As the River Flows

May’s edition of the NatGeo magazine brought a great article (by Jeffrey Bartholet) and the usually impressive photos (by Alex Majoli) about this North-African country going through deep and scary political changes. It’s home to a mighty river and a frightening desert.  In the past, its kings used to call themselves gods and built giant structures to house their own tombs. But not much of that glory is left for their people to enjoy nowadays. The nation has so many issues to deal with it’s hard to know where to begin. 

Only a small percentage of the country is actually inhabitable. Therefore its eighty-one million people are squeezed into a few major cities. The school system is failing, the number of illiterates astounding; there is no urban planning, the health/medical system is practically non –existing, jobs are scarce, and tourism, which had always been one of the country’s income makers, has been reduced to nearly zero. Fear is everywhere. Some fear even for the physical safety of their families, since the number of crimes escalated to unbearable levels after a revolution ousted the regime strongman fifteen months ago. No wonder foreign tourists vanished. 

With its citizens fearing for the safety of their families, for the future, for what to eat next day, the country spiraled into depression and uncertainty acquired many faces.  Some think democracy is the solution but the nation is just not ready for it. The future leader cannot be a woman and should not be a Christian, describes the article, quoting the reporter’s conversations with people from all walks of life. Some support the Islamists out of sympathy for their struggle, just because they had been banished for so long. Some are for Islam because they don’t want their country ever to become “another Paris”, to make them look like Americans.  Here the reporter, who was a guest in someone’s home for dinner, refrained from saying anything back.  But I, as a reader, sitting on my train to work thousands of miles away from that capital city with chaotic traffic, could not help but thinking, what’s so wrong about being like Paris or America? It surely feels better than what the people interviewed by NatGeo were experiencing. Did they say that because they really believe their society to be better off or out of jealousy and a certain East vs. West competition instinct? I have never been to that part of the world and can only read human reaction through the eyes of third parties. I suspect it’s an ultra-conservative society, to say the least, but I never saw it with my own eyes.

And yet, amidst Egypt’s current chaos, human virtue surfaces. I did not write this blog to criticize that country and its people. Actually, what caught my eye in the article was exactly the opposite. Recounting the sad events described by NatGeo was necessary only to provide the right perspective of how admirable the next episode is.  

It takes place in the city of Alexandria, the country’s second largest. Founded c. 331 BC by Alexander the Great , the city has a population of four million and is located on the Mediterranean coast – therefore a breath of fresh air, and for more than one reason –   compared with the stifling heat in most Egyptian urban centers. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule and his goal to concentrate power in Cairo, Alexandria, despite its importance as a major center of the international shipping industry and one of the most important trading centers in Northern Africa, started to fall into disrepair and oblivion, becoming the overcrowded and impoverished city it is today.

However, true to its past glory, the city houses the biggest free library in the country, a high tech facility that opened in 2002. Through its large glass doors, visitors are greeted by a metal detector but the place is the stage for users of all backgrounds and ethnicities; from men and women wearing attire that indicates hard-core fundamentalists to teenagers in western-like clothes, seeking games and action movie downloads.  As if that were not surprising enough, the article reports, right after visitors collect their handbags and backpacks from the metal detector, a huge sculpture, in the form of a female body made of steel, reminds them she was assassinated by people “who considered her one of the defenders of paganism and the Classic era, but she was actually a victim of fanatic ideologists.” Her name is Hypatia. She was a Greek mathematician and by the time she was around, Egypt was part of the Roman Empire.

The article in NatGeo proceeds to describe all the amenities offered by the Library of Alexandria: a section for the blind, two  libraries for kids ,  library of maps, conference halls, university research centers, an archaeological museum, art exhibits,  planetarium, Internet-linked computers and Wi-Fi access, 1.24 million books and capacity for six million more: “It hosts theater productions and concerts. It has a supercomputer that can make trillions of calculations per second. It has digital archives of Egyptian history and 43 racks of computers that aim to collect every accessible page that has ever appeared on the Internet. Its collections contain books that have been banned elsewhere in the Middle East”.

What is even more amazing, the library has a long time tradition of being independent and free-minded. Starting with its director, Mr. Ismail Serageldin, and how he had the courage to tell Mubarak that his library would take care of its own security. The state police, called Amn al Dawla, had no jurisdiction within the library grounds. That in itself was a miniature revolution. Most of the facility’s 2,700 workers are young, between twenty-five and thirty-five years of age.  During the protests to end Mubarak’s regime – and here comes the part that gave me goose bumps –  “demonstrators formed a human cordon around the library to protect it from possible harm.”

I thought it was so touching, it made me so proud of the people of Alexandria, of human beings in general, I had to write about it. It did not matter to them whether they were holding hands with revolutionaries or anti-revolutionaries. What mattered most was to protect their library, in itself a monument to freedom.

As I was finalizing this blog, The New York Times published an article on line (Egyptians Vote in Rare Chance to Pick Leader, by David D. Kirkpatrick, May 24, 2012) on how Egyptians went to the polls on Wednesday, May 23, to choose their first freely elected president after fifteen months of turmoil. For most part, as the article reports, the “vote was orderly and peaceful”. Among the impressions of many people interviewed by Kirkpatrick, my favorite came from a forty-three year old man, waiting in line to vote, who said he views this election as Egypt’s last chance to end a painful period. If voters choose wrongly, Egypt will go in circles.

The road to democracy can be hard; I have memories of how difficult it was for Brazil, emerging from a few decades of military government (mild and civil but disastrous in matters of economics), into democracy. Violence and religious rivalry were not the point in those days in Brazil –  life went on as sweetly as ever, except that the rampant inflation for years made the country’s economy intolerable, shutting the doors to foreign investment for a long time. 

Maybe this is why Egypt’s historical moment touches me with such a special force; I relate to what their people are going through in a way. I think the lady of steel in Alexandria’s free library, Hypatia, would be really proud of her people for now. Let’s hope May of 2012 can forever be a memorably happy date for the people of Egypt.

Enjoy your Memorial Day Holiday!

Liv Lugara

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