Entry 4

Allah is my censor. Really. For my previous “Diary” entry, I used some wise-ass phrase I guess I can’t repeat because when I tried to send it to the Slate copy desk last time, the e-mail wouldn’t go, even after 10 urgent tries. Then I cut the phrase, and the e-mail went through immediately mafish mushkila (no problem). You might not believe that Allah is my censor, but if you lived in Cairo, you’d at least come to believe there’s a reason for things, or that the world is more than the sum of your will.

Cairo itself, Allah or not, reminds you of this. It seems obvious to say that a city is bigger than you are, but having spent most of my life in New York, I saw that most people, or most people I knew, came to forge that city in the image of their ambition. Cairo’s the cultural capital of the Arab world, and young people have to come here, or come back here, to be successful. Still, it’s different, largely because probably 90 percent of the people who live here have no choice. Egypt’s 65 million people live in only 5 percent of Egypt’s total land mass. Mubarak has a plan to change that by using the Nile to irrigate a part of Southern Egypt and turn it into an agricultural center, which would also relieve the congestion of the country’s metropolitan areas, Cairo and Alexandria especially, by making another 10 percent of the nation habitable. The problem with this Toshka project is that the weather is hotter and the soil saltier than studies had indicated. It’s costing billions, and now the project is set back till who knows when. The most cynical observers confide that Toshka’s riddled with corruption, and most everyone agrees that Mubarak may have rushed into it a little quickly. But no one says it publicly since the one thing you can’t do here is criticize the president’s person, which includes the project he thinks will be his lasting legacy, the way the war and the peace are Sadat’s, and Nasser’s is the Aswan Dam—though, of course, before 1967 few Arabs would have thought that’s how Nasser would go down in history.

We saw part of an Egyptian movie from that period today in one of my classes. It’s from ‘72, I think, about a middle-class Cairene family, and it starts with some elegant jump-cutting, and within two minutes, the beautiful actress in the lead role has married, given birth to six kids whose names all start with the letter M, and then her husband dies, and she announces to her kids that everything her husband was, their father, is in all of them now and the empire of the M has to continue. It’s got to be one of the few movies ever made where you break down crying before the titles come on. I can’t wait to see the end of it, it’s called Empire of the M.

It’s a pretty interesting group in the Arabic program at the university, and the students who’ve come from the States are a little more than curious and motivated. Everyone’s family made a big deal out of them coming, but for those who came, it was like the die’d already been cast. One American, a grad student from Pittsburgh who works on moderate Islamic movements, told me that in college he was on a semester around the world, and as soon as they pulled into the Suez, he knew this was for him. Maybe one of the reasons people come to the Arab world is that there’s so much room here to think like that, that different movement of mind. One guy I knew some from before, Aaron Tapper, the brother of Jake Tapper, a pal and then later a colleague at Talk. Aaron’s impressive. He’s got a master’s, I think, from Harvard Div. He’s Jewish, and last year he lived in an Arab quarter in Jerusalem without anyone knowing he was Jewish, so he pretty much cut himself off from both sides, which is good because he wants to work on conflict-resolution projects that bring together young Arab and Israeli kids. One of my favorite students is Nur. She’s probably in her late 40s, a very petite and gentle Muslim woman from Maylasia who wears the veil and teaches pedagogy and research technique in a university back at home. She did a lot of her degree work in the States and became a big college football fan. I asked if she went to any games. “All of them,” she said. “I was at LSU when we were playing Alabama for the SEC crown. Alabama had a very good team. Then I went to Missouri, and we didn’t have much of a team. Then I went to Michigan State, and we beat Michigan that year.” She has incredibly beautiful Arabic handwriting. She’s here, I’d imagine, so she can read the Quran better than she already can. We were on the same grammar team today, and I kept trying to get our side to use the noun Allah in a sentence about the most important person in the house—it makes for a simple and elegant Arabic sentence. Nur resisted, and after I pleaded, she laughed and said OK. “Allah’s good.”