In Egypt, getting beyond 'otherness'

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Greg SullivanAs I write this, I'm in Cairo. Two nights ago, a group of protesters tore down a newly installed wall outside the Israeli Embassy. Some of the gang somehow gained access to the embassy on the 13th floor, where they ransacked the offices. This was a serious breach of international law. More than 100 protesters were injured, and three people died. Tragic.


I've been fielding emails from friends and family who are concerned about my safety. I appreciate their concern, but the incident gives me a chance to think about something more: where, when and why we travel.

First let me declare my bias. My business partner Joe and I launched Afar travel magazine in 2009, so obviously I favor travel. What's more, our company is organizing a travel experience in Cairo in late October.

When Mubarak resigned and the country celebrated in February, I immediately bought a ticket to Cairo and was here a few days later. The enthusiasm, hope and pride of the people were contagious. I knew tourism would suffer for the near future, and I wanted to do something to support the people as they undertook building the new Egypt.

I've been back to Cairo three more times since February. What I've experienced has been fantastic. I have been fortunate to meet many locals from a variety of fields. They are so excited about their future. As my new friend Ghada said to me, "Before the revolution, my son wanted to move away from Egypt when he was done with school. Now, he is proud and excited about Egypt and wants to stay."

Building a new Egypt isn't easy. Another friend, Gamila, told me, "In the old regime, we had to hide our differences. Now we are free to express them, and that is both exciting and a new challenge. It may take some time to accept our differences, but in the end, Egypt will be a much better place to live."

News coverage focuses a spotlight on incidents such as the Israeli Embassy attack, as it rightly should. What doesn't make the news is everyday life, what the locals are doing or what you are likely to experience if you visit a place.

According to the Egyptian government, 2.2 million people visited Egypt in the second quarter, and none were attacked. That doesn't make headlines.

I feel safe in Cairo. By talking with the locals and asking them where to go and what to avoid, by reading a variety of news accounts, including the local ones, and by watching other people and using common sense, I move through the city comfortably. There are many other places I travel where I feel the need to be more vigilant than I do here.

Bad things happen everywhere, and there are no guarantees. According to the New York Times, 67 people were shot in various incidents in New York over Labor Day weekend; 13 died. When I traveled to New York, nobody emailed me to make sure I was OK. But when things happen in a foreign land -- and let's be honest, particularly in the Middle East -- people are more likely to assume an isolated incident is indicative of much more.

To me, that is partly why travel is so important: to get a window into places we don't know, to understand the people and culture better, to appreciate our differences and to get beyond the feeling of "otherness" that separates us.

The economy in Egypt has been hurt seriously, particularly tourism, as the world waits for "stability" to return to the Middle East.

Another friend, Mohamed, told me he has done little business since the revolution. "This is OK," he said. "This moment is likely not to come again. We must make the most of it, for all our good."

There may be headlines that might make some people nervous. But just as it is a rare opportunity for the people of Egypt, it is rare for travelers. I consider it a privilege to visit at this historic moment and to support the Egyptian people as they plot a new course.

Greg Sullivan is co-founder and editorial director of Afar Media, publishers of Afar magazine and host of Afar Experiences, a three-day event in Cairo. Contact him at [email protected]. 
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