Thursday, 28 July 2011

Cairo - A Domestic Revolution

Until the revolution broke out in Cairo I lived there with my family, three kids and a husband. Life was routine, we had settled into a sort of daily monotony made worse by the dullness of the desert weather, the dust, heat and the early sunsets. The revolution spearheaded change, not only for the Egyptian population but also within our own household. One by one, foreign families were evacuated. I left too, and have not returned, refusing to submit my children to more upheaval... I have chosen a calm country life.

The following is a story I wrote to describe the immediate aftermath os the revolution as it unfolded in our suburb, Maadi. We had it worse than in Tahrir Square, or so I was told at the time... the uncertainty of what could happen made us both anxious and yet hopeful for the future.

Egyptian Day of Wrath – An Expat Experience from the Sidelines

Frustrated. Angry. Shocked. Fearful. These are the four emotions I have felt over the last 3 days when I see the footage of my fellow men and women, the people I live alongside nowadays, in their struggle for control of Egypt. I work and live in Cairo, with my husband and three children. I work in an office that fights the human rights abuses that this regime has become infamous for and strives to assist vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees. They may still bear the brunt of the unrest as only yesterday we had to advise that all clients stay away from the office after a young minor, an asylum seeker from Sudan, was followed and verbally abused by policemen. He arrived shaken and pale. We cancelled all our appointments for the next week and changed our working hours to finish by 4pm.  

As is usual in Cairo, the city that sleeps to 10am, people do not really wake up until the late afternoon and they have a night owl culture, habitually keeping the whole family up to 2am, especially in summertime. Everyone knows that even the protests will be mainly held at night, starting at 5pm. Our office is a stone’s throw from Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the site of the first day of protests on Police Day, the 25th January. The night of the 26th culminated in more chants of “Illegitimate,” and “Down with Mubarak,” by thousands, yet on the morning of the 27th,  the atmosphere on the streets is as normal as I go to work. My taxi follows the long line of traffic up the Kasr El Nile, the road that leads to Tahrir, just as on any other day. Doormen call to each other, Ali the parking dude is busily moving cars in and out of spaces. The falafel shop is busy, people calling out their orders to men deep frying the chickpea patties in huge cast iron skillets. People come and go as normal.  At work we talk about the revolution. My boss is stuck like glue to his laptop, monitoring Twitter, Facebook and taking calls from Human Rights Watch who are sending staff to Suez, site of the most violence against the so-far peaceful protestors. Even the Office Manager, a grey haired, sweet man who prays five times a day with the callus on his forehead to prove it, vows he will go to protest after Friday prayers. In the evening, ElBaradai arrives at the airport. He gives a brief statement. Most Egyptians I speak to see him as no more than a temporary diversion, an aged Nobel Peace Laureate with little influence. Others see him as an opportunist, flying in to join on the third day. He seems to see himself as a latter day Gandhi.

Today though, Friday, the first day of the weekend and the day of Muslim prayer, there is a certain undefined tension in the air. Even in the sleepy, green, upper class suburb of Maadi where I live, there are suddenly more police on the streets, carrying live ammunition and standing on every roundabout, at every corner in their black uniforms, automatic rifles on their shoulders. They stare at me and note my diplomatic number plate as I drive by with Amelia chatting baby talk in the back seat. I send my friends text messages and warn one who has no idea of the situation not to go to a neighbouring suburb for a Birthday party. The hostess, an oblivious oil wife, is angry when she cancels. There are hardly any cars on the streets, though this is usual for a Friday morning when habitually people lie in. The doormen sit at their posts looking rueful and anxious. Our suburb is the location of many Embassies and ambassadorial residences, including the Israeli Ambassador’s residence, the American Club. It is always heavily guarded but today there are even more police about. A certain notorious police station where people are routinely pulled in for questioning and tortured lies at the very northern end of the street I live on, near the fortified synagogue. My boss was injured on the 25thJanuary but remained defiant. I know he will go today. He has been a human rights activist in Egypt his whole life and has a baby son and a gorgeous architect wife. He has a tear gas canister as a souvenir. He dismisses our fears in the office. “If you choose to demonstrate you face the same danger as anyone else,” he says. I worry for our foreign interns, young idealists from the USA, Australia and the UK in their twenties, only one month in Cairo, who live with their roommates downtown. I leave my address and tell the Office Manager they can stay with me in an emergency, though of course I have no landline and no way of knowing if they will need me now. My boss is scornful. “You are too U.N,” he says. I know what he means. I suppose for him, I am a development mercenary, a cynical reminder, in my worrying for the foreign interns, of the way that foreign rulers have propped up a filthy dictator for the last 30 years with 3 billion a year in military aid while half the of the people live on 2 dollars a day and 40% have no access to clean water in their homes. I am probably, in his eyes, just another Maadi Mom with my shopping delivered from expensive supermarkets that no ordinary Egyptian can afford, a silver duty-free SUV and an African nanny. What do I know of their struggle? He is thinking. I leave, telling him to be careful. I see him smirk with disdain.

I go to the supermarket to stock up for the nest three days with milk and bread. My credit card does not work, the telephones have gone down. I drive past my friend who is here alone, an older woman, a writer, she is understandably nervous and looks drawn. I give her my satellite phone number forgetting that she will need an international landline number to call it. Later that goes down too. "Have you registered with your Embassy?" I ask? She is American. "No", she says.

My neighbour, a British woman married to an Anglo-Egyptian NGO worker sits anxiously at home clutching a now-useless i-phone with her young baby and in-laws. Her husband has gone to protest and she wishes she could join him and feel that special sense of solidarity only found with facing a dirty regime from within the confines of a crowd of happy, defiant protest. Her husband left at 10am and it is now 5am and there has been no let up. The TV shows images of people collapsing in a tear gas fug, washing their eyes with coca cola, blood dripping on to the pavements and tear gas clouds rising above the city. We watch as secret police thugs isolate men in the crowd and beat them senseless before hurling them into white minivans to be taken away and tortured. She comes close to the TV screen and scans the crowds for her husband in vain. She is on the edge of her nerves and she is finding her hectoring Mother-in-law highly annoying, probably because of it, though I don’t point that out. Instead I hand her a Gin and Tonic with extra Gin. He left in a hurry, packing his little knapsack with vinegar and rags to counter act tear gas, wearing a plain, untucked tea coloured shirt and brown nylon trousers. He looked like any other Egyptian, perhaps a little more green-eyed than most. I worry for him and for her. Where are my goggles? he asks frantically, rummaging in a cupboard. It was almost funny. “How will you get there?” I ask, knowing that the police have probably closed most of the metro stations downtown, and may be closing the Corniche highway that runs North to South our side of the Nile. “I will drive down the Giza side of the river and park in Zamalek if I can,” he says. “Then I will cross the Nile on foot.” He takes two phones but there is no mobile phone network. She asks him anxiously, “When should I come with a search party for you?” He looks blank. “You won’t”. She flutters about the living room in her nightgown. “What if you get detained? Do you have the number of a lawyer?” His reaction is the same as that of my boss. Fatalistic, typically Egyptian. Inshallah, all will be well. If it is not, it is out of his hands. “Then I get detained like everyone else,” he answers bluntly. “I must go, I am late!” he says. He looked completely unkempt and disorganised, his grey curls unbrushed, his handsome, ruddy face damp from a split second shower. Kissing his daughter as he leaves, his wife runs to the door. “I love you” she says. “Stay safe please”. He just laughs. “I will” he says. A broken promise, for sure. How can she let him go? I think. On the other hand, how can she not? He is Egyptian, born and bred here albeit with an English mother and he feels that he must go or hide his face in shame.

 I sit at home with my children. I watch impotent, the images of fire, teargas, bloodshed and protest on the television and stare at my computer, useless since the internet has been blocked since 3am. It is Saturday. The tanks are out in the city, the gunfire can be heard already, the tear gas has reached our neighbourhood and reports are now reaching me that the police stations here in my supposedly safe suburb were, in fact, burned last night. I see the Big Man as they call him, making a televised address. I know it will not be enough for my boss and all the others risking everything with their flags and their knapsacks and their open defiance. The city is burning and Egyptians are already crying for their dead. The hospitals are already full of injured. I am now going to pack a bag with my important papers and nappies. Enough toys for the plane. Just in case. Then I am going to go to my neighbour and see if her husband came home yet. Perhaps he is also sleeping rough like so many others refusing to relinquish their spaces in the protest downtown, snatching a few hours of sleep on a grassy park side before re-entering the throng.

 My five-year old son asks me absently, what I am watching all day. The Egyptians want to get rid of their king, I say. “Then they will die,” he says.

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