Saturday, August 04, 2007

It’s not really unique for me to identify myself as one of the former U of MN people who lived in Minneapolis, a quarter of a mile from the I-35 bridge. I lived there for four years before moving last year to Cairo. I knew that area – I walked and drove around, under, and over that bridge almost every day. I drove over that bridge multiple times this June. But if you live in Minneapolis, you have driven over that bridge.

When I am horrified by or grieving about something, I stiffly clutch my jaw with my palm, as if somehow holding my face up can keep me cool. I sat there like that in front of CNN after J called me from L.A. to let me know about the bridge collapse. I called people – one friend had simply decided to take 94 instead of 35 that day because he had a craving for a sweet shop called Diana’s Bananas. “Diana’s Bananas saved me,” he said, downplaying it Minnesota-edly, even though he’s from Arkansas. Once I thought I had everyone covered, I would think of one more person. And then I would think about people I’ve lost touch with. My former colleagues. Even people I disliked – oh, please, let them be all right. My former students. And so on.

In Egypt, it was about 1 am when the bridge collapsed. Even so, I received an email from one of my Egyptian friends just a few hours after the incident. He knew I had lived in Minneapolis, and he wanted to send his sympathy for my family and friends and make sure everyone was all right.

On September 11th, I remember clutching my jaw. I had been eating some granola that morning in Ames, Iowa, before I found out. I woke up J and snapped on the TV like everyone else. Hours later, I looked down at the bowl of granola, lumped in soymilk, in my lap. I didn’t cancel my classes the next day like many instructors – instead, my students and I tried to talk about it. What a mess that discussion probably was.

My Egyptian friend has a September 11th story too. Once he heard the news, he ran to find his brother in a café, which was eerily silent except for the TV. The men in the café were stunned. “No one was rejoicing,” he said sternly, when I claimed that this was indeed different than some of the images I remember CNN broadcasting – for instance, the image of Arabs joyfully burning an American flag. In 2001 I could not have told you what country that image was from.

Despite the nice time I am having in Egypt, there is this sadness, a beaten-down kind of sadness that comes when one’s social and economic life, due to the stagnant politics of the country, are not really free. Many taxi drivers in Cairo have PhD’s in fields such as engineering, medicine, and law – and they are stuck there, where there aren’t jobs, and often barred entrance from places like the U.S. Yet so many of these people mourned for those killed on September 11th. And my friend, across an ocean and a continent, heard about Minneapolis, a city nowhere close to the population of Cairo and in a tragedy – yes, I think it’s a tragedy, so don’t misunderstand – that claimed comparatively few lives, and he sent his regrets.
More often than not, I have received a surprised response when I say that the Egyptian people are the nicest I have ever met.


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