NYC’s Egyptians breathe sigh of relief
President Hosni Mubarak left office Friday, giving responsibility for the country to the military. Some Egyptian-Americans in the city feel suddenly hopeful.
By Benjamin J. Spencer
Hosni Mubarak, a former air-force general who as president was commander of the largest military force in the Arab world, was the nation’s longest-serving ruler in more than 150 years.
Published:February 11, 2011 – 11:24 am
President Hosni Mubarak finally heeded the will of his people of Egypt Friday and stepped down from office after 18 days of protests wracked the country. Mr. Mubarak ended his 30 years of autocratic rule by handing over power to the military.
The resignation came after Egyptians streamed out of Friday prayers vowing to topple Mr. Mubarak after he defied calls Thursday for him to leave. Military helicopters buzzed outside the presidential palace at dusk and Arabiya television earlier reported that Mr. Mubarak had left Cairo for the Sinai resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.
“Mr. Mubarak has decided to waive the office of the presidency,” said Vice President Omar Suleiman in a statement on state television Friday. “He has instructed the Supreme Council of the armed forced to take over the affairs of the country.”
The immediate reaction from New York’s Egyptian-Americans Friday was cautiously hopeful.
Mostafa Sayed, 39, runs a lunch cart on East 44th Street between Second and Third avenues in Manhattan. Born and raised in Cairo, he boasts a Masters degree in applied statistics. But he couldn’t find work in Egypt, and he chafed under the rule of Mr. Mubarak. Some 13 years ago, he left to become a U.S. citizen.
“If I get my chance there, maybe I’ll go back,” he said. “After 30 years, I feel hopeful.”
Even before Mr. Mubarak stepped down, though, debate ranged far and wide in the Egyptian Coffee Shop in Astoria, Queens, on the foreign country’s future. One topic: whether or not to trust the military that now controls the government.
“He’s like a snake. He’s leaving his head,” said businessman Samy El Sharkawy, referring to Mubarak’s hand-picked military elite, whom he called “the dogs of Mubarak.” He advocated a revolt among the younger members of the army. “One of the young officers will arrest the leaders and take over,” he predicted on Thursday.
Mohamed Soliman, a Queens-based activist who runs a Facebook page called “Civilization’s Bridge,” where opposers to Mr. Mubarak’s government have been meeting for the last 18 months, echoed the Mr. Sharkawy’s call for justice. “All these guys, all the regime, are supposed to be under arrest,” he said. He hopes to see elections in Egypt as early as September.
But Egyptian Coffee Shop owner Labib Salama had a more moderate stance. “We hate the Egyptian police,” he said. “But we trust the military.”
Change may come quickly, regardless of whether the Egyptian military wishes it.
Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google Inc. in the Middle East and North Africa and a figurehead of the protests, on Friday read out a list of demands that included abolishing all restrictions on forming political parties and giving voting rights to Egyptians living abroad.
If they came to pass, concessions like those could spell a radical shift in geopolitical power, said Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi, speaking at a Thursday evening panel “Egypt Arising.”
A well-known Palestinian-American historian and the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia, Mr. Khalidi said any number of U.S. and Israeli interests could be threatened by what he called “a thoroughly revitalized Arab world.”
“This will pose a problem for Washington,” he said.
But U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, the Washington representative the “Little Egypt” neighborhood in Astoria, said in a statement that she fully supported the change.
“Today, the bravery of the Egyptian people made history. Those who gathered in Tahrir Square deserve the credit for changing their nation and making this huge step forward.” Ms. Maloney said.
The Columbia panel concluded that the future of Egypt after Mr. Mubarak’s departure is anyone’s guess. But Mona El Ghobashy, a political science professor at Barnard College who frequently comments on the country, sounded a note of caution.
“There’s a danger in parliamentary elections,” she said. “The way forward is fragmentation.”
Queens limousine driver Fathy Ahmed, who has two children still living in Egypt, can only hope the opposition stands against the endemic corruption he saw for the past 30 years.
“I hope we choose good people,” he said simply.
Bloomberg News contributed to this article.
Many NYC Egyptian-American firms ‘paralyzed’
One reason: All eyes here are on TV news there. No flights for NYC tour companies. Suez port backups and empty Cairo factories hit Fifth Avenue rug sellers and Garment District customers.
By Benjamin J. Spencer and Jeremy Smerd
The uprising in Egypt has captivated the world.
Published: February 4, 2011 – 3:51 pm
The news is inescapable in Astoria, Queens. A peek into the Egyptian Coffee Shop on Steinway Street on 25th Avenue Thursday revealed several local business owners seated at small tables and completely absorbed, eyes glued to the television as events more than 9,000 miles away unfolded on the screen.
“Egyptians are not that violent,” explained Ali Al Sayed, chef and owner of Kabab Cafe, which sits just across the street from the coffee shop. Mr. Al Sayed’s family lives in Alexandria. “Egyptians won’t move until they reach their limit.”
[Watch a video about Egypt’s ripples in Queens.]
Egyptian-Americans have crowded the cafes, barber shops and hookah bars of this close-knit community since the first rallies against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s government began on Jan. 26. That’s left Mr. Al Sayed little time for running his own restaurant. Others on the block said much the same thing.
“It has had the effect of a World Cup,” said Rafit A. Harb, an attorney whose firm is on Steinway Street. “It has paralyzed some businesses.”
Travel and tourism has been the hardest hit in the local Egyptian community, said Trust Travel and Tours owner Ashraf Hanno. Flights and tours to Egypt, which his company books through EgyptAir, have virtually ceased over the past few days.
“Saturday, Sunday and Monday, everyone was cancelling flights or trying to book flights from Egypt,” Mr. Hanno said.
But now, a sense of stillness pervades his small office. Phones are silent. At this time of year, Trust Travel normally books 20 to 30 flights a day. “Nothing,” he said on Thursday. “Maybe one so far today.”
Workers in factories in Egypt had been weaving carpets for Megerian Rugs in Manhattan without a hitch for 25 years. But shortly after the pro-democracy demonstrations began in Cairo, the factories suddenly shut down. They have been idle since.
“Nobody is working at the factories right now,” said Sarkis Vardanian, a sales manager at Megerian. “Pretty soon, if this goes on, we’ll stop getting our orders filled, and the price of the rugs will go up.”
The company’s store on Fifth Avenue and 29th Street still carries plenty of Egyptian-made rugs—it says it’s the largest importer of handmade Egyptian rugs in the city—but supply is limited. An 8-foot by 10-foot carpet costs around $7,000.
The anti-government turmoil spreading across Egypt over the past 10 days hasn’t just affected Egyptian-Americans. As recently as Tuesday, shipping companies like AP Moeller-Maersk had temporarily closed container terminals in the northern cities of Port Said, on the Suez Canal; Damietta; and Alexandria, all of which provide access to Mediterranean freighters.
Maersk spokeswoman Mary Ann Kotlorich said the company reopened all terminals and offices by Wednesday, yet operations continue to be hampered by the government-imposed curfew that allows most of their 7,000 Egyptian employees only about five hours of work a day. As a result, containers holding all kinds of goods just sit on the docks.
Renewed clashes and protests on Friday could force even more slowdowns as New York companies await the end of violence and restrictions, said Arthur Bodek, a partner at law firm Grunfeld Desiderio Lebowitz Silverman and Klestadt, a Manhattan law firm specializing in customs and international trade. The firm has “numerous clients” that do business in Egypt, mainly in the apparel industry, Mr. Bodek said.
“I’ve heard of trips being cancelled, of factories being closed,” he said, noting that he knows of several companies that have flown managers out of Egypt amid the unrest in the last week. “It would be reasonable to expect at least a slowdown in imports.”
Mr. Bodek, whose specialty is free-trade and duty-free zones, said the outcome of the current conflict could be crucial for apparel companies in particular, which take advantage of Egypt’s Qualifying Industrial Zones, or QIZs.
Most New York apparel firms operating in Egypt take advantage of these zones, he said. Shipments produced in qualifying factories, mainly apparel and shoes, pay no duties coming into the U.S.
The QIZ program is part of the U.S.-Israel Free Trade Agreement and is intended to foster better trade relations in the region by requiring that a percentage of the materials added to clothing and manufactured goods in Egypt’s QIZ’s be produced in Israel.
If a government more hostile to Israel were to replace Mr. Mubarak’s, Mr. Bodek said, that program could be in trouble, resulting in the loss of a major trading incentive. Regular duties for apparel not in QIZ’s are significantly higher, Mr. Bodek said.
Despite the political implications, though, Egypt’s most commonly exported commodities—oil, natural gas, cotton and textiles—are little more than a footnote in the national and New York economies. The U.S. is Egypt’s largest export market, accounting for nearly 8% of the country’s trade in 2009, but the protests are unlikely to have much local impact as long as the Suez canal remains open.
For example, each month a couple cargos of liquefied natural gas from Egypt land on U.S. shores. Those 6 billion cubic feet of LNG, worth $20 million, are a mere drop in the 1,700 billion cubic feet of natural gas consumed in the United States each month.
A spokeswoman for one of the largest distributors of Egyptian natural gas, GDF Suez, said the unrest in Egypt has not affected its ability to serve customers in New York City, most notably the area’s largest supplier, National Grid.
The impact on shipping in and out of New York and New Jersey ports has also been minimal so far, said Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. “Our biggest trading partners are in Asia,” he said, adding that, for Egypt, “the biggest impact would be if something were to happen to the Suez Canal.”
Fears over instability around the Suez Canal, which carries an estimated 8% of global trade through freight, were credited with stock dips and a brief spike in oil prices last week. But according to the Journal of Commerce Online, which tracks the shipping industry, the canal has remained open and ship traffic stable.
Tour Guide of the Toxic
Dec 14th, 2010 | Category: Health and Science
By Benjamin J Spencer
Usually it’s not a great thing when your memory of the first time you met someone person is inseparable from a terrible, gag-inducing stink. But with Mitch Waxman, it comes with the territory.
A lifelong New York City resident, Waxman is an indie comic-book artist, photographer, advertising retoucher, prolific blogger and self-taught expert on Newtown Creek. In recent years, he has taken upon himself the task of giving curious visitors to the fetid, horribly polluted East River tributary a uniquely grand ecologic-historic tour. The experience is eye-opening – and often nose-wrinkling.
“You smell it?” Waxman asks as we approach a major combined sewer outfall at Maspeth Creek. He turns his face toward my friend Steven and me, his dark beard peppered with gray. I can only nod and try to keep from breathing in. “Come here in the summer, brother. Holy God!” he says, cackling.
“The funny thing is, this is actually what I do for exercise,” he says later as we hoof it past the Maspeth Creek tributary. “A lot of people run through parks. I walk through toxic waste dumps.”
Despite that less-than-glowing appraisal of the Environmental Protection Agency’s newest Superfund remediation site, Waxman’s infectious love of this area shines through. Pointing out the sights as he strides along – sidestepping refuse and muck, black trench coat flapping, digital SLR camera ever at the ready – he gleefully delves into the kind of gasp-inducing history that most communities would rather paper over.
One complication for future EPA dredgers, Waxman says, could be the tendency in the past century for waterfront gangs and organized crime to use Newtown as a dumping area for their – um – internal problems.
“You know,” says Waxman. “I have a bunch of friends who are on the job, and they say they’re gonna be pulling bodies out of this. This is gonna solve like half of New York’s murders.” (“On the job” means police officers.)
Of all the landmarks in New York City to develop a fascination – bordering on obsession – with, Newtown Creek might seem an odd choice. But Waxman has a fierce interest in all things neglected, misunderstood, or conveniently forgotten by the powers-that-be.
“It’s the kind of place which strains your sense of the real,” Waxman says of the creek. “The history of the watershed is so tremendous. So over the top. It’s just a magnetic, terrible, beautiful place which is largely unknown. And right in the dead- bang center of New York City.”
Waxman knows a lot about New York City, most of which he can recite from memory with the same casual ease as one might read from a newspaper. Though he now lives in Astoria, Queens, Waxman grew up in Canarsie and Flatbush in Brooklyn, the grandson of Jewish-Russian immigrants who fled persecution in Europe in the early part of the past century.
“My uncles fought in World War I, my dad in Korea, my cousins in Vietnam,” he says. His grandfather, he says, fought in France during WWI as well – though, as it turns out, he didn’t quite join up out of the usual swell of patriotism.
“Funny story,” Waxman says. “My grandfather got off the boat at Ellis Island. And a guy in a very nice set of clothes with a really nice haircut says to him, ‘Son, you wanna be an American?’ My grandfather goes, “Yes. I want to be an American.” So the guy says, ‘Sign here’. My grandfather signed. The guy says, ‘Welcome to the United States Army!’ And he didn’t even get to go into New York. They put him on a boat, they sent him back. He did basic (training) on the boat.”
Waxman pauses. “You know, all Jewish humor comes down to bein’ a schmuck. And that’s a classic schmuck story.”
Waxman himself narrowly avoided death, though perhaps not in quite such a dramatic fashion. After a very close call with his health seven years ago (chronicled by Waxman himself on the comics website, www.weirdass.net), Waxman started walking around the neighborhood for exercise.
“I found the creek,” remembers Waxman. “I started looking into it, you know, started researching it – and Holy God, it’s the classic puddle, you know. You go to touch it and you go in up to your shoulder.”
Mitch Waxman likes to take the curious on tours of Newtown Creek. Photo by Steven McCann c/o Shearwater Films
That love of mysterious history informs his non-creek work, as well.
When I suggest, on the evidence of his blog posts and comic-book artwork, that he might have a minor obsession with the early 20th century cult writer H.P. Lovecraft, he scoffs.
“Minor? You haven’t been reading carefully enough. The guy was a genius who ‘saw’ the 20th Century and did very, very careful research. There’s a million little things he opined about that modern science is just proving.”
True to Lovecraftian form, Waxman’s comics, drawn mainly between the late 1980s and 2008, are replete with monsters, sci-fi mash-ups of history and mythology, and fedora-wearing gumshoe heroes. In his first major series, “Plasma Baby,” a four-issue black and white that he created while studying under comic visionaries such as Will Eisner at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, he explored his fascination with the ancient Aztecs.
“They were clipped out of history just as they were attaining their apex,” he says of the Aztecs. “The analogy I always use is, imagine if Caligula’s Rome just disappeared one day, an entire culture at the apogee of their civilization, just gone.”
All very academic – but of course, this being Waxman’s “baby”, as it were, there is a twist. In this version of history, after 400 years of exile the Aztecs seek revenge on the world that deposed them by calling up a monster-sized infant formed of pure plasma to wreak havoc. The series’ subtitle is “Vengeance of the Aztecs.”
Another of Waxman’s projects was “The Starry Ones,” a long-running 3-D online comic written by Ancram Hudson, illustrated by Waxman and serialized on the pair’s website, www.weirdass.net). Remarkably, Waxman and Hudson created an original, wildly colorful multi-panel entry nearly every week for 173 weeks (2000-2003), detailing an original universe of warring alien empires and mystical gods – complete with esoteric references to real ancient cultures and technologies.
For over 20 years Waxman has been involved in just about every aspect of comics – production, publishing, writing and drawing. But he says as he grew older, the long hours, low pay and sedentary nature of the work became more and more oppressive. As he puts it, the comics industry “eats its young and isn’t interested in its old.” And after he became, as he says, “fat and sick” seven years ago, he realized that the rigors of comic art had taken a dangerous toll on his mental and physical health.
“Comics is a really insular life,” he explains. “You stay home and you draw fuckin’ Spiderman for 18 hours a day.”
At the same time, he says, the work is so sedentary that “your muscle tone turns to jelly. And it’s one of those things – you’re alone all the time, you’re sitting in front of the board. It makes you crazy.”
So, the last few panels Waxman drew in 2008 for weirdass.net might be his “swan song” in comics – at least for now.
But it is simply not in Waxman’s nature to sit on his laurels. He immediately relaunched himself in photography, freelance advertising, walking tours, and regular activities with the non-profit Newtown Creek Alliance, where, he jokes on his blog, he fulfills a role not unlike that of “Gleek the supermonkey” from the 1970’s cartoon show “Superfriends” – “often used as comic relief”. He started several blogs, the most renowned of which is the Newtown Pentacle www.newtownpentacle.com). The site is a showcase both of Waxman’s peculiarly compelling urban landscape photography, and of his exhaustive historical research into New York City’s most sordid characters and events – along with stream-of-consciousness direct from his own fertile (okay, morbid) inner mind.
Waxman recently published a photo and history book chronicling the Newtown Creek area (“Newtown Creek for the Morbidly Curious) and a compendium of the first six months of his and Hudson’s “The Starry Ones” comics saga. As if all this weren’t enough, Waxman and his Newtown Creek Alliance cohort, Bernard Ente, lead frequent boat tours up the creek, and are slated to head up a Centennial celebration walk over the Hunter’s Point Avenue Bridge on Dec. 11.
“This is all part of our ‘getting away with murder’ thing me and him do,” says Waxman of his and Ente’s exploits. He laughs. “We were parade marshals twice last year!”
All in all, it hasn’t been a bad recovery for Mitch Waxman.
“You know something?” he says. “I’m lucky. In midstream, I actually found something new I’m very interested in, and it’s led to a whole new group of people that I never thought I’d be meeting. So, you know. It’s cool.”
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT MITCH AND HIS MUSE:
http://www.weirdass.net and http://weirdasscomics.wordpress.com