With all the turmoil happening in Egypt over the past couple of weeks, our family was very blessed that our flight from Cairo arrived in Calgary at 6 p.m. on Jan. 24, only hours before the demonstrations against the Mubarak regime began.
My husband Dr. Samih Boutros was born in Cairo and has family still living there, including his 93-year-old mother. She lives in the area of Heliopolis, near Hosni Mubarak’s presidential palace.
Most of my friends are aware how much I have come to love Egypt, its rich history and artifacts, but most of all, the amazing people who live there.
These people have the greatest quality of being “present” in their interactions with everyone they meet.
They do not walk blindly past you on the street. For example, last month I saw a poor and humble man sitting on the curb shining shoes. As he looked at me walking past him, he nodded politely and in strongly accented English said, “Welcome to Egypt.”
The people have a great sense of humour, shown by both the many people who are highly educated and also those who know only a limited amount of English.
There is a sense of fun in market/bazaar areas, even as each shop owner is enticing each foreigner to purchase their products. The standard invitation is “Come in, it costs nothing to look.”
During one visit to the market, I was “looking” but told the young fellows in the store that I did not need any more souvenirs.
One of the young men laughed and said, “But we like the smell of your money!”
Everyone was laughing and I told him that he could “smell” my money for free just as I could “look,” free of charge. We all were enjoying ourselves.
Once you do enter a little shop in the bazaar, you will be immediately offered a chair and sweet tea, whether or not you are serious about making a purchase.
In the other shopping areas outside of the bazaar areas, there are very sophisticated stores selling everything from elaborate chandeliers, classic furniture, gold and silver jewelry and large stores selling stylish clothing and elaborate evening gowns.
Driving along the streets, one sees large billboards advertising in Arabic everything from Pepsi, to cellphones, to Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Besides the genuineness and humour of the people, perhaps one of the most impressive characteristics of the Egyptian people is their patience.
If the traffic issues in Cairo occurred anywhere else in the world, rampant road rage would result.
The streets are not well marked by lanes nor stop lights. Sometimes in heavy traffic, there will be as many as six or seven cars driving abreast, juggling for a position like horses in a race.
There is no such thing as signaling as one car cuts in front of another, just a lot of horn honking indicating that someone wishes to get to the other side of the roadway. Other drivers yield the right of way to the aggressive demands of their fellow drivers.
I asked my brother-in-law how one ever achieved a driver’s licence in Cairo.
He joked and said cryptically, “Three rules: You must not drive in a lane, be very aggressive and honk a lot. Otherwise, you fail.”
Depending on traffic flow, it can take as long as two hours to travel the 15 km from the airport to downtown.
Egypt is a country populated by citizens who are very religious. More than 90 per cent are Islamic and the remaining 10 per cent are either Orthodox “Coptic” Christians or Protestants.
In some areas, there has been terrible persecution against the minority Coptic population. This situation has been either denied or ignored by the present government.
Among the Islamic people who are tolerant and respectful of the beliefs of others, there are some who are deeply embarrassed by Islamic violence against Christians.
One of such incidents was the recent Christmas bombing of a Christian church in Alexandria and, last year, the killing of six young men as they left a Coptic midnight mass.
After the most recent bombing, an Islamic friend phoned my sister-in-law who regularly attends a Coptic church. This friend expressed her sympathy and her deep embarrassment that such a crime was committed against Christians by Islamic citizens.
The recent protests have united people of both beliefs in their push for democracy.
Many Islamic protesters carried signs with the crescent moon Islamic symbol together with the Christian cross saying “We are One for democracy.”
After the secret police of the government attacked the protesters, the Christian protesters held hands as a human shield to encircle and protect a group of Islamic worshippers as they knelt to pray.
Since our return, I have had numerous friends phoning and expressing their admiration for the peaceful Egyptian protesters.
I believe the peaceful resistance of these protesters is deserving of the same respect that history has granted Ghandi and Martin Luther King.
Those who pray should pray that the peace of God would govern the behaviour of those who want to frustrate the citizens’ demand for freedom.
Even for a patient people like the Egyptians, 30 years is too long to live under injustice.
Mary Ellen Boutros is a Red Deer resident.