Eric Maddox introduced us to his Virtual Dinner Project with his first contribution to PITAPOLICY in May. He recently traveled to Egypt to continue his work in the bustling city of Cairo and was enthralled by the energy fueling the city as Egyptians awaited the results of the first democratic elections held there just this month, The following is an update on the Virtual Dinner Project and a first hand account of the environment in a country “awakened” in the past year and a half. Throughout the month of June, PITAPOLICY has focused on elections, election politics and the electoral process, and it only seems fitting that it end with the final edition of his piece, coming from the country whose election process just culminated, and made history.
Virtual Dinner Project: Erik Breaks Pita Bread with Egypt
By: Eric Maddox
June 22nd in Cairo, Egypt~It’s 9pm on Friday night and I’m wending my way through the tangled mass of tents, tarps, sleeping souls and teach-ins that have again emerged within the dusty center of Tahrir Square. Most days, Tahrir is a sun-baked patch of dust, the presence and absence of these encampments appearing to function more as a political barometer than the permanent fixture I had expected to see when I first arrived in Cairo back in March. Their reemergence this week comes in the wake of the recent dissolution of the parliament by Egypt’s high court.
You can take a couple of minutes to walk through Tahrir Square with me here.
I emerge on the other side of the elevated circle that defines the center of the square, and feel an urgent tug at my sleeve as I stretch to take a couple of casual snapshots of the pulsing crowd. Some guy with a huge bandage around his arm is demanding to know my nationality, and punctuates his demands by pointing angrily at my camera, miming its immanent destruction. I take the giggles of youthful onlookers to indicate that he is in it for the chest-thumping as much as anything. I pry his hand from my collar and tell him there is nothing political about my photographs of the busy Koshari cart in front of us.
A campaign of xenophobic television ads in recent weeks has left me wondering what kind of welcome I’d be likely to receive the next time I venture into the symbolic epicenter of Egypt’s political discontent. In the back of my mind I note that this evening’s excursion may function as my field test for SCAF’s latest propaganda campaign. Indeed, I end up being confronted about my nationality two other times over the course of the evening. On the other occasions I am questioned by more amiable and apologetic civilian security guards, regular looking guys, posted at the traffic barricades that trace the perimeter of the square. After I explain where I am from they wave me through with sheepish smiles and the traditional warm greetings that have remained the norm during my time in post-Mubabarak Egypt. Only one civilian sentry demands to see my passport. It occurs to me that I’d never hand over such documentation to a stranger in my own country, but here I feel compelled to offer it, more as a gesture of support than a capitulation to authority. I figure the best way to combat SCAF’s worrisome PR initiative is to address paranoia with a healthy measure of jovial transparency.
It occurs to me that this approach might also be advisable with my anti-camera adversary here in Tahrir. I ignore his threats and assert my defiance with a couple of artistically useless pictures, but decide to walk over to him and offer a reconciliatory hand shake. His face instantly melts into an ear-to-ear grin and he shoves his bowl of Koshari into my face, refusing my repeated attempts at a diplomatic refusal. I tuck a spoon into a pile of the hottest street food I have yet experienced, in a street-food-heavy trip that has already put some hard miles on my stomach. My new friend is beaming, and so am I. As we part ways with smiles and handshakes I get a street level reminder of why I set out on this journey four months ago. Time and again I have witnessed the transformative effect that a few shared morsels can have on human relationships. Food in a public space is an invitation to create community, whether between individuals or whole groups. Bread broken and shared can break down cultural divisions, nourish new notions of “brotherhood” and reveal a bit of common humanity. Hot tempers now defused with hot Koshari, I bounce down to street level and weave through the crowd to catch up with some of my Virtual Dinner friends and supporters at a local Ahua (coffee shop).
Cairo has quickly and naturally become the organizational hub of the Virtual Dinner Guest Project. Holding regular summits at the ubiquitous Ahawey that are sprinkled around the back streets and alleys just blocks from Tahrir, a growing community of young revolutionaries, students, journalists and civil society organizations have thrown their resources and enthusiasm behind the VDG Project to give it a sense of local ownership and support that will make it both hard to leave and easy to return.
I’m heading to Lebanon at the end of the week to partner with Radio Beirut, the city’s first community and artist-driven radio station and cultural space. They’re set to start tickling the airwaves in early July. Assuming the still elusive quest for funding bears fruit, I will be back in Cairo for a third extended visit before Summer’s end, with ultimate goals to stay in the region and continue connecting to US universities, local institutions and our emerging list of community-based partners that span from Latin America to Southeast Asia… all from this fledgling base in the MENA region.
Recent Virtual Dinners have connected Tunisians and Egyptians (now on three occasions), the latest being last week’s Virtual Lunch between the production staff at Tunisia Live (Tunisia’s first English-language news site), and the Cairo headquarters of the Ashoka Foundation Arab World, where the conversation ranged from press coverage about Salafism to strategies for countering simplistic narratives concerning the role of religion in regional and national politics.
Postscript: Egyptian election results are now about two hours old. I made three new friends today over liver and onion sandwiches from a Tahrir food cart. All have taken me under their wings and offered to show me around. There were a few murmurs amongst the crowd that I might be a spy as I conducted street interviews in the minutes before the official results, but the overall mood was very welcoming.
As I compose this post just a couple of blocks from Tahir, the mood is nothing short of jubilant, with the downtown streets now an echo chamber for firecrackers and triumphant car horns. With all of the excitement and crowds I haven’t had a chance to eat for hours. Gonna get back out there and see who else my stomach decides to introduce me to. Please follow our efforts on Facebook, and support us at: http://virtualdinnerguest.com/