Egypt has always been special to my family. While in the Navy in the 1950s, my dad was sent to Cairo to help set up a medical lab as part of Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program. His pregnant wife and toddler son, Mike, went along; before long, my second brother, Tom, was born there.
Mom spent most of her time dealing with sick babies and mastering the art of haggling in the markets. She also did the tourist thing with her little box camera. And shortly before the young American family finally left Cairo, they learned that a little daughter and sister would be on the way.
After returning home, Mom would often show her Egypt slides, accompanied by histories and creative stories, as our evening entertainment. She honed the narrative to such a perfection that she was often asked to give her Egypt slides at PTA meetings and other public gatherings.
In 1994, Mike, my oldest brother--a Navy man like Dad--was stationed in the Middle East and invited Mom to meet him in Cairo for a special nostalgic trip to her favorite sites, like the temples of Karnac and Luxor. There was also a very splashy (and very cold) outdoor production of Aida, the first grand opera for both Mom and Mike.
It was on the way back from one of these excursions that Mom met Mubarak. From her diary:
We were resting near King Tut's tomb when a motorcade suddenly appeared--out jumped security guards--young, lean, in dark suits with white shirts and ties. In moments they were positioned all round--and President Maburak [sic] appeared. I asked the guard in front of me if I could take pictures--at first he said 'no'--but then the President gave different orders. Before I quite realized what was happening, I was shaking his hand and chatting with him about the opera and my appreciation of all that had been done for that event--and my enjoyment of Egypt. When we got back to the hotel, I discovered that I was an instant (though temporary) celebrity. I was on the 6 o'clock TV news and people started recognizing me everywhere.
Few things pleased my mother as much as being the center of attention; being singled out by the President of Egypt meant a great deal to her. And I'm certain that her unsolicited statements on national television reassuring the president of how safe she, as an American lady, felt in Egypt (at a time when violence against Western tourists was a growing problem) also meant a great deal to Mubarak--or at least to his public image.
Mom was far more interested in the history of Egypt, its ancient beauties and mysteries, than the turmoil of contemporary geopolitics. Shaking the man's hand was enough to charm her. Politics isn't just local; it's personal.
I think about Mom and Mubarak when I look back on how differently I feel about people after I have met them. I was as charmed by Newt Gingrich as by Al Gore when I met them at World Future Society conferences.
But of course I would not want either gentleman running my country for 30 years.
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