There is at least one place where supreme order prevails amid all the political upheaval in Egypt: Abd El-Zaher Bookshop, which caters to many foreign embassies in Cairo as well as well-heeled customers around the globe.
Established in 1936, it has withstood the rise and fall of the supremely popular pan-Arabist Gamal Abdel Nasser; Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated after becoming the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel; Hosni Mubarak, who ruled for 30 years after Sadat; and most recently, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was deposed by the military July 3.
Here, they are concerned not with the latest conspiracy theories but with a timeless craft: binding books by hand. Amid Cairo’s chaotic streets, where the daily frictions of life in a teeming city have been exacerbated by political tension, the bookshop offers an oasis of perfection, from its carefully arranged shelves to the gilt spines and custom lettering that adorn its books.
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“I’m very precise in the work I do,” says owner Mohammed Abd El-Zaher, who began as an errand boy before taking charge in 1962. “I’m proud because I am able to preserve something that is dying out. Especially now in Cairo with everything evolving very quickly, it’s very important to take care of these smaller details.”
And at a time when many Egyptians are embarrassed about the turmoil in their country, once the most powerful and venerated in the Arab world, he also takes pride in the fact that foreigners value his shop’s work.
“It makes us so happy that an Egyptian product that we made with our hands can impress a foreigner,” says Mr. Abd el-Zaher, whose team of 14 uses paper and other materials from as far away as France and India. “It also really impresses us that we can get materials from abroad and make something that foreigners can’t make.”
To be sure, the deterioration in Egypt’s economy has affected business, though not because of the drop in tourism. “Normally tourists come here to ride the camels or see the pyramids” – not pick their way through creaking carts and stray dogs to select a new guest book or travel journal from his store.
“The more important thing,” he says, “is that our clientele – a certain type of foreigner intellectuals who like customized binding – these people have left.”
Still, they’re ordering from abroad, sometimes paying up to six times more for shipping than for the binding work itself, just to possess themselves of the handiwork of an Egyptian tradesman toiling in the shadow of Cairo’s Al Azhar mosque – and the country’s unpredictable politics.
Feminist activists seeking freedom of worship at Judaism’s holiest site were once again shut out of the women’s prayer section at the Western Wall today by women who oppose their efforts.
The activists, known as Women of the Wall (WOW), have been seeking for 25 years to challenge the Orthodox customs that govern the Western Wall and limit how and where women can pray. In recent months, as their campaign has gained momentum, it has also garnered serious push back – mostly from other women.
WOW activists have described their female opponents as trapped in a male-dominated paradigm, in which they are simply doing the bidding of their "rabbi-handlers." But actually the counter-protest is not driven by men, but by a group called Women for the Wall. The group says it is tapping into Orthodox frustration with WOW's attempts to subvert longstanding Jewish tradition in the name of women's rights and religious freedom.
“I just got so fed up,” says cofounder Ronit Peskin, who decided to take action after WOW declined a compromise proposed by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky that would have allowed them to pray at a separate, less conspicuous area of the Wall, albeit with some limitations.
So in April, she and Leah Aharoni established Women for the Wall, and began making calls to rabbis and politicians mobilize a show of support for Orthodox tradition. They then helped orchestrate flood tides of schoolgirls and other women opposed to WOW, who came pouring into the women’s prayer section so that there was no room for the activist group.
Even at today's monthly service, the women’s section was overflowing despite calls by some rabbinical leaders for ultra-Orthodox women to stay away given the sensitive timing – today was the final day of Ramadan and Jerusalem's main Muslim holy sites are located just above the Western Wall.
About 200-250 supporters of WOW, including some men, were relegated to a fenced-off section at the back of the Western Wall plaza, where police protected them as they prayed and sang. A small crowd of ultra-Orthodox men, with swinging side curls and jeering faces, blew shrill whistles in an attempt to drown them out.
Ms. Peskin and Ms. Aharoni, though they oppose WOW, vociferously disagree with such provocation from ultra-Orthodox.
"These foolish boys are the unwitting allies of Women Of the Wall, and their best PR tool," said Aharoni in a press release. "Screaming and violence do not belong at the holy site. The Kotel [Western Wall] is not the place for a media circus or standoffs between Jews."
Yet Peskin, Aharoni, and the thousands of other women who have come to the Western Wall are sometimes lumped in with such provocateurs. One WOW activist, Phyllis Chesler, called her group's female opponents a “psychological lynch mob.”
“People are associating us with [the male protestors] when we probably oppose them even more than [WOW] do,” says Peskin in a phone interview.
She, like Aharoni, is an American immigrant to Israel and admits that without fluent Hebrew it has been hard to get the word out to the public about Women for the Wall. Even teenage girls whose rabbis call on them to come may not be aware of the group, let alone its non-combative approach.
Peskin says she sees WOW as fellow Jewish sisters who deserve her love and respect. But she disagrees with the characterization of their campaign as a fight for religious freedom and a liberation of women from religious coercion.
"[I]n reality, they wish to coerce changes upon those who prefer to pray in full accordance with thousands of years of Jewish tradition," she wrote in an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post today.
“Personally as an American I totally support freedom of religion,” says Peskin, who moved to Israel seven years ago. “But I don’t really see much support for freedom of religion coming from [WOW].”
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These days, Egypt is not an auspicious place to be running a boutique hotel that caters to foreigners. Americans are being chased out of Tahrir Square and blamed for both backing the coup and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to reverse it; large swaths of Cairo have been repeatedly shut down by massive protests; more than 270 people have been killed in the past month; sexual harassment has become increasingly prevalent and violent, especially in Tahrir; and populist currents are sweeping the multitudes. Many Egyptians have thrown their full support behind Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and more than a few are suspicious of foreigners.
But that doesn’t faze Hebba Bakri, managing director of Longchamps Hotel, which she inherited from her German mother. When Sisi called for the masses to come out on July 26 and give him a “mandate” to crack down on violence, she marched down to Tahrir that night with sandwiches she had made and served them to hungry protesters as part of an Egyptian tourism initiative. At a time when even seasoned female foreign correspondents were avoiding Tahrir after dark, she made her way through the crowds alone and walked the half-hour back to the hotel to boot. As a guest at her hotel, that made me curious, so I decided to find out more.
Ms. Bakri, who is half Egyptian and has lived in Cairo on and off for decades, may seem unflappable behind her leopard-print glasses and fine pearls. But she is well aware of the deep undercurrents convulsing Egyptian society, and strives to balance her staff’s needs with hers as the head of a meticulously maintained hotel.
“It’s a hard school with me,” she says, admitting to a firm managing style. “Yes, it has to be a tight ship. If it’s not a tight ship, it doesn’t go.”
But she also feels a responsibility to help those on the front lines of Egypt’s difficult transition period keep their heads above the waves. She recounts how one worker, who had saved up enough money to get his own apartment so that he could finally marry, had recently had to open his doors to his parents and siblings when his father suffered financial problems and lost the family apartment.
“This is very important to be generous with him,” says Ms. Bakri, who gave the worker 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($145) to prevent his father from going to jail.
“I am asking him to be good. How can he be good if he doesn’t know anything else good?”
On another occasion, she noticed a worker kept writing incorrect bills, charging people 98 pounds instead of 86, for example. Eventually she realized it was due to poor eyesight, and trotted him down to get operations on both eyes at her own expense.
“I think if I don’t help, I don’t deserve to have those good people working here,” says Bakri, who also has been hosting biweekly meetings on the political situation since former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011. "I try to give them a little bit of a push, so we concentrate on our work and not sit in front of the local TV ... and I want to see how they think."
But it’s not a charity organization; it’s a well-oiled business, with carefully appointed rooms and a steady flow of customers. Early on, Bakri realized that tourists alone would not sustain the place – or help her keep her staff employed – so she targeted other types of guests as well, including experts, European Union officials, or journalists like myself.
“This is also very important, to have such a niche of guests,” she says, putting on lipstick before getting back to work.
As tensions rise in Egypt’s sprawling capital city and rival camps of protesters dig in to protect their competing visions of democracy, Umm Ismail has a much more simple goal: finding something to eat.
“We as Egyptians don’t care what’s going on in politics, all we care about is having food on the table,” she says, sitting under an overpass on the fringes of the tony Zamalek neighborhood, where more generous Egyptians are providing free evening meals – known as iftar – during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. “We feel extremely embarrassed to have to come here for iftar because we can’t get food anywhere else.”
While the Egyptian economy already faced serious challenges before the 2011 protests that ousted Hosni Mubarak, it has sharply deteriorated in the two and half years since, as now-deposed President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood locked horns with their political opponents. Food prices have spiked, and June’s inflation rate of 9.8 percent was the highest since Mubarak’s time. While the government has tried to keep the cost of basic supplies affordable, such subsidies have helped drive up the budget deficit to 11 percent of GDP. Recent pledges of $12 billion in aid from Gulf countries have eased jittery markets and stabilized food and fuel prices, but Egyptians like Umm Ismail have yet to feel relief.
“It’s been going downhill ever since Mubarak,” she says, sitting at a table covered with stained red carpeting and crumbs from the night before. “At least then we had bread on our table.”
“The problem with Mohamed Morsi is that he doesn’t feel the people’s pain,” adds Umm Ismail, a middle-aged woman with a magenta headscarf framing her tired expression. “We want a president who would come down and see the people, feel our pain.”
It’s not that Umm Ismail is so hungry that she ignores the plight of her fellow citizens, including the 75 or more who were killed in clashes between security forces and protesters last weekend. “Every day we hear of people dying here and there – how long is this going to continue?” she asks rhetorically.
As plastic pitchers of what looks like grape juice is passed around, a man at a nearby table reaches under the table to fill a large plastic bottle with the juice – presumably for later.
But before we are able to ask Umm Ismail or her fellow diners any more questions or take pictures, we are chased out by grizzled, toothless men at the next table over who are insulted, angry, or maybe just plain embarrassed to have a foreign journalist dropping in on what is already a humiliating affair.
Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s answer to Jon Stewart, doesn’t get it: If Egyptians hate American policies so much, why do they stand in line for hours in front of the American embassy to pay $115 for a visa to the land of the free – or even decide to move there permanently?
“Our relationship with America is a relationship of people who don’t know what they want,” muses Dr. Youssef in the first episode of his new series "America in Arabic," describing his people as “schizophrenic.” “No one knows whether we love or hate the States.”
So during this Ramadan season, the popular comedian with 1.8 million Twitter followers is examining this fundamental contradiction on air. The series runs the gamut from tears to hearty laughs, from the World Trade Centers going up in smoke on 9/11 to Jon Stewart welcoming Youssef on his show – and includes rather sober conclusions for a man more widely known for wisecracks.
The series, with more than 20 episodes already aired, comes at a delicate time. While Egyptians have long resented America’s policy toward Egypt, especially its support of Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule over three decades, anti-American sentiment has grown much more pronounced. Opponents of deposed President Mohammed Morsi have been protesting in the streets with matching posters of him and US Ambassador Anne Patterson crossed out with big red Xs, painting her as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, while others blame the Obama administration for not denouncing the July 3 military coup. Even in Tahrir Square, a symbol of freedom in the new Egypt, security guards were turning away Americans last week out of fear they would be harassed or beaten up.
But it’s not just Americans who are distrusted, notes Youssef, pictured throughout the series at a dusty old typewriter in a basement library.
“What I want to write about is why we don’t trust the West, and why we don’t even trust the Arabs who live in the West,” he says in the opening episode, looking bookish in a smart waistcoat with a watch chain dangling out of the breast pocket.
Much of the show, therefore, focuses on Arabs – particularly Egyptians – living in America.
“Everyone in Egypt is beautiful, we are proud of Egypt, but there was so much injustice there,” says one man, virtually sobbing. “If the past 30 years would have gone the right way, we never would have thought of going to the US.”
Others find humor in the discrimination they face, both in the US and from Arabs back home, many of whom suspect Arabs in America of being spies or even traitors who have been corrupted by Western money and culture.
In one satirical scene on a bench in Central Park, Youssef asks a fellow Egyptian what he’s doing in New York.
“I’m working on a film,” he responds. “Of course, on the side I’m going to the Masonic worship center and taking money from the US government.”
Youssef both criticizes US interference in Egyptian politics and takes a frank look at the discrimination Arabs still face in America a dozen years after 9/11, including the intense opposition they often encounter just to build a mosque – a problem they never had before. But he also points out to his fellow citizens the positive role they can play in the US, bolstered by interviews with everyone from a democracy activist to a Syrian rapper in Los Angeles.
“Here [in Egypt], we’re influenced by the States,” he says, “but there we’re the ones who influence them.”
While dueling camps of protesters swell the streets of Cairo, Fatima Ali is fighting a different battle.
“It’s a daily war for me to just live my life,” says Ms. Ali, who has been attacked by women in downtown Cairo several times in recent months. “I suffer from harassment, like everyone, and racism, because I’m black. Defending your own thoughts and mind is just hard.”
The women pinned her down and tried to cut her waist-length hair until finally some bystanders rescued her. Ali, who was a runner-up in the 2010 Miss Arab World contest where she represented Sudan, says she tried to defend her right to go to the police and press charges. But she was told at the police station that if she went through with the case nothing would happen, and she could even go to jail.
“I like to participate in the society, but I feel like the society doesn’t give back anything but harm,” says Ali, who participated in both the 2011 protests against former president Hosni Mubarak and the June 30 protests against now-deposed President Mohamed Morsi. “So I’ve had enough actually.”
She is not alone. Many Egyptians feel the streets have become less safe since Mr. Mubarak was ousted, and the situation is getting worse. Robberies in particular are on the rise, with men on motor scooters routinely grabbing women's handbags as they ride by – even in broad daylight and in Cairo's toniest neighborhoods.
Ali sees the upheavals of the past 2-1/2 years as part of an uprising, but not a real revolution. That will take another decade or two, she says.
“For me, I’m waiting for the big fight between the military and the Islamists – between Egypt and the Islamists,” she corrects herself. “I’m just one random person who hopes for this country to achieve democracy.”
Some 30,000 Palestinian applicants want a job at PalTel, a company that employs just 3,000, and it’s easy to see why.
On a ridge overlooking Ramallah, with its haphazard traffic, salesmen weaving through cars hawking their wares, jumbled power lines, and potholed roads, PalTel’s soaring headquarters is a microcosm of modern professionalism.
So despite the fact that CEO Ammar Aker has long had to take a Twister-like approach to his job, coming up with innovative workarounds to various Israeli restrictions on the Palestinian telecommunications sector, he finds deep satisfaction in working here.
“What keeps me going is to see those young men and women in my company who are building a future,” he says. “Regardless of all these obstacles, we have managed to build an institution, a corporate environment, where everybody in the country looks up to.”
As an international businessman with a Canadian passport, he’s no stranger to such professional environments. In the West Bank, however, business is not just business; it is also an avenue for grooming a young generation that many hope will fulfill their parents’ and grandparents’ yearning for a state of their own.
“We always try to build a model institution for the Palestinians that we are hoping to make this institution a cornerstone in building a modern Palestinian state,” says Mr. Aker, who also hopes to expand into an international company one day. “What keeps me going is when I walk in every day and see people smiling and saying good morning and they dress nice, they look nice, they serve customers in a professional way and I just say, you know what, we made it but we still have to do more.”
Much of the economic boom in Oman, where apartment blocs are rising from earth with impressive speed, is fueled by cheap labor from the Indian subcontinent. But unlike other Gulf countries, where these foreign workers are often downtrodden and sometimes forced to work without salaries, time off, or the ability to return home, Oman treats this crucial labor force better.
On a recent baking Arabian summer day, Mohamed al-Kitani, Sami al-Baloshi, and Assad al-Zakwani scour the streets of the capital for foreign laborers, handing out bottles of cold water and stopping to converse with them about their work and time in the country, where summer temperatures often reach 120 degrees F.
“When we find them and give them water, we explain this is from us, to thank you for all the work you are doing in the country,” says Mr. al-Kitani.
Al-Kitani and his colleagues are among 1,000 volunteers who work for The I-Care Initiative, a community project that began three years ago when Shorooq Abu Nasser, a Jordanian expatriate, decided to distribute water to outdoor workers improving the road in the area where she lived.
“The reason I started the initiative was very simple. I just wanted to thank [them] for working in the heat to make it easier for me to reach home, because I know I wouldn't do it myself,” she says. “I wanted to tell them that they are not invisible and that they are as important as any other working individuals.”
The group is part of a dynamic new civil society in Oman, with initiatives sprouting up across the country. This idea of civil society, while new, is especially attractive to young, globalized locals who can start projects close to their heart with little capital and soon grab the attention of bigger players.
“At the beginning, people were just buying water from their own money but now we are seeing big companies contact us and donate bottles,” says al-Kitani. At the last event, a local bank contributed nearly all of the 10,000 bottles of water that I-Care distributed that day.
Logistics for The I-Care Initiative are handled by nine Omani team leaders, including Amira Al-Rawahi, who say she was inspired to help out the cause when she returned home from studying abroad, feeling that foreign outdoor workers deserved more respect from the local community.
As al-Kitani puts it, “Distributing water is the least we can do.”
This summer, Yoav Farhi has been on the money.
Armed with a pick axe, metal detector, and wide-brimmed hat, he’s found more than 60 ancient coins at this archaeological site overlooking Israel’s Valley of Elah, where the Bible records the battle of David and Goliath taking place some 3,000 years ago. Among them are weighty coins from the time of Alexander the Great, imprinted with the face of the Greek goddess Athena.
Even with the help of a metal detector, it can be tedious work looking for tiny bits of metal amid the wheelbarrow loads of dirt unearthed by excavators, or in the excavations themselves.
But for Farhi, it’s the fulfillment of a childhood passion, rooted in a land criss-crossed by Canaanites, Philistines, Israelites, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, and Ottomans long before he was born.
“I was a very curious kid, reading encyclopedias … collecting coins and stamps,” he says over a tahini-and-date-syrup breakfast sandwich, the Middle Eastern equivalent of PB&J. “All my way to school was over potsherds.”
So in sixth grade, he participated in his first excavation, at Tel Qasile in Tel Aviv. That led to graduate work in archaeology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, with a PhD dissertation on the coinage of Gaza in the Roman period.
While Israeli citizens haven’t been allowed into Gaza since Israel withdrew from the Palestinian territory in 2005, he has sought to piece together a picture of Roman times based on coins that were found there and are kept today in public and private collections around the world.
Gaza may have been the first city in the area to mint coins as early as the 5th century B.C. and became perhaps the most important Roman city in southern Palestine, he says, due in part to its role as a port for spices brought from the Arabian peninsula or beyond.
But despite the clues that have endured until today, such as coins, it’s still a challenge to piece together such ancient history.
“To be an archaeologist, you have to have a good imagination, that’s for sure,” says Farhi.
Hamad al-Amari starts out his main stand up comedy routine wearing a traditional Qatari thobe and headdress, and speaking in broken English, offering the sort of observational comedy about life in Doha you’d expect from a 20-something Qatari. Only a few minutes into the set does he switch to his natural accent, which is thick and Irish.
A Qatari who grew up in Ireland, Mr. Amari’s comedy is as much about his own mixed identity as it is about the ethnic melting pot that is Qatar. The tiny nation in the Persian Gulf has about 2 million residents and under 15 percent of them are native Qataris. Outside of the office, there’s often limited interaction between the locals and expats, something that bothered Amari when he resettled in Qatar.
“When I came back I realized that everyone was speculating. Qataris had their views about expats and expats had their views about Qataris, but they never talked to each other,” he says. “I felt like the medium of comedy was good so people would relate to you and understand the issues that you’re talking about but can also have it presented in a light-hearted manner. You’re not being told off.”
Most of Amari’s material is inside jokes about life in Qatar, like a story about incorrectly serving coffee to an older family friend at a traditional gathering or good-natured ribbings of different expat groups. One of his biggest laughs is a joke about Qatari drivers who speed up behind other motorists and flash their brights until the car lets them pass.
Amari has only been doing stand up for about a year and a half now, but he’s already developed enough material to perform for up to 45 minutes. He’ll be one of the first people to tell you that his act is still a little rough around the edges, but for a beginning comic in a country without a real comedy scene he’s managed to make considerable headway.
He’s considering spending time in Ireland developing his comedy act the way all comics before him have: the painful process of trial and error in front of a live audience, but he says with the amount of opportunity for young, creative people in Qatar right now he plans to be here long term.
Indeed, many young Qataris like Amari see unparalleled opportunity to fulfill their goals, debunking the widespread misconception that Qatar’s wealth has made the young generation lazy and unambitious.
On the contrary, he says, the nation's natural resources provide a "safety net" that allows Qatar's bright young people to explore their talents. “If they feel safe," he says, "the things that they’ll come up with can’t be measured.”"