October  2001 

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In Cairo As NYC Burned:

Misunderstanding To Spare

When I left the United States to live in Egypt, my friends warned me to watch out for terrorism. Some of them were kidding; some appeared to think "The Middle East" was a single country riddled with bomb craters.

I heard that sort of warning from friends in New York, too. I visited during a farewell tour this summer, where I watched a campy, open-air staging of "Pirates of Penzance" in the harbor with my uncle and his family. The twin WTC skyscrapers were in the background, but I didn't really bother looking at them, since they'd been there forever and would be there forever. I left that place, where the cost of gourmet coffee was a more pressing concern than abstractions of international affairs like war between Israel and Palestine, and landed in a place where that conflict is local news.

A week later, I was watching the World Trade Center burn, unravel and bury people. Fear scooped out my guts like nothing since the gasping nightmares of childhood. It would have been hard enough to comprehend if I were standing on the street in Manhattan, looking straight up at the avalanche of concrete, the tidal wave of smoke. Instead, I was in Cairo, watching the video replay on television.

The dislocation has made it harder for me to absorb the reality of what happened over there. But the distance has also given me clarity to see, between my old countrymen and my new Arab neighbors, a lack of understanding that is deep and dangerous.

When concrete showered Liberty Street, my uncle and his wife were here, in Cairo, on business. Their son was back in Manhattan, unaccounted for. With international phone lines jammed, we relayed information over the Internet -- my uncle phoning me from his hotel, my girlfriend using her laptop computer to send instant messages to a friend in New York who could call the boy's school.

"All the kids and teachers are fine," the friend replied by instant message. "There was no one hurt in the high school." I yanked the phone line from the laptop, popped it into the phone and called my uncle back. Since their apartment was in the disaster zone, my cousin would need somewhere else to sleep that night. My uncle had me e-mail a friend to make arrangements.

On a deep level, I had understood immediately the message of the plane hitting the skyscraper: A Gorgon had blasted away the gates. Americans were exposed, vulnerable, with nowhere to run, just like people in those faraway places we used to watch on TV. Kosovo. Gaza.

The walls of our fortress had been made of tissue paper.

Inside me, the surreality of the image unlatched a cage and released fears without logic. I admit: In the following days, I was harried by the thought that I, as an American, was a target in Egypt, because it was close to Palestine. I know those thoughts were as based in ignorance as were the warnings my friends had given me before I left. I couldn't help it.

When schoolboys saw me as a chance to practice their English ("HALLO!"), I wondered if there was hostility behind it. One night in bed I heard chanting and shouting down the street and wondered if a mob had formed to avenge some US counterstrike. Listening on the balcony, I realized it was just a party of rowdy Brits singing.

The day after the attack, I avoided going out. Emerging to get groceries, I wore dark clothes in a quiet show of mourning. Shopkeepers expressed their condolences when I raised the topic. But I detected nonchalance in the guy at the hardware store. He shrugged: "Always war everywhere." Like, Sorry your people died. Now you know what it's like. Welcome to the modern world.

Riding the Metro, some riders saw me writing in my journal while standing. They offered me one of those seats that fold out from the wall, communicating with gestures. The show of civility surprised me; I crumpled inside a little and averted my eyes as I sat.

By now the initial horror has congealed into an odd normalcy. As I start a second time to make myself part of the life of Cairo, I have one ear on my people in the US, one on my new acquaintances here. I feel a little like I'm at a street corner as two cars hurdle toward the intersection, and I'm the only one that can see that the collision is about to occur. It's a crossroads with enough ignorance to go around.

Egyptians have shown warmth and sympathy, but I sense that people here don't realize that this is more than the latest development in the story of terrorism. If they could read the e-mails I'm seeing from home, they'd see that the American mindset has hardened overnight. They'd sense a wounded beast ready to lash out.

Arab people should also know that their reactions matter to people in the US. Several people repeated to me a news report that the terror attacks were cheered in "Cairo cafés." And the televised image of Palestinian children celebrating in the streets registered indelibly with Americans. Another of my uncles, who's on a teaching assignment in the United Arab Emirates, sent the family an e-mail asking God to protect innocent Arabs. A cousin responded angrily: "And the rest of those 'brainwashed' psycho children that were dancing and celebrating in the streets? Guess what? They are the next bin-Laden, the
next Hussein..."

The disconnect is deep. If Egyptians thought America was an arrogant bully in the Middle East before, I don't think they're going to like how it acts now that the public is enraged and fully engaged. The mistrust and lack of understanding between Arabs and the US is going to deepen. Nothing short of a concerted cultural exchange can minimize the damage.

Dan Bernard, a freelance journalist, spent ten years as a newspaper reporter and Internet editor in the Midwest of the US before moving to Egypt. bt

Dan Bernard

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