Munich_Eye_05_15_49_00In a recent testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security, National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen estimated that over 20,000 fighters from across Europe, North America, or elsewhere in the Arab world had left their homes to join militant groups operating inside Iraq and Syria. This figure is striking given global outrage over widely publicized executions, the depth of the US-led coalition, and extensive barriers to entry resulting from European legislation targeting would-be militants traveling to Syria. The common narrative is that despite these deterrents, potential fighters decide to join groups such as the Islamic State (IS) due to a shared religious ideology. However, this explanation is likely more convenient than accurate. Militants do not join IS because they adhere to the group’s specific interpretation or brand of Islam, but rather because of a secular combination of personal and environmental factors pushing and pulling them to the Levant.

Interviews, testimonies, and social media analyses of militants operating inside Syria and Iraq indicate that “pull” factors comraderiesuch as the yearning for adventure, seeking camaraderie, and search for purpose serve as greater internal motivators to join IS than one’s religious fervor. Within many Arab countries, youth seek to fill the “purpose void” in their lives that is the product of a lack of desirable career opportunities or social integration. Coupled with the inherent sense of adventure that most youth, regardless of faith or nationality, grapple with, a militant life in Syria can be as alluring as backpacking through Europe is for many western college graduates. Referring to fighters that had already left for Syria, several Jordanian men in a recent Foreign Policy article called IS militants “our friends and neighbors” – alluding to a pseudo-fraternal perspective of IS.

A bevy of environmental factors also provide the “push” that many militants consider in making the decision to join. An unemp;aforementioned lack of career prospects and youth unemployment rates over 29% region-wide portray IS as “a potential employer more than an ideological kinsmen” said one Jordanian man interviewed by Foreign Policy. Injustices at home in the wake of the 2011 Arab Uprisings, whether in the form of police brutality or community ostracism, perpetuate the “us versus them” mentality at the heart of many regional conflicts. Finally, a lack of faith in the West, particularly the US, to act leads many to think that they alone must turn the tide of the battle against Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad, and/or creeping Iranian influence.

Rather than the common “shared ideology” narrative used to explain why militants decide to join jihadist groups such as the Islamic State, it is more appropriate to attribute such a decision to a complex and secular blend of personal “pull” and environmental “push” factors. However, given that each potential jihadist’s motivations are inherently unique and multifaceted, perhaps a greater focus on the “how” versus the “why” would succeed in stemming the flow of foreign fighters to Syria. While significantly more expensive and intrusive, “how” factors are easier to diagnose, address, and measure. Increased scrutiny of social media, communication surveillance, social network mapping, and enhanced airport security protocols all have the ability to impede the “how” why remaining applicable to all potential militants despite their elaborate spectrum of “whys.”

Despite an uptick in effective military strikes against IS targets in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, the problem of eliminating IS cannot be completely solved with the barrel of a gun or any number of “how” remedies. Insurgencies, by their nature, focus on hearts and minds to appeal to recruits. Therefore governments and societies from which foreign fighters flow must take a critical and introspective look at the conditions they are fostering at home and realize these circumstances are far more likely to send young men and women to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria than any radicalized interpretation of Islam.

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In response to a friend’s recent question pertaining to current events in Iraq and Syria: What are your feelings on the situation [ISIS’ recent land-grab and subsequent US-led coalition strikes]? And why aren’t more Middle East countries involved in the coalition? I wish Iran would step up and show they are not as crazy as they use to be… and “for once” Israel has a legitimate reason to conduct air strikes, why don’t they take advantage of it?”

isis-ten-arab-nations-join-us-led-coalition-against-islamic-stateRegarding the question of why more Middle Eastern countries aren’t involved in the coalition, I would say it’s because the Middle East isn’t a unified, solitary actor/participant in regional or international affairs any longer. Countries throughout the region all have different goals and desired outcomes not only for Iraq/Syria, but for the new balance of power in the region at-large. Gone are the days were the Arab League, and even the GCC, spoke for everyone represented in their respective regional groups. Qatar/Kuwait are believed to be supporting non-ISIS Islamists – both political and militant varities – in places like Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Iraq with money, supplies, and even weapons. All the while, the UAE/Saudi Arabia are opposing, by means of arming and financing the competitors of, the very forces that Doha and Kuwait City are supporting. We saw this struggle occur very overtly in the recent Tunisian parliamentary elections (where the UAE-support secularist Nidaa Tounes party outgained the Qatar-backed Islamist Ennahda party), and we are seeing this on the battlefields of Syria each day. While I think there’s pretty unanimous animosity towards ISIS at the state-level, there are plenty of individual donors in all the above-mentioned countries who are supportive of the group. These donors all likely have some amount of political or economic leverage and leeway within their homelands. Granted, experts agree that private donations make up a tiny percentage of the money ISIS is sustaining itself on (oil sales and extortion being the chief methods and whole other cans of worms); it goes to show the level of disagreement alive in the Middle East at the state and individual-level right now-even on the most pressing issues. I also think Arab regimes have a legitimate concern that if they directly participate in the killing, whether collateral or deliberate, of other Arab tribesmen and militias sympathetic to ISIS, then uproar at home may result.

iran-historic-nuclear-deal.siAdding to the internal differences of opinion within Arab countries, Iran is an equally-looming issue for our Middle Eastern partners with respect to their cooperation with U.S.-led coalition efforts. As long as the U.S. refuses to deliberately target Assad’s forces, a puppet of Iran, Middle Eastern countries do not see the U.S. as supportive of one of their chief foreign policy interests (degrading Iran’s regional influence), and therefore they are hesitant to play bigger roles in the coalition. This is now coupled with/exacerbated by the U.S. and Iran coming closer and closer to a nuclear deal. I think Iran isn’t stepping up to do more unilaterally in Iraq because they know such action will fan the flames among their Arab neighbors/Israel more than they can tolerate politically at the moment. There are most definitely Iranian advisers (intel, military, political) at work in both Syria and Iraq, but unfortunately Iran is held to a different standard when it comes to a physical military presence in the region. They have many decades of suspicion and distrust to dispel among their Arab neighbors, and I don’t think seeing Saudi and Iranian jets flying side by side would end well.

syriaarabisiscoalitionRegarding Israel, we’ve actually seen Netanyahu paint Hamas in a similar light as ISIS recently. By drawing similarities between the two, he is retroactively legitimizing the bombardment of Gaza a few months back. Regardless of that political maneuver, I do not think ISIS poses a credible and existential threat to Israel- hence Jerusalem’s lack of involvement. It’s one thing for ISIS to challenge the territorial integrity of places like Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey where sympathetic radical Sunnis and widespread government resentment exist (albeit as a vast minority in terms of the former). However, history has shown us time and time again that in moments of crisis the Israeli population rallies behind their government’s choice to confront existential threats with massive shows of force. There also does not exist mobilized radical Sunni organization operating inside Israel* willing to cooperate with ISIS (*not to be confused with inside the West Bank or Gaza). I believe Israel would handily suppress, and repel, any maneuver ISIS attempts against their country. Geographically/tactically, ISIS would have to make HUGE gains in Jordan, Lebanon, and/or Western Syria before posing any kind of potential threat to Israel’s borders. Long before ISIS gets within 100 miles of an Israeli border, we’ll be seeing Israeli jets pounding their positions in Jordan, Lebanon, or Syria. I think Israel is also in a similar boat as Iran politically-speaking. Many of the Arab coalition members are participating in a limited fashion in an attempt to save face among their populations at home who want to see the Muslim communities in Iraq and Syria defended by Muslims. Mix in pictures of IDF forces collaborating with Emirati pilots, and you may see public support for the coalition effort wane. The West knows this, and therefore has probably told the Israelis to sit on the sidelines despite their probable desire to participate.

More on Israeli participation in the coalition effort here

flagsLast week prominent international relations scholar, and my personal academic idol, Stephen Walt published an insightful Foreign Policy article entitled “National Stupidity: In International Relations, Pride Goeth Before a Fall.” Inside his article, Walt outlines the valuable role that nationalism — the sentiment, belief, or feeling of identification with a particular nation — played in purging the world of some of its greatest historic afflictions (such as the rampant colonialism demonstrated by the British, French, Ottomans, and so on).  Nationalism is alive and well in modern international relations. Glancing across headlines, we rarely see a week go by where ethnic Kurds don’t flex their nationalist muscles against their Iraqi, Syrian, or Turkish overlords. Looking eastward, major Asian powers such as China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have been spatting over a series of contested rocks in the South China Sea that may or may not possess the catalytic lifeblood of most geopolitical conflicts: oil. While I agree with Walt that nationalism has negatively pervaded many of the most critical foreign policy headaches currently plaguing wonks worldwide, I think there’s a bit more to the nationalism onion that needs peeling back.

Victimization, what I loosely define as the feeling of being wronged, slighted, or harmed, has been politically operationalized to magnify nationalist sentiment for years. During my study of US-Iranian relations last semester, the underlying theme of victimization was constantly mentioned as a fundamental barrier to true social/cultural rapprochement between the two countries. Yes, major heads of state are participating in direct talks on nuclear, economic, and diplomatic prerogatives, but the feeling of victimization seems to be alive and well within both American and Iranian societies. In the opening minutes of Ben Affleck’s award-winning movie Argo, onlookers are greeted by chanting mobs, chador-adorned Iranian women, and crazed men scaling the walls of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran. I have no doubt that these fleeting minutes of Hollywood storytelling did more to sully the image of modern Iran in the minds of the average American movie-goer than any poorly-scripted sabre rattle speech delivered by Senator Ted Cruz (TX) ever could. Similarly, annual footage of a handful of fanatical Iranians burning the American flag in celebration of their conquest of our “den of spies” back in 1979 isn’t making anyone more likely to endorse the easing of sanctions. The point is, the more we paint ourselves as victims of some wrongdoing – no matter how long ago that offense might have occurred – the less likely we are to see the current situation on the ground through a moderate lens, and the more likely our governments are to commandeer our sentiment in a way that promotes an “us versus them” foreign policy. We’re seeing Chinese emotions run high as Japanese leaders refuse to visit war shrines. We’re seeing Benjamin Netanyahu and the entire IDF twitterverse dedicate immense amounts of time and effort to publicize every Palestinian “threat” (despite Israeli vows to expand settlements amidst ongoing peace discussions – but that’s another story). We’re witnessing Bashar al-Assad and his regime loyalists emphatically denounce the efforts of foreign terrorists to destabilize his and the Syrian peoples’ homes, and we’re unfortunately seeing Egypt — my country of focus — descend into chaos.

cairo-bombingToday, on the eve of the third anniversary commemorating the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on January 25, 2011, Egypt witnessed horrific (although predictable) violence inflicted against it. Three bombings rattled the Cairo metropolitan area in the early morning hours, and additional violence in form of a rudimentary bomb/clashes between protestors claimed the lives of at least a dozen more individuals. Though official spokesmen of the Egyptian regime were careful not to overtly blame the now outlawed, criminalized, detained, and terrorist-deemed Muslim Brotherhood for the attacks, surely few believe that the government is referring to anyone else as they vow to “pluck [these enemies] from the roots without mercy.” As General Sisi, President Mansour, and Prime Minister Beblawi continue to brandish the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization hell-bent on leading Egypt down the road to chaos, I fear that they may be snowballing to a point of no return. The more the anti-Morsi regime continues to portray themselves as under attack by the “others”, the more their exclusionary political platform will continue to take hold in the minds of the average Egyptian. Just as every Palestinian rockets serves the purpose of advancing Netanyahu’s right-wing ideology, every car bomb in Cairo will continue to reinforce Sisi/Mansour/Beblawi’s demonization of the Brotherhood – Egypt’s most powerful and organized political party. Granted, those that perpetrated the attacks of January 24th, the suicide bombing in Mansoura in December 2013, and other violence across the country last year, most likely have a political platform that mandates the reinstatement of Mohamed Morsi as President. However, continually condemning the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization based on the violent acts of a few individuals who have decided to manifest their political frustrations in the form of irrational violence is a foolhardy maneuver at best. Lest these very esteemed Egyptian political figures forget their history, the Brotherhood is an organization born and raised in the shadows of Egyptian politics and society. The Brotherhood was able to recruit intellectuals, consolidate power, and foster political support while operating in an ambiguous grey zone of illegality for over 80 years. Now that the Brotherhood has had a taste of political power and legitimization, a taste that they subsequently squandered by trying to abruptly accrue additional political clout in November of 2012, you cannot put the qitta (cat) back in the haqeeba (bag) and expect them to acquiesce. The Brotherhood represented a very substantial proportion of the Egyptian population who now, after having fought and died in the streets of Cairo, have expressed solidarity with their fallen political comrades even as they are met with the barrel of a gun. Continuing to condemn 10 million+ Egyptians as the “others” will only lead to additional violence, alienation, and turmoil on par, or greater than that, which we have seen today.

Egyptians of all political affiliations, genders, ages, and religious identities are suffering. No one group stands to gain from the kind of senseless violence and political exclusivity that has become the norm in Egypt. sisiGeneral Sisi, poised as he may be to become Egypt’s next president, has a lot to learn about appealing to all Egyptians before he may effectively consider himself a representative and guardian of the people. Just as Walt mentioned that nationalism can be a saving grace during times of duress, times that Egypt is surely experiencing at the moment, nationalism derived from victimization may also be the divisive factor that plunges a state into destruction. Though I think Egypt is a long way away from descending into the kind of disorder that we are unfortunately witnessing in Syria, very frightening and foreboding paths are presenting themselves. I remember playing cards with my Egyptian friends during my waning hours in Cairo last summer, and we were stunned to listen to Al-Jazeera’s coverage of ongoing clashes between pro/anti-Morsi forces on the May 15 Bridge. Crowds were flinging Molotov cocktails, chipping up pieces of the road to throw at their adversaries, and indiscriminately firing birdshot at each other with a level of furor never before seen. Though Eygptians are very proud of their ability to elicit change on January 25/June 30, they were shocked to see the type of widespread violence that their countrymen were inflicting upon each other. “Egyptians are not like this. We are not like Afghans, Syrians, or Iraqis,” I recall them saying. Now, more than 6 months after my departure from Cairo, I see the trend of mutual-victimization taking over more than I ever could have expected. If such violence is capable in Cairo, the umm al-dunya of all places, it is sadly no longer preposterous to start juxtaposing Egypt with the ongoing conflict in Syria. Walt’s article on nationalism could not have been more relevant given current developments in Egypt and around the world, however the idea of politically-instrumentalized victimization is not something that needs to be written about in prominent magazines to be pertinent. Victimization is a tool used by both the weak and strong to rally public support, and current events would suggest that world powers are increasingly viewing their adversaries through this lens. I fear that today’s violence in Egypt will serve as prelude to even bolder attacks on major metropolitan areas around the country, and that the responses handed down by the Egyptian security forces will plunge the country into even greater dichotomy. As former-president Morsi’s trial finally ensues, and as General Sisi prepares to assume his throne, Egyptians should strive to scale back the victimized undertones and make an effort to enact political decisions with the whole of the Egyptian people – women, youth, Muslim Brothers, etc. – in mind. The more the current regime tries to stifle the Brotherhood and simultaneously cast themselves as victims of the Ikhwan’s terrorism, the more likely their exaggerated condemnations will turn in to self-fulfilling prophecies.

Attention: Iran is happening.

Welcome back to al-Ra°yee, and I’ll spare you all the long-winded excuse for why the blog has been hibernating for the past several months. Egypt threw me a curve ball that I was wholly unprepared for, and picking up the pieces of a failed 8 month adventure abroad has left me “busy” for lack of another word. In any sense, it’s good to have you all back for the time being.

Rather than serve as a means to chronicle my escapades and discoveries abroad, this blog entry has found purpose elsewhere. Assuming that the majority of my readership is drawn from those friends and family members whose Facebook profiles I chronically creep occasionally look at, it appears that despite how politically-astute my network of acquaintances actually is, it is particularly quiet about certain issues in international relations that I find most pressing at the moment. Granted, the U.S. government did shut down, the ongoing Syrian civil war rages on, Egypt is still in democratic shambles, and Israel-Palestinian dialogues are fragilely underway, but I don’t see much commentary about Iran? You know, Iran: the Islamic Republic nestled between the two countries we fought in for over a decade, the country who’s upper political echelons frequently spewed anti-Israeli rhetoric and “Death to America” chants during the mid-2000’s , and the country that took 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days in 1979/led Ben Affleck to accept more awards than any person who starred in Daredevil ever should? Well, not to be overly optimistic or dramatic, but the times are a’changin. The P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, Russia, Germany) and Iran are about to begin a second round of highly-unprecedented and highly-important discussions (after a widely-acclaimed first round of discussions that came close, but no cigar, to striking a deal) on the future of Iran’s nuclear program, and you should be waiting with bated breath as much as the rest of the DC international relations intelligentsia is.

To provide some background information, Iran’s recent presidential elections yielded a semi-moderate candidate named Hassan Rouhani. Though Rouhani touts a pragmatic and moderate political platform Hassan Rouhani chooses image of key to symbolise presidential campaigncharacterized by a desire to rejuvenate the economy, respect human rights, and mend international relations, he should not be considered a true reformist akin to the efforts of former presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani. Rouhani is a regime-insider in every sense of the word having served in various high-level positions within the Khamenei regime – including as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. Rouhani was solely responsible for the last substantive nuclear deal cut between European powers and Iran in 2004 when he agreed to suspend Iran’s nuclear ambitions (much to the chagrin of Iranian hardliners) due to the widely-perceived fear of American regime change in the region. Rouhani’s experiences in the belly of the beast are not a bad thing, however. Having created an extensive network of internal regime contacts, confidants, and cohorts, Rouhani may very well possess the structural know-how and an intimate understanding of the limits of the Iranian presidency’s ability to actually elicit change. Rather than compete with the Supreme Leader on hot button issues — something his predecessors often did and failed at — Rouhani has ever-so-delicately pressed forward with his agenda while making sure to have the Supreme Leader’s blessing every step of the way. Rouhani’s leash is short and fleeting, however, and he faces widespread criticism from the status-quo hardliners who would sooner see Rouhani fold under domestic and international pressure for immediate results than actually work together to see Iran flourish like it once did. Should Rouhani fail to strike a nuclear deal soon (he is already over 100 days into his presidency, mind you), his critics at home may deem the efforts futile and revert back to a foreign policy strategy dominated by anti-Americanism and aversion to change.

iran-sanctions_0Problems and challenges to the rekindling of the relationship do not fall squarely on Tehran’s shoulders, however. Perhaps the single greatest barrier to substantively mended Iranian-American relations resides several miles down Constitution Avenue on Capitol Hill. Though the hard-hitting and invasive sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic for several years have worked/succeeded in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, an assessment shared by myself and prominent Iran expert (and guest-lecturer in my US-Iran Relations class) Barbara Slavin states that the threat of additional congressional sanctions (proposed by the bellicose Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), et al.) stands the chance to unravel all that has been achieved since Rouhani’s election. If sanctions have succeeded in illustrating for the Iranian regime that economic progress at home cannot be achieved without rapprochement with the West, then further sanctions in the wake of Iran coming to the negotiating table will only affirm to the Islamic Republic that the U.S. is not serious about coming to an agreement, that there is no incentive for them to concede any aspect of their nuclear program, and that our true motives are regime change or bust. Unfortunately, Congress’ track record for pushing through Iranian sanctions (such as those JUST PASSED in July, 2013) has a higher success rate (91%) than Peyton Manning’s current completion percentage (71%) thanks to special interests, foreign lobbying, and most significantly: ignorance. Now, rather than choc this one up to yet another ill-developed foreign policy of President Obama, it’s worth noting that the case of Iranian sanctions is something that the White House and Congress are decidedly at odds over. In fact in a recent Foreign Policy article, various State Department and White House officials condemned proposed congressional efforts for new sanctions on Iran as a “march to war” and went on to say that additional sanctions are unnecessary and could put us in a more difficult spot ….  it would play into the arguments of Iranian hardliners that the U.S. isn’t interested in a nuclear deal.

I get it, though. Skepticism and weariness of Rouhani are understandable. The West, and let’s not forget the Iranian people, endured eight venomous years under Ahmadinejad, and despite Rouhani’s election there are still regime hardliners who support an anti-Western foreign policy and generally anti-American attitude. However, for fear of reverting back to the same narrow-minded and ill-informed mentalities that have stunted U.S.-Iran relations for the past 40 years, we have to be willing to try something new now that a fruitful (and perhaps the most fruitful) opportunity has presented itself. We must be willing to extend an olive branch, let bygones be bygones, and have cautiously optimistic faith that Rouhani means what he says. For lack of having any better insight into what Rouhani and the Supreme Leader actually seek to accomplish, we must take their goodwill gestures and “international charm offensive” at face value. Gone are the days of Ahmadinejad making it easy for Americans to write off Iran as an oppressive, confrontational, and pariah nation of America and Israel haters, and we have unfortunately entered an era where the greatest obstacles to Iranian-American peace are the same individuals who would rather pout shut down their own government than negotiate with their fellow countrymen – much less a mullah from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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A photo I took while having some tea with a friend on the Corniche (kudos Instagram)

As I wake up each “morning” around 11am-3pm (I know, I know – don’t judge) I turn my pillow over, adjust the air conditioning as necessary, and expose additional bits of skin hiding under the heavy polyester blanket to the cool air circulating throughout my bedroom. After snoozing my iPhone alarm a few times, I typically peel myself from bed, rub my eyes a few times, and meander to the bathroom like an extra in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. Sure, the lack of a proper shower/tub/curtain/door is a little peculiar; and yes, the water takes a lunar cycle to heat up; but these are things one can adjust to quite easily. Though, once I ride the elevator down to the lobby and step outside the doors to my building, I’m instantly hit with the reminder of where I am. I quickly spot the Himalayan mound of trash, the fruit vendors, the shopkeepers, the dirt, and the plethora of wild cats and dogs rummaging through all of the above. Then there’s the heat. Dear God, the heat.

I mention these things because finding the intersection of West and [Middle] East has become a recurring trend in my adventures this week. The bitter culture shock of living in Cairo has long gone, and I’m actively creating a routine of frequenting the posh coffee shops such as Cilantro and Kosta and eating at not-so-posh ful, falafel, and koshary joints. Amidst all of this I’ve encountered some new friends. Last week I mentioned my local Egyptian friend Amr who is as Egyptian as they come, and I enjoy his company precisely because of this. We talk about politics, music, religion, culture, youth, etc., and I can never get enough of learning about life according to a young Cairene. However this week I had the privilege to meet a group of Egyptians (and other international expatriates) from a fundamentally different pocket of Egyptian society. Many of these new friends are western-educated, speak English as well as (if not better than) me, and enjoy discussing the various sadistic plots from the past season of Game of Thrones (spoiler alert: they all die). In the spirit of Egyptian hospitality, I was invited to join them for a delightful weekend on the north Mediterranean coast in a city called El Alamein. As I sipped a Mango smoothie and engaged in a lively debate regarding whether or not I thought the local beach was the best beach I’d ever been to (which it was NOT, I should say. See: Oahu, Maui, San Diego), I had to keep reminding myself that this little resort town and the people therein were as much a part of Egypt as the bustling streets and niqab-wearing women in Cairo. Though it was a weekend largely devoid of practicing Arabic, reading the latest Morsi news, or playing human Frogger, it served another important purpose in my journey throughout Egypt. This weekend showed me that Egyptian society is not confined to political protests, men in gellabiyas, and fastidious attendance to daily prayers. Some Egyptians simply enjoy having a beer, watching Jon Stewart, and sharing stories of their exposure to vast international cultures. It was a refreshing weekend, and now I’m back in Cairo preparing for Arabic language courses throughout the summer.

Observations:

– Very few people speak fusha (pronounced fuhs-hah), or Modern Standard Arabic, here in Egypt. Back in the States, most Arabic professors stress that students must learn fusha because that’s what everyone in the region speaks. They give some credence to the fact that regional dialects exist, but if I had a nickel for every time I was reassured that “everyone understands fusha” well, I’d have a lot of nickels. Whether it’s a function of the lack of formal education among many of the city’s shopkeepers and taxi drivers, or whether it’s because I picked the Arab country with perhaps the most deviant colloquial, I’ve had a lot of difficulty using what little Arabic I brought with me. For example, in Modern Standard Arabic the word for “the price” is said to be السعر (al-sihAr) while Egyptians exclusively say بكام (al-bihKAM) to settle their bills. It’s a little frustrating knowing that a large portion of what I have already learned/will learn in future fusha classes will be of nominal value here in Cairo, but I’m hoping that the strong foundation in classical Arabic will pay dividends during future travels in the region.

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Anti-regime posters plastered on a wall in Tal3at Harb Square near Tahrir Square

– The upcoming protests on June 30th have the entire city country galvanized. Conveniently when I was up north this weekend, large pro-Morsi protests were held in the outskirts of Cairo and a crowd well over 6 figures large turned out to wave flags and recite Quranic verses. The anti-Morsi protests slated for June 30 are expected to gather well over 1 million attendees – including almost every young person I’ve met in Cairo to date. Listening to everyone complain and proclaim their grievances against the current regime is very interesting from a politically philosophical standpoint. Egypt is experiencing its first ever taste of democracy, but I’m afraid they’re not giving it time to mature in their palate. Though their claims of government incompetence and corruption appear valid, the idea of forcefully ousting a president who’s term has lasted less than one year is a bit alarming. There are ~80 million people living in Egypt, almost 40 million of which live in the Cairo metropolitan area. If a small/medium/large subset of these highly diverse millions felt entitled to overthrow the government every time the regime failed to deliver something they desired, the country would descend into chaos as it endures a perpetual revolutionary cycle. Democracy, in all its grandeur, requires patience. Democracy also means that the losing team must semi-peacefully ride the pine until their chance to compete in the next elections finally approaches. Such is what Republicans will do until 2016, and what Democrats did all throughout the 80’s and 90’s. As people ask me “do you think Morsi will step down?” I find myself unable and unwilling to answer. I personally don’t see anything short of widespread death and dispersion at the hands of Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood as suffice to call for his ouster. On the same token, I don’t think a man who has been consolidating politically power for the past 12 months is prone to relinquishing it very easily. However, I do recognize that some people are literally starving as a result of his regime’s inability to responsibly manage the provision of basic civil services. Time will tell what is to become of this great country, and I hope the best for the people of Egypt regardless of the outcome of June 30th and onward.

– On a less serious note, updated ‘Shisha Sesh’ count: 6. I think grape, melon, and peach are my favorite flavors thus far.

As usual, thanks for reading!

One week down in Cairo and wow… just wow.

living_in_cairoI expected “different”. I expected “unique”. But they didn’t tell me Cairo would be like this. Cairo (al-Qahira) is an amazing amalgam of noise, humanity, cement, river, and dirt, yet somehow it all just works. I’ve had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout western Europe in my lifetime, and I’ve even been to far corners of the United States that might as well be foreign lands (ahem.. New Orleans), but there’s just nothing that compares to being in the thick of things here. When I was growing up I assumed that the rest of the world, and the United States for that matter, acted and operated like Southern California but while utilizing different languages and wearing funny clothes. Though I’d like to think that my perceptions of international cultures has matured since then, I’ve found that my preconceived notions of Egyptian culture were far from how things actually are. Yes, there are McDonalds’, KFC’s, and Baskin Robbins in Cairo, but no amount of chicken nuggets or rainbow sherbet can shield you from all that’s going on outside your window.

First impressions:

– As expected, I was woken up at the ripe time of 3:08AM for the first call to prayer (Fajr) on my first morning in Cairo. It’s one thing to hear an adhan (and do play the 11 second clip of Hafiz Zeeshan Kasimuddin’s recitation on the right hand side of the page to hear the best version I’ve heard to date) bellowing through your windows each morning, but it’s another to hear TWENTY adhans from every local mosque steamrolling into your 7th floor apartment. To be fair, I do think the adhan is hauntingly beautiful – especially Hafiz’s. It’s something that just screams “Middle East” or “Islam”, and I’ve grown to like hearing it five times each day (the other times being 11:56AM, 3:32Pm, 6:59Pm, and 8:32PM – in case you were wondering). If nothing else, it’s a humble and frequent reminder of where I am, what I’m doing, and why I’m here. Now, on the other hand, the relentless cacophony of young men hawking melons, sodas, and butane canisters outside my window is a battle I’m far from winning at the moment.

– Everyday things are expectedly cheap by western standards. Though I realize that items here are priced proportionally with what the average Egyptian is making at his/her job, it’s hard not to act like Russel Brand/Dudley Moore in the 2011/1981 film “Arthur”. During my first few waking hours I was in dire need of an internet connection to get back in touch with the western world. I stumbled upon a cyber cafe, nestled myself between some rambunctious young boys playing Counter Strike, World of Warcraft, and Grand Theft Auto, and fired off a few requisite emails. On that note, it was a welcome sight to see Egyptian children leading childhoods similar to mine: in cyber cafes playing “shoot ’em up” games, as my father would say. These cafes are typically run by old men who barely know what a computer is, much less how to operate them, and who rely on their grandson to take a break from slaying murlocks to come manage your computer or printer. Anyway, I digress… it cost me about 7 Egyptian Pounds (or 1 U.S. Dollar) for a little less than 2 hours of computer time.  For another frame of reference, a 25 minute taxi ride from my apartment to the city center ran me about 12 L.E. (or about $1.70). This is not an attempt to brag about wealth discrepancy, but rather to shed some light onto just how different the economies of Israel and Egypt — neighboring Middle Eastern countries might I add — really are.

– Crossing traffic is everything people, blogs, etc. said it would be. There is no better way to explain it other than human Frogger. One must be deliberate, yet careful. Patient, yet hasty. Crossing the street is an invariable battle of wills, and drivers are not kecairotrafficen to being the “suckers” who let the pedestrian waste precious seconds of their time. In a game of chicken to see who is more courageous, jaywalkers extraordinaire glide between cars (often no more than 1-2 inches away from being struck) while drivers speed up and slow down to prevent or permit safe passage. When a walker has made his/her choice to venture forth, drivers often speed up to try and see if you have the nerve to keep going. Should you accept this challenge, you’ll find the car stopping just a few inches in front of you coupled with a reluctant wave of the hand as he admits defeat.

– While we’re on the subject of cars and driving, it’s worth mentioning what the overall driving experience is like in Cairo. When it comes to traffic rules, there ARE NO traffic rules. Cairo is the wild, wild, east(?) when it comes to driving, and truly anything goes. The streets have no lanes, and I have yet to see a traffic light (or sign, for that matter) anywhere in the city. Drivers are free to drive anywhere, park anywhere, and honk anytime with impunity. Regarding honking, I’m already picking up on what certain honks mean. Cairo’s streets are inundated with honking horns, and in addition to the adhans which I mentioned earlier, they have to be on a short list for new national anthem. Some honks mean “watch out, I’m wedging my 1974 Citroen sedan in between you and the median”. Some mean “I’m here on this motorcycle in your blind spot, don’t merge into me”. Some are solicitations for people to jump onto their moving minibus. Some, I’m convinced, are because they simply like the sound. All of this is in conjunction with hundreds of locals filling every available cranny in between vehicles (usually in motion) like sand over rocks. Oh- and Egyptians absolutely refuse to use anything even remotely resembling a sidewalk, and there appears no way to convince them to do otherwise.

– Shisha (hookah). Is. Everywhere. Shisha is endemic in Egypt, and anywhere there is a ledge, curb, table, or surface of any sort, there is an old man sitting there smoking on it. I had my first Egyptian shisha-sesh (say that 5x fast) tonight, and I’m sure my lungs are going to hate me for what’s in store over the next 7 months. To allay the concerns of my less-familiar friends and family back home, shisha is flavored tobacco smoked out of a waterpipe (the hookah) in cafes and among various social events. People typically smoke shisha when having a cup of tea, browsing the internet, or simply having a conversation among friends.

Takeaways:

amr and meNow that I’ve no doubt succeeded in terrifying my followers with accounts of me hopping between moving vehicles, waking up to midnight loudspeakers, and digesting 50-cent felafel sandwiches, it’s worth noting the more important takeaways from my first week in Cairo. Egyptians have to be the most hospitable and welcoming people on earth. Not because their country is full of rich historical sites and treasures and they’re trying to make a pound or two off of you, but because it’s in their DNA to be friendly and helpful towards their guests. Knowing nothing about me other than what he could find on my limited Facebook page and subsequent profile picture, my new friend Amr (who may or may not be waking up to for Fajr prayer as I write this) has taken me under his wing and shown me the beauty, charm, and plethora of mobile phones that Cairo possess. I’ve been fascinated by his stories of life as a young, in-love, future college graduate, and I hope to impart on him the same kind of cultural lessons from my home back in America.

More to come soon. Ma’a Salaama!

On The Ground:

stock-photo-16681817-jerusalem-and-tel-aviv-road-signsAs expected, Jerusalem is vastly different from Tel Aviv. Weather: sure, architecture: definitely; however the cultural variations are most stark. Certainly the intersection of Arab/Palestinian communities with Jewish ones is among the most distinct and economically disparate faults of the Israeli government, but when chatting with a lot of locals in Jerusalem I’ve found that the commingling of various Jewish sects often creates more friction that an outsider might expect. I envisioned most Israeli Jews living in relatively peaceful coexistence under the banner of a  Jewish State, happy to be among a social majority. Though there aren’t protests in the streets, per se, there is evidently a lively and heated debate between more secular Jews and their ultra-Orthodox counterparts over issues of economic integration and “sharing the burden“. As a function of neglecting a formal education in English, math, the sciences, and computer skills, these ultra-Orthodox communities are vastly under-qualified to enter the modern workforce and are additionally exempt from serving in the military (as all other Israeli youth are mandated). The ultra-Orthodox are growing at a much faster rate than secular Israelis due to an exponentially higher birth rate, and are demographically gobbling up neighborhoods in order to sustain their expanding communities’ needs. These communities then implement conservative norms such as forbidding the operation of vehicles on the sabbath, enforcing strict codes of social conduct, and many others. One interesting quote I heard from some locals was that “we get along better with the Arabs than we do with the Orthodox,” and I was very surprised to hear such a claim. As someone who expected Jerusalem to be a city personified by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I found it interesting that Jerusalem suffers from internal dissension as much (if not more) than it does from various foreign pressures from its neighbors and the international community.

Touristy Stuff:

No trip to Israel would be complete without the standard trips to the Old City, Dead Sea, and various other notable locales. I had the privileged opportunity to be shown a slew of holy and historic cites by a fantastic tour guide named Natalie (who’s contact information I would be happy to pass on). Evidently, Israel takes its tourism very seriously and implements a very rigorous certification requirement  entailing 2+ years of training for all official tour guides. The quality of the tours we received really reflected this commitment to excellence, and Natalie demonstrated a keen expertise in all aspects of Jerusalem’s history. We toured the Western Wall, al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock (where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Issac/Ishmael – depending on your faith), among other noteworthy sites. Even as a very secular person, I couldn’t help but be moved by some kind of magical mysticism surrounding a city as vested in religious and anthropological history as Jerusalem. We visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the location of Jesus’ crucifixion and eventual ascension into heaven, and needless to say it was a very powerful place to behold. They have places where you can reach your arm in and literally touch the rock that Jesus’ cross was fastened to, and I was sure to rub all sorts of Holy juju onto myself wherever I could. A large amount of the biblical history of Jerusalem was beyond what I could recall from my brief stints in childhood Catechism class, but it was certainly fascinating to learn bits about the original City of David, the various demolitions of Jerusalem by various marauding powers, and the evolution of Jerusalem’s society as a result of generations of conflict.

More Interesting Visits:

Some high points of my trip to Jerusalem, and Israel in general, include visits we made to the Golan Heights and to Rosh Hanikra (a city on the northwestern border with Lebanon). Being able to see Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon from various perched vantage points, I photoreinforced my understanding that Israel simply cannot afford to be wavering, timid, or overly defensive in its national security strategy. The Golan Heights is an occupied territory in northeastern Israel that was claimed from Syria as a result of the 1967 Six Day War. Though there has been relative peace between the two nations over the past few decades, a bloody civil war continues to wage inside Syria and now along its border with Israel. Regional instability emanating from the revolutionary tides inside Syria, Jordan, or Egypt have the ability to destabilize Israel if for no other reason than sheer proximity. Former treaties, agreements, and détente, with the Mubarak and Assad regimes to Israel’s south and north are now at risk, and this concerns Israel tremendously when analyzing the prospects for peace in a post-Arab Spring Middle East. At multiple points when driving north or south along the Israeli coastline, the border with the West Bank is no more than 9-10 miles to your east. I had a chance to study Afghanistan and Pakistan security challenges this past semester, and the concept of Afghanistan as a source of “strategic depth” for Pakistan continually came to mind when surveying how territorially narrow the Israeli homeland actually is. There is no place for Israel to fall back to, and major population hubs are a matter of miles (if not meters) away from contested/hostile territories. This sobering fact forms the backbone of Israel’s obsession with security, and it is no longer surprising to see the preemptive measures Israel’s military is willing to take to protect the country. I have yet to come to a conclusion on how I feel about this strategy as I find myself perpetually grappling with the legal and realist arguments for courses of action or inaction.

Onward:

The delicate balance of multiculturalism, vigilant national security, and religious sanctity makes Israel the most unique country I have visited thus far in my journeys. Israel occupies a unique place in the world politically-speaking by being the only true democracy amidst a sea of dictatorships, monarchies, and fledgling democracies who’s fates are not yet known. In terms of government organization, provision of civil services, and generally liberal attitudes and lifestyles, there is little to suggest that Israel is not a “western” country. However, as you barter the prices of melons and candies in the shuk, suffer the fate of a thousand car horns in the crowded streets near the Old City, and realize just how little personal space you have in lines for restaurants and ATMs, Israel appears very Middle Eastern in nature. In a way, Israel was the perfect springboard into my next stop: Cairo, Egypt. Israel possessed just enough Middle Eastern charm, coupled with various western creature comforts, to make the culture shock less severe than it could have been. Politically, I’m glad I was able to observe the domestic dynamics and international concerns facing Israel before living in an Arab country. Israel and Egypt possess a highly interesting history characterized by very high highs and very low lows that have cumulatively shaped the current relationship in profound ways. Much has yet to be seen about the fate of Egypt-Israel relations under President Morsi, and I am excited to see (from the sidelines, of course) how that relationship unfolds. Surely I will encounter plenty of critics of Israel during my stay in Egypt, but I will encounter them knowing that the Arab-Israeli conflict does not alone define Israel or the region. Israel grapples with environmental concerns, internal political debates, territorial disputes, and even rifts among its native Jewish communities- all in addition to a stagnant peace process and constant potential for military conflict. I look forward to experiencing Cairo for all that it is and is not, and sharing my journeys with all of you in the weeks to come.