Losing the Middle East

Forgive me, God- for I am writing this from the comfort of a five star hotel. While young men and women are battling each other for freedom on the streets of Cairo, I am taking a jog around a manicured Abu Dhabi, a safe haven while I toil with all that has become undone.

Forgive me, God- for I am an academic after all. I am free to teach others about what should and should not be done while I sleep soundly under crisp laundered sheets.

Forgive me, father- for I am a coward, like most other Americans who walk beside me. We point the finger at some unknown enemy when over and over we are reminded that the enemy is we.

Forgive me, mother- for I cannot bear to see the bloodshed on my own hands, yet I won’t turn off the TV. Forgive me when I ask: Who are the real revolutionaries?

I visited Cairo the first week of the demonstrations. I fought for that ticket. It was my destiny. I had the option of spending a fully paid visa run on the clean white beach of Muscat. Instead, I opted to watch the streets of Cairo turn “white to black.” That’s what one American CNN correspondent called it— from white to black.

I am paralyzed while I write. Anything I say could incriminate the many people that I come in contact with every day. And it’s not that I want to protect them or the status quo, it’s just that I realize that we are all implicated in this war on poverty. People have opened doors for me and have trusted me into their homes, have given me the opportunity to provide for my family, to connect with their humanity. We are all scared out here, those of us who are losing our grasp of the middle.

When I was in Cairo, I met a fine gentleman who took me on a horse through the desert surrounding the pyramids. He was kind and had a sincere smile. His dark skin was the color of cinnamon. After we had been riding for a while, he shared that he had been feeling so angry over the past week. He did not know why, he said. He jumped into a car with a friend and felt like fighting. He kept repeating that he could not understand why it was he was so angry. I told him that he had absorbed the heat of the streets. That Cairo was boiling.

We spent two and a half hours together that day. It was the day of rage, Friday, January 28th. We rode through the sandy hills while men, women and children prayed and planned their march. The city seemed so far away but we could hear the call to prayer. We could hear the voices as they drifted in the air— they rolled over us like a high tide. This Egyptian fellow and I wanted the two hours to last an eternity. But, we knew that we were both caught up in the middle of the beginning.

The taxi ride back to the hotel was an emotional rollercoaster. Each street was shut down as the taxi driver (an Engineer and father of three girls) tried to find the way out of the rumbling city. He demanded more money, for the trouble I caused him. I had put his wife and children in jeopardy. I was an American tourist after all, fixated on seeing the Sphinx even though the city was collapsing.

Forgive me, father—for I wanted to see the pyramids so badly! I had read about the energy, the power underneath! While the taxi driver zoomed down a highway, I recognized the poverty hanging over the tall buildings and swore that I had seen them in my sleep. I had come home, I think. I am coming back to a time before time, where my people used to be free and it is my blood out there that is running through the streets.

When I come back to Abu Dhabi, it takes days for my heart beat to stop banging wildly. I read the news and I am glued to the images on TV. News from the US disturbs me as a group of black protestors are arrested for demonstrating against the closing of public schools. A mother is on trial for lying to get her child into a better school district and is being asked to cough up the money she owes in taxes. A new private school in NYC is opening that charges 50K a year in tuition because “there aren’t enough schools to service the growing population.” At the same time, we hear politicians insinuate that poor people need to stop having kids because the growth is threatening the collapse of the public school system.

Then there is the deep, deep freeze… the cold storm that has fallen on my country.

Forgive me, God for I am far, far away living under the sun in the Middle East while my husband shovels out the snow to take our two children to school each morning.

Forgive me for my distance. I can’t stop crying. I just don’t know what is being asked of me. How can I make sure that I am doing the right thing, out here in the middle?

The night before I left Cairo, a young man no older than eighteen, challenges me in the hotel lobby. We are both watching the news. We are witnesses to the violence. When I ask him if his family is down town he says no but that his friends are out there protesting on the streets. He adds that he too will be joining them when his shift ends—just a half hour more, he says. Then, a strange thing happened just then. The boy turned to me and invited me to go with him. He promised he’d bring me back to the hotel safely. I felt a flutter in my belly and I looked into his deep brown eyes, then back at the images on the screen. I was being asked to join in the making of history! Had he sensed something in me that I had forgotten? Was I, too, a revolutionary?

Forgive me, God, when I tell you that I could not go!

I opened my wallet and showed the young waiter pictures of my boy and my little girl and told him that I was working for them. Then he looked at me confused—are you not Egyptian? No, no! I cried, I must save my fight for my own city, my own family who lives very far away. Then he nodded knowingly. I really couldn’t tell what he thought about me just then.

Before the waiter left, he came back to my table and asked, so…what do you think? I realize his question redeemed me. When I turned to him, he became my son, just then, all grown up and standing innocently before me. I looked him straight in the eye and said—

There are two types of revolutionaries. First, there is the kind that is out there on those front lines. And perhaps they won’t make it past the rocks and the sticks or the authorities. They are out there and they are important because without them, there would be nothing. But then there is the second kind. They know that this is just the beginning. They use their minds and they think strategically. They choose to fight from behind the scenes. They are there for the long journey. They too are equally important.

Then I added, you must decide tonight which kind you are and then live your truth.

The young man nodded and thanked me. I watched him as he closed out his register and left. What kind of revolutionary was he? I wondered. And what about me?

Forgive me, God—for today is Friday and from the comfort of my terrace, I see the white mosque over on the other side of the bay. It just floats out there as if it were being held magically over the water. And I am here with a fire in my heart. I want to kneel down beside the barefoot men who are inside praying to you, our father.

But I choose to stay here and write.

I am all at once alone and surrounded by historical happenings. I am neither here nor there but am I really lost, I wonder? Or perhaps, I am precisely where I need to be… somewhere in the middle. All I ask is that I will have the courage and the strength to hold fast to the hands of my brothers and sisters who are dying for all of us in the West and in the East. Those brave souls who will live in this moment of our history.

I am both humbled by their courage and deeply ashamed at my own complicity.

3 responses to “Losing the Middle East”

  1. Denise Avatar

    Wow, your writing brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for your soul-searching and your passion for truth and your courage to be one of those who fight for the long-haul.

    Be well and keep sharing!

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Dear Sister Safe Haven. I pray for peace on earth.

  3. Jimin Avatar

    This is amazing!!!! I want to repost on FB and twitter if you'll allow me. Thank you for sharing your experience and having the courage to look within and be honest. You've put into words such difficult emotions at a very difficult time.