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A Furrowed Brow

August 20, 2011

17 August 2011 – Somewhere over the Atlantic

With every journey there is always a moment that presents itself where reflections of moments past take hold before you let go of the road. For me, I usually find this to be the case in the midst of the final car or bus ride before departure.

En route to the Egyptian border and leaving Israel and Palestine behind me I was driven by a taxi driver who had a simplistic view about life. He was a Moroccan Jew living in Eilat, his children studying in university in Tel Aviv after having completed their army duties. We briefly discussed the protests that were beginning to pick up steam over the housing crisis. But toward the end of our conversation he made a basic plea for human understanding.

“Why do they hate me?” He asked, referring to the Arab world and his Egyptian neighbors. “What have I done or said to make them hate me?” He said he is an Israeli but he is also a human being and there should be no hostility between individuals unless warranted.

After a summer filled with warring ideologies, hatred, compassion, fearlessness, and despair, I found his words so true but at the same time I was not moved by them. He was the innocent civilian caught between ideological differences that overpower reason and cast indifference aside. Before this summer I would have exited the taxi thinking, “See, there is hope if someone still thinks this way.” However, my reaction was opposite. I grabbed my things and ran toward the Egyptian border, running away from the world that taught me innocence is ignorance and that tears of fury and words of defiance drown out the voices of reason.

My posts this summer have largely dealt with particular events and what I have witnessed in the past three months. I have written more than what you see here, but those words are of a private matter and here I have sought to present the things I have seen through an objective viewpoint. When I felt that I could not contribute more to a story than has already been said or that I could not write justly about a topic I abstained from contributing it to this blog.

But these are my closing words, ones that I hesitate to write because I have not yet let go of the road pushing me back toward my former life.

In the West Bank I watched Palestinians throw stones and Israeli soldiers unleash tear gas. I’ve seen a man get shot to the ground and I’ve seen children running amidst a violent scene of rubber bullets and bitter fighting. I walked through a settlement where rubber hoses spread like veins providing water to every home and swimming pool and then I’ve returned back to a village where water is a luxury and not a right. I’ve seen graffiti wars and demolished homes, refugee camps and a wall of separation. I have seen all of this and more, but the one thing I have not seen is a way out. An open door.

I left that taxicab running for a hole in the fence, into a world rejuvenated by triumph and full of hope, or so I thought.

I returned to Egypt thinking I would find the same Egypt I had left behind in May. Before the revolution that is the way it always was, but January 25 is slowly changing Cairo in ways that it was not allowed to change before.

I am not sure if you could notice it unless you were absent for a short period of time like I was, but in less than two months Cairo was already different once again. People still had their heads cast high but their eyes were darting from neighbor to neighbor, suspicion in the air. I was still greeted with smiles but those I talked to on the streets held misgivings about my presence. It was as if the concept of stranger had been introduced while I was gone, whereas before it was only ‘friend.’ But, this was not the Cairo from before.

I saw a woman smash a water bottle into the side of another woman’s head in front of a mosque on a Friday morning. I saw two men hold another man back as he screamed in fury at another man holding a wrench with a look of ill intention in his eye. I saw street fights and heard arguments that you would not have found in Cairo a few months ago.

Why? I’ve asked many this question and they all come up with different answers. Some say that Egypt is frustrated or becoming impatient and others say that Egypt is not used to its newfound freedom. Whatever the case, it’s a marked changed on a society struggling to redefine itself.

The “Friday of Islamic Identity” was most shocking of all. I had to remind myself that the protest was a rarity in comparison to the dozens of past protests proclaiming a message of unity, but it was shocking none-the-less. I stood in the crowd, my hair uncovered and a clear foreigner, and looked around at the faces of men who wanted an Islamic Egypt and nothing less. Two months previous all I heard was “Masriya, Masriya” and now I was hearing “Islamiya, Islamiya.” This was more than different it was peculiar and unnatural. Of course, Egypt should never discard its Islamic identity, but it should not rid itself of any of its identities. It was an unnerving day, but it was a moment in the midst of a revolution that has shown many faces over time.

On August 1 the army moved into Midan al-Tahrir and the scenario changed once again. After that day marking the start of Ramadan, night after night I stood at the barriers surrounding the square and watched and waited. However, it was not the soldiers that I was interested in. It was the people, the young and old men that gathered every night in the square. They stood and stared at the barrier of security forces, like a cat ready to pounce. In several instances there were squabbles and fighting, but everyone was still waiting.

Several people have told me that Tahrir is no longer the focal point of the revolution.  I agree, there are other grounds that deserve more attention. But in the end, all corners will meet again in Tahrir. This I am sure of.

I left the West Bank thinking I had lost all hope and become cynical like many others. However, having (reluctantly) boarded the plane back to the west I realize now that I am no cynic, but that my brow has been permanently furrowed. It’s not that hope has been lost, in either the West Bank or Egypt, it’s that there is still so much thinking to do and it is a daunting task. Israel and Palestine have been thinking for decades, Egypt for a few months. It’s easy to stop thinking and to stop wondering, but it’s also the most difficult thing to do in a situation that pleads for action and change.

Veteran journalist Ben Wedeman once said “We are all independent beneath our chains.” Egyptians, Israelis, and Palestinians alike may be bound by reality, but their minds are not. And I hope they never forget that, even in the most trying of times.

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