Visit to Egypt gave hints of upheaval to come
Federation mission saw conspicuous gaps between rich and poor
February 16, 2011
The cataclysmic change in Egypt these past few weeks didn’t entirely come as a surprise to Jan Kulick. The Scotch Plains resident, an avid traveler, was there last spring with a group of fellow members of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. She says they saw such dire poverty — and great wealth — that she wasn’t shocked by the uprising.
“My initial concern was for Israel — it always is — and Hosni Mubarak was a benevolent villain towards Israel,” Kulick said, “But once I got over my concerns on that score, I certainly sympathize with the people there. If I’d been there now, I would have joined the protests.”
Her trip to Egypt was an add-on to a federation mission to Israel. “I’m glad I went,” she told NJ Jewish News on Feb. 14. “It’s a reminder to me that if you have an opportunity to do something, you should grasp it, so long as it doesn’t harm you or anyone else. You never know when things could change and you won’t get another chance.”
Though she enjoyed seeing the pyramids and the great Egyptian Museum in Cairo, she was struck by the contrast with Israel. “There was so much attention to tombs and monuments, it was as if they were more interested in the dead than the living. We even saw people living in the cemeteries, because if a family owns a mausoleum they have a right to be there, and they were too poor to get a home anywhere else. You could see television antennae sticking out of the mausoleums.
“Israel also has great reminders of the past,” Kulick said, “but it’s young and growing. I never felt unsafe in Egypt — we were very well protected. In fact, the only thing that scared me was the young guy with a gun who went everywhere with us.
“But I was glad to get back to Israel.”
Kulick compared the gathering in Tahrir Square in Cairo to two massive demonstrations she attended in Washington, DC: last year’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” organized by television political satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and the Million Mom March, the Mother’s Day 2000 demonstration promoting gun control. Aside from the violence spurred by pro-government groups, she said, “the crowds in Egypt were just as peaceful. There was poetry — and they cleaned up the mess.”
With her on the four-day adventure were Barbara and Howard Rood of Westfield, who chaired the mission, and Alice Jaffe of Westfield.
Barbara Rood said that, unlike Kulick, she was amazed when the protests erupted in Egypt. The situation in Egypt when they were there, she told NJJN, “seemed to be very controlled. We saw a lot of trucks with men in uniform armed with machine guns, coming and going. When I asked about them, I was told, ‘It’s just the police.’
“The people in the street seemed reasonably happy. We didn’t have much contact with anyone other than our guide, who was wonderful, but we certainly didn’t feel any tension or unrest,” she said. When the upheaval began, Rood said, “I was shocked. It was the last place where I would have expected there to be an uprising.”
The group visited the main synagogue in Cairo and found it immaculately well maintained, thanks to funds from Jewish benefactors. As for being Jewish themselves and coming into the country from Israel, it didn’t seem to be a problem, though Rood did say she had in mind images portrayed in the book The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado of the Jews’ abrupt expulsion from Egypt.
“Our guide told us that getting rid of the Jews in Egypt was a terrible mistake,” Rood said. “He said they were the cream of the society, the doctors and professors and dancers, and Egypt is much poorer without them.”
She enjoyed going to Jordan, to see the ruins at Petra, more than the trip to Egypt. “I saw what I wanted to see and there was a lot to see in Egypt,” she said, “but it was very hot and very intense. I wouldn’t want to go back.”