July 31 – LETTER FROM DAMASCUS by Paul Chamberlin

(Click here to read previous Letters From Damascus.)

Monday 31 July
We’ve made it to Cairo despite the combined efforts of Egypt Air, the
Department of Homeland Security, and Egyptian Customs. It really has
felt as if the best efforts of Washington, Israel, Damascus, and
finally Cairo have been massed against us. Upon arrival in Cairo we
were stopped by customs officials who discovered three carpets and
numerous tablecloths amongst my companion’s belongings. Still not
savvy enough to bribe our way out of our predicament, we resorted to
arguing with the officials until 1:30 in the morning whereupon we
agreed to leave the carpets in the airport (so that we couldn’t sell
them in Egypt, which we weren’t planning to do in any case) for a fee
of around $10. Upon settling the matter, we broke out smokes and
enjoyed French cigarettes from Syria with the Egyptian customs
officials underneath a No Smoking sign in the Cairo Airport.

Though we’ve left the specter of Israeli bombardment and Hezbollah
demonstrations in Damascus, Cairo has its own demons. Lines of
black-clad riot police encircle the Journalist’s Syndicate and
white-uniformed Tourist Police perch on nearly every street corner,
AK-47’s with attached bayonets hoisted over their backs. The tensions
here come not from Israel but from the deep discontent in Egyptian
society. The ubiquitous pictures of Nasrallah and Hezbollah flags are
replaced with the ramped-up military presence. Cairo exhibits glaring
extremes between the rich and poor, government and Islamists, and
European colonial past and uncertain future.

On Friday we manage to get an invitation to a small get-together
hosted by the daughter of the U.S. Ambassador at his residence inside
the American embassy in Garden City. The embassy itself is a fortress,
surrounded by 12-ft concrete walls and army officers, and cordoned off
from motorized traffic — Egypt is, if memory serves me, the world’s
second largest recipient of U.S. aid, behind Israel. My friend sets
off the metal detector, but the sole guard inside makes no move to
stop us. We cross a spotlessly clean courtyard underneath a large
American flag and make our way inside the residence. Inside, we’re
confronted with an oddly Americanized residence complete with bacon
and Roy Orbison cds. The ambassador’s daughter has turned the
oversized American-flag magnet on the refrigerator upside-down “until
the Lebanese invasion ends,” she jokes, and then turns it right-side
up again. We go swimming later and I enjoy screwdrivers and beer in
the Ambassador’s pool; Egypt really is a lovely place.

Nevertheless, it feels as if things have changed since I was here last
summer. My expat friend (with whom we’re staying) says he’s seen a
growing anger in Egyptian society and mounting resentment of the
United States. While Cairo still lets off a certain exuberance, it
seems as if people are less happy to hear that we’re Americans. Then
again, it could just be my imagination, or nostalgia for my previous
summer at AUC. While I’d like to be able to say that this summer has
left me with a clearer sense of what’s really going on in the “Middle
East,” I find myself less certain than ever, and more cynical in
regards to all the parties involved.

(Click here to read previous Letters From Damascus.)

0 thoughts on “July 31 – LETTER FROM DAMASCUS by Paul Chamberlin

  1. I can only think that part of the shift on the street is the result of the elections in the fall. My girlfriend and I were in Cairo between August and November, when the first round of voting began. By the second and third rounds, when it became clear that the banned Muslim Brotherhood party (whose members ran as independent candidates) was making big gains, the government brought in soldiers to bar entry to many polling places around Cairo and other periphery cities. There were also “hired hands” brought in from the rural areas to tangle with reformers and protesters in the cities. People were beaten, only voters who pledged to vote for Mubarak were allowed entry to polling places; it was not a free election… and when several government judges said so publicly, they were detained along with many other activists. That all happened in the last couple of months.

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