid from us for awhile, and only later did his mother explain to us that she had had to assure him that not all Americans were enemies.
But it was Ahmed himself who led us into the most disturbing exchange of our visit. Having become a bit of an addict of apple-flavored sheeshas, I asked him to take us to the best local cafe. Immediately upon our arrival at the ahwa, a young man entered wearing one of the checkered scarves of the Intifada. Ahmed informed us that this particular style of scarf was the emblem of a radical group that favored killing all Americans on sight. Perhaps he was just being melodramatic with us, but it was an uncomfortable moment.
An even more uncomfortable moment came when this seemingly cosmopolitan man told us that Israel was "worse" than Hitler. His reason? "At least Hitler never killed children." When we protested that Hitler had exterminated countless children, his response was an unfathomable "Prove it!" Lacking any photographic evidence at the moment, we silently resolved to shift the discussion elsewhere.
And the discussion shifted to a point where we witnessed what must be a familiar phenomenon for any Westerner who has worked in the Arab world: a strange mixture of love and occasional hatred for America. Ahmed has lived it up in Las Vegas and New Orleans, is a lover of New York and other large cities in the United States. He even stated that he finds the American people refreshingly more religious than Europeans. He glows with pride over his good command of English and his vast experience in the U.S. And yet, he couldn't resist giving us a faint warning when the topic of American foreign policy came up. Large-scale terrorist attacks against my home country "would be very easy," he ominously intoned.
He now seems to have been right.
It had been a long Tuesday of teaching for me. I left campus for home at 3:00 in the afternoon: 8:00 AM on the American East Coast. The first hijacked planes would have just left Boston on their diabolical missions.
I sat in the cafeteria for close to an hour, eating a delicious bowl of take-out Egyptian food and reading a book, completely unaware of the tragedy already unfolding in New York.
I went back to my apartment to take a nap, but was soon awakened by a phone call from my sister-in-law. My brother has asked her to call me in Cairo to let me know what little she had been able to piece together, some of it incorrect: "There's been a terrorist attack in America. A plane crashed into the World Trade Center and a bomb exploded at the Pentagon." This sounded very bad indeed, though her description did not yet catch the apocalyptic flavor of what was actually happening.
I phoned a colleague in the building who has CNN in his apartment, and he confirmed the details that I had heard over the phone. Over the next 8-10 horrifying hours, I sat in his apartment and watched with horror the events that I do not need to re-describe for any of you. The students have a much better CNN connection downstairs, but I was afraid of going to watch, lest I be angered by some potential idle comment about America getting what it deserved.
Throughout that horrible evening in Cairo, we received and made telephone calls concerning the status of our university. My university has survived numerous crises in the Middle East since its founding; for emergency situations it makes use of a "warden" system for the rapid spread of various alerts and information. The message being circulated that night was that classes would be canceled for the rest of the week. At the time, it felt as though our jobs in Egypt might already have ended.
Late that night I received word of two close calls in the family. My cousin, who works ten blocks from the WTC complex, had briefly become lost in the smoke, but eventually made it to safety in a Post Office, from which he had seen the collapse of the second tower at close-range. Another cousin, an officer in the Pentagon, had been in a different wing of the building at the time of the crash there. It was nice to end the day on this faint note of good news.
The reaction of my students was wonderful. I tend to stay in intensive e-mail contact with my students throughout the semester, and on September 11th this meant that my inbox was flooded with condolences from my Egyptian and also Palestinian students. I had the sense that many of the Arab students worried that I would be personally angry with them, and so took care to reassure them that I was still happy to be here as their teacher.
Meanwhile, I had angrily read reports of some small celebrations in downtown Cairo on the night of the 11th. One Cairo taxi driver was quoted on the internet as saying: "This is the best thing that's happened since the October 1973 War." Although still largely positive about the Egyptian people as a whole, that remark infuriated me so deeply that I (perhaps somewhat irrationally) vowed a boycott of taxis for some weeks after the event. I took a sad pleasure in ignoring the drivers who passed me and honked—the very drivers I used to tip so generously several times per day. Only last week did I resume any use of cabs, all because of a single remark by one repulsive driver.
In this atmosphere of tension, which stripped away my spirit of adventure and deadened my former enthusiasm for exploring the city of Cairo, it was a great relief when classes reopened. The students remained sympathetic, some of them speaking only a few sorry words, others talking energetically of all their thoughts and feelings about the event. Here I will summarize what a few of them said …
One of my female students, a devout Muslim who keeps her hair covered at all times, spoke with horror of the events. She told me that she had been on the bus back home on the 11th and had received a cell phone call informing her that "The States are being attacked." To her, this was the unthinkable: "We all had such confidence in America! How can this happen there?" Her mother, presumably an equally devout Muslim, had been even more vehemently supportive of America's plight: "Whoever did these attacks is sick in the head!" she spat disgustedly to her daughter.
Another female student told me that she worried that all Arabs would be blamed for the attacks, and hoped there wouldn't be a rush to judgment. In a strange twist, she confided to me that she had attended primary school in Giza with Osama bin Laden's nephew (he had never met his infamous uncle), and had even received an e-mail from him a few days after the attack. This was the same bin Laden relative who recently fled Boston University after a certain degree of harassment, which she claims included the frightening experience of being kicked out of class by one of his professors.
I then ran into one of my male students, a sunny young man and talented athlete who comes from one of the most fire-breathing families in the Palestinian establishment, a powerful clan which has not escaped outright anti-Semitism in some of its best-known members. He approached me sadly and said that he was terribly sorry for what had happened. He then paused nervously before adding, "I just want you to know, this has nothing to do with Islam. Islam is a religion of peace." My answer was a simple and sincere: "I know." Having studied the life of their prophet Muhammad, it is clear to me that he would have reacted with disgust toward "jihads" of the bin Laden variety; Muhammad's military actions were undertaken, without exception, as necessary (not to say brilliant) acts of self-defense.
But a few minutes later, it occurred to me that I had probably misunderstood the student's meaning. What I had meant was that these attacks were the work of depraved and villainous pseudo-Muslims, not the good and pious people I have met here in such abundance. But what the student had probably meant was that no Muslims were behind this attack at all—that bin Laden and the gang were somehow being "framed." The likelihood of this reinterpretation became clearer over the next few days.
My university is the only university in Egypt that charges tuition—around $8,000 per year. In a nation where many professional people earn the equivalent of $4,000 annually, it is not an education that everyone can afford. Hence, my students come disproportionately from the very upper classes, and sometimes from actual royal families (Queen Rania of Jordan is an alumna, as is Suzanne Mubarak).
For this reason, it was a shock (if not a surprise) to see that the universal expressions of sympathy for my country masked a gaping disagreement as to the culprits. From the very moment of attacks there was no doubt in my mind that Osama bin Laden was the likely organizer. But for most Egyptians, there could only be one force behind such a dark operation: Israel.
This unyielding belief was the source of irritation and dismay for the entire month that followed. While the English-language press in Cairo hammered on the Bush Administration's "rush to judgment," students who generally seem very fond of me were coming into my office and telling me I was being "brainwashed" by CNN. Given my great affection for these students on most occasions, I remained patient, and tried to explain to them why they were wrong. Agreeing with their contentions that Arabs are sometimes unfairly blamed for certain things, I still decided to frankly inform them that Arabs did do it this time. They seemed to take this quite well, though they were by no means convinced.
Although one of my colleagues swears to have met several cab drivers who agreed that bin Laden was behind the attacks, I still can't say that I have met a single Egyptian who wholeheartedly agrees with the American government's assessment of the attacks.
On the very night of September 11th, I finally worked up the courage to go to the fanciest local cafe, which features a big-screen satellite television. There, I was greeted with the utmost sympathy by two kindly waiters. One, a toothless young man from Aswan (let's call him "Mustafa"), had obvious sorrow in his eyes. "Amreeka kwayyis," he told me: "America is good." In the most touching scene of my past month in Cairo, Mustafa then gave me several Sammy Sosa heart-taps, stroked his lips, and pointed to the heavens above. He then mimicked with his hands the motion of an airplane and the explosion and collapse of a building, switching to broken English for long enough to say: "Not good. Not good." His simple kindness has meant a great deal to me since then, and I have made a point of visiting the cafe every night.
But Mustafa and his waiter colleague were equally skeptical about the American theory of who was responsible for the attacks. I said "Afghanistan," by which I meant the total complex of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and even suggested the involvement of the Iraqis. But Mustafa seemed hesitant, and asked "Mumkin Israel?" ("Is Israel possible?"). I shook my head, and continued to finger bin Laden. Mustafa's colleague switched into his limited English to oppose me: "Afghanistan small." He then made the universal rubbing-fingers symbol for great wealth, apparently implying that only Israel had sufficient resources to pull off such a vast conspiracy as that of September 11th.
I was sitting in my apartment on the night of the 7th, and learned from the internet that the retaliation had begun. This was the moment I had been dreading for weeks: "the other shoe dropping", the beginning of possible anti-American riots and an end to my wonderful job in Egypt.
But it was immediately clear that this would not be the case. One clue was in the serious but subdued mood of the students in the television lounge. I made it there in time to see President Bush's speech. One student yelled out a string of expletives, but he ducked away from sight immediately afterward, and his voice had sounded to me like that of an American. More importantly, he had clearly misread the mood of the room, which was portentous and gloomy, but not by any means anti-American. Perhaps Bush's uncanny ability to cast a spell on Egyptians played some role, but I did not feel any hostility in the room. It was certainly less tense than the scene in the same television room a year ago, as Israeli helicopters rocketed the police station in Ramallah in retaliation for the lynching of two soldiers. That was the most tension I have ever felt in my life, with young Arab students letting out audible groans and occasional expletives as CNN covered the military action live.
But back to October 7th and the operations in Afghanistan … The scene was a bit different in the cafe where Mustafa works, where I went to watch the second hour of the bombing on the Arabic al-Jazeera station. I definitely sensed that the waiters were in unanimous agreement that the retaliation was directed at the wrong target, and they seemed afraid to make eye-contact with me. I finished off my sheesha as quickly as possible, and returned home.
But strangely enough, the overall effect of the retaliation has been to make the atmosphere more comfortable rather than less. For one thing, we have all seen that the world didn't fall to pieces as soon as the bombing of Kabul and Kandahar began. But more importantly, it has shifted the terms of the debate in Cairo. Perhaps most Egyptians still think that "Israel did it," despite President Mubarak's stated support for the American position. Whatever the case my be, only a few isolated diehards are still saying that Israel is responsible, and I have an intuitive sense that many Egyptians have quietly come around to accepting bin Laden's guilt. Their concerns have shifted to the death of innocent Afghans in the bombing raids. And frankly, this concern is much easier for me to swallow than the crazed conspiracy theories that ruined the early weeks of the crisis for any American in Cairo.
Concerning this propensity to see conspiracy in every corner of the world, I would like to make two observations. One thing that must be understood is that Egyptian society really does consist of numerous conspiracies. It is a culture in which "connections" are still all-important, in which regulations are enforced erratically and police engage in strange patterns of investigation.
But if I had to offer a single overriding complaint about this culture that I love so much, it would be that the Arab world is not especially skilled at self-critique. Not once since September 11th have I heard anyone in Cairo discuss the need to crack down on Islamic extremists, or the need to reform Arab political life to better absorb such movements before they reach the boiling-point. The entire focus has been on unfair perceptions of Arabs by American media. Unschooled in the ways of political correctness, Egyptians are quite blunt in expanding this complaint into phrases such as "American media, which as everyone knows is controlled by Jews." I have often had the sense that this obsession with being persecuted by the West is partly irresponsible, but partly based on a real sense of insecurity and disorientation in the world.
It is also my belief that this tendency to scapegoat external forces and overlook problems within their own society is only a mirror-image of the cardinal misdeed of the American Left (Noam Chomsky is a perfect example), which merely inverts the failing by blaming its own country for the entire disaster. In both cases, the establishment of an easy scapegoat has hampered any substantive policy discussion of a very grave world crisis.
Beginning last October, I began e-mailing my friends in the U.S. that another major war in the Middle East would be inevitable. I said this because of the huge gap in perceptions of reality that I had witnessed between Arab and Western students, the utter disagreement concerning the basic facts about recent history. When all of my Egyptian students began by denying bin Laden's involvement in the attacks, I worried that my earlier predictions were being proven right, and that the entire situation was about to snowball into a major war between the West and the Arab world.
But now I am seeing faint flickers of hope. The brightest of these flickers could be seen in the fears of one of my Arab students. She has always wanted to travel to America, but is now afraid to do so. I tried to assure her that attacks on Arabs in the U.S. had been quite rare, but she interrupted me with a disarming reply: "No, I'm afraid to fly. We're all afraid. Americans are afraid, Arabs are afraid."
The shared fear unites all of us now, she said. It is doubtless shared to an especial degree by someone like Hosni Mubarak, survivor of many assassination attempts. Perhaps this global fear will prove to be the germ of an effective coalition against terror.