Thursday, March 4, 2010

Interview with Dr. Afaf Mahfouz

Dr. Afaf Mahfouz is a long-time advocate for human rights around the world. We at Global Action on Aging wanted to hear her perspective as an older person who continues to be an activist and important voice in her field. Most recently, Dr. Mahfouz traveled to Cairo in December to participate in the International Freedom March in solidarity with the people of Gaza. We were eager to learn from her and hear her story.

Interviewed by: Cindy LeHelley and Isabel Nicholson, Global Action on Aging

Trained in law, political science, and psychoanalysis, Professor Mahfouz has been a professor, diplomat, psychoanalyst, and advocate for women’s participation and human rights. In recent years she has been an activist for the promotion of non-governmental organization in the United Nations system. She was elected First Vice President (199501997) and President (1997-2000) of the Conference of the Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations (CoNGO). She writes and publishes and is the co-editor of The Future of Prejudice: Psychoanalysis and the Prevention of Prejudice (2007). Dr. Mahfouz was born in 1938 and continues to be an active and engaged member of the international political community.

Q: Dr. Mahfouz, you recently traveled to Cairo this winter to participate in the International Gaza Freedom March. How was the experience and why did you go?

I traveled to Cairo with the organization Code Pink, which is an organization of women against violence and war. We went to help the world see - through our protests and the Media coverage -what happened to people in Gaza as a result of the Israeli invasion last December and the effects of the multi-year Israeli blockade on their daily lives. We also went in May to try to train people on how to deal with traumatized children. What happened this past January in Gaza and has been happening in the region is very cruel. The children in Gaza needed everything from toys to counseling. We were all prevented from even leaving Cairo to cross the border into Gaza.

So you see, we all went to go to Gaza, not to Egypt, but we weren't allowed in. It was frustrating, but rewarding at the same time because we felt like we did help in sensitizing the world to what is going on. We agreed to create a movement similar to what happened in South Africa against the Apartheid. Altogether, with 1,400 people from 42 countries protesting in Cairo, we received enormous international press, television and International coverage. I think it was very successful.

Q: Were there many older people in Cairo there to protest?

There were a lot of older people there, beautiful ones, many older than 70. There was even an 85 year old Holocaust survivor who went on a hunger strike with the other protesters. There was a broad range of ages among the protesters, from young to old people. During the week we were there, everyone demonstrated in Cairo every day, no one was there for tourism, we were all there for purely political reasons.

Q: As an older person who remains to be very politically active, what are some of the challenges you face?

In the Arab-Muslim world, older people are respected and appreciated. People listen to them because it is part of the culture to pay attention to what they say. It sinks in more somehow. I remember going back to the Middle East 20 years ago, and more people argued with me. They would say that I’ve been “westernized.” Now that I’m older, people listen and engage in dialogue.

In the US, my age matters less. Here, your influence comes more from the group or community that you are a part of, rather than your voice as an individual.

Q: We consider you a role model, especially for older people. What is some advice you have to the aging population?

Caring about political issues keeps us emotionally and intellectually healthy. Aging is not easy. As our body ages, we have aches and pains. We start to concentrate on ourselves and become self-centered. I believe that to better manage this transition, we need to continue to do something meaningful for the world. We need to be out of ourselves and to reach out to younger generations. We need to continue to listen to the younger generations and engage in dialogue because their lives are not the same that ours were. We need to available to the community. I advise people to join any kind of group that interests them or focuses on anything that they care about. It helps us survive and do what we care about.

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