A couple days ago an Egyptian friend told me the infamous Moulid at Saayida Zeinab mosque was cancelled because of the hoorah over swine flu.
They don’t want big crowds, he said.
Camping out, as hundreds of thousands supposedly do in the weeks leading up to the big day, was declared illegal by the Egyptian authorities.
Moulids, meaning birthdays, are Suffi traditions celebrated all over Egypt.
Not specified in the Koran many Muslims do not know, partake or condone the practice.
This one in particular celebrates Saayida Zeinab, who is the granddaughter of Prophet Muhammed, and therefore must occur only at her mosque.
When my roommate AJ announced it was today and he was covering it (he’s a journalist), I repeated what my friend said and stared out the window, wondering where all the people were.
While the huge crowds might have stayed home, Saayida’s birthday, was not a total bust.
Standing in front of the mosque, with an Egyptian friend, Amr, crowds swarmed around us.
He pointed out the frequency of galabyias–the long loose dresses men wear. It’s a different style than how we dress in Cairo, he said, explaining most of the worshippers are from rural regions of upper and lower Egypt.
A guy wearing a shirt reading, “I’m Noisy” with Elmo and white girl bearing arms, we drew attention from the crowd and the interest of a cop.
Do you want to go in the mosque? Amr asked me. The women go in that way–he pointed to an entrance where a mob of women fought to descend a couple steps into the mosque.
Yeah definitely! Can I…I asked? Our new buddy, the cop, said I could if I covered my arms and hair.
Putting on my veil, I spotted a women, standing with two friends, snapping my picture.
One of the friends came over.
Are you here to see this? She asked in Arabic, which Amr translated.
I live down the street, I told her. But yeah, I’m here now to check it out.
Are you scared of getting swine flu because of the big crowd.
Everywhere in Cairo is crowded, I answered. Plus I’m American, don’t you think I already have it? (Swine flu has been a huge deal here, especially since cases were found among American University students. Co-workers say people have moved away from them on subways out of fear of catching the bug.)
As she began to ask another questions, I became suspicious.
Her questions were well thought out, targeted for a specific angle…her friend snapped another picture and she held, what I’d thought was an iPod in her hand.
She was dressed differently, looked better kept and more focused than the many milling around the area.
Are you a journalist? I asked her in Arabic.
Are you recording this?
She said she wasn’t.
She asked if I was going to go in. I said I was, half hoping she’d join.
She didn’t seem to have any intention.
Her friend snapped another picture as I put on my headscarf and Amr and I headed to the entrance.
I relinquished my shoes to a guy at the door was pushed forward by the masses of woman vying to enter.
Think of the most crowded concert you’ve attended and those lines of people forcibly pushing their way to the front or out. Now imagine there is not one destination, people are sitting on the floor, praying begging for money, eating, holding babies, yelling and grabbing your clothes.
From all sides I was shoved deeper into the congregation.
Eyes ahead, overwhelmed by the masses of praying before me, I felt a slap on my shoulder. An elderly woman was whacking me with some clothe.
Apparently she didn’t approve of my dress. Khalas–”enough” I yelled at her. Another woman tried to help by forcefully rearranging my shawl.
In the deepest room women touched and prayed toward a wall and snapped pictures with their cell phone.
All the incentive I needed, I pulled out my camera and snatched a couple shots.
Out in the street, Cairo air never felt so fresh and clear.
“What we try to do is give a voice to the south [Arab, developing, marginalized], said Al-Jazeera program editor, Richard Lewis, “[We] give a representation to the group of people who have so long been without a representative, without a voice.”
Aimed at After driving around in a maze of security and buildings for 20 minutes, we finally arrive
Though born in 1996 from money form Qatar’s government Al-Jazeera is completely independent.
Here is Al-Jazeera’s code of ethics. It’s written into the stone directly when entering the building.
Though intended to be self-sustaining within five years, Al-Jazeera continues to be 90 percent funded by Qatar’s Emir. The other 10 percent comes from advertising, mostly generated through the eight sports channels the network boasts.
Lewis and the others we met were quick to point out this set-up renders Al-Jazeera free from financial pressures of other networks. “We don’t have that commercial thing dragging us down,” his colleague said.
Nothing, it would seem is slowing Al-Jazeera. After thirteen years the single station has expanded to a network watched by 150 million households in 105 countries worldwide. In 2006 Al-Jazeera launched the English language channel.
Until recently, political reasons, have thwarted Al-Jazeera’s growth in the United States.
Initially lauded as much needed free Arab media, after September 11th we were bottled up with the rest of the region, Lewis explained.
While United States channels were forbidden to even show coffins, Al-Jazeera showed missiles effect on the ground as well as their sail threw the air.
Lewis said since 2005 relations have improved. “The administration understood their point of view wasn’t being represented in the Arab world.”
Beginning July 1st, Al-Jazeera will be broadcast 24/7 in Washington DC and two other cities.
Until then, you can watch a live-stream any time.
Included in our tour was the chair of a a reporter detained at Guantanamo Bay.
Originally Syrian territory, Israel captured Golan Heights in the 1967 fighting against Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. In a 1973 surprise attack Syria failed to regain Golan. In 1981 Israel annexed the portion they retain to this day. The United Nations, among other states, bodies and non-government groups, has ruled the Israeli annexation illegal. (I’ll attach the links as soon as I have decent internet.)
The beauty and obvious tragedy conjure emotions, willed or not.
Approaching in our bus I kept thinking how people I know would react to what I was seeing. Would it change them? I wondered who saw it too–who was aware.
We saw fields and scattered tents, our guide Osama, told us were homes of Gypsies. I saw more garlic cloves in one place than I ever imagined. Who would want to live in a war zone? Why stay in such a tense place?
Between the rumble of a destroyed community, cows graze and bright red flowers sprout through dry green grass.
This place wasn’t destroyed during one of the wars, our guides told us and professor Sullivan later confirmed. The buildings were crushed by the Israeli soldiers as they withdrew as part of the “peace process” orchestrated by Henry Kissinger in 1974. According to our guides Israeli soldiers used the hospital below for military practice.
We got out of our bus and stood in front of the hospital. We climbed up the crumbling steps and into the rumble inside. Up stairs, through gaping doorways, up a rickety metal stairwell and finally to the roof.
“It’s a matter of dignity,” Golan’s mayor said describing Syria’s insistence on regaining the full territory “No free individual can accept that his land be occupied. We’re doing our best to capture it. We hope Obama would understand the nature of this conflict.”
National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS), the same group whose president we met the other day, hosted our trip.
There were a couple graduate students and some older former member whose role was not clear. “What would you do if someone did this to you,” one of the girls asked me walking through the remains of the hospital pictured above.
The students were passionate and angry.
We struggled. We’re journalists here, yes? Should we keep our mouths shut, be objective?
These students craved answers, substance. Aren’t we here to dialogue too?
At one point I asked one of the young woman if she knew other Americans and she’d only met one or two and had one British friend.
Whether willingly or not, we represent more than ourselves here. The questions people ask us our not directed only at us but our government, the representative democracy we’re supposed to have, hope and reassurance that Americans don’t hate Syrians, Arabs or Muslims.
From the United Nations buffer zone, I zoomed in on a “Welcome to Israel,” sign. (Picture coming, can’t upload with internet now)
The flag, lying just beyond the destroyed buildings and land mines, which have killed thousands of children and animals, is a slap in the face to Syrians.
Think of the space and lack-of–in the United States we consider our enemies “terrorists,” once communists, Germans or Japanese. Concepts, seas away, not visible in the same sense.
Now think how unlikely it is for individuals from one-side to cross to another. They just stare. Imagine. Build up resentment.
Do you know the story about the World War II soldiers who started talking during a ceasefire?
Look for many more pictures and commentary from Golan in the next couple days–having internet issues now. Tomorrow we’re traveling north to Crusader castle ruins and then Aleppo, the second biggest city in the state. Should be an adventure =)
The first thing Michael Slackman wanted when he took a seat with us, 25 eager journalism students and our professor Carlene, was a coffee. Is this on or off the record? He asked us, before answering the question for himself. I hate when journalists go off record.
Slackman has worked in Cairo as the New York Times Middle East Bureau Chief going on seven years. Here are some interesting snippets from his hour plus chat with the group
You know that annoyingly overused quote about preparation and luck? On August 31, 1997, Slackman, the Albany NY bureau Chief for ?? was in London crashing at a fellow reporters house. Close friends were having a baby and he was in town for the occasion. He wanted sleep but the phone would not stop ringing. When he learned the reason–Princess Diana was tragically dead, he hit the streets in leu of the MIA Herald reporter. His wife, a photographer, was on hand too.
After street reporting he headed to see his friends at the hospital. The same hospital holding Diana’s lifeless body. We pushed our way to the front and they let us in when we said maternity. They must have though my wife was pregnant, he reasoned.
The only reporter inside the hospital, the scenes Slackman wrote earned him front-page coverage and a follow-up trip to London. From there he scored his first international post in Moscow then Egypt and the Middle East.
After about seven years in the Middle East Slackman describes his job as helping Americans understand how Arabs interpret events.
He was in Iraq when Bush announced the invasion and back for the elections.He thinks the Obama administration needs to rethink the word ‘terrorism.” Hezballah and Hamas, labeled as terrorist groups by many in the United States, are political parties here. “It’s really self-defeating not to speak to enemies.”
While his target audience is the United States, that hasn’t kept the Egyptian government from paying him a lot of attention. He said the people who work for him are continually harassed by government security. They won’t touch him directly because he’s American.
Some insider advice he shared after nearly seven years in the area?
Don’t believe people when they give you directions. After being pointed the wrong way many a time, he investigated phenomenon for a story. What did he find? “It’s more of a shame to say I don’t know than to give wrong directions.”