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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Egypt and History

We have a Czech young man who lives in our home and helps take care of our boys when Marina and I are chained to our keyboards and classrooms. Last night he was in our living room watching the crowds in Tahrir Squeare and thinking back to the Velvet Revolution that defined his parents’ lives. For Vojtech, this moment of danger and chane was oddly familiar — it was the tory of People Power, of mass change, unfolding in a new land but along familiar lines. When I was a child ou school gathered to watch rockets launch Americans into space — or capsules splash down — we saw marches. We saw, and we joined in, as the impossible became possible. Any of us who lived through the 60s, then the fall of the Wall, Mandela’s return, the throttled moment of Tiananmen Square,People Power in the Philippines,  the various colored revolutions of the former Soviet Union (Ukraine/Orange etc.) has experienced this tide of change as it as rippled all across the world, to the most unlikely places. It is nearly always the same — a place where people had long known things were bad — the government corrupt, cruel, dictatorial — but in which no real protests had been allowed, and there was a specter of violence and extremism. Would the ANC, the Muslim Brotherhood, the resident radicals, hijack the moment and lead the country from moment of possibility to another form of repression — as did, in fact, happen in Iran after the fall of the Shah.

So the question is, how can we bring young people into this story? It is one thing to use February to revisit the story of Montgomery to Memphis, with Freedom Rides, Sit-Ins, March on Washington, I Have a Dream, Voting Rights along the way. Of course. But to the kids in our schools that is a very old and safe story — even if we manage to bring to our schools a grandparent who was the first to integrate a school, a neighborhood, a team. How do we connect that past moment of change to the idea that change is — or, more to the point, may be — possible any and everywhere? What makes a Velvet Revolution work? What prevents it from working? And what does that mean for the changes our children will want to bring about?

In my men’s reading group we just read Kwame Appiah’s The Honor Code (too abstract and academic even for me). But we then went around the room and asked what part of life that we now accept will soon enough become unacceptable — as segregation, or apartheid, or Mubarak’s rule, changed. The suggestions ranged from fur, to handguns, to burning coal, to the 50% black high school graduation rate, to laws against gay marriage. It might be an interesting time capsule assignment for a class — what aspect of life that is now legal and normal do you think will become unacceptable in your