Cairo and Mumbai: The cities victorious

Like Cairo, Mumbai will overcome and beat the terrorists who so cowardly struck at its magnificence.
By Mona Eltahawy
Mon 05 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

In the summer of 1993, beginning life as a rookie reporter for Reuters news agency in Cairo, a suicide bomber struck close to "home".

He blew himself up as the interior minister's motorcade passed by the American University in Cairo - my alma mater - on its way to the ministry a few metres away. I had finished my Master's Degree in journalism at the university just a few months earlier.

The bomber, on a motorcycle, wounded the minister, killed himself and two bystanders, including an immensely popular "menaadi" - the man who parked the students' cars in a way that only an old-hand Cairene could, fitting more cars than you ever thought possible, bumper-to-bumper, along the university's perimeter. His body was torn in two by the force of the blast.

And so at the end of November as I emailed friend after friend in Mumbai to make sure they had survived the terrorist attacks in their city, I recounted that earlier terrorism in my own city as a gentle reminder that I understood what they were feeling.

Fifteen years separated the acts of terrorism but they were the same horrific expression of a zealous distortion of Islam that smashes everything I hold holy about my faith.

One friend wrote back to say he narrowly escaped being shot at two of the locations where terrorists struck. Another was to report that he was fine after being trapped in a hotel for four-and-a-half hours but that one of his friends - an anti-terrorism security chief - was shot dead at another location.

I worried immensely when I didn't hear back from one friend for days. He finally emailed to say he could not reply earlier because the "sadness was greater than the tragedy."

I had met them all in the summer when I began my first ever trip to India with several days in Mumbai; a Mumbai in the grip of a sweltering heat wave, pounded by monsoon rain and wind, but magnificent still. I'm a city girl through and through - I'm from Cairo, I grew up in London and I now live in New York city. But it's easy to run out of superlatives when it comes to Mumbai, so I call it "Cairo on Redbull" - eternally high and frenetic. And I loved it.

So of course I understood why Rahman was inconsolable. I had been to all the locations targeted by the terrorists and had stayed at one of the hotels they besieged.

To attack such a magnificent city underlines not just the nihilism of terrorism - for what, if not the strong pulsating heart of a city and all that makes it buzz with life, are you attacking - but its savagery too. When you strike a city with such little empty space you guarantee unspeakably high causalities.

More prosaically, terrorism in both Egypt and India kills not just human beings but livelihoods. Tourism in Egypt is the country's highest foreign currency earner. And it is the country's largest private sector employer.

Attacks such as the coordinated suicide and car bombings in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in 2005 which left at least 90 people dead and the 1997 Luxor massacre that killed 58 tourists and four Egyptians were brutal not just for their carnage and mayhem but for the damage they wreaked on Egypt's tourism industry.

With that in mind, I assured my friends in Mumbai that I would return.

During my summer visit to India, Jaipur was the next destination after Mumbai. Who could resist a trip to the famed "Pink City", where the old walled quarter of the city is washed a salmon pink to symbolize hospitality? A little over a month before I visited Jaipur, seven bombs exploded inside that pink old walled quarter and an eighth outside a Hindu temple nearby, killing at least 63 people and injuring over 200 others.

You would never have guessed it if you'd walked through the old city, jam packed with pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, rickshaws and monkeys all competing for space.

Cairo, Mumbai, Jaipur, New York, London, Madrid, Istanbul, and many other cities all carry the bloody marks of terrorism. In Mumbai, followers of just about every religion, from a great deal of ethnic groups were killed.

There is no more Muslim or Christian or Jew or Hindu. There is no more believer or infidel. There is no more East or West. There is no more "us" and "them" It is all "we". There is little comfort in knowing that we share the same worries halfway across the world. And how odd that cities in countries with so little in common now share the same fears.

But that's terrorism - the ultimate equalizer.

"Cairo" means "victorious" and being the city girl I am, I take comfort in that adjective. Mumbai, too, will overcome and beat those who so cowardly struck at its magnificence.

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