Just as you would be a fool to generalize about the US by spending a week exclusively in Manhattan, I was equally foolish thinking I understood much about life in Egypt after a week in Cairo/Giza. Coming to the small city of Qena opened my eyes to several other sides of this country on the Nile. My journey started at the Giza train station where I said good bye to my overly protective handlers that included my first driver in Cairo and my first tour guide.
And my train was an hour late in arriving, so unsurprisingly the locals started chatting me up. This does not happen much in my experience in the US, where someone from clearly a different race and culture is approached by friendly Americans who ask if they can help. In Egypt, it is common place and has happened to me repeatedly. A financial analyst and an Egyptian cop (just returning from a UN peacekeeping expedition to the Conga) were more than happy to talk about both the revolution and how I was going to get off at the right stop, which no doubt had no signs I could read. In the end the friendly cop rescued me from my train wagon and took me off the train in the lovely town of Qena.
The first thing which struck me while I was waiting for my host was the near riot going on in the train station. Perhaps 50 people were noisily gathered demanding tickets for what appeared a closed booth. What struck me is how this would never occur in the US. If there were no tickets, you might complain to your friends or fire off an irate text message, but you would not think if protesting at the ticket booth. My Qena friends explained it was because there is a black market in train tickets and these prospective passengers suspected the ticket agents might be holding back tickets to profit from reselling them. Apparently, protests similar to the one i saw have resulted in tickets being released in the past.
The second thing which struck me was the streets. Unlike Cairo, they were quite clean and the traffic was fairly tame by international standards. Ahmed told me that the popular local mayor put a hefty fine on littering. And nearly overnight the behavior of the locals changed and the litter nearly vanished.
But more important that the traffic, litter and pocket riots is the way the local culture is changing. I am speaking of the tribes which dominate Upper Egypt. [Upper Egypt refers to the southern portion of the country I am now visiting, which is up river on the Nile.] When I asked about homelessness in Egypt, everyone said that only the street kids in Cairo were homeless, in the rest of the country and especially in the more tribal regions of the south, clans took in anyone who was part of their group who fell down on their luck and made sure there was a social safety net which included housing.
But other aspects of tribal culture have been more oppressive, and perhaps nowhere this is more true than the institution of marriage. For literally thousands of years it has been common practice for marriages to be arranged and for them to always be inside the tribe. Yet in the last years and especially since the revolution these cultural norms have been shifting. The personal freedom and responsibility granted by the successful revolution brought with it challenging of cultural institutions, including tribal behaviors, which stripped individuals of their free will. Arranged marriages are being stepped away from, without shaming the culture. Even more importantly, in my eyes, young members of tribes are choosing to marry outside the tribe and even outside their race without blow back from their families and clan. African neighbors and even westerns are moving into the extended family housing which is tradition in Upper Egypt.
When they tell you nothing changes under the sun, tell them that in the oldest cultures in the world, under the hot dessert sun, freedom and self determination are starting to blossom.
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