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Anna Shook

Anna Shook has lived in Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt

January 28th, 2011 9:33 PM

Thinking About Egypt

Like all of the people who are following the protests in the Middle East I am amazed and excited and very worried. Amazed because I have lived in three Arab countries, Tunisia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and I have seen how poor people suffer in Tunisia and Egypt, and I have never seen such reaction on their part. Excited, because of how the Tunisian protestors seem to be winning -- President Ben Ali has actually left, the interim government has been compromising with the protestors, and overseas governments are doing real concrete things in support of the people, such as freezing Ben Ali's assets while Tunisia investigates into his corruption. Very worried, because I am very attached to Egypt. But I have a lot of hope along with my worry, because I know Egypt and Egyptians.

Egypt has a huge population, which is very young and is very poor, while having a relatively high level of literacy and education, which is unbelievably frustrating. Unemployment is very high and so are prices. People who want to start a family must wait until their mid 30s or later to get married and have children, in a country for which family is a much bigger goal for most people than it is here in the West.

I lived in Egypt, in the Cairo area, from 1998 to 2006. I lived for five years in the working class neighborhood of Shoubra, which has been mentioned many times lately in the news. Right now I am listening to an Al Jazeera show with Egyptian actor Amr Waked who says his brother was arrested in Shoubra. Shoubra's huge, really crowded and dense, and full of noise and traffic. I bet it is even noisier than usual about now. Egyptians who live in Shoubra tend to be poor. Many work in informal jobs. Many have small shops where they fix people's shoes or iron clothes. Men congregate in cafes and play dominos and backgammon and drink coffee and tea. Women go to the markets and go to government jobs and take their children to private lessons. But the most interesting thing about living in Shoubra is how funny people are.

The Egyptian sense of humor has enabled Egyptians to keep going in spite of their autocratic regime and their economic disasters. Here is a (very old) typical Egyptian joke:

"The Prime Minister goes to speak at a private school and says to the class, 'Ask me any questions you like. You have complete freedom.' So a student stands up and says 'OK, my name is Rami and I have four questions. Why are we still in a state of emergency? Why is no one allowed to run for president against Mubarak? Why does my father not have work? Why are prices so high?' There is an uncomfortable silence and then the teacher says, 'Why don't we have a break now and you go out and play and we will meet with his honor the minister after that?' After the break the kids are back in the class and the minister asks them for their questions. One of the kids says, 'OK, I have five questions. Why are we still in a state of emergency? hy is no one allowed to run for president against Mubarak? Why does my father not have work? Why are prices so high? And where is Rami?'"

When the protests started I saw a hilarious picture some Egyptian had made, which looked like a Facebook conversation between Mubarak and members of his regime and other neighborhood dictators. It was in Arabic and it was full of the Egyptian humor that I miss since I left the country for my own country, the US, in 2006. I know that Egyptians will not let their government destroy them and will not destroy their country, while they can still laugh.

The regime's latest attempt to stifle dissent, by cutting all Internet and mobile phone connections in the country, is going to make people laugh even harder, since these amenities are so recent to Egypt anyhow. Does the government think people have forgotten how to get news from friends in the local coffee shop, like the guy whose second cousin is a colonel in the Army, or the brother of someone's friend's fiancee who works in the Semiramis hotel and has been able to talk to Western and Arab journalists? Egyptians are social people. Social networking is a nice thing for them. Mobile phones are convenient. But they don't need these things in order to find things out from each other and figure out what to do next.

Long live Egypt and the Egyptian people. I am scared for you but I am also very proud of you and as long as you can continue to laugh, you will be OK. So far no one has ever been able to stop you.


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