© 2021 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Egyptian Woman Goes From Protests To Pizza


Well, now to the story of an Egyptian woman who went from protest to pizza. Many of the Egyptian revolutionaries who helped topple a dictator five years ago have had to refocus as their new government has cracked down on political expression. Some have ended up in jail or left the country. Others, like the woman we're about to meet, have turned to less controversial causes but are still trying to change their country. NPR's Leila Fadel reports.

SARAH EL SAYED: (Speaking Arabic).

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: In the beginning of 2011, you could find Sarah el Sayed protesting with millions of others in Tahrir Square. Today she's in a woodsy cabin with six other women on the outskirts of Cairo, and they're making pizza. It's a group of farmers and farmers' wives that Sayed is helping make into entrepreneurs. They're peeling vegetables and sifting flour.

SAYED: So today we're testing a few, like, toppings for pizzas, and we're testing a type of bread that we make.

FADEL: They take a locally grown green leaf used for making a viscous rabbit stew in Egypt, but instead of a stew, they're putting the green leaf and the rabbit meat on a pizza.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It's so good.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Oh, it's so good.

FADEL: Sarah el Sayed...

SAYED: I'm a co-founder for an organization called Nawaya, which comes from the word in Arabic which has many different meanings. One, it means seed. And two, it means nucleus. And three, it means intention.

FADEL: It's supposed to be a seed for social justice.

SAYED: We wanted to try and find ways to build a community that's more self-sustain, that is aware of food, how it can - socially also, how the people can share better.

FADEL: This is where Sarah el Sayed refocused her life. She had been a protester in 2011, helping oust a dictator. She briefly dabbled in environmental politics, pushing a green agenda. But she quickly realized that in Egypt, political activism was too dangerous for her. She means that very literally.

SAYED: I don't want to get killed. I don't want to get injured. I didn't feel it was worth it. That's not to underestimate what other people have done, and my heart goes out to people who have really, like, believed in something and lost their lives or lost more.

FADEL: Many people have been killed, injured or imprisoned for demanding political reforms. Others have left the country as the current regime tries to crush dissent in the name of stability. So former political activists have gone into environmentalism. Some went back to school. Some opened businesses, and some quit.

Sarah el Sayed, who's half Italian and half Egyptian, sought out a cause that would draw on her love of food and love of country. Her group, Nawaya, helps farmers grow organic chickens and vegetables, make local cheeses and market products to the budding slow food movement in Egypt.

SAYED: Since the pharaohs, farming has been the main staple. And yet we are doing really badly from an agriculture point of view.

FADEL: Now, Egypt produces a lot of food, but agricultural policies work against the farmers, she says.

SAYED: The problem with the farming is that the farmer's completely impoverished. And at the same time, when there is good agriculture, it either goes completely all for export, or if it stays in the local market, then it goes to the rich.

FADEL: But they face a lot of external problems. There's the endless bureaucracy, the water pollution, the hot climate, the lack of reform to promote small businesses and make them sustainable.

SAYED: But I can't say that we're sustainable, no.

FADEL: But the country's political divisions pose the biggest problem.

SAYED: It's become so polarized. Are you in this camp or this camp? Well, I'm neither, you know? I'm not in either camps, but there's always this need to conform. It's really starting to feel very stifling.

FADEL: And even the seemingly innocuous activities still get people into trouble. In one case, an Egyptian-American woman who was trying to work with street children was caught up in the crackdown and has been in jail for more than two years. For now, Sayed's work will continue with people like one that we met who gave her name as Umm Abdullah.

She was down on her luck when Sayed's colleagues found her picking dates in a palm tree two years ago. Now she's learned how to market her produce and helps with the fledgling specialty food business the group runs.

UMM ABDULLAH: (Speaking Arabic).

FADEL: "It makes me feel valuable," she says. "It taught me about cooperation, and it's empowered me." Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.