Egypt in Transition: Sidenotes from Personal Experience

Like many others, I’ve given quite a lot of attention in the past several days to what’s been happening in Egypt.  For certain, what changes will be made there, whether there will be a complete change in government or whether Mubarek will stay in some sort of power, remain uncertain.

I think I watch what’s happening there with a different perspective than a lot of Americans.  As I’ve written here, and those that know me might be aware of, I was an Arab linguist in the U.S. Air Force back in the 1970s.  I studied the Egyptian dialect and the main focus of my work was Egypt, though I never set foot in the country, until a couple of my fellow airmen and I took a 10-day, TWA tour of Egypt in April of 1974.  (I’ve had a more detailed description of that trip started for some time now, so I won’t go into all of that now.)  But in looking back, it’s surprising that the Air Force let us take that trip to a country which had been the center of so much of our military work, especially the October ’73 War, which had taken place only about half a year earlier.

When we got there, we discovered a couple of things.  First, the Egyptian people liked us Americans, despite the country still being under some influence of the Soviet Union, as evidenced by the great number of Soviet tourists that we encountered and some military installations around the then new Aswan Dam.  Second, the country was very poor, but teeming with people.  The current news media talk about squares filled with people, making it sound as if is something unusual.  The streets were filled with people on a daily basis even back in the 70s, when the population of the country was around 33 million, nothing like the 80 million of today. In Cairo, people hung off the sides of buses, and the trains from Cairo to Alexandria had riders on top of the cars because inside there was no more room.  The big difference, of course, was back in those days, people were just going about their daily lives, not protesting for a change in government.  I also remember the poverty evident most everywhere.

Anwar Sadat was the president of Egypt in those days, coming into power after Nasser.  I admired Sadat a lot and felt that he really wanted peace for the region and with Israel, unlike so many other Middle Eastern leaders, who wanted–and want–to do away with Israel.  I was really saddened when he was assassinated in 1981 by fundamentalists, they said, but I have always wondered if Mubarek didn’t have something to do with it as a way to get power.

I think the current problem in Egypt is, yes, partially, that of a government not giving enough freedoms to the people.  But there is another problem–a world problem–too many people.  And too many people too fast.  Egypt’s problem is not so different from that of Mexico.  Poor countries (and some rich ones too) in the past century have grown in population by leaps and bounds.  Maybe it’s because of having more access to medicines and health care.  But go to a poor country these days, and you find that the majority of people are young, and these huge numbers of young people are having more babies.   And more people use more and more of a country’s resources, but the countries just cannot create enough new jobs for everyone.

I took a lot of slides when I was in Egypt, and I’ve had a few of them digitalized.  (How many of you will have those pictures you’ve downloaded to Facebook 40 years from now?)   Here are some I like:

Night view of the Nile River and the boulevard running alongside it (1974)

Pyramids of Giza (1974), at that time the pyramids were a ways outside of the city

Luxor, Egypt (1974), the street running alongside the Nile River, across the river from the Valley of the Kings

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On the Road Home: Pickled Okra, Prop. 8, and Lt. Dan Choi

With the red jalapeño peppers, these pickled okra should have a bite!

Maybe it’s the summer heat, but lately I’ve been having trouble getting any posts written.  The work week evenings just don’t seem long enough, and weekends require getting accomplished all the to-do items that have accumulated through the week.

My best thinking time these days takes place after work as I make the 45-minute or a bit more commute home from downtown Houston out to my corner of the “burbs”.   Though I know my posts can be long-winded,  I thought instead of trying to write longer posts on just one topic, I’d start a new series of posts called “On the Road Home” and give a word or two about several of the topics that are on my mind.  (Keeping it to “a word or two” might be difficult.)  So here goes.

Okra is about all that’s left doing anything in the garden, and more of the plants are starting to produce, so I’ve had nice messes to eat for a couple weeks now.  Now that there are more to gather, I decided to try my hand at making some pickled okra.  With two days’ worth of okra, I have enough for a 1-pint jar.  There have been some trials and errors, but I’m hoping for good results after they’ve set for about 6 weeks.

The judge in California disallowed the ban on gay marriage that was passed in the elections of 2008.  The judge seems to have written a strong decision against the ban, but I’m sure we’re going to hear all kinds of screaming about activist judges and a lot of conservative candidates are going to try to use the ruling as fodder in this fall’s elections.  Rachel Maddow had a good recap on her show this evening.  She had a lot of interesting excerpts from Judge Walker’s decision.  Link to the entire decision here.

Actually, the raison d’etre for this new series of posts was what I caught on the radio this evening “On the Road Home.”  Usually, I switch around on the 6 eclectic stations I’ve got locked in, and tonight after making one of the switches,  I caught Democracy Now interviewing Lt. Dan Choi, the army officer, who has just been kicked out of the army based on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for admitting that he is gay.  I was totally impressed by his elequence and convictions.  Also, this interview shows him from quite a few different angles, not just an activist.  I was listening, but click here for the article and video of the interview, starting about the 9-minute point.

First-of-a kind Gay Magazine in Arabic Begins Publication

كيف حالك؟

Even when I studied Arabic in the Air Force, reading and writing weren’t my strong suits.  The squiggly lines that represent the letters with dots and other diacritical marks both above and below them are only further complicated by moving from right to left.  Making matters worse is there’s really not much difference in the way words appear in print (like the block form we have in English and other languages that use Roman-style letters) and the cursive (hand-writing) style; however,  in the hand-written form, most of the time, many of the diacritical marks, which help with the pronunciation, and, thus, the meaning and grammar, are omitted, and one is left to guess about the word.  I suppose when it’s your native language, you don’t really have to guess much, but to a non-native, all of the marks, though complicated, are helpful.

Hence, I found myself wishing that more of my Arabic had stayed with me when I read today on afrik.com that a first-of-its-kind gay magazine had started up in Morocco.  It’s called Mithly, which means “gay” in Arabic, which I think I remember, and began with its first issue on April 1st.

That this magazine has begun publication in Morocco is not so surprising, in spite of all the conservative attitudes in the Muslim world about gay people, because Morocco has had a lot of European influence through the years, and there have been rumors for many years that the King of Morocco is gay.

Even so, Morocco is not by any means a liberal country; this new magazine is actually being produced in Spain.  However, the situation has to be much better in this country just across the Straits of Gibraltar from Europe, in comparison to some other Arab countries, like Iraq, where gay people are brutalized and murdered, in spite of the U.S. being in such an influential position there.

There is a pared-down, online version at www.mithly.net.  Click on the translate button in the upper right corner.  Be forewarned, though.  The Google translation will leave you scratching your head in many places.

Good luck to Mithly.  Every effort like this helps more people understand themselves better and know that they are “not the only one.”

Greece in a $100 VW Bug

A gypsy encampment in northern Greece (taken about 1974)

One of the things that I have spent some evening hours doing is going through boxes of slides that I haven’t given much attention to in a long time.  The move to my new house has made them more accessible, but viewing what’s on each of the little colored transparencies hasn’t been easy.  The projector and small box-type viewer have long since disappeared, so I have been trying to glean through them with the aid of a flashlight. The majority of the slides were taken when I was in the Air Force stationed in Greece.  I’ve written about having been in the Air Force in other posts.  I was lucky enough to have an exciting job and be stationed with the 6916th Security Squadron at Athenai Air Base.  I was also fortunate to be able to have a job where I worked six days in a row, then had three days off.  I spent a lot of those days traveling around Greece, mostly on day trips, in the beat-up VW Beetle that I had bought for $100 dollars soon after I arrived at the base from another guy who was being transferred.  That little bug had a loose steering column and wobbly back wheels, but it took me and friends on many jaunts about Athens and to quite a few places out into the Greek countryside.

The photo at the top gives you an idea of some of the amazing sights this country kid from Kansas encountered.   My old boxes of slides are certainly bringing back a lot of memories.  However, cleaning off all the bits of dust and lint isn’t easy, and getting the slides digitalized so that I can see and share them isn’t cheap either.  Consequently, I’m doing all of that a little at a time.

The quality of the photos is pretty good (if I do say so myself), so I’m planning to enlarge a number of them and frame them to use in my house.  Hopefully, my writing fingers will get into the mood once again as I have a couple of posts started about those days back in Greece, and some of the photos would make good accompaniments.

You Can Help Make It Happen: Make a Call To Repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

I was an Arab linguist in the Air Force.  I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that here before.  I’m mentioning it here now because since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, more than 58 Arab linguists have been kicked out of the military.  I don’t know what it is, but gay guys just seem to have a knack for languages.  That’s not to say that straight guys can’t be good at languages, but just not as many of them seem to have the same desire for making language, in whatever aspect, a big part of their career.  Look at all the novelists, playwrights, and other writers.  I would bet that the proportion of them who are gay is far greater than the proportion of gay people in the general population.

But it’s not just gay linguists who get kicked out of the military for being gay.  And these days if there are people who don’t know that gays are still getting kicked out of the military, they just aren’t keeping up with the news.  President Obama says he’s going to get “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repealed.  The American people are for a repeal.  But somebody has to get off their duff and do something.  If the President isn’t going to push the Congress to act on this, the whole thing is just going to sit there.

So I’m asking you–people who read this blog–call your representatives and senators and tell them you want congress to act on this.  All the complaining by bloggers across the internet isn’t going to get it done.  We have to make contact with the people who can.

People in those offices on Capitol Hill do answer the phone.  Pick up your cell phone (unless you’re driving, of course!) and call.  Here is a list of phone numbers of U.S Senators;  call 202-22 + the 5-digit number given for your senators.  Here is a list of phone numbers for U.S Representatives; again the area code is 202.  That’s the best I can do without dialing the number for you.  You do, of course, have to know who your representatives and senators are.

When It Comes to Gays in the Military, Many “Developing” Countries Are Forward-Thinking, While the U.S. Continues To Discharge Highly Qualified Service Members

Growing up, I always saw my country as the one which was the most inventive, the most progressive, the one with the most forward-looking people. I mean aren’t we the country that put the first men on the moon, the country that fought in wars so other people could live in freedom?

What I see now is a country that has so many people that are not only afraid of being on the cutting-edge in all aspects, whether in science and medicine (think stem cell research), inventions (think new forms of energy), or social progress (think equal rights), but also people who want to live in the past, rather than help move the country forward.

south-americaI’m really amazed when I see what is happening in some “so-called” third-world, or developing, countries when it comes to equal rights, especially in terms of gays in the military. While President Obama has been waffling on his campaign promise to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, President Tabaré Vázquez of the South American country of Uruguay announced that his country would no longer deny entrance into their armed forces to someone who is gay. In a meeting with Vazquez, the President of the neighboring country of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, agreed, saying his country will follow suit because Paraguay does not discriminate in any manner, including on the basis of religion or sexual orientation.

Additionally from South America comes the news of the first same-sex couple to receive spousal benefits through the Armed Forces. Based on the decision of the Constitutional Court (Supreme Court) of Colombia, the gay couple of Fabián Chibcha Romero and Javier Osorio will be able to take advantage of these benefits because one of them is a member of the Public Forces (includes both the military and civil police). After processing their Union Marital de Hecho (which formalizes common law marriages after two years of cohabitation for both heterosexual and homosexual couples), Romero and Osorio sought the spousal benefits and were the first same-sex couple to be granted them based on military membership.

However, here in the U.S. even with the change to a new administration, valuable members of the military are still being drummed out based on their sexuality.

Lt. Dan Choi, discharged Arab Linguist

Lt. Dan Choi, discharged Arab Linguist

Less than two weeks ago, the U.S. Army told Lt. Dan Choi, a member of the New York National Guard, that he would be dismissed for being gay. Choi is a graduate of West Point, and an Arab linguist recently returned from Iraq.

Today, the Service Members Legal Defense Network said the the Pentagon is ready to kick out another highly-skilled, veteran service member for being gay. SLDN says the U.S. Air Force is about to discharge fighter pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Victor J. Fehrenbach, after 18 years of service to his country. Among his long list of accolades is that he was especially selected to fly sorties over the U.S. capital after the 9/ll attacks. (I’m not going to do a “cut and paste”; read more about Fehrenbach’s illustrious career here and watch the eye-opening interview and report from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show.)

It is really a sad situation that we have in this country when we are ready to kick people who have given so much of themselves for their country out of the military just because of their sexuality. Is this what kind of country we are? One that judges people based on antiquated social mores? Are we a country that would rather let some people’s bigotry get in the way of having able-bodied and well-qualified service members protecting our country?

I don’t get it. Our forefathers came to this land with the idea of making a better life based on the principles of individual freedom and strove to be the best. They and their descendants were creative and worked to invent the best and newest, whatever that might be.

Now we have become a country of too many stick-in-the-muds. They only want to hide themselves in their “moral values” because, in reality, they are scared of the future. How did we ever get so many of these who are so filled with their own self-interest–yes, really these political and religious conservatives are really very selfish people; though, they would claim otherwise–that they cannot see that this country has to be progressive and future-thinking in order to be the country that we used to be.