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GAZA———WE’RE NOT COMING

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Mon, Mar 24, 2014

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by Barbara Briggs-Letson,

delegate from Sebastopol, CA who entered Egypt but was not permitted to travel to Gaza.

International Women’s Day Delegation to Gaza, March 8,2014

Having spoken with 3 Egyptians (2 women and 1 man) and had about 45 minutes of conversation with the Deputy Chief of Mission and 2 of his staff at our Embassy I am an expert, so will share my impressions about Egypt and Gaza…….

Egypt, both government and citizens, are losing interest in Gaza, maybe all of Palestine. Three specific comments: There were hundreds of tunnels at the border between Egypt and Gaza, lifelines for years, recently blown up by Egypt. I heard stories that cars stolen in Egypt went via tunnel to Gaza, that people on the Gaza side ordered KFC and Pizza Hut for delivery from Egypt through the tunnels. Whether or not these are tales or truth, they are believed.

Citizens and government know that Hamas is training disaffected Egyptians as terrorists, particularly for terrorism the Sinai. The Sinai is not safe for Egyptian military, police and civilians, for which people blame Hamas/Gaza. This is the most important!

The whole world knows that Gaza desperately needs fuel and Egypt was supplying a lot. When fuel shortages developed in Egypt, those I spoke with didn’t like sending scarce fuel to Gaza.

These are small examples of how/why Egypt has lost interest. Gaza is now alone. I cannot imagine life being more difficult than it was when I visited Gaza in 2009, but am sure it is , both in terms of the physical situation and now, knowing that so few people in the world care. In a conversation about the women of Gaza with an Egyptian woman, she said ‘not to worry about the women of Gaza’ now, that it is the women of Syria who are ‘really suffering.’ Another woman said they had brought it on themselves. This is very different! It felt to me as if human concern I remember from 2009 has morphed into exasperation.

I had wanted, in my heart, to respond to the invitation from women of Gaza to be present with them. Now that I understand more deeply how alone they are, our failure to get to Gaza feels deep and painful. From the beginning, Egypt had known why we were coming and exactly who was coming. They had our names and passport numbers. It is hard to understand why they didn’t tell us before we arrived that we could not travel across the Sinai, that it was dangerous, or that they did not want us in their country.

Egypt looked and felt to me like a police state. In front of the glorious Egyptian Museum there are a row of huge camo tanks, a soldier sitting atop each with machine gun pointed and several other soldiers in and around each tank. All the military wear bulletproof vests. At the Museum, at the Sound and Light Show, even in Luxor, monster dark blue solid-sided trucks swoop in, pocked with peep-holes. They are filled with young men, sitting in benches along the insides, wearing dark blue uniforms, awaiting trouble.

Military and police, armed, are along streets, at intersections, in front of buildings in Cairo and we were told that civilian-clad security people are everywhere. Each person who visited us in our hotel, just to talk with us, Egyptian or foreigner, had to provide passport or identity card to be copied. Egyptians were not comfortable meeting us, in the hotel, or, sometimes, outside the hotel.

Two young activist Egyptian men came to our hotel and 2 of the French delegation went with them to a restaurant; on the return in a taxi, at a checkpoint, one of the Egyptian men was dragged from the taxi after the driver told police he was an activist. Egyptians say there is a campaign about “being a good neighbor” and reporting other citizens. there are about 20,000 citizens in jail, many without charges or trials. Journalists are particularly at risk.

We were told that Sisi’s military takeover is not a coup. “Don’t call it a coup.” “It was necessary and within a few months we will have presidential elections and 2 months after that, we will have parliamentary elections.” There seems to be a general belief that Sisi will be elected President. His picture, smiling benignly, in uniform with lots of gold braid and red trim, is everywhere.

Ah yes, you wonder about the delegation. Seventeen English-speaking/American delegates traveled to Egypt; eight entered Egypt. Our “arrivals” spread over 4-5 days, involved phone calls, texting, messages, e-mails, and was very confusing. Here is a general synopsis. (You need to know that any nation has the right to refuse entry to any person and they don’t have to give a reason.)

We planned to be 100 women, arriving at different times from different countries, but to meet on the night of the 5th in Cairo. Medea arrived the 2nd, was denied entry, resisted and was physically injured before and during deportation. (Actually, she wasn’t technically deported because she never officially entered Egypt.) Ann Wright arrived the 3rd on and entered with no problem. Two other delegates from the US and I arrived later on the 3rd and entered. Then, more difficulties. US delegates entered, were called back and held, then some admitted. Others were not admitted, held alone and in small groups, then denied. There was some talk of a blacklist, but we don’t know who was on it and the whole process didn’t make any sense. They let in some very strong activists, then refused others, including a 20 year old college student, a Nobel Laureate from Ireland and a former US Ambassador to Ireland.

During the 5 days, Ann Wright was constantly fielding information and calls, trying to keep track of all our delegates, making sure they were safe, knowing where they physically were, their situations, contacting the US Consulate, blogging and tweeting the latest news. We stayed together, close to the hotel.

Our Embassy sent an Egyptian national to try to meet with the US delegates who were not admitted and was unsuccessful. The following day, the deputy to the Deputy Chief of Mission and the Egyptian national returned to the airport and met with our US delegates who were detained. Our delegates departed.

A group of about 60 French had arrived together and were denied entry. They started actions in the big hall where they were detained: banners, singing, statements, calling the French Ambassador. That is a group which doesn’t go quietly! The French Ambassador went to the airport to see their delegates; he was unable to convince the authorities to let them enter and told the delegates that they should stop their protest actions or they would be dealt with harshly. The whole group departed. (On the night of the 13th, as we were preparing to depart Egypt, a member of the French delegation appeared at our hotel. She been denied entry into Egypt with the group, went back to France, and had returned alone to Egypt [she had business she needed to take care of] with no problems. She must not have been on the fabled blacklist or possibly it does

100 + solar Lucy Lamps are on their way, bit by bit, into Gaza, as the border is opened sporadically and individuals take them across. Eventually, more than 100 women of Gaza will have light at night for them and their families, thanks to your generosity! I packed 100 lamps into a huge blue suitcase from Goodwill and it safely arrived in Cairo. Individuals who must remain nameless will see that they get into Gaza. We send good energy along with each lamp!

AFTER IT BECAME CLEAR THAT WE WERE NOT GOING TO GAZA AND THAT ANY KIND OF POLITICAL ACTIVITY WOULD NOT BE TOLERATED BY THE EGYPTIAN GOVERNMENT, WE ENGLISH-SPEAKING DELEGATES MORPHED INTO TOURISTS.

 

BEING IN EGYPT

(In Cairo, Luxor and Giza)

Ears teach me: CRACK of whip, children’s voices scream with delight and excitement, cacophonous calls to prayer, “give me a dollar”, a lion growl which turns out to be a camel’s loud complaint, “hello what is your name” the horse pulling my cart whinnying in pride after he returned us from the loose sand, “Madam, madam, MADAM………HEY”

Peered into a streetside bakery as circles of dough were flopped on a conveyor belt, disappeared into the oven, exited brown, puffed and ready for sale out the window.

Eleven horses (10 men, 1 woman) cantering down the street near the Pyramids as I drank a Coke. Asymphony of clops.

I walked around the back of the smallest pyramid to quiet and a little wind. Turned it into a walking meditation…”I have arrived, I am at home in the here and the now. In the infinite I dwell.” Being part of the infinite is easier to feel in a place where most of what I touch or see is thousands of years BCE.

White VW vans, side door slid open to shredded bench seats, stop and go in the cities. One jumps in, then gets out wherever you wish. I hear it costs 1 Egyptian Pound which is about 15 cents. I never had the courage to try it.

Giza has, along with black and white taxis (which have meters) and motorcycles and buses, horses, camels, horse carts painted yellow like dilapidated Charlton Heston chariots and tuk-tuks. An occasional donkey, infrequently a pair of donkeys.

Changing money here is easy. I found a bank, handed over my passport and US dollars, and after a few minutes, was handed Egyptian Pounds at about 7 EP=1 USD. In Cairo there is at least one ATM machine where one can insert USD (tried 20s and 50s) and EPs come out.

Security to enter the many-starred Novotel Hotel at the airport is more careful than for catching a plane. WRONG: their tough security is at the gate for international flights and with 2 screening lines, is mayhem.

Of a morning ,,…….a man pedals the narrow street with puffed pitas balanced on his head,  carefully arranged in a “box” of sticks longer than his bike and wider than the

Clang, cling, clang, wafts in our window on the 6th floor, morning sounds of the

“Papyrus and flower-scent-oil, please come to my shop, I have a shop, very nice, you

Only guards and king Tut in the glorious museum, surrounded by scarabs and mummies and a smell of oldness.  In a country where at least 20 percent of the economy  is funded by tourism, we seem to be the only visitors.

Were I an 80 year old woman of Egypt I might be  vending tissue packets, crouched  beside a shattered sidewalk, leaning against a building, dressed in black.  One packet, one Egyptian pound (15 cents).  Ann bought a packet.

Negotiating Tahir Square, of recent and ancient history, means scooting across lanes of traffic, then through more lanes.  The secret is to wait for an Egyptian male, slide to his side keeping him between me and the traffic, then cross with him.  Which means that I need not look at the terrifying buses, cars, trucks and motorcycles, just stay by his side.  Yesterday, I waited and waited for such a man to come along to cross.  No luck. A kind youth, watching from the other side, smiled, crossed, motioned me to follow, then guided me across, dodging traffic.  Bumper cars, Tahir style, with a dash of kindness.

Out hunting for the hotel where I stayed the other time I was in Cairo, I was “lost”.  It’s Saturday morning and the streets are quiet, while  chairs for waterpipe-smokers appear in lots of alleys.  A young woman, her hair  tautly  covered, long sleeves, shiny lipstick and wearing brightly colored everything sat alone.  The bendy tube snaked into her hand……….SHE WAS SMOKING.  It felt ok to ask directions of her.

On Talak Harb, a main street off Tahir square, are shops and shuttered storefronts and the Egyptair office.  As a policeman directed non-existent street traffic in the road in front and I turned in to buy a ticket,  3 men shouted at me, gesturing.  “whoops, danger” said my body and I didn’t even pause.    The woman who sold me the ticket said they wanted me to buy from their private agency.  That little experience  tells my gut how desperate Egypt is;  the tourist industry is on its knees and people behave in ways they would never have in their proud past.

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  • Jeanne

    ‘Israel reveals the hearts of men, and Jerusalem will sift the nations.”

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