Al-Azhar Park, Cairo

I have recently started working as an editor at Shermans Travel and when I was assigned an article on serene parks in chaotic cities, my mind went back to the last year and the calm I felt in Cairo’s Al-Azhar park while trying to adapt to the overwhelming city.

With the news that is coming out of Egypt over the past week or so, no-one is promoting Egypt travel and so I cut the Cairo section. But I am still thinking about Al-Azhar and hoping for Egypt.

Flickr/E Skene
Flickr/E Skene

With more than its fair share of traffic, overpopulation and pollution, Cairo can be an overwhelming and exhausting place to visit. The city has a shortage of open spaces so when Al-Azhar opened in 2005 it must have come as a huge relief for the city’s inhabitants and visitors.

The site of this 74-acre park was, incredibly, once a garbage dump. Its transformation was funded by His Highness Aga Khan IV who, after seeing piles of garbage from his hotel balcony, decided to intervene and offer the new park as a gift to the people of Cairo. 80,000 truckloads of garbage were removed from the site in the process.

The park is beautifully landscaped, featuring lawn areas, fountains, courtyards, restaurants, cafes, excellent views of the Citadel — especially scenic at sunset — and green, green grass, the likes of which you will struggle to find elsewhere in Cairo. A long stretch of the historic Ayyubid city wall was discovered during excavation and runs along the western end of the park.

2012: A Year in Nonviolent Dissent

“It gets into your system … the force and power of nonviolence.”

The above quotation is taken from a Guernica essay by Eamon Kircher Allen that was published in April this year. In April I had just returned from Egypt and was about to embark on a summer course through the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict. The power of nonviolence was in my system.

Through taking the course and talking to young Egyptian activists,  long-held understandings shifted. I started to realise things that should have been obvious. Authority, global order: these things are not rigid. Oppression draws power through our consent; we can withdraw that consent. Nonviolence does not mean inaction: it is often strategic.

In the ICNC course I learned a lot about strategy; about movements from West Papua to Burma and Chile; about different terms used for nonviolence (Satyagraha, People Power..) I learned about creative resistance (the Estonian Singing Revolution, Burmese clowns, Chilean cueca sola…)

As I moved through the year and from this place to the next I saw signs of dissent; civil resistance, and what Kircher Allen called the “common font of yearning for an alternative global order.” From Egypt to Mexico and the USA I saw people struggle for rights, recognition and to strategise a commitment to nonviolence.

Cairo, Egypt. February 2012.
Cairo, Egypt. February 2012.
Mexico City. September 2012.
Mexico City. September 2012.

IMG_1608

USA
USA

There is some nuances I still debate. Such as the photograph below.

It is a stencil of Mubarak and (what I am told is) writing that says “when will he die?” I saw others (that I didn’t photograph) of his image in a noose. I believe that words can be violence so do those images have a place in a nonviolent movement?

Luxor, Egypt. March 2012.
Luxor, Egypt. March 2012.

What about the destruction of property? Below is a photograph of the burned-out NDP building in Cairo. My first glance at it inspired an initial feeling of horror, which lifted when a woman smiling and taking photos of it expressed to me how happy the sight made her.

Cairo, Egypt. February 2012
Cairo, Egypt. February 2012

A question posed in the ICNC course: If property destruction is violence then how should we think of the Danish Resistance blowing up Nazi railroad tracks?

I am learning and I am asking myself questions and I don’t understand much but I am trying. I still struggle with hopelessness and anger but I am trying to be an optimist. There is both optimism and despair in dissent but signs of nonviolent dissent give me hope. I think that is a good way to move into the new year.

Cairo International Airport. March 2012.
Cairo International Airport. March 2012.

Egypt-sick; maybe just travel-sick

They say that the time it takes to get over a relationship is two times the length of the relationship itself. How long, then, to come to terms with the end of travel?  And does three weeks really give you enough to miss a place? My three-week trip ended two weeks ago but I still dream about Egypt every night.

Travel, for me, is exquisite pain. Exquisite because it is in travel that I feel most alive; painful because travel and I cannot be together — she keeps on moving without me. I used to be able to deflect this end-of-trip deflation by just moving on, and on, and on — there was always someplace else to go. Now, unlike in that not so distant past, trips have to end. And it is always crushing when they do.

Right now I feel that my Egypt trip was the most special; the one I miss the most. Probably I will feel this way about the next one, and the next, but right now I am reveling in the exquisite pain of reliving that trip through memories, photographs, Facebook chats, and, especially, dreams. And, sometimes, this is what I see in my dreams:

Sunrise over Luxor - the view from the hot-air balloon.
One of our Bedouin guides in the Western Desert.
All photographs by author.
Karnak Temple, Luxor
The sugarcane field where our hot-air balloon landed, Luxor West Bank.
Our felucca at rest on the Nile.
Sunset from a Dokki window.

(Note: My trip to Egypt was possible thanks to a partnership between Adventure Center and MatadorU)

Night Train to Cairo

Photo by Gingerbrew via Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gingerbrew/5798610515/

It is 12 hours into our journey and one of the carriage windows has just shattered. Broken glass falls across two rows of seats like hailstones. Passengers dart to safety and take stock of the scene. A quick gust of wind sends more glass from the broken pane across more seats and a decision is made to kick out the remaining window pane. An off-duty policeman, gun still attached to his hip, takes a few swings then, satisfied, settles back into his seat. I’m trying not to laugh, but the policeman catches my eye and we share a grin.

We had left Luxor at 11pm last night and we due to reach Cairo three hours ago. I had the half-asleep perception of making a too-long stop somewhere during the night, and found out early this morning that an unexplained protest somewhere had stalled us for four hours.

My trip roommate sits next to me reading some erotic thriller and swearing that even the trains in India were cleaner than this. Me, I put it down to experience, even though the grime sticks, the toilets are disgusting and the snoring thunderous. The breeze from the broken window comes as a relief and we travel past a brightly coloured village along a canal. A women wearing an abaya is feeding her ducks while others wash clothes in the canaland children balance on trotting donkeys. Further on, a donkey that was pulling a cart appears to have fallen and several men are raining blows on him to get him back on his feet. I have to turn away.

Our tour leader stirs, thick black hair sticking up. We tell him about the window and he just shrugs. “It happens,” he says.

(My trip to Egypt was sponsored by Adventure Center and MatadorU)

First: Cairo

(Writing this while exhausted, sleepy and on a slow connection. It will be brief.)

Day Two of my MatadorU/Adventure Center trip to Egypt.

I’m still wearing the clothes I was wearing when I left the U.S. If my bag arrives before the end of today, I won’t name the airline that misplaced it.

Our group, which consists of only four people, was woken early for breakfast and a briefing. The word right now is that we will not be going to the Sinai region (meaning no Dahab and no climbing Mt. Sinai) owing to unrest and recent kidnappings. The mood of the group was noticeably more of disappointment than relief. “We want you to be safe,” our guide tried, but there was still grumbling.

We drove out to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx. I had heard a lot about the touts but, really, they were just annoying but that’s all. There really were not that many tourists there at all. It was quite quiet. I feel terrible for the people who make their living from the tourist industry. In conversation I empathised with our guide; he smiled and said that it was worth it.

All photographs by author

In the afternoon there was walking and getting lost — my favourite thing to do in a new city and something for which Cairo is just right.

Approaching the Egyptian Museum I ducked in and out of Tahrir Square, snapping pictures of the powerful street art around.