In Egypt, it is more of a shame to tell someone you can’t help them then to provide them with the wrong directions.
That’s one of the lessons Michael Slackman, New York Times bureau chief in Cairo learned while working in Egypt over the past seven years.
“People will always give you directions, even if they’re wrong,” he said. “I’d go back to them and they’d be like ‘oh, yeah, maybe it was the other way.’”
Carlene had arranged for Mr. Slackman to speak with us on Monday, at Denis’s apartment. He gave us all a bit of insight into what it is like to report in the Middle East, and what his career path has been.
After graduating from Northeastern, Slackman worked for a small newspaper in Connecticut, and then got hired by Newsday, where he covered the town of Oyster Bay, as a police reporter.
“You will hear the most [bizarre] stories when it comes to crime in Long Island,” he said.
Next, he reported from Moscow, during a time when the ruble, the Russian currency mark, was near worthless.
“People were literally covering their walls with the ruble,” he said.
Then, he worked for The Los Angeles Times, and then The New York Times, both positions which required that he work from Moscow.
Being a foreign correspondent wasn’t something he expected to become, he said.
“I graduated with a B.S. instead of a B.A. to avoid the language requirement,” he said.
Nevertheless, the position brought him to countries like Iraq, and of course, Egypt.
He has reported on everything from politics to social issues, though reporting on politics is substantially more tedious, he said.
“Egypt is tense,” he said. “It’s been lurching from crisis to crisis for years now.”
The most recent is the slaying of the nearly 100,000 pigs, which were an essential component of the Zabaleen community. The Zabaleen community is made up of Coptic Christians who sort through the Cairo’s garbage, and feed the organic waste to pigs. They live in six different communities, Slackman said.
The system developed informally in the 1940s, he said, and has become a tradition of some sort for the Copts. Four generations of people have partaken in this, and the government has tried to put them out of business, Slackman said.
“The Copts see it as a religious issue,” he said.
The Zabaleen are one of the groups of people Slackman has come in contact with as a foreign correspondent. It’s been an interesting track, he said, but one that couldn’t necessarily be repeated.
Nevertheless, the skills one acquires from covering topics like economics or crime could be of use with international coverage.
“Reporting is reporting,” Slackman said.