Arriving in Dubai, Taxi Ride #1: Nagi from Egypt

It is 2am in the morning and I have finally made my way out of the city in an airport known as Dubai Airport. It is late, but you would never know it in an airport where there is no night or day, only departures and arrivals. As I exit towards the taxis I am immediately directed to the familiar beige and red vehicles lined up in three rows, several cars deep. They’re moving quickly, loading luggage, a quick greeting to passengers, and off they go, probably towards one of the thousands of hotels in this town.

11807551586_bae6c54bbdMy driver greets me in English, unsurprisingly, as that is the lingua franca of this part of the Emirates. On our way out of the taxi area, he hangs out the window and has a quick joke in Arabic with a parking attendant and a security guard. I can tell he comes here often. As I sit up in the front seat I wish him good evening in both English and Arabic, which surprises him in a pleasant way. He responds almost like it is a reflex and then takes a second look at me, “You are Pakistani? Pakistan or at least- you are muslim?” He asks gleefully. I seem to intrigue him. I’m sporting a high quality dark blue dress shirt that I overpaid for in Portugal just before my grandfather’s funeral this past autumn. I have a fairly good beard, short hair that isn’t very short anymore, and my dark Portuguese brown eyes of course. And as for the Pakistan angle, well, it is dark and late.

His name is Nagi, which makes me think of the great writer Naguib Mahfouz. Like Mahfouz, my taxi driver, it turns out, is from Egypt. Ishamiliya specifically, and he is very excited when he learns that I’ve worked in Egypt recently. We talk of the friendliness of the people there, “In Egypt, even people you don’t know, they are friendly and helpful. Even a poor person, a poor person with no money, someone will still say to them how are you here have this food or something.” Of course, Nagi points out, this changed when Morsi came. “The fucking Morsi comes and suddenly everyone is angry all the time, so much anger in my country now.”  I knew of this sentiment and felt quite a bit of it in Egpyt just one year ago, but I also remembered the joy of being in Tahrir where people were welcoming and cheerful.  “Yes, in Tahrir now, people are friendly and they have a good spirit.”

As he attempts to speed towards Jumeirah, we pass the world famous Burj Khalifah, Nagi points to the speedometer,  “The company doesn’t let these cars go over 120. I want to go faster, but they fixed it so it will not go.” -Big difference from Egypt, I suggested to him. -He burst out laughing. “Taxi’s in Cairo? Forget it. You never know what you will get or if it will be clean or the driver honest. No. It is in not good. Cairo is crazy and dirty.”

15 years ago Nagi came to Dubai to work, which seems to have quickly become taxi driving after a few stints as a grocer, “Many Egyptians in the UAE, many thousands, I know many Egyptians here who drive cabs.”  He goes on to talk about the lack of work in Egypt, both for Egyptians and foreigners. Not like here, “here everyone is a foreigner” he points out several times.

Screenshot 2014-01-08 02.36.50The conversation comes back to my interest in Arabic and my muslim look. I explain that I have North African ancestors, because they controlled Portugal for 700 years. I tell him of my dad who could easily be taken as Moroccan, and my mom who could be “English” he correctly suggests as I try to think of a good contrast.  “Yes, in Egypt, in Alexandria, we have many people of Greek decent. Actually it was part of Greece, so many people look and maybe act Greek sometimes. But the rest of the country is just Egyptian.” I decide to throw in another source of the Egyptian look (there are actually many), I tell him of my Egyptian friends with Armenian names. “Ah yes.. Yes many people with Armenian ancestry in Egypt also.” The more we drive, the more ideas and facts seem to pop into our heads and roll out to the conversation.

For the remainder of this 20 minute taxi ride we talk about the media. Somehow in speaking of Egypt he mentions a recent vacation he took with him family to Sharm-el-Sheik.  “The media says, there are no tourists, they are scared… but I go to Sharm for vacation, all I see is tourists. No one even speaks arabic when I try to speak to them. But the media lies, they say this isn’t happening.” For several minutes we swap examples of how journalists only tell one version of Egypt, the negative scary one.  Nagi is pretty commited to the explanation that they are simply liars. I let that stand for a few minutes and then suggest they want to create drama and negative conflict stories are more attractive in their eyes than the “things are good” stories. Nagi agrees. The media creates their own drama. Again we find our common ground.

We arrive at my destination and out of the joy of hearing me speak some arabic, we count off the towers in the Jumeirah Lake area. He laughs about the uniqueness and universal appeal of the Egyptian accent. We shake hands, exchange information for future airport trips, and he wishes me well.  Off he drives back towards Dubai international airport. Surely at 3am there must be some flight arriving from somewhere.

And so it begins…

One Year Since My Tahrir

Towards Tahrir, Nov. 2012
Towards Tahrir, Nov. 2012

One year ago this week it was Chris and I running around the streets of Cairo, getting a crash course in revolution from some of the most passionate, charming, and welcoming people one could ever have the good fortune of meeting in this life. From our home base in western feeling Zamalek, to our front office between the hallowed walls of Café Riche in Downtown, everyday we went to school with pen, paper, and microphone. Incredibly, the very three weeks that we were in town coincided with the reawakening of a movement, to finish what they had started back in 2011.  For two outsiders eager to learn at any hour of the day It was nerve wracking, it was confusing, it was beautiful.

One year later the loud voices of observers from all walks of life and all corners of the world would shout me down and say it was and has been a terrible year for Egypt, and we were witnessing just another chapter in a story filled with tragedy.  While those voices might be louder and considered more credible than my own, I would still say to them – what I experienced in Egypt in the autumn of 2012 was a thing of tremendous beauty.  I saw old and young walking arm in arm through the streets without fear, singing, chanting, smiling and inviting their neighbors to join them.  I saw families camped out in the middle of this world famous square, sharing food, telling stories, and exchanging warm greetings. Every time we turned a corner we were greeted as welcomed visitors, people eager to show us and have us relay to the world – this is Egypt, we are glad you are here.

When I think back on those wonderful weeks in Egypt, among so many great interviews worth listening to again and again, my favorite has to be Fouad and the boys, three friends sitting with us at an outdoor café in Downtown Cairo. Telling the story of what has been happening and Egypt and what it all means to them personally. Putting things in perspective, especially in that big-picture perspective of life, death, and everything in between.

A lot has changed since those fateful days of November in Egypt.  Lots more lives have been lost and terrible crimes have been committed.  But anytime I see one of those simple conclusions in the press, or hear that blowhard at the bar spout off about how Egypt has jumped off the deep end, I remember what I experienced and the lessons I learned from some very special observers that live the reality everyday, including at this very moment. And I take solace in the fact that there is always more to this story, it isn’t all just one way, and oh the fantastic people you could meet if you were there right now.

Tahrir Square, The Encore

At this point you may think to yourself “Is Mark still talking about Egypt more than 2 months since returning home?”  The answer is yes. Proudly.

Lawyers on Kasr al NileAs I have now published all the interviews I have to share with you from the journey, I realized there was still audio that I had never put together and released to the public – the audio from Tahrir Square, as Chris and I, together with inspiring friends and people who just came right up to us, speak about what was going on around us.  It was, and remains, a unique moment in my life and clearly from listening to people, an unforgettable moment in their lives as well.  Part of a long struggle where there are beautiful and terrible days.  This one, I believe, was a beautiful one.  Take a listen, one last podcast from the Arab Artists in a Revolution series, one last chance to be transported back to a time and a place that captured the imagination of the entire world. Special thanks to the dear friends who every time we came to the square, stuck with us made us feel at home.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali: Population Explosion and Water in Egypt

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.

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.

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.