Hala Gorani: A postcard from Cairo
By CNN's Hala Gorani
Hala Gorani with Egyptian jazz musician Yehya Khalil.
CAIRO, Egypt (CNN) -- I never thought I'd ever spend a birthday in a sushi restaurant in Cairo.
On the evening in question, my producer Schams Elwazer surprised me with a chocolate cake. My colleagues and a couple of waiters then sang "Happy Birthday" with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
I blew my candles and wished everyone good health.
In Egypt filming the April 6 edition of Inside the Middle East, it struck me just how much some parts of Cairo have changed in the last decade. A New York-style sushi joint in Cairo? Certainly not the type of eatery you would have found here 10 years ago.
One of the country's most powerful corporate leaders, who certainly has his choice of cities to spend leisure time in, told me he finds some parts of Cairo as exciting as Paris or London; and feels living in Egypt is as entertaining and stimulating as any Western country.
That said, most of Cairo and its sprawling metropolis, its millions of inhabitants, its pollution and epic traffic chaos neither looks nor feels anything like Paris or London.
Cairo is fast and furious, and makes almost any other Middle Eastern city seem positively dull in comparison. Just riding in one of the rickety cabs is enough to give you heart palpitations for the evening.
Egypt is always interesting because the sheer numbers of people living here make this country the beating heart of the Arab world.
What happens here -- the region's most populous country -- is always a good way to gauge trends for the rest of the Middle East.
In recent parliamentary elections, Muslim Brotherhood candidates running as independents won a quarter of parliamentary sets. Some analysts say that if the electoral process had been more "transparent," that an even higher percentage of Islamists would have entered the Egyptian parliament.
The seemingly unstoppable rise of parties who squarely base their platforms on religion is not unique to Egypt. Look at the Palestinian territories. Look at Iran.
The U.S.-backed policy of spreading the democratic process to the Middle East is far from bringing about results the West would want. And many Arabs in the region tell me they are angry that America only seems to support free elections when they produce the kind of leadership they support.
This will be one of the most defining debates in a region in flux. As the old guard disappears and there is more political openness, who will gain power? How will the West react?
In Lebanon too, there has been a political sea change. After the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon entered a new, politically violent chapter of its history.
On this month's show, I urge you to tune in to Brent Sadler's story on Lebanese television star May Chidiac.
Happy and healthy one day, Chidiac woke up the next morning in a hospital bed with an arm and a leg missing, blown up by a car bomb.
An open critic of Syrian influence in Lebanon on her popular LBC program, Chidiac hopped in her SUV one evening, when the bomb designed to kill her went off.
On Inside the Middle East, we bring you an exclusive report on Chidiac's recovery in a rehabilitation hospital in France.
Brent Sadler spent several days with the determined journalist. Despite the pain and the prospect of spending years re-learning how to walk with a prosthetic limb, Chidiac almost never loses her good spirits.
It's impossible to predict how an individual will react to adversity. Seemingly strong people sometimes break down at the slightest bit of pressure. Others, who may not appear as solid, are resilient and find strength and determination in the unfortunate hand they've been dealt. And Chidiac has impressed her with her will to overcome the cruelest of injuries.
Also on the show, a look at the "Fedex of the Middle East" and a portrait of legendary Egyptian Jazz musician Yehya Khalil.
Hope you can join us.
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