During the two weeks of protests in Egypt that led to the successful ousting of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, the American media focused its cameras and microphones on Astoria, New York; a neighborhood in Queens that is often called “Little Egypt” because of its diverse population of Middle Eastern and North African-born residents.
Cafes and coffee shops on Steinway Street, a bustling commercial area, were often packed throughout the days and nights by opposition supporters that gathered around television sets, at first chanting, “Leave! Leave! Leave! You have no shame!” and finally, “We are free, we are free!”
Triboro Printing, a small business on Steinway Street, helped to give the opposition movement in Astoria a face of solidarity in the form of colorful posters and fliers that can be seen hanging in most of the storefront windows. The signs, with crossed-out photos of Mubarak and slogans such as “Go Mubarak Go, Leave Us Alone,” and “Congratulations Egyptian Youths, Your Dreams Have Come True,” became popular among the community overnight.
Owner Abe Jaffer, a Kenyan-born American who designed the fliers, welcomed the sudden uptick of business in an industry that has felt its fair share of financial pressure from an increasingly online economy, but he was more humbled to be able to take part in a movement that many Americans without relatives overseas may take for granted and to show support for his neighboring business owners and community.
“There was poverty there,” Jaffer says. “It is either you are rich, or you are nothing. Food prices had gone up, while labor costs remained cheap (minimum wage hovering around $6.3o a month). The government was a bully. Period.”
“I’m a Kenyan, and proud to be one,” Jaffer says, “but over the past couple of weeks, I have been an Egyptian at heart.”
Through the feelings of uncertainty, anger, and euphoria that often swept through the streets of Astoria, many small businesses experienced an increase in sales. However, some small businesses such as Trust Travel and Tours, which specializes in tours and flights to Egpyt, felt an immediate standstill of business, with normal flight bookings of 20 to 30 dropping to nearly zero.
Now, as the small businesses of Astoria make a slow return to normalcy, and the camera crews and reporters return to their Manhattan skyscrapers, other countries across the globe with oppressive regimes will have to contend with a young generation that has grown up, pushing the boundaries of the internet and modern communication.
“I think the baby boomers did not want to move forward,” says Jaffer. “They were content with what they had, but not because they were happy with it. They have been deprived for the last 25-plus years. And after a while, you get used to it. But then the new generation comes in. They are more vocal. They have Facebook and the ability to communicate easier.”