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Update: Letter from Cairo

The most popular joke in Cairo right now is set in New York. An Egyptian cabdriver is taking a fare to the airport. He barrels through a red light, just missing a truck. "No problem," he explains to his passenger, "I'm an Egyptian cabdriver, I know what I'm doing." When he does it again the passenger lays into him. "Sir," the cabbie replies, "don't worry, I'm an Egyptian cabdriver." Eventually, he comes to a green light and makes a full stop. The passenger, now totally baffled, asks what's wrong. "Sorry, sir," he says, "there might be another Egyptian cabdriver coming through."

Maybe you had to be there, in Cairo, with an Egyptian cabbie telling the joke, turning his head to see how you liked the punch line as he careered through traffic. Of course, what would strike most Americans is the macabre setup: An Egyptian, New York, and an airport?Cairenes don't make the connection. That "Egyptian" might be taken as synonymous with "terrorist" would never cross their minds. The joke defines them as they see themselves: charming and able, if somewhat reckless, world citizens.

Many of the world's citizens think otherwise. A year after Cairo native Mohammed Atta allegedly headed the attacks on the World Trade Center, tourism from the United States and Western Europe is down about one-third from 2001. Yet Egypt hasn't been deeply introspective about its image problem. To Egyptians, this is ummu dunya, the mother of civilization. Plans are set for a new antiquities museum out by the Pyramids, and a show of the Egyptian Museum's collection of funeral relics is now touring the United States, part of an effort to lure Americans back. Egyptians may reason that visitors returned soon after Islamic terrorists killed 57 tourists in Luxor in 1997, but September 11 was a much larger manifestation of terror. It was hard for outsiders not to wonder whether Egypt itself was dangerous.

On that point, the Egyptian government isn't exactly forthright. Egypt receives more U.S. aid than any other country in the world except Israel. A major reason it gets that money is to ensure that an Islamic revolution, another Iran, never happens in Egypt. There are of course real Islamic terrorists in Egypt, mostly in prison, but "Islamic rage" has also become an economic resource exploited by moderate Arab states--the government needs to earn its money by showing that it's keeping the lid on a dangerous situation. The problem is that after September 11, Egypt found it could no longer play both ends by telling tour operators that the country is safe and the U.S. State Department that it's not. Americans had a vivid image of two New York buildings collapsing, and chose to stay away.

Yet in Cairo American influences are everywhere--and not just in movies, music, and fast food, which have been part of the landscape for ages. The rising generation of well-to-do Egyptians has fallen for urban, middle-class American culture: the bookstore café, the large art gallery, the furniture design store, the fashionable bistro.


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