Kromal co-owns with his brother a tiny card and book shop in the oasis. He guesses I’m French, I shake my head, brother speculates Australian, the usual game. I smile, tell them. “You should be very grateful,” he says. My eyebrows raised, I nod, “I am.” “For your freedoms of expression and movement, for freedom of religion and thought, for everything you have.” He waits for a reply with eyes serious and fixed, and I’m searching for landmarks that will enable me to steer through the conversation I’m suddenly having. It is not, I intuit, the typical kind. “Yes, we have a history…complicated, not always beautiful. But I am very proud to be American.”
“Those freedoms used to be alive in Egypt, but not any more.” The brothers definitely have my attention now, I ask them to go on, they find a chair for me, ask me to reflect on Mubarak being in office for thirty years. Yes, he was already a fixture of the political scene when I was in college. They bemoan the every six year election cycle, “a television show on Saudi financed networks telling us that it’s time to vote and, amazing!, Mubarak has won again.” Kromal studied government at university, and then earned a degree in translation at the American University in Cairo. “That was the first time I ever came into contact with people, Western professors, who asked me what I thought. Like we were equals in our right to have an opinion. My Egyptian professors before were terrible, ‘don’t ask questions, just write this down.'” I try to break the severity of the moment by mentioning my colleague who is an Egyptian from Cairo and one of the best teachers I know. “Yes, of course she has left.”
Kromal’s family is Coptic. The bombings of the Coptic church in Alexandria a few weeks ago (he refers to this half sarcastically, half unselfconsciously euphemistically as the “little accident there”) are a new tense background to what he is saying. The recent protests in Tunisia “…have emboldened some of us, you’re seeing it in the demonstrations this week. But Mubarak’s political strategy is based entirely on letting young people become radicalized so that they focus on an imagined religious threat instead of the political process in Egypt.” The older brother wanders off with emotions I can’t quite read.
“I have doubts about Obama,” Kromal says. “I prefer Bush.” I shush my kneejerk apoplexy and instead understate, “In my opinion, Bush’s policies were good for no one except the wealthiest Americans.” “Yes, I understand that Bush was not good on internal things. But I saw Obama give his speech in Cairo. He sounded cooperative, which means afraid. The Muslim world feared Bush, and this tradition and religion and culture responds to fear; understands it. The only possible opposite is contempt, and now that is what people here have for Obama and his weakness.” My expression signals my rejection of the premises. He goes on, “Do you know on the loudspeakers from the mosques, they say that Americans — I’m sorry — that Americans and Israelis are apes and pigs?” I nod and say that I had a sense that that sometimes happened, but that I also knew that it wasn’t the dominant message. I tell him that I still don’t accept his options, and that peace has to be among them. The crystalline backdrop for me is the ten thousand ways Muslims have treated me respectfully and in fellowship over the last weeks, knowing full well where I am from. He looks at me with loss, sadness, fire: “No one here is being taught that peace is an option, it is not for us.”
“Americans are apes, but everyone here blames the Israelis for everything, it is a joke. ‘Shark attack? It was the Israelis!’,” he says, we laugh. “The Palestinian issue is a challenge for the world,” I venture sparingly. “Actually, Egyptians don’t care about Palestine. Palestinians killed Egyptian soldiers, we’ll never forget that. For people here the simple problem with Israel is that it’s another religion and they believe it so strongly,” he says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the universe. “I can remember, I grew up with pride to be an Egyptian, Copts and Muslims lived side by side. Copts were here long before Muslims, now we must leave if we can. I twice applied for a student visa to Australia, I had paid my fees and enrolled in information technology school, and was twice rejected. It is understandable,” he shrugs and genuinely does not seem bitter, just regretful, “they see I am Egyptian, they will not risk bringing in a terrorist. They make no distinction between Muslims and Copts.” He pauses for a moment, sees that I’m wholly skeptical of the implied inferences. “Wait, are you Muslim?” he asks. I laugh, given how forthright he’s been in his bile. “No, no.” “It wouldn’t matter to me if you were. I speak this way because I am not afraid anymore.” He tells me of being threatened with his life by the chief of police after he had German friends over to his flat for tea. The police don’t want foreigners in Egyptian homes, spreading ideas, he says. “‘Make money from tourists, not friends’ is what they want. I’m not afraid. I don’t care if I die any more, it’s too much.”
Kromal, a Christian Egyptian, superbly educated, wholly unable to find work in his country, unable to emigrate, made pessimistic to his depths — “trust no one, this is Egypt,” he says — demoralized for no rapprochement between Muslims and Copts. Of course, this was all said during a fulcrum moment: the collision of the church bombing and Tunisia and the latest corruption scandal involving Mubarak’s son fleeing to London, and the potentially incendiary demonstrations happening tomorrow. He’ll take the 10am bus to Cairo to participate in them. I protest to myself that this is one voice of pessimism, only one voice.
But I pedal away the next morning quiet and deflated.