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George McKale
Turning Stones
George McKale

Back to Egypt

My oldest son, James, a senior at Sonoma Valley High School, is hours away from an experience of a lifetime. For the last few months he has been collecting money to help start a women’s education center in our sister city Aswan, Egypt. Soon, he will see with his own eyes, where the money will be going and whom it will be helping. James and I are off to Egypt to turn some stones.

A few weeks ago, James held a fundraiser at the Sebastiani Theater, showing a documentary about Egypt’s 2011 revolution.  The protests, which attracted over one million people to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, led to the downfall ofPresident Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down after 30 years of rule. In the words of Abbie Hoffman, “Revolution is not something fixed in ideology, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade.  It is a perpetual processembedded in the human spirit.” 

In my July 4, 2013 column I wrote about more gatherings in Tahrir Square. This time, Tamarod, a grassroots organization in Egypt, gave the first democratically elected president in Egypt’s 5,000-year history an ultimatum,resign or face a civil disobedience campaign.  To make matters more complicated, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, leader of Egypt’s armed forcesstated if the unrest continued, Egypt’s armies would intervene.

General Sisi did intervene and to make a long complicated story short, he is currently the President of Egypt.  If it weren’t for the vision of an American President, my relationship with Egypt would be restricted to its ancient history. Understanding the historical development of Sister CitiesInternational made me appreciate the vision of our 34th President, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Eisenhower was a five-star general in the US Army during World War II, serving as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe.  He planned and supervised the invasion of North Africa and was successful in the invasion of France and Germany in 1944-45.  In 1951, he became the first Supreme Commander of NATO.

Because of the atrocities of the war, there was a strong American push to create peace in a chaotic world. Eisenhower envisioned a group that would engage in citizen diplomacy throughout the planet. The sister city program was founded, and continued to grow during the 1950s and 60s.  In the 1970s, it was recognized that sister city relationships formed out of post WWII aid programs in Western Europe, endured because of lasting friendshipsdeveloped as a result of the aid programs.

I too have made friendships that have endured, some unlikely, like Totoa large, black-skinned Nubian man whom always wears a white galebeya.  His head is wrapped with a white turban and he sometimes wears crocs given to him by a tourist, but usually spends his days shoeless. His smile is infectious and for what- ever reason, we have remained friends from my first visit in 2010.

I remember that first visit to Egypt with an unusual clarity. For me, arriving in Cairo was like plugging in dozens of electronic contraptions into a single wall outlet.  It was an overload of smells, sights, noise, language, garbage,smoke, despair, hope, strange foods and too much tea. I will never forget the thrill of a taxi ride, rushing and squeezing by other taxis at high rates of speed during rush hour. Rush hour in Cairo can last for 18 hours straight.Arriving in Aswan from the chaos of Cairo is much like leaving San Francisco for the serenity of Sonoma.

Over the next two weeks, I will be writing about our Egyptian experiences. I look forward to seeing old friends, drinking too much tea, shopping and exploring the desert around Aswan on camels. I hope to make new friends and identify new projects to promote.

James enjoys turning stones and over the last 18 years, we have turned many. We have often come up with more questions than answers, but the best part of this journey will be turning stones together.

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