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Father Dave interviews Nanci Martin, the Associate Vice President for Communications and Marketing at the American University in Cairo, about what it has been like living as an American Catholic amidst the social unrest and political upheaval in Egypt’s capitol.
Fr. Dave Dwyer: If you could give us your perspective as someone who is not just taking in what our American media is portraying as this situation… I mean, we usually don’t think of Egypt as a country where people live under oppression. Has it been horrible under [Hosni Mubarek], as we’ve been hearing? Has it been, “Phew! Thank God he’s out of there. How did we let him stay in there so long?” Was revolution warranted, in your opinion?
Nanci Martin: Well, you know, it’s funny because I’ve been here nine years… Egyptians are incredibly patient people… their perspective and history is so different from ours. We have such a young country. They’ve got a lot of patience. They’ve lived under English rule and they’ve had the military, so to speak. They had Sadat, and Nassar, and then Hosni Mubarek, all military men, since 1952. I think for a long time, Mubarek was very well respected, and I think they liked him, and I think it was in more recent years that the corruption became worse and worse, and there was always talk that his son, Gamal Mubarak, would take over, and… I always thought that it might happen and the Egyptians wouldn’t even care. So, I was kind of surprised that they actually did it. But, what amazed me is — even as I was talking about — when the police left, and the prisoners were let out of prisons, everybody got together in the neighborhood — all the bawabs, all the men in the neighborhood — and they put blocks up in the streets to block anyone from going up and down the street quickly in cars. They all walked up and down the streets carrying rods or whatever (because there are no guns in Egypt, which is nice.)
FD: Really. No guns anywhere?
NM: Well, I mean, the military has them. Yeah, people aren’t allowed to carry arms. You can even see it. The only violence that ever occurred was provoked by the thugs and the government. I mean, otherwise, it was a peaceful demonstration. Watching the demonstration, and watching how they took care of their communities and the neighborhoods, I said to several Egyptians how impressed I was during this whole process, and I was, like, I mean, it’s just amazing to see how all of you are just pulling together as a community. And every Egyptian I said that to said, “We’re really surprised too.” So, they were really surprised, but they just had this fierce determination, and it was these young kids in their thirties who feel like they don’t have the opportunities. They see a lot of corruption going on, and unless they know somebody they can’t get anything. They’re well-educated, they’re articulate, and they decided, you know what? They had had it. So, you know, I think everybody was kind of surprised, and I never, ever, ever expected it. In fact, my brother and his family came back with me after Christmas, and they left on the 16th, and this started nine days later. I never would have invited my family — I mean, they had two kids — over for three weeks if I had any idea that anything like this would happen.
FD: You’re a Catholic; you’re living there for these nine years. Is it, for instance, easy to find a Catholic church to go to Mass at, and what’s the culture and religion — how do those things interface there?
NM: Yes, well it is easy to find Catholic churches. They’re all over. There was one in [the Cairo district] Zamalek. Sometimes, you know, it’s difficult to find one that their Masses are in English, but there’s one here in [the Cairo suburb] Maadi where I live now. And you know, it’s funny, I was raised in an Irish Catholic culture in New England, and the Muslim faith is so similar to Catholics in some of the ways. It just reminds me, being in Cairo, it’s a very cultural religion where it’s so much a part of who you are that — you know, people say “cultural Catholics” — and it’s such a cultural religion and it’s very devout and I have very interesting dialogues and conversations with my colleagues, some of whom are veiled and some of whom who are not veiled.
FD: By that, you mean women who wear veils?
NM: Yeah, just the hijab — most of them just wear, you know, not with the covering your face or anything. But, there are woman on my staff who are not veiled who are more religious than women who are veiled, so, you know, it’s just a very complicated, like all religions. If someone were to describe what it was like to grow up in New England in a Catholic community, and if they weren’t Catholic, you couldn’t really just say, “Oh, it’s like this,” but the way you would describe it on the macro level, those same values or observations could probably be applied here to the Muslims. It’s a very close-knit family. In fact, when I talk about my family and my life in New England, my staff always says, “Oh, you sound Egyptian,” which, of course, is the highest compliment. But, it’s just so similar. In many ways it’s so similar and then in many ways it’s so completely different.
FD: So, if there’s a great availability of Catholic Mass, Catholic churches, is it primarily visitors or folks like yourself who are living in the country from abroad, or is there a decent Christian or Catholic population among Egyptians themselves?
NM: Well, most of the Egyptians are Coptic Christians, which is an Orthodox version of Christianity. There are a few that are Protestants. I think there might be some Catholics, but not very many. Most of the people who go to the Catholic churches here are expats, but you have Europeans, you have Americans, so you have a lot of people. I mean, the churches are pretty full.
FD: … I would imagine that having spent nine years there, I’m sure you like your job, but it seems like you like living in Egypt.
NM: Yeah, well, you know, I never lived outside the United States, and I had traveled a lot with Catholic Relief Services, and had always wanted to spend some time living outside the U.S., and just had never had an opportunity, so I did welcome this opportunity, but I am very, very grateful that it was in Egypt, because the Egyptian people are just the nicest people in the world. One of my sisters came to visit several years ago, and I have a driver — a car and a driver; the university is very nice to me — and my driver’s name is Nasser and he’s a very, very nice man, and he was driving my sister and my nieces and me around, and one of the things my sister said when she left — she lives in Boston — it was interesting, what surprised her about the Egyptians was how gentle they were. I thought, “That’s kind of interesting.” When I was thinking on it, in reflection, I think most Americans — you see these images of people on TV screaming and you know — all the Arabs, so angry — and they are nothing like that. I mean they’re very Mediterranean and very emotional and you see them get in arguments and you know — all these taxi drivers and all — but they’re very gentle people, and they have the best senses of humor. They laugh at everything. I mean everything.
[For the full interview, listen to the podcast on this page.]
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