Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Letters from Egypt: America’s Muslim Cowboy

Photo source: Mother Jones
I received an email citing the US Embassy’s operational status and imagine my surprise to visit the Cairo branch’s website and find this story “America’s Muslim Cowboy Ambassador” amid the likes of Obama’s speech announcing the death of Osama bin Laden,  Secretary Clinton in Cairo, Documenting the Egyptian Revolution, etc.

The US Embassy in Egypt’s Cultural Affairs Officer Andrew Mitchell is moonlighting as a talent scout, and his side job has apparently paid off (although to whom it paid is still up for debate). Egyptian American KareemSalama was chosen by Mitchell to participate in a six-week, US-sponsored tour of the Middle East to promote diplomacy. The Oklahoma-born Salama refers to himself, a “devout Muslim,” and just so happens to be pursuing a career in country music.

Mitchell saw this as an opportunity to dispel the generalization that country music represents a conservative, Islamophobic society. He said, “We can show them: Here's an Oklahoma cowboy who not only doesn't hate Muslims, he is a Muslim!"

And this is our embassy’s choice for a cultural affairs officer? I’ve looked into the requirements to work for the Foreign Services and I’m astounded that this article would a) make the front page of the embassy’s site and b) would have such banter coming from one of its spokespersons. However, I understand the overall thought process of Mitchell, I just believe it was poorly executed (and tragically reported).

Photo source: Wikipedia
Thus Salama came onboard for the six-week program saying, "I like to focus on a message of reconciliation and bringing people together.” But what really baffles me is how he would like to spread a message of reconciliation and togetherness when he has no idea about the very region he’s visiting – which was made apparent when he was unaware of the mounting tensions in Bahrain. He said, “I’m pretty woefully ignorant of Bahrain in general.”

Another eye opening quote came from Salama when asked his opinion about politics: "I'm not a politician and I don't like to talk about politics," he explains. "I told them that I don't answer political questions. And the press corps was like: Why? And I said because, at the end of the day, I think it's a waste of your time. Most of you have never voted in your lives or effected any change in the government whatsoever. And the intelligent person always focuses in their lives on the things that they can actually do something about."

Given the fact that I’m sure Salama was presented with a detailed itinerary of all the countries he was to visit on his tour and his failure to remotely research current events or the region in general, deductive reasoning allows me to believe that he doesn’t answer political questions not because he feels it’s a waste of time, but simply because he remains oblivious to current affairs in and outside the US. Bravo. I totally understand why Mitchell chose him for a diplomatic tour…

However, one of the most laughable parts to all of this is when the US embassy worker Mitchell says that this type of cultural exchange program help combat terrorism, but offers a hypothetical scenario that is, for lack of better words, genius (sarcasm all the way):

“...a kid meets Salama and is later approached by a jihadist who insists that America is ‘the Great Satan.’ That kid is going to say, ‘Wait a minute, I met an American. And he was a Muslim. And he was nice. They are not all the Great Satan.’”

Dear Mr. Mitchell, are you sure you live outside the US? I have to wonder to what extent you’ve mingled with locals in Egypt (excluding of course your drivers and maid). Your statement sounds as though it’s derived from someone who reads reports in the comfort of their own home, but never gets out and about to better understand the region and its society/culture. By the way, this tour is part of a larger diplomacy scheme that costs US taxpayers more than $100 million each year.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for diplomatic efforts. However, can we actually get those who ingratiate themselves into the society and culture so that we can better understand and have a mutually beneficial partnership instead of wasting US tax dollars?

US Embassy Functional Update:

Email sent from the US Embassy in Cairo:

The US Department of State alerts US citizens that, given the continuing improvements since the January 25 Revolution, the ordered departure status for the U.S. Embassy has been lifted as of April 29, 2011 and the US Embassy in Cairo has resumed normal operations.  Given that Egyptian security services have not yet fully redeployed, the Department alerts US citizens planning to travel to Egypt to the possibility of sporadic unrest. The security situation in Luxor, Aswan, and the Red Sea Resorts, including Sharm el Sheikh, continues to be calm.

This Travel Alert replaces the Travel Warning dated March 29, 2011.

Until the Egyptian civilian police has fully redeployed, police response to emergency requests for  assistance or reports of crime may be delayed.  The Government of Egypt continues to enforce a country-wide curfew.  As of April 28, the curfew hours are from 2:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m.  US citizens should respect the curfew and remain indoors during these hours.

 All airports, including the Cairo airport, are open and operating; commercial airlines report flight availability.  Travelers should contact airlines or tour operators concerning flight schedules.  US citizens who reside in Egypt should keep their travel documents up to date and maintain sufficient funds on hand to depart by air should security conditions change.

 The US Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid all demonstrations in Egypt, as even peaceful ones can quickly become violent and a foreigner could become a target of harassment or worse.  Should security forces block off the area around the US Embassy during demonstrations, and US citizens should not attempt to come to the US Embassy during that time. US citizens are urged to remain alert to local security developments and to carry identification and, if moving about alone, a cell phone or other means of communication that works in Egypt.

 The US Embassy is open for all routine American Citizens' Services by appointment.  US citizens needing emergency assistance do not need an appointment.  Visit the Embassy website (http://cairo.usembassy.gov) to check the latest changes to Embassy hours or services.  US citizens with routine phone inquiries may call the Embassy's American Citizens Services section at 2797- 2301, Sunday to Thursday from 1:00 p.m. until 3:00 p.m.

For emergencies after business hours and on weekends and holidays, US citizens can contact the Embassy Duty Officer via the Embassy switchboard on 2797-3300.  The US Embassy is closed on US federal holidays.  US citizens in Egypt are encouraged to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).  By enrolling, US citizens make it easier for the Embassy to contact them in case of emergency.

For the latest security information, US citizens traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department of State's Internet website at travel.state.gov where the Worldwide Caution, Country Specific Information for Egypt, Travel Warnings, and Travel Alerts can be found. Follow us on Twitter and the Bureau of Consular Affairs page on Facebook as well.

The Embassy is located at 5 Tawfik Diab Street (formerly known as Latin America Street), Garden City,
Cairo.  For emergencies after business hours and on weekends and holidays, US citizens can contact the Embassy Duty Officer via the Embassy switchboard on 2797-3300.

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