Contributor, Bruce Fleming, shares the backstory of his prophetic piece, “In the Brief Egyptian Spring,” published in the Fall, 2007 issue of The Antioch Review. In that piece, Fleming describes contemporary Egypt as “a country on economic life support,” and proceeds to take readers on a journey—one he took with a native guide—through Alexandria and Cairo. He explores its hotels, restaurants, museums, people, even its tobacco, through the eyes of a seasoned sojourner. In this piece, Fleming notes similarities between his visit to Egypt to that of other countries he’s spent time in that were also on the brink of radical change.
I’ve lived in three countries that, within a reasonable period of time after I left, suffered upheavals and revolutions that upended the order I knew. One was Rwanda, where I was the Fulbright Professor at the National University from 1985-87. In Rwanda, at the time a dirt-poor but beautiful series of mountain ridges dotted with huts and banana trees and slumbering in the highland sun, the invasion of Uganda (ex-Rwanda) Tutsi in 1990 caused a civil war, that in turn unleashed the largely Hutu-on-Tutsi massacre that we in the West know as the Rwandan genocide, and in turn produced the current Tutsi state grown fat on the exploitation of Congolese mines.
Another country (sort of) was the island of West Berlin, where I was a Fulbright scholar from 1982-83. In 1989, the Wall that defined West Berlin’s island existence fell. The self-proclaimed country of the GDR has ceased to exist, and Berlin, both East and West, is once again the capital of the reunited Germany, glittering with new buildings of glass and steel and a spanking new railway station to replace the tired Eastern Alexanderplatz, where I took trains to Dresden and Prague. And the third was Cairo, which I visited a few years before what came to be called the Arab Spring.
It’s chance, of course, that I titled my piece “In the Brief Egyptian Spring,” given that we subsequently talk about the briefly hopeful upheaval of the last few years in the Arab world as the “Arab spring.” I meant it literally to emphasize the brief pleasant season where tourists weren’t overwhelmed by the heat, and which I could escape by leaving. This atypical and anomalously pleasant time of year was a mirror of my atypical and anomalously pleasant status as a privileged outsider with an insider guide. Yet even from this position, I was aware of the tensions that roiled underneath my placid privilege for those who lived there, such as the constant wrangling for prestige of my friend and guide, for a slightly larger crumb of the already too-small social pie. Both showed what a struggle for existence it all was for someone who actually was bound by the givens of this world rather than merely looking on from the outside. I could leave, and did so; he couldn’t, and hasn’t. He is still trying to get to Italy, which refuses him citizenship even though his grandmother was Italian (she married a Turk). Because he lives in Heliopolis, out by the airport, he was somewhat sheltered from the turmoil of Tahrir Square, the brief Muslim Brotherhood reign, and now the military. Still, as a freelance translator of French and Italian, he finds work far harder to get than in the more Europe-friendly time before.
Thus without knowing revolution was coming, I was even then aware that the relatively ordered placidity of my life floated on a vast sea of unrest and tension. Even then, when I went running by the Nile in the early morning, I noted the sleepy soldiers apparently necessary to guard with machine guns the entrances to the restaurant and night-club boats, as well as the entrances of hotels and the tourist spots. The restaurant boats these soldiers guarded advertised “belly dance,” but I was told that, due to Islamic pressure, only Eastern European girls did the belly dance there anymore. (When I was in Cairo three decades before, we saw Egyptian dancers at a restaurant by the pyramids that has since closed.) And I watched the strange black-cat-like women in full hijab with black glove-clad fingers and showing only a slit around their eyes typing furiously on the computer terminals in the spanking new glass-roofed Alexandria library and working the Internet, wondering how this contrast between worlds could endure.
On one hand I sensed the easy Europeanism of the Alexandria, a sort of last gasp of Cavafy’s and Forster’s—I bought a leather bag up the street from Cavafy’s flat and stayed in a hotel in the building where Forster worked, the young woman assigned to the hotel to welcome foreigners (she had drinks brought as we sat in the lobby) fluent in English and French. On the other hand, there were the ubiquitous head scarves on most of the teen-aged girls, and the arguments of my friend with Egyptian soldiers telling him he had no right to be seen with me in public if he was not a paid guide. Was this the secularized world of the Mediterranean, or the more stringent world of sharia? They didn’t know, and apparently still don’t. But could I have said that something would happen? That this would turn out to be a brief spring in more ways than one?
Probably no more than the people in that “last great summer before the war,” that of 1914, could have foreseen that it would all blow up with the spark of the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, and that the “Doomsday machine,” as some historians call the net of alliances that involved all Europe in rings outwards from a local quarrel, would ultimately lay waste to all Europe. Hindsight is 20/20, as we say: we can at best articulate the tensions that were there all along when in fact they have broken: the moment between very bent and broken is small. We speak of the straw that breaks the camel’s back: this straw, not the one before. Who could have predicted it would be this one?
In Rwanda, similarly, I saw the tension between Tutsi and Hutu without having been able to say that it could not endure forever. Rwanda was the only country in the world outside apartheid-era South Africa that printed an ethnicity (Tutsi or Hutu or Twa, the 1% pygmies from the rain forest) on the national ID card, and access of the formerly regnant Tutsi to slots as my students or government jobs was strictly limited. The Hutu, arguably justly as the 90% majority, ruled the country (and had done so since the 1962 revolution that put an end to the feudal kingship of the 10% Tutsi over the Hutu, something that had been the case for centuries). This seemed a tenable solution—the revolution of 1962 was itself another such explosion of the volcano. The situation I saw seemed the situation after the adjusting of the tectonic plates, not one before further earthquakes. Who knew that the revanchiste Tutsi whose grandfathers had been exiled to Uganda in 1962 had been planning to re-invade? Or that the president of Uganda, with what some said were territorial ambitions on Rwanda (and perhaps hopes for a more malleable neighbor), would have helped them invade Rwanda, as he clearly did? History isn’t linear, except insofar as its jumps are smoothed over by intellectuals and hindsight.
In Berlin too: who could have predicted that finally the Russian Bear would be weakened enough that its attention was momentarily elsewhere than on its German client state—and been willing to play first with glasnost and then with allowing the Wall to be breached with no shots fired? No one in 1983 when I left would have believed it possible. Indeed according to friends’ reports, nobody the week it happened, even the day itself, believed it could be really true. Everyone went to see, and found to their joy and surprise that it was true. The stories about the area between the two layers of Wall (both layers on the East Berlin side, but separated by a distance that varied from a few meters to almost 50) being mined—the so-called Death Strips, the Todesstreifen, turned out not to mined either! Sometimes miracles happen.
No one could have said it would happen until it did. To be sure, the West German constitution had always contained re-unification as the goal of the West (those territories lost to Poland and Russia as a result of World War II were accepted as gone, including Danzig, now Gdansk in Poland, and Kant’s city of Koenigsburg, now Kaliningrad in Russia, an enclave between Poland and what is now the independent country of Lithuania) . And West Germany had paid for huge buildings to be built in West Berlin up by the Wall (the Philharmonic, the Prussian State Library) on the grounds that some day that would be the center again. But nobody believed this was more than pie-in-the-sky, or mud-in-your-eye to East Berlin, just the way the Mercedes Star that overlooked the Wall on the Springer building was understood as an “up yours, we’re rich” to the impoverished East. Who could have been sure that one day the Potsdamer Platz, complete with a street named after the traitor Marlene Dietrich (she served in the US Army, and her grave in Berlin has been desecrated with swastikas), would be full of high-rises?
The attempt to seem historically wise after the fact is probably doomed to failure. As I write, it’s the turn of Ukraine, or “The Ukraine” as I grew up calling it—as my parents’ generation referred to Argentina as “The Argentine”—and a few years ago, it was the turn of so-stable-seeming Syria. (Even Lebanon seemed stable until it wasn’t.) Until recently my home institution, the US Naval Academy, sent language exchange students to both Ukraine and Syria (for Russian and Arabic, respectively): now no more. Indeed we’re running out of places to send students in either language (St. Petersburg had already been vetoed, and now Cairo, where some of my students were sent, is also off the list.)
Explaining why things change after the fact is what historians do, but it’s nothing but Monday morning quarterbacking. In retrospect we can talk knowledgably about how the Austrian Empire was stretched too thin, with too many nationalist groups not even speaking German. But who can say where thin becomes too thin, and too thin finally breaks through? Not every crisis leads to revolution: look at Tiananmen Square. As far as China goes, we can’t even say for sure that economic prosperity will necessarily lead to greater social freedom: perhaps the Chinese really have found a rich-world-lifestyle alternative to democracy.
Predicting the patterns of history is an ongoing enterprise: must the world become democratic? A decade ago that could be plausibly maintained. The US failure in the Middle East proves what…that the theory is wrong? Or just that the ground wasn’t fertilized and prepared enough? How much is enough? What if another spark sets off a situation that, to the people living there, seems stable? Certainly it never occurred to me that Rwanda would be so different now, and few people in Berlin can still get the thrill I still feel at walking through the Brandenburg Gate from the Tiergarten in the West: no soldiers, no machine guns, no Wall. To me it’s still amazing; to those who live there it’s the way things are. The waves close over every ship’s wake, and over every shipwreck.
Bruce Fleming has written books on dance criticism, aesthetics, philosophy, and creative nonfiction, as well as, short fiction and a novel. He’s won an O. Henry short story award and The Antioch Review Award for Distinguished Prose. A graduate of Haverford College, he’s taught at universities in Germany and Rwanda, and for more than two decades at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. His most recent book is What Literary Studies Could Be and What It Is.
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