Boutros Boutros-Ghali: Population Explosion and Water in Egypt

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As part of the Arab Artists in a Revolution series, during our three weeks in Cairo, we had the pleasure of meeting up with the former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. He may not be an artist but at 90 years of age, he is an extremely experienced observer of Egypt and the world, who is passionate about humanity and its problems. In this interview we meet in his living room over looking the Nile, the river that is “like a god” to him and who’s present and future crisis he see’s as 100% tied to that of Egypt.

On the occasion of his 90th Birthday, Dr. Boutros and I in Cairo.  November 2012.
On the occasion of his 90th Birthday, Dr. Boutros and I in Cairo. November 2012.

Unlike previous interviews in this series, you may find (as we did) that this one does not go smoothly. Dr. Boutros doesn’t always like the kind of questions where you have to use your imagination, the “Academic questions” as he calls them, “that help fill pages of the newspaper”.  Yet despite his frustration with the media, he lays out the state of Egypt on the global scale; what is happening, why it is happening, and the key questions that people inside and outside the country should be – but are not- asking.

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Family That Doesn’t Recognize One Another

220 BCIn the conclusion of our last major podcast of the Arab Artists Series on Radio Open Source, I told my podcasting partner Chris Lydon that throughout our experience in North Africa, including in Egypt, I felt like I was amongst family. That statement was no exaggeration or attempt to prove to the world that I was comfortable in a place that is now so notorious for its difficulties; that was a statement directly from my heart.  It is also a statement that historically makes sense, as my heritage – Portuguese – is part of the larger story of the Mediterranean, where people, goods and culture have been circulating for over 2,000 years.

It is amazing to me, to recognize so many commonalities: in language, expressions, traditions, food, work, and attitudes that Portugal shares with Tunisia, or that Egypt shares with Portugal.  Though any student of history would laugh knowing full well that the story of this region has, at different periods, tied these cultures together in one way or another.

That is until this present era. The era of intolerance, apathy, and the sadly misguided belief that people around the world, especially those originating from the Mediterranean, share nothing in common with the people in Egypt. Lets set aside the shared desire for democracy and justice that is almost universal on this planet.  (though that alone should be enough)  Consider that many people on the modern day Iberian peninsula, in southern France, and  Italy in general,  may actually look at the media and see the struggle taking place in Cairo and Tunis, and conclude that they have no connection to these people or their issues.  Then consider again the amount of Americans, Canadians, decedents of immigrants now living throughout the globe, who’s ancestors came from this very region, yet today look and claim see no reason to care and no connection to that place and its people.

Somewhere, somehow, a mix of time, poor education, cowardice, and perhaps affluence, led people who surely believe themselves to be honest and good to the conclusion that whats going on over there has nothing to do with them.  They replaced what are very real and incredible connections from perhaps not all that long ago, with the story that they are a different people, who don’t think the same way or want the same things.

Me, I know what I know and I know what I felt.  A feeling that grew stronger everyday based on big and small conversations, gestures, and actions I will tell stories of for the rest of my life. A feeling that when I open a book and read the rich history of this region, is confirmed: I felt like I was amongst family, because when it comes to culture, history, and -yes- basic life wishes, I was among family. And if you really look at the history of this planet, there’s a good chance you’d notice that same connection.

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Sounds of the Sultan Hassan Mosque

During our time in Cairo, in between the steady stream of interviews and journeys to different neighborhoods, there were also the moments when we managed to do a little tourism and visit magnificent sights of the ancient city. On one such afternoon, under the guidance of our excellent friend and Egyptologist Shereif Nasr, we visited the Sultan Hassan Mosque, a beautiful Mamluk era structure completed in 1359.

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Amin’s Beautiful Family

Amin Maalouf and I.

The idea was to start our Arab Artists adventure with something extra special, with someone that could get us moving on the right foot, and that person turned out to be celebrated author and journalist Amin Maalouf.  So before flying down to Tunis, Chris and I met up in Paris for 2 days of preparation and conversation. 2 days during which, it turned out, we would get to spend some quality time with a very wise man and his inspiring family.

We were scheduled to meet for a morning session; a long interview covering the middle east in the present, recent past, and much more.  We hoped to talk history, arts, politics, and enjoy the life stories Amin might bring forth.  But instead of waiting for that morning appointment, the night before Chris tells me “we should just go over there, drop by, say hello, and see if we can’t get some ideas out for him to sleep on.”  My immediate reaction, even though I should realize Chris has been doing this very many decades, was to remind him that people are busy on Saturday nights, and he won’t be home (or he doesn’t want to see us until our agreed appointment).

We arrive at the address and sure enough realize we didn’t bring that essential Parisian tool, the door code. We stand at the door, periodically crossing the street and looking up at the window as if someone will look down and yell — “Oh its you guys, come on up!” – Right around then a neighbor opens the door and invites us in, “who are you looking for?” — Mr Maalouf, I explain. The woman doesn’t hesitate as she points me to the appropriate hallway. 30 seconds later, we’re warmly greeted by the sweetest couple that must have been a little shocked at this inter-generational journalist duo that just wandered in off the street. In his relaxed around the house clothes, Amin sat with us in the living room and immediately began to talk about a projects he is working on, people we have in common, and the latest updates about the US election race.

Not 12 hours later we are back in that same living room. This time Mr. Maalouf is sitting in the living room dressed nicely as I’ve often seen on BBC programs where he is interviewed.  He’s been thinking about some of the things we talked about, and just as I figure out the ins and outs of Chris’s recorder, off we go on a 2+ hour journey through time and space. I kept expecting him to run off needing water or to answer a phone, but instead he stays with us and considers every question carefully.  It was both exciting and exhausting as I reviewed in my head, every idea he put forward.

After those hours of holding the microphone and resisting the urges to comment, ask a question, or speak up in any way, Chris grabs the mic and puts me in his seat “Your turn Mark… time for you to let loose.”  To his credit and my surprise, even after such a long discussion, Amin looked at me with interest. As if to say, “yes, you’ve been sitting there nodding and almost talking for a while.. Id like to know what you have to say.”

The whole discussion was already a massive success in my mind. But just when i though it couldn’t get any better, Mrs. Maalouf comes to get us, to make a plate and join the family for lunch. Now we’re launched into conversations and creative back and forth idea sharing, as the rest of the family is just as kind and engaging as the man himself. It was as if I was speaking with old friends who have long been working on similar ideas.  Combine that with the best Lebanese food imaginable, and you get an afternoon that I hoped would never end.

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