Category Archives: Egypt

My First Ramadan

Ramadan is the most holiest of holy times for Muslims because it’s the time that the angel Gabriel gave the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad.  It’s one of the Five Pillars of Islam.  Devout Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset every day during the month of Ramadan. (I knew this from earlier visits to the Middle East.)

This year, Ramadan began May 6th when I found myself in Cairo preparing to join a medical convoy to Gaza, and was scheduled to end June 4th (or maybe June 5th depending on the country). Most of my Egyptian family at Pension Roma, my home when I’m in Egypt, are Muslim. They were looking forward to Ramadan.

On the spur of the moment, without much thought or preparation, I decided to join them in their daily fasting. Of course, fasting is only one part of Ramadan; reading the Quran and praying every day is also very important to Muslims during this time. I didn’t plan to read or pray.

ramadan lanterns

So why did I fast?

  • To respect my friends. It felt disrespectful to eat or drink when they couldn’t.
  • To experience the feeling of emptiness and fasting for myself.
  • To challenge myself. Could I abstain from eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset for an entire month? (I like challenges.)

What did I learn?

  • For a newbie, fasting is not easy, especially during the first week or two. I experienced headaches, fatigue and very low energy at the beginning. Instead of working on a writing project every afternoon, I napped.
  • Surprisingly, the empty feeling in my stomach felt good. By nature, I’m not a foodie who looks forward to cooking or eating. It’s just another bodily function which I must attend to in order to keep my body healthy. My doctor routinely chides me for my bad diet. During Ramadan, I had a good reason for not eating.
  • Giving up water in the hot Mediterranean climate is something else. I found it very difficult not to drink water when I was thirsty. By mid-afternoon, my mouth and throat felt like cotton. Yech!
  • Appreciating how my internal clock could adjust to the early morning (3 AM) knock on my door to join Yousef and the rest of my Egyptian family for a meal before sunrise. I’ll remember that time together with a special fondness.
  • The best part of Ramadan for me was sharing the pre-dawn meal and later breaking the fast with the Iftar meal at sunset with friends and community.

Iftar gathering in downtown Cairo 2

Every afternoon just before sunset, I walked the streets in my Cairo neighborhood and watched people preparing for their Iftar meal. The fast-food guys rushed by on their scooters delivering orders to shopkeepers. Many people took seats on the sidewalk, patiently waiting for the signal from the Mosque that the official time of sunset had arrived and people could eat.

In a restaurant where I frequently ate, everyone was seated and chatting well before the appointed hour. Suddenly, the entire place would fall silent as everyone started eating in unison. Food takes on a new meaning when you’ve been fasting the entire day.  The Iftar ritual always began the same way — eating a date or two, and drinking water and juice (mango or date juice). Delicious!

Breaking the fast with friends (new and old) reminded me how lucky we are to have the gift of food, and also that millions of children and families around the world are starving because of war and ungodly sanctions that prevent food delivery.  [How can Saudi Arabia hold itself up as a good Muslim country when its actions are directly causing so much death, destruction and starvation to millions of Muslims in Yemen? If I was a practicing Muslim, I would boycott Hajj and Umrah in Mecca until the monarchy in Saudi Arabia aligns its actions with the teachings of the Quran.]

I experienced many, many examples of love and kindness during my first Ramadan. The Cairo shopkeeper (the man in the middle) always asked about my bum leg because he noticed I was limping. Each day he told me he would pray for me, and he encouraged me to pray as well. Then there was the date seller from Aswan (right photo) who introduced me to the most delicious dates I’ve ever tasted. He waved to catch my attention each time I passed, even if I was on the other side of the busy street.

I had the wonderful opportunity to reconnect with very good friends from Gaza now living in the United Arab Emirates, so I decided to spend the last two weeks of Ramadan in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.  

On my arrival we headed straight to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi because the sunset was nearly upon us.  The Mosque prepares Iftar meals for 30,000 people every day during Ramadan. The Mosque and its beautiful surroundings were only surpassed by the superb organizational efforts to provide a feast on such a grand scale. I was speechless.  

Iftar in Abu Dhabi 3

Another day we drove out to the sand dunes where we watched the sun slowly sink in the west and ate our Iftar meal on a blanket under the stars.  Despite the alarm I felt driving out in the middle of nowhere without another soul in sight and no markings or signs anywhere, the serenity and peaceful surroundings was a heavenly experience beyond anything I’ve known in my 65 years.

Iftar in the Sand DunesEid al-Fitr marks the end of the month of Ramadan. It feels like every joyous holiday in the world wrapped up into a single day. We woke before dawn and went over to the small neighborhood mosque in Sharjah where everyone was gathering to say their morning prayers. I stood back and watched.

Eid al-Fitr in Sharjah women praying

Children in their new clothes reminded me of the excitement and anticipation I experienced every Christmas morning as a child. I learned about the Eid tradition in many families of giving their children a little money to spend on sweets and toys. [And I was reminded that many children in Gaza are going without even this little pleasure because life in Gaza is practically unlivable.]

Fasting this Ramadan gave me time to meditate and think. For me, Ramadan is about sharing love with each other and there’s an abundance of love to go around (more than enough for every man, woman and child on this Planet).

Love is love, whether a Muslim, Jew or Christian shares it.  Our world needs much more of it but there are so many examples of people withholding love for the “other”. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Allah – Yahweh – God never intended for any of us to be miserly with our love.

I felt well-loved and cared for during Ramadan. I will always remember my blessings.

 

 

 

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Deflated but not defeated

I learned Wednesday evening that the Egyptian authorities have not approved my travel with the medical convoy to Gaza tomorrow. No reason given.

When I heard the news about 12 hours before our expected departure, I felt like a deflated balloon.  All the air and energy left me and I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I asked the convoy organizer if the other member of the VPM delegation (Viva Palestinia Malaysia) with whom I’m traveling was approved.

He was. That was good news.

And I knew my 375 cans of PediaSure, the bag of books for the library in Gaza, and the bag of vitamins for a sick doctor, would all make it to Gaza without me. InshaAllah.

PediaSure going to Gaza

But I was angry, depressed, and wanted to engage in combat with someone, anyone, everyone!

I returned to my room and the first post I saw on Facebook was by Stephen Zunes.  He wrote:

Hanan Ashrawi is a Quaker-educated Palestinian Christian who holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Virginia. She served as the Palestine Authority’s minister of education and is the founder of MIFTA, a Palestinian NGO working to build a democratic society, and the Independent Commission for Human Rights. An anti-corruption and human rights campaigner and a feminist, she has long advocated for nonviolence and a two-state solution. She was scheduled to give a talk at the University of Massachusetts this week, but the U.S. government denied her a visa.”

This news puts my disappointment into perspective.

Then I read Vanunu Mordechai‘s post. He’s the Israeli whistleblower who many years ago leaked to the world that Israel has nuclear weapons, a fact that Israel still refuses to acknowledge to this day.  Since 1986, Mordechai has been under constant surveillance by the Israeli government, and under a court order not to leave Israel nor speak with any foreigners who visit Israel. His legal team is still trying to get his forced internal exile reversed.

And then I read that Israel turned down all 181 applications of Palestinians invited by the organizers of a joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day ceremony in Tel Aviv this week. “Sources told Haaretz that the order banning the Palestinians came from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also serves as defense minister. Netanyahu’s bureau declined to comment.”

This morning the convoy left Cairo bright and early. They are making very good progress today, crossing the Suez Canal and heading to Al-Arish.  I wish them safe travels and many rewarding encounters when they arrive in Gaza.

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Filed under Egypt, Gaza, Peaceful, People, Uncategorized

Medical aid convoy to Gaza

Gaza boys flag beach

Friends and readers of this blog know that I’ve been searching for ways to return to Gaza since I left in 2013.

In the past 6 years, Israel has tightened the blockade, making it virtually impossible for anyone to pass through the Erez crossing in the north.

In the summer of 2014, the IDF launched Operation Protective Edge, a massively disproportionate military campaign against the civilian population trapped within the largest open air prison in the world.

In the summer of 2015, the Freedom Flotilla III carrying humanitarian supplies to Gaza was forcibly detained in international waters by Israel, the participants were jailed, and the supplies were confiscated.

Change ThingsI’ve been to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo several times in recent years asking for their help. In 2012, the Embassy provided me with the requisite paperwork to the satisfaction of Egyptian authorities but now my government refuses to assist Americans wishing to travel to Gaza.

If not by the Erez crossing in the north, or by sea to the west, the only other possibility is from the south, through the Rafah border between Gaza and Egypt.

Through Rafah it will be.

I’ve been invited to join a medical aid convoy bringing urgently needed medicines and medical supplies to Gaza. Alhamdulillah!

My contribution of $10,000 is critical to the success of the mission, and that’s why I’m turning to friends to crowdfund donations for this convoy.

Please read my GoFundMe campaign, contribute if you can, and most importantly, please share the campaign with your friends.  Here’s the link.

I’m financing my travel expenses myself. Every dime I raise in this campaign will be used to purchase medicines and medical supplies for Gaza.

THANK YOU!

 

 

 

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Iftar in Baltimore

I will never forget walking down that Cairo street one very hot day in August 2011 and passing a cool alleyway with long tables and benches set up in preparation for Iftar.

Ramadan in Cairo

I turned and snapped a picture quickly, a bit embarrassed because I wasn’t really sure whether it was appropriate or not.  I walked back after sundown and saw the benches full of men and boys eating their Iftar meal to break their daily fast during Ramadan.

Street scene during Ramadan

Cairo was absolutely electric in 2011, just months after Mubarak had been ousted.

There was a lot of excitement and hope in the air. Even a non-Arabic speaker like me could feel it and understand.

So today when I think of Ramadan, as a non-Muslim, I think of hope. Ramadan and hope go together.

ramadan lanterns

Despite the hardships and tremendous daily challenges in Gaza, Ramadan is a very special time for many.

The Gaza Strip has been under an illegal blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt for a decade, and unemployment and poverty levels are at record highs. Nearly one million of the 1.3 million Palestinian refugees in Gaza are relying on UNRWA food assistance to meet their basic daily needs.

I’m joining others around the U.S. to show solidarity with my friends in Gaza, and to raise funds to help assist food insecure families in the Gaza Strip.  With $140 UNRWA-USA can provide enough staples to assist a family for 3 months. My goal is to help ten families or $1,400. 

Unfortunately, my Iftar plans in the Baltimore Inner Harbor have changed due to a family crisis that requires my travel out of Maryland.

I’m hoping friends and “friends of friends” will contribute to my fundraising UNRWA-USA page here because the crisis in Gaza is real and deadly serious. Please read Sara Roy’s description of Gaza from her recent trip a few weeks ago here.

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Lora with orphans in Gaza in 2012.

كل عام وأنت بخير

رمضان كريم

 

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Filed under Egypt, Gaza, Peaceful, Spiritual - Religion

Having a meltdown!

I’m sitting in Cairo in the midst of a meltdown. Yes! It’s damn hot and humid, but the bigger issue seems to be the political meltdown at home in the USA, across the Mediterranean in Turkey and Greece, and on the other side of the planet in Venezuela.

The whole world seems to be falling apart; instability is wrecking the lives of millions.

Maybe the heat is effecting my brain and I can’t think straight. Things used to be so much simpler, so much clearer, so black and white.

Now I really don’t know what to make of it all.

  • The U.S. election in November appears to be shaping up as a contest between an egomaniac, fascist, misogynist dolt on the one hand, and a smart cookie beholden to the corporatocracy and Wall Street interests (aka the 1%), and the military industrial complex that has brought ruin to every corner of the planet. What appears clear is that voters in the U.S. have been shoehorned into making a decision in November which won’t turn this ship of state around. No real democracy there.
  • The failed coup attempt in Turkey this week has generated so many conspiracy theories that my head is spinning. Did Erdogan stage the coup? Did the US/Israel/Saudi have a hand in fomenting the coup? Did a Muslim cleric residing in the U.S. orchestrate the coup? Or did the military simply say “enough is enough” and take things into their own hands, albeit rather clumsily? Social media is abuzz with innuendo supporting all of the above. What appears clear is Erdogan is now taking advantage of the failed coup to round up (execute?) thousands of his opponents. No real democracy there.
  • Venezuelans are running to the border with Colombia to buy food!  No food or medicines on the shelves in Caracas, no money in the state treasury, oil prices plummeting. It appears clear that the bus driver turned President Maduro has no support and no options for turning his failed state around. No real democracy there.
  • The refugees I met in Greece are stuck in limbo, a world not of their making or desire, but trapped nevertheless because life in a wretched camp is preferable over death at home. What appears clear is that their future depends on the generosity and empathy of nations willing to accept the refugees, but now the borders seem to be closing. No democracy there.
  • Egypt. Well all of my notions about democracy flew out the window in July 2013 when the military coup ousted President Morsi. Some Egyptians try to justify the coup by pointing to Morsi’s mistakes. No doubt, he made many, but in a true democracy, the voters can oust the fools from office at the ballotbox, not with guns on the streets. What appears clear is that thousands of Egyptians are “disappearing” into the prisons and cemeteries while the streets remain calm. No democracy there.
  • The hopes and dreams == the very lives == of many friends in Gaza are being squeezed out of them, day after day, by the deliberate actions of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the U.S.  A friend in Gaza told me “I want a new world, a new life.” I’m ashamed of my country. I’m ashamed of the apparent Democratic nominee for President and her “democratic values”, and I’m ashamed of our complicity in all of these wretched meltdowns. What appears clear is democracy is a term of art with no substance.

WeAreOne-Med

Democracy has about as much meaning as the term “terrorist” — overused to the point of nonsense. Truly Orwellian.

FUCK Democracy!  The experiment failed. Time to admit it and create something new. Seriously!

 

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Filed under Egypt, Gaza, Israel, Politics, Uncategorized, US Policy

Knowledge is power!

Following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, I traveled from Greece to Egypt this month (July 2016) and visited the magnificent library in Alexandria, the city which he founded.  More than 2300 years ago, the ancient library on this site was the world’s largest repository of ancient knowledge. By 400 A.D. the library had vanished. The new library opened in 2002.

The idea of a universal library, like that of Alexandria, arose only after the Greek mind had begun to envisage and encompass a larger worldview. The Greeks were impressed by the achievements of their neighbours, and many Greek intellectuals sought to explore the resources of “Oriental” knowledge.

The cruise ships have stopped coming to Alexandria, citing concerns about violence, and so I suspect that this port city is suffering under the same economic woes as Cairo and the Red Sea resorts from the lack of tourism. There were many Egyptians visiting the library on the day I was there, but I saw only a handful of foreigners.

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Egyptians taking their selfies in front of the Library of Alexandria

Knowledge is power; making knowledge univerally accessible to anyone with a computer is a powerful act of generosity and love.

I learned from our tour guide that the Library of Alexandria is part of the World Digital Library started by the US Library of Congress. The library has a very active project to digitize resources from many countries, and our guide asked us which country we would like to search in the library’s database as an example. I said “Palestine.” She smiled and typed in Palestine, and up came the list of books and manuscripts that have been digitized to date.

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Permanent art exhibits at the Library of Alexandria

Libraries and librarians have always been special in my heart, and that might explain why I think the CPDS Library in Gaza is so extraordinarily important. Israel can stop the flow of people, concrete and sugar, but it can’t stop the flow of information. Israel’s 20th century strategies — occupation, siege, blockade and humiliation — will backfire in the 21st century.  Now anyone in Gaza connected to the Internet will be able to access:

The Digital Assets Repository, the Wellcome Arabic Manuscripts Online, the Institut du Monde Arabe Book Collection, the Digital Library of Inscriptions and Calligraphies, the President Mohamed Naguib Digital Archives, the President Gamal Abdel Nasser Digital Archives, the Science Supercourse Project, the Encyclopedia of Life, the Universal Networking Language Project (my favorite), and much more.

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World’s largest public reading room.

I can imagine space aliens from the future uncovering this library in Alexandria one day, very much as we’ve uncovered the archaeological treasures from the past, and thinking “a society that valued books and knowledge must have been very enlightened.”

Unfortunately, Israel’s occupation and siege of the Gaza Strip prove otherwise. An enlightened society does not treat Palestinians as inhumanely as Israel does. Israel is building a legacy of a very different sort.

I bought a postcard at the library’s gift store, addressed it to the orphanage in Gaza, and then stepped outside into the blazing heat of the afternoon sun to mail it. Maybe Israel will allow my postcard to enter Gaza, maybe not, but that won’t stop the Postcard Brigade.

 

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Egyptian postal service doesn’t serve Palestine

“We don’t have any service to Gaza or Ramallah,” two different government clerks told me today at the main post office in Cairo. “Remove Palestine from the mailing label and replace it with Israel.”

Egyptian policy has changed since the first time I mailed a box from Cairo to Gaza in 2011.

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Walking to the main post office in Cairo

As the crow flies, Gaza is only 346.29 km (215.17 miles) from Cairo, but they are the longest miles I’ve ever traveled. I haven’t succeeded in crossing that distance in the past six months I’ve been in the Middle East.

Politics.  Just stupid politics, and the Israeli-Egyptian-U.S. blockade of Gaza.

In 2011, I sent a similar box of books and small gifts to Gaza from the very same post office a few blocks from my hotel in Cairo. I couldn’t have managed that transaction without the capable assistance of Eid who navigated us from one part of the complex to another, up staircases, through noisy lines, and finally to the clerk who dutifully inspected everything in the box and then processed the delivery instructions to Gaza, Palestine.  No questions asked.

Five years later, Eid helped me again.  In 2016, the first postal clerk told us that there are no post offices in Gaza. No postal service in either direction — from Cairo to Gaza or from Gaza to Cairo, he said.

We walked across the street to another office within the same complex.

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A section of the Main Post Office in Cairo

The second clerk we spoke with was sitting beneath a sign that read “Customs Office” in English and Arabic.  He looked inside the box, asked if there was any medicine inside, seemed satisfied with the contents, and directed us to tape up the box. Al-hamdulillah! We were making progress.

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Taping up the box following inspection

Then we proceeded to another line and waited to complete the shipment with the third clerk. He looked at the label, saw “Gaza, Palestine” and directed us to cross out Palestine, and insert Israel. Eid and the clerk exchanged a few words, but it didn’t seem that the clerk would budge.

Eid asked me if I had a pen.  “None of my pens will erase Palestine,” I told him.  He replied, “We’re not going to be able to send the box unless we write Israel.”

So we left and Eid was kind enough to carry the box back to the hotel. Maybe there’s another way to skin this cat.

Shame on Egypt for collaborating with Israel on this economic, social and political siege of Gaza.  Shame on you President El-Sisi.

El Sisi

President El-Sisi

March 20, 2016 UPDATE

I returned to the main post office in Cairo today with a smaller package addressed to my friend in Jericho, Palestine.  I capitulated and wrote “Israel” on the label.  The address was written in Arabic on one side and in English on the other.  Small, innocuous, and clearly labelled. There should have been no problems.

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Inside the main post office in downtown Cairo

Again, the postal clerk told me he would not accept my package for Jericho. He spoke good English and I showed him where I printed “Israel” on the label, but he said there is no service to Palestine. Instead, the package would go to Tel Aviv and sit there for 3 weeks, he thought, and then the Israeli officials would return the package to Egypt. I asked him how I could send anything to friends in Palestine and he just shrugged and threw up his arms. My gut told me he was as frustrated with the stupid politics as I was —- and that he wished he could have helped me.

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Lora in front of the main post office in Cairo on March 20, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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