Friday, February 24, 2012

Ismailia and the Suez Canal Part 1: Homeland Security

The wind in Ismailia, halfway down the west bank of the Suez Canal, sounded like the tornado in The Wizard of Oz, or else like those plastic tubes one twirls to make an airy hum, as it bounced off the windows of our hotel.

I had arrived with a bus full of American scholars and students, the ‘Fulbrighters,’ and after a long morning of conferences and nine-month research projects condensed into ten minute gusts we decided to take a walk around the city. It felt appropriate to visit Ismailia, named after the man who tried to make Egypt look like Europe, with American scholars, all of whom struggle in their own way with the legacy of colonialism and its relationship to knowledge in one of the most colonized and studied countries in the world.

As a group of Americans on an official trip, someone had decided that we were in danger, or at least needed a bevy of security. In the past month, Bedouins in the Sinai had been kidnapping Americans, Koreans, and even several Egyptian soldiers. Although this all happened about eight hours from Ismailia, and there are no Bedouins for miles, the security alert, were such a thing to be color coded here, would have been a light red.

Whether this directive to protect us came from the Egyptian government, the U.S. government, the hotel, or the grey space of bureaucracy in between these big, complicated entities I did not know. What I did learn was a security personnel would be coming with us, backed up by a local plainclothes police officer, who was backed up by four more uniformed officers squeezed into a police truck: Eight students, six cops, and pretty much no one else in the streets. As we began to walk, Michael, who studies Egyptian poetry, joked with Badr, our guard, “Don’t worry. Obama is still at the hotel!”

The wind been joined by low temperatures and light rain, which meant that the many security personnel, themselves not in charge of their assignment to follow us, were unenthused. They hinted with questions like “What do you want to see here? There’s nothing in the city to see.” When we would answer that we had heard of a cafĂ© or a historic church or a park and they would shake their heads and “It’s boring. There’s nothing interesting.” Security guards, of course, are judged by how little happens on their watch, not how much, so they make the worst tourism promoters. They did, once we cajoled a little bit, make great tour guides.

Ismailia was named after Khedive Ismail, the leader who, flush with cash after cotton prices boomed during the American Civil War, aspired to turn Cairo into a European capital, after a trip to Haussmann’s Paris. The downtown areas of Ismailia feels like a “skin graft,” Michael observed, as we traversed the wide European boulevards, parks, and traffic circles that have transformed over a century into another tourist-less hub of contemporary Egyptian life.  Some of the buildings reminded us both of New Orleans. At the time I thought this was because of the colonial French architecture, though reflecting later the comparison felt deeper, like Hurricane Katrina’s destructive force had slowly accrued in this city over the course of thirty years of corruption and municipal negligence.

The security guards continued to look bored, so we tried to make conversation. Ghazzal, who studies 9th century literature, explained to Badr why she wanted to walk through the city at such a leisurely place. “I spend so much time reading,” she said, “but there is a different between the reading about a place and seeing and experiencing it. I want to see the details that I read about.”

We discovered a Coptic Catholic Church, where strains of My Heart Will Go On came from an unseen organ. An old priest in Catholic collar, Coptic robe, and thin white beard, emerged (certainly the appropriate word) and squinted as he told us that the French founded this massive cathedral in the 1920’s to commemorate Ferdinand De Lesseps, who had overseen construction of the canal fifty years before. “After 1973,” the priest told us, “nobody European lived in Ismailia, so it became a cathedral for us.”

The iconographies, languages, and decorations of the church melded these two seemingly incompatible Christianities. Outside in the courtyard, a statue of a San Padre Pio raised his arms to bless whoever might walk up the tile steps towards him, his figure framed by Christmas lights and fake Hawaiian flowers.

Back to the hotel. A few hours later, we tried to leave the hotel again to eat dinner back in town. This was a cause for concern and again the security guards halted us in the driveway, looking both annoyed and understanding that this whole game was a little ridiculous. They were “sorry, sorry, sorry,” and didn’t mean to make us feel “like prisoners,” but we simply could not go without an escort. They assigned a security guard to our cohort of four, a big, burly man with a shaved head and piercing eyes, and a penchant for techno music and Thailand named Islam. He figured that rather than follow our taxi, he might as well just take us. After dinner, he offered a personal tour of the city, with commentary, and because the city is not very big, this involved a lot of repeated routes and personal stories.

Islam is a tourism police officer who once busted drug and prostitution rings. He supported the revolution, he told me, but he did not like any of the groups claiming power in Egypt a year later, whether the revolutionaries or the Brotherhood or the military council. He works in Ismailia, but lives in Cairo, meaning that every week he splits his time between two homes. He is not married, he told me, turning up the house music on his car stereo, so he is able to get by on about a hundred dollars a month. “And after three weeks,” he told me, “I’m going to visit Thailand.” He showed us a bombed out police lorry that has rusted on the side of the road since it was tipped over and lit aflame by protesters last January.

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