At Home in Cairo
You can feel this powerful mix of pride and defeat all over Cairo, across religion and class; outside the Hussein Mosque and down the narrow cobbled walkways of the ancient bazaar, where the shopkeepers preside over mounds of spices and rows of silver, cheap cassettes and tiny glass decanters.
The Khan al-Khalili market in Cairo was founded in the 14th century. Photo: William Tolan
You can feel it out on the boulevards, where appliance shop TVs blare tales of Aladdin, recycled via Disney; past the McDonalds, the pubs and cabarets.
Down a potholed alley in a poor section of town, we visited a family. Inside the modest home to three generations, we were warmly welcomed.
After being greeted in Arabic, "ahlein, welcome!", we are treated to Arab hospitality: chocolate cake and cola for the visitors. In the tiny living room, tacked on to the peeling walls, are posters evoking Eden: an elegant fountain in front of a mansion; wild animals, tamed in play. The family's shoes are tucked neatly under a chair. The women are covered; so is the nine-year-old girl. The men speak.
"We're proud; we have dignity. But your attitude in the United States makes us look like we're third class citizens. Go back to your history books. You'll see that Islamic civilization preceded you. We helped create your Western civilization," says one of the men.
"When Osama bin Laden swore by God that there would be no peace in America until there was peace in Palestine, he brought home an issue that's part of our Muslim consciousness. And America is to be blamed for this problem. That's why there's sympathy for bin Laden. "
This working class Muslim family grew up with the knowledge that the holy city of Jerusalem lies outside of their control: it's part of the state of Israel. But Jerusalem is the home of al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam the place liberated by Saladin from the Crusaders centuries ago. Bin Laden denounces a new wave of Crusaders, compares himself to Saladin, and taps something deep. But so do the battles from the West Bank every night on television.
"These images build up inside. Forget about Christian as a human being, seeing another suffering and oppressed in his own home and robbed of his rights...And America is silent. But if something happens in a Western country, the world is shaken upside down. So what do you expect from us? We're
definitely full of rage. "
The anger is directed at American policy, especially U.S. support for Israel. Does this mean Mohamed, and Walid, and Mohamed, and Magda, and Aya, frowning thoughtfully, sipping at their cokes, passing the baby from knee to knee does this mean they hate America itself? Not exactly.
"America is a great country. It's the land of opportunity. I wish I could go there. It's everybody's dream."
Mohamed says he loves American movies Stallone and Schwarzenegger are his favorites; though it does seem strange that one person can fight a whole army and defeat them.
The five-year-old daughter in the family says that she likes Hollywood too and thinks it's funny when the boys kiss the girls. She thinks it's a shame we have so many car crashes; and feels sad when she sees other children getting killed so many nights on the news.
One of the men of the family explains, "We still look up to America. But if the situation continues, unfortunately, I hate to say it but all Muslims could turn into Osama bin Laden."
A Cairo Literary Salon
You needn't visit the poor, the working class, or even the devout to tap a deep well of Arab anger toward the West, and the United States especially. It is everywhere you look.
We visited a literary salon and cafe, on a back alley near downtown Cairo. It was midnight and around the tables there are glass water pipes with long cloth hoses; the smoke hovers.
Here the two friends, Saed, a columnist for a Cairo daily, and Madame Hayat, a French tutor, gather, as they do every Tuesday. Tonight, the subject is U.S. intervention.
"It's the bee against the elephant," Saed says. "Again. The U.S. is flexing power against sad, miserable people."
Madame Hayat stares up with clear blue eyes, "It's like this more and more, now that there's only one superpower. Now we are really just handicapped. The U.S. treats us like bugs. Like we're insects. We've reached the point of boiling."
Hayat spent years as an actress in Cairo's lively political cabarets. They'd perform in the parks and cafes, until Egyptian intelligence under Presidents Sadat and then Mubarrak censored them or threw them in jail.
"During the 70s and early 80s there was a spirit of change in the air" Hayat says, "now, only a deepening sense of grievance."
Never did she dream that the means of change would shift to radical Islam. Never did she imagine the day she'd be told by the Americans to choose between Bush and bin Laden.
"I don't have to choose between two demons. I'm against both," Hayat explains. "Look, I really hate bin Laden, but nowadays I dream a lot of having two bombs. If I had the chance, I would use these two bombs to destroy the Pentagon and the White House. I would not think of bin Laden. Even though I'm against terrorism, they've created that feeling in me."
"There's a disappointment on behalf of America," explains Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, the respected Egyptian political analyst. "It sees itself otherwise than what it's seen by others. America sees itself as having defects, but fundamentally a successful society and enterprise. It doesn't understand why the others don't see it this way. The fact is that America is powerful, rich, can be self-satisfied in those terms. It does not understand that other societies with very serious problems don't look at America the way America looks at itself."
As deep as this frustration at the West is, it also serves, in some ways, as a deflection from anger at events closer to home. In Egypt, criticism of the state is tightly controlled; political demonstrations are small, infrequent, and restricted to universities; the president's accomplishments are the subject of fawning news coverage, while he runs for reelection unopposed; police or soldiers seem to be on virtually every corner.
"Here are dictatorial regimes. They thwart the growth of any rational opposition." Abdel Wahab Al Misiri, the Islamic thinker and author continues, "Take the situation here. They demolished the labor party, closed down the newspaper, which was the only significant opposition. Now the rational opposition, which could interact with the government through the legitimate political channels, could not develop, mature, it was not given the chance, so that you have is the phenomena like that. Terrorists. Naive people who have visions become leaders. So it is the Arab elites, supported by the American administration that created this."
Abdel Wahab Al Misiri Photo: Al-Ahram Weekly
This relationship of the U.S. and the Arab elites, Misiri argues, is a legacy of European colonialism, which began when Britain and France arrived in the 19th century and begin carving up the Arab world. It's a time al Misiri knows something about. For years, before becoming disillusioned with Western values and embracing Islam, he taught 19th century poetry at Rutgers.
"The world bequeathed to us since the mid 19th century has been a Darwinian world, says Misiri. "The only constant, the only absolute value is power to resolve conflicts. This is the mechanism for survival, this is the mechanism that propels history, this is how you define morality; this is how you define meaning. You have power to do what you want, all right. And people have been learning that from the West."
And now that power, he says, is transferred in part to Arab governments, who stand in between the desires of their people and the mandates of the superpower.
"Like all Arab elites, they are frightened. The street is simmering already because of the daily humiliation. One important factor in the picture is Arab news," he says. "The new satellite networks, especially al Jazeera."
Al Jazeera Arab Satellite news (in Arabic).
"Now we all sit in our homes and simmer. Even upper glass girls, bourgeoisie, everyone is angry. Not only the Islamists. And the elites know that they have to move to protect themselves."
And so the criticism spurts out like steam from a calibrated valve turned open for Israel; shut off for Egypt; adjusted somewhere in between for the powerful benefactor and lone superpower.
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