Posted by: MC | February 5, 2011

Egypt, Chicago and the Year of the Rabbit

Today is the second full day of the Chinese New Year.  We leave the year of the White Tiger to enter the Year of the Golden Rabbit.  I am not Chinese, but my Chinese-American friends tell me the rabbit symbolizes graciousness, kindness and a sensitivity to beauty.  They say Chinese astrology predicts this is to be year of peace and collaboration.

Associated with the beginning of the lunar calendar, the festivities of the Chinese New Year continue an ancient celebration of the Earth coming to life.  The celebration ushers in the beginning of the plowing and planting season.  Tell that to the middle of the continental U.S. and you’ll hear everything from, “Good to know” to “We can’t even hear you under all this snow and ice.”

As everyone in the U.S. knows, it’s been nutty weatherwise.  The hardest of hard winter weather in difficult economic times.  I’ve been in Wisconsin.  It’s been only amazing to watch the citizens of the rural community I’m visiting.  No matter the limitations on public budgets and without fanfare of any kind, they have given infinite endurance to clearing untold tons of snow.  With this care, people are safe and the business of everyday life can continue.

The day after the storm I watched as children’s brightly capped heads bobbed by, barely visible above the walls of snow lining the sidewalks on the way to their school.  A headline on the internet read, “Chicago humbled by storm.”  The golden rabbit was already having influence.  Collaboration and peace typified the conduct of Americans all across the long hours and countless miles trampled by the monster weather system.

Meanwhile, across the globe, bold Egyptians of every stripe were laying their lives on the line to demand democracy.  I’ve been looking for some context and just found Fareed Zaharia’s Feb. 3 article in Time http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2045888-2,00.html.  Here’s a quote that helped:

“…In the past two centuries, Egypt has been governed by just two regimes, a monarchy set up in 1805 and the Free Officers Movement that came to power in 1952 with Gamal Abdel Nasser. (France, by comparison, has been through a revolution, two empires, five republics and a quasi-fascist dictatorship in much the same period.) In the popular imagination, Egyptians are passive, meekly submitting to religion and hierarchy. But by the end of January the streets of Cairo and Alexandria and other cities were filled with a different people: crowds of energetic, strong-willed men from all walks of life and even some women, all determined to shape their destiny and become masters of their own fate.”

Nicholas Kristof, a regular columnist for the NYT conveyed the words of one woman among the “lion-hearted Egyptians I met on Tahrir Square,” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/03/opinion/03kristof.html?src=me&ref=general.  “We are all afraid, inside of us,” she said.  “But now we have broken that fear.”  Kristof also had opportunity to speak with Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, a leading Arab feminist.  Dr. Saadawi turns 80 this year and, for decades, has led the fight to end female genital mutilation. She too was in the square and planned to sleep there w/ the other protesters.  Her words,“I feel I am born again.” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/04/opinion/04kristof.html.

The EX:Change voices I’ve been excerpting this week have as one shared chorus the observation that change is everywhere and all the time.  Two voices from this week belong to people who immigrated to this country as adults.  Sofia came from Russia at 22, five or six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  She spoke with pride of the resilience of her country even though restrictions to individual rights and freedoms persist.  “I grew up in a Muslim part of Russia that was forced into Russian Orthodoxy under the Soviet Union.  So, I had the opportunity to see how religion was going to play out in our republic after the Soviet Union fell apart.  There was tension, but our president was so great.  He said we all lived here for so many years that we could resolve the tension peacefully.  He developed policy and programs that have worked to make the two religions available in my region.  By law it is possible to have the mosques and the churches equal with no discrimination against either.  That was the only way to avoid civil war.”

Sofia also spoke of the freedom and opportunity that drew her here – so far from home.  “I truly think immigrants appreciate the United States more than people born as Americans because of the things we go through.  We see the contrast to experiences in our countries.  Freedom is important.  Many Americans don’t understand that the same way.  You fight for your freedom.  You really fight to be here where there are so many opportunities – so many things you can do with your life.”

Mohammad immigrated in the 1987.  He too was in his early 20’s, a Palestinian raised in Jerusalem.  “We were not a rich family, but education was important for my dad.  He wanted to make sure I got educated.  So the opportunity for me to come to the United States was a big thing.  I say that to people.  I say, ‘Regardless of all the bad stuff here, all the problems, I think this is still a great place to live.’  Where I lived as a little kid it was a struggle to do lots of things.  You had to carry papers and, as a Palestinian in Jerusalem, you had them checked all the time.  Here you have law and order to abide by.  There are some corruption problems, for example, with cops, but I’ve seen problems with cops in other countries that are so much worse.  Here there is law in place against corruption.  Corruption happens, but there are controls and criteria.

Academic exchange programs brought both Sofia and Mohammad to their first visit to the U.S.  Whatever fanciful notions they had were moderated by realities, but both of them and each of the other immigrants I interviewed, spoke with clarity and resolve about their gratitude for freedom, even with the flaws and stumbling in our nation’s version of democracy.

To claim their version of democracy thousands of Egyptians are giving heart and mind and body to the ominously uncertain circumstances in Tahrir Square.  They are doing this even as I type – even as you read.  All determined to shape their destiny and become masters of their own fate.

This is change that requires more courage and intelligence and love than is possible to describe.  It requires intricate, steady, immediate and persistent balance of individual will with devotion to unity across differences that are no doubt as vast among Egyptians as they are among Americans.

Most of us may only watch from a distance with whatever sense of respect and awe we may have – with whatever thoughts and prayers we may send.  There is no knowing how events will turn in Egypt to tremor across the globe.  We can know more about weather in the middle of our country.  The power and uncertainty in that is humbling enough these days.

The quiet entry of the Year of the Golden Rabbit is its own change.  May its predictions be true.  The planet and its people will do well to be on the receiving end of some peace and collaboration.

One last quote from the square:

Innaharda, ehna kullina Misryeen!

Today, we are all Egyptians!”

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