an american medievalist in cairo


I loved Hannah’s post, not least because it reminded me of my own reflections when I worked abroad. Just in case you didn’t have time to read to the end, I’m posting my favorite part (probably the part she’s most reticent about writing). I think it’s important because while of course our perspectives on what we see when witnessing events are colored, there is much to be learned from someone’s point of view. Journalists are privileged in certain ways, and are trained to see things from specific perspectives. I find it fascinating to read and hear accounts from non-journalists, totally unfiltered through the media’s lenses. This is why I love the internet—and the following excerpt from Hannah’s account:

As for the politics: I’m a medievalist and I don’t normally take a stand on these things. But here’s my two cents. I was not frightened by the protesters. Hilary Clinton’s initial statements did not go over well (the primary problem here being that she didn’t say anything else for 24 hours, probably because the State of the Union was the same day as the first wave of protests, and in those 24 hours the situation changed radically). And people quickly discovered the tear gas canisters and bullets used by the police were produced in the US. Nevertheless, the protesters whom I encountered treated me with nothing but kindness. The people I talked to were motivated by anger at political and economic corruption: police brutality, rigged elections, suppression of free speech, massive economic inequality, ubiquitous bribery, lack of jobs for even the best-educated young people, etc. And of the people I talked to the most, people around my own age, none had ever been politically active before. They belonged to no party and didn’t have any particular allegiance except unhappiness with the current state of affairs. The way Mubarak has handled the situation has only reinforced people’s anger, and has made me angry at him when I was previously politically apathetic. The most insulting thing was that he did not respond to the protests in any way for a whole week. No grudging “I hear that you’re not content”, no token concessions, just violence and clouds of tear gas. Only when violence failed did he deign to make any sort of public statement. His cuts to services, especially cell phone service, crippled business and put lives in danger that were not endangered by the protests alone. Entirely removing the police from the streets and allowing the looting to spread was even worse. His token concessions, when they finally came, were ridiculous. Rumor had been circulating since Saturday that the Minister of Internal Affairs had been arrested and imprisoned. Finding out on Monday that he was simply going to be removed from the cabinet was not terribly impressive. Violence and the internet blackout may eventually succeed in persuading people to go home temporarily, but some pretty severe damage has been done and I don’t think Mubarak can stay in power in the long run.

2 thoughts on “an american medievalist in cairo

  1. You’re right, this was definitely the most difficult part to write. One reason is that I’m a medievalist; I don’t actually know very much about recent Middle Eastern politics and so I generally try and stick to what I know, which is 13th-15th century politics. The other reason is that historians often have to get permits for their work so that the institutions which hold historical sources can try to prevent those sources from being used in embarrassing or inflammatory ways. This is not just a Middle East thing, it’s true pretty much everywhere. Being a medievalist with no reputation for political activity is a pretty good way to get your permits quickly!

    1. Haha. This is a lot of excitement for a medievalist to find herself in. Not that a medievalism isn’t exciting (you know that Lithuania was the largest country in Europe in the late middle ages ;)). Just not in that NOW kind of way.

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