CAIRO — The slaughter in the Gaza Strip is five hours away by car, plus a few hours’ waiting time at the border checkpoints. Yet Gaza’s suffering is several surreal dimensions removed in time, space and feeling. To my family at home who think I’m in a war zone, I email that there’s more urgent danger from the three-pack-a-day load of auto fumes on my lungs than from any Gaza spillover. But it’s more complicated than that. Photographers and fixers we know have migrated to Gaza, and 500 or more humanitarian activists in a bus convoy are tweeting urgently back to the social-media adepts in Cairo. But for Egyptians we meet on the streets in Cairo the pain of Gaza seems lost in an unreachable space of heart-break, powerlessness, deep sadness — a familiar area of humiliation for their Palestinian cousins and themselves. “The word is ‘depression,’” a young Egyptian man said to me this afternoon. An Egyptian lady practicing psychiatry at a busy clinic in Downtown Cairo spoke of what she calls a commonplace “chronic depression:” “Our transmitters are clogged,” she observes. “Our receptors are fogged. We don’t have the reservoirs we need for our own lives. We are not thinking about the Palestinians.” I got the same take today from man of infinite sophistication in Egypt’s public life. Would the president of revolutionary Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, do more, I asked, than recall Egypt’s Ambassador to Israel? No, said my Egyptian wiseman: there’s no news forthcoming for the Palestinians, he said, certainly not from Egypt. “Action requires fuel in the tank, and we don’t have it. Egypt has too many of its own problems,” he said, turning palms up. “There are so many open fronts in the Arab world…”
It’s still more complicated in that Egyptians seem quite capable of expressing highs, lows and indifference almost in the same sentence. In Tahrir Square all day into last night, they have been standing in trances of mourning on this year’s anniversary of the massacre of 50-plus protesters around the corner into Mohammed Mahmoud Street; but they are rejoicing in their revolution, too. In another “news” zone entirely we heard the same two-track emotions: over the past weekend, Egyptians were shocked, outraged and embarrassed by the collision of a train with a bus — an accident foretold that finally happened, dragging 51 children to gruesome deaths inside their bus. Almost immediately their faces were painted onto the mural of revolutonary martyrs in Tahrir Square. Later on Saturday evening, on our alleyway of shops and apartments in Cairo, we heard Egyptians asking each other if it was excusable to cheer Egypt’s football team to victory over Tunisia on the same day as the bus horror. But cheer they did, in a roaring urban mob of 30 or 40 sober, giddy sports fans watching a TV screen under my window. So on the mismatched war up the road in Gaza — between the regional superpower and its malnourished prisoners — Cairenes seem both hurt and numb, alienated and engaged, angry and calloused. I am coming to think they talk of a post-revolution in a dateless future, because the present is too full of raging uncertainty and the past is too awful.
For myself? The sum feeling is dumb nausea at the calculations of war’s dividends, of the certain political advantages for Netanyahu’s comeback campaign in shooting fish in a barrel over in Gaza. The bored, boilerplate comments from White House (and the New York Times editorial) about “Israel’s right to defend itself” must strike most Americans, I think, with their sickening banality and their obliviousness about the historical record and the disproporationate power and injury in Gaza. President Obama’s remote ambiguity, his license to a client state to “make their own decisions,” is taken here as egging Israel on to prolong the attacks and the loss of life in Gaza. I liked Barack Obama so much more back in the Iowa Primary of Spring 2007, when he was so new to the game that he could blurt out the simple judgment he’s never repeated. “Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people,” is what Obama said, and it’s still the unarguable truth.