Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thinking Egypt

Two scenes from the Mubarak's fall caught my eye.

In Tahrir Square on Saturday, a group calling itself the Association of the Artists of the Revolution had taken over the boarded-up storefront of a condemned Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. They plastered the facade with dozens of hand-drawn cartoon posters, all of them mocking Mubarak and many depicting him with bundles of ill-gotten loot.


Perhaps the biggest activity in the plaza on Saturday was directed by the revolutionaries' Sanitation Coordination Committee. Small armies of volunteers, armed with brooms and dustpans, fanned out across Tahrir as they attacked refuse with a vengeance and swept away the past.

Not only was I pleased to see artists using their talent to support the protests but I am amused that they found a "condemned Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise" as a locus for their efforts. That is perhaps the best use for a KFC (the new corporate name) building I can think of.

And there is even a Sanitation Coordination Committee. Responsible revolutionaries acting in a cooperative mode, sweeping away the past. It's almost a Woodstock moment. But that moment did not last. This moment in Egypt may be equally ephemeral.

Egyptians forced their government to jettison its leader but the country's military-economic elite will be far less willing to risk its privilege. That will require a real revolution. Making that revolution with out tearing the country apart will be the difficult challenge for Egypt's people in the coming days and weeks.

For the moment, though, I've got to shout for joy. Way to fucking go, y'all! So many have made revolutions and so many have failed. I hope you succeed.

post script

No one can predict how events will transpire in Egypt but understanding the dynamics and possibilities offers clues to the future. Juan Cole presents some of the most informed analysis of Middle East so his observations on events in Egypt are well worth reading.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Most Surprising Thing (Revealed)

“What do you think it is?”

“I don’t know. Some kind of cart?”

“Well, yeah, it’s basically a hand truck. Two wheels. Handle. Tilt back and roll forward.”

“But it doesn’t look designed to haul stuff. It looks too light. And besides, what’s with the shower head?”

“Shower head? Movable cart? What the hell?”

That’s the gist of thoughts and conversation as Maggie and I sat in the Hung Tam restaurant near our hotel in Da Nang and watched a small Vietnamese woman pass by on the street pushing what we could only imagine as a shower on wheels. The upright portion was a metal box a few inches deep, four to five feet tall and maybe two feet 16 inches wide. A narrow pipe rose from the top surface of the box, and bent horizontal at six feet and ended in a flat disc that did indeed resemble a shower head. At the base, adjoining the axle and wheels, a horizontal platform protruded at a right angle. Somehow it did not look designed to haul anything much at all.

During the next few days we saw a few more of these wheeled mysteries, mostly on the Son Tra District on the east side of the Han River. Never in the city center where the crowded streets and sidewalks would be impassible with such a device. Our neighborhood in Son Tra, lying between river and ocean beach, is still relatively undeveloped and open, with plenty of open pavement for moving a hand cart. Maybe the showers are for the numerous construction sites in the area.

The mystery was solved Christmas Night on the riverfront promenade that parallels Bach Dang Street. Maggie and I had just attended a traditional American/British/ Australian Christmas dinner at a western eatery and were walking off the meal, taking in the sights and feel of a street we had only seen in the daytime, enjoying the festive lights we’d seen from the Song Han bridge as we returned each night from class too tired to spend time walking along the riverfront. The promenade was not crowded but many people—families, couples, groups of young people, two American tourists—were out all enjoying a pleasant December night.

Walking along we spotted a woman pushing one of those devices not far ahead on the promenade. Determined to solve the mystery, we quickened our pace to catch up. Before we reached the device, a young couple approached the woman who set the device upright. We caught up to see the young man step on to the platform at the base. The “shower head” descended until it touched his head. Numbers appeared on two small digital screens on the front panel of the box: his height and weight. When he was done, the young woman stepped onto the platform and was also weighed and measured .

So that’s what it was all about! Height and weight as a streetside amusement. Apparently enough of an amusement to justify investing in a portable device and wheeling it around town. Christmas Night along the promenade in Da Nang would be a good opportunity. People were certainly out and about, in a festive mood. Christmas is not a holiday in Vietnam but it is well observed and the promenade was a fine place to do so. That’s why Maggie and I were there. That’s why the height and weight vendor was there. And that’s how we came to know what the “shower on wheels” actually was.