E-mails arrived from ex-colleagues that I hadn't spoken to in months. Co-workers stopped by to share their grief and trepidation with me. I found myself placed in a role similar to that of a news analyst or political spokesperson on behalf of my country, analyzing how Americans would react, how the government might carry out reprisals on the terrorists and what the ultimate impact will be on the stock market (if there's one thing that all Singapore investors have in common with their American counterparts, it's a vested interest in the movements of the Dow and Nasdaq).
Given the option, I would have preferred spending time explaining the importance of the Super Bowl and why we've adopted baseball as our national game, than to have assumed the role of diplomat and talking head for all Americans.
The other odd occurrence was realizing the technological wonders of e-mail and satellite TV. Unsurprisingly, I found myself watching CNN — the same reports at the same time, as my family back home saw.
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On September 12 America enjoyed a palpable sympathy in the streets of Cairo. In the next two or three weeks that sympathy was somehow squandered, that door slammed shut — and this before American planes struck Afghanistan. Now there are only "U.S. attacks" and "innocent Muslims;" and when Osama Bin Laden's Kalashnikov-patting sound bites are played on the news, even decent, moderate intellectuals nod partial agreement. What happened? From my very limited vantage point as a student at the American University in Cairo, it sounded like this:
In the first few days, shock and condolence.
"Haram! It's a sin! God be with you, God be with you."
"Did you call your family and make sure they're OK? Thank God, Alhamdu lillah, alhamdu lillah."
"My uncle works in New York. But he's OK."
Then, the typical Cairene black humor.
"A cloud of smoke and ash? You mean New York looks like Cairo now?"
"No way man. That was no Arab group. Could we ever be that punctual and organized?"
"You're American? Well don't put my name on your list, I didn't do it."
On television, footage bought directly from CNN, sometimes without even an Arabic translation. (Americans broadcasting for other Americans are heard by the whole world.)
By September 16 or so, people discuss it like sports: another topic for kalaam farigh (idle talk) over tea and cigarettes. For instance, a conversation in my landlord's office. My landlord, a lawyer, says he doubts the attackers were Arabs because they required some skill and education, flying planes and calculating tower resistance and such. (Yesterday's joke, but he said it in earnest.) His young assistant Saeed, a law student, maintains it was a Japanese group retaliating for Hiroshima — or maybe Iran. Another assistant, Mustafa, thinks it was some kind of state intelligence agency, for sure: some power "commensurate with the U.S.," as he says. But then he admits it might have been Iraq. Some other guy sitting in the office insists it was Israel creating a smoke cloud under which to 1) blame the Palestinians and 2) reinvade them without media glare. (A pretty common theory, on the streets and in the papers.)