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.