Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Figuring it out

So, hello again from Iraq. I am sitting on my balcony, looking out over the fountain in the courtyard of our complex, the buildings of Suli shining brazenly in the night and the darker shadow of a mountain rising against a deep cobalt sky.

Today, for the second time this week, I trekked to the bazaar, nestled at the heart of the city, a somewhat pleasant hour's walk from my apartment. It's strange, you know. Suli is both like and unlike any other city in the developing world- holes in the sidewalk yawn intermittently, hoping to ensnare the unwary walker; neon signs in English and the local tongue advertising brands no one can afford; sputtering buses spewing exhaust as the careen alarmingly close to the sidewalks; young men ogling (though not harassing) the foreign women dressed in jeans and tee-shirts. But Suli has its distinctions, too. Murals of Kurdish independence lining the sidewalk, stern-faced soldiers standing idly on the sidewalk, supposedly serving some purpose, scrawling Kurdish script across the storefronts, tantalizing close to Arabic, yet distinctive enough only reveal half of their meaning; many women tottering around in high heels and tight clothes...without veils. I find the elements of familiarity oddly comforting but the strangeness oddly enticing, opening up yet another world to explore.

Little things about this place get me. The fact that cars pull over for ambulances, for instance. That some drivers use turn signals. That my commute to work is only 15 minutes, with traffic. That the “international” airport is also 15 minutes. That the road to Kirkuk lies on my doorstep. That I have more closet space than I do clothes. That the soldier in front of our apartment, one sunny morning, sat in the kids' playground, machine gun in hand, to escape the heat.

The bazaar is typically Arab- chaotic, twisting, striped awnings stretching over narrow alleyways, side streets offering rhinestone-infused sheets and curtains, slabs of beef hanging in windows, poultry squwaking in cages, shiny cell phones beckoning from shop front windows, baked sweets heaped on carts, succulent produce overflowing from stands...you get the idea. My friends, who walked with me, and I stopped for a short rest in a cafe entitled Pasha, a

shadowy recess filled with sheesha smoke, men's chatter, lingering stares, Bedouin rugs, and an incongruous copy of the Mona Lisa. After some time, a table was produced and we behind it. Gradually, the darting black eyes turned away from us and back to the football match on television. The man sitting next to us, hearing us jabbering away in English, introduced himself, a Kurdish born fellow who had fled the region during the height of the fighting between rebel groups and Saddam's tyranny to Britain and was back for a holiday. His story, I've found, is not entirely unique. Many of the Kurds I've met who speak a modicum of English have spent time abroad, many as refugees fleeing a warn-torn Iraq.

I visited an almond orchard last weekend. At least, I think that is the proper term for it. Perhaps almond grove? I, in my ignorance, was unaware of the fact that almonds actually come from trees- I suppose I thought the almond fairy just delivered them to the nut dealers in the bazaar, magically depositing burlap bags heaping with almonds every night underneath a cloak of darkness. I can now report that almond harvesting is a laborious process (I only lasted a few hours)- the only fairies involved are sunburned farmers tirelessly moving from tree to tree, shaking the trunk and branches as a cascade of nuts patters on the ground, collected by hand and individually shelled, dried, and shelled again. Then they are finally ready for consumption.

The area we visited, about half an hour from Suli, required the traversal of a mountain range (expedited by the recent construction

of a tunnel through the heart of it). As we emerged, eventually, into the afternoon sunlight on the other side, a beautiful valley, crisscrossed by farms, orchards, and dusty., serpentine roads, unfolded before me. It was breathtakingly beautiful, hillsides covered with forests, fields of golden grass rippling in a slight breeze, brightly painted villas crowding the view. The trees, in particular, many of them looked young...so I asked why. The entire region was deforested, partly out of spite, partly because it eliminated cover for rebel groups fighting. Now, the government is planting hundreds of thousands of trees a year, attempting to reinvigorate a region scarred by decades of war. I even heard tales that wild boars roam the region (and make tasty barbecues, though I was not, perhaps fortuitously, privy to meeting one).

After spending several hours bending and scrabbling on the ground for almonds, our group took a short hike up a nearby hill to catch the lay of the land and stretch our legs. An arduous trek later, we crested the final rise and gazed out over a sight I never expected to find in Iraq- mountains and valleys gilded with the soft glow of the setting sun, children running barefoot behind a stubborn flock of sheep, rumbling pick-ups crawling up hillsides. In short, it was not the Iraq I have seen and heard about on the news for years. Surely, that Iraq exists, south of the border. But it was startling, almost, to see life languorously lived.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Welcome to Iraq

From the air it looked like a world of dirt and sand, an endless, undulating, at times mountainous, land devoid of anything save this monotonous, incessant spectrum of brown. What struck me, then, on the ground, was the grass, rippling fields of sun-scorched gold stretching on both sides of the narrow runway. I noticed the trees next, scruffy, scrubby, only moderately dusty, growing here and there and clustering around water sources- of which, it being the desert, there were, understandably, few. Low villas and short buildings climbed up the slopes of the city. Someone from a seat behind me leaned forward, “That's Pak City, where we're living,” gesturing to the aberrance of a high rise block of apartment buildings that rose above the skyline, blocky behemoths thrusting up from the rocky soil, surrounded by play grounds and armed soldiers smoking cigarettes.

The airport, though international in name, was more like a small-scale model of other airports I've visited, boasting a handful of gates, a single baggage claim, a short line for passport control, and a tiny waiting area. Customs was a breeze, no visa was required, the bags arrived within minutes, and soon we stepped out of the airport into the still, sun-baked heat of Sulaimaniyah. Ever wary of being approached at the airport by sketchy, avaricious men, I hesitated when several approached my roommate, Z, and me, gesturing that the American University bus for faculty was over there, and our luggage could be put on that truck. Then I realized swindling was more impossible at an airport where, like the Cheers bar, everyone knows your name.

It took me awhile to get to this point- multiple flight delays in Minneapolis, 50 minutes to make my connection in Chicago, finding my luggage did not arrive with my in Istanbul, waiting for hours for passport control, laboriously filing a lost luggage claim with Turkish Air, concerned over the fact that my two giant bags were not registered in the system, tracking down the shuttle to finally arrive, exhausted, at my hotel in an unknown district of the city. Though the Chicago flight was full of fellow AUI-Sers, none were yet known to me and all had proceeded me out of the airport and, apparently, on a different shuttle, leaving me friendless hungry, and rather ornery. Walking around the area I was in, I found numerous little sidewalk restaurants, all brimming with laughter and crowded tables- I passed them quickly by, feeling more than a little lonely and unwilling to take a table for one.

The next morning, I felt slightly mollified. The man who was supposed to meet me at the airport, a perpetual look of resignation etched into his face from the previous day's mishaps, apologized profusely. My fellow faculty at AUI-S were, as you might expect, a diverse bunch, married and single, young and well past middle age, childless or with several in tow, though all, I thought somewhat enviously, with their luggage. Mine still floated somewhere in the netherworld of airport abandonment, as yet unfound and certainly not meeting me for my flight to Iraq at 10 am.

Pak City appeared less daunting as we passed through its gates. “It's really nice,” the chatty woman behind us enthused. “Unlike the rest of the city, we have power 24/7 and never have outages. It's a very desirable place to live, within walking distance to the bazaar, shops, restaurants, everywhere, really. AUI only has one building. The rest are locals, of course. And you can come and go as you like.” Somehow, that reassured me. Though I could not have prevented housing in a walled-off, expats-only compound, I was deeply grateful that Pak City, though upscale, was none of these things.

Z and I squealed as we walked into the apartment. I don't squeal often. It is shameful, really, how much space there is for the two of us. Two bedrooms, two full bathrooms, a large kitchen, a large dining room/living room, an office, a laundry room, an ironing room, and a wide entrance hall into the place, all tastefully decorated in dark wood furniture, wooden floors, new appliances, a large flat screen TV. Toto, we are definitely not in Kansas anymore. And that's ok. This is much better than Kansas.

AUI provided us with brand-new, still-in-the-package bedding and kitchen supplies. There are walls of storage cabinets that match the same, dark wood color scheme as the rest of the house, including the door frames. My bedroom, for once, has a surfeit of closet and drawer space. When later queried as to whether the apartment was acceptable, I have to confess I laughed. “It's amazing.” Unlike Egypt, where things rarely worked and frequently fell apart, this apartment, at least, is a mockery of even the faculty apartments at AUC.

I dragged Z away from her unpacking (mine consisted of emptying my carry-on and angrily kicking it to the side; still no luggage) and we went to explore the city. Cairo was block upon block of smog-smeared brown high rises, indistinguishable from the next. Here reminds me more of Amman, or Palestine- individual villas or low rise apartments, all crafted primarily of stone and appearing more sturdy than the questionable building materials of Egypt. Cairo, too, was flat, achingly so, an endless march of humanity sprawling across a desert plain. Z and I, and we surmounted our first hill (she was in my M.A. Program at AUC), remarked that Suli is likely to whip us into shape, steep inclines leading to anywhere one wishes to go.

We didn't head for the river, though there is one here, more of a tepid trickle now at the height of the dry season, clumps of tall trees clustering thirstily on its banks. No, we wanted coffee- and not in the place we first arrived to, on recommendation, an upscale coffee shop with soothing fountains and American prices. We wanted local, probably dominated by men, filled with the heady scents of sheesha smoke and the rattle of dice against a backgammon board. After another, in my opinion arduous, trek up another hill, we found it, settled into the gilded couches inside and grinned victoriously at each other. The novelty of being here, in Iraq, in Kurdistan, was yet undimmed- in fact, it still is not quite reality, still hasn't percolated my conscience that I look out the window over the mountains of Iraq, Iran in the distance, that I'm actually here.

It doesn't help that most people accept U.S. Dollars as easily as Iraqi dinars. I was frightened as to whether I should exchange my wads of cash at the airport (there are, purportedly, no ATMs here) or at an exchange place, but a colleague counseled me, “everywhere can exchange them.” “You mean, there are exchange places everywhere?”

“No,” she explained patiently, “everywhere will accept them as payment, well, most everywhere, and give you dinars in exchange. Or, there are guys in the market that sit around with mounds of dinars and will happily exchange with you.” I find the ubiquity of dollars one of the more, strangely, unnerving relics of the U.S.'s Iraqi occupation. Though, judging by the Jaguar advertisements and shiny cars in the streets, Kurdistan has not suffered like the rest of the country.

I have much to learn, including the vexing vocalizations of the Kurdish language. I have teaching to start soon, students to instruct, meetings to attend, blood to be drawn. Until then, however, I am going to turn on the A/C, because I'm not paying for it, and turn on our fabulous tv...just because I can :)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Zim and Zam

To describe Africa is to stereotype. Endless plains teeming with game, small villages of mud huts and barefoot children, strange tongues full of clicks and guttural sounds, thorny acacia trees stretching to the horizon, curio markets burgeoning with handicrafts and shifty-eyed salesmen, and brilliant sunsets washing the land in a golden beauty. I found all of this, of course, on my latest gallivant to southern Africa. I was merely a tourist, after all. But to see Africa through the distorted lens of a cliché, beginning and ending with game parks and white tourists over-dressed in khaki clothing, is to miss what Africa actually is to the majority of Africans. I should add a caveat here and mention that I don't actually know what Africa is, being that it is a continent of which I have only seen a small part, and most of that time I have been, necessarily, a tourist. But, me being me, I will still wax a bit verbosely on that which I have seen and likely overgeneralize.

Much to the relief of my parents, I undertook this last journey with a companion, Gunther, if you remember him from previous accounts of Revolutionary life. I decidedly, somewhat selfishly and not altogether wisely, that my graduation should be marked not by a commencement ceremony in a hall at AUC but somewhere in a country beginning with Z. As there are only two options of countries beginning with Z, Zambia and Zimbabwe, I was a bit constrained on location. Zimbabwe has, for several years, held a certain allure to me, or, at least, a curiosity. This is not (though Mother might think differently), because I choose places that make headlines (and not the good ones), but probably more because, behind every headline, there is a country, and people apart from sensationalized media. And, to be fair, I waited to visit Zimbabwe until after a bit of stability returned to the country.

When I was last at Victoria Falls (on the Zambian side) a year and a half ago, I looked across the Zambezi river into Zimbabwe and saw a country that looked much the same as the ground upon which I was planted. But I was still a bit timorous; the word Zimbabwe conjured up stories of farm takeovers, violence, and loaves of bread that cost trillions of dollars. A year and a half later, things looked a bit different. The national currency stabilized due to the introduction of the US dollar replacing the Zimbabwe one. Tour companies were no longer giving the country a wide berth. A unity government offered the slim promise of reform, or, at least, stabilized corruption. And, having survived a Revolution in Egypt, Zimbabwe seemed less daunting.

So, Gunther and I hopped on a plane bound for Lusaka, Zambia, as flights in Victoria Falls were exorbitantly expensive and flights into Harare, the capital of Zim, would have put us inconveniently far from the Falls. We arriv

ed in Lusaka in the early afternoon and approached the Barclays ATM to pull out wads of Kwacha; alas, it was a bit of a harrowing encounter, as the machine promptly ate Gunther's card and refused to return it. Not exactly the welcome I was hoping for, but we exchanged some dollars from our $2000 stash and hopped in taxi for the long, 30 dollars long, ride into the capital to find a bus to Livingstone, the city next to the Falls.

What should have been about a 6 hour drive turned into an 8 hour one, made less comfortable by the narrow seats that had me, and I don't consider myself terribly portly, squished somewhat hermetically between Gunther and another woman. Our saving grace was not the gospel songs and sermons that blared ceaselessly from the bus speakers but the weather, pleasantly cool and unsweaty given the winter season. Whenever I leave the Middle East, I am shocked and a bit discomfited by the fact that women in the rest of the world wear tank tops, skirts, and low-cut tops. I am so conditioned to the ubiquity

of headscarves, long-sleeved polyester shirts and dark-flowing robes that the lack of these is a jolt to my brain. Even more of a jolt is the fact that men don't harass women, don't catcall a women in spagetti straps and a knee-length skirt. Amzaing.

The luggage compartment was already crammed beyond capacity by the time we boarded the bus, so it was instead stowed haphazardly behind the driver's seat, accessible to anyone who boarded or exited the bus at various stops. I was indubitably grateful for this unlikely boon when, about halfway into our journey, a large clunk could be heard outside the window. I looked at the woman next to me, wondering if this was routine, as it sounded like we had just run over a motorcycle. “What was that?” she leaned over me to look out the window. Ok, so not normal. We heard another thump, and then another, and soon the passengers around us clamored at the driver to stop the bus. He drove for another five minutes before easing to a halt. Flashlights were procured and soon discovered that the door to the luggage compartment had fallen off, and, with it, luggage. Night had long since drawn its black cloak over the land, making the recovery of the luggage nigh to imposs

ible in the dense brush that crowded the road. The bus did turn around, attempt to find what had been lost, although I am not sure if everything was recovered.

Had we been traveling in South Africa, I would have been more concerned about wandering around Livingstone, looking for our hostel. Luckily, Zambia is relatively safe, even at midnight, and our hostel, aptly named Jollyboys, was a five minute trundle from the bus station.

We awoke to a green paradise and pork sausage for breakfast. Mmmm. Pork. It was Gunther's first time at Victoria Falls and I was eager to show him their beauty. I was unprepared for just how drenching that beauty would be. The Falls, after an unusually long rainy season, were still at almost full capacity. Despite the fa

ct that we had two layers of ponchos on, each, our clothes were still wet beneath them. The amount of water cascading over the edge of the Falls was difficult to comprehend, partly becau



e immensity of the Falls was largely obscured by heavy clouds of mist and rain created from the water hitting the river below. My camera got a nice shower too; I was torn between protecting it from water and wanting to take lots of pictures. It being me, the latter urge won out. The walk that followed the rim of the gorge directly opposite the Falls (which, in the dry season, affords a gorgeous view of them), was largely lacking in guardrails except at outcroppings (though this was still better than the Zim side, which seemed to think any guardrail was superfluous). We survived the rim walk, slipped and slid across the bridge (which did have very high guardrails) connecting the mainland from an island of rainforest and mist, and spent several hours hiking around the extensive trails in the park, one leading do

wn to the bottom of the gorge through a primordial forest of twittering birds, chittering monkeys, dripping palm fronds, and snaking vines.

Of course, no world heritage site would be complete without a curio market at the entrance. My main reason for going back to Vic Falls was actually because I had failed, upon my first visit, to purchase green malacite bangles that are made and mined right in Zambia. So, I picked those up while Gunther trailed patiently. Good boyfriend.

I'm an animal nut. Gunther has long since figured this out and is luckily tolerant towards my unfortunate propensity that necessitates frequent (as frequent as the budget allows) trips to Africa. As an anthropologist, he is satisfied with people-watching, a much cheaper endeavor. I, instead, dragged him across the border into B

otswana and Chobe National Park (NP) the following morning. 280 dollars later, we returned to Jollyboys, wishing we could have spent more time in Bots. You see, Chobe is teeming with game. Over-teeming with elephants, actually, so much so that they are crossing the border, the Zambezi/Chobe river, and invading Victoria Falls and killing people. But more on that later. We saw our only wild lion of the trip in Chobe, a lioness trotting off into the bush, heaps of elephants, buffalo, antelope, the over-present impala...The problem was that our game drive, for which we had paid considerable sums, didn't begin until 10:30 due to unnecessary delays. Game drives are best done at dawn and sunset. During the day, animals rest in the shade, away from inquisitive eyes like mine. About an hour into our game drive, we stopped seeing anything. Our afternoon river cruise, which was advertised as three hours, was cut short an hour because we needed to be back to Zambia by 4:30. Sigh. Such is the nature of game viewing. Never enough time.

I think Gunther and I are the only people in the world who wait until an hour before a tour departs to check out of a hostel in Zambia, find a taxi to the border with Zimbabwe, pass through customs on both sides, spend 15 minutes lugging bags through the no-man's-land, argue with taxi drivers on the Zim side, and breathlessly arrive, 20 minutes before the tour leaves, at the feet of Sam, our guide. Sam, as we learned, treats everything with a nonchalance that is refreshing. Nonchalant does not mean lazy-- quite the opposite with Sam, who always had breakfast cooking when we were still struggling out of our sleeping bags and tents set up in the evening when we returned from various tours. But he never stressed about late departures or unexpected mishaps.

As a matter of principle, I am against tours. I like the satisfaction of doing things on my own (if you couldn't tell by previous escapades). But I have come to accept the fact that, occasionally, travel is easier, safer, and more efficient when organized by someone else. Particularly when that travel is around Zimbabwe. Gunther and I had pre-booked our trip through Acacia Africa, an overland tour company that I had previously traveled with and was offering 25% off this tour. It was advertised as a small group tour, though those small groups could include a maximum of twelve people. Ours totaled three: Me, Gunther, and Matteo, an Italian man who never spoke more than five words in an evening.

My first impressions of Zim-- clean, orderly, laid back, mostly functional, uncannily European at times. There were glimpses of disfunctionality-- frequent power outages in most cities, inoperable ATMs (those though that did work dispensed US dollars, still a strange experience in an African country); the absence of coin change (which was given, instead, in South African Rand or candy), stories from locals about corrupt banking systems and mismanagement. I don't know why, but I expected worse. I expected bathrooms not to flush, supermarkets not to have food, everyone we met to demand a bribe. And, for some reason, I expected there to be no more white Zimbabweans; I sort of had thought they would have fled Mugabe's injustice when he took over all white-owned farms. It just shows, I guess, that I still have a lot to learn :)

Our tour spanned seven days of constant motion. We drove from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo, a five hour drive that ended in Zim's second largest city. Sam stopped at a local supermarket to stock up on supplies for the next few days. Supermarkets in Egypt, aside from Carrefour, are small, disorderly, and not really supermarkets at all. Those in the cities of Zim resembled American supermarkets, wide aisles and shelves of well-stocked provisions. The power was out when we arrived, although, by now, this is such a common occurrence almost everyone has backup generators and solar panels. We arrived in camp as dusk settled over the trees and fish ponds, bringing with it a sharp chill that I had not anticipated. “Ummm, we only have one sleeping bag,” I told Gunther as I layered scarves and a light jacket. The camp owner, miraculously, offered upgrades into rooms (the bathrooms were still across the lawn in a block) for only 5 dollars a night. “We'll take one,” I decided. That night we needed three blankets just to stay warm. Winter in Africa is still winter.

Our next day was a rhino trek. And by trek, I mean trek, not drive. Our guide, a fabulously knowledgeable white Zimbabwean, Andy, led us on foot through Matopos NP in search of rhinos. Sam, the previous night, had told us that all his clients had encountered rhinos in the park. Great! I thought, the chance to see rhinos on foot. In our case, we found rhino dung, rhino tracks, and rhino wallows on foot. No rhinos, though we wandered for hours through the bush with Andy in the lead, a rifle slung over his back. Andy was more disappointed than us, I think. We did find impala, giraffes, and Bushmen paintings at close range and learned more about the life of rhinos than we could ever have learned from a book, Andy's mind an endless fount of information about every beast, tree, and rock in the park.

Another drive the next morning, punctuated by annoying checkpoints all too reminiscent of Egypt. Even Sam grew frustrated after he was stopped the fifth time to have his credentials verified. Our final destination was Great Zimbabwe, the ruins site that gave the country its name in 1980. I've described enough ruins in this blog of mine to bore even the most avid ruins nut (like me), so I won't go into extraneous detail Suffice it to say the site was impressive, with a walled city built on a high escarpment overlooking a vast valley, home to the nobles, and several sites in the valley, including the Great Enclosure, a coliseum-like structure built for the king's wife. So, who built the ruins? That's the more interesting story. The government (i.e. Mugabe) seems to be claiming that ancestors of the current Shona speakers of Zimbabwe built it, a testament to their stake on the land. That is was built by “Africans” (i.e. black people) was contested until the 20th century, as Europeans could not fathom such a civilization borne from “savage” races. More likely, previous inhabitants, maybe speakers of Bantu or other Africans, constructed it and died out. Nonetheless, it has become an immense source of pride to Zimbabweans, who, as we were hiking down from the Hill Enclosure, told us this was their heritage, their personal monument.

Our campsite (not one of those luxury ones- a domed, two-person tent was our abode for the next four nights), located inside the park itself, was invaded by vervet monkeys, who, though cute, also enjoyed snatching apples and anything else they could get their grubby little paws on. Thankfully, the weather had warmed somewhat since the previous nights in Bulawayo and was further mitigated by our acquisition of a fuzzy, thick blanket.

More driving the next day, made enjoyable by a stop at a curio market where I found myself in possession of several beautiful hand-carved stone statues that cost between 5 and 10 dollars. Ridiculously cheap, given their exquisite detail. Never mind the fact that I needed to get them to America in about two weeks.

That afternoon's campsite was Antelope Park, a thoroughly commercial game experience that Gunther found slightly rankling, given that every activity we did cost extra (everything else on the tour had been covered by the tour fee). I sort of agreed, but they offered an opportunity to play with big kitties, i.e. lions, for the nominal fee of $75. I caved. After a horse ride which was purported as a game-viewing activity (but we saw only impala and zebra), I cavorted with two lionesses for an hour and a half, walking with them, scratching them, petting them, and generally drooling over them. The ethical problem with an activity of this nature is that the cats are “retired” from walking with guests after 18 months (the two I walked with were at the cusp of their retirement). The park is attempting to position themselves not as a commercial enterprise but as a conservation center that rehabilitates the lions back into the wild after being habituated to humans. So far, they have managed to introduce only one pride into a large enclosure (10 square kilometers) and teach them how to hunt. If they get funding, they plan to introduce more prides and also increase the size of the enclosures until the cubs of the current prides can be introduced into national parks around Africa. A grand endeavor, given that they only have one pride in the first of four stages of release. Though, it has given them another opportunity to make money, as they allow guests to accompany researchers on game drives to check-up on the pride. Gunther, Matteo and I did this the next morning at 6 am, forking over $65 a piece for the guarantee of seeing lions in the “wild”. It felt a little like cheating, as the lions were radio-collared. But, we found our lions.

Hwange NP was our next and penultimate destination. Our full day game drive, from 7 am to 6 pm, yielded not the awe-inspiring sights if roaming rhinos and lurking leopards that most safari-goers seek, but, instead, herds of the rare sable antelope, a family of giraffes drinking at a waterhole, and groups of elephant slurping at a waterhole. Game drives are not, to me, just about finding the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, and rhino), though these are certainly thrilling animals, but about seeing wildlife wild. I was chatting with a friend about this the other night, and I told him about how easy it was, comparatively speaking, to find the Big Five in places like the Serengeti or Ngorongoro in Tanzania. But, he said, those animals are basically tame, with 10-20 game vehicles around any animal at a given time. In southern Africa, particularly in places like Zim or Zam or Bots, the animals don't have that familiarity with humans. So, I guess our one Chobe lion was good enough.

Less than a day later, our tour ended where it began, in Victoria Falls. No more nights around the campfire, watching the sparks complete with the brilliance of an African night, no more dismantling tents, washing dishes, chopping vegetables, sipping coffee before rumbling away in our unwieldly truck. No more visiting schools full of smiling children and buying them bags of mealie so they could begin their studies on a full belly. From a humble tent we moved into a two-bedroom chalet. Oddly enough, the place, Lokuthula Lodges, was one of the cheaper options in Victoria Falls, a city where a single room easily cost two hundred dollars a night (our entire chalet was less than that). These ostentatious lodges contrasted with the poverty of a country hijacked from prosperity by a dictator. Interestingly, most people readily confessed to dislike of Mugabe, telling us stories of the days when a loaf of bread cost trillions of Zim dollars and supermarkets bare of most goods.

I booked our chalet because a) I wanted four walls and a bed and a private bathroom after a week of camping and b) the property overlooked a waterhole frequented by game and c) the free shuttle into town, 4 km away. I say property because next door to us was the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, much more expensive but perched on a bluff above the waterhole. When we arrived, we dumped our bags into our chalet and headed to the bar/restaurant to see what we could find at the waterhole. What we found was about 30 elephants, buffalo, and impala, including one elephant that had killed a tour guide several days before.

Our lodge, until that incident, had run walking tours down to a hide next to the waterhole. One of the clients of that fateful tour had taken several pictures of the elephant before the guide told her to run for her life while he tried to get a shot off, saving her life and losing his. Using the client's pictures, the lodge staff identified the elephant and the NP sent a team in to shoot the elephant. As the sun set over the breathtakingly beautiful African wild, the water, shimmering with the colors of the sky, turned blood red, and three shots rang out. We learned later that they had not killed him, only injured him. In the week before we arrived in Vic Falls, elephants had killed two others, both locals.

Two days later, we did a game drive in the local NP, Zambezi NP, curious to see what could be seen before we reluctantly headed back to Egypt and reality. What we found were, as usual, lots of elephants, some lovely giraffe, interesting birds, and other creatures. It is unfortunate that Gunther is a birder; on previous safaris I glossed over the birds anyone pointed out in anticipation of finding bigger, more photographable game, but this trip I was forced to squint and peer through brush at tiny blobs and listen while driver and client debated on the type of shrike. I did learn something about birds, and I have marginally more appreciation for them. So, I guess it is not a relationship breaker...yet.

The elephants in the NP were aggressive; our guide likely drove too close to several of them, but we were mock-charged, trumpeted at, and chased by more elephants in half an hour than I have in my lifetime. One bull elephant in particular caused our driver to beat a hasty, full throttle reverse as he ran towards us, ears flapping, trunk up, clouds of dust beneath his thundering feet. Due to perhaps illegal poaching and increasing overpopulation, the elephants we met on the Vic Falls side were kind of mean. Though, their pertinacious and sometimes pugnacious behavior was representative of the Falls experience in general on the Zim side.

You see, Livingstone was an actual town; it was not built with tourism in mind but has swelled to accommodate it; Vic Falls was constructed with the intent of ripping tourists off and draining money as quickly as possible. The admission into the Falls was $30 US each, 10 more than the Zambia side. The amount of time we spent in the park: about half an hour, compared to hours on the other side. The trails afforded few views of the Falls, and those views obscured by mist. Our meals cost several times more than in Zim; this was partly because we ended up dining at the lodge restaurant twice (hard to pass up sharing your meal with elephants), sampling warthog, impala, and guinea fowl steaks, and consuming their sumptuous breakfast spread (for a mere $22 a person), but, even in town, we were hard pressed to find any restaurant for less than $15 dollars an entree.

And the souvenirs! Such high starting prices that I just laughed and walked away. Actually, before we were to head back towards Lusaka, Gunther and I traipsed back across the border into Zambia (another $50 a piece for some ink in a passport; damn visas) and passed several hours in the craft market at the Falls which is next to the border crossing. As we walked past the stalls with our luggage, voices rang out asking if we had anything to trade. Hmmmm. My camera, definitely not. The sleeping bag, though...why not? Throw in plenty of dollars, and we left with more crafty delights than was really necessary. We just missed the 2 pm bus leaving, actually watching it depart as we stood forlornly on the curb, so we bought tickets on the 7:30 bus and headed to Jollyboys for an afternoon relaxing in their restaurant/pool/lounge area. This bus, run by a dubiously Israeli company, actually was luxury, and Gunther and I stretched out and reclined happily in our coach seats, wishing that Zambians did not only listen to loud, sappy Gospel music, playing footsie in public just because we weren't in the Middle East.

And then, it was back to that Middle East. From winter into summer, rainforests to desert, we traversed a continent, ending one journey and on the threshold of another.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Growing Pains

I live in two worlds. One appears to have changed little. The other is, at times, unrecognizable. Life at AUC persists despite the upheaval of a new nation forming around it, still filled with deadlines, class discussions, lesson plans, young, rich Arabs texting their friends on their BB while I try to explain the concepts of oral presentations. My students this semester have mixed opinions on the “revolution”, several supporting it, several indifferent, and several missing Mubarek. My supervisors, in our department meetings, push forward with the semester with little acknowledgement that the world in which we live in has changed, irrevocably.

Yesterday, I walked down to Tahrir, as usual, to catch the 4:00 pm bus that will whisk me far away from the city center to the New Campus. Qasr El Aini, the street that leads into Tahrir, continues to undergo a transmutation almost daily. In the beginning, tanks sat parked on almost every block, manned by soldiers wielding machine guns and bored expressions, eating foul sandwiches and reading newspapers as Cairo flowed past on foot and wheel. The tanks disappeared about a week ago, steel treads rumbling towards the Interior Ministry to form a formidable phalanx around its perimeter to deter protesters from breaching its inscrutable walls. Now, soldiers and a few armored vehicles still remain inside the numerous government buildings that line Qasr El Aini, regarding the passing masses with warier eyes.

The seemingly immutable trust between the people and the army is fracturing, bit by bit, although it yet persists. Yesterday, the square was tense, more tense than usual, the tent city in the Square still remaining, though diminished in size, guarded by grim-faced protesters. My bus was late, as usual, and those of us with 5 pm classes hustled aboard, willing traffic to magically dissipate along the typically congested arteries of Cairo. As the bus inched its way through Tahrir, I saw piles of torn-up paving stones lining the sidewalks and men standing beside them, watching. Clusters of men, some protesters, some likely thugs, loitering in the street and alleyways around the square. At the Egyptian Museum, traffic stalled (big surprise) and my fellow passengers glanced nervously out the window as people ran past. A man clutched the arm of his wife, dragging them both quickly away from an apparent confrontation. I walked to the back of the bus and peeked out the windows, seeing groups of men scuffling in the streets, rocks being thrown, and chaos filling the air, further blocking traffic. Everyone on the bus quickly shut the curtains and I reluctantly shut my own as the bus inched forward to reach the overpass that would carry us away from Tahrir. Warning shots from the military echoed, and as the bus darted forward I saw a tank head towards the fighting in a belated attempt to break up the tussles.

Twitter later told me that the military physically dismantled the tent city, trampling the tents and chasing out the remaining protesters with clubs and probable violence. At that time, I was sitting in my grad class, attempting to engage in a discussion on the differences between qualitative and quantitative research, although my thoughts remained beyond the stubborn, disregarding walls of AUC. How do you disengage yourself from an entire nation jostling to determine its future to focus on something as mundane as school? I do, of course, because I do hope to graduate, but it is frustratingly difficult, particularly when even the routes to school are fraught with the uncertainty of revolution. The burbling fountains and high-tech classrooms at AUC are a complete dettachment from the reality of Cairo. Education is the key to the revolution's success, so I do not think AUC, at this point, should cancel classes. I'm not sure what I wish, actually, but I do hope they begin to recognize, more and more, the complications involved in holding this semester.

Last Thursday (was it only a week ago?), I was faced with, once again, the divergence of AUC and real life. My then-abode on the island of Menial became, within the course of an evening, an entirely untenable situation. Ever since the revolution, Menial, a stolidly middle to lower middle class neighborhood, has been experiencing the growing pains of the revolution. This heady new freedom people are experiencing has been translated into a thousand actions- clean-up crews in the streets of Cairo hoping to beautify the streets, patriotic songs on television, flag sellers in Tahrir, posters of martyrs around the city, a bouncy jaunt in people's steps, labor strikes to demand better working conditions, continued protests to call for complete regime change, and a boldness that accompanies a relatively lawless society without police and a crumbling state security.

In Menial in particular, and, I suspect, in most of the poorer neighborhoods of Cairo, this means armed gangs controlling the streets at night, and not the friendly local militia that emerged during the revolution to protect their homes from looters. No, these seem to be the men who enjoyed that brief wielding of weapons and power, the men that exist in every society that resort to violence and fear when given the opportunity. This is not to say that, stepping outside of my house in Menial, I was immediately confronted by them (not that I tried), but they were present, certainly. Their primary aim seemed to be fighting with local gangs in the neighborhood across the Nile, Old Cairo, firing shots, lobbing Molotov cocktails, flashing knives, etc. Most of Menial was actually quite calm, stores and cafes being open until the midnight curfew, life stepping around this new element.

But I was not terribly comfortable with the situation. The more upper-class areas of Cairo, namely Garden City, Downtown, Dokki, Mohendiseen, Zamalek, Maadi, and New Cairo, were not experiencing this. Security had tentatively returned to those places. Today it has returned to all. Last Wednesday evening, I was returning to Menial via taxi, crossing over the bridge into the island, driving past an army tank that had not been there before and a group of men shouting and fighting in front of it. The army, of course, did nothing. Their role is not to engage in civilian disputes.

One of my roommates, N, texted me to tell me he was leaving. Why, I texted back, and he told me he'd explain when I got home. Forget the outside disturbances of Menial for a moment. Let's focus on my domestic one. The married couple I was living with, S and M (those are, most appropriately, their initials) were an interesting union, to say the least. M is a twice-divorced, 40-something born-again Christian who moved to Cairo in the fall to marry a man she had met on the internet, S, a twenty-something Egyptian Christian. An intelligent person would not have moved in with them. I am, unfortunately, not that person. Their marriage appeared fairly benign, for most of our acquaintance. M rarely left the house, and only with S, and instead smoked sheesha and watched American movies. S, I'm not sure what he did. His speciality is computers, and he freelanced occasionally and escaped as much as possible.

S, for still unknown reasons, had grown tired of N and exploded at the slightest provocation. N moved a chair from the living room into his bedroom, even asked M, but S grew enraged. N did not clean up a small mess right away. N blew up. You get the idea. Upon returning home, I also announced my imminent departure, declaring that Gunther and I had fallen deeply in love and that “we” had decided to live together. Then, I called him and told him thus. I actually explained that I was moving out that weekend and asked to crash with him, a la revolution, for a bit. Given that I offered him no alternative, he accepted.

After drawn-out conversations and a few tears on M's end, I turned in for the evening around 3, hoping to catch a bit of slumber before an day of meetings and classes. It was not to be. Within moments, shouting roiled from the living room, angry M and S voices unconcerned as to whether the entire building heard them. As the shouting escalated, N emerged from his bedroom and demanded S to calm down, that he would not let him hit M. I must have fallen asleep for a few moments, because I next remember hearing M crying about her foot being slammed in a door and S trying to calm her down. N came out, again, and confronted S. M ran for it (where, I'm not sure, since it was 4 in the morning) out the door and S, cursing, chased after her.

A war council ensued in my room, where both N and I decided to get the hell out of there as soon as possible. M was deranged, S enraged, and Menial descending into gunfire that sporadically sounded through my closed and curtained windows. M soon returned, without S, weeping, slightly drunk (she had been helping herself to some of my gin), and inconsolable. With the rising sun and ending of the curfew, I packed a small suitcase full of anything of value, locked the door to my room, and found a taxi, arriving bleary-eyed and unshowered on Gunther's doorstep.

Several strong coffees later, I headed to campus, struggled through several meetings and a teaching, bowed out of my evening class and headed back to Garden City to gather my reinforcement. He and I taxied to Menial and walked up the 5 flights of stairs, unlit and uneven, to my soon-to-be former flat. I tried the key but it didn't work. Knocking, a male voice enquired, “Who is it?” “Laura.” S opened the door, looking slightly haggard, and greeted Gunther and me cursorily. M smiled at me forlornly and then scuttled into their “bedroom” to hide behind the curtain . Their “bedroom” is actually the converted second living room into which they placed a bed, covered it in sheets, and declared it a tent. N had to walk through there every time he wished to leave his room.

For the second time in three months, I found myself throwing everything I own into suitcases and bags, sighing as I tore down the hangings from my walls and carefully wrapping my Africa statues in scarf layers. As we began the laborious process of hauling my many belongings down the dark, slippery five flights of stairs, N appeared with two friends in tow.

Outside, in the world of Menial, a megaphoned-voice announced the re-formation of the neighborhood security groups, the ones that had protected the area during the heady days of revolution. It told every able-bodied man to meet in front of the main mosque at 10 in order to form committees to patrol the area. I stopped for a moment to marvel at this. Before, if armed gangs had been running around terrorizing people, Egyptians would have complained to the police, who would have demanded some sort of bribe and marginally improved the situation. Now, people realized they could do something about it. They had a collective power, had a right to security and a violence-free Menial. And so they did something.

Gunther and I did something too, although it was less symbolic. We hauled all of my crap down the stairs, sidestepping around N and S who were engaged in a heated argument in the apartment. I sent Gunther to fetch a taxi while I waited with my belongings. Two of S's relatives appeared, nodding hello at me and heading up to fan the flames. Luckily, Gunther arrived with a taxi, we threw the stuff into the trunk, tied suitcases on the top, cradled my wooden giraffe across our laps, and left Menial thankfully.

I am currently searching for an apartment, hopefully in the Garden City/Mounira area, though I will likely end up downtown. Many of the ex pats have left, though some have returned, and there appears, at the moment, to be a dearth of vacancies in the foreign community. Gunther is generously allowing me to remain while I find suitable lodging.

What I wish to convey with this blog, along with edge-of-the-seat adventures, is the atmosphere permeating Cairo. Change is not a tidy endeavor, particularly when it involves overhauling a defunct political and security system that has been at odds with the people for the past thirty years. It will not be an easy journey, or an entirely peaceful one. Anti-reform elements are still present. Many benefited from the corruption of the old regime, and while the government is prosecuting a few figureheads, most are still stewing in their million-dollar villas, opposing change.

The will of the people prevailed, certainly, on February 11th, when Mubarek stepped down and the military stepped in. But in Egypt the military is a very separate entity with its own internal politics and allegiances. They were concerned with who would proceed Mubarek and were more than willing, some say instrumental, in supporting his resignation. They have billions of dollars tied into the country, and not just in military pursuits. It is in their financial interests that the economy recovers, that people cease protesting and disrupting society, that revolutionary voices temper and let them remain in indisputable control.

Many Egyptians, too, want this. They say, kafayia, enough, to the protesters continuing to occupy Tahrir. Change is coming, now go back to work and let it happen. But those still calling for change say the old regime is still in power, that not much has actually changed, that, if we sit back and let the High Military Council rule, we will be transferring from one regime to the next.

That is why the people began storming the walls of the State Security last week. Why they broke in and began confiscating documents that were being burned and shredded en masse and trying to free the political prisoners locked in nameless cells for political crimes. Why the military aided them in entering the smaller security buildings but prevented them, with force, from entering the main State Security apparatus in downtown Cairo. The secrets of the old regime, their contracts and assignations, agreements and corruption, illegal arrests and torture, those are too incendiary, too damaging to be released. Whether they directly implicate the military, or whether their release would merely cause unwanted instability, I do not know. Nor will any of us, probably.

What heartens me is the social mobilization occurring. The meetings in cafes at night, the small protests in front of government buildings, the continued calls for reform and change. What disheartens me is the lack of involvement by female leaders. Not a single female sits on the High Military Council, nor one on the recent Constitutional Reform Committee. 52% of the Egyptian population is female, yet not one of those voices is being heard.

In fact, they are being systematically stifled. On Tuesday, International Women's Day, a march was called for in Tahrir, ironically called the Million Women March, to demand that their voices be heard. Estimates of several hundred women gathered (I couldn't since I had to teach) in the Square to demand equal rights for women. I think this is a reasonable demand, since the entire revolution called for democracy, and democracy, in my book, does not exclude women.

Though the Egyptian men staging a counter-protest do not agree with me. They surrounded the women, told them this is “not the time” for women to demand rights (if not a revolution, then when?), to go home and nurse babies and do laundry. Some of them turned to violence, striking the women and groping them, breaking up the protest. The men who joined the women were also insulted, had their manliness impugned. When I went down to Tahrir later in the day, after class, I found only a handful of dispirited women and an anti-women's rights protest still in progress.

Divisive elements still exist in Egypt, and the thugs that were one of the hallmarks of the Mubarek regime have not disappeared. Many say they were behind the violence, if not the rhetoric, of the women debacle. Witnesses claim that government thugs burned down one of the poorer Christian neighborhoods Wednesday night when 13 people were killed with government-issued bullets (or so sources say). Both Muslim and Christian leaders were quick to denounce the violence, quick to call for unity and peace with their Egyptian brothers and sisters.

Growing pains. This is a country is transition, in flux, attempting to form a new democracy from the rubble of a corrupt regime. I saw incredible unity during those desperate days of the revolution, when women and men fought side by side for democracy, when Muslims and Christians joined hands to call for change, when rich and poor slept side by side on the cold dirt of Midan Tahrir. That moment is over. And the revolution is just beginning.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Feb 11th

I am tall, blonde, foreign. I live in Cairo, Egypt. Normally, my physical appearance bears no relevance to either my actions or to the words I write. But I was in Tahrir Square the night of February 11th, arriving an hour after the news of Mubarek's departure was announced. The streets surrounding Tahrir were already chaotic, makeshift fireworks erupting on sidewalks and motorbikes blaring their horns as they wove amidst the stalled traffic. Entire families, with children in tow, flooded out of their homes to join the celebration. Women both veiled and unveiled joined male family members to jubilantly rejoice in the downfall of a 30 year dictator. I dressed modestly as usual, in loose jeans and a baggy, long-sleeved shirt.

Tahrir was a different story. My male companion and I pushed towards the center of the square, heedless of the increasingly dense crowds pressing on all sides. Crowds that were predominantly male, drunk and high on euphoria, felt invincible, citizens of a country that had toppled its government and seemed to wield limitless power. I had been in the crowd for less than a minute before I felt my ass pinched, viciously. Then a hand reached around and squeezed my boob, hard. Although we had not yet reached the heart of the square, the mass of people overwhelmed its capacity and movement ceased. In essence, we were trapped in a seething pit of humanity without an outlet. Although public displays of affection are generally frowned upon, I grabbed my friends hand, his entire arm, and clutched onto him, pulling him behind me to deter would-be attackers. It did little. Hands reached in from all sides, grabbing my butt, my boobs, my vagina. I tried to stomp on feet around me, twist fingers, but there were too many.

It was then I realized the complete lack of women in the square. There were clusters of them standing on curbs, amassed in large numbers to ward of harassment. I saw a husband with his arms completely around the front of his veiled wife, pushing his way out of the crowd, grimly determined to protect her. But individual women, like me, were virtually non-existent. I used elbows and knees to force my way out of the crowd, my friend wrapping his arms around me like I'd seen the husband do to his wife. At one point, the the ebb of the crowd pulled him away but I yanked him back, desperately. Men came to my rescue, recognized the struggle I was in and pushed the crowd aside, as much as they could, to provide a slim outlet. I was alhamdulilah, not brutally assaulted like Lara Logan; we were able to escape the crowd before that kind of attack occurred.

I had been visiting Tahrir almost every day since the 28th of January, photographing, filming, and documenting the protests with very few incidences of harassment, far less than I usually receive walking down the street in Egypt. I attribute this to several factors, though I have only my own observations to support them. First, the mere presence of daylight generally deters errant hands from “copping a feel”. Secondly, the thorough security checkpoints surrounding the square established an atmosphere of protection and accountability. The men entering the square were risking their lives to take down a regime. They were idealists in a sense, men with a purpose and a cause that saw everyone else in the square as a fellow patriot, or, in my case, as someone who could share their story with the world. After Mubarek's defeat, joining the celebrations although they had risked nothing, came men who were opportunists to use the celebration for their own devices.

Image was everything to the revolutionary protesters; I was approached one day by a woman who greeted me politely and asked why I had taken a picture of garbage. She told me that was not the image the protesters wished to convey to the world, that freedom and solidarity were the aims of the movement, not piles of garbage. The protesters incessantly chanted “silmeea, silmeea,” which roughly translates to “peacful, peaceful,” stressing the non-violent nature of the movement. They were demanding respect from the government and instilling it into every action of the protests themselves. Respect between Egyptians and the army, between Muslims and Christians, towards foreigners and women joining the demonstrations, towards the state of the cleanliness of the square.

It was not until this atmosphere of respect evaporated on the night of Feb 11th, when the volunteer security of the protesters were overwhelmed by the mobs of Egyptians entering the square, did I confront violent harassment. To me, this does not demonstrate wanton misogyny specific to Egypt; as greater minds have shown, violence against women in prevalent everywhere in the world. It demonstrates the value of education and accountability in abolishing sexual harassment. In Tahrir Square, over the day's leading up to Mubarek's departure, mutual solidarity and respect between all was required to present a unified front to the world; any would-be harassers were led away by fellow demonstrators and admonished if not detained. It worked within the microcosm of Tahrir Square during a revolution. I am not certain it could be applied outside this arena. However, if this system of accountability was to be applied by the government, if the regime halted sexual assault as a weapon of torture, if sexual harassment became a crime instead of a fixture of everyday life, if rape victims were were not blamed as "asking for it", then women in Cairo could celebrate their own revolution.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Revolution (Part One)

This revolution, for me, will be remembered in moments, sensations, the spike of adrenaline, the waves of fear, the exhilaration of triumph, the resilience of determination. It has been a running joke, really. Ever since I arrived in the Middle East, almost 5 years ago, we laughed about the revolution that would usurp the Egyptian president. Yet, somehow, we never thought it would actually happen. That Egypt would rise out of her sheesha cafes, would turn off the soap operas on TV, would climb out of the lethargy that seemed to envelop this city thicker than the omnipresent cloud of smog smothering its air. But she did. The discontent that has smouldered for decades, the high unemployment rate, the rising food prices, the seeming insouciance of the government, it erupted, blazed, fomented. It became a revolution.

What I witnessed, what was happening across Cairo and Egypt, was an entire nation in revolt, a whole population saying 'enough' and acting together as a community to display their hatred in small acts of defiance. Through sheer determination, they made their voice cross oceans and continents, wake up world leaders and rattle economies. And it started on my doorstep. It started with my young next door neighbor unable to find a job paying a livable wage, with the government refusing to provide basic services to the sick grandmother downstairs, with the doorman permanently scarred due to police brutality. Galvanized by the success in Tunisia, they realized they had a voice. That Egypt need not be silent any longer.

It was a nation that had lost fear. And that, I think, is what Mubarek most feared. He ruled his nation by fear, fear of the intelligence capturing you and torturing you for saying the wrong thing, fear of the police taking advantage of you, fear of saying the wrong thing.

What do I recall most? If you want an in-depth analysis of the forces at play, read the news. Memory is not a linear thing, and, looking back, I see these moments as snapshots shuffling through my mind, a face or emotion crystallizing them forever. The prick of tear gas in my sinuses that causes my eyes to leak. The unevenness of the asphault I'm sitting on, how it still retains the heat of the day long past sundown, concentrating on its mottled black texture as a soldier roughly ties my hands behind my back with black cable, his cohort glaring at me with a machine gun. Hearing the sound of live rounds being fired into a crowd, a crowd that presses against the gates of AUC, my university. Seeing a row of tanks parked in front of the Egyptian Museum. Contending with crowds a million strong on Tuesday, watching them ripple in unison as they bow to Mecca for noon prayer. Bristling as a security guard asks me if I have an Israeli stamp. Stuffing my camera's memory card into my bra as I leave Tahrir, hoping the thwart any would-be thugs. Being hit on by a soldier as I sidle my way past row upon row of security. Standing on the front lines of a war zone, seeing the blood still caked on pant legs and still oozing from bandages. Listening to gun shots in the streets around my house. Cheering as a man spray paints a tank with the words, “Down with Mubarek!” Feeling revulsion as an injured man hands me an empty tear gas canister stamped “Made in USA.” Stepping around the makeshift barriers that vigilante groups have set up in my neighborhood to protect us from looters and escaped convicts. No longer being frightened by the machetes, guns, and big sticks wielded by the men of my street. Scurrying home before sundown to beat the curfew. Watching as Tahrir Square transforms from empty square to military zone to battleground to campground. Smirking as I see a burned out police van being now used as a latrine (never mind the smell). Passing the familiar haunts of Qasr El Aini and seeing them closed, boarded up, or destroyed, charred skeletons of burned police vehicles littering the streets.

It was taking everything familiar, everything known, everything assumed, and watching it burn in a conflagration of Molotov cocktails and tear gas. In one day, the world descended into chaos. I awoke in the morning to an orderly world of roosters crowing and sunlight pouring through my curtains. By noon, after the prayers, I felt my world jarred by explosions, gunshots, and the din of raised voices. In the streets, everywhere I tread, from Old Cairo past Sayyid Zeinab to Qasr El Aini Street, I found tear gas streaking through the air, black smoke billowing from overturned dumpsters, heavily clad riot police thumping through familiar neighborhoods with batons in hand and fear in their eyes. By the fall of night, an eerie calm settled over the city, wafting through alleyways like the wisps of remaining tear gas and smoke from still-burning fires. Tanks, armoured vehicles and bristling soliders stomped through the streets, greeted with eagerness by the protesters defying the curfew. Helicopters buzzed through the blackness and itinerant bursts of gunfire echoed through my windows. Mubarek spoke to the nation, late at night, refusing to step down, and I started with fright as angry shouts reverberated through the stairwell of my building. “It's a reaction to his speech,” I realized incredulously. “They don't believe him.”

Uncertainty tucked me in that night. Looking back, watching the videos I took of that first day of rage, I don't think I was the only uncertain one; it is seen in the hesitation to continue fighting, the tremble in a rioter's hand before he launches a rock, the closed doors of my neighbors at the start of curfew. But it was not uncertainty that prevailed, at least those first few days. Uncertainty did not stay the rioter's hand, did not stop a man from charging at the police, did not prevent my neighbors from emerging the next morning to converge peacefully in Tahrir Square. Courage and conviction triumphed and it was beautiful.

The next morning, Mubarek decided to return to the peasants their mobile phone service, though internet would remain shut off for many days. My frantic family somewhat appeased, I called my friend, Gunther* (not his real name), and informed him I was moving in. Actually, I told him I was coming over and simply never left. As a resident of Garden City, he is close to Midan Tahrir yet ensconced within a tightly secured area full of embassies, shabbily chic villas, and international hotels.

Thus began a rarely amended routine of rising to the still eerily quiet neighborhood, secured against intruders by vigilante gangs, tree branches thrown across avenues, and former police barricades dragged onto the road and eventually trundling down to Tahrir, about 15 minutes by foot, to see what could be seen. The route there, down Qasr El-Aini, was scattered with the offal of a smoldering rebellion-- a few looted businesses (though, surprisingly, very few, and only international chains, and witnesses claim burned by the police), torched vehicles, the hated NDP offices vandalized. Again, the absence of fear was palpable-- everyone was documenting this with cameras and cell phones. That Saturday, the 29th, we found the square still relatively open to visitors, with the occasional car honking joyously or motorbike rattling through. Still, signs of unrest littered Tahrir-- burned-out police vehicles, flaming NDP offices, a battalion of tanks parked in front of AUC, soldiers lounging in front of their vehicles. Towards evening, a standoff between the interior ministry and protesters resulted in more tear gas and live rounds of bullets shot into the crowd. More than any other day, though, the laxness of the soldiers resulted in unprecedented access to the military-- the crowds were clambering atop tanks, riding them down streets, posing on them for pictures, chatting and arguing with the soldiers. Unlike the police, who had mysteriously fled the night before as their offices and infrastructure literally went down in flames, the military are respected and generally liked.

No one appeared to be obeying curfew as we hustled home. Masses of people poured into the streets, heading in the direction of Tahrir, chanting anti-Mubarek slogans and waving at my camera as I filmed. The only people still left in the rest of Cairo, it seemed, were the vigilantes, groups of men hastily gathered from the neighborhood bearing homemade weapons, and their prey, ex-convicts. You see, the government, in its attempt to portray Cairo as a world of chaos without the government, knocked down prison walls and uncarcerated the inhabitants. I received calls from friends living in areas closer to the prisons, shakily calm voices telling me of the violences they were forced to commit to protect their homes and loved ones from calamity. Garden City remained safe at the expense of these places, the looters sifted out in these neighborhoods before reaching the heart of Cairo.

By the third day of revolution, rumors began to reach me of food and petrol shortages in Cairo. After a round around Tahrir, in which Gunther and I found more protesters peacefully gathered, demanding the immediate resignation of Mubarek and making a few lewd comments about him, we took some back streets home. This was due to both curiosity and a desire to thwart Mubarek's thugs whose desire to surpress the revolution stops well past violence. You may be wondering what Egyptians are thinking, seeing two pastily white foreigners photographing their revolution. By and large, Egyptians have been extremely supportive, protective of us and eager to share their stories with the world. I have been told, time and time again, that I must show what I am photographing, what I am seeing, to the world. Show them how Mubarek treats his people, show them his vicissitude (ok, that's my word) and oppression of people who want only freedom. At first, I was hesitant to share that I am American, particularly when presented with tear gas canisters and bullet rounds printed with the words, “Made in USA”. But the vast majority respond, when I say I am American, with a “Welcome in Egypt !”

Not every Egyptian supports the protests. Those that benefit from the regime, who are hired as thugs or take advantage of the corruption, those are the ones to avoid. Other Egyptians, wearying of the disruption to their lives, sympathetic to a one-time war hero who has 'led' their country for 30 thirty years, desire stability over chaos. Whether these divisions will prove to great overcome, whether the protesters still fighting for freedom in Tahrir will become marginalized radicals, only time will tell.

The walk home that afternoon, we glanced behind us frequently, noting if someone seemed to be trailing us down Falaki Street, watching us as we photographed the extent of anger against the regime. The media has focused on Tahrir as the epicenter of the revolt, but it took that afternoon to reveal, to me, how thoroughly the police apparatus, and only the police apparatus, had been decimated. Dozens of overturned police vehicles and shattered windows of police stations showed what the news stations had not-- focused rage against a dictator. Almost as striking was the lack of destruction to private businesses and cars, closed for business but still intact. In the market, we stopped to buy fresh vegetables and fruit, still at the same prices before the revolution, still available despite the rumors otherwise. Certainly, the market was crowded, but then, everyone was forced to do their shopping before a 3 pm curfew.

That evening we defied the curfew. In retrospect, not the smartest move. But we wanted to head to Tahrir, having been told that Mohamed El Baradai was going to speak. Until that moment, I had not needed to carry my passport, my blondness and clear foreignness enough of an indication of my status. However, as we approached the heavily fortified entrance to Tahrir, the soldiers politely but firmly demanded our passports before we could enter Tahrir. We returned home. But we did not stay, retracing our steps until we were stopped, not by the military this time but a neighborhood watch group that told us the way was closed and that, perhaps, we could take another route through Garden City, over to the Corniche to Tahrir. Like lambs to the slaughter, we turned into the labryinth of shadowy streets, followed by a friendly Egyptian who also wanted to get into the Square.

Within a few minutes, we encountered a row of soldiers that smilingly told us that the way behind them was blocked but, if we turned left, perhaps we could get to the Corniche. One soldier, in particular, spoke relatively flawless English, gesturing again down a deserted street. One of his colleagues, in Arabic, told him the way was closed, but he swiftly interrupted him in polite English, telling us again that we might try that way.

We made it about thirty feet before a voice shouted, “''If! 'If! Down, down!” The voice, I saw, belonged to a military officer waving his machine gun angrily in our direction. Any giddiness I'd felt about the revolution transmuted, with alarming alacrity, into a clammy terror as I sat on the black pavement, watching the officer, surrounded by several other heavily armed soldiers, shouting vociferously in Arabic. The Egyptian man scuttled forward to talk with the officer and a small blossom of hope bloomed, tentatively, as I thought he might explain our situation. That blossom wilted as I saw a roll of tape produced to tie the man's hands behind his back, then a black wire to ensure that he would not escape. Gunther and I were called forward.

The officer demanded our passports. Gunther and I shakily produced them as the officer snatched them from our hands and walked away, his colleagues forcing us to sit on the ground. I felt my arms being pulled behind my back and I sat their, completely impotent, as a soldier grabbed my wrists, crossed them, and wrapped them tightly, again and again, with black wire that dug painfully into my skin. Terrifying scenarios raced through my mind as I saw us being taken away into the underworld of the Egyptian secret police, detained, tortured, nameless, voiceless victims to a dictator with infinite power. I glanced behind us, once, wondering why the soldiers that had told us to walk this way had not come to our rescue. Then, I guess, I began to suspect a trap. “Are you ok?” Gunther asked softly and I nodded, turning my attention to the men with machine guns trained at us, hard eyes and cold faces in control of our fate.

“Up!” They demanded, and we struggled to rise, impeded by our restrained arms, dead weights at our backs. Gesturing with their guns, the soldiers motioned us over to stand against a wall with a few other Egyptian men they had also detained. For one wild moment, as the six or so of us lined up against a curb, faced by a line of guns trained at our soft bodies, I thought they would execute us, point blank, like I'd seen in a hundred Hollywood movies.

They didn't. “'If!” they demanded again, and we sat, quickly, on the curb, watching as the officer returned, our passports in hand. He didn't return them to us. He paged through them slowly, searching for God knows what (thankfully none of us have Israeli stamps), pausing to shout questions at us in Arabic. “What are you doing here? Who are you? Where are you going? When did you arrive?” He kept contradicting us, telling us we had arrived on a different day than we actually had, attempting to ensnare us in our own words. “Stand up!” He shouted, and we rose once again. An officer patted down Gunther thoroughly, removing his camera, mobile, and everything else in his pockets. I was relieved that he found a female (not a soldier) to search me, the first indication, perhaps, that I might escape this experience relatively unscathed. She removed my camera and phone, a memory card and extra battery, piling them at the officer's feet.

The officer's cell phone rang and he stepped away to answer it, leaving us crouched on the curb, shuffling our feet and whispering quietly. “Do you have pictures from the demonstrations today?” Gunther asked me and I shook my head. “I removed them before I came.” A wistful expression briefly crossed his face. “I didn't.”

Our interrogator soon returned, demanding to see the pictures on Gunther's camera, frowning as he viewed the photo's from the protests. One of his cronies told us, I think, in Arabic, “You can have everything back but your cameras. Those stay with us.” I burst out in desperate Arabic, “But I don't have any pictures on my camera. Let me show you!” “Inshallah,” he replied.

Another group of foreigners, with one Egyptian woman, wandered into the small square and were made to sit next to us, though their hands remained untied. We eyed each other curiously, wondering what our fate would be. The officer seemed to relent somewhat, the brutal, accusatory tone in his voice softened to be merely scolding. He made the Egyptian woman translate his words to us, telling us that, although his orders are to shoot anyone out after curfew on sight (a difficult proposition, given that millions roamed the street), he would not do that to us and would release us that evening. We asked about our cameras and he said we could have them back, as long as we deleted any pictures on them. I acquiesced readily, and so did Gunther, albeit more reluctantly, as he had a cache of historic photos about to be erased.

The Egyptian woman came over to untie my hands, apologizing profusely for being involved in any of this. “I'm so sorry, sweetie, to do this.” “It's not your fault!” I responded gratefully. “Gosh, they really tied you up.” It took her five minutes to undo the shackles at my wrists . As soon as I was free, I rubbed my hands together, massaging feeling back into them.

One of the local neighborhood watch men, a pro-Mubarek supporter, as we learned later, came over to supervise the removal of our pictures, checking both of my memory cards (my extra card had some 'celebratory' photos of a past New Year's on it that I hastily erased), telling us the media had really, “fucked up the coverage of the protests so far”. By reporting the truth, I suppose.

Our ordeal was not over. Military protocol required that they deliver us to our embassies for safekeeping, so we were led to the American embassy a short distance away and deposited in front of the bullet-proof window of the consular division. “Can we go home now?” we asked the man behind it. “Wait,” he said. And so we waited, for a good hour and a half, pacing on the pavement with the other motley group of foreigners who had one unfortunate American in their midst. My mother called at this point, as she did every night, to check in. Sorry for not telling you where I was, Mom, but I thought you might have gotten concerned. Finally, a troop of Marine-type characters emerged, swaggering to stand before us in full regalia. “Do you have any questions for us?” Although I was the only woman of the three, he planted himself before me, clearly hoping to intimidate me. “Can we go home now? We live pretty close to hear?” “Not likely. What we can do is bring you to the Intercontinental Hotel and leave you there for the night. You can buy a coffee in the lobby and wait until the morning , when the curfew is lifted.” “But sir...” As military men are wont to do, he launched into a bombastic speech, outlining the dangers of the Egyptian streets. “This man here has offered to escort us home.” One of the local neighborhood watch men, patiently waiting with us throughout our ordeal, nodded. “Who are you? Put that weapon you are carrying down, sir! I feel threatened by it!” Yasser, carrying it to ward off any looters, set down the handle of his daughter's baby stroller carefully on the ground, stepping away from it. “You are not to leave here with it, understand?” He nodded.

The Marine did not offer to walk us to the hotel, which would clearly be against the protocol he adheres to against all reason, but sent an Egyptian employee to do it. As we left the Embassy, the other American told us he was going home, with his friends. After a volley of arguments, an Egyptian military officer, one of many assigned to guard the area around the Embassy, came over to calm the ruckus. “We will take them home,” he finally offered. And so, in an incongruous turn of events, we found ourselves piled in the back of an army Jeep and driven home by the military.

I did not evacuate the next day. I went down to Tahrir, within the hours before curfew, to witness the unfolding of a revolution/uprising/revolution. On the walk down to the square, we encountered the 'nice' Egyptian man who had helped delete our photos. “I am pro-Mubarek,” he told us grimly, and we felt his eyes on our backs as we approached the tank brigade guarding Tahrir.

Within our neighborhood, we still ventured out at night, though sticking within the vigilante groups that recognize us and bid us good evening as we pass by their kitchen knives and clubs and bonfires and sheeshas. You may think this sounds foolish, but Cairo, to me, more than other cities I've lived in, is a community built on relationships. You are safe within the boundaries of people who know you, the doormen who greet you, the fruit sellers who salaam you, the neighbors who ask how you are.

This, of course, was thrown into upheaval when Mubarek blamed the 'instability' of the country not on his removal of security and release of prisoners and thugs but on foreign elements within the country and started attacking and arresting journalists and other foreign-looking people. But that was Wednesday. Until that day, on Tuesday, Tahrir was 1 million people strong, 1 million peaceful protesters denouncing a regime intent on violence, brutality, and intimidation to rule. Even my brush with it pales in comparison to what most Egyptians face. I am not Egyptian. I cannot and will not say what is best for this country. But I do believe in human dignity, freedom, a right to life without fear. And America's obstruction of these values in much of the world, their support of regimes like Mubarek's, make it perhaps hypocritical of me to even write this. I am a citizen of a country that proclaims these values yet sells tear gas and weapons to anyone that will help maintain its strength. Does that make me a complicit agent in this? Someone who will stand on her soap box of freedom yet, at the same time, undeniably benefits from repressing it? I don't know.

Tuesday was overwhelmingly peaceful; we approached Tahrir from the Corniche side, walk up to the entrance near the Qasr El-Aini bridge, astounded by the constant stream of people marching towards us from the island of Zamalek, many of whom had probably walked from Giza and beyond. They came towards us, surrounded us, flooded past us, families, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, united around a cause few had dared dream of even two weeks before-- freedom. At the newly formed checkpoints, I showed my passport to the friendly women, smiled as they apologized for searching my bag and patting me down, and entered the square filling with, estimates claimed, at least a million people. Musicians played guitars and ouds (an Arabic string instrument), crowds chanted against the regime, and masses milled around the square, demonstrating tremendous courage and solidarity.

That evening, enjoying a scrumptious dinner at a friend's house, we hoped for imminent change, emboldened by the U.S.'s increasingly strong language against the Mubarek regime, watching the footage from the square and the reaction around the world. But the regime would not go quietly.

The next morning, I received an excited call that internet had returned to the country. Ecstatic, I logged into my e-mail and Facebook for the first time in almost a week and read the news, dismayed at what I saw scrolling across the pages. Pro-Mubarek were appearing in parts of Cairo, arriving by bus, almost exclusively male, thuggish-looking, spoiling to bring violence and terror to peaceful protests. I had planned on meeting Gunther in Tahrir to continue our daily documentation of the protests but repeated entreaties by our friends, hearing rumors of impending violence in the square, persuaded me to remain at home. Instead, I watched from the safety of my flat as thugs poured into Tahrir, on horseback and camel, armed and attacking the protesters. I will not go into detail of the events that day or evening; watch the accounts on the internet for a better picture of the grisly battle between Mubarek's “supporters” and the protesters holding the square, lobbing rocks and Molotov cocktails at each other, one side erecting make-shift barriers to hold the square against the impossible odds of an army of trained, armed thugs.

Tension reigned on Thursday, but I could put off a return to home no longer, needing clean clothes and medical supplies. A brief visit to the market the previous day had only intensified the unrest in Cairo; suspicious stares greeted our white countenances, scuffles broke out between shop keepers usually content to sit in chairs and watch the world idle by. The rhetoric spouted by the regime, that anyone foreign in Cairo was fomenting the rebellion, seemed to be taking hold. Yet my taxi driver dutifully turned on the meter when I stepped in, did not try to overcharge me. The owner of the tiny market near my home greeted me with a huge, “Ahlan!” or “Welcome!”, treating me with the same respect I had always received. Leaving his store, laden with bags of provisions, a young man walked by, muttering, “Israeli spy” in Arabic.

Gunther called minutes later, telling me that foreigners were being targeted, arrested, attacked by thugs. I flagged down the first taxi I could, telling him to take me to Garden City. He laughed and drove away. The next one responded similarly. A third pulled up and I asked him the same. “Please, get in miss,” he said. As we neared Garden City, the traffic slowed to a crawl and he asked if I could walk the rest of the way, as Qasr El Aini seemed blocked. I nodded and struggled out, weighed down by bags of groceries, thanking the driver, grateful that he treated me like a human being.

Qasr El Aini was chaos. What appeared to me as gangs of thugs or just neighborhood watch groups had stopped vehicles and buses, pulling people out and searching them. More than ever, I felt like a foreigner in Cairo, someone to be treated with suspicion and derision. I kept my head down, pulled my bags of groceries down the sidewalk and walked quickly down the nearest side street I could find, running smack into a soldier. “Your passport, please,” he asked, and I fumbled in my bag, dropping my groceries and pulling it out hastily. “Where are you going?” “Home, I live here,” I said shakily. “Where?” Crap. I had never bothered to memorize Gunther's address. The solider waited as I shouted into my mobile at Gunther, who was in the middle of helping someone else find a taxi, to tell me his damn address. I relayed the information to the solider who nodded politely, searched my bag, apologized for the inconvenience, and sent my on my way. I wanted to run to the flat, slam the door, and barricade myself behind it. Cairo had always been a friendly place, made, oddly enough, even more so by the protests uniting the people. More than that, though, it is my home, has been for two and a half years, filled with people I love. To become a place where I was unwelcome, suspected as an agent against the Egyptian people, felt like a betrayal.

Bu then I remembered the taxi driver, with his parting words to “go with peace”, the shop owner, who grinned broadly when I walked in, even the soldier, who bid me good-bye with a friendly smile. It is not Cairo, or its people, who are against me. It is a systematic regime, clinging to its dwindling influence by power, aggression and intimidation, that is. And the people have finally said “kafaya”, enough.

Friday dawned clear, quiet, calm. The protesters called for peace, for unity, for a huge demonstration in Tahrir. Gunther and I went, warily, after confirming with friends on the ground that the square was guarded and safe. At the checkpoint, we were searched, thoroughly, numerous times, showed our passports and pushed inside, greeted by a tunnel of protesters joyously clapping, cheering, celebrating the victory of freedom over fear. Inside the square, we were welcomed effusively, almost apologetically, greeted regardless of our nationality, approached by protesters telling us their story, showing us their empty wallets, their resolve to continue fighting.

I think I'll continue my narrative of the following week, and its adventures, in another post. I hope you do not find these words either harrowing or frightening; what is enfolding here is a revolution, a time of tumultuous change and hope for a better future. Cairo has changed irrevocably. Of this there can be little doubt. Tahrir is turning into a permanent encampment of protesters not stepping down until their demands are met. Tanks and soldiers fill the streets, protesters walk the sidewalk bearing flags and headbands in the colors of Egypt, hope is filling this city with restless energy, an energy that will not soon be quenched. My part in this whole tale is on the sidelines, a small dot overwhelmed with awe, glued to a revolution enfolding on my doorstep. If you've read my story, remember only the bravery of a people fighting for freedom.