Author: Griffin-Nolan, Ed
Date published: February 16, 2011
Cynthia Bishop vividly remembers the night in 1952 when her father woke her from sleep and carried her, then an 8-year-old girl, up the stairs to the flat roof of their home in Cairo. "He stood me up on a chair there with my brother and sister," recalled the Syracuse resident, "and we watched Cairo burning. I could see the British- and French-owned hotels on fire in Tahrir Square, and hear the sounds of the revolution all across the city."
This week Bishop, a retired librarian who lives on the East Side, watched the massive non-violent protests that ultimately drove Hosni Mubarak from power. Her concern was more than nostalgic. Bishop's 34-year-old daughter, Catherine MacKay, a graduate student at the American University in Cairo, was among the throng in Tahrir Square. MacKay has been in Cairo for more than a year pursuing a master's degree in human rights law and refugee studies.
Speaking with wonder in her voice about this historical coincidence, Bishop talked of her daughter's experience. "We now have parallel revolutions in our lives. I was in Cairo in 1952 at that revolution when King Farouk was thrown out of the country." Bishop's father, George Gardner, taught at the American University and co-authored a book with Sami Hanna on Arab socialism (Arab Socialism: A Documentary Survey. University of Utah Press, 1969).
That night in 1952 her father told the family that he did not plan to leave the country, as many expatriates chose to do. Bishop remained with her family in Cairo for another eight years as the anti-colonial uprising led to the establishment of Gamul Adbul Nasser's nationalist Pan-Arab regime, before moving back to the United States in 1960 to finish high school.
Nearly six decades later, Bishop still tries to see the situation through Egyptian eyes. "One of the good things that came out of that Army revolution," she said, "was to get the Suez Canal back from the British. That income went to Egyptians, not the British. Nasser did a lot of land reform and created an agrarian middle class, which Mubarak has been taking apart in the last 30 years.
"It means an enormous amount to me that Catherine is where she is and has come to know and love that part of the world that formed me. When you experience something as a child it's very difficult to explain the sounds, the nuances, the flavors to someone. There are things I can't explain that she's getting."
MacKay works as an intern at African and Middle East Refugee Assistance, a non-governmental agency helping refugees in transit from Africa to other parts of the world. She grew up in the Westcott Nation, attending Ed Smith Elementary and Levy Middle schools, and graduating from Nottingham High School in 1994 (her favorite teacher was occasional New Times contributor Len Fonte, who taught English and ran the drama program until his 2007 retirement).
MacKay spoke to The New Times from her Cairo office via Skype two days after Mubarak's departure, looking surprisingly refreshed and collected for someone less than 48 hours removed from the all-night celebrations in the square.
"I live in downtown Cairo," explained MacKay, "four blocks east of Tahrir. On Jan. 25, when they called the first demonstration, there was a sense that it was going to be bigger because of what happened in Tunisia, but nobody had any idea that it was going to balloon into what it became.
"On the 26th, I went to Tahrir, kind of as an observer. I didn't see this as my fight; it's an Egyptian thing. I saw my role as a witness, so I could report back to my own people at home. I saw enormous crowds of people galvanized and excited, speaking their minds for the first time. In the square there was no one central spot where everyone's attention was directed. A conversation with two people would gather a crowd. There were debates, anti-government chants."
MacKay, who professed "a healthy respect for crowds and how things can change," stayed away from Tahrir on the night Mubarak gave a speech that did not include his resignation. The engaging redhead throws back her head and laughs: "That crowd was way too big for me. I stayed home."
On her visits to the square MacKay was not worried for her own safety and said she was impressed with the security and organization there. "I was never checked by the Army, only by citizens. Civilians were checking to make sure no one brought in weapons."
Like her grandfather, MacKay is determined not to leave Egypt. She is halfway through her studies, with hopes of finishing her coursework by the end of the year. If a job in her field presented itself in Egypt, she would consider it. She is not certain what turn events will take there, but she feels hope in small signs, like the determined way people came to the square with buckets and brooms to clean up once the celebrations concluded.
Back home, Bishop has gotten involved in a campaign to bring the Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera to Syracuse. She and a dozen others, including local author Bruce Coville, have begun circulating a petition asking Time Warner Cable to add Al Jazeera to their lineup.
Both mother and daughter relied heavily on Al Jazeera in English for accurate news on the revolt. "I've been fighting misperceptions of Egypt and the Middle East all my life," said Bishop. "My father had the same issue."
Added MacKay, "I found the U.S. networks too sensationalistic, using words like crisis and chaos and war zone all the time. It wasn't chaos here. I had food, I had water and I had electricity." For the moment, viewers can find the Al Jazeera coverage online at Livestation.com. Bishop said the only U.S. cities with access to Al Jazeera in English are Washington, D.C.; Burlington, Vt.; and Toledo, Ohio.
"I want to tell you," said Bishop with emotion in her voice, "it means an enormous amount to me that Catherine is where she is and has come to know and love that part of the world that formed me. When you experience something as a child it's very difficult to explain the sounds, the nuances, the flavors to someone. There's things I can't explain that she's getting."
An ocean away, her daughter shares the same feeling. "I was really moved to think that my mom was here in the last revolution." Neither of them is certain which turn the revolution will take, but they are both feeling hopeful, and grateful to have this tie that binds.