31. July 2014 14:21
by Tammi Sharpe

Shared History

31. July 2014 14:21 by Tammi Sharpe | 1 Comments

“I wonder what those white people in the photos think now?”

An African American male youth asked this question out loud as he looked at some of the photos hanging in the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library. In a couple of the photos some white mothers with their young children defiantly stand in protest as African-American mothers lead their children to school. One mother is dressed like Mrs. Cleaver, but with a scowl on her face and her arms crossed. The other mothers are more casual in their dress with rolled up jeans, but have the same angry stare. In another photo, white male youths attack a sit-in demonstrator, who is seated at a lunch counter.

In return I wondered, did he ask that for me to hear? Had he noticed that a white female was standing less than two feet from him? Maybe he spontaneously asked the question. He looked like he was in his early twenties. He has probably experienced racism, but as one of the consequences of the Movement has likely been raised to believe in, and stand-up for his rights.

Despite the frequency of my visits to civil rights sites, I have generally sensed that I’m a trespasser. Once I joined a “Heritage Bus Tour” in Charleston, South Carolina. I was the last one on the bus, and I felt the eyes of the other tourists looking at me as I took my seat. I did not feel hostility, but I did feel as if these other participants were querying “Why is she here?” As is common, I was the only white person.

A part of me wanted to bellow out, “Yes, this is an African-American heritage tour, but ‘your’ history did not happen within a vacuum. This is our American history!” Instead, my imaginary conversation remains internal as the bus pulls out of the Charleston Visitor Center.

Our first site is reportedly a location of past lynchings. “This tree marks the spot where lynchings occurred in Charleston,” reports the guide. The guide’s voice fades as I became absorbed in my own thoughts. I’m just staring at this tree, which sits right in the middle of a residential street not far from the historic downtown area. My internal conversation begins again: “how such horrors could have happened? How could such ordinary citizens, mobs of them no less, just get worked up into such a frenzy brutally killing a man, for the color of his skin?”

The guide’s voice then jarred me back into the present as we approach the Citadel. “This base was built to train a militia of white men in the case of slave insurrections.” The legal foundation of the Citadel dates back to 1822 shortly after the almost successful slave revolt of Denmark Vesey. This, however, is not the only slave revolt to have occurred in Charleston. As we cross a bridge towards James Island, the guide tells us about the Stono River Slave Rebellion which happened almost 100 years earlier in 1739. We then pulled up to the entrance of McLeod Plantation, a quintessential Southern Plantation. For me the setting evokes “Gone with the Wind” and the portrayal of the benevolent slave owner, the faithful slave, and Confederates’ brave fight for States Rights. This image contrasts with those of slave insurrections, which clearly grew out of slaves’ desires for freedom, and the Citadel, which testifies to slave owners’ fear of such desires and their clear intention to squash these with force, brutal force, if necessary.

We gradually make our way back to the historic part of Charleston passing by a number of sites that point to African-Americans’ efforts to educate themselves, and their continued struggle for basic civil and political rights in the United States. What transpired at these sites underlined the work of scholars such as W.E.B. DuBois that white American historians ignored in the first part of the 20th Century. The neglect of these historian led to an understandable need to promote African-American studies, but does this still remain the case? Do we still need to refer to “African-American History”? Is “African-American History,” a misnomer?

DuBois’ works are now readily recognized in traditionally white academic circles. The National Park Service has incorporated the centrality of slavery in the U.S. Civil War into their exhibits alongside a host of museums, books, art, and films that document the injustices of slavery and segregation. I admit this took too long. Much more remains to be acknowledged, and absorbed into the American psyche, to fully dig up the racism that underpinned crimes, and continues to permit racial discrimination and defacto segregation. But doesn’t this require mutual recognition of this past?

While the other tourists have idly chatted with me, no one has asked why I’m here, or what I’m thinking after having traveled back in time with a focus on white Americans’ oppression of African-Americans. What if I had told them my ancestors have a degree of culpability for the crimes committed against their ancestors? What if we began such dialogues? I recently interviewed a white Southern man whose adolescence was seeped in segregation and who after much reflection, described his parents as “wrong, but not evil.” He also put forth that all whites associated with segregation should feel “twangs of guilt.” Like the majority of Southern whites, his parents were not Klan members, nor were mine. Isn’t it time to begin to explore all the complexities of our horrific past? We cannot fully understand, nor possibly reconcile, with this past until we closely examine all the contrasts of our torn, but interwoven history. When we integrate the pieces together our tapestry will more accurately reflect our history.

Maybe at all the other historic sites related to slavery and segregation the African-American tourists were simply too polite to ask me. So, when that young man asked “I wonder what those white people in the photos think now?” I seized the opportunity, turned around and responded, “Me too!”

Tammi Sharpe has recently returned to BCRI as the Human Rights Fellow.  Prior to her return she had been on a four month emergency humanitarian mission to the Central African Republic with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and completed a Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability Fellowship at Columbia University. In partnership with BCRI and Columbia University she is conducting oral history interviews with Americans who opposed integration to enable more comprehensive historical research into the legacy of segregation and to create opportunities for dialogue about a sensitive past.

If you might be interested in participating in this project please contact Ms. Sharpe at tsharpe@bcri.org.  


22. April 2013 07:37
by Administrator

Birmingham and the Arab Spring by Rami Khouri

22. April 2013 07:37 by Administrator | 6 Comments

Those who took part (and continue to take part) in the civil rights movement in the USA, especially the seminal Birmingham events of 1963, should appreciate how deeply their sentiments, actions and ethics resonate around the world until this day. Birmingham activism was not just a pivotal historical moment in one location; it marked the birth of a style of non-violent resistance that was born and successfully applied there, but that endures in the hearts of subjugated people across the world. What Birmingham gave to the world turns out to be universal and timeless, transcending religions and cultures. Those school children who marched two-by-two and then stood out in the cold prison yards in the rain, and sang freedom songs, and came back to do it again a few days later....those children who are adults today continue to provide examples for people around the world who also yearn to be free and whole.

I will speak more at the symposium next week in Birmingham about some core parallels I see between the civil rights struggle and the various struggles for rights, dignity and full citizenship by various Arab populations in recent years, in places like Palestine, Lebanon, Sudan, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and others, some going back to the 1930s and 1950s. We will explore together the mutual lessons of how citizens achieve their rights, and, equally importantly, how those rights are preserved forever under the rule of law, and not eroded over time.

The Arab uprisings today in half a dozen countries are the most recent example of citizens subjugated by their own authorities who respond by resisting oppression and seeking full rights. But the activism of citizens in the rich Gulf state of Kuwait is the one that strikes me as most dramatic in reflecting some of the same attitudes and activism techniques that we saw in Birmingham, including mass non-violent defiance and a willingness to "fill the jails." Kuwait is meaningful because the demonstrators are mostly wealthy, with all their basic needs fully taken care of by the Kuwaiti government—and still they dare the state to arrest them for demanding their rights. I mention the several reasons for grasping the symbolism of Kuwait in the excerpt below from my syndicated column today; the link to the full column is also below.

“A parallel important new political dynamic is the convergence among demonstrators of several opposition groups that had formerly mostly worked on their own, including Islamists, tribalists, nationalists, youth groups, human rights activists, and “bidoun” Kuwaitis who lack full nationality and rights. This kind of multi-constituency, non-violent, mass civil disobedience and open defiance of the emir and the police reminds me of the civil rights protests by schoolchildren in Birmingham, Alabama 50 years ago. There, thousands of youngsters who marched peacefully and sang protest songs in defiance of police orders also took their toothbrushes with them, knowing they would go to jail for at least a night. When the packed jails of Birmingham and adjacent towns eventually could hold no more protesters, and peaceful demonstrators demanding nothing more than their civil rights showed by their behavior that they were prepared to be jailed over and over again, the racist power elite gave up and negotiated an end to the protests by recognizing the citizens' demands.

It is not clear if mass civil disobedience will move Kuwait in a similar direction. What is clear is that we witness in Kuwait an unprecedented situation of anti-autocracy mass civil disobedience by elements of a population that is not poor, hungry or lacking in basic services. Unlike Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, these protesters do not demand the overthrow of the regime, but rather seek constitutional reforms that give citizens their basic rights to participate in decision-making and hold power accountable.

The modern Arab security state has always responded to such movements with massive police action, including imprisonment, exile or even withdrawing nationality (as has happened in several GCC states in the past few years). Tens of thousands of Kuwaitis seem to be challenging this modern Arab legacy, suggesting instead that genuine security and stability must be anchored in that one phenomenon that the Arab world has never seriously tried to create: a satisfied citizenry that shapes state policies, enjoys the protection of the rule of law, and is the source of the legitimacy of public authority."

The full column is at http://www.agenceglobal.com/index.php?show=article&Tid=3015

Indeed, the struggle goes on, across the world, often reflecting and remembering Birmingham.

20. February 2013 11:33
by Tammi Sharpe

Democracy, Freedom, Civic Duty, Equality

20. February 2013 11:33 by Tammi Sharpe | 0 Comments

To access the website: http://bcri.org/index.html 

A unique component to the 1963 protests in Birmingham was the engagement of young people.  It became known as the Children’s March and enabled the Civil Rights Movement to fulfill one of Ghandi’s goals for non-violent protests--to fill the jails.  In May 1963 thousands were arrested resulting in the city having to identify makeshift detention centers.  A key ingredient of the success was the participation of young people.  Some, including Malcolm X, were critical of the youth’s engagement, primarily for fear for their safety.  Valid concerns, particularly as dogs were unleashed and fire hoses were brought to bear down on the protesters.  

But as best articulated by these young Foot Soldiers, you can gain an appreciation for their right to participate as well as their right to freedom of expression.  Their explanations provide some valuable insights on the meanings of democracy, freedom, civic duties and equality. 

Robert Simpson:  Junior at Ullman High School

We didn’t know as far as what is freedom or voting or things like that.  They [members of the movement] would come and talk to us.  Most parents would tell their children, ‘Get in the house, you don’t need to hear this.’  But, with us being young kids, naturally, we were interested, curious anyway.  So, what we starting doing was just slipping off at night, going over to the church where these meetings were going on and people were talking to us, telling about the things that we were entitled to, which we had no idea about until they started talking to us.  These younger kids were more receptive to hearing what these people had to say than the older people, in the beginning.  My mother was one of those who very definitely was not or had no interesting in begin part of the Movement at that time….But, then, after she saw that…I was caught up in it…, and she couldn’t stop me.  Before I knew it, she was right there with me. 


It was like a fever that swept through Birmingham with the younger people and a lot of the older people too.  We all got caught up in this Movement.  We knew what we had been facing and we knew…what we could not do.  My aunt, I can remember she wanted to vote.  She was like in her 50s and she couldn’t vote.  She would go down…to try to take that literacy test…but they would always come up with some old trick question or something to keep her from registering to vote.  It was very few Blacks who got a chance to vote….Wherein if it was a White person…all they…did was sign on the dotted line.  But, it was all just a Black and White thing.  And, like I said, these things had been going on, but the Movement came along….[and provided the needed] leadership.  I think Dr. King coming along when he did was the greatest thing that ever happened to America.  It helped to erase a lot of things that had been going on since slavery. 

Deborah Hill:  Senior at Western Olin

As a young child I remember both my parents having to take a test to vote.  I remember them discussing having to pay poll taxes and it was like I felt that it was so unfair that you had to take a test as a citizen of this country in order to have the right to vote; this was something that I refused that I would have to do and when the movement came along about civil rights and equal rights for all Americans.  I felt that this was something that I was going to be a part of.  This was just another aspect in my life that I was going to be part about:  bringing about positive change within the Birmingham system.  

Eloise Staples:  Freshman at Parker High School

I couldn’t understand why when we walked from the car downtown if we wanted a Krystal hamburger we had to stand outside the window and order a 10 cent hamburger…there were seats inside.  I couldn’t understand, it didn’t matter that it was….I just couldn’t understand it.  My dime was as good as his dime.  Why couldn’t I just go inside and purchase what I wanted?


[Y]ou knew your place so to speak… [S]o it really didn’t bother you until the subconscious became the conscious as far as why not and I started asking questions.

Miriam McClendon:  Sophomore at Wenonah High School

My mother went to a mass meeting and I wanted to go and she took me.  And, sitting in the audience and listening to Dr. King touched on that mysterious “something” inside me and I knew that they were addressing the race question….I started going to the youth meeting and just became totally engrossed. 

Bernard Johnson:  Senior at Western Olin High

[I]n recent times I have heard various opinions about that [children being misled by adults] and the opinions range from the movement was at a stall and the scheme was to bring in children and play off the sympathy of the children being abused.  I only know of a couple of incidents where the children were around.  Everyone I was around we were pretty much high school age….I didn’t consider myself as being a child…We had a cause and if the understanding of that cause was truly understood then you would not hear one of the people that partake with the situation have any regrets about the situation….[Y]ou would leave there [from a demonstration] with that hope and that hope would be something similar to a willingness to march to hell for.

Dorothy Cotton- Key member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and one of the youth trainers on non-violence  

 [A former foot soldier who was a] youngster at the time, [said it well].  [H]e said ‘I got involved as a teenager because I had to.  I got involved because I would have felt, and did feel so left out of what was happening until I got involved.’….[P]eople got caught up in the dynamics and actually the spirit of it, and also the justness of the cause and understood and felt that something is happening here and I am going to miss out on something important if I don’t get involved. 


It was exciting to see children get turned on to this notion that we have a democracy and it is not right that a segment of the population should be excluded from the mainstream of life.   


31. January 2013 05:20
by Administrator

Martin Luther King Day through the eyes of an Egyptian

31. January 2013 05:20 by Administrator | 1 Comments

Guest Blogger:  Amina ElHalawani, Fulbright FLTA, Birmingham Southern College  

A few days ago we celebrated Martin Luther King Day in the United States.  Being a Fulbright scholar in Birmingham, Alabama I got the opportunity to go to a celebration held at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church. With the presidential inauguration taking place on the same day, it could not have been any better, any more celebratory or joyful.  People sang of freedom, of equality, of pride in the journey and the call for civil rights, but most importantly, they sang of the dream. Martin Luther King’s words “I have a dream” reverberated in the hall as they all cheered that the dream has to live on and on until it becomes fully realized, and I wondered…

The dream? Has it not been realized? Has not the Civil Rights Movement in the United States achieved its utmost goals, being crowned by the election of President Obama for a second term? Yet, as these thoughts ran through my head, I could still hear the chants “Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around...Turn me around...Turn me around...” and the occasional yell from the crowds, “Soldiers of the dream!” Moving is not enough to fully describe the celebration; full of emotion and pride people were celebrating, but in the midst of the ecstasy there was no sense of complacency, the fighting spirit instilled in them by a sense of responsibility and a calling to turn the world into a better place filled the air.

Being an Egyptian, I could immediately relate. I suddenly started visualizing Tahrir Square, the tear gas, and the water hoses… the determination, the courage and the strength of will… And back at the church the chants grew louder: “Ain't gonna let the administration turn me around...Turn me around...Turn me around...Ain't gonna let the administration turn me around...Keep on a-walkin', Keep on a-talkin'…Gonna build a brand new world.” I could see the millions who marched the streets of Egypt, hand in hand, united by the dream of building that brand new world. People of all ages, men and women, Muslims and Christians, liberals and conservatives, all marched… In the church, the choir sang, “Ain't gonna let no first-strike policy turn me around...Turn me around...Turn me around...”

The dream was alive, I could feel it in the air, I could see it in the eyes of everyone around me, as they glanced at me and smiled, knowing I am just a visitor and encouraging me to sing along. “We shall overcome” the choir started to sing, and the congregation suddenly, even more fired up, started singing along. One of the choir members doing a solo went into some kind of a trance while the people yelled “Hallelujah!” and started praying… They prayed in song, they honored the foot soldiers who were sitting among us, then put their hands together and the voices rose above the sound of the grand organ accompanying their singing.

“Where do we stand now? Two years after the revolution…Wow, two years already?” I thought to myself. Then, flashes of the packed squares and the patriotic songs that echoed in the streets as the news announced that Mubarak had stepped down rushed through my brain… What a feeling that was! Two years… it feels like so long ago now, people barely remember it. To many, this was the moment, nothing else mattered… it was going to be a nice smooth ride from there…

The chants in the church grew louder, as I held hands with the people beside me and joined the singing, “Oh Freedom… Oh Freedom… Oh Freedom, now!” On the fiftieth anniversary of major events in the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, the dream was alive with all its greatness; the desire for a better world, for the right to be free, for the right to be treated with dignity, for the right to a world that rewards ingenuity, creativity and hard work... “Today, we stand on the shoulders of brave warriors” the preacher reminded, as he called on the people to go on, move forward and continue the journey… Fifty years the dream has lived on… “Is it going to take Egyptians that long too? Is it going to be that many years before we start reaping what our great warriors have sewn?” I certainly hope not! But, in the meantime, the dream must live on; it must be revived in every one of us… It is the dream that brought us all together, as communities, as a nation and as global citizens and it is keeping it constantly in sight that shall lead all of us through to the light at the end of the tunnel…

Oh Freedom… Oh Freedom… Oh Freedom, now!

18. January 2013 04:27
by Tammi Sharpe

In My Country Too?!*

18. January 2013 04:27 by Tammi Sharpe | 2 Comments

My work has exposed me to hearing first-hand accounts of a range of human rights violations including arbitrary arrest, brutal beatings, gang rape, amputations, beheadings, cannibalism, captivity, and sex slavery.  In trying to understand how people could reach such depths of depravity, I was struck by the reality that these violations occurred in a theatre of war and/or under the reign of a dictatorship.  This understanding did not excuse the severity of the crime but it placed brutality and cruelty within a surreal context.  With more and more exposure, this surreal context became a grey zone where it was difficult to make unequivocal statements about culpability.

The focus of my work has recently shifted and I am beginning to delve into American history and the violations that have been committed against African-Americans.  I was not ignorant of this past nor did I or do I have a glossy view of the U.S.’ current human rights record, but it has nonetheless, been a humbling experience. 

I’m looking at the post U.S. Civil War-the end of slavery.  Yet, gross forms of human rights violations against freed African-Americans continued, namely in the form of segregation and convict leasing**.  I’ve been shocked at the abhorrent conditions under which leased convicts, primarily African-Americans, labored at private farms and mining companies starting in the aftermath of the Civil War continuing till the 1940s.   Those working conditions were disturbingly similar to conditions of captivity under the Revolutionary United Front-a Sierra Leonean rebel faction.  Segregation not only created a separate, unequal system, it allowed for a climate of terror, which had parallels with accounts Haitians made about living under a repressive  dictatorship.  But the U.S. was neither a dictatorship nor were we at war when these human rights violations were being committed in the U.S.      

How, then, could these abuses happen?  The answer I am finding is not novel.  It involves an extensive web of culpability as is well-illustrated by the convict leasing abuses.  One can first look to the guards at the work sites.  The guards treated these men as less than humans, using leather whips to enforce excessive daily quotas.   But employers-prominent businessmen-not the guards, established the quotas and the work conditions.  The conditions were such that many died, and for some this death sentence could have been for a concocted crime or petty theft.  Sheriffs and local court officials respectively arrested and convicted African-Americans as, like for the employers, convict leasing was profitable for them too.  Yes, this system was authorized by state law.  A number of state legislatures (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas) passed laws creating the conditions under which convict leasing flourished as a means of exploitable and cheap labor for businessmen, which in turn benefited the state.   

At the turn of the century, the Federal Government investigated incidents of peonage and involuntary servitude in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.  A U.S. Attorney in Alabama also tried to prosecute such cases with an aim to eradicate the practice.  A small handful of defendants pleaded guilty but the number was insufficient to dismantle the system.  In face of the prevalence and profitability of the system, the Federal Government lacked sufficient political will to fully pursue the cases.  The U.S. District Court Judge in Alabama also realized that no matter how substantial the evidence might be against this new form of slavery, sentiments of racism and white supremacy would likely cloud a rational assessment of the cases by juries.  Consequently, it took decades before this system of “slavery” ended. 

It equally took decades to overturn the legal system of segregation that was also installed in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War.  Again, evidence of the injustice existed, and culpability was extensive.  Photos of lynchings starkly depict the climate of fear that reigned.  Some of these photos also point to the wider public’s engagement:  it is not so rare to find photos of lynchings with bystanders smiling as if they were at an entertainment event rather than the scene of a murder.  Similar to the power of juries, the approval of these bystanders allowed, in part, for these crimes to go unpunished. 

Chuck Morgan,*** a white lawyer in Birmingham captured extensive culpability in a speech following the death of three girls in one of many church bombings that earned the city the name “Bombingham” in the 50s and 60s:

                        “And who is really guilty?  Each of us.  Each citizen who has not consciously attempted to bring about peaceful compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, each citizen who has ever said ‘they ought to kill that nigger,’ every citizen who votes for the candidate with the bloody flag [Confederate Flag]; every citizen and every school board member and school-teacher and principal and businessman and judge and lawyer who has corrupted the minds of our youth; every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb.” 

Morgan’s words lay bare a culpability that I had appreciated, but one which I did not have to consider so plainly until I began looking at human rights violations in my own country, which was a democratic state and was not at war during these times.  This type of culpability is even more difficult to rationalize, but to prevent reoccurrences of the same or those of a similar nature we need to understand the causes.  It is also disturbing to have to admit that this is part of my country’s history and therein part of my American identity too.    


* A longer version of this post discussing experiences aboard can be found on my personal blog http://www.journeytoreconciliation.com/blog.html

** For more on convict leasing see Blackmon, D., “Slavery by Another Name, The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,” Anchor Books, New York, 2008.

*** Charles Morgan’s full speech can be found in his autobiography:  Morgan, C., “A Time to Speak, The story of a young American lawyer’s struggle for his city and for himself,” Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1964.

17. December 2012 12:25
by Ashley Makar

The Human-Rights Struggle in Egypt

17. December 2012 12:25 by Ashley Makar | 0 Comments

When my Egyptian dad saw news photos of water cannons unleashed on Cairo protesters in the first days of the January 2011 uprising in Egypt, he said “It’s like what happened in Birmingham.”

Before moving to the Magic City for his dream job in cardiology, all my dad knew about Birmingham were images of civil strife he’d seen in the newspaper: Church bombings; police beatings; water cannons, streaming with enough force to break skin.  When Egyptians from all walks of life came out for a “Million-Man March” against the Mubarak regime in February, my dad said “I’m with the people.”  But he was watching the protest on satellite t.v., from his recliner in Mountain Brook, Alabama.  I’m “for the people,” too.  But I’m watching the violent aftermath of the Egyptian revolution with my coffee cup and cream-of-wheat next to my computer screen, tuned in to Al Jezeera live stream. Can those with full stomachs be good global citizens to those without? 

I’m skeptically hopeful.  Skeptical that we can be more than sympathetic spectators from comfortable suburbs.  Skeptical that what many celebrated as a democratic, nonreligious, popular revolt won’t buckle at the fault lines of class and religion in Egypt: tension between the haves and the have-nots; between Muslims, Christians, and secularists. 

What’s happening in Egypt is exciting. But it’s painful and scary, fragile and fierce. Mubarak’s gone, but his legacy may live on. As Martin Luther King, Jr. would say, the struggle continues.  As the world celebrates International Human Rights Day, Cairo is reeling from the latest round of gunfire in Tahrir Square. Human Rights Watch reports the use of lethal force against protestors demanding an end to military rule.  Now that Egypt is having the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, the interim military rulers just announced they will intercede in the constitutional convention to come, to prevent the Islamist parties, who’ve won over 60 percent of the vote so far, from taking over.  This October, security forces violently stopped a protest march, with gunfire, armored vehicles, and tear gas unleashed on Coptic Christians demonstrating for the rights of religious minorities in Egypt.

On International Women’s Day, Egyptian men forcefully dispersed a group of female demonstrators demanding that they be given a voice in building the future of Egypt.  Some of the male counter-protesters, many of whom had demonstrated along with women against the Mubarak regime, shouted them down with misogynistic chants: “Go home, go wash clothes…find a husband…shame on you!” http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/0308/In-Egypt-s-Tahrir-Square-women-attacked-at-rally-on-International-Women-s-Day]

What will happen in Egypt could crush our suburban solidarity “with the people” of Egypt.  It could shatter us, if it weren’t for our t.v. and computer screens.  Power entails disparity, and comfort too often yields to complacency. Egypt has disappointed and surprised me. In the January 25 uprising, it wasn’t only the poor rioting for bread; those born with silver spoons in their mouths were also demanding a better life. The young people who organized the first protests—largely through Facebook—are of the newest generation of Egypt’s educated elites.  They’re the guys I would see on their laptops at the Starbucks in Cairo, the guys I assumed didn’t care about the workers eating fava beans out of plastic bags on the street.

An Egyptian-American friend told me some terrible things she’s heard from her colleagues who were providing medical care in Tahrir Square: the “Facebook kids” who started the revolution didn’t know how to stand up to the police, so workers and peasants were protecting them.  Those used to brutality were taking it as usual, but they couldn’t protect the Facebook kids for long. My family friend heard many of the so-called “Mubarak supporters” were drug addicts, so high they could hardly feel the stones people were throwing at them. The police disappeared. Thugs were terrorizing the streets.  Mubarak set the stage to justify his security-first regime, using addicts and prisoners on the front lines.

Being half Egyptian was embarrassing growing up in Alabama, cool in an exoticizing kind of way at my liberal arts college in Connecticut, and disorienting ever since I started spending time in Egypt.  Now, my Egyptian heritage is a blessing and curse.  The week the protests broke out in January 2011, I was at the Egyptian consulate in New York. The line extended out the consulate doors, with New York police there to control the crowd: young men in leather jackets, old men in prayer caps, families, frail ladies with canes, all standing out in the sleet, waiting indefinitely—to get a number, to get on the elevator, to be pressed in the hall where we earlier birds were waiting outside the office door.  That’s an inkling of what it was like to be Egyptian under the Mubarak regime: to be subject to a bureaucracy that’s incompetent and inefficient, that doesn’t value your time, much less your dignity; to be crammed with hundreds of others vying for something you need from a government you can’t trust.  The people outside the consulate were elbowing each other, to get in to the revolving door, some yelling “Allahu akhbar!” That’s a taste of how I imagine the scene last January at Tahrir Square: crowds clamoring in different voices, some saying “Allahu akhbar!” It’s not, as some fear since 9/11, a jihadist outburst.  Muslims say “Allahu akhbar” when they’re excited or distressed.  It’s a reflex, like when Christians say “Jesus Christ!” A colloquial combination of “great God!” and damn!; astonishment and exasperation.

I first learned an Egyptian Christian way of stunned prayer—ya rab irham, Lord have mercy— from my Uncle Latif, in the interfaith chapel of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical Center.  We would go there on breaks from sitting in my dad’s hospital room, where he was recovering from a kidney transplant.  Latif would say ya rab irham over and over, in hope and awe: astonished at the distress we were in; hopeful that the Lord would have mercy.  I thought the Egyptian revolution had little to do with us.  We’re a minority of a minority: affluent Egyptian Christians.  I thought we were immune to the Mubarak regime.  I was wrong.  The way Latif died has a lot to do with the protests in the Egyptian streets: The government hasn’t taken care of people’s basic needs. Egypt was not a place to live, or die, with dignity.  Two years ago, Latif was hurrying to catch the tramway in Alexandria. He almost made it, but he fell and cracked his skull on the concrete platform. He lay there hemorrhaging for over an hour. No ambulance came. A passer-by drove him to the emergency room, in a public hospital, where he waited for hours to see a doctor.  My dad says “only the indigent go to government hospitals in Egypt.” The nurses are incompetent; the equipment is inadequate and unsanitary. Latif could afford a private hospital, but he didn’t have a choice that day. He died of a hematoma in his brain.

Adapted from essays that first appeared in The Birmingham News, The New Haven Register and on killingthebuddha.com.