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What it's like in Egypt: An email from my mom
238 points by zefhous 2244 days ago | hide | past | web | 56 comments | favorite
I just received this email from my mom who has been visiting my sister in Cairo. Some background: My sister Noelle lives there and teaches at the American University of Cairo. She is married to John, an Egyptian man. My father is Lebanese and my parents lived in Lebanon during much of their civil war before I was born.

Here's a lightly edited version of what she wrote:

Dear Friends,

There is still no internet here in Cairo as I write. The servers and the internet have been turned off, but I have decided to get my email ready so that I can send them when there is access again. The mobile phone system has been turned on again, according to Noelle who called hers from her land line. But it’s so busy that it’s almost impossible to call anyone yet, and the internet has not come on all of today.

It will be interesting to see who has written to check that I am still alive, and yes, I am still alive. As I asked before, please pray for the poor people here. They live on almost nothing, and my heart goes out to the parents who have nothing to feed their children. The poverty and suffering is so difficult, and the rage of the people is true. The rich are getting richer, and the poor are so unable to find jobs and ways to care for their families.

With my BA in Biblical Archaeology, I have been tempted to go to the National Museum of Cairo and stand guard with other Egyptian citizens, but what could I do with my cane as a weapon? We have seen photos of glass cabinets broken into and now empty in the museum, and it saddens me that a few foolish people would steal the gold and some of the amazing antiquities from the pharaoh’s times, an incredible treasure of Egypt.

On Friday, Noelle’s husband and my son-in-law, John, with his friend, were out for many hours in the vast crowds, photographing, dodging water cannons but still very wet from them and suffering from all the tear gas in the air. He and his Belgian friend, David, a houseguest who is planning to move here, went out together to observe and report on the events. David, who left for Brussels, going to the airport on Saturday morning as soon as the curfew lifted at 7 AM, said that the gas was terrible and miserable.

John wrote a news story for his Arabic newspaper which is both an online and in a printed paper. And he brought us home a tear gas canister so that we could see “the gifts that America sends to Egypt”. It was made on Kinsman Road in Jamestown, Pennsylvania, 16134. Manufactured in 2003, it is three years beyond its expiration date, but John said that it still worked very well. I rubbed my eye after I handled the canister, and I am regretting it now. It’s a few feet from me, but I can smell it from here. We are putting it into a clear plastic bag as a reminder of yesterday. Done.

People and families of those who have been injured, over 1000, and killed, over 150, like the young woman hit in the head with a tear gas canister while she stood agreeing and shouting from a bridge that Mubarak must be deposed, need so much prayer and care. John and David gave their scarves to men who were bleeding, and they called us on the land line from the newspaper office to ask for first aid advice. People were helping each other, but only some went to hospitals. But there was a shortage of fire trucks to quell the fires or ambulances to help the wounded.

Last night the citizens set up check points to search vehicles that were heading into areas where there were still riots. An ambulance that civilians searched had weapons and bullets in it going to the security forces. The people went crazy and took these weapons away from being supplied to the police who were going to use them on the people. Still, John said that people brought to the newspaper office both large and small bullets that had been removed from people or found on the street. So the police started out using rubber bullets which can wound and some times kill, and later used real bullets that can easily kill the citizens.

People here usually do not have weapons. This is not true in Lebanon. Last week I saw a hand gun, a rifle, and a semi-automatic machine gun at a neighbor’s home. He was happy and proud of them and felt they helped him keep his family safe and protected. John describes the police here as being brutal and inhumane and the jails as frightening places where torture is common and terrible.

Last night, the army was shooting multiple rounds into late in the evening, and I woke up this morning to that sound. With the curfew, people are protecting their own property, which is a good use of their time, since the police are not in evidence, and they have taken responsibility for chasing them off the streets. Some friends came over, I made a soup, and we prayed together for Egypt, and we watched TV for a while. Then we played RISK. We didn’t finish the game until 2 AM, and I, having won and lost the USA and won Europe, was the winner at RISK. How fun was that!

Personally, on Friday, I hobbled three blocks to the vegetable and fruit market and bought some fresh produce. Red cabbage, dirty potatoes, small zucchini, sweet potatoes, red peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, oranges and bananas. They usually wash their salad items in vinegar, but most of the vinegar had been taken by John and his friend to fight the worst effects of the tear-gas, so I boiled tomatoes to pop the skins off and peeled the other items.

I found and bought a good fresh crunchy romaine lettuce, and I am going to find more vinegar today so we can eat a salad, I hope. I found a sweet little village farm lady on the side of the road with a basket of greens, so she sold me the lettuce and some green onions. She wanted 65 cents. I paid her $1 because I wouldn’t ask her for change! Usually you cannot find anything that was just picked that day, so this was a bonus for my having hobbled out to shop. [...]

I will include a photo of the scene, but I am hoping to turn out an impressionist painting of the scene of Tahrir Square with tens of thousands of protestors in it in front of a huge government building at night. The largest protestant church in Egypt, Kassar Debara, is hidden behind it. Of Egypt’s 80 million people, 10% are Christians. Some Muslims have been guarding Coptic churches while Christians pray, and on Friday, Christians were guarding the mosques while Muslims prayed.


Hearing the gun shots late into the night (as the army is firing into the air to keep looters away) has reminded me of the war years Georges and I spent with André and Noelle in Lebanon. We always slept in the most hidden bedroom, and we kept the children with us so they wouldn’t be afraid. One evening, our apartment parking area near the stairs had a car that blew up because someone had wired a bomb to it. We had been at a party playing RISK, and we were fifteen minutes late getting André home for his bed time. We heard the loud blast of the car bomb as we were leaving, but only knew it was our building when we arrived home and all the doors had been shattered open. If we had been on time, we and our ears would have been finished. Georges spent the whole night with his drill and common sense repairing people’s doors so they could lock themselves in their apartments.

John's mother and brother, Nadia and David, are staying with us for several days now that the other David has gone home. It's too far to come for a visit during the curfew and then to go home by the subway, over an hour away. David, an architect, has a terrible and painful sickness, familial mediterranean fever. Different ethnic groups have this, Armenians, Jews, and Egyptians. What a difficult and painful sickness it is. The mothers get to share a bedroom. You can read about it on Wikipedia, but, of course, I cannot. I don't have access to the internet. Another teacher also stayed with us last night to understand the news and watch some TV stations here.

Now that we finally have had the internet turned back on, I shall look forward to reading your emails! I am flying out on Friday or Saturday, depending on when Lufthansa finds a space for me. [...] I am asking God to help me find a way to the airport. Gas stations have been rather closed. I hope to see and talk with many friends next week! Please pray for the helpless and hopeless in Egypt.

"Of Egypt’s 80 million people, 10% are Christians. Some Muslims have been guarding Coptic churches while Christians pray, and on Friday, Christians were guarding the mosques while Muslims prayed."


I hate it when people use that - but if anything deserves it, it is "This."

I went to a Christian college in Southern California. One of the things that I thought was interesting was how often professors in the Apologetics/Philosophy departments seemed to feel a kindred spirit with the world's Muslims. Whatever you think of either religion, (and certainly, this is the exception, not the rule, I'm sure) it is sometimes fascinating to see them ally with each other, especially when it seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. They have a lot more in common than either group would often like to admit.

I might be a little slow, but I didn't understand. What is "this"? What do you hate people using? Prayer, Islam, Christianity, or people professing religious harmony for maybe sorta political ends?

Using the word "this" after a quote is kind of internet short-hand for saying "this is super significant and bigger than any individual."

He said "this" but then said he doesn't like using it but had to in this case because it just fit. I think this usage may have come from Reddit?

Wherever it comes from, it’s one of the most obnoxious comment patterns on the internet, and I’d be extremely disappointed to start seeing it here. If something is worth quoting without further comment, a naked quotation is perfectly sufficient. If it needs special emphasis, how about just a simple “!” at the end.

Writing “this.” as a comment and then adding an apologetic explanation afterward is even worse, if that’s possible. If you need to write a sentence about the importance of something, how about writing something relevant instead of driving the conversation onto a tangent about commenting style.

* * *

Edit, since apparently this was unclear: it is obnoxious, to me (implied in my statement, though I’d guess it’s obnoxious to plenty of others as well). The danger with hackneyed phrases† and metaphors generally is that they encourage a lazy discussion style that decreases the signal-to-noise ratio. It is my personal experience that communities where usages like “this.” are popular are, on the whole, less relevant and interesting than ones where they aren’t. I don’t want people to start pulling quotations from linked articles as their entire comments, even if it might sometimes be appropriate, because when such comments are encouraged, the trend is toward banality and repetition.

† a hackneyed phrase itself. hah.

It's not obnoxious; it's an idiom, or a potential idiom, that wouldn't have caught on if it didn't fill a niche. Your suggested alternatives aren't the same thing at all. A naked quotation doesn't communicate what the quoter is feeling; you can't stick "!" at the end of a quote without changing it; and a free-floating "!" would be still more nonstandard and harder to read than "This."

It's just language evolution at work.

I think the reason people (including me) hate this particular idiom is that it adds nothing. The quote itself is sufficient emphasis without the sentence fragment "This." attached below it. Oftentimes we see a comment reply consisting solely of the word "This.", again, adding nothing that the voting system doesn't already do a better job of.

And now I have added nothing to the actual topic, which was a somewhat irrelevant to HN but amazing discussion of life in Cairo this week. Sorry.

I'm tired of hearing about the degradation of language content - the 'race to the bottom' of simplified language - being defended as 'just what language does'. Why can't people be proactive about the language they want to use?

What's wrong with someone discussing why they think it's poor, and providing motivation to a 'this'-er to see why it's poor and changing their behaviour towards a more informative approach?

Particularly in an intellectual environment such as what HN wants to fill, why is it wrong to say 'please don't dumb down conversation, please inject content'? After all, screaming 'first post' and trolling are also natural social progressions, but they're frowned on too.

You misunderstand how language changes. New forms always start out as incorrect. Incorrect usages that catch on eventually become correct usages. If everyone stuck to "good" usage, language would stay frozen, which would be a disaster for us humans. Fortunately, we can't control this. Language, as Heidegger said, is the master of man, not the other way around.

Educated people often perceive themselves as defending proper English or whatever against the uncouth hordes. One can see this in the arts, where the same people usually want to perpetuate classical forms. But once a form becomes classical it rarely produces much of lasting worth. Today's classical forms were yesterday's popular (or culturally marginal) forms, while yesterday's classical forms are mostly forgotten today. There are exceptions, of course, but this rule is remarkably stable. It took centuries for Shakespeare to be recognized as classic.

It's fun to note that this rule enables one to make some reasonable guesses. For example, it's more likely that our science fiction, comic books, and movies will be remembered centuries from now than it is that our literary novels will be. (Remember that the novel itself, at the time that the great European novels were being written, was regarded as a guilty pleasure - the way we regard, say, TV. Proper writers wrote drama in verse.) Ditto for rock and roll and hip-hop over orchestral music. And so on.

Once you see that railing against new linguistic forms is just one of those get-off-my-lawn complaints that are forever with us, much as the old always say that the young are ruining civilization, you become free to enjoy how things change. Real intellectual culture is closely connected to the marginal, lowly, and popular; it's pseudo-intellectual culture that wants to erect a wall against them.

Out of curiousity, if we shouldn't correct the language of those we believe are using it poorly, how would one justify the correction of subtle hate speech, which is about stopping language from being used to form a base opinion about a class of people?

Is this not interfering with the way individuals choose to use language, molding language into what we want it to be rather than letting it be what it naturally falls to?

Fair question. It seems to me that language isn't ever intrinsically hateful; what's hateful is the intent with which humans sometimes use it. "Nigger" isn't hateful when Chris Rock uses it; arguably not when Mark Twain put it in Huck Finn either. That's one of the fascinating things about language: the minute you try to pin it down, new usages appear that escape your grasp. Often to comedic effect.

"But once a form becomes classical it rarely produces much of lasting worth."

This may be true of arts, but it's not true of science. A clearly articulated idea does not lose cachet with age. Science isn't about 'forms' and 'styles', it's about accurately describing the world around us. Newtonian mechanics are 'classical' and 'old-fashioned', yet they still provide much of lasting worth to this day.

Anyway, I think to some degree you misunderstand my issue, which is about content. "this" is contentless. It is chaff. Noise. Mental overhead. It adds nothing. I would much prefer to read a rambling paragraph by someone with a poor grammar, spelling, or even knowledge of whitespace if that person is providing some content. Encouraging people to provide content and not just fall back on memes and tropes contributes to intellectual discourse.

All the examples you give provide content of some kind. Encouraging content promotes thinking about content, which in turn gives rise to more sophisticated thought - regardless of crossed t's and dotted i's.

Perhaps an example. I'm Australian, and our previously monocultural British heritage offered us wordplay as a way of life. Every member of society used a variety of forms of metaphor to communicate, and double entendres (not necessarily sexual) were common, as was the process of being able to say more by what you left out. As we rejected the WAP and became multicultural (this is not a jab in that direction, just an explanation), the complexity of this communication has markedly simplified - speaking in metaphor in public is now truly dead here as the great unwashed can no longer perceive the true meaning (which once was plain as the nose on your face). The influx of US media helped simplify things here as well. The art of everyday reading-between-the-lines is wasting away.

So we /have/ lost something tangible here. It's not about 'correct English', but complexity and subtlety in the way we can communicate. Things are much more stark and pinned down now - good for scientific work which should always be utterly unambiguous, but for everyday use not so much fun.

So this has changed. I know that it has to be this way, and it would be unfair to immigrants to force them to engage in communication that takes decades to master just to take part in public life (enough barriers as is). But it is not an 'enjoyable' change.

Perhaps a simile would be: imagine that if to continue communicating you were forced to use words no longer than three syllables long. It's doable, but it's constraining and you lose flexibility of expression.

"Real intellectual culture is closely connected to the marginal, lowly, and popular; it's pseudo-intellectual culture that wants to erect a wall against them."

I couldn't disagree more. I hear the 'erect a wall' part, but the marginal, lowly, and popular are the ones who ridicule those who show intellect or talent. In my experience, the 'good' intellectuals are those who can relate to the common person, but they prefer to be with people who can 'get' them, can converse with them on an equal footing.

And a prime example: "This." is lowly and popular, but real intellectual culture - not hipsters, but real intellectual culture - does not favour it.

This may be true of arts, but it's not true of science.

That would be why I was talking about the arts.

"this" is contentless. It is chaff. Noise. Mental overhead. It adds nothing

It's easy to see that this isn't always true. The "This" in elliotcarlson's original comment - for which he was reamed out and even felt obliged to ream himself out - wasn't contentless at all. Suppose instead he had written: "Here is the portion of the article that I found particularly significant." Nobody would have complained. Yet that would have been 10x as wordy and less idiomatic to boot. I knew what he meant when I read that comment and so, I bet, did nearly everyone else.

(I hope this subthread isn't too contentless. It's certainly offtopic. But language is intrinsically interesting, so I don't feel too bad adding to it.)


! or This, it doesn't had that much to conversation. I'd rather read fewer comments, than a bunch of this-s. But again, that's my opinion.

I agree it's obnoxious, however I didn't know how else to express my feelings towards the quote without taking away from the quote. Simply saying "wow" would have added even less to the conversation. My apologies either way.

If you have nothing of value to add to the conversation, you could refrain from adding anything and trust in the intellect of your fellow HNers to read the sentence that you quoted verbatim for themselves.

At this point your objections have been heard and understood.

I regret posting what I did as this thread has devalued the original posting, and that was far from the intention; however your continued objections aren't helping this tangent from dieing down either. I'll be sure to consider your points in the future, I realize I could have approached it differently - can we let the subject die now and not lose any more focus on the original posting.

How about we all start writing "quoted for truth" instead? ;)

no. just no.

>I think this usage may have come from Reddit?

I remember seeing it on somethingawful as far back as 2003. They started a lot of memes, tl;dr, o rly? and so on.

That wasn't SA, it was most certainly Ebaums.

(<small>if you don't get the joke...</small>)

I actually have it from Fark, not sure what year it started being used there, but I have been an active member there since just before 9/11 and stayed because of the awesome community and responsiveness to the events during that time.

Portuguese speakers have long used "isto" (translated as this) as an affirmative statement, regular usage of a term meaning "this" as an affirmative didn't start with the internet.

It's usually from bulletin boards and other places with no proper +1 feature like upvotes.

reddit's karma system is pretty much crap, so there's still an incentive for some people to use it on it.

I think he feels that that was one of the most moving and important pieces of information in the letter.

I'm not religious, but that's how I felt.

He probably hates when people confirm an excerpt of an article by just saying 'this' instead of elaborating about their opinion, but felt it's a good occasion to just do that, because that quote speaks for itself.

He hates when people use that method of drawing attention to things -- quoting something then saying "this". I think it is popular on Reddit, but I am not too sure.

I think he meant that he hates when people use only the single statement, "This," as commentary.

Exactly as other people have responded "This." is often used as a response to say that that portion or that article being referenced is of extreme significance. I hate when people use it, it just seems lazy, but the significance of that statement I quoted meant a lot to me, and I consider myself agnostic with no religious beliefs what so ever.

That's precisely why it annoys me. The power of this article was in its nuance and thoughtful breadth - we see the spectrum of human behavior ranging from authoritarian control to self-interested defense, to altruistic concern for fellow citizens. But with a simple "this" you're asking us to hyperfocus on the most Hallmark, ready-for-a-60-Minutes-segment slice of the story. Presumably we all read "this". If you don't have anything to add to elaborate on it, what does denoting its significance add?

I hate to jump on the pile, but since I value HN discussion, I'm happy to see "this" (usually) downvoted and put out of practice here.

While you are correct, I didn't have anything to elaborate on, the denoting of it's significance was to allow others to perhaps continue on that key element.

I agree that this practice is bad, and it should be downvoted; which is why I have upvoted every single comment saying I shouldn't have posted it (though it bothers me that jacobolus downvoted all the people explaining my post - they were being helpful and should not have been downvoted imho).

I will make sure that my future contributions are of substance, and know that the route I took was a mistake.

"...he brought us home a tear gas canister so that we could see “the gifts that America sends to Egypt”. It was made on Kinsman Road in Jamestown, Pennsylvania, 16134."

I've seen this covered all over the news and can't understand the logic. Despite the fact that the United States has publicly backed the will of the Egyptian people, calling for an orderly transition - there seems to be a pathological need to throw some egg. No one is grabbing the 7.62 casings from the Misr-AKM and saying, "see the gifts Russia sends to Egypt?"

It's almost as if the dictator they want to overthrow has been one of America's closest allies in the region. Why, to hear them talk, you'd think America has made the dictator's continued reign a linchpin of their Middle Eastern policy.

Last Thursday we were solidly on the side of Mubarak. We only backed the will of the Egyptian people after it became clear that Mubarak had little hope of retaining power.


They have very good reason for being angry with us.

Since Israel and Egypt made peace in 1979, the US has sent Egypt over a billion dollars per year in military aid. (http://tpmlivewire.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/02/us-aid-to-e...)

The Egyptian people have wanted a more democratic government for quite a few years, and the US only started throwing its diplomatic weight behind the opposition after it became likely that they would win no matter what.

A possible reason: nobody buys it when Russia says they support democracy.

Another point worth bearing in mind: three days of supporting protestors probably will not compensate (from a "hearts-and-minds" perspective) for three decades of supporting their tyrant, quite irrespective of any realpolitikal justifications that may exist.

Fact is that the Egyptian regime (and many others in the region) have been supported in many ways by the U.S. government.

Do you have the slightest idea of what we've been doing in that country for the last 30 years?

Is there any possible scenario where labeling a tear gas can with the country of origin is beneficial to that country? Wheat, yes. Medicine, yes. Teargas???

The tear gas company referenced above, which is located in Pennsylvania:: http://combinedsystems.com/

Just as I suspected, a search for {murtha "combined systems"} shows that this was yet another government or military connected company which located in that part of Pennsylvania due to Rep. Murtha's strongarming.

I will include a photo of the scene

zefhous, do you have this photo? Can you make it available?

Amazing submission, thank you.

Thanks for sharing that. After reading about how the Christians and Muslims are protecting each other, I think Egytians in general must be pretty awesome people.

they're just people. there's plenty of countries out there

Mistakenly believing that an act of humanity is a sign of that person/group/country's ethical superiority is a tragically common, and tragically ironic occurrence.

Have you stopped to ask who they are protecting them from?

I was actually wondering just that. Do you happen to know the answer?:)

I am sadly uninformed about Egypt's socio-political scene.

The US gives over a billion dollars in military aid to Egypt for strategic reasons and also to maintain peace between Israel and Egypt. This aid is not meant for Mubarak but it is for any government Egypt supports. So US should continue providing such aid even if Mubarak is toppled. Hope peace is restored soon. Thanks for posting the email. So informative.


For those interested, Al Jazeera's online producer Evan Hill tweets pretty frequently with eyewitness updates on what's happening over there:


Things have gone up a notch in the last 24 hours or so.

Thanks for sharing!

Unfortunately all praying is waste of time...

Looks fake to me.

What looks fake? Why would I fake it?

I'd be happy to answer questions if you are actually interested.

Created: 24 minutes ago.

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