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Cut off in Cairo

UM professors, students witnessing Egyptian turmoil

By Chris Daniels
On February 3, 2011

  • Across the country, Egyptians are taking up arms to protect their neighborhoods, including children wielding bats and swords. In a poor section of the city of Suez, outsiders are questioned Monday. MCT

Two University of Memphis professors and two graduate students conducting research in Egypt have been largely unreachable since politically fueled protests began in the country more than a week ago.

Art history associate professor Mariam Ayad, history assistant professor Suzanne Onstine and doctoral students Ginni Reckard and Liz Warkentin are researching tombs in Luxor, roughly 375 miles from Tahrir Square in Cairo, the epicenter of the protests.

The Egyptian government has at times blocked the use of Internet and mobile phones in the country during the protests, minimizing communication between The U of M's Egyptologists and their families and friends.

Rachel Benkowski, art history graduate student, said she made contact with Ayad on Saturday. The two only spoke for about six minutes, but during their conversation, Ayad said she was safe and sounded optimistic, Benkowski said.

"She was very calm and didn't seem alarmed at all," she said. "She said she had no intentions of leaving any time soon, unless something really bad happened, because both her mom and her dad live there."

Onstine, Reckard and Warkentin shared Ayad's outlook, telling peers in Memphis that they too are safe from the country's political unrest and plan to stay and continue their research.

Saturday, Ayad was living with her family in Heliopolis, a suburb a few miles from Cairo. Benkowski, who worked with Ayad in Egypt from mid-December to mid-January, reached Ayad on the family's landline.

"What was happening in Tahrir Square is not necessarily affecting where she was," Benkowski said. "But she said at that time there were vandals breaking into people's houses and trying to steal things."

Ayad told Benkowski her family's neighbors were sending their stronger men and boys out to protect the houses in the area. Ayad described it as a type of neighborhood police force.

"She said they were gathering two-by-fours or knives or whatever was needed to protect their houses and houses around them," she said.

Assistant history professor Kent Schull received a brief e-mail from Onstine on Wednesday morning letting him know that she, Reckard and Warkentin were safe.

"She's planning to stay there," Schull said. "They opened the tomb yesterday that they're working on, and (the military) is containing and monitoring the situation in Cairo, but there it is safe, and there are ways to get out of (Luxor) if necessary."

Onstine told Schull in the e-mail that they would not try to leave unless they felt threatened. She explained that the chaos is happening so far away that they are not severely affected.

"She said, ‘Making panicky, hasty decisions to leave will only leave us stranded in Paris or Istanbul for days until we get a ticket home,'" Schull said. "She said, ‘I'd rather wait and trust my instincts as well as the interpretations of the locals that things will get better in the next week.'"

Schull said Onstine and the students are proud of the Egyptians for fighting their government and are happy to watch what is going on — from a safe distance, of course.

Schull is also an adviser to Warkentin, whom he described as a good student who he's come to know well during the last year.

"She's most interested in ancient Egypt," he said. "She's outgoing, very smart, and she loves to participate in classes. She's like most of us, in that as academics, we're bookworms."      

Schull, who teaches a course in ancient Egypt history, said there were several events that could have led to this political uprising.

Three dictators have ruled the country since 1956, each promising a better life for their citizens, he said.

The current president, Hosni Mubarak, has led the country for 30 years and has been grooming his son to become his successor.

Schull said the economy, health care and literacy rates are "terrible," and the people want change.

Associate history professor Peter Brand has read Facebook comments and received a few e-mails from Onstein, Warkentin and Reckard over the past week. He said they were actually able to continue working on their archaeological project Wednesday.

Protests in Luxor were minor, according to the messages Brand received, but there were some kids "acting up," and the transplanted Memphians were cautious to leave sight of military security in the area. Not a lot of damage was being dealt at any tourist sites or hotels, Brand said.

"They said that a couple of buildings had been burned in Luxor," Brand said. "One was an office of the Egyptian government's political party, and the other one was actually a local post office, for some reason."

Because they must ration the pre-paid cards the use for telephone and Internet access, contacting the students and professors is difficult, Brand said.

"We're just hoping things settle down and there's a peaceful, happy resolution to all these problems," Brand said. "We're concerned about the people over there — not just our own people."

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