The theme of ‘Dialogue and Discovery’ seems to resonate in every location. Whether it relates to racial tension in South Africa (now even more relevant in the wake of this past week’s events) or tribalism in Kenya, there is an emerging and obvious response to the call for dialogue and trust-building across the countries visited on the tour.
Egypt is no exception. After a middle-of-the-night arrival into Cairo, the team spent four days zooming through the bustling and dusty streets of the capital, exploring some of the key issues on the ground and seeing where dialogue fits into many of these situations.
The first day was hosted by the youth of the Initiatives of Change-Egypt Team. Following an initial session on four moral standards of honesty, unselfishness, love and purity, the team settled into a lively World Café discussion. Foremost on the minds of many was the question of the future vision of IofC’s work in the country and also the development of the team, where many see bridges needing to be built across generations. Frank conversations on both topics brought a greater sense of clarity about the issues, the perceptions and points of views, and even some opening offers on how they might be addressed moving ahead.
Sherif Rizk, a local activist brought the Voyage to the studios of Horytna, Egypt’s largest internet radio station, on Sunday morning. He grilled the team on the pertinence of the Voyage message and the realism of its aims, providing an opportunity for the team to share various concrete examples from the experience of the past few weeks in Kenya and South Africa. He then played a short piece of music and asked for feedback. Reflecting on the inter-mingling of instruments ranging from Egyptian ceramic drum to grand piano, Chris Breitenberg responded, ‘the instruments in this piece of music sound out the very essence of dialogue: two voices, coming from very different backgrounds can still listen to one another and speak to one another, find a common language and create something beautifully original together.’
The group also visited a social project in Haggana, one of the poorest areas of Cairo. Rumbling through the back streets of the rough and tumble neighborhood, one can see the challenges of life written on the half-finished buildings and locals’ faces. The Haggana Project is the inspiration of a Nagwa Dallah who, several years ago during Ramadan, prepared some food items for needy families in Haggana. Following the interaction, Nagwa felt compelled to take further steps to build a relationship with the families she met. She leveraged her professional skills of architecture to provide them with some more formal housing. When that project was completed, she saw a need to provide a safe and encouraging place for the young children in the families. Several years later, there are a number of volunteers running English, art and computer skills courses as well as classes on personal development and trips to various sites around Cairo.
On the final morning in Egypt, the Voyage visited the Smart Village, just a few kilometers from downtown Cairo. The ambitious project focuses on Egypt’s economic development in the IT sector. It is a sprawling campus of over 600 acres, aimed at housing all major multi-national IT houses by 2014. Our host, Mona Francis, articulated the vision as the team poured over a model of the park’s envisioned plan. Already operational and growing at a rapid rate, the complex posed the question of dialogue in a new way. With so much emphasis on economic development and job creation, what role would the new beacon of Egypt’s economic prowess offer in terms of environmental sustainability or social consciousness?
The time afforded a number of opportunities to explore the themes of the voyage with different groups, including one evening with Political Science students at Cairo University. The theoretical concepts of dialogue were quickly cast aside in favor of direct talks, particularly focused on the relationship between ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’ - these labels themselves the subject of debate. The often passionate exchange went for over two hours, wrestling with issues of media, identity and moral values. It also included mention of the need to address the divide between Muslims and Christians in Egypt - another avenue for dialogue that demonstrated both a need and opportunity.
The short time in Cairo illuminated some of the challenges facing the country. Will Egypt continue to let divisions rumble under the surface, popping up on occasion, or will they find a path to dialogue in a shared space? The Building Complex for Religions in Old Cairo – a place where two churches, a synagogue and the oldest Mosque in Egypt co-exist within a few hundred meters of one another – remind citizens that it has been done before.