Cairo As NYC Burned:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
walls of our fortress had been made of tissue paper.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Bernard, a freelance journalist, spent ten years as a newspaper
reporter and Internet editor in the Midwest of the US before moving to
Back To Top