Thursday, February 16, 2012

Same Same but Different

Chaos often breeds life, while order breeds habit.
Henry Adams, American journalist and historian (1838–1918)

One of the earliest expressions that I learned upon arriving in Cairo 16 years ago was "Same same", usually followed by "but different". As it was spoken in clear English, it was the one 'Arabic' expression that I picked up quickly from my cleaning lady who otherwise didn't have much English. It's amazing how universal this expression is because we had often signed the same expression with our Portuguese friend and now I learn that it is the title of a German movie about a Cambodian woman and her foreign boyfriend. These convergences must mean that the expression characterizes a shared human condition, across continents and cultures. Life: it's the same, but different.

The expression came to mind today as I visited friends at my former workplace. Yes, the buildings were the same and yes the people were going on with their usual activities; but at the same time, the landscape has changed dramatically. Gone are the multiple troop carriers that used to fill one side of the square to guard the nearby American embassy. They have been replaced by ambulances that I can suppose are standing ready to carry away hurt revolutionaries from Tahrir Square, that is only one block away. For years this area was a 'protected' zone, ensuring that all was safe and quiet around the compound of Egypt's #1 ally; to see banners supporting Omar Abdel Rahman, imprisoned in the US for attempting to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993, now filling the streetscape stopped me in my tracks: same same, but shockingly different.

In order to arrive at the office, I walked through Tahrir Square having been assured that I wouldn't get caught up in the political struggle as long as I didn't go on a Friday. I don't know how to express my feelings returning here for the first time since the celebration of Mr. Mubarak's departure one year ago. It is the same square but gone is the palpable pride. Several Egyptian friends coming from different walks of life later commented that the people now in the square are not the same ones as a year ago. Every one of these friends supports the revolution, even under the current difficulties; but every one of them feels that an unsavory element now occupies Tahrir and that its objective has nothing to do with democracy. Yet hearing my friends talk about how they now pay close, minute-by-minute attention to what's happening in Parliament when they were once complacent shows that democracy is budding. I just hope it has the chance to grow.

I wiled away the afternoon drinking tea and conversing with my favourite crazy brothers who offer congenial hospitality and shared wisdom in the treasure-filled shop established by their grandfather. Today's conversation centered on the medicinal merits of Royal Jelly and eating dates, honey, almonds and raisins. Every visit hosted by Essam and Mohsen over the past 16 years has presented a fascinating learning experience and a fun search through the jumble of new and old brass, copper and silver: same same, but delightfully different.

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