Friday, February 18, 2011

out of egypt

I was in Egypt and then there was a revolution. I salute the power of the people. I am giving you a great big shout out - from Albuquerque, New Mexico. I, with the entire archaeological expedition, 33 of us - got extracted. The universities (NYU's IFA and University of Michigan) backing our work "monitored" the situation (read: revolution), and sometime around February 1st decided to evacuate. This came as a huge surprise, huge and heavy. A team of excavators, surveyors, conservators, photographers, registrars, got the news at 6 am February 2nd. We had somehow coalesced on the map of Egypt, drawn to this pinpoint - the ancient magnificent world of Abydos – now we needed to get out!? All that we had begun, and set out to do, would have to wait - wait until . . . when will we ever go back?


I had arrived in mid-December to wrap up the excavation of a tomb that has been a sort of long-term project. I began in 2004, my first time in Egypt, excavating the structure for the NYU's Institute of Fine Arts Abydos Excavations and Dr. Laurel Bestock (now at Brown University). I returned to the ancient site of Abydos – about 500 km south of Cairo - in 2008 and then again this December. The work and the people I met, Egyptians and Westerners, drew me back. I was engrossed by the execution of the work more than the project objectives, hooked by the shift in my perspective and the challenge to my assumptions.
So many relationships cannot be maintained through an Internet. These are the relationships that form organically when working side by side, slowly bridging a language barrier, and experiencing cultural exchanges where much is in the subtext. It is in the way we greet each other, acknowledge the other, work with care toward a goal, remove a burial, or brush a 500 B.C. mud brick wall for a photograph. A morning greeting translates to something like, "Morning of light (good morning)! How are you? Well? Good, thank God! How is everything? Fine? Thanks be to God."
 
Over several decades, excavations in Abydos have supported the development of important professional relationships. Each excavation season people in the surrounding area work with Western research projects and are accustomed to the arrival of archaeologists – even looking forward to the economic opportunity. But many relationships run deeper – there are friendships with families, people who have watched each other grow up, gotten married, had children. The business of excavation is layered, and always demanding in unexpected ways. Modesty on the part of each gender is essential to respect. Communication is almost immediately required of us – Westerners must make attempts to grasp as much of the language and as fast as possible in order to function.  It’s all very intense and challenging, and so too the rewards are high. But this time everything ended very differently, quickly. Instead of departing after a long work season the archaeological effort was disbanded under extraordinary circumstances.   
 
We all must wait for the birth of a new Egypt. That's what's happening. Egyptians are re-making themselves. The Egyptian people have rallied, and mightily. Witness something amazing about the human spirit and know that social movements are like wildfire, with or without Twitter and Facebook. For a week we lived with a silenced Internet, and still the protest grew (Jan 27-Feb 3). And the peaceful unfolding of events in Cairo felt surprising – I had just left the city with an impression that it was chaos – maybe that was just the traffic. The city seemed threatened by it’s own waste – the voids around buildings were littered, the air an odd yellow. I knew that some Coptic Christians worked as Zabaleen, or garbage collectors, and were responsible for removing the daily castaways in the city center, bringing this refuse to their slums to sort, and even recycle. Still the scale of the task seemed impossible. And life in these slums seemed endless, no reforms in sight. In November I had listened to a special NPR broadcast about Mubarak’s Egypt, the economy, etc., but I never expected February 11th.  
I assumed, wrongly, that the people were defeated after all these years of Mubarak. I thought such spirit would have withered under his three decades - but the resilience of the human heart prevails - what organization en masse! I never imagined Asmaa Mahfouz, Organizer of Demonstrations, was out there. And yet, she was – and emboldened - sending an amazing message out across the Internet January 18th.  All the times I had been in Cairo, I thought it most disastrous, purely post-apocalyptic. Air I couldn't see through, shouldn't breathe, corrupted water, corrupted politicians, and devastating poverty. On my last commute out of Cairo (a three hour ordeal) to get on the Western Desert Highway and head south toward Abydos, I thought hard about this part of the earth. How long could it all hold up, I wondered: the land, the water, the people. Radiating out from Cairo across all occupied desert along the Nile River Valley, I saw so much of the same. It always looked to me like a place coming undone, where, soon, life would be untenable.
 
But there are people, citizens of the desert, who had not withered, and were filled with deep and justified dissatisfaction and the saving grace of awareness. They reared up, combined their strength. The seeds, wherever they fell, grew up over some 30 years, undiminished - and a powerful current spread this germ far and wide, because its root is truth. The Mubarak regime was wrong, had lost sight of human rights, and abandoned those they should have justly governed. The regime neglected many millions of people, and prospered – until now. On February 11th, these millions (finally) overthrew a regime, and, after all their banded-together efforts, had an all night street party!

People all over the world are watching you Egypt, are watching you Tunisia, are watching you Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Libya, Algeria. (And, even, watching American states, e.g. Madison, Wisconsin where governor Scott Walker talks about deploying the National Guard to put an end to labor protests.) People around us, around the world - are struggling against tyranny, even to the point of death, to the point of self-immulation. So strong is this conviction! The idea, once fully embraced, that we are wronged and must be free, could lead one’s mind to sacrifice one’s body.  

The spirit is tireless and maybe bodiless - we catch it as it moves: a current, a thing electric, invigorating - you know it because you sense it; it reaches even into an insulated mind and into an insular worldview. When you look at a people, or an individual, rage against an abject and hopeless existence, your perspective shifts forever. What can I say in the face of that? The world we’re making is changing – and with tremendous and heavy effort. I see the cruel disparity people are expected to live with. Seriously - how long before the whole population of repressed people everywhere stand up?
  
I sat on the roof of our house in the desert the last morning I was in Abydos, and I asked Doha – a woman from Cairo who was happy to return to her home, just as I made my way back to New Mexico – what she wanted to say to anyone looking in on events in Egypt. This is her message - Egyptians want what everyone wants - a good, fair life (click on this link to hear her tell it).

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