God and Politics on the Train to Cairo

By Graham Pitts

The woman shook her head and laughed when we bought two tickets for the third-class train out of Alexandria into the Nile Delta.  Americans don’t usually buy tickets on this train.

“Bikam?”  How much?

“Seventy-five ‘irsh,” she responded, about twelve cents.

On the platform, the fading orange paint was peeling off the local third class train, clearly distinguishing from the fresher blue paint on the first class train cars headed for Cairo.

We were two American students looking for an ‘authentic’ Egyptian experience, which usually translates into cheaper and grittier.  There’s only so close I can get to that as a tall blond with accented Arabic.

We took our places on the plain orange plastic benches with bucket seats, and then came the inevitable stares. One of the first men to sit down near us asked to share in water bottle that I had just opened.  The man was coughing as he said “water” in English.

In Islam, refusing to offer water when requested is haram, or ?(what’s haram mean?) I passed the gruff, balding man my bottle which he drank putting his lips on the bottle and handed it back to me.   I recapped it and put it away.  In Egyptian restaurants, a single metal cup will serve table after table of customers who drink without the same apprehension Americans have for contracting sickness from strangers.

As the train crawled through the poor neighborhoods lining the tracks out of Alexandria into the countryside, a young man overheard my conversation with my travel partner and sat next to me, asking if he could practice his English.

“God forgives you for insulting the Egyptian people,” he said after a brief conversation about politics.

“What do you think about our antiquated system?”

“You mean the trains?”

“No, Mubarak.”

“Oh, the former system. What do you think?”  Experience in the Middle East had taught me to discover the point of view of my interlocutor before continuing.  “Are you with the revolution?”


“Right, Mubarak hiwaan.” Mubarak is an animal who killed and tortured his people.

The young man was quiet for a few minutes before turning towards me and confirming that: “God forgives you for insulting the Egyptian people,” implying that he did not yet.  Quickly he relayed what I had said to the other men sitting beside us.

“You have insulted the honor of all Egyptians.”

Even though he supported the revolution, he demanded that the previous, oppressive, corrupt regime be respected.  Indeed, he insinuated that God himself was the protector of the honor of the Egyptian nation.

Suddenly on this third class train in rural Egypt, a revelation flashed out at me: the close similarity between how nationalism and religion reinforce one another in the U.S. and Egypt.  In America too, we assign religious value to patriotism.  In America too, we hold the honor of the nation to be almost holy.

My friend whispered to me that he thought we might be in trouble, that we had made the mistake of talking about politics in rural Egypt.  He thought we were going to get thrown off the train.

Raising his voice in Arabic, the Egyptian tried to rally the other ten or so men in the cars against us.  But the others told the young man we were right.   Despite their conservative appearance, most sported long beards and wore galabiyyas,(what is this?) they held liberal political leanings.

I noted that if I talked about George W. Bush the same way I had referred to Mubarak, Americans would not be insulted.  Nods of agreement went around the car, their honor intact.

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