This will be my fourth trip to Gaza over the last two years. Warned by my contacts at UNRWA (United Nations Relief & Works Agency) that Israel has cracked down on traffic through its Erez checkpoint since the Mavi Marmara murders, I decided to travel in through Egypt instead. It was only a year ago that I was among a thousand Palestinian-rights activists who descended on Cairo, planning to cross into Gaza for the first “anniversary” of the Israeli invasion. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, however, had other plans. Clearly wanting to “flex his muscles” a bit, Mubarak slammed the doors shut, refusing to open the Rafah crossing. Forty days of waiting later, I gave up on Rafah and – with UNRWA’s help – got in through Israel.
Me and "Modi" in the white desert
Now, I am back. And I was prepared. Recent reports from other travellers indicated that the most assured way of getting in is a press pass issued by the Egyptian government. However, they also reported that online-only media are increasingly viewed with suspicion, so I quickly added a TV production company and radio station to my letters of representation. Then – as instructed by my governmental contacts – I faxed them along with my passport to the national Radio & TV headquarters in Cairo, two weeks in advance of my planned arrival date. Check, check, check.
The last requirement was the ridiculous “waiver letter” from the U.S. embassy in Cairo. It’s mandated by the Egyptian government, but the U.S. administration is complicit in this charade. Basically, any American who seeks to enter Gaza must visit the U.S. embassy in Cairo (in person; no electronic transactions allowed) and pay $50 (up from $30 just a year ago – an increase of nearly 70%!) for a notarized letter (signed by you) stating that your government won’t help you if anything goes wrong. The last time I had to get this letter, the agent behind the window told me – with a straight face – that “we’re trying to help you help yourself.” (Wait, what about all those men and women losing their lives in Afghanistan????) Regardless – check.
So, I delivered the letter as specified, and – lo and behold! To my amazement, I was handed the necessary press credentials on the spot, and given the name and number of a representative in Rafah who would personally make sure that my entry went smoothly. (The officials at the border are infamous for ignoring whatever documents one has from Cairo, making their own decision on the spot.)
The border is closed until Monday, so now I have a couple of days to relax and enjoy myself with the friends I have met during my past adventures in this crazy city. Cairo to me is a noisy, chaotic kaleidoscope of sights and sounds:
Cars revving and horns honking…Traffic here doesn’t seem to answer to any rules of the road. No one stays within lanes or obeys traffic lights (with a few exceptions – intersections policed with government-supplied cameras). The only way to make it to a destination on foot with any speed is to walk right into the traffic when crossing a street. Without a little “attitude,” you’ll never make it from one side to the other. No wonder traffic accidents are the leading cause of death in Cairo.
A “koshary” restaurant literally on every corner…This traditional, ubiquitous national dish consists of a base of rice, brown lentils, chickpeas and macaroni (or other kinds of noodles), and a topping of garlic, vinegar and spicy tomato sauce (salsa). Fried onions are commonly added as a garnish. It’s cheap, nutritious and filling – and although I ate it so much the last time I was here that I got sick of it, I found myself craving it as soon as my plane touched down.
The diversity….This is true of most countries, of course. And it’s certainly true of Cairo. On the one hand, the stereotype of the Egyptian who will rip you off in a heartbeat is based on common experience – mine included. The last time I was here I was tricked by a camel driver, robbed by a taxi driver, “felt up” by two lecherous guys following me in a market and lured into perfume shops by a multitude of men who pretended they are willing to give me directions. On the other hand, I have made lifelong friends in a young man who did help me find my way around the confusion that is Cairo, as well as with another Egyptian who shares my passion for justice for Palestinians. And as I traveled out of Cairo to the Sinai last year and to the white and black deserts this time, I met Bedouins who invited me to sit around their fire and share their food. Likewise, you find the ancient souk in old Cairo, the largest library in the world in Alexandria, and the natural wonders in the white desert to the west.
On a more sober note, I have been reminded of the poverty and limited freedom of most Egyptians, with one of my friends in particular pleading for me to focus my energy as an activist on his country as well as Palestine. He, for instance, comes from a large, poor family who has only seen a laptop on television. When I gave him an older, used one I brought from home, he was so ecstatic he couldn’t stop singing “I have a laptop, I have a laptop!” Now, his whole family is using it. (Contrast that to the Gazan family who fled to Cairo following the civil war. They live in a much ritzier part of the greater Cairo area than most native Egyptians could ever afford, and when I visited, every person in the family had their own laptop.) My Egyptian friend lives in a country in which an “assembly” of more than five people is illegal unless approved by the government, and in which he has no hope of being able to see the broader world (due in part to the wide use of racial and religious profiling post 9/11) or to make a more-than-minimum wage.For those who follow in my footsteps and try to enter Gaza through Egypt, my best advice is to do as I have: Use your time well, by getting to know a bit of Egypt. See more than Cairo. Meet the people. Open your eyes.