One thing about our evening chats – they’re stimulating, and sometimes downright confusing. I cherish all my conversations with Marleen, Reda and Emet, the afterschool director, who also presides over the Mahaba School. These are the only people I can talk about life outside the convent with. When Emet joins us, though, I have to rely on Reda’s translations. Emet speaks very little English. I think he understands a lot, though, because when Reda and I speak in the evenings and Emet is also there, he nods his head as though he understands us. With Emet, I get a third perspective on Egyptian life.
It seems that every time we talk, at one point the subject comes around to Obama and the Americans. “Sorry,” Reda says each time. “You are a wonderful person and I like Americans personally. But we don’t like your president.” Emet echoes his sentiment, as does Sister Maria and everybody I meet who mentions the name “Obama”. I tell Reda that I voted twice for Obama. The first time I was really excited about having him for President, but by the second time, I wasn’t sure whether President Obama and I shared the same values at all. After all, Guantanamo is still there, there’s more internet spying than there ever was after Bush signed the Patriot Act, America is still high-handed with other nations, and now my military uses anonymous drones to kill non-military “objects”. I don’t really know what Obama is trying to do when he talks about easing sanctions on Iran, when it seems obvious that the Iranians are hell-bent on developing their atomic bomb. I know the Israeli government is really afraid of this happening. If anything, it seems the world is a more dangerous place under Obama’s presidency than before. So I’ve got my questions.
“Why did Obama support Morsi?” Reda asks me.
“Because Morsi was elected democratically. We want to support democracy.”
“But he wasn’t elected democratically,” say Reda and Emet in unison. “Amed Shafik actually won the election. It was rigged.” It’s the first time I’ve heard this news, but I later find the same claim in the internet.
“Morsi supports terrorism! The Muslim Brotherhood is like Al Qaida – they’re terrorists! Why did Obama spend American money for the Muslim Brotherhood?”
“To promote democracy,” I answer.
“You are deceived,” they answer. “How can the Americans support a terrorist?” they ask. I want to say that my government wants to support a democratically elected leader, even if he may have some undemocrtic ideas. In a democracy, you don’t have a revolution every time someone who has different ideas than you are in power. You try and work together. You support the process, even if it isn’t a smooth one. But what do I know? My government has supported plenty of undemocratic tyrants in the past, and even helped to overthrow democratially elected leaders.
Reda tells me that he loves the military. “Egyptians love the military,” he adds. “Each time I run into one of the soldiers, I walk up and shake his hand. I tell him that we support the military.”
He goes on to say that what happened in July was not a military coup – it was the will of the people.
“We, the Egyptians, wanted no more of Morsi. Not just the Copts – the Muslims too. They want no more of the Muslim Brotherhood. Eighty per cent of the Egyptians are in favor of the military takeover.
“You should have seen the demonstrations!” he says. “Fourteen million Egyptians on the streets. I was there too.”
I seem to recall that about a year ago, everybody hated the military, especially those who favored democracy.
One evening I tell Reda about an article I read in the New York Times about a man named Tomahy. He’s never heard of Tomahy. “He is the new head of the intelligence service,” I say.
“It says in the article that Tomahy was responsible for the military killing about a thousand Islamists.”
“No, the military didn’t do that,” answers Reda. “Where are these thousand dead? These are lies. The American press is deceiving you.”
As with each other time I’ve been in Egypt, at some point I feel almost dizzy with disorientation. The version I hear about my government’s role in Egypt is diametrically opposed to what Egyptians tell me. Last time I was in Egypt, I heard that the young Americans and Germans working for nongovernemtal organizations were actually spies sent to foment agitation among the Egyptians. Now I’m hearing that Obama is a sponsor of terrorism. I wonder if it is possible to know the truth here. I think Egypt is a country rife with conspiracy theories about everything. But when I’m in Egypt, I start to wonder if the powers at be in the world aren’t indeed parties to conspiracy. Who is to know?
One thing about Obama and the US government that does disturb me deeply is all the internet spying that’s been going on, and their witch hunt for Edward Snowden. I tell this to Redy. He’s never heard about the internet spying. He’s never even heard of the name “Edward Snowden”. I wonder who is being misinformed.
“You think we are a divided country,” Reda says. “You Americans think the Muslims and the Christians are opposed to each other. But it’s not true. How old is America?”
I tell him the US declared independence from England in 1776.
“You see? Your democracy is only a little over 200 years old. Our country is over 4,000 years old, and we are united. I’m not sure whether your nation will survive. Ours will.”
At one point, Reda notices that I am visibly uncomfortable with our discussion. “Shall we talk about something else?” he asks. “This talk makes you unhappy. You shouldn’t be unhappy.” This immeasurably considerate thought delights me, but also throws me into further confusion. My own German-American son would never try to protect me from an unhappy discussion. I’m not even sure I’d be unhappy in such a discussion. I might be confused, but I’d be in the thick of a stimulating discussion. I’m not sure if I’d be any surer of the truth at the end, but there’d be a heck of a lot to think about. As there is now. I’m grateful for these discussions, because they show me what concerns the Copts and perhaps a lot more Egyptians, and it makes me a bit more hesitant to swallow everything I read in my own press.
It seems that, the older I get, the less sure I am about the truth of anything. It so often depends upon one’s perspective on things. I grew up in a dogmatic, in some ways fundamentalist Christian family and church. I was taught to tell the truth, and I was told in no uncertain terms what the truth was. Either I was on the side of their version of truth, or I was opposed. The militancy of these conservative Christians in their religion – and their politics – intimidated me so much, I believed I had to know where I stood on everything, and I had to be able to defend my position. If I was on the other side of an issue, I had to even trump their arguments, because I’d have to prove to them that they were wrong. Someone was always wrong and the other one right. This put me under a lot of pressure. Looking back, it was pressure I never asked for, and demands for me to hold positions on issues the others were concerned about.
This need for truth is deeply ingrained in me. I’m grateful for it, for the most part. I still try to tell the truth as much as I understand it, but I find it really difficult to discern what is true in some areas, particularly in politics.
My fellow Americans always seem so sure of themselves, whatever side of the issue they’re on, and whether they’re fundamentalists or die-hard liberals. I’m not sure those liberals are any more tolerant than the fundamentalists they love to mock. I’m not sure of a lot of things anymore. How glad I am not to have to work in politics, or in a job where I’d have to persuade people of my version of the truth. It feels good to know that my cut-and-dried job of teaching English suits me much better.
I decide to leave the conversation and go to dinner. I doubt I’ll never know whether Obama intends to support terrorists or not. I can’t imagine this reasonable, calm-sounding man could ever be on the side of terrorists. But I’m finally learning, late in life, that I don’t have to have a position on every issue. There are some things I don’t know, and that I don’t have to know. And that is a relief.