Friday, February 25, 2011

The Car and the Kibbutz

I’ve been thinking a lot about cars the past few days. How they control—and often threaten—our lives. These reflections have been rekindled, in large part, because a colleague and friend was badly injured in car accident a week ago. I don’t know the details of the incident and am relieved to hear she is recovering, but it will be a long, slow, healing process, and her life has been significantly altered by this violent event.

A week before that, walking my dog home from the video store at night, I was nearly bowled over by a driver in an SUV who didn’t see me as she accelerated left into the pedestrian crossing … because she had turned her head in the opposite direction to talk to her passenger! She braked a foot away from me (and would have crushed poor Bo if she hadn’t) after I thrust out my hand and started shouting. (My shouting—laced with words I won’t reprint here—continued as I leaned toward her windshield and shared my opinion of her driving skills.) Since then, I’ve been even more hyper-vigilant of careless drivers on my walk to and from daycare, often with my son dawdling behind me on his bike, with vehicles whizzing past on the road beside the sidewalk.

I haven’t owned a car in a decade. However, I’m not sure when my antagonistic relationship with the internal-combustion engine began. I never had that “car gene” that other North American boys seem to be born with. But I didn’t hate them either—certainly not growing up in the suburbs of Ottawa, where you often needed to be driven around to get anywhere, where getting your license remains one of the last rites of passage into adulthood. (Trust me: getting to vote doesn’t count for an 18-year-old.)

It was only on the kibbutz, I suppose, that I first experienced the pleasures of a largely car-free community. While we were taken by bus on volunteer trips and in the back of old Toyota trucks to work the fields, I rarely rode in a car while living in Israel. I didn’t miss it. And I learned to appreciate a community design in which motorized vehicles (aside from the occasional golf cart) were second-class citizens, shunted to the margins of the encircling ring road, and pedestrians ruled the laneways. You could walk everywhere, at any time, and not worry about doing a shoulder check or dodging hasty drivers.

There were, quite simply, few cars in this community. They were all collectively owned and generally reserved for important kibbutz business, not for cruising around or short-hop shopping trips or dragging the kids from school to soccer to play dates—all those activities occurred instead within the barbed-wire enclosure of the kibbutz, in walking or cycling distance. And in that way, you bumped into friends and neighbours and other community members, as you wandered the grounds of the kibbutz and went about your business.

Some of that has changed in the 21st-century privatized kibbutz. People have bought their own cars, so they’re not reliant on using the communally owned vehicles. They have joined the swarm of traffic that chokes the urban streets and nation-crossing highways of this densely populated country. And yet many of these communities have retained a fleet of collective cars and trucks, with high-tech booking systems, that would be the envy of embryonic “car share” operations (like the Victoria Car Share Co-op, which I belong to) in North America. Not owning a car is still not a problem. Being “car-free” is certainly not viewed as the social aberration that it is here in Canada. (I worry that people must think I don’t drive because I lost my license to a DUI or something.)

Aerial view of Kibbutz Urim
The “needs” of automobiles have started to affect how kibbutzim are redesigned in small ways. I noticed more internal roads and parking lots in the centre of Kibbutz Shamir than I remember from 20 years ago. On Kibbutz Urim, near the Gaza Strip, cars remain on the periphery, except now, because the kibbutz runs a licensed daycare for both members and outsiders, authorities are demanding that the community conform to safety regulations and widen the narrow internal lanes so that emergency vehicles can more easily access the daycare. Many of the new neighbourhoods being erected, and then marketed to non-members as suburban getaways, feature North American-style single-family dwellings, with long driveways so you can park your car mere steps from your front door. (In North America, the notion that you might have to take more than 10 paces from your Ford to your foyer borders on insanity.)

Still, most people still get around their kibbutz homes by foot, bike, scooter or the proliferation of electric golf-carts (no longer just used by pensioners or the infirm). In this way, the kibbutz remains an ideal to me of a human-scale “eco-topia”—a place where you can live without the buzz and threat of cars, where all the amenities have been designed with the walker not the driver in mind, where the only collisions that occur are the serendipitous intersections of friends and neighbours amid the network of pedestrian pathways, where children can roam free and explore, in nature, away from the menace of the infernal combustion engine. Where the car is no longer king of the road.

The Kibbutz in the News

There is plenty to catch up with in news of the kibbutz. Most recently, Ha'aretz printed an interesting article about the evolving volunteer programs on kibbutzim—how more volunteers are now coming from places like India or Latin America, and how these new volunteers fit within the 21st-century economics of privatized kibbutzim now more likely to use cheap imported labour (usually Thai workers) for agricultural field work that was once the domain of itinerant volunteers from North America, Australia and Europe.

As the director of the kibbutz movement's volunteer department explains the pros and cons of inviting volunteers into a community: "Kibbutzim want to feel young again, and the universality of the volunteers, their vivacity. Volunteers require a bigger investment of energy; you have to see to their conditions, to trips, vacations - not every kibbutz [is willing to] do this. Some say, 'It doesn't suit us to run a kindergarten.'"

The Guardian in the U.K. published a short memoir, by novelist Noam Shpancer, about growing up on a kibbutz in the communal children’s house. He lauds the freedom to explore that he experienced as a child:
Entertainment was mostly of the found, not manufactured, sort. Our playgrounds were junkyards. We played with defunct tractors, old boxes, used clothing and discarded tools. We roamed the yard, mostly barefoot. We built tree houses. We took turns on the lone communal bicycle. In winter we collected mushrooms in the forest and brought them to the communal dining room to be cooked.
He also describes the stultifying effects of the relentless pressure to conform, to be one with the peer group:
Individuality and competition were looked down upon. Children who were unusual, eccentric or sought to distinguish themselves, were shunned. We were socialised to be strong and sunny, simple and similar. Emotional expression was demeaned as weak and self-involved. We learned to numb ourselves. I haven't cried since I was 10. I'd like to but I can't.
He writes about how the kibbutz system gave his parents, his father especially, the stability and purpose (beyond mere survival) that they had lost in their escape from Nazi Germany. He also describes how these pioneers failed to prepare for the “second day” of the revolution—“in which the self-defining project of their youthful rebellion would become a mundane, constricting ‘home town’ to their children, propelling the children to seek their own identities and adventures elsewhere.”

Ultimately, nearly an entire generation of kibbutz children (like Shpancer) sought their own identities and adventures beyond the wire of their home kibbutz. Only now are some of them returning to a much-changed movement that has abandoned the strict enforcement of collective child-rearing and other communal ideals. For someone who experienced it first-hand, Shpancer doesn’t think such changes are a bad thing.

The plight of Sudanese refugees who escaped to Israel over the Egyptian border is a complicated issue. A recent Jerusalem Post article describes efforts (including some kibbutz-based programs) to retrain and help refugees resettle back in southern Sudan. One former refugee hopes to found not one but a series of Sudanese kibbutzim, inspired by his experiences in Israel:
Emanuel Logooro, who returned to Southern Sudan nearly a year ago after four years at Kibbutz Eilot, said he was in the process of starting up a kibbutz back home. “I want to contribute to my country, and a kibbutz would be a great contribution,” he said while visiting Israel. “My family said I could have some of their land – Sudan is a very, very big country, and they gave me enough land to start seven kibbutzim. I got a bank loan to start building the facilities, and now I’m hoping to find about 40 families to join,” said Logooro, who came to Israel with his wife and is now back home with her and their three children.
Finally, the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company performed this week in Vancouver. I wish KCDC had made it to Victoria. In 2009, I was lucky enough to tour the company’s facilities on Kibbutz Ga’aton and catch a sneak peek at a few rehearsals. There is no better symbol of the change at this now-privatized kibbutz than that, when I was there two summers ago, the dining room—once the social hub of the community—was about to be renovated into another rehearsal/performance space for the internationally acclaimed dance troupe. Artistic director explained to a reporter from Vancouver’s Georgia Straight that while his troupe isn’t political per se, it’s hard to separate geopolitical realities from a cultural group coming from Israel:
So while Be’er doesn’t necessarily want his work seen as a literal commentary on the Israel that surrounds him, he does relish the thought of bringing his country’s perspective—and talent—to the rest of the world. “It’s important that we arrive from Israel and it’s not just the Israel you see in the news with crisis and bombing—that there is another side to it,” he says with heartfelt conviction. “There’s a lot of creativity and activity here, and I believe we can create communication—we can create a bridge.”

Monday, February 21, 2011

Part Two: School for Peace (Q&A with Abdessalam Najjar)

Since the beginning, it was clear for everybody that we will not be only a mixed community; we will deal with this conflict using educational tools. Of course, we had  thousands and thousands of ideas, but it means that what exists is what was possible to do. And one of the first educational institutions that we did here, we call it today the School for Peace, and the School for Peace encounter workshops for groups in conflict

What kind of groups would come together?
At that time, I had finished my study at university and I became a teacher in high school. The first thing to make it, I brought my pupils, the Palestinian pupils, here to Wahat Al-Salam/Neve Shalom. My Jewish colleague, he’s a teacher of Jewish school, he brought his pupils here—and they start meet here. And the only motivation is a good will. No experience. No profession. Nothing. What to do with them, we don’t know. Okay, let’s talk. Let’s dance. Let’s pray together. In this way. And sometimes, this day was so calm; pupils went home and we summarized it: it was a successful day. Sometimes,  pupils they entered into hot discussions and shouting and a lot of anger coming out, and we summarized: it was a failure day. Until some people from outside the community—I think they were there from the academy—came to see the new thing that is happening here, encounters and all of these things.

And there was nothing sort of else like it in Israel or Palestine?

No, there was not a lot of things like this. We were the first to create this kind of thing. And the first thing I—the most—I still remember up to today is that [we asked] how do you decide if it was a failure and how it was a success? Upon what criteria? Let’s put question mark on it—we’re not sure. And then it shook our confidence, this kind of intervention. It was not easy for me to accept it. But, the reality is stronger than my feelings and then—then after some years, we decide to have a very serious academic research about this kind of activities. We get help to invite and research institution from outside of the community, and we ask from them a program of research, and they give us five years intervention and research and it’s the step that crystallized the work of Wahat Al-Salam/Neve Shalom, the School for Peace, until today. Of course one of the concepts that, that there is no one reality; there is no real results; everything is in (pause) changing as reality change, and the work should be changed here.

And how did it exactly crystallize? It was just a new way of thinking about it or?

No. They started with us as we are. Okay, what are your plans? What you are planning to achieve? Okay, this is what you want to achieve. Let’s make a questionnaire upon these things and give it to the participants. We choose a test group that they are not participating in the workshop and let’s see the change of the ideas of the participants.

So like a control group and a test group.

And the first year, black was in our eyes. That our activities, results, it was the total opposite of our aims. The participants, they gained more hatred, more prejudices before related to the other groups.


And the difference was, the other [non-workshop] groups, all their attention to the other side, they were assuming. Our group [in the workshops], they were sure. We needed to change all our attitudes.

What did you feel when you got those results at first?

Well, first of all, we were shocked. And then the research group, they said, let’s analyze it. …. Maybe our methodology, our approach, is not good; we need to change our methodology. Because we did at that time, it was belonged to the theory called the “contact theory”. The contact theory assumed that if you have two groups, different groups, and bring them together for a short period, the attitude of the participants toward the other group will be less prejudice and less enmity.

Okay. And just by being in contact?

Yes, by being in contact. And there were a lot of researches done all over the world and they found it positively. Why here it’s the negative—the opposite. And then they said, maybe the reality here between Arabs and Jews is not the same like the reality between Americans and Chinese or between French and British or between other things.

Or French and English Canadians.

Yeah, something like that. Then we need to have a different approach. We said, okay, why we just feel the need to do it? Because we have a conflict. Does the conflict have any role inside the encounter? Yes or no. In the contact theory, no. Then we need to bring the conflict inside the group. “We don’t need to bring it,” they said. Maybe the facilitation is preventing the conflict from getting inside. And it’s right. Because other time we were using things like, “Let’s listen one to the other side. Let’s be patient one to the other side. We don’t want to—let’s calm the situation.” All these have a meaning as a message: don’t bring conflict inside. And then the participants, they didn’t bring conflict inside.

Then we said, let’s try, okay, if somebody will talk about his or her fear, about her anger, about her prejudice—come in, and take it as a material. And give it a place and, of course, we changed our analyses and our concentration from the interpersonal relation to the intergroup relation. Because, really, the individuals when they are coming as individuals, one of their aims is to have a personal relation. But the conflict is not there. The conflict is somewhere else in the intergroup relation. And, if we are not touching this level, we can’t understand the conflictual dynamics. And we start working in this thing. And created a lot of difficulties for the schools, for the participants themselves, and sometimes, for mainly the Jewish participants that one of their aims to participate in the workshop is to stay on the human level of the interpersonal relation. The facilitation help us how to see the diversity of the motivation of the two groups.

And what were the differences?  

The differences…one of the things that we realized that when hot discussions started, they—the Jewish participants—they make their efforts to calm the situation: “We didn’t come here to fight; please, be quiet.” All of these things. “I understand your anger, but, the reality is not like that.” Means give [acknowledgement] to the individual of their anger, but not to the reality of it. Or to exclude a negative experience of one person from the reality. The Arab, the Palestinian participants— they didn’t go to this direction. When one Palestinian participant broke his anger, and all they joined his anger: yes, it’s ours—like this. They didn’t cooperate with the Jews more for having the human aspect or the participating or calming the situation. They started: “no we are not coming here to speak about personal relations; we are coming here to speak about our rights. We are going, we are ready to speak about equality.”

So as a facilitator, how do you moderate those kind of differences? To bring people to be aware what is going on?

Okay, so you just make them aware of those differences.

Yeah. For example, we think participants, they are not aware what is going on. Even very simple things, when they are sitting together and discussing, the first thing is happening just in the first minute when we come inside the room together, you will find that half of the circle, they are Jews, and half the circle, they are Arabs. Just to give a photo. It seems that it’s still—we are not so confident. Are all Jews in one side and all Arabs on other side? We don’t know what it means, but it exists. As the facilitators, we learn that we are not allowed to make it more than it is. Just this is—maybe for some, it has a meaning; for others, it’s just that.

Q&A with Abdessalam Najjar, Oasis of Peace, Part 1

I'm going through transcriptions of my interview from June 6, 2010, with Abdessalam Najjar, one of the founders of Wahat Al-Salam/Neve Shalom (aka the Oasis of Peace), who now works in the community's Communications & Development Office.

 Part 1: History of
Wahat Al-Salam/Neve Shalom

Tell me about this place.

Our name is Wahat Al-Salam/Neve Shalom. It started as [a] dream more than 40 years ago. What I know from the founder Bruno Hussar, a Dominican priest, he was active in a interfaith dialogue in Jerusalem, and this group was created in the end of the 60s, beginning of the 70s, and as a result of this dialogue, he had an idea to create a community where people from both sides of the conflict can live together, make their daily life decisions, and by that way maybe he will put a practical basis of the dialogue he was participating in Jerusalem. … The first group that came to live with him here in this piece of land, it was, in the end of the seventies.

I remember myself meeting Bruno when I was a student at the Hebrew University and I was active with the Jewish-Palestinian group dialogue. And he invited us to come to his village Wahat Al-Salam/Neve Shalom because we had in—I can’t say we had—we played with an idea of having school, bilingual school, Arabic and Hebrew school.

And there wasn’t one before then?

No. He invited us to make our school in his village Wahat Al-Salam/Neve Shalom, and we came to visit him. I remember myself coming in the beginning of the ‘76 and the first surprise that we didn’t find any village. 

There wasn’t anybody there?

Nothing. Just Bruno was waiting for us, and a bungalow of bamboo. He was sitting on a stone just like this and we  ask him, "Where is it? Let’s go to it." And he said, “Ah, you are here. Now we have Neve Shalom.”

We were studying agriculture in the faculty of agriculture in the Hebrew University and we were trained to make a practical steps of creating a new village and all of these things and not to relate to dreams and something like that. But, it seems that his personality was so charming, so attractive, and when he saw that we were hesitating, he went with us or with our hesitation. In the end after some months, we had here very big summer camp for Arabs and Jews.

What were the ages of the people?

It’s mainly adults. Mainly adults—students and up. From that summer camp, a nucleus group was created to start this community.

And what year was that?

The summer camp, it was in 77. In 78, the first families came here. We were five families in six months we came together here. And since that time, this community’s growing, slowly slowly, but all the time, growing up. Today we have 55 families living already and, in the last month, we accepted another 30 new families.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Review: First Lesson in Peace

Last summer, during a month travelling in Israel, both my first and final stops were at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam—AKA, The Oasis of Peace. This unique intentional community of Israeli Arabs and Jews, about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, has existed since the 1970s. Its foundational myth involves Father Bruno Hussar, one of the most fascinating individuals in a land that produces eccentric visionaries as quickly as it grows olives. The Oasis’s philosophy of co-existence and its programs in education and reconciliation have made the community a beacon of hope even in the divided nation’s darkest moments. I plan to devote at least a chapter of writing to examining the complex challenges of making real the idealistic vision of this community’s founders. But not today.

Instead, I want to reflect on the fascinating 56-minute documentary made, in 2005, by director Yoram Honig about the experiences of his daughter Michal, age 6, during her first year as a student at Neve Shalom’s school. It’s an illuminating insider’s look at the tension between the dreams and the reality of teaching Arab and Jewish children to see eye to eye—let alone their adult teachers and their parents—especially during the unpredictable violence and repression of the Second Intifada. First Lesson in Peace isn’t a standard-issue, at-a-distance objective documentary. Instead, Honig offers a memoiristic account—addressed as a video letter to his daughter—of his thoughts and even ambivalence about using his daughter as something of a guinea pig for his own progressive ideals.

The tensions are real. On her first day, his daughter joins Jewish and Arab kids in a playground with rainbow-painted monkey bars; their family lives in a rural house with sumptuous views of Israel’s central plains and eye-blinding sunsets. But when they watch the carnage of a terrorist attack on TV, Honig uses his documentary-making as an excuse to double-check the security at the school. On the one hand, he hopes that no terrorist would risk the backlash of attacking a school with both Arab and Jewish children; on the other, he realizes that Neve Shalom might make an even more tempting target to extremists who want to destroy any hope for peace between these two tribes.

Honig films one in-class first grade exercise to promote sharing in which his daughter and her classmates are asked to figure out how to distribute fairly a limited number of chairs. The whole scenario, however, spirals out of control, as Arab and Jewish kids split into ethnic divisions, squabble over who gets which chair, start to brawl—and one boy breaks Honig’s camera with a punch to the lens. So much for childish innocence. 

Despite these setbacks, Honig claims that his family has “found a little isle of sanity” amid the crazy politics of Israel. Sanity doesn’t always prevail, though, as the school tries to strike a delicate balance that will unite its two constituencies. One PTA meeting is conducted in Arabic—which none of the Jewish parents speak. At another meeting, administrators discuss a policy that will require all Jewish teachers to pass an exam in Arabic if they hope to stayed employed at the school. 

The need to address the competing narratives at the core of the conflict, in the form of Israeli Independence Day vs. The Arab Nakba (or “Catastrophe”), pulls the united classrooms into two separate camps. One Arab teacher asked her class to draw for an hour and then crumpled up the children’s work: “This,” she explained, ”is what it was like for the Arabs.” But when another Arab teacher is moved to tears by the discussion of this painful moment in her people’s history, her young Jewish pupils encircle her with their small arms in a tender embrace.

The tensions extend into Honig’s family. His wife’s father was killed in the Six Day War, when she was just a child. Her brother—Honig’s brother-in-law—Eyal blames the Arabs for his death, happily accepts the label of “extremist” and thinks that Honig is a left-wing wacko for sending Michal to school with Arab kids. “It’s a problematic school—I hope it closes one day,” he admits, and pledges to straighten out Michal about what’s right in Israel after she graduates from the brainwashing sessions at Neve Shalom. Uncle Eyal can barely contain his glee when he learns that other Jewish parents have pulled their kids out of the program. “What don’t they like: the school or the Arabs?” he asks.

Michal’s grandfather is a more complex figure. He immigrated from Australia and is an ardent Zionist who wants to pass along a strong connection to Jewish history and ritual to his granddaughter. He seems skeptical about her schooling, but his shell is less hardened than Eyal’s. “You will teach me Arabic,” he tells Michal near the end of the film, “and I will teach you Yiddish.”

The children at the school talk with a disarming honesty about their own attitudes. “I like Jews but not Zionists,” says one Arab boy. “The Arabs are annoying,” offers Michal, when asked why she doesn’t play with the Arab girls at her school or want to invite them to her birthday. Her dad invites them anyway, only to watch the Arab-Israeli conflict played out again in an escalating match of Musical Chairs that leaves his daughter in tears.

And yet the children also offer hope. Honig worries about how teachers will explain the roots of the Purim Festival to the Arab kids and who “evil Haman” was. It doesn’t matter. Like all kids, they love the excuse to play dress-up. Honig’s camera captures them playing in the schoolyard, their ethnic identities hidden from view, in this school, for this one day, under costumes as Robin Hood, witches, seƱoritas…except for one Jewish kid, who has come—ironically—dressed as a right-wing settler: he plays the bad guy for the festival. The funniest costume has been designed by a pair of friends, Jewish and Arab, who have come as Siamese twins. “We have to get along,” they explain. “We were born this way. We have no choice.”

It’s a perfect metaphor for the seemingly intractable conflict that roils this tiny nation. And it’s to the great merit of Neve Shalom/Wahat-al-Salaam that its residents have created a community and a school in which the next generation can realize their interconnectedness.

Did Michal go back to the school for grade 2? Is she still there? She would be nearly 12 now. How have her dreams been changed by living together with people whom her uncle considers “the enemy”? And what has she brought home to share with her own family from the Oasis of Peace? First Lesson leaves a viewer thinking about these questions and many more, thanks to its intimate portrait, through the life of one young girl, of this imperfect utopia built by Arabs and Jews alike.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Egypt: No Problem

That was the text, in sea-blue diagonal lettering, across the dirty white tourist T-shirt I was wearing when I arrived home, to Ottawa International Airport, after eight months in the Middle East (and two more weeks in England).  I had been living in Israel, but memories of Egypt were fresh in my imagination; I had backpacked with friends for nearly three weeks through the country before flying to Heathrow from Tel Aviv. It remains one of my most memorable travel experiences, even 22 years later, and the sensations and encounters from that trip have been rekindled by the TV images of Cairo alight with protests and retaliation, as the Egyptian people take to the streets to demand the freedoms I took for granted (still do, in fact) as a naive 21-year-old tramping through their homeland, with a bad mullet and a Labatt’s Blue cap.

I remember, after the subtle tensions and dangers of travelling through Israel, amidst the first Palestinian Intifada or “Uprising” (I got, quite literally, stoned in Jerusalem), the sense of relief and relaxation when we dropped our backpacks (mandatory Canadian flag sewn on) in a bare, basic room in Dahab, on the Sinai coast, and enjoyed the laidback hospitality of the locals there: swam in the Red Sea, ate in open-air restaurants, haggled with the Bedouin merchants. I remember camping on the beach in Taba one month when that stretch of sand, south of Eilat, was in Israeli hands, and then passing through it again, a few months later, after it had been turned over to Egypt—the last act of land exchange in the enduring peace treaty between the two former enemies.

I remember the absolute madness that is Cairo. Honking and exhaust and urban chaos like I’d never seen before—not in the bureaucratic orderliness of Ottawa, not after seven months on a remote rural commune. (Lima, Peru, is the closest I’ve come to it since.) Cars roaring five abreast in four lanes. Taxi drivers who could outduel NASCAR heroes. Buses that only slowed down, didn’t actually stop, enough for passengers to leap and hit the ground running (or simply hit the ground). I remember the sublime moments that pierced this urban cacophony. The sun dropping over the Nile, lighting up the haze that embraced the city. Passing an open doorway and witnessing a wedding crowd, with three musicians blowing long trumpets, and a tall man whirling like a dervish, spinning and raising elaborate skirts that ringed his waist, one after the other, over his head, as the wedding party sang and clapped. Or the National Museum stuffed to its ceiling with the antiquities of the pharoahs. 

I remember the small absurdities of travel—those silly details and gaffes that stay with you when seemingly more meaningful, more profound experiences fade from memory. The sign across the stone entrance: “The Great Pyramid is closed for restoration.” The quixotic search for a tourist site called “The Unfinished Obelisk”—which, once we found it, we immediately renamed “The Barely Even Freakin’ Begun Obelisk.” The taxi driver with such an insatiable horn-honking habit that, when we hit a rare stretch of empty highway, he still gave his steering wheel a regular, noisy swat, just to stay in practice.  Hanging out with a group of Egyptian men, in Luxor, as we waited for fresh bread to emerge from their late-night ovens and listened to them complain about their cackling, bustling boss, who they had nicknamed “The Devil”. Sleeping through our alarm, missing our train to Cairo, and hiring a taxi to chase it down, through the night, from one station to the next, because we couldn’t afford not to catch it. Running around the city, down to our last few dollars, because my girlfriend’s Visa card had been cancelled (and her new one unhelpfully mailed to her home address in England) and I was left to tour almost every bank in Cairo to finally locate a teller willing to cash a traveller’s cheque in Canadian funds—and pay for the bus ride back to Israel.

I remember the pairs of young men, well-dressed, as the night air released the heat of the day, walking hand in hand, as male friends do in Egypt, across the bridges in Cairo. Or our felucca captain taking me by my hand, so he could tour me around to his friends in Aswan, as we outfitted his sailboat with pita and vegetables and fruit for our journey down the Nile. I remember stopping in a riverside village, between temple visits, and being surrounded by kids, in raggedy jabiliyehs, and, for a reason that now escapes me, chasing them across the shore while we all hopped on one leg.

There was a liveliness that I experienced during my too brief stay in Egypt. A curiosity that thrummed in the people we met. (“Canada?” they would reply, after asking where I’d come from. “Ah, Canada Dry!”) A desire to talk and to learn and to connect. A democratic spirit, at its core, that had been bottled up even then—one that is now bursting into the streets, defiant, youthful, demanding to be heard. 

If “Egypt: No Problem” isn’t exactly the right slogan for this uncertain moment in history, I hope that the citizens of this fascinating, complex nation come through the many challenges ahead and emerge to form a new society where every one of them can fly that same motto proudly.