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Young Muslim Association

22-sep-03, 6:00 pm

We arrive for a "round table discussion" at the Young Muslim Association in Cairo. A hugh banner over the door announces "Religious Dialogue" in Arabic. We are ushered into a small room full of people, where we go through a reception line and are served tea and coffee. A local television station interviews Rev. Tunkle and Bashar. Barbara and I talk with Sofia, an Arab Protestant woman who works for the YMCA and recently spent three months in Vancouver. We also talk with an executive of the YMCA who is Muslim.

We think that the discussion will be held here, but after about 45 minutes of this, we are ushered to another room. To our shock, we are now in a large lecture hall already filled with 200 to 300 people. There is a long dais on a raised stage, with microphones. Several of our group are ushered up to the stage, while the rest of us sit in the front rows.

A Koranic invocation is chanted in Arabic. This is followed by several impassioned speeches in Arabic, which Sofia tries to translate:

  • The first speech is given by the executive director of the Young Muslim Association, and is mostly pleasantries.
  • The second speech is is given by the president of Al Azhar University, and it seens to be the standard "Islam doesn't suck" talk, given in Arabic. (A translator does an excellent job of recounting an entire talk, from a few notes, rather than translating line-by-line.)
  • A third speech is given by the creator of the Religious Dialogue program and the sponsor of tonight's event. He discusses media and religion, decries stereotyping, and encourages self-criticism in the Arab world.
  • After this, Bashar is introduced and he explains the purpose of the Building Bridges program.
  • The Palestinian Ambassador speaks in Arabic; he gets pretty worked-up venting his frustration with American policies. I sense that he his working his constuency.
  • Sam Keen then gives a talk; he says that one of the good things about being an American is that he can disagree with his government and not risk jail. This comment seems to arouse sullen disbelief.
Finally questions are sent up from the audience, written on slips of paper. Also, other members of our group are called on to give short talks, usually centered around a question.
  • There seems to be unanimous opposition to the eviction of Arafat. They don't like him, but they resent any outside attept to depose him.
  • Paul Tunkle calls for including Jews in the Religious Dialogue. (This causes some muttering in the audience.)
  • David Parks-Ramage gives a nice little speech, but the microphones have died by now, so it's all shouting.
  • Katharine Kunst offered a challenge to the audience, asking "where are the women in the New Egypt?" There is some applause, but there is no applause for the Arabic translation. Sofia comes to the podium and gives an impassioned avowal that Egyptian women are free. She is followed by a Muslim woman who says much the same.
  • After several other speeches, Barbara and I are ushered to the stage and, in turn, give short talks. I notice that there are Arabic translations of our biographies on the table; Bashar later tells us that they are very good translations, too.
  • One guy gets up and says that dialogue is bad and just enables big countries like America to bully smaller ones. The translator likens him to "a cowboy from Upper Egypt". (However, later the "cowboy" talks to me and we exchange email addresses.)
  • The meeting is breaking up and the trnaslator has already left the room, but a man from the audience gets up and starts ranting in Arabic. I can hear that he refers to Lyndon Larouche and David Duke, and Bashar says that he is claiming that 9/11 is a Jewish plot. He is hooted off the stage.
The meeting was originally scheduled to be two hours long, but it is now 10:00 pm. We have been here since 6:00, with no lunch, one power bar in mid-afternoon, and no dinner, having flown from Jordan that morning. We are exhausted, and we go and find perhaps the only awful restaurant on the whole trip. And yet we are still thrilled by the energy of it all.

[A laughable misrepresentation of this event can be found at www.sis.gov.eg/online/html10/o240923e.htm.]

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