Revelry Behind The Iron Curtain

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Revelry Behind The Iron Curtain

Our bus rumbled across the Aswan High Dam, filled with Egyptian teenagers taking in their country’s history. I was accompanying my Cairene kids as their history teacher and chaperone but in truth, I was the most excited. I had dreamt of exploring the ancient cities and temples of the confusingly coined Upper Egypt ever since my older sister had won first place at the science fair, for her project on hieroglyphics. So, when the bus doors swung open, I was the first to rush out and explore.

I was immediately lured toward a giant towering structure off to the side by the sounds of laughter and music. A large commemorative plaque stood in front of the monument, lauding the cooperation of the Soviet Union and Egypt in their construction of the High Dam.

In the heart of the monument a large dance circle was developing, driven by drums and the sounds of song. Local field trippers and their dedicated teachers performed number after number as each kid had their moment at the centre of the circle. It struck me as an odd juxtaposition, the colourfully clad Egyptian revellers in the heart of a Soviet monument.

Out Of The Closet in Cairo

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Out Of The Closet in Cairo

A tweet could have changed my life. One hundred and forty characters of high school heresy spewed forth into the cyber world by the student council president left me outed in Egypt. She, the high school president, tweeted to her hundreds of fellow student followers that I was gay. In a country where rumour spreads faster than truth, I was at the center of a whopper. Cyber slander that could have landed me an outcast, and I had only just arrived.

The only proof to verify my “depravity”, as it is considered in most parts of the Middle East, was a witnessed account of my playfulness on the jungle gym with my Grade 1 and 2 students during their PE class. As I came to understand, Middle Eastern countries are deeply patriarchal and traditionally, men don’t play with children. However, my love of fun was enough to condemn me to a potential fate of segregation, harassment and exclusion from a society with little to no regard for its underground and seldom heard from LGBT community.

It was only last year that one of Egypt’s top diplomats told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that in the Middle East “Gays are not real people.” Politicians from around the country regularly call for executions of homosexuals, or at least, for them to be sent to prisons, or mental institutions to be cured of their own “depravity”. The now infamously heavy-handed Egyptian police have a long history of arresting men on suspicion of being gay, citing their “satanic” and “lewd” conduct that violates Egypt’s strict Public Order and Public Morals code. So, it doesn’t take much to appreciate my concern that too many people might hit the retweet button.

This quick condemnation should be no surprise given the recent baseless accusations that were hurled at two fellow Canadians, John Greyson and Dr. Tarek Loubani. During their detention, they faced allegations ranging from murder to inciting violence. With no crime greater than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, these two men were thrown in prison for 7 weeks, tortured, and kept in abysmal, cockroach infested conditions. Greyson and Loubani paid in full to the notorious Middle Eastern misinformation mill, just as imprisoned Canadian Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy is now. Thankfully, I got a discount.

When I came to school the day after the tweet, the administration had already taken action. The school director had been alerted by a colleague to the slanderous tweet and had no tolerance for such accusations and got to work at setting the record straight. Pun intended. Having just been flown in from Canada, I was a considerable investment and this rumour could not reach the parents. The SC president was forced to delete the Tweet, stripped of her role as president, sentenced to a weeklong in-school suspension and was told to apologize to me. The punishment seemed severe, but in an unpredictable political landscape and an increasingly Islamicized Egypt, it was necessary. If the tweet had made the rounds my students would no longer have respected me, most of my colleagues would have shunned me, and many parents would have refused to let me, a gay man, teach their children. I would have been forced to flee.

When the time came for my teenage accuser to apologize, she knocked on my staff room door and entered. She twiddled her hands nervously and looked distractedly at her feet, reflecting my own unease with the situation. She said she now understood the potential impact her tweet could have had. She was sorry and I forgave her. I did my best to be a teacher and told her that when we find ourselves in positions of power, we have to be accountable for the things we say, even if they take form in a tweet. As she left the staff room, with what I hoped was a lesson, I wondered what would have happened if I were actually gay?

The Power is The People

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The Power is The People

The sense of community gave power to the crowd. The common cause fuelled the passionate cry for political overthrow. The sense of individualistic gain, instilled through a world fettered by unchecked capitalism and inequity, abated as the pursuit of common ground took hold.

Thousands filled the upscale Heliopolis neighbourhood, home to Egypt’s presidential palace, protesting the authoritarian nature of Mohamed Morsi’s exclusive rule. Drums beat in rhythm with chants of solidarity. The people surged forward, the barbed wire was dismantled, and the palace was stormed.

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The revolutionary battle cry of “power to the people!” had it all wrong. The power is the people.

Casting A Ballot For Hope

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Casting A Ballot For Hope

I remember arriving at the polling station in Katameya (a suburb on the outskirts of Cairo) during Egypt’s first democratic presidential election. After people had lined up for hours in the intense desert heat to vote, they emerged from the repurposed school with broad smiles and optimistic outlooks. Dyed fingers, the mark of having voted, dominated the news around the country and people waited impatiently for the results. Would it be Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spare tire candidate, or Ahmed Shafik, remnant of the Mubarak regime?

Morsi won and for awhile, democracy had too. Soon, his style of governance became a reflection of Egypt’s autocratic past. He gave himself unprecedented powers and was soon heralded as Egypt’s latest Pharaoh. One year after his election, he was deposed after a popular uprising gave way to a military coup. The deeply entrenched military, or deep state, with the help of the Ministry of Interior set about rounding up Morsi supporters. Hundreds were killed in the streets. Their leaders have been imprisoned, their news outlets shut down and their supporters labelled terrorists.

Today, Egyptians try to move forward once more with a vote on a newly reformed constitution. Army helicopters fly overhead blaring nationalist songs, encouraging everyone to vote Yes. The main reason for many to vote is stability, as almost 3 tumultuous years have passed since the first uprising. However, as Morsi supporters are pushed further underground, violence has escalated across the country.

Can a new constitution set Egypt on a path forward? Or is it just a matter of time before the Egyptian people rise up again, to dispose of the deep state once and for all.

The Perks of Human Hospitality

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The Perks of Human Hospitality

Rumbling over the rock and sand of Egypt’s White Desert, named so for its giant chalk rock formations, we came across some local men. They were taking a break from leading a group of camels from one town to another to be sold.

In true Egyptian fashion, we were invited to join them for tea. As our guide, Ahmed, (pictured on left) hunkered down beside the small fire to share in the tea, I went off to seek the company of camels.

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At first, the camels were cute and fun, but as I got close, a low rumble of half-digested camel food emanated from their slack jawed mouths. I decided I preferred the human interaction.

Kids of Cairo

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Kids of Cairo

The workers of Cairo’s Garbage City run one of the most efficient recycling depots in the world. The section of the city is littered with garbage, some that is about to be broken down and repurposed and some that won’t. Living amidst all the garbage are bright-eyed smiling Egyptians. It’s still a perfectly good place to go for a stroll with your best bud.

The Key To Cairo

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The Key To Cairo

The first time I met Hossam, I was outside the Saladin Citadel in Cairo. I was just leaving the Cairene landmark when he called out to me. Leaning on the hood of his dented hunter-green Fiat, he wore mirrored aviators and red high-top Chuck Taylors. He looked like pure cool and I immediately liked him. He asked me if I’d like to see the city through his eyes, and as they twinkled back at me from their heavily creased sockets, I couldn’t refuse. I hopped in the passenger side of his small rickety car and swerved off through the terrifying Cairo traffic. From then on, he showed me the heart of the city, the revolution’s forgotten poor, and the struggle of being a tour guide in a touristless town.

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The Return To Calm

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The Return To Calm

Sitting in the passenger seat, my pounding heart slowed as the car accelerated. Moments earlier, I had been in Tahrir Square with hundreds of thousands of protesters. The adrenaline was starting to subside when I caught a view of the Saladin Citadel, silhouetted at sunset. It filled me with a sense of calm despite the ever unfolding revolution. In a city of close to 20 million inhabitants, even if a million people take to the streets there are still 19 million at home or at work. It helps to keep things in perspective.

A Boy, and a Ball out of Bounds

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A Boy, and a Ball out of Bounds

Perched in the towering minaret of Qaitbay mosque in Cairo’s City of the Dead, I witnessed one of those “Oh man!” moments. Far below me, a young boy threw his hands to the air in desperation as his red ball went flying over a tall fence. The desperation didn’t last long as moments later, a man emerged in the blocked off courtyard to throw the ball back. Game on.

The Smoke Filled Souq

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The Smoke Filled Souk

Cairo truly is the city that never sleeps. The combination of the Mediterranean lifestyle with the intense desert heat make the evenings the ideal time to hang out. From sunrise to sunset, cafes around the city are packed with young and old Egyptians alike, enjoying a tea and a sheesha.