29. Be afraid and stay at home

We witnessed the Arab stronghold from the fifteenth floor. A sea of stacked bricks, overcrowded streets, litter, vehicles and minarets extended till the light brown horizon. We stared in awe at a chaotic, hectic and ever-moving ant colony. Jam-packed vans, soldiers, pack-donkeys, basically each pair of legs and tires worked their way through Cairo. It all worked out with minimal traffic lights, road signs and traffic rules. Don’t ask me how, but it functions with some honking and screaming. Quite impressive, especially since all signals were flashing red. Well, according to the media. Life went on as usual, that’s what I experienced in person as an exchange student. Our Egyptian peers showed us the way on multiple occasions. This contact linked me to an Islamic culture of which I was so oblivious. A region that’s in the negative spotlight so explicitly got a personal touch. It contains more colors than the travel alerts, news reports and other official sources.

The bond between my Egyptian mate and me helped. We clicked, despite large (cultural) differences in our way of living, ways and beliefs. Clashing opinion and miscommunications didn’t create a dormant tension. Mutual respect prevailed. There wasn’t any fuss or hassle, thank goodness. Just before Morning Prayer, we went through life behind that hotel window. We jumped into a cab to roam around once he was finished. Whether we would get anywhere was questionable. I knew that communication was louder and more physical over here. But dear prophet… This was just madness. For a moment, I thought he was going to attack the driver. Only ‘Mursi’, ‘Mubarak’ and ‘America’ were recognizable amidst all the raised voices. I asked him what the fuss was all about once we arrived. “Nothing. Just some political chitchat, that’s all”. I looked at him feeling confused. He sighed and went on. “I hate politicians. It’s a corrupt, greedy mess. All means are used, they don’t care. It makes me hopeless.’ I wisely kept my mouth shut – what do I know about Egyptian politics – and let him rage on. Case ain’t closed though. Back in the hotel, the room’s pink elephant (the political instability at the time) was called out. Several Dutch folks suggested visiting Tahrir Square. Err…. The Egyptians looked uncomfortably. Ha, the brutality. Their faces hinted the idea being naive and misplaced. Yet some of them went overboard in the end. Only on one condition though: keep it short. Okay, deal. We went to the infamous rally-place with a sizable group.

The tone was set straight after arrival. A bleeding boy was carried away by a bunch of shouting men. Which was an art in itself through this dense crowd. So, this is it. This is simply a mouse-trap once (panic) shit hits the fan. Right. Let’s hang out at the edge of this massive square. Vibes were running high. Needless to say, our presence didn’t go unnoticed. Passing groups of young men dropped multiple (funnily meant) comments at us. Geez, such a warm welcome at this house-party. After snooping around for fifteen minutes, one question came to mind: what the hell am I actually doing? Outsiders have absolutely nothing to look for in certain places – like this one. Suddenly I felt like an arrogant jackass, an irritating meddler, an ignorant disaster tourist. Even for seasoned journalists, diplomats and the like, the Middle East remains elusive. Let alone for simple mortals like myself. This fancy business doesn’t make any sense. Enough is enough, time to retreat.

A TV within the hotel lobby was tuned into CNN. We suspiciously watched a (un)conscious image that was deliberately broadcasted. Rabble rousing was the tendency, the extremes formed the basis. All attention was on the most emotional and noisy troublemakers. Dramatic footages were blown up and endlessly repeated. Some scenes within a particular spot were projected as Egypt or the Arab community as a whole. Millions of people were represented in a very professional and legitimate way through flag burners, extremists, terrorists and hotheads. It looked as if anarchy had broken out, including mass lootings, outbursts of violence, and (sexual) assaults. I walked away to a nearby shisha bar in laughter, knowing it wasn’t that tragic. The hookah passed by as we received some questions. So, what did we think? Pretty fascinating stuff. Yes, there was something in the air. Yeah, some nasty things were undeniably happening. Yet this distorted image doesn’t do any justice to the everyday, the humane, the so-called ordinary. One-sided framing downgrades colorful stories into solid black-and-white frames. It’s basically a cunning sort of mis- and disinformation. It’s something to be constantly aware of, wherever and whenever. No source possesses the ultimate truth, especially when it dares to claim it. Now, this is the real power of various perspectives.

What I experienced was a ‘strange’ yet very familiar environment. It’s a place packed with people who strive for happiness. People who simply make the best of it, people who are going to work or visiting loved ones. Just like you and me do. They offered me sincere interest, hospitality, contact. The content of the exchange project was of secondary importance. For me, the main draw was the corresponding dynamic between different cultures and personalities. Daily life has something universal, essential, connecting. I shared my thoughts with the group. As usual, they didn’t get out of my mouth fluently. They nodded in agreement nonetheless. The confirmed recognition reassured me. It’s so important to look beyond (the horizon), especially in the age of abundant (non)-information. It’s the cure against delusion, the pillar of thoughtfulness, a stimulus for progress. Reap the rewards of predigested fruits, take in those enriched nutrients. Or just be hateful and judgmental. To each their own. That’s life.

Give me the diversity of life, with that I disarm the (ir)rational fears which try to dominate me.

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