CHAPTER ONE – EGYPT: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE ARAB SPRING

“BEFORE IT GETS DARK” EXCERPT

by Phil Johnson, Ph. D.

“Do you think you could gather a few Egyptian university students who would be willing to join in a panel discussion with American students?”

“What would be the topics?” queried the Egyptian representative from The American University in Cairo.

“Oh, this and that. Impressions of each other’s countries and whatnot. Contrasting differing cultural values. Comparing college life between the two countries. Uhm, maybe some honest thoughts of the events of 9/11…

“9/11? You want to talk about 9/11? With Egyptians?”

Yes. Yes, I did want to talk about it. The horrific events of 9/11 were just a few years past, and the chance to have my leadership students hear an Arab Muslim perspective was not to be missed. Could it be a thorny issue to discuss? Yes, probably. But thorny issues have rarely stopped me from poking around. It’s not that I needed to debate these issues, nor did I feel the need to be “heard” regarding my side of the story. I just wanted to hear a viewpoint from a first-person perspective. I wanted my students to experience the same. 

The panel discussion turned out to be pretty fantastic.  False impressions were widely held on both sides and there was much to recalibrate after the discussion finished. It was a respectful conversation and there was something else. I saw in the eyes of the Egyptian students an interest and an eagerness. They liked what we were talking about in our leadership sessions. They liked that these American students had come all the way to Egypt to study influence principles, immerse themselves in a different culture, ask some challenging questions and disrupt geopolitical assumptions. I decided then and there that the next year when I returned with a group of American students, I would stay afterwards and start offering leadership training programs for Egyptian students. 

And this would be the beginning of one of the most interesting, fascinating and frustrating periods of my life. To be honest, it nearly broke me a couple of times. The adventure began in the early 2000’s and continued through the Arab Spring in 2011, the Egyptian Revolution in 2012 and the counter revolution in 2013.  My last visit to Egypt was in 2014. Will I ever return? I hope not. Or yes, maybe I will. Time will tell.  

By the summer of 2006, I was speaking at numerous leadership training events in Cairo. It was exhilarating. The enthusiasm from the students was contagious, the openness of the culture and warmth of the people was addictive. I also felt very free – because I have never been a covert missionary or possessed some unspoken agenda, I was free to present the information that I had researched and written and if my Christian worldview bled through – so be it. What I believe is a byproduct of who I am. Because I wasn’t sneaky about my beliefs and because the topics which I taught about were practical and usable, the students always seemed to want more. And yes, if they had more questions about what I did and why I did it, it was always a pleasure to talk about how I viewed life, purpose and the hope that I had in Christ. There was something simple in the honesty of it all. 

I also heard the message of Muhammad a number of times as well. I had well-meaning students who feared for my eternal soul and desperately wanted me to become Muslim, so I would not perish in Hell. The way I understood it, they loved me enough to tell me what they thought was the truth. I can respect that. We just happened to disagree. I happened to be right, but I give them credit for trying. 

Some tried harder than others. Some were more aggressive and less gracious. After speaking at a large event at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, (the modern research library built in 2002 to commemorate the ancient, historic Library of Alexandria) I sat with students and another speaker at an outside cafe. After some pleasantries, the older professor began his efforts of converting me to Islam. Just to be clear there was no aspect of this conversion effort that was gentle or compelling. It was more like: “Look, you say you’re a Christian and that is not going to work. You’re headed straight to Hell and you need to convert to Islam, admit that there is but one God, Allah, and that his final prophet is Muhammad. If you choose to ignore this opportunity, then you’re going to spend eternity in Hell.”

I acknowledged his kind invitation and told him that I certainly would not enjoy an eternity in Hell. I don’t have the proper wardrobe and anyone who knows me understands how I loathe humidity. Though we never quite got a ruling on whether it would be a dry or wet heat. Either way, I was duly impressed that Hell would be unpleasant.  But ultimately, I told him, I would stick with my Christian beliefs and was quite confident in Christ’s work on the cross to pay the price for my sin. I made another comment about appreciating the opportunity to express my beliefs and he his.

“Express your false beliefs? You Westerners and your freedom of speech!” He scoffed. “When Islam finally dominates the world – and it will – the first thing we are going to get rid of is this idea of “free speech.” Freedom of expression is an obstacle to God. Islam requires submission, not questions. This kind of freedom to question things and to stir up doubt is an affront to Allah, and we will abolish it. Then obedience to Islam will be much easier.” If he had told me this in 2021, I would have assumed he was a marketing representative for Twitter or Google. Or the Democrat party. 

Now, it wasn’t like I was teetering on the edge of abandoning my faith and joining Islam, but I will tell you, an argument like this one doesn’t work as well as he might have thought it was going to. I love that I worship a God who values free expression, who tolerates my occasional doubts and who is strong enough to uphold truth that exists outside of my mortal mind. So, no, I did not convert to Islam that day – or any day since. I appreciate any good effort to proselytize but threatening me with the eradication of free speech and thought does not compel me to your side. Even with the whole “you’ll burn in Hell” motivation thrown in for good measure. I took a hard pass on that offer. 

People have often asked me if I feel safe when traveling the world. The answer is that I generally do. I don’t walk around with a lot of fear. I don’t often feel alone – I am surprisingly good company even if it’s just inside my own head. Make of that what you will. 

But my comfort level regarding safety is not always the reality of safety. As I’ve said before, safety only exists in the hands of God, so really none of us is completely safe at any moment. After all, we’re living in a corrupt, sin-broken world. And a world, I found, where taxi drivers in Egypt cannot always be trusted. 

Khan el-Khalili is a popular Egyptian bazaar in Cairo. It’s the perfect place for purchasing souvenirs and trinkets to remind you of your time in Egypt. It’s also the perfect place to get nagged to death and to have your financial intelligence insulted. The market is a cornucopia of smells, sights and sounds with sellers calling out original banter in English like, “What are you looking for? I am sure I have it!” Or “How can I spend your money?” Genius wordplay, right? It was a tourist spot for sure, right next to the Al-Hussein Mosque which houses the world’s oldest complete manuscript of the Quran. And according to some, this mosque contains the head of Hussein bin Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad. The mosque is considered to be one of the holiest Islamic places in Egypt. 

Time spent wandering the stalls and bargaining with shopkeepers in the market was usually enjoyable – you could encounter genuinely warm people. You could also encounter thieves and disreputable shop keepers. But with some alertness and the ability to say a firm “no” and walk away, you’d generally have a pleasant experience. With proper bargaining skills you could also come away with some pretty good souvenirs and good prices. 

Getting back to your hotel could be a little bit of a hassle, however. A hoard of taxicabs would crowd the entrance to the market. And when I use the word “taxicab” I’m using it generously. If you had a car, painted it a certain color and could utter the word, “Where?” you had a business. Then it was up to the customer to either know the actual price of the taxi fare or to accept that you looked like a foreigner and would be charged as a foreigner. Most of the time I never had any trouble whatsoever. But on this particular night, my hotel was not going to be my destination for a long, long while. I chose a taxi, told him the name of my hotel and we agreed on a price. We took off and I should have known that something was wrong – never trust people who sing to themselves without the radio on. If people are singing to their own internal, personal soundtrack for no reason, you are not to count it as a charming quality or a harmless quirk. I’ve never been much of a fan of “radio singalongs,” to begin with – it seems to be employed by mostly tone-deaf people. 

I glanced over at the driver and he glanced back with a wild-eyed look that I hadn’t noticed upon getting into the taxi. It’ll be OK, I thought – let him sing. It’s only a fifteen-minute drive to my hotel. I’m socially benevolent like that. 

It wasn’t long before I realized that I didn’t recognize the route we were taking. That is not terribly significant, because if you’ve ever been to Cairo, you know that the roads are a mess as is its traffic. So, there might be many legitimate routes to any destination. But soon, we were on some open road, traveling in excess of 70 miles an hour – virtually NASCAR speeds for Egypt’s roads. And despite my protests that we were heading the wrong way and at a dangerously fast speed, my driver just kept singing. More and more loudly. I also began sharing my point of view a little more loudly, but as he took a sharp turn, I was thrown up against the side of the car and began thinking of just one thing – how am I going to get out. If I jumped out at this speed, I wasn’t sure that my flesh against pavement would be as resilient as I would have hoped. But it was obvious we were far from the city now – well into the desert. On the positive side, the stars were pretty impressive. 

The interaction continued with me shouting and threatening and him singing and laughing. It was obvious that he was acting in concert with whatever alcohol or drugs he had consumed. I was severely questioning my judgment of character in choosing this particular taxi driver, and only slightly soothing myself with the truth that this had never happened to me before, therefore, my track record was still quite good. Though I’m sure that the news report would have read more like, “Unidentified Foreigner Found Dead in Desert,” Instead of “Traveler with Impeccable Taxi-Selecting Skills Has Rare Misstep.”

At one point, the vehicle slowed when the driver attempted to turn down a side road. Reaching over from the passenger seat, I grabbed the wheel, and we hit a traffic barricade of sorts and came to an abrupt stop. Some sort of tussling ensued where I wasn’t exactly sure of what was going on, but I had my opportunity and jumped out of the car. I looked back after I was able to put some distance between us. He looked at me, threw his head back and shouted, “Good luck finding your way back!”  Or at least that’s what I assume he said, since he was yelling in Arabic. Allahu Akbar means “good luck,” right? Really, he could have been saying anything. Maybe he was simply reminding me to give him a five-star rating on Yelp. Who knows? But with that, he got in his car and drove away. It was at that moment I realized that my phone, watch and money were gone. Apparently, what I interpreted as “tussling” had been used for effective “mugging.” 

Now I was quite far from my hotel, quite far from the city, quite without my phone, and with only 20 Egyptian Pounds stashed in my shoe. Yes, I had one clever trick in my worldly-wise arsenal, didn’t I? Money in the shoe. Now that the secret is out, all future attackers will be sure to search my shoes for hidden treasure. 

So, I started walking. And having conversations with myself – the little voices in my head that asked me why I’m doing what I’m doing. The voice that tells me I’m an idiot and was born in a nice country with a lovely family and good friends – why am I here? Why am I putting myself in such situations? But I walked – walked for hours until I found another taxi that took pity on me and the small amount of money I had left and dropped me off at my hotel. I got better at selecting taxis, better at recording their official registration numbers and eventually graduated to a driving service for the security and reliability – but that was more of a feature of the Arab Spring and Egyptian Revolution that was to come. 

As the next few years went by, my visits to Egypt became more frequent. I conducted more leadership training courses, took a couple of Egyptian university groups to Oxford, England for international study conferences and started an internship program for Egyptian university students and young professionals. Each set of interns was selected to work with our events for six months, and if they did well, they could reapply for another six months. We’d meet for trainings to prepare them to help organize events and facilitate the conferences. Nothing in Egypt is made simple. The traffic meant you needed to leave at least two hours before an event, even if you knew that the Egyptian participants would show up an hour late. The bureaucracy meant that hours per day could be spent going back and forth between governmental agencies attempting to get the proper paperwork to open an office, which we eventually creatively managed. Yes, that’s right- creatively. Code for “I bribed the right people.”

The period of Egyptian internships was filled with trainings, conferences, service projects, research projects, late night McDonald’s gatherings, revolutionary protests and long, long hotel lobby conversations. It was an intoxicating time – it must have been, because in retrospect, there certainly was no money to be made, no shortage of hurtles to jump through and no limit to the amount of jet lag I would experience. I suppose the driving motivation had to do with the people and the idea of investing in something greater than myself and bigger than any individual moment. It was the idea that our leadership programs could change lives, open opportunities and hopefully reflect God’s grace in a real and tangible way. 

The people with whom I worked during those years are deeply engraved on my heart. For better or for worse. In no other country have I received so much love or experienced so much betrayal. And neither was provided in a subtle form. But I suppose those are the entry fees for this particular kind of life. You can’t go into it half-heartedly. You engage more wisely over time, but if you want to play in the bigger game of influence and legacy, there are always larger stakes. Stakes so large, so expensive, so nightmarishly violent at times that they made me long for the days of a drug addled taxi driver.

But there were also lighter moments. The Cairo Zoo is incredible. Not so many animals, but for a small “donation,” to the right person, there’s almost nothing you won’t get. Want to ride an ostrich? Done. Want to kiss a bear? Absolutely – no consent required from the participating bear. Want to hold a baby lion? Here you go.

Once I nearly bought a pet monkey from a local shop for about $100. I thought it would be great to have him dress like me and help out at our leadership conferences. I imagined training him to greet people and to hand out conference materials. I also thought he would be an excellent foil for conference participants who asked inane questions. I could just defer the question to the monkey. Actually, there were never any ridiculous questions – there were just people who didn’t know the difference between asking a question and giving a mid-conference speech. This is when a monkey would have come in handy.  The monkey, with his indisputable wisdom would have always seen things my way. And if the monkey disagreed with the person pontificating, well, who am I to question the all-knowing monkey? Mid-conference speech dealt with. Of course, the practical problem with maintaining a pet monkey in a country where I didn’t live full time would have been challenging. I’d have to find him loving and adequate care. One of my interns, Moustafa happily agreed to keep him. Until he realized that feeding, cleaning and other assorted responsibilities would be included. Not to mention that monkeys are notorious for their mischief making. In the end, I didn’t buy a monkey. It was probably just as well. Buying monkeys in the middle of national regime changes is probably a little bit ambitious.

Speaking of regime change, I did get the opportunity to witness the Arab Spring up close and in person…. – TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK –

5 thoughts on “CHAPTER ONE – EGYPT: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE ARAB SPRING

  1. I chuckled out loud at…” I am surprisingly good company even if it’s just inside my own head.” Seriously, I’m spellbound and drawn into your world when reading just this excerpt! So I’m very much looking forward to the book. Thank you once again for sharing adventure and being an influencer on many. Blessings!

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