The last few days have been mejnoon (crazy)! Today we were blessed with the opportunity to see the Great Pyramid of Giza and go inside! While no scarab beetles attacked us, I still had chills seeing and walking in something so massive and so old, as well as seeing graffiti from as far back as the ancient Greeks! Made with 2,300,00 blocks, it is the only pyramid in Egypt with the king’s burial chamber inside the pyramid, rather than under it. We were also able to visit Sakkara, home of King Djoser’s step pyramid (the first ever constructed in Egypt) and the infamous Bent Pyramid, built for King Sneferu. While the pyramid lives on as an eternal monument to his pyramid engineer’s failure, it has also managed to stay put since 2600 B.C., which is pretty impressive. There’s also a lovely, non-bent pyramid right next door. Getting to see such pristine and ancient artifacts is truly an honor and a privilege.
Another enlightening encounter with Egyptian society occurs at the pyramids: souvenir salesmen. Getting wooed, hassled, tricked, and persuaded to purchase trinkets and mementos was quite an experience. Some would even go as far as offering something as a gift and then expecting money or walking into your photo and expecting compensation. But these activities provide often the only (and small) source of income for many Egyptian men and their families. Combined with the dramatic drop in tourism, making a sale has become more imporantant then ever and it often necessary to simply survive.
With this fresh in our minds, it was an extraordinary honor to hear a lecture from Dr. Emad Abdel Gahfour. Dr. Emad is the current President of the Egyptian Salafi political party Al Nour. Al Nour party grew out of the Salafi Call movement in Alexandria, one of the largest Salafi groups in Egypt. Salafi usually is used to describe conservative Muslims who believe the exact example of the Prophet and Sunna (rather than only the principles) is true Islam. Truthfully, Salafism and Salafism in Egypt could each have their own books, so do some more research if you please. The Salafi Call had been promoting its vision of Islamic piety and social work (treating the sick, helping the poor) and largely avoiding political involvement since the mid-70s. Nevertheless, they, like many opposition and Islamist groups in Egypt before 2011, suffered varying levels of persecution under Sadat and Mubarak. According to Dr. Emad, the leadership of the Call was split about what course of action to take as the 2011 Revolution erupted across the country. Eventually, the Call decided to support the revolution and then decided that forming a political party would be the best way for their group to influence the public sphere.
Al-Nour organized rapidly and surprised many people by winning a quarter of the seats in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Dr. Emad believes this success led foreign governments to take the party more seriously and that the democratic institutions within the party administration have helped improved the image of Islamists. Like every other party, Dr. Emad stated the party’s goals as ending economic, security, and political corruption and abuses. He and the party also see an Egyptian society and law code based on Shar’ia (basically the Islamic way of doing things) as the most desirable outcome. Sadly, he was quite superficial about providing specifics about how they would like to ensure that laws were both Islamic and democratic, since a Salafi conception of Shar’ia is different than most Egyptian Muslims and certainly the sizable Christian population.
I also found Al-Nour’s decision to not field their own presidential candidate and endorse Abdel Moneim Abdul Futouh both wise and politically shrewd. By not fielding their own candidate, they avoid (or at least appear to avoid) the compromises and dirty world of scrambling for political power and portray an image of distant, pure group working only in the interest of Egypt. Additionally, I personally think Abdul Futouh has the revolutionary background and credentials to be a successful president. Additionally, he appeals to a wide range of Egyptians, secular to Salafi, which is very important at this point in Egyptian history. Aside from any genuine convictions, Al-Nour gains credibility and can portray the party more positively in Egypt and the international community by accepting a candidate much more liberal than themselves.
Today, we travelled to the Egyptian Museum, which houses an extensive collection of artifacts from ancient Egypt. It was amazing to see tablets, tombs, and towering statues that survived around 5,000 YEARS of history and weather remarkably unscathed. Many of the artifacts we saw were colored with paints derived from natural flower pigments that shone as if they had been applied a few hundred years ago, rather than a few millennia ago. Artifacts telling tales of conquest, such as the Narmer Tablet, seem to have suffered almost no erosion or deterioration (It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage). Aside from seeing the treasures of Tutankhamun and the rest of the museum’s pieces, we also received a crash course in ancient Egyptian history and religion. The entire body of artifacts that has come down to us from ancient Egypt seems to have derived from a royal fixation on death and preparation for the afterlife. Nevertheless, these statues also served an important purpose in this life: providing concrete symbols of royal divinity and authority, demonstrating power to the king’s subjects and rival kingdoms, and recording the history of ancient Egypt and the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt.
Next to the Egyptian Museum is burnt and ruined wreckage of the National Democratic Party, the former headquarters of former dictator Hosni Mubarak’s party and a symbol of the old regime. It is fitting that these two institutions are so close to each other, since the presidential elections this week will, with God’s help, be the first time Egyptians democratically elect a leader in 5,000 years. We spent tonight’s lecture discussing these upcoming elections and hearing the story of the revolution from regular Egyptians who participated in it. For our speakers, as well as many other Egyptians, the revolution not only liberated them from Mubarak’s direct domination, but from fear of the government. Moreover, it made people who had never given a thought to politics begin to take a personal interest in politics as a way to influence the future of their country.
While tonight was valuable for learning more details about the road to revolution, especially the April 6 movement, I found it more valuable for reminding myself and the other students about the power of ordinary people to create extraordinary change. Egyptians took responsibility not only to wrest control of the nation from a selfish tyrant, but to protect their families and communities from criminals released by the regime, direct traffic, lead chants, treat the sick and wounded, feed the crowds in Tahrir, and even protect the Egyptian Museum from any would-be looters. But discussions throughout the day clearly showed that the revolution remains unfinished, with former Mubarak Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik running for President and threats to the democratic process from a strong Egyptian military. Yet for this often cynical politics student, remembering the Egyptian Revolution gives me hope for the American political process, an end to the massacre in Syria, and the future of the world in general.
Ahlan wa Sahlan! Welcome!
If you’ve been following me for a while, then you may know I am currently running around Egypt with wonderful people from Drake. As part of this experience, I will be posting a few paragraphs every other day about what we have been learning along with a few pictures from that day, inshallah. I also hope to finish putting up the best photos from Palestine/Israel. Basically, there are going to be a lot of posts blowing up your news feed, so if you’re not interested, you might want to do whatever the digital equivalent is of sticking your fingers in your ears and singing loudly. For those of you are, I’ll try not to disappoint!