If anyone has “a world view,” it is BoomerCafé executive editor and co-founder Greg Dobbs, who spent much of his career as a foreign correspondent, reporting from more than 80 countries. Now, Greg lives in Colorado and writes regularly-scheduled columns for The Denver Post, mostly about foreign affairs. He is on a trip right now, and wrote this piece from Cairo where, he says, his world view began to take shape. All thanks to the boom box.
I’m only here in Cairo, Egypt for a few hours, changing planes in Cairo’s airport to fly farther south across this African continent. But my mind is flooded with memories, not just of what I experienced over the years in dozen of trips to this exotic if chaotic and troubled region, but of what I saw and felt the very first time I landed in this ancient empire, and not even in the city of Cairo itself, but right here in its airport. It played no small role in shaping my view of how the world works.
It was 1977, just as Egypt and Israel, after three decades in a state of war, were about to shake hands, which would lead to an historic if troubled peace (which was then opposed for many years by almost every other Muslim nation on earth).
ABC News sent me over from the U.S. to help cover it. So after transiting somewhere in Europe, I landed here in Cairo. In those days, you walked from the plane down portable stairs to the tarmac; the “gates” were outside and with the airport’s proximity to the desert, you were sweating from the sun and sandblasted from the Sahara before you even got halfway to Passport Control.
But I didn’t pass right through; as a journalist, I had to get a special visa and ended up in a holding area near the gate for about four hours. And that’s when I began to notice the men — all men, apparently all Egyptians — dressed in dusty desert robes, carrying in one hand all their possessions, wrapped in a sort of towel-like package; picture an American hobo during the Depression. It was the time of the Haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are supposed to make before they die. For these guys, it was their turn. Most of them looked like they didn’t have two nickels to rub together but a lot of them had their package of possessions in one hand … and a boom box in the other.
And that’s where my view of how the world works began to take shape. Because the boom boxes weren’t playing music; they were carrying booming and, to my ear, angry-sounding voices in Arabic. Mind you, I didn’t really know that they were angry; Arabic is not, let’s just say, the gentlest smoothest sounding of languages. Kind of like German, where the soft word we use for the colorful creature that emerges from a cocoon is “butterfly,” while the French use the musical word “pappillion,” but in German it’s the harshly, guttural, almost metallic sounding “schmetterling.”
But I digress. The voices blasting from these boom boxes, rattling along at a mile a minute, sounded angry, or harsh at the very least, but you know what? To me it didn’t really matter what they were saying or how they were saying it. What mattered was, everyone could hear it; whatever the message was, it was going (as we now say) viral. And how big was that? It meant that people who never before even knew how anyone in the next village lived suddenly could find out how people in the rest of the world lived.
The transistor radio wasn’t brand new, of course; I had one as a kid and in Sunday School in the late 1950s, once the Giants moved from New York to my home town of San Francisco, I carved the interior pages out of a textbook so I could conceal my radio between the book’s covers and run an earphone wire up the long sleeves of my shirt and hide the other end in my ear and listen to baseball games (although God help me if I cracked the book open when the teacher was pacing around the classroom).
Greg Dobbs – A life-long career reporting for major network television news programs from every corner of the world.
But the luxury of the transistor and the availability (for people who didn’t even have electricity) of affordable batteries took another generation to make it to the Middle East, so the whole idea of opening a window to the world for people who had never before been ten miles from home and had no idea what anyone’s lives looked like beyond that perimeter was pretty darned new. (Parenthetically, I once did a story about a woman from a small Jewish tribe in one of three isolated Jewish villages in the middle of Ethiopia, and her people had no idea that the other two villages even existed; they thought they were the last people practicing their religion on earth.)
So this novel new accessible form of communication was life-changing for the people who used it. Because, as I kept learning more and more as I made trip after trip to the Middle East, what they saw through that window was how much we had and how little they had. Whether wealth or community or liberty, we in the West were the haves; they were the have-nots.
Now, of course, the world has changed. Most of the animosity and aggression we are fighting today have their roots in a variety of causes, from religion to politics to power to territory to nationalism to greed. But when you think about it, it still often comes down to the haves and the have-nots. Someone has land that someone else wants. Or resources that someone else wants. Or riches, or weapons, or power, or a subservient population, or a history of dominance … or, of course, an ideology or a culture or a set of religious beliefs that someone wants to bury.
Mass communication has evolved in ways no one could possibly predict only two generations ago when I was having my epiphany in Cairo. I have seen television satellite dishes in desert outposts in the MIddle East, in jungle settlements in shanty towns in black Africa, in roadside villages high in the South American Andes, in backward towns in Russia, in rural communes in Vietnam.
And it can be hard to assert that this is a bad thing. You can extrapolate all kinds of arguably good things from it; think about the Arab Spring, albeit sadly short-lived. But for better or worse, change has come, and will keep coming in this world, more with the speed of a kilobyte than a caravan. Which probably means, revolutions won’t necessarily live or die any more on the strength of their leaders. Because of modern communications, which these days means social media as much as or even more than anything else, revolutions will quickly become the property of the people. Or as they say, “The Street.” Which, I repeat, might be for better and might be for worse.
I think what I saw that first day of my first trip here to the airport in Cairo was the seed of something we still don’t fully understand. But that’s not the scariest part of it. The scariest part is, it was the seed of something that is now completely out of our control. Those boom boxes might have been easy to see, but they have been replaced by something we can no longer see coming.