A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it... We are too ready to retaliate, rather than forgive... And yet we could hurt no man that we believe loves us. Let us try then what love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel.
William Penn

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone...
George Fox

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Final Post

I want to thank everyone who has supported me for the past 20 months. When I left Portugal in November 2011 with 235 euros, I never really expected to get to Egypt. Your contributions amounted to well over 3000 euros; your offers of hospitality along the way probably double that amount. So here I am.
Though I reached the pyramids, walking for Masterpeace, I was unable to deliver my peace petitions. Nevertheless, the subject of peace in the Middle East was discussed and argued from Portugal to Egypt, and awareness of the problem in Israel and Palestine is the first step to a solution.
I may have inspired a few people as I walked, and they may become better peacemakers than I have been.
In any case, I hope I have achieved something for the good of humanity. Most certainly, those of you who supported me have done some good for humanity, not because you supported me, but because you supported someone in need, and because you shared a belief in the possibility of world peace.
My Buddhist friends would call that good karma.

I would say to anyone who is led by God to do something, or to anyone who feels compelled to live authentically-- whether that leading or compulsion is to walk for peace, or to cycle to China, or to volunteer at a homeless shelter, or to devote oneself to raising a family in a peaceful and loving environment-- I would say to that person to follow that leading. If work gets in the way, find another job. If cynical people get in the way, go around them. If fear gets in the way, face that fear. Whatever the obstacles, try to overcome them, or put them aside to live your life abundantly.

I am taking a car to Sharm al Sheik in a few hours, then flying to Milan in the morning.
I hope to find work in Italy; possibly picking  fruit, as suggested by Italian freediving friend Crista.
With what I earn I hope to buy a second hand touring bike, and to cycle from Germany to Syria to raise money for Syrian refugees. When I was in Antakya, Turkey, near the Syrian border, I felt I had unfinished business there. This fundraiser will probably be done through International Rescue Committee. www.rescue.org
My new blog, which is under construction, is cyclingtosyria.blogspot.com.

Finally, St. Francis' Prayer, which I picked up in a church in the French Alps.

Lord, make me your instrument of peace.
Where there is hatred, may I bring love.
Where there is offense, may I bring forgiveness.
Where there is dissension, may I bring union.
Where there is error, may I bring Truth.
Where there is doubt, may I bring faith.
Where there is despair, may I bring hope.
Where there is darkness, may I bring light.
Where there is sadness, may I bring joy.

Lord, may I not seek comfort, but give comfort;
try, not to be understood, but to understand;
try, not to be loved, but to love.

For it is in giving, that we receive;
in forgetting ourselves that we find ourselves;
in forgiving, that we obtain forgiveness;
and in dying, that we live for eternal life.

Thank you again, friends.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Healing in Dahab

Being in the sleepy town of Dahab, Sinai, on the Gulf of Aqaba, has been a healing experience.
I've been here almost a month, though I've had to check the calendar to confirm that fact,  as time loses significance here. The other day I was lounging around with some free diving friends, and when someone asked what day it was, we were all at a loss for an answer.
I stayed for some time with Couchsurfing hosts, my last on this journey for peace. I'm not sure for how long I stayed with them. The rest of the time I've spent at Sindbad Camp, living in a cabana by the sea. At times I sleep outside, under the stars. Bedouins are employed at the camp, which is sleepier than Dahab itself, and I've made some friends among them. The people who stay at the camp are varied; a few SCUBA divers, quite a few free divers, several travelers; some taking a low budget, relaxing holiday, others passing through on their perpetual world journeys.
One Japanese woman has been traveling for five years, and lived in Nepal for a time. An Austrian woman, Karin Gebauer, is here for a free diving competition at Blue Hole. She's Austria's leading female free diver. A Catalan man is here for his free diving instructor's certificate. He got most of his free diving experience before he knew what free diving was, as a spear fisherman. None of them are what I would call tourists.

While walking with Inge from Slovenia to Turkey, she talked a lot about free diving. She had been in Bali a few years before, overcoming her fear of the water by learning to free dive. This is something like overcoming a fear of heights by learning to skydive.
In Serbia we had a host who was a free diving instructor, and the two of them talked. In Bulgaria we had another free diving host, and they talked about free diving as well. At the time I wasn't very interested.
Now for the past three or four weeks I've been in Dahab, almost by accident, and surrounded by free divers.
Edward and Andreas stop by Sinbad Camp on occasion for something to eat, or to talk about free diving. They're sometimes accompanied by other free divers. They're all from the 'non-competitive' school of free diving, which seems a bit zen, without the negative, New Age connotation. Andreas, a free diving instructor, had offered me an introductory course at a discount, but not having the money for this, his friend, Edward, offered to get me in the water with a few pointers.
A Bedouin has loaned me his extra long free diving fins and mask, and I've been making elementary free dives ever since. I haven't gone very deep, but even at 10 meters, it's nice to glide past the SCUBA divers, who like herds of camels seem to plod along with their humps. "Eat your heart out!" I'm thinking, as I dolphin kick past them on my back.
So after all that free diving talk from Inge-- through Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey-- three and a half months-- "Blah, blah, blah, free diving, blah, blah, blah" -- I am by accident experiencing in the warm, cerulean sea what she had related to me in the cold, landlocked Balkans. And now it's my turn to "Blah" about free diving.
Here's something nice to watch about free diving in Dahab, so I won't have to "blah" about it anymore. 

I said, "by accident", because Dahab was a last thought; an alternative to Cairo should I be refused entry again in Israel. I wasn't looking for Dahab, I just wanted anything but that hellhole Cairo. And Dahab was the nearest place to retreat to from Taba Border crossing. And Dahab turns out to be a bit of a paradise.

There is a German woman here who has heard the story of my walk for peace, about it's highs and lows, and about the final disappointment in not being able to deliver the petitions, or even being able to get into Israel. She believes the peace process on this journey is only now beginning for me, right here in Dahab.

While waiting for the final donations to fly me back to Europe, I looked for work. I worked with a metal smith for a day, but we mostly drank tea and philosophized about life. He didn't really need a helper, but was trying to make his friend, Barbara, happy. She'd asked him to give me a job. She also asked a carpenter to give me a job, but we drank tea as well. He didn't need any help either.
Though I am a Quaker, I looked for work as a bartender. I haven't seen anyone drunk here; you'll find the heavy drinkers down the coast at Sharm al Sheik, which is a resort for tourists, and not travelers. The drug of choice here is hashish rather than alcohol, so I feel tending bar in Dahab would be akin to hosting a quiet gathering of friends. But the bars weren't hiring; business has been slow for a few years.
The rest of the world believes Egypt in general, and Sinai in particular to be dangerous places. We all laugh about that here, at least regarding Dahab. Two bombs went off here in 2006, but bombs seem to be going off everywhere at one time or another these days. A few people have been kidnapped by Bedouins recently-- the bad Bedouins, my Bedouin friends tell me-- but even they were treated as guests rather than as hostages.
Free diving friend Edward has come down with typhoid fever, probably from the water, but it's treatable. He should be fine in a week. But the drinking water may be the most dangerous thing here.
I also answered advertisements to volunteer at a couple of small hotels-- I would be paid with room and board-- but they said no. I imagine I may not be young or pretty enough.
And there are no English schools in Dahab open in the summer, so my EFL experience was of no use.

Thanks to some very generous donations, however, I now have my ticket out of here. In Cairo, a ticket out would have filled me with joy, but in Dahab I am filled with trepidation at the prospect of stepping off the plane in Milan. The pace will be double or triple what it is here. There will be rules to follow everywhere I go. I'll have some hosts waiting to take me in for a day or for a few weeks, but I am literally homeless now, and the money that goes so far in Dahab will go quickly there. It will be intimidating.

But I am confident I'll find work to earn the money I need for my next 'mission'.
I'll talk about that on my next, and final "Down to Egypt' blog post.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Making Wishes in the Desert

Eline and Wilhelm come from Holland every year to spend their holiday in Dahab. They enter their sanctuary, a five star hotel on the sea, and they never leave it. They go from their room to the swimming pool to the restaurant. Eline also visits Barbara on the hotel grounds to watch her make her ceramic pottery. Eline envies Barbara in a way; Barbara is an artist, and a permanent resident of Dahab, something Eline imagines she would like to be. But Barbara goes to her small home every day, located in the Bedouin part of Dahab, and she routinely deals with that part of being an expat here that Eline probably wouldn't like so much. For example, water is supposed to come once a week, through a hose, when Barbara fills her water tanks and 5 liter water bottles to water the plants. At times, though, the water never arrives, and the plants go dry, and a shower becomes a matter of great concern.
This year Eline and Wilhelm have decided to venture out of the hotel for the first time. It is Eline's birthday, and she has invited Barbara and I to go for a Bedouin meal in the desert mountains. Selim arrives in a pick-up truck to take the four of us out of Dahab. After a fifteen minute ride, we're turning onto a sandy road leading into a wide ravine between cliffs. But for a few, sparse desert plants, there is nothing but rock and sand. The pickup truck moves slowly around boulders and nearly gets stuck in the sand once or twice before we arrive at a palm grove in a narrow ravine. There are other Bedouins there, sitting barefoot on blankets, and we stop for tea before helping to load the truck with everything we'll need for the meal. Selim's helper joins him in the front seat, Wilhelm and I sit in the back seat, and Eline and Barbara sit on stools in the pick-up's bed.
"This is a great experience," says Wilhelm. "I'm glad to be sharing it with you." He pats my shoulder firmly while saying this.
"I'm glad to be sharing it with you too, Wilhelm," I say. He offers his hand and I shake it.
"Thanks for inviting me, " I say.
"Thanks for being here with us," he replies.
Selim drives us deeper into the ravine, which he tells us can become a raging, torrential river when it rains here, three or four times a year. At our destination, at the farthest part of the ravine navigable by a pick-up truck, we stop and unload. I am excited to be out here; Wilhelm and Eline are trying to be excited, but they seem a little uncomfortable; Barbara is nonchalant about the whole thing. She's lived in Sinai for a long time.
When Selim tells us to keep an eye out for snakes and scorpions, Wilhelm and Eline get a little more nervous.
They scan the sandy ground.
After the blankets have been spread we're served more tea by Selim's helper, who remains silent and detached. The two of them squat to start a fire with wood and charcoal they've brought along, then they begin cooking. Barbara has brought candles, and she places them among the cliffs, more for ambiance than for lighting.
"It's so quiet out here," says Wilhelm. He's right, when no one is speaking, the silence is absolute.
"It's so beautiful," says Eline.
There's a bit of chatting, and Eline explains to us that she has burned all her metaphors. There's some silence after this, then I ask her what that means. She doesn't know how to answer, other than to say that burning her metaphors has helped to free her.
"Cool," I say, nodding.
After a bit we're all lying on our backs on the blanket, waiting for the first stars to come out.
"It's so quiet out here," says Wilhelm.
When the food is served, the four of us eat quietly. It doesn't seem right to make noise out here. Selim and his helper hang back, and Wilhelm and Eline invite them to eat with us.
"Later'" says Selim.
The food is fantastic; roast chicken, rice, vegetables, and flat bread baked on the fire, but I am the only one who is eating ravenously. I check myself and force myself to slow down.
Eventually Selim joins us on the opposite side of the low table, but his helper still hangs back, smoking.
While Eline and Wilhelm sit quietly, and Barbara lies on her back looking for shooting stars, I talk with Selim. I tell him about my journey, and he says I'm a Bedouin. He tells me all about life in Sinai in the time of his father and grandfather, when there were no cars or roads, and when camel caravans were common. He tells me all about camels, how they are spirited in the winter, and lazy in the summer. He tells me about the weak camels that populate Sinai now. They come from Sudan, and hang around doing nothing all day. The Sinai camel, which he says was far more robust, is almost extinct now. I think of  Nietzsche's criticism of Darwin's theory, in which Nietzsche says the fat and lazy survive, and not the fittest. Selim talks also about how the Bedouins import their Toyota pick-up trucks. They're cut in half, just behind the cab, at the exporting port, then welded together again in Sinai. This is to avoid paying taxes for a vehicle. They're shipped as junk.
I ask Selim about the time of Israel's occupation of Sinai. He says his mother took him and his brothers and sisters to hide in the mountains, but then he surprises me by saying it was an awakening for the Bedouins. They had cars and TV's for the first time when the Israelis came. Now the Israelis are gone, and business is bad. He also explains how the Bedouins are not Egyptians, but of Saudi descent. Before the establishment of the state of Israel, their camel caravans regularly traded with the Saudis via Aqaba. I tell him I'd wanted to walk, or at least hitchhike through Sinai, but the Egyptian military at the Sinai border would have prevented me from doing this.
"F***ing Egyptians," he says. But I know he has many Egyptian friends.
Barbara has brought a paper, hot air 'wish balloon' for Eline's birthday, and she opens it while Wilhelm lights the wick under it. After a few minutes, it inflates, and rises tentatively into the black, starry sky like a cosmic fire ship.
"Happy birthday," we say to Eline, quietly. We watch, making our wishes as the illuminated balloon wavers, then rises higher. On reaching the height of the surrounding mountain's summits, the wind catches it and it sails away for a bit before descending behind another mountain.
"So beautiful," Wilhelm says.
When Selim and I begin talking again in low voices so as not to disturb the desert, Wilhelm says it's time to leave, but that I can stay with the Bedouins if I like. He's joking, but I know I'll be back out here for a night or two in my tent. I reveal my thoughts to Selim.
"You don't need tent," he says. "Bedouins sleep outside in summer. Just look for snakes and scorpions."
It's very dark, so I can only imagine our Dutch friends straining to see the ground at this reminder.
Afterwards we silently pack everything into the truck, and Selim drives it at a swaying crawl through the dark ravine. On the way the headlights catch a small owl perched on a rock. It rotates its head to have a look before flying away into the darkness. Then we're back on the sand covered road to the hotel, where we say our goodbyes, and where Eline and Wilhelm return to their refuge before flying back to Holland. But having had this wonderful experience in the desert, and having made their wishes, when they come back next year I am sure they will see Sinai, and not just the hotel.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Denied entry... sigh... again

Getting off the ramshackle bus from Dahab, an Italian man and his girlfriend asked if I'd like to share a taxi to the Israeli border. I told them the border crossing was only 800 meters away, but I would take the number 15 bus with them to Eilat once we were through.
As we walked the 800 meters together, we chatted a bit. They had recently come from Jordan, which they had enjoyed much more than Egypt. I told them about the incredible hospitality I'd enjoyed when in the north of Italy, where they were from, and like all the Italians I'd met from the north, they couldn't believe it; only the south of Italy was able to produce real hospitality, they said.
Then I told them I'd been denied entry into Israel once before, in Haifa. I explained what I thought were the reasons why. I suggested that maybe we should go through the border crossing separately, so no one would think we were going to be together in Israel.
After getting through the Egyptian side of the crossing, they took my advice by speeding ahead of a large Korean tourist group. I fell behind, and that was the last I saw of them.

Getting into Israel through Taba seemed like it would be a pleasant experience, compared to the shipboard experience I had in Haifa. The security people at Taba all seem to have been selected for their appearance and social skills. There were lots of smiles as I was asked to show my passport or have my bag x-rayed. The border control building was cool, air conditioned perhaps, and I drank water from a cold water fountain, which is something I haven't done in ages.
My passport had already been stamped to enter Israel when I had one more desk to check in at. The same question I'd answered several times was asked by a somewhat less pleasant woman.
"Why are you coming to Israel?"
I gave the same answer.
"To work for an NGO in Negev, and to visit Eilat and Be'er Sheva."
But this time, instead of being moved on, the woman picked up a phone and called her superior. Her superior turned out to be a very pleasant woman. She had a look at my e-mailed letter of invitation from the NGO, then did a little searching on the computer.
"What happened in Haifa?" she asked.
"Here we go," I thought.
"It was implied that I didn't have enough money," I said.
"How much did you have?"
"About 300 dollars."
"How much do you have now?"
"A little less than 300 dollars."
We both laughed.
"But," I added, "last time I wanted to stay for three months. This time only for three weeks and I'm being hosted the entire time by this NGO."
Surely she would accept this.
"Please sit down here," she said, not accepting it, and indicating a chair near a closed door. But she smiled, the way a mother smiles at a naughty child. I took this as a good sign. Sympathy.
As I waited I watched as the last of the Korean group passed through the last obstacle and through the gate into Israel. I was so close. A security man near the gate told me I could go get something to eat if I liked, or go have a smoke in the smoking area on the balcony. With so much hospitality, I didn't mind waiting for the interrogation soon to come. At the balcony a sliding glass door opened automatically, and I stepped on to a deck overlooking the Gulf of Aqaba. A catamaran full of tourists glided by. I almost expected a waiter to step out for my order. Then the supervisor came to fetch me. It was time.
The questioning was a pleasant affair, despite the denial that I felt was coming. Only the man sitting behind the supervisor was unpleasant. He stared with cold, blue eyes.
Most of the questioning had to do with my lack of money, but I was asked about my walk for peace.
"And how will helping to renovate a Bedouin children's center make peace?" I was asked.
I explained as if to a child.
"Helping those at the bottom of a social structure is the foundation for peacemaking..."
Then, a pause, and the supervisor gently began to tell me the bad news.
"If I came into your country without any money, they wouldn't like it, would they?"
"But I'm only staying three weeks, and being hosted by this NGO..."
The man with the glaring eyes interjected. "You can't just wander around Israel for three months without money," he said.
"But, I have hosts, and this NGO, and only three weeks..."
"I'll check with my supervisor, but don't expect much," said the pleasant lady. She gazed at me sorrowfuly.
"Okay," I said, pouting.
While waiting in my chair outside the office, the pleasant supervisor came out to ask another question.
"How long have you spent in Egypt?"
"About two months."
Back into  the office she went. A few minutes later she called me back in.
"I'm sorry, " she said. "I have to refuse you."
She was very apologetic, and while escorting me back through the building, she explained that because of Haifa, she couldn't let me into Israel. As she opened the blue iron gate, she wished me the best of luck, again with the sorrowful face, or perhaps with the face of a kind woman who's putting the puppy outdoors after it's pooed on the rug. I could have hugged her. Then she slammed the gate. Ahead of me was a sign, "Welcome to Egypt."
I sighed heavily and plodded forward.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

At the Sinai Border; Dahab; Plans; Thanks; Reaching the Pyramids

At the Sinai border, the East Delta bus I was on came to a halt. We were ordered off,  told to remove our luggage, and to place our bags in a line. Our passports were checked by a plain clothes policeman, and a German shepherd was brought in to sniff the bags. Soldiers in desert camouflage stood around, some of them in bulletproof vests. When the policeman saw my American passport, he shook his head and asked me my name. I gave him the short version. I thought there might be a problem-- I'd heard of an American being refused a ticket for a bus through Sinai recently-- but in the end he handed the passport back, and I was again on the bus to Dahab.
The Sinai border was a military zone, and I don't think I could have walked or hitchhiked through Sinai, even if I'd had logistical support to get through the desert. There have been too many kidnappings at the expense of the Egyptian government, and Westerners are prohibited from traveling the peninsula on their own.

Meanwhile, Dahab is a sleepy Bedouin village turned tourist town on the Gulf of Aqaba. It's famous for it's diving and backpacker atmosphere. Dive shops, restaurants, bungalows and shops line the shore. Across the Gulf of Aqaba, Saudi Arabia's desert mountains are visible some 25 kilometers away. The gulf itself is cerulean blue, and Dahab's backdrop is like Saudi on the other side of the gulf; more tan desert mountains. Tourists here confine themselves to the shoreline; go just one block inland and the town belongs to the Bedouins.
My two hosts here are expats, both living in the Bedouin districts. They've been very hospitable and helpful in showing me around. I've been enjoying the peace and quiet here after six trying weeks in chaotic Cairo.

 On the 28th I'll take a bus to Taba, then enter Israel. I have an invitation from an NGO near Beer Sheva which, among other things, helps Bedouins in Israel's Negev Desert. I'll be living with a Bedouin family in an unofficial village, helping to renovate a children's center. Before getting there I'll visit Kibbutz Samar for a day or two.

I'd like to thank some people in Cairo. First of all Shanna, from New Zealand, who was supposed to host me for two days but hosted me instead for six weeks. Without Shanna I don't know what I would have done. Triona, her friend, was also of great help. They were both incredibly hospitable, they bought me some clothes, and before I left they and another friend, Sarah, made a donation.
Masterpeace also made a donation, and I am very grateful for the help of Raghda, in particular, who also helped to organize my stay with the NGO near Beer Sheva.
A former host of mine, Jose, in Gandia, Spain, and an old friend, Salome, also sent me some money while I was in Cairo.
Without these contributions I couldn't have survived there, and I'd be in trouble now. I am very grateful for this help.

While my journey for peace continues, my walk 'down to Egypt' has come to an end. I walked the final distance from Tahrir Square to the pyramids a week ago. I'd always imagined my arrival at the Giza pyramids would be an emotional moment. Instead, still outside the gates, I had a smoke, then walked back the other way.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Engulfed in a Burst of Violence in Tahrir Square, or, "I had it Coming to Me!"

After reading about demonstrations planned to protest President Mursi today, I take the metro to Tahrir Square. At 5pm the demonstration is well underway, and though it is by far the largest demonstration I've seen here, it hasn't yet reached the 'mass demonstration' proportion the news had reported it would be. Nevertheless, traffic has been completely cut off, and there is great tension in the crowd, which is a mixture of anti-Mursi demonstrators and Mursi supporters. As with all the demonstrations I've observed here, there isn't a policeman in sight.

At the edge of the crowd I talk briefly to a man carrying a large Egyptian flag with a cross and crescent perched on its pole. He confirms that it is a symbol of peace between Coptic Christians and Muslims. Another man, Mohammed, approaches to ask lots of questions about me. He wants to know where I am from and what I'm doing here. I explain I am an American, and that I am walking for peace. He seems incredulous that an American could be walking for peace. The conversation turns to Israel and Palestine, and though he says he believes in peace, he also believes the Palestinians have no choice but to offer armed resistance against Israel. I explain my belief in non-violent resistance, as I have done so many times here, but he shakes his head.

"Who do you hate?" he asks. "Israel or Palestine?"
I tell him that though I believe the Palestinians are suffering injustice at the hands of the Israeli government, I don't hate either. Mohammed shakes his head again.
The subject turns to God, and now Mohammed wants to know which book I believe comes from God. I respond that they have all been inspired by God, but one has to know God; the books aren't the ultimate authority. Again, he is incredulous.
When I ask what Mohammed is doing here, he says he is an anti-Mursi demonstrator. I ask him if he thinks there will be any violence today.
"I don't think there will be violence," he says.
 I ask if the anti-Mursi demonstrators will react with violence if Mursi supporters use violence against them.
"There will be no violence, " he responds.
A few people have gathered around us to hear the conversation, and as I walk away, a man holds my arm.
"Be careful," he says.

Tahrir Square is actually an enormous traffic circle, and I move to the center of the circle, which is elevated above the greatest part of the crowd, to take some photos and videos. The crowd has grown to occupy half of the circle, and there is growing tension as Mursi supporters yell angrily at the demonstrators. I photograph a man straddling the horizontal part of a lamp post draped with a banner high above. I switch my camera to video mode and pan the crowd below: large banners with the faces of people killed last January are being waved, as well as dozens of large Egyptian flags. Demonstrators are shaking their fists in the air, and Mursi supporters next to me yell at them and angrily flick their hands to dismiss them. Some Mursi supporters close to the stage begin to throw things at the demonstration's leaders, and some scuffling breaks out. I decide to move in closer. As I push my way forward I want to catch the anger in the crowd on video, and I notice some of that anger seems directed at me, especially on the part of Salafist Mursi supporters. Nevertheless, I keep filming and pushing my way closer to the stage. An isolated fight breaks out; a young demonstrator pursues a Mursi supporter through the crowd. His friends are trying to stop him. The chanting becomes angrier, inciting the crowd and prompting counter chanting by Mursi supporters. A few more isolated fights break out around me, then in an instant, the whole crowd is fighting; a sudden, violent squall on a sea of angry, shouting faces. As I'm being jostled, I'm focused on getting this all on my camera, with one hand held high to film, while I use the other to fend off blows. I'm doing all I can to keep from being knocked over; the rioting crowd is now moving like a slow but powerful current, and I'm being swept along with it. One man has pulled out what looks like a riding crop to beat someone with. Another man goes to the ground a few meters away. I want to help, but I'm occupied with keeping myself from going to the ground, and with this strange compulsion to film it all. While I'm scared, I keep my Nokia above me in video mode, trying to keep it aimed on the crowd while I'm being knocked around.

Then my camera is snatched out of my hand. Because I'm trying to keep from being punched or knocked down, I don't see who has taken it. I react by grabbing the shoulder of the man in front of me. The look on his face tells me I've got the wrong guy, and now I notice men who appear to be salafists  giving me hard looks. One of them is yelling at me. I release the man's shoulder and see another man clicking away at me with his mobile phone camera. Though he's also being shoved around, he's smiling; perhaps the only smiling face in the mob. He apparently senses the irony in the situation. I then push my way towards where I'd seen the man on the ground, but he's gone. At this point I decide I've had enough, and I wrestle myself out of the crowd. By the time I've reached the edge of the thickest part of it, the fighting has stopped. The squall has gone as quickly as it appeared.

I get back to the elevated center circle, dazed by the party atmosphere here. The people who are watching the crowd seem only mildly interested in what seemed like a major riot to me. A group is gathered, beating on traditional drums, singing,  and having a good time. I walk to the farthest part of the circle to smoke a cigarette. I notice I am shaking.
Before I leave, another group sets an American flag on fire, chanting in Arabic. I'm trying to determine whether they are Mursi supporters or anti-Mursi demonstrators. Maybe both are involved. Maybe this is one thing they can do together peacefully. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

If You Sit, You do not Proceed

Last summer, near Aix en Provence in the south of France, I was walking through a village to get some food before finding a place to camp for the night. I was called over by a man at a cafe, who subsequently invited me to stay at his house for a couple of days. The man had been a pilgrim himself, once walking to Rome. He and the friends who lived with him treated me like a king while I was there, then loaded me up with gifts when I left, one of which was a pilgrim's staff. This staff had many ancient symbols and palindromes burnt into it; most of them from the 'Alchemy Gate' of Piazza Vittorio in Rome. I wasn't very interested in the symbols or most of the palindromes, but one in particular I thought to be a practical motto for any pilgrim: SI SEDES NON IS, or, in reverse, SI NON SEDES IS. In Latin this means, IF YOU SIT YOU DO NOT PROCEED, or, in reverse, IF YOU DO NOT SIT YOU PROCEED. This may have some hidden meaning, as it came from a mystical medieval group called the Rosicrucian Order, but it's obvious meaning is simple and encouraging: 'Start walking, and you'll get to where you're going.'
I proceeded through the Alps with that staff, then left it with a host (and friend) in Torino as it had worn down from a staff to a very short stick. But I carried the words with me, proceeding to Bosnia where I carved that same palindrome onto a new staff.
That staff was left behind in Sarajevo, but again, the words remained, and I proceeded to Istanbul. However, by the time I'd reached Istanbul, the words had been left behind as well. I sat there without proceeding for a long time.
Now in Cairo, I'm again sitting without proceeding, trying to get what I think I need to proceed but without many results. The end result I'm hoping for is to get across Sinai, into Israel and Palestine to deliver my 'peace books', then out to reestablish a 'normal' life for a while. What I think I need to accomplish this is money for day to day living, new shoes, logistical help across Sinai, and an exit plan that will also require money.  I've already got hosts in Israel, and an NGO in Negev, AJEEC-NISPED  http://www.nisped.org.il/, has invited me to help Bedouins renovate a childhood center near Beer Sheva (thanks to a connection to Masterpeace in Cairo). But crossing the desert and getting out of Israel and Palestine will require help.

However, if I sit, I will not proceed. So I'll stop sitting and proceed eastward on the 27th of May, come what may. If the help I'm hoping for doesn't arrive by then, I'll find it as I go. Inshallah.


Saturday, May 4, 2013

On Forgetting the Burden of Clarity

I visited Maadi Community Church yesterday. The minister, Amy, spoke about vision; about the necessity of vision to continue in our lives. What was most interesting though, was how she contrasted this necessity for vision with our supposed necessity for 'clarity'. Many in her congregation come to her to help them find clarity. But Amy believes clarity is too much to ask for: even Mother Teresa lacked clarity. But she didn't lack vision.
Vision is faith, the stand on hope I spoke of before. I've also wanted clarity these past 18 months, not only for myself but to answer the cynics, but I have never found clarity. I've never had a clearly defined reason for doing this. I've only ever had vision, faith, a stand on hope. I was close to losing vision at one point, but I've found it again.
What is this vision? This Faith? This stand on hope?
It is the Kingdom of God, here and now. And what is the Kingdom of God? A world in which we live in simplicity, peace, a strong sense of community, and equality; not enforced, but desired and acted out with integrity. It's a world in which love and kindness are not exclusive, but all inclusive.  It is a world of compassion and empathy.
Clarity? Quakers have said the same to me, in different words; 'Just follow the Leading', but maybe it's only now sunk in with Amy's words, 'Forget about clarity, just keep the vision.'

Thursday, May 2, 2013

"Hope is a Stand", My Plans Now, the Help I'll Need, and Thanks again

I saw on the news this morning an Italian Jesuit priest named Paolo Dall' Aglio. He's been trying to stop the violence in Syria. On the topic of hope, he said, 'Hope is a stand.' It isn't wishful thinking, or delusion, but a commitment. This kind of hope, which is the only real hope, can change the world for the better.
I tried to convey my stand on hope to the children of a school last week. My host, Shanna, and her friend Triona, both teachers at the school, organized a full day of speaking for me. I talked to six classes of English-speaking kids, and I tried to emphasize to them that the world isn't as bad as it looks on the news. I am in Egypt after 18 months on the road because of the generosity and kindness of strangers, for the most part. Depending on strangers to walk across a continent requires a stand on hope. I also wanted them to see photos of life on the road; the hard photos, of living in abandoned houses, or in a tent in freezing weather, or in the rain, and I wanted to make it clear to them that this kind of life isn't a trekking adventure for a weekend, only to return to the comforts of home. It's often a life of exposure to the elements, 24 hours a day, often for many days before finding temporary shelter. Then you move on again. You often feel that you are utterly alone, and doing what you are doing in vain. I wanted to emphasize to them that I am homeless... by choice, but homeless. Literally everything I own is in my backpack. I wanted to emphasize that a walk for peace is not always  'la dulce vita' people imagine it to be. There have been many days on this journey when a 'stand on Hope' was the only thing that has kept me going.
And now a firm stand on hope will be required to deliver these petitions I'm carrying. Echoing the cynics, I often ask myself what the point is in delivering them. Surely nothing will change even if I can deliver them! But my Faith, my Hope, is that something will change for the better. I know that some things have already changed for the better because of this walk, and I know that some things, and at least one terrible thing, has changed for the worse. But even that one, terrible thing strengthens, rather than weakens my stand on Hope. So I'll deliver the petitions.

Masterpeace is organizing the walk from Tahrir Square, where I left off, to the pyramids for May 15th. Again, the pyramids were originally the end of the road for me. But I'll be setting off to cross Sinai just a few days afterwards, and I'll try to get into Israel and Palestine again. Depending on the route I take, I may need some logistical help along the way, so if anyone would like to help me on a ten to fifteen day walk across the desert, let me know. I'll also need money. I've got a little less than 50 US dollars now, so if anyone would like to contribute to this leg of my journey, you can e-mail me at: la_peripherie@yahoo.com. Type in as the subject, 'Donation', and I'll let you know how to get your contribution to me. As always, I am careful with the money you send; I get by on about 200 US dollars a month now to pay for the bare essentials. There is an exception, however; I smoke, so some of that money goes for tobacco.

Meanwhile, after 18 months on the road for peace, I have to thank the hundreds of people who have helped me along the way.  That help has come in the form of money, food, lodging, guidance, encouragement and companionship. Clearly there has been a commitment to Hope among all of you, and this stand has made my own commitment all the stronger. I thank you again and again. Salaam, shalom, peace.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Good Samaritans, May Day Demonstration, Mutilation for Thieves, and the Walk to Tahrir Square

I heard a story from a friend here in Cairo.

In a very poor neighborhood here, three Salafist Muslim men were riding in a small three-wheeled taxi called a 'tuck-tuck'. The tuck-tuck passed by a Christian woman whose hair was uncovered, and one of the men shouted, 'Atheist!', and grabbed her by the hair. The woman was dragged down the street until a group of  veiled Muslim women held her and pulled her away from the men in the tuck-tuck.

Three Muslim men claiming to know God were, at that moment anyway, the atheists. The Muslim women who rescued the victim, on the other hand, knew the will of God. They were the 'Good Samaritans'. They helped who they saw as a fellow human being. They were able to transcend the tension here between Muslims and Coptic Christians.

As for you Muslims and Coptic Christians who commit acts of violence on one another, quit dragging others into your hell. You can still pull yourselves out of hell by finding God within yourselves, and in everybody else.

*               *                 *                 *               *                      *                      *                *                *

I'm presently in an internet cafe near Tahrir Square, which became world famous with the recent revolution here. I came here to see if there was a May Day demonstration, but saw only two middle-aged men holding flimsy signs in Arabic. A bystander explained that the signs demanded justice for people imprisoned by the current regime, calling for non-violent resistance to free them. I admire these two men, who were being ridiculed by some bystanders, for protesting on their own.

*                *                *                  *                    *                   *                      *                 *                *

I met a young man from Cairo recently, a recent law school graduate, who believed not only in the death penalty for those who have committed murder, but in mutilation for those who repeatedly steal. I asked him if stealing included the theft by government officials through corruption, or the theft by deceit that seems to be prevalent here. Who would cut off the hands of those thieves?  I asked him if there was some similar punishment for those who refuse to help those in poverty, which condition, fueled by a sense of hopelessness, creates an incentive to steal. After all, half the population of Egypt lives on 2 US dollars a day. A friend I was with added that dismembering those who steal would hinder, rather than help to create a productive society.  Of course. While our friend conceded that social change was necessary  he also said that social change would take too long.
In the end he was not convinced by our arguments.
He was a really nice guy otherwise. I hope he doesn't get his way.

*                 *                *                      *                     *                         *                   *                     *

Last week I did the walk from where I left off at the outskirts of Cairo to Tahrir Square. I walked with Taqwa, Olfat and Shehab, who were good walking companions and guides. We stopped at a mosque where Taqwa and Olfat prayed, and where Shehab and I took refuge from the heat and traffic. Later, as we approached Tahrir Square I had a conversation with Shehab about the revolution. He conceded that there was some violence on the part of the demonstrators in reaction to the much greater level of violence on the part of Mubarak's people.
"So the demonstrators weren't fully committed to non-violent resistance?"
"They were," he said. "Whatever violence was on the part of the demonstrators was only self-defense. They came to demonstrate peacefully."
"But if they reacted with any sort of violence, they weren't really committed to non-violent resistance."
I explained Martin Luther King's precepts for non-violent resistance: first, to ascertain that there is real injustice, second, to address that injustice through conventional legal channels, third, when that fails, purification, and finally, non-violent resistance.
"An important step in this is purification; the individual's inner preparation not to react with violence in any way."
"Like Gandhi?"
"Like Gandhi."
"Our culture isn't prepared for that," he said.
"Yeah, maybe I'm not prepared for that either. But if I have the opportunity to take part in a planned act of non-violent resistance, I'd better try to purify myself. Otherwise I just become part of an angry, violent mob."
We also talked about the one-sided loss of life that can result from non-violent resistance.
"It's not a quick fix," I said. "Anyone who's committed to non-violent resistance has to be prepared to take a beating over and over. But it's more effective than violent resistance in the long run. Syria began as non-violent resistance, and some 5000 people were killed. Then the rebels took up arms. Now over 60 000 people have been killed. In the long run there is far more death and suffering in violent resistance. And non-violent resistance is more likely to convert your enemies."
I pointed out the building that Mubarak's political party used to be housed in. It is now burnt and abandoned. I asked Shehab what the story was. Some anti-Mubarak people had set fire to the building, but many more had formed a human circle around it, and around the Egyptian museum to protect the buildings. That was truly non-violent resistance.
We also spoke about the situation in Israel and Palestine, and how the IDF knows exactly how to respond to violence, but is afraid of non-violent resistance. A small violent reaction on the part of Palestinians gives the Israeli military the justification it needs to respond with tanks and airstrikes, at least in the eyes of many in the world. Non-violent resistance gives no such justification.
Shehab agreed, but mentioned that maybe I shouldn't refer to Israel in Cairo. The word, 'Israel', seems to be taboo. Better just to say 'Palestine.'
"They're both here to stay," I said. "Trying to delete one or the other, even if only by avoiding any reference to them, helps to perpetuate the conflict there."
Once we'd reached Tahrir Square, there was a small demonstration going on by the socialist party. Shehab had said there was no longer any unity among demonstrators anymore; that every party or interest group acts on its own. The week before there had been a demonstration in Tahrir Square where gunshots had been fired, so my three companions didn't relish the thought of hanging around.
But the demonstration remained peaceful, and I left satisfied that it had been a good day.

Monday, April 15, 2013

On Being an Alchemist

I was a little nervous going to the Masterpeace office in Cairo today. I've been a relatively low profile pilgrim for Masterpeace; any publicity I've had has found me, and not the other way around, so I haven't had much of it. And without publicity for myself, I haven't generated much publicity for Masterpeace either. But my destination had always been Cairo because of Masterpeace, so I paid a visit.
My Masterpeace contact these past eighteen months has been Raghda, and she knew I had arrived in Cairo, but if she wasn't in the office I thought I might just introduce myself, then leave again when everyone wondered who I was and why I was there. When I couldn't find the building where Masterpeace is located, I phoned the office.
"Hello, is this the Masterpeace office?" I asked.
"This is Ken... Ken Schroeder..."
There was a pause, and I was ready to explain what I explained to everyone; that I was walking for peace, and I'd walked also for Masterpeace, etc, when the woman on the phone said, "You're the Alchemist!"
I was glad she knew who I was, though I had never called myself an alchemist, and certainly not 'The Alchemist.'
She was referring to Masterpeace Alchemist Alive, which is a part of Masterpeace that encourages journeys for peace, and comes from Paolo Coelho's book 'The Alchemist,' (with his permission.) But the fact that she had said, "You're the Alchemist!" rather than, "You're the guy that walked from Portugal!" had me feeling pretty important at that moment. Hmmm, I thought.  I am The Alchemist.
So once The Alchemist had fumbled around to find the right building, I took the elevator to the 13th floor where I found the office. Before long I was getting nervous again, not because no one knew who I was, but because of all the attention I was getting.

After I'd walked into the outskirts of Cairo, and gotten the news from Inge that we had lost our friend Sofia in a bus crash in Thailand, I 'd made my way to Maadi to find my host and hole up for a few days. My host, Shanna, allowed me to do just that. Shanna is from New Zealand, and teaches in Cairo. She had once cycled the length of New Zealand's south island for diabetes, so she was sympathetic to my cause. Maadi is on the south end of Cairo, and has a large expat community, and through Shanna I've met many of her colleagues from Ireland, England, and the US. But most of my time here has been spent in isolation. So despite having been in Cairo now for several days, I haven't seen much of it or met many of the people who are from here. Nor had I visited the Masterpeace office until today.

I hope to extend my visa here, something I've been assured is much easier and cheaper to do than in Turkey, and to help Masterpeace in planning and doing a walk through Cairo to the pyramids. As in Coelho's book, the pyramids had been the final destination for my walk for peace. Masterpeace is planning a peace concert at the pyramids in September of 2014. However, the pyramids have now become another leg of my journey; an important leg of my journey, but not the final destination.
I completely support Masterpeace for its philosophy that the individual can change the world for the better, even if only in a very small way. Too many 'professional' peacemaking organizations disregard personal initiative as being ineffective or naive, but I believe that anyone's sincere initiative to create peace will have positive results, even if those results are never seen by that person.
So now after walking from Portugal to Istanbul, hitchhiking from there to Iskenderun, taking a ship from there to Port Said and then walking from there to Cairo, I'll continue walking with others to the pyramids for Masterpeace, and for peace in Egypt and in the world. But once we've gotten to the pyramids, I'll have more walking to do.

Meanwhile there are other alchemists walking or making a journey for peace; 'The Alchemist' for me just may be Wijnand Boon, now in Italy, who helped to inspire me to make this journey. There are alchemists who are planning to start their walks for peace very soon, and there are alchemists who are just thinking about making a journey for peace, and alchemists who don't even know yet that they'll be making a journey for peace. Some will be going to the pyramids while others have other destinations, like Stephan Meurisch who is now in Turkey and walking to Tibet. I'll still be walking with them, and with all of those I have come to know on this journey.

But for now, on to the pyramids! Peace!

Look up Masterpeace at Masterpeace.org to start your own initiative for peace

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Desert Highway from Ismailia to Cairo

I'm on my way again down the desert highway from Ismailia to Cairo. It's hot, but not as hot as the south of France was last summer, so I am a bit fooled by the sun.  By the next day I am trying to cover my arms and face to keep from getting any more sunburned.
I am walking on the shoulder of the highway against traffic, and I frequently have to move onto the desert sand as the shoulder is often used as a lane. I also have to be careful of cars coming up from behind, as the shoulder is also sometimes used as a lane to drive against the flow of traffic. There are no rules here.
Up ahead I see a group of soldiers trying to wave someone down. Their jeep has broken down . Two cars pull over at the same time to help them, and sideswipe each other. They careen a bit, both cars out of control, and my eyes widen as I am in their path. I jump off of the road, just in case, but I am a good 20 meters away from where the cars come to a stop. The car owners exit their vehicles and yell and scream at each other while the soldiers run to them. I saunter past the scene, turn back when I see a fight is about to break out, then continue again down the highway. The soldiers are doing a good job of holding back the two drivers without me.

After camping in an olive grove by the highway, my plan of the day is to cover 25 or 30 kilometers, find a place to get food and water, to recharge my phone battery, and to find tea. Later in the day, I find some shade in an orchard. When I get to my tree, I notice there are people in the shade of many of the trees, sleeping, smoking, chatting, and drinking tea from a little roadside tea stand. I've only been sitting for a few seconds when a kid yells from a neighboring tree. I yell back. Then the man he is with beckons me over. I move my bags to the blanket they're sitting on. The man, Mohammed, offers tea, and I accept. He sends the kid to fetch it. Mohammed's friend comes over, and we try to communicate. I manage to communicate that I am walking for peace to Cairo. They're happy to hear it and give me their phone numbers, and I give them mine.

Later in the day I finally find a 'supermarket' at the end of a long line of factories, which, other than army bases, are the only buildings out here on this stretch of desert highway.  The supermarket is dusty, and nearly empty. Its two workers are sleepily sitting on the steps, swatting flies. I've already been given water from a guy on a motorbike, and from a soldier who filled my bottle from an earthen jar, but I'm empty again so I buy more. I also buy a can of beans, a little cake, and what I think is a bag of peanuts but is a bag of dried beans. (The next day I'll give this to a woman rummaging through the rubbish along the highway.) I find an outlet to recharge the battery of my phone, and as I wait I buy some potato chips to eat as there isn't much else in this supermarket. I find a spot of shade and sit in the dust with my back to the wall, eating potato chips on a desert highway. It isn't what I had imagined it would be.

By the end of the day I'm camped in the desert sand. Looking in one direction, it's endless North African desert, but it's not the desert camping that tourists sign up for. There's also a factory a kilometer away, and the highway just half a kilometer away. I'm hoping for a call from Selda, but instead get a call from Mohammed, the man in the orchard who'd invited me for tea.
"Ken!" he says.
Mohammed then chats away in Arabic for a few seconds.
"I don't understand!"
"Goodbye!" shouts Mohammed.
Just before I fall asleep I hear footsteps approaching the tent. The footsteps slow down, then speed up, then break into a run. No telling who could be in that tent in the desert!

 The next morning I walk past more factories with roadside food stands. The food stands are filthy, but so am I, and I'm hungry. In any case, 'filthy' doesn't bother me.  I stop at two of them, having breakfast twice. I eat:  lots of pita bread, something like refried beans, lettuce and tomato, onions, hard boiled egg and fries along with tea. I take my shoes off and sit on a blanket with factory workers, who are all very friendly. The food is good, and I feel better. The two breakfasts together cost me something like one euro.
Later in the day, Arda calls. He's been calling regularly since I left Ismailia to know exactly where I am on the highway, and to make sure I'm all right. But today he calls because I'm near his factory, in 10th of Ramadan City. He picks me up off the highway to take me to lunch, then to a machine shop where he's doing business. While there I get some time on the internet to communicate with friends and my extended family from Montana to Iran. Then Arda drops me off where he picked me up. It's nice to have Arda looking after me.
That night I'm camped again in a desert olive grove, but the trees don't seem to be doing very well here. Selda calls all the way from Turkey. It's nice to have Selda looking after me too.

The next day the plan is to get to Heliopolis, a part of Cairo not far from the airport to stay with a Couchsurfing host there. As I get to the outskirts of the city I walk through chaotic markets set up under the highway. Then I find the internet cafe where I get Inge's heartwrenching message about Sofia , and the world stops turning.  

Egyptian and Turkish Hospitality in Ismailia and Cairo, and Just a Little Song I wrote

I am on the balcony of my room in the 4-star Mercure Hotel, overlooking a lake that links two parts of the Suez Canal. Below is an inviting swimming pool flanked by palm trees. In the distance, ships are passing northbound through the canal. I’ve had a long, hot shower to wash off the sweat and dust accumulated after my three day walk from Port Said. I feel a bit out of place, and I’m wondering whether I should have insisted on lesser accommodation when Sherio put me up here. Then I stretch out on the bed and decide to take advantage of a little luxury and privacy. Sherio has said he’ll return later to take me out somewhere, and I’m also waiting for a call from someone named Arda. It’s all a bit of a mystery to me, how I came to find myself in this hotel when I thought I’d be passing through Ismailia and sleeping in my tent again. But Selda has managed to arrange something for me from her home in Ankara. She has become like family for me, and I lie on the bed thinking about how grateful I am for her help.

Earlier in the day, as I approached Ismailia, I’d been in touch with Sherio after Arda had given me his number. I had no idea who either of these guys were. Sherio phoned me a few times to monitor my progress, then once I’d gotten into Ismailia, he picked me up in his car. He is an Egyptian lawyer, but he wanted to talk about the Blues and Rock and Roll and Nietzsche. He spoke a bit about politics, and about how he wanted to help me or anyone else walking for peace. He seemed far too kind to be a lawyer. Meanwhile, I still didn’t know what had been arranged.
“Will I have a place to stay here?”
“Yes, a nice place to stay,” he said.
Now in this nice place, Arda called to say he was on his way. I was to meet him in the lobby. I would recognize him because of his casual clothing and long hair.
Arda, as it turns out, is a Turkish businessman, though he in no way resembles one. He takes me to a restaurant for a Turkish kebab in his very modest, well used car. While we’re eating (and I’m doing most of the eating) he explains that the restaurant was almost burned down during the Arab Spring uprising.
“One guy had it in his head to burn the restaurant, so everybody else followed.”
I discover from Arda that he has a plastics factory near Cairo. His factory produces, among other things, plastic pieces for the batteries that power the little three wheeled taxis now prevalent in Egypt.
After dinner he takes me to a café where we smoke shisha pipes and have a long conversation about everything from politics to Egyptian versus Turkish culture to the ways he might be able to help me to deliver one of my petitions. He has a lot of connections.
He explains to me that everything belongs to God, and this is why he’s happy to help me out. Because he dresses as simply as I do, and drives a shabby old car, and lives with and takes care of his father, and comes across without the slightest trace of arrogance (though possessing a keen sense of business savvy), I realize Arda is a giver, not a taker. I believe Arda must give away most of what he makes from his factory.  

The next day I check out of the Mercure despite Sherio’s having deposited enough money to keep me there another night. Arda says he’ll help me find someplace else to stay. He arrives in the early afternoon to pick me up for a car trip to Cairo. This gives me a chance to have a look at the desert highway I’ll be crossing. We meet two Turkish friends of his, who host us for lunch, then the four of us go into the center of Cairo for coffee or tea before taking a night boat ride on the Nile. On the way, Arda points out the burned building that had been Mubarak’s party headquarters.
On our dhow on the Nile, powered by a primitive lateen sail, I have a hard time believing I am here. ‘Down to Egypt’ has become reality, not just some distant, unattainable fantasy. I think about a tune I’d made up in the first months of the walk; a tune a few people have heard me sing over the months, whether they liked it or not. Of course, the written word is less invasive than music can be, so the reader may skip over the lyrics to this little tune. However, it does explain my peculiar Quaker perspective for making this 18 month journey...

I was sittin on a mountain, just lookin at the sky,
When God came down from heaven, and He looked me in the eye.
He said, “Time you started walkin, headin to the East,
Time you started walkin, and thinkin ‘bout makin peace.”

“Get on down to Egypt… now get on down to Egypt!”

I said, “Lordy, can’t it wait, just a little while,
Before I go to Egypt, and to the River Nile,
I got myself a wife, I got a daughter too,
We got ourselves a home, and a garden we just grew.”

“Get on down to Egypt… now get on down to Egypt!

“Lord, you bore the house of Jacob, on eagle’s wings,
You brought ‘em out of Egypt, with all of their things,
Now I’m walkin down to Egypt, when Moses walked away,
Lord, let me understand just what you’re tryin to say!”

“Get on down to Egypt… now get on down to Egypt!”

“Lord, I don’t want to leave it, leave it all behind,
And goin down to Egypt I don’t know what I will find.”
“It’s time you started walkin, headin to the east,
It’s time you started walkin, and thinkin ‘bout makin peace!”

“Get on down to Egypt… get on down to Egypt…”

So now I’m on the Nile and the wife and home and garden are gone, (Linda and I friends though) my dear daughter Olivia is in America (working, studying too hard), I’ve left it all behind (everything I own in my backpack), I’ve thought a lot about making peace (and I’m still not sure how to go about doing it), I’m in Egypt, having walked east (and every other direction), and here I am but I still don’t know what I’ll find.
Back in Spain, where I came up with the words to this song after I’d got a harmonica, I never really thought I’d make it here. Egypt? Was I nuts? But here I am.

That night back in Ismailia I meet some of Arda’s Egyptian friends, one of whom is Hishiim. Hishiim is an outspoken, but very friendly man who gives me lots of advice. He tells me to contact him if I ever need anything in Ismailia, as he has all the right connections. Arda then finds me a place to stay that night. I never do meet Sherio again.
The next morning I start walking down the desert highway towards Cairo.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Along the Suez Canal, Then and Now

In December of 1979 the USS Tattnall, a guided missile destroyer of the US Navy, anchored off of Port Said, Egypt, waiting to pass through the Suez Canal. The Tattnall was on its way to the Persian Gulf. The revolution was underway in Iran, American hostages were being held in Tehran, and the USS Tattnall was going to save the day. At least, that’s how I saw it at the age of nineteen.
I was a signalman on the Tattnall, and I was excited to have a look at the famous canal. From our radio, exotic strains of Arabic music were heard across the signal bridge. Vendors in boats tried to approach the ship but were waved away. There was a stiff, cold breeze, and I remember thinking it odd that it could ever be cold in North Africa. We had a long wait at anchor before entering the canal, and I remember being impatient. I wanted to see this canal, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf; all places that had intrigued me since I had heard childhood stories of Aladdin or seen the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. I couldn’t wait to leave the Western world behind and to enter this intriguing world of the Middle East.

Two weeks ago, walking out of Port Said, I pass through several military or police checkpoints. The general rule seems to be that if the checkpoint is an army checkpoint, the soldiers just smile and say “Welcome!"       If the checkpoint is a state police one, several policemen in black uniforms rush out to me before I reach the checkpoint to see my passport and to ask if I speak Arabic. After showing my passport and replying “No,” to their question, they wave me on, also saying, “Welcome!”
So as I approach a checkpoint and toll station on the highway leading to Ismailia, I take note that all I can see are soldiers in tan uniforms. I won’t have to dig out my passport. However, as I walk past a young soldier, ready for my welcome, he demands to see my passport. As I dig it out of my bag,  two men in civilian clothes run over to me. They are smiling, and waving something at me; something they want to sell me in a clear plastic bag. They ask where I am from and I don't reply. One of them tells me to open the plastic bag to have a better look at what he’s selling.
“La,” I say.
I hand the soldier my passport and one of the vendors snatches it out of his hand to have a look. I then snatch the passport out of the vendor’s hand to hand it back to the soldier. The vendor pierces me with a hard look, and the soldier stands smiling. The other vendor says, “Police.”
“Ah! Sorry. Didn’t know.”
The ‘vendor’ accepts my apology. The soldier and the ‘vendor’ have a good look at my passport, then direct me to the other side of the checkpoint. I walk to the other side where several soldiers are hanging around with another man in civilian clothes. They wave me over, take my passport, and tell me to open my bag and backpack. They all seem to keep a distance as I do so. Then they tell me to empty the contents. I start to do this when the man in civilian clothes gets his own hands into my bag to have a look for himself. He finds a knife that Inge had given me back in Bosnia. It has etched into the wooden handle the words, “Let the unexpected guide you”. The man indicates to me that I cannot carry this knife, it is forbidden. He examines the knife, opening and closing it, then he puts it into his pocket. 
“Hmmmm,” I think. But I allow him the knife, wishing him many unexpected events in his life to help guide him.  Then a soldier asks for my mobile phone. I pull it out of my pocket, still not savvy to what’s happening, but I draw back when he tries to snatch it from me. The man in civilian clothes has some words for the soldier.
“Can I go?” I ask. There is more conversation between them in Arabic.
“My knife?”
“La,” says the man.
“Can I go?”
“Yes, yes.”
I repack my things and start down the road again, oblivious to shouts behind me. As I pass the toll station, one of the civilian-clothed police, or vendors, or whatever they are, runs to me, trying to sell whatever it is he has in this plastic bag.
“You must pay 20 dollars to pass!” he shouts at me.
I stop, get close to him, and give him a good, solid, “LA!” to his face, then continue walking down the highway. No one comes to arrest me. Of course.

As the USS Tattnall passed through the Suez Canal, I stood on the signal bridge, mesmerized by my surroundings. On the right bank, Egyptian soldiers in earth trenches waved and cheered. Jimmy Carter had recently helped to make peace between Israel and Egypt, and we were apparently seen as friends. I was surprised by this friendliness; even back then we had all been programmed to believe the entire 'Arab' world was alien and hostile.  On the left bank of the canal was the barren Sinai desert. Bombed ruins and charred army vehicles and tanks remained on the Sinai side of the canal as monuments to the war between Israel and Egypt only a few years before.
I’d had my first lesson in Arabic when we were at anchor off Port Said, having been required to know numbers in Arabic to help identify markers as we passed through the canal. Now I searched for every marker I could find just to test myself on how well I’d learned. The right bank of the canal was the edge of the Nile delta, so there were palm trees and fertile fields on that side in contrast to the miles of lifeless sand on the Sinai side. I heard the muezzin’s call to prayer for the first time passing through the canal, and I am still  as enthralled by it now as I was then. 

On my three day walk from Port Said to Ismailia I quickly learn that Egyptian hospitality is not what Turkish hospitality had been. Though I am occasionally invited for tea along the road by truck drivers reclining in the shade of their trucks, or by a teahouse owner here or there, I am more often having to demand the ‘Egyptian price’ when I am overcharged for a glass of tea.
“Are you Egyptian?” asks one man in response to my demand.
And though many people question me about why I’m walking down this highway and where I’m from and where I’m going, many others put their questions in the form of an interrogation, even demanding to see my passport. There is more suspicion than friendly curiosity in these ‘interrogations’.
At the end of my first day I camp behind some reeds, with the highway just a few meters behind my tent and the Suez Canal not half a kilometer from my front door. As I sit in my tent eating pita bread filled with fried eggplant, and watching ships pass through the canal, a man comes and sits near the tent. He speaks no English, but manages to interrogate me anyhow. He may own the field I am in, but I am not sure. I offer him some food, he declines. I try to explain that I am walking for peace, for salaam. He asks if I am Muslim.
Again, the very useful word, “La.”
Then he marks a cross on his chest.
I nod yes.
He asks again, almost angrily, forcefully marking a cross on his wrist with his finger.
How can I explain my unorthodox Christianity to him? How can I explain that I am not a Coptic Christian? That Christianity as I know it is from within, and not from dogma? That I believe in peace, that my faith rejects violence? But I simply nod yes.
Then I say what so many Moroccan Muslims had said to me over a year ago.
“But Allah is for everybody!”
I say this smiling, pointing upward then stretching my hands out to form an arch across the sky.
He gets up and leaves without a word.

I spend one more night in my tent before reaching Ismailia. It is getting dark, and I duck into a fruit orchard, trying to find a discreet place to pitch the tent. There are footpaths all around though, and from inside the tent I hear voices everywhere. After nightfall I hear many angry voices approaching the tent, and a bright light shines in my face through the opening.
In English, “Who are you? Where are you from?”
I can’t see anyone because of the light in my face. I reach to the back of the tent for the only food I have, pita bread and jam.
“Something to eat?” I ask.
“Give me your passport!”
“Are you the police?”
“No police, give me your passport!”
By this time I can see a little as the light is now being held to the side. These are definitely not the police, unless the police are recruiting 12- year- old kids. Apparently several of  the males of the area have shown up to deal with me, and most of them are carrying sticks, including the 12- year- olds. Inge and I had been through this twice in Bosnia, and we’d learned that everything would be fine once we’d explained. They’re afraid, that’s all.
The leader of this group, a middle aged man, carries a white plastic bucket for some reason. He bangs on it. Is it his weapon?
“Your passport!”
I show him my passport.
“No visa? Where is the visa?”
I find the visa for him. Then things calm down, and the men and boys lower their sticks. I look at one kid and he looks disappointed. He may have been hoping for a little action. As the man in charge questions me in a friendlier manner now, some of the others crouch down to have a better look at me.
Before leaving, the man in charge assures me that I am his guest, and that he will see me in the morning.
Soon afterwards, my peace mentor, Selda, phones from Ankara. She is worried about me. As I am assuring her that everything is okay, I hear more voices approaching. Another bright light shines into the tent.
“What’s happening?” Selda asks.
“Don’t worry, I’m their guest now.”  
Another man has come with his son, without sticks, to see what the guest in the orchard is all about.
Early the next morning, as I pack up, the middle-aged man from the night before appears to give me breakfast; three pita bread sandwiches.

The USS Tattnall passed through the canal, through the Red Sea, into the Indian Ocean, through the Straits of Hormuz and into the Persian Gulf, where she passed back and forth on a straight line for some two or three months. The day was saved through diplomacy in the end, not by the USS Tattnall or any other military means. I am glad now that I never saw a shot fired in anger.