Saturday, January 2, 2010

Haggling and Husbands

Today our team had an opportunity for a little down time, fun and togetherness.  We went to the pyramids, the Sphinx, and to Khan al Khalili, which is an area of alleys, nooks and crannies of shops.  (Some photos follow)

We had a driver from the embassy named Amr and were escorted around in a vehicle with an embassy i.d. which got us into great parking areas.

Side note:

Through a connection with my parents' I was able to connect with a U.S. embassy employee and was invited to his family's home for lunch.  This proved to be quite an educational experience.  We spoke at length about the Embassy protest "incident" from a few days earlier.  Here is what I learned: 1) Foreign countries will only allow another country to have an embassy there if the incoming embassy agrees to hire host country locals for security, housekeeping, etc. 2) the embassy is not in the country for the purpose of helping stranded tourists and 3) it is the sole purpose of the local security forces outside to protect the information inside the embassy from any and all threats, real or perceived.  So, in other words, the security forces were doing their job in assessing the protesters as a potential threat to the information inside the embassy.  Paper over people, I guess.  It doesn't assuage my anger, but it helps to have some kind of an explanation.  (I will talk more about this another time.)

When it was time to go to lunch at the embassy employee's house, they sent their Egyptian driver, Amr, to pick me up.  We hit it off and he agreed to be our driver while we went sightseeing.

So Amr picked us up bright and early at 9 a.m. and drove us to the pyramids.  The pyramids are as mystical and magical as ever.

My friend Sheri and I decided to take the plunge and ride some camels.  Sheri, who is a country girl and used to riding horses (and I might add, actually went skydiving a couple times gulp), wasn't even afraid.  I, on the other hand, who is city born and raised, was absolutely terrified.  This has got to be one of the scariest things I have ever done in my life.  I was positive I was going to fall off on my butt in a pile of ever abundant camel poop.  I had Egyptian camel drivers holding me from all sides going up on the camel and coming down.  There is a trick to getting on a camel:  you have to lean back when he gets up and you are defying gravity to do this.  Camels stand up back legs first and this is the perfect opportunity to fly headlong over his long neck into the smelly dirt.  Needless to say it was a very short ride.  No, I didn't fall off, thank God, but while Sheri Braveheart is riding no hands, I'm clinging to life and camel with locked limbs wondering how my children will fare if their mother comes home a vegetable.

After that near death experience, I went to the little souk to buy some souvenirs.  One of the sellers who coralled me, tried to sell me some stuff for 200 American dollars.  He offered to come way down on the price if I let him kiss me.  My life flashed before my eyes once again.  I told him absolutely not!  He said I was breaking his heart.  Okay, so I'm not going to tell you how much I actually paid for my pyramid trinkets because it's embarrassing, but it was substantially less than $200 and there was no kiss.  I left him standing there looking for another woman to break his heart.

We went to the Sphinx next, which is entirely smaller in real life than it looks in postcards and movies. 

The final stop of the day was Khan el Khalili.  This is where I quickly learned that haggling is not as simple as the guidebooks make it sound and that Egyptian men like kisses.  I even received a proposal from a stall owner who promised he would make me very happy.  It was exhausting, but totally fun.

Our friend Yusif comes back from Gaza sometime tonight and we are looking forward to hearing about his experiences.  Please check out MPT's blog: for an update and photos from this momentous experience in the coming days.

This experience here in Egypt, my first foray into peace activism, has presented me with an invaluable opportunity to confront my fears, to reconfirm some values and question others, to better understand the meanings of words like occupation, resistance, and freedom, to both teach and learn.  No, we didn't get into Gaza.  Only 100 of nearly 1400 delegates were selected to go.  The governments at play threw us a bone; a token acquiesence.  Ambivalence is the name of the game.  There is no doubt I will be processing what I have seen, heard and experienced for months to come.

For now, I'm signing off.  I'll be home on Tuesday; hopefully my luggage will choose to come home, too.

"Slow, slow," I said.  "No run, no run."

Sheri "No Hands" Braveheart on Moses and me on Columbus.

I think I'll take one home in my pocket.

L to R: Liz, Kim, Me, Sheri, Dorothy

My camel driver and new best friend.

T-shirts, keychains and husbands at Khan al Khalili.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Temporary House Arrest

Early this morning, December 31, we received a frantic text message to get out of the hotel immediately because authorities were locking down hotels and not letting any internationals leave.  (There was a peaceful march scheduled today to coincide with the "official" march in Gaza since we couldn't be there where we belonged.)  As soon as we received the text from a fellow marcher, we ran to the window of our hotel and looked out.  The police were already there.  Three or so police vehicles and officers stationed outside the entrance to our hotel.  Across the street were the "Suits" as we call them.

We are on the 8th floor of this hotel directly above the only entrance (God forbid there should be a fire!).  We watched the show for awhile and as soon as we saw the restaurant waiter bring the officers tea, we knew we should just settle in and get comfy.

The lockdown lasted about 3 hours.

Two of five police vehicles in front of hotel.

Chai and cigarettes while guarding the door.

The phones also were blocked during this time.  We could receive calls, but not make any.  It was quite unsettling.

We decided to make the best of it and watch some TV.  All the American shows are on over here.  Battlestar Galactica, Law and Order: SVU, House; and the Arabic is not dubbed in as voiceover, it is subtitled on the screen, which makes it easy to watch the program because the English can be heard.  There was an Arabic commercial in b&w in which the camera pans across various toys -- dolls, bears, etc. and as the camera rests momentarily on each one's face, a single tear begins to flow down the toy's face.  The toys are seen lying in various scenes of rubble and destruction.  The final scene cuts to a child's bedroom in which there is a gaping hole from a bomb blast.  The bed is empty and the toy is crying.  The screen then goes black and the words "No more terror" appear on the screen.  My description makes it sound cheesy, but it was mesmerizing.

So that's it for now.  Soon we'll be able to do some more sightseeing:  Pyramids, Khan el Khalili, etc.

I'll keep in touch.  Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

God Bless America because it needs it

Hello all,

As you all may have heard in the media, the Egyptian government has blocked Gaza Freedom Marchers from traveling to Gaza and bringing in the humanitarian aid we brought with us.  This has led to widespread protest events around the city of Cairo.  It has been very sobering for us to realize that this is indeed a dictatorship, a police state, and there simply is no freedom.  We take for granted our right to assemble, our right to freedom of expression, our right to question our government's authority and behavior.

As we have attempted peaceful, may I remind you, PEACEFUL, protest events, we have been penned in by police and other security forces with great blustering, show and intimidation.  Riot police have been called out and assembled in formation.  There has been no rioting and no violence on the part of Gaza Freedom Marchers.  I am a witness.

And now my fellow Americans, I want to share with you the experience that I witnessed and experienced first hand in the area of our United States Embassy.  Some of my team members had traveled on ahead to the Embassy to seek admittance and to speak with the ambassador or other U.S. staff members.  They were severely harrassed by Egyptian police who were assembled -- on United States soil.  (Correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that U.S. Embassy grounds are American soil.  My team members were not allowed to enter the Embassy, not even after showing their U.S. passports.  They were promptly shoved and pushed into an enclosure.  As more peaceful protesters arrived, and I assure you they came peacefully, they were too forced into the enclosure and not allowed to leave.

By the time I and my team mate Dorothy arrived, Egyptian secret police officers forced us to cross the street from the Embassy.  They were herding us like cattle and would not allow us to enter embassy property to check on our friends.  Dorothy and I were there to document the event as it unfolded.

At one point I stopped to take a photograph of a site along the Nile, opposite the embassy, and the top Egyptian police officer, a very, very intimidating man in a suit and sunglasses began yelling at me "No Stop Here"  "Move"  He was invading my personal space by standing just close enough to not quite touch.  It was him and 10 to 15 other officers.  I told him I wanted to take a photograph of the Nile.  Dorothy was speaking that we had a right to be there and that we were peaceful.  He continued yelling. I was getting angry; yet incredibly afraid.  More afraid than I have ever been in my life.

I momentarily held my ground and looked up at his sunglassed eyes and said firmly, "I want to take a photograph. Wait a moment."  He yelled, "Okay, okay, hurry."

I took the photo and we tried to stay there directly across the street from the embassy so we could have a clear view of our friends and others.

They forced us, herded us down the street. We would walk a little ways and then stop.  They would close in and yell and spit at us to move.

Eventually, two of our other team mates, Liz and Yusif, showed up for moral support.  The police terrible harrassed our gentle friend, Yusif.  He held out his U.S. passport and the big mean guy grabbed him and pushed him repeatedly down the street. 

I recorded the whole event.  We were shocked that he would have the audacity to use physical force on a U.S. citizen. Yusif is 74 years old.  You saw his photo in the last blog post.  He is a gentle spirit and was being physically manhandled across the street from the U.S. Embassy where we as citizens were barred from entry.

In the meantime,  our friends and protesters who were actually on American soil, were also physically manhandled and hurt by Egyptian police.  The  police even brought out the K-9 dogs.  One was named Sniper.

Embassy staff would not grant audience or even come out to check on the citizens being harrassed.

I am appalled and extremely angry that the American Embassy hired and allowed foreign police officers to detain and abuse American citizens on U.S. soil.  I do not need to remind you that the 20 or so people who were gathered there on embassy property were completely peaceful and unarmed.  This behavior on the part of my country is completely disgusting and reprehensible.  There is no excuse.  Simply no excuse.

French citizens, on the other hand, went peacefully to their embassy to "camp" out on embassy grounds in support of Gaza. Embassy staff allowed them bathroom access, brought them food, water and coffee, and even slept there outside on the pavement with them (including the ambassador!)  It has been 3 days and our French marchers are still camped peacefully and safely on French embassy grounds.  Viva la France!

In the meantime, several women from the women's affinity group met with Suzanne Mubarak (the president's wife) and she gave permission, in direct disobedience to government orders, for 100 people to be transported and to enter Gaza.  Our Michigan Peace Team member, Yusif, is one of those 100!!!  Keep him in your thoughts and prayers!

There is much, much more to tell, but time is of the essence.  Please check out photos below.  And I will write more soon.

This is the scene I paused to take a photo of directly across from the U.S. Embassy with Mr. Scary Angry Man screaming in my ear.

Yusif being interviewed by a Cairo reporter after having been pushed and manhandled by Egyptian police. The man in brown on the right is undercover security who recorded the entire interview on his cell phone.

Riot police.

Dear sweet Yusif waiting to board the Gaza bus.

The bag of a marcher waiting to board the Gaza bus.

Some Cairo schoolboys showing their support at the Gaza bus send off.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

News from Egypt

Finally I am able to post an update to this blog.  I apologize for the long delay.  I cannot update my blog from my phone and it has taken a few days to find an Internet cafe.  I have much to tell, but will try to be somewhat brief.

As you may know from my fb postings, my flight from Detroit was delayed by 3 hours due to mechanical difficulties.  As a result I missed my connection from London to Cairo.  In London, I was put on a British Airways flight to Paris and in Paris picked up an Air France flight to Cairo.

I made it, but my luggage didn't.

This is now day 5 (counting the travel days) of wearing the exact same outfit.  It has become a running joke with my team.  Hmmmm?!  What should Bella wear today?!  Oh, I think I'll wear the brown shirt and the green pants . . .  hahahaha.  Except, it's not funny anymore.  Anyone who knows me personally knows that I won't even wear the same socks twice in one day, much less the same underthings.   This has been a test of mammoth proportions.  I'm washing my personals including socks every night in Fa peach and orange blossom shower gel.  It's a pleasant scent, which is better than the alternative.

I was picked up from the airport by my new friend, Hoda Khafagi and her father.  They were gracious to take me to a pharmacy to buy soap and a toothbrush.  They are also helping me to to track down the missing luggage.

Hoda took me to the Egyptian Museum where I saw the royal mummies and King Tut's treasures.  It was amazing to be surrounded by the ancient history of human civilization.  There was even a room of animal mummies.  For some reason that I'm not sure I want to know the answer for, ancient Egyptians mummified crocodiles, cats, dogs, baboons, cobras, birds. 

Hoda took me to lunch in a small alleyway cafe where I chose lamb kebab over roast pigeon, which appeared to be the specialty of the place.  People around us were gorging themselves, sucking and slurping pigeon fat and juices from their fingers.

She also took me to a mosque, the name of which I can't remember just now and I left my guidebook back at the room, but it is the oldest mosque in Cairo.  I had to cover my hair, but fortunately had a scarf around my neck, and I had to remove my shoes and put on a very unattractive, very stretchy blue skirt over my pants.  We were there during the call to prayer and it was beautiful.  There was a sense of reverance and solid history to the place.  Hoda, who lives here and is Muslim, had never visited the mosque before and she was overcome with emotion to be there.

Cairo, which is pronounced Cayro with a slight trill or flip to the "r" by the locals, is like a Middle Eastern New York City.  It simply never sleeps.  Our hotel is right downtown and traffic and people abound constantly.  There is the incessant honking of horns, but surprisingly enough, it's not annoying.  Unlike in America where we lay on our horns in anger and road rage, these horns are cheerful reminders that a car is coming through and please get out of the way.  Although you take your life in your hands attempting to cross the street.  Crosswalks are NOT respected here like in the States.  Traffic does not yield.  Here, if you're on foot, it's yield or die!

The city is filthy.  Dust, smog, smoke, trash, clutter.  Everything is covered with fine, brown grit.  It gets into your hair, your skin, your nose, your throat.  And there are cats everywhere.  Tabbies, calicoes, gray ones, black ones, some with no tails, some with chewed off ears, some with teats burgeoning with milk, some so thin the ribs are clearly visible.

The people are very friendly.  As we walk down the street, the locals test their limited English on us.  Welcome, Welcome!  Hello, how are you?  God bless America!  They  have been very helpful.

As you may know by now, the Egyptian authorities are not allowing us to cross at the Rafah border and they have closed the road to Al Arish.  We are all profoundly disappointed and are having a hard time getting our bearings about how to proceed.  The grief in our team at not being able to go is palpable.  Egypt was to be our gateway to Gaza, not our final destination.  There are more than a thousand Gaza Freedom Marchers spread throughout the city in various hotels and we have had difficulty staying in contact to learn what alternative plans are.  In the meantime, there have been a number of smaller protests (100-300 people) in different areas around the city.  All protests have been peaceful, although police and military are out in force in the areas where the marchers congregate.  If their job is to intimidate, they are doing an excellent job. 

This is indeed a police state and our small group of the six of us Michigan Peace Team members were harrassed by four burly Egyptian police officers.  We weren't even with any other marchers.  We were in the general area of an ongoing protest, but were just walking down the street.  It was quite scary.

On the one hand, they wouldn't have to put up with nuisance of a bunch of foreigners stirring up trouble in their city if they would just let us get on buses to Al Arish.  We would all be more than happy to leave Cairo.  We didn't come here to be scattered and wandering about the city doing protests here and there.  We came on a mission to enter Gaza in a show of solidarity for human rights.

We are very fortunate to have on our team with MPT, Yusuf  Barakat, a Palestinian by birth who had to flee Gaza with his family at the age of 12.  He speaks Arabic and has taken on the role of caretaker for us five American women on the team.  He is a beautiful, gentle man with a strong sense of justice.  At our team meeting last night, we were all able to finally share our grief at not being able to complete our mission, and though we all wept, Yusuf wept most of all.  Not just tears down his aged face (he is 74), but his soul, no, his spirit was also weeping.  It was a primordial, internal weeping. He taught us the Arabic word "YasHaari" which is symbolizes the lowest form of lament and grief.  When you have lost everything -- child, husband, belongings, home, identity -- and are sitting in the dust with nothing left but the clothes on your back, you pound your chest with your fist and cry out, "YasHaari."  Yusuf is lamenting, grieving at not being allowed to enter his homeland.

There is a possibility that various groups of the greater Gaza Freedom March contingent will still attempt to travel to Rafah on their own.  We have heard the road is blocked and a group of Spanish activists have been detained in Al-Arish and are not allowed to leave their hotel.  MPT is hoping that as the calendar days of when the March was originally planned near an end, that the roadblocks will be lifted and that we may at least be able to travel to Rafah, Egypt, which is essentially Rafah, Gaza, there is just a wall through the middle of the city.

I will try to keep you posted on any new developments.  I encourage you to check the MPT blog for more detailed updates on the protest events. Go to http//

Unfortunately, I had a terrible case of the traveler trots yesterday and spent the bulk of the day and night in the hotel room.  Thankfully I am feeling much better today and am planning to go buy another outfit and some new underwear and socks.  I would appreciate prayers going out that my luggage will show up safely and SOON.  As in right NOW.

This is it for now. I'll write more as soon as I can.  Please continue to keep us in your thoughts and prayers.  Shukran.

Below are a few photos that I have taken so far.

This is the view from our hotel room.

 Me and my new friend and hostess, Hoda, outside the Egyptian Museum.

A coffee roastery and shop.

Kind of dark, but this shows a couple of cats who were looking down on us eating lunch.  I'm sure they were drooling for a pigeon carcass.

The exterior of the mosque.

Inside the mosque courtyard.

Our hotel, the Cairo Khan.  A three star Motel 6.

My "favorite" outfit in the tub being washed.

Our team, starting on the left and going around the table, Yusuf, me, Dorothy, Liz, Sheri, and Kim.  This was in the dining room of our hotel.

Friday, December 25, 2009

And so it begins

In just a couple of hours, my children will take me to the airport.  It's hard to believe that after all the months of planning, fundraising, hoping and praying, the day has finally arrived.  The journey has begun.

What will I see?  What will I experience?  Who will I meet?

My prayer is to go to this land, to these people, with an open heart, an open mind, and outstretched arms.  My intention is to listen and to learn.

Some people have said to me that this trip won't make any difference; therefore, why am I going?  I do not pretend to have all the answers; not even one, in fact.

But just because something is the way it is, doesn't mean it always has to be that way.  No matter how long it's been.  That is probably a major reason why I am going -- so that we don't forget that innocent people are suffering.  The blockade of Gaza and the Palestinian/Israeli conflict have been going on for so long that it's easy to become used to it and grow complacent.  That, my friends, is the tragedy.

But, others argue (why must people argue?), there are people suffering elsewhere, too.  Look at Nepal, Somalia, Afghanistan.  Why aren't you going there?

The answer to that is really quite simple:  I believe it is our responsibility to help those that God puts in our path.  We can't help everyone; only those in front of us. This mission was put in my path.  Not Nepal or Somalia.  Gaza was put in my path.

It leaves me breathless to be a part of something so much bigger than me.  I am overcome with gratitude that I would be given this opportunity.

My sincere hope is that I can be a blessing to those I meet as much as I know they will bless me.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Weather and what not

Today, December 17, 2009, the weather forecast for Cairo is calling for a mild sandstorm and a high of 66 degrees Fahrenheit.  The extended weather outlook for my stay: mostly sunny, highs in the low 70s and lows in the upper 40s to low 50s.  Cairo is 7 hours ahead of Lansing.

The Arabic name for Cairo is Al-Qahirah and the native name for Egypt is Misr.

I can't find any information about weather in Gaza.  Although, I've been told it is cold and rainy this time of year, probably because it's right on the Mediterranean.

In fact, when I was looking up immunization information about Gaza, I couldn't find anything about that either. 

I can find information about Israel, but not Gaza; and certainly not Palestine. It's almost like Gaza doesn't exist.  It's a name on a map and that's all.

I know Palestine is not the "recognized" name, but just because it's not recognized, doesn't mean it doesn't exist.  Not including travel information or weather forecasts for Gaza doesn't mean it doesn't exist either.

How often in history have world powers and leaders attempted to strip people and nations of their identity?

It has happened to women, children, Jews, Native Americans, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, Palestinians, and countless others.

The struggle for identity, for a name, to be known, whether as an individual or a nation, is not given up easily because it is ultimately about survival.

It stands to reason then that recognition and acknowledgment are the important first steps toward conflict resolution.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Community Effort

This trip is a tribute to my community -- those I know personally and those I don't.  That these people, a mixture of friends, friends of friends, and total strangers would be willing to donate money to support me in this mission leaves me touched, moved, and inspired. 

I have never raised money for anything in my life.  It's weird asking people for money, especially when it's for a cause often deemed controversial (although there is nothing controversial about human rights, but I'll leave that to another post). When I first started on this venture, I was beyond terrified.  What do I say?  What do I do?  How do I begin?  What if I fail?  What if I succeed?

I had to do some soul-searching about my values and my motives.  Who am I?  What makes me tick?  Why am I doing this?  I couldn't do this if I felt shaky on the why.

My very first donation was $2.  Yay!  Oh.  It was both uplifting and a rude awakening.  A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step . . . . I was $2 closer to being able to buy a plane ticket.

Slowly, steadily donations came in:  $2, $5, $50, $100, even pop cans.  Donations came from different beautiful threads of the human mosaic of my community:  Jews, Muslims, Christians, Atheists, employed, unemployed, men, women, teens, concientious objectors, veterans.

I am going to Gaza with all of you in my heart.  Indeed, a little bit of each of you exists in my plane ticket, the visa stamp on my passport, my hotel reservation, and my bag of bubble gum to pass out to the kids.

I am going to Gaza as an ambassador for the good that exists in the world; as a living, breathing witness of the good that exists in my home community.