Otobees El Horreyya – Banisuef

August 6, 2011

Some Egyptians doubt, some Egyptians wonder. Some Egyptians have faith.

On Wednesday the 27th of July, about ten days ago, Otobees el Horreya initiative launched its first project in Banisuef. The initiative consists of young Egyptians from different governorates, independent of any political party, pressure group or movement. The aim is to raise civil and political awareness by way of initiating discussion with people on the street. Unlike the lecture or seminar approach, this approach does not assume the people in front of us are ignorant of the information we seek to deliver. Rather, we begin by asking their opinion about terms and phrases that are rapidly becoming part of our everyday vocabulary: what is democracy? Pluralism? Constitution? What are the three branches of government? And what is the difference between Local Councils and People’s Assembly? We right any glaring wrongs and otherwise engage in unperturbed conversation. Both ends of the conversation are then constantly switching roles, being receivers at times and deliverers at others.

Creating dialogue is thus both a means and an end.

Another brilliant point about the initiative is that it creates conversation between governorates. I am a 23-year-old Cairene woman. Prior to the revolution, I was mainly a proud Maadian. During the revolution, I learned what it means to be Egyptian in Tahrir. About a month ago, in a conference in Minya, I learned more and, last week in Banisuef, I learned still some more.

***

I stayed three of our four days in Banisuef because I had to go a Mansoura conference on the last day. Ashraf and I were the only people from Cairo, the rest of the group were locals. Ashraf is the one who started it all, the initiative was his brainchild and he worked his butt off for six months to see it through. We were a total of 20 volunteers or so. The first day we set up our tent in Banisuef the city, the capital of Banisuef the governorate. The second day in a markaz called al-fashn and the third in a village called ninna.

We often hear horror stories about el se3eed, or Upper Egypt. About how rigid and uncompromising they could be, about the low level of literacy, the poverty, the hardheaded religious divides. We often also seem to be under the impression that the spirit of the revolution did not resonate with people of the se3eed.

Since I do not wish to replace one stereotype with another, I will not generalize. I will only share my experience as is. Only one perspective. Doesn’t matter if it is a majority or a minority perspective, only matters that it exists.

My experience in Banisuef defied the typical portrayal of el se3eed. The first day we began working, I remember most of us were anxious. I, for one, worried people would be exasperated by our efforts as a fruit of the revolutionary seed. Sure enough as the guys were setting up the tent in el zera3yeen square, a woman walked between them and started cursing at the people for disrupting the country’s stability, el-istiqrar. Seeing how this was Thursday the 28th, one night before the 29th Tahrir “Islamic” millioniya, we realized that with our tent, our uniform shirts, and the very fact that we were in a main square, she thought we were setting up for a parallel sit-in in Banisue. Despite the slightly discouraging beginning, the numbers swelled around the tent. Most of the volunteers were college students, but we also had working individuals and high-school students.

In our feedback session the next day, someone was recounting that a passerby glared at the tent’s citizens and blurted idle bums! to which Mervet, one of the toughest funniest and awesomest women I’ve ever met responded with a “nope I have a job. Two in fact. I’m married too and am five months pregnant”.  She also happened to believe in the cause. She did all the work that the rest of us did, no excuses or exceptions. She came on all three days, took long bumpy bus rides to remote areas, stayed for 5 or 6 hours straight talking with people, filling questionnaires and distributing handouts without any breaks.

Mervet and most of the volunteers were inspirational in their attitude. From the other end as well, people were responding and overall they constructively engaged us. Of course, there were those who opposed. But they were generally a minority and we had headed out expecting a much higher percentage of rejection.  Interestingly enough, I found that the loudest categorical rejections to our cause came from the city and decreased the further away we got from the city and disappeared altogether in the village. In the city I found people who would throw a mean remark and walk away without even attempting to listen and encountered none of those in markaz or village. In the markaz, there were those who attacked the purpose of our efforts, but they would wait and talk to us about what was important to them and it would then become our job to link the two together. In the village, I did not hear anyone object to our being there.

Another interesting pattern was the different priorities of each location and the different ways of expressing them. In the city, discussions inevitably found their way to Tahrir and the revolution. Problems struck me as more abstract and theoretical. Accounts were also more contradictory in the city. For example, there were those who would say that the security problem has become unbearable, that they couldn’t walk the streets anymore (although I hate to be a smart ass, I can’t help but point out that the people I met who made that contention were women walking alone in the streets at 10 and 11 pm). Then there others who said that security for them at least wasn’t an issue at all. Then there were others who said that security was an issue but directed their blame at the police instead of Tahrir. Priority in the city then seemed to be security.

In the markaz, however, they complained about the rise in prices and basic food-shelter problems. Everyone agreed almost word for word on the same issue of prices and low food quality and quantity. They were also very vocal about it. To the point that we had to spend at least a 7 minute prelude listening to them expounding on their problems before relating it to issues like democracy and why it matters, the role of the state, and elections.

Finally, in the village, in the village, unlike in the relatively better off markaz, people did not readily complain . They listened more than they talked. When you asked them if they were happy with their state, they would smile and say elhamdullah. Even when you specifically name a problem like rising prices, they would assent that it is a problem but wouldn’t necessarily spill their hearts out like the people of the markaz and the city. They struck me as very proud people, particularly the women.

I remember the green-eyed tomato-vender with deep lines of age and wisdom, I remember her hoarse voice and warm smile and her vague mistrust of the camera Ashraf was walking around with. She treated us to meshsh (sharp old cheese), tomatoes, 2aring (orange peels), bitaw (dry crispy bread folded like large pizza slices) and an overly sweetened cup of tea. I remember how when her husband came, he extended his hand and shook mine without hesitating for a second about whether hand-shaking was haram or halal. And how they both teamed up and teased us about our city habits.  I remember how when we first approached her and asked “what do you think about democracy” and she replied with four magic words that we rarely ever hear in Egypt: I do not know. From my short excursion, the village was the only place where the person similingly, honestly and unabashedly said I don’t know what you’re talking about to say my opinion about it. And she readily listened to what we had to say. Usually, we Egyptians find it very hard to admit that we don’t know something and we always have something to say about everything no matter how little we know about it. A rather unpleasant habit I have to say that I am constantly trying to purge myself of. The good-natured se3eedy woman instinctively did what we, or I at least, sometimes find hard to do.

****

I am not saying that my experience is representative of all the se3eed. In fact, if you were to ask other volunteers from our team, they would probably recount different experiences, that partly overlaps with mine and partly doesn’t. To me the point is not whether we all have positive experiences in engaging the se3eed or any other place in Egypt, Cairo included. It is whether anyone did.

More importantly, I am definitely not saying that by going to the one village, markaz or city once that we left an permanent mark. Chances are, we did not. But I know it left a mark on me and my teammates. Last week was merely a pilot project and we need to go back time and again. Not just now, but always. Yes there is a lot of work to be done and yes it  will be extremely hard. But it is work that has to be done. No way around it other than ploughing our way through it. Six months have gone by since the 25th and the question that haunted us all from the beginning still remains: are we going to make it?

Some Egyptians doubt, some Egyptians wonder. Some Egyptians have faith.

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