Friday, February 11, 2011

Being There

Oh, to be in Egypt now that you are here.

That's one thought running through my head at today's exhilarating if undeniably daunting news that the 18-day popular uprising in Egypt - epitomized by the massive demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square - has ended 29 years of rule by strongman Hosni Mubarak. After losing the confidence of the Army and resigning at last, Mubarak vacated the Presidental Palace near Cairo International Airport in Heliopolis and reportedly went to a Red Sea resort. It's not likely he'll enjoy his vacation, if vacation it is.

Another thought that's running through my head is how much of myself is invested in the news from Egypt, and how deeply I desire a long-term happy outcome there. I have visited Egypt twice in the past two years. After alighting in that history-rich country, I know a little more and care a lot more about Egypt than I did before. Now, I find myself wondering how my tri-lingual tour guide - a hard-working, university-educated guy who was denied a tourist visa to visit the United States in the wake of Sept. 11, with all its security fears - is faring. I wonder how the bright, personable public-relations woman who showed me around and talked to me over dinner in Cairo is doing.

Toppling Mubarak, as unlikely as it may seem, was the easy part. Now, comes the uncertainty and the power struggle and all the conflicting agendas and twists and turns on the political road toward democracy. I hope Egypt arrives safely.

There's nothing like Being There to put a face and a name on international developments that can otherwise seem abstract. This is true no matter what place you are thinking of. I cared more about the Velvet Revolution in what is now the Czech Republic, too, because I visited Prague in the years when the Iron Curtain was still firmly in place and Czechoslovakia was cordoned off behind it. I shared some fine Czech pilsener with a young worker I'll call Jan. He was hungry for information about music, culture and politics in the West in that pre-Internet age. When I returned home, I sent him a copy of Rolling Stone magazine, while cautioning him not to believe everything he read about the West, even if it was published in the West. When the old order crumbled in Czechoslovakia in 1989, it wasn't just a news story to me. I thought about Jan, who I had lost touch with, and hoped for the best for him.

That feeling of connectedness is the most wonderful, and meaningful, thing about travel. Beyond the travelogue videos and the tourist snapshots and the funny keepsakes and the stamps in your passport, there's something deeper going on. Every once in a while, that something is dramatized, brought to the fore. That is what's going on right now for me with Egypt.

There's nothing in the world like Being There.

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