Throughout more than 2 weeks of demonstrations in Egypt, the voices of Westporters have been quiet.
We’ve watched — with the rest of the world — as citizens of the proud, ancient nation have struggled against an oppressive government, and for freedom and justice.
One Westporter has more than a passing interest in the outcome. Taher Naggar is the son of Egyptian parents. Taher’s father emigrated to the U.S. from Egypt in 1969; his mother came 5 years later. Born in 1976 in Queens, Taher moved to Westport at 5. In 1994 he graduated from Staples.
Every couple of years growing up, Taher visited Egypt. He spent time with family members, but did not really experience the country. Only in the past 6 years has he gotten to know the land. That created a “stronger, richer” connection, he says.
In Westport, Taher knew only 1 other Egyptian family. But from his first day of kindergarten at Green’s Farms Elementary School, he never felt unwelcome or out of place. He made friendships he maintains today.
“I never sensed that I was mistreated because I looked different, had a strange name or fasted during Ramadan,” he says. “Even during the first Gulf War, as a freshman at Staples, there were only a few comments thrown my way.”
A Jewish friend and he often joked about “our brethren, and the never-ending conflict in Israel/Palestine.” Taher learned that America is filled with people from other parts of the world — places rife with conflict — who find themselves “tolerating, working with, even developing and maintaining friendships and relationships with people from the very countries they may have learned to hate in their homelands. It’s an amazing phenomenon.”
Even so, telling people he is Egyptian — and Muslim — has elicited amazement, and “big eyes of wonder.” He cautions others that while he is no expert in either area, he is happy to answer questions.
After graduating from Ohio University, Taher worked at a talent management company, a boutique ad agency and Enterprise Rent-a-Car. Last September he started a new career, as a 7th grade math teacher in the Bronx. He now lives back in his birthplace: Queens.
In New York, for the 1st time he socialized with Egyptians and Arabs who were not related to him. It was exciting to have new friends — young men and women with similar experiences as children of immigrants. It was novel to sit with 15 or 30 peers and switch back and forth from English to Arabic.
At the same time, he felt like an outsider. He had grown up following religious and cultural norms like not drinking alcohol. But his new friends were like most 20-something Americans, “doing everything under the sun.”
They also seemed to have stronger ties to Egypt than Taher did. He made a concerted effort to know the country better. On his trips there, he tried to live like a local.
Though spared the pain of knowing anyone who died on 9/11 — and not really the target of ignorant or insensitive remarks — Taher and others like him were strongly affected by the terrorist attacks.
“As New Yorkers, we watched our city and neighbors crumble and die,” he says. “As Americans, we lost our sense of invincibility.
“As Arab Muslims, our religion and cultures were hijacked well before those planes took off, to be used as rallying cries for the grossly misguided ideologies of a twisted minority that do not reflect reality for the majority of the Islamic and Arab worlds.”
The current uprising in Egypt is “well overdue,” Taher says. “While I pray for the safety of my family and friends there, I can’t help but feel overwhelmed with pride and excitement.
“Over the last few years in particular, every local I’ve met in Egypt has complained about the lack of opportunity and freedom there. Every family member I’ve spoken with echoes the same sentiments.”
Despite the fear and uncertainty, Taher says, his relatives “know that this uprising is what Egypt needs to stand up on its own feet again, and prosper and flourish.” They look forward to a “new normal that will allow them to be fully part of the 21st century — not just living on the fringe.”
Taher has been shocked at the number of Egyptians who take to the streets, and their ability to hold their ground. He does not think any friends or family members are actively protesting in Tahrir Square or at the Parliament building, though some may have taken to the streets with the general protesters.
He knows no one who supports Hosni Mubarak and his regime. Doing so, Taher says, “would be akin to self-repression.”
He believes that if the demonstrators maintain their numbers and stamina, they can create the change they seek.
“I hope they are able to bring about the dawning of a new day in Egypt,” Taher says. “I want for them and for Egypt what they want for themselves: freedom.”
He was heartened by a friend’s Facebook post: “Egyptian people, you have my sincerest admiration and respect. I’ve never experienced a true sense of pride and belonging to you until now. The world is watching you…make history!”
Taher Naggar is watching too, from thousands of miles away. But these are his people, and it is his history that is finally in the making.