The Front Office of Tahrir

The Front Office of Tahrir

It’s almost 1pm on a Friday  and the normally jam packed streets are quiet and strangely empty. Many are taking part in Friday prayers, and on this the day after the big speech by President Morsi where he announced new sweeping powers for himself while decapitating the judiciary branch of government.  On the heels of this bold and disturbing announcement, you can feel the calm before the storm, as by this afternoon hundreds of thousands will re-occupy Tahrir Square.

Last night and into the early morning hours, the cafe’s of Cairo were packed with people outraged over the announcement, and determined to take the square as a show of force by the people who during those legendary 18 days in 2011, did the impossible.  This morning, just a few blocks down from Tahrir, I’m at café Riche, the more than 1 hundred year old establishment that is known as the home of the writers, thinkers, and perhaps the cultural elite of Cairo.  I say perhaps because when you sit down at this historical landmark, you feel like everyone talks to everyone, and someone new strikes up a conversation every time.  At the front end of the cafe, the owner sits in front of his flatscreen TV watching the news.  Oddly, he often keeps the screen set to the live video feed from the square, which is physically only 2 blocks down the street. People periodically rise from their tables and stand transfixed on the screen. Customers walking in do the same before they take their seats. Everyone is looking at what is happening and wondering what may happen yet today.

In the back of the otherwise empty cafe, just as outside a constant stream of people walk by in the direction of the square like there is a magnet pulling them there, a group of older, seasoned veterans of the cultural scene have gathered for breakfast. Its their usual friday gathering and you can tell its THE place for debates and discussions about the week’s events and the big questions of life.  They will eat, argue, laugh, and then on to the main event – off to the demonstration.

Engineer Abbas, our new friend who helped design the current incarnation of this cafe that dates back to 1909, is seated at our table telling us stories of protests and the old days under previous dictators in Egypt. I ask him, “does it feel like those magic days in 2011 today?”  He smiles, “Those were the days my friend… those were the days.”  He goes on to sing “Those were the days” which I think  was a song from the 60’s that we all kind of know.   After his song Abbas smiles again, “Egyptian people have no schedule… they are.. how do I say.. unpredictable.  It may not be today, it might be tomorrow, you never know!”

In my time here in Egypt I find not everyone likes Cafe Riche. Its considered old, tired, elitist and perhaps even touristy.  I me be just the latest outsider to be charmed, but the friends I have made, the stories I have internalized in this place, it is for me as unforgettable as the square itself. It is better than any University I have ever attended and more lively than most rallies I have ever been a part of.  All day long and well into the night, the flat screen TV stays on and the front desk remains occupied, the writers and thinkers go back and forth, to protest, and back for tea. Rinse and Repeat. Day after day.  Just like in that those wonderful 18 days, – I’m told.

How to See and Hear Egypt

How to See and Hear Egypt

Since the revolution began in 2011, many a foreign journalist has gone to Egypt filled with good intentions and enthusiasm. And while some have done interesting or inspiring work, there are still many in the international media that consistently get half the story or hardly any of it and go home proclaiming that they know what’s what.

With our upcoming journey to Tunisia and Egypt, our challenge is to get past those tendencies and see beyond our own natural limitations. To best do that, we turn to our Egyptian friends in-country and from the diaspora, and ask about their experiences and what they most wish journalists would take note of and stay open to while doing their work.

Today on the podcast I speak with a new friend of the program, herself an Egyptian living abroad and living-breathing the revolution everyday even if she isn’t on the streets or in the square; Hanna Yousef is my special guest as part of a conversation to learn her beautiful story and ask what advice she would give to a outsider-journalist like myself, heading to her beloved country for the first time, in search of stories. In many ways this is the preparatory conversation that every journalist should have yet we rarely get to hear as its considered unworthy for your ears; too candid and imperfect. exactly the type of conversation that makes me love podcasting.

Too Soon To Worry About Libya?

by bicyclemark 1 Comment

Photo by United Nations Photo / flickr

A militia rolls into the airport and shuts down all air traffic, because they’re angry about something.  Another militia goes into the offices of the electoral commission and burns ballots, because they’re upset about something. Officials from the International Criminal Court are arrested and later released, under suspicion of being spies.

– Eight months since the declaration of a new Libya and the end of Gaddafi’s rule, the steady stream of bizarre and sometimes dangerous activity continues in that country. As per the nature of media and stories that travel beyond its borders, these stories overshadow the positive developments that are also surely taking place.  But the question becomes, despite the short amount of time that has passed, have the first steps in these critical months been the ones that will lead to a more just and peaceful future for the country? Are these isolated incidents that will pass, giving way to cooler heads and more rational conflict resolution?

There is perhaps no great point to speculating or judging for the first year or years, but I am reminded of old wisdom from both religious texts and human rights advocates throughout history on the subject of wars and bringing about change through violence. Violence begets violence. That doesn’t have to be 100% true in all cases, but in today’s Libya I see what seem to be signs of what happens, the side effects of bringing about much needed change by using violence. The guns haven’t gone away and more importantly, the wounds have not simply healed. The trauma continues to play out, and sadly, creates more victims long after the official war has ended.

Was there a better way to do it? Again, it is both too late and not the point. The point – is that the costs of what happened and how it was carried will continue to be felt for what seems like the foreseeable future. Those costs undermine the goals of creating a better country where people can live life without fear of their government or their neighbors.

The Road Back to Libya

by bicyclemark 1 Comment

Just over a year ago, Brian Conley found himself teaching workshops on new media reporting in a divided Libya.  While Gadaffi clung to power and a war was fought, Brian and his team improvised their way around and experienced part of the excitement, fear, frustration, and joy.. not to mention all the other emotions that this very difficult conflict brought about.  This month, one year since those first journeys around Libya, he is returning to pick up where he left off.  These are his stories, setting the stage for a new adventure, one where his actions will help bring about a better future for a hopeful nation.