An American in Cairo
Revolution from another perspective
I didn’t think Revolution would feel like this. John Lennon, Tracy Chapman and other artists have made it sound so upbeat, so sure of its legitimacy, and so containable in a three-minute music track. The reality is unsure, insecure, and very much “watch and wait.” There are the usual runs to the banks, the stocking up on four liters of milk and all of the rice that could possibly be eaten in a year. There was the filling of the bathtub with fresh water. The preparations — endless preparations — for that which we hoped would never come.
Except we did want it to come. Everyone did. Egyptians are starving and dying from preventable and treatable diseases. The trash here is literally smothering its citizens and the government is corrupt, and by definition, brutal. Mubarak, ruler for 28 years, must go… and take his power-hungry son with him.
Nearly everyone in Egypt wants Mubarak out of power and tried for his many crimes against humanity. I think often of our graduate student P.R. who was grabbed in the middle of the night, held and tortured in prison for two weeks, and left naked, bound and gagged on a street corner for having the audacity to blog and organize demonstrations suggesting that the Egyptian people deserved better than Mubarak. I just can’t figure how anyone supports the status quo.
So who are the demonstrators? An Egyptian friend of mine told me, “I shame myself and my family if I do not go to the protests.” He is manager of a bank. He is comfortable. He has a wife and a puppy and a baby on the way. I begged him not to go and then instantly felt ashamed. Should I be marching alongside him? What is my freedom worth to me?
Protesters here come from all walks of life. The fact that Egyptians, who are well-known for arguing about the smallest thing for hours at a time, can agree and stand together is amazing. My heart is bursting with pride. This is the people I know and love.
But Revolution isn’t easy. Last Friday was perhaps the scariest night of my sheltered life. Looters were spotted three doors down and rumbling our way. I had hidden my “valuables” in our drop ceiling.
Funny what you consider “valuable” when you only have 45 seconds to determine it. I grabbed my engagement ring, my wedding present from my husband, a USB backup of our family pictures, my daughter’s security blanket, my son’s stuffed dog and my husband’s iPad. The kids threw stuffed animals and little Chuck E. Cheese trinkets under the bed fast as lightning. Then, I barricaded us in to wait.
Our normally passive Golden Retriever was on high alert with orders to bite strangers. Would she have really bitten if it came down to it? I’d like to think so. I wish I could say that the anxiety passed when the looters were rounded up and arrested. Surely we couldn’t sleep barricaded in the former nursery/newly appointed “panic room” indefinitely. Still, when are you safe? With absolutely no police presence on the streets and prisoners being let out by the thousands, could we be sure that they or their cronies wouldn’t return?
Frustration ensued as the moments turned into hours, turned into days, turned into who-knows-how-long. Bickering with each other; forgetting to eat; not knowing what day it was or when we last showered; in a mere week, I was almost unrecognizable to myself. Time dragged on. If we were actually doing something productive, that would be one thing… but we were waiting… and watching, proud of the patience and civility of the protestors and then horrified as we witnessed Egyptians killing each other in graphic and brutal ways on Al Jezeera International, CNN and the BBC (the local stations only showed peace and calm, no demonstrations and no violence), and trying not to let the children see us cry.
Each morning the end of night watch found us tired and cranky, and too distracted to even operate the coffee pot. We opened the door that first morning to survey the damage, only to be assaulted with the pungent smell of tear gas wafting in from downtown. My son’s eyes watered as he sputtered a “Help!” I must have looked terrified because my kind, thoughtful and ever-protecting 7-year-old shouted, “I’m fine Mom! Really! I’m brave! It’s not that bad! Really!” His wide eyes revealed what his words never would. I was flooded with guilt so quickly that I had difficulty standing.
As if I needed further proof that God never gives you more than you can handle, my 5-year-old future lawyer comes in, nonchalant, saying, “Mom, you know what makes me feel better when I have tear gas in my lungs? Oreos! Can we open that bag you have been saving for a special occasion?” The moment passed. I didn’t faint in front on my children. But things were still touch and go…
A difficult decision
Then the internet came back on. The bank reopened with limited hours and cash supplies. Our families and friends drove us crazy calling at all hours and demanding that we leave the country immediately.
Would we leave? Should we leave? Where would we go? What does it mean if we go or if we stay? Hours on the phone, staring at Facebook, willing the world to pause and acknowledge us; raging at the incredible pressure of the media’s eye. (Thanks Anderson Cooper for your dramatic overreaction — we all knew it was dangerous in Tahrir — yet much of the rest of Cairo was safe and returning, albeit slowly, to normal).
Due to pure exhaustion, hunger, terror at our children’s nightmares, acquiescence to self-doubt, and family/friend demands, my husband and I made the difficult decision to leave Egypt for a week. Normally I would have welcomed an unexpected trip to Spain but I’d literally do anything to have avoided the circumstances that made it necessary. I have had to face the fact that there is very little I can do in, or for the people of, this country that I love. Words don’t exist to describe my frustration. Egypt is my home and I want to defend her.
We made it to Madrid where my husband’s friend took us in, fed us, made us tea, and listened to us. We hope to return to Egypt next week ready to do the same for our Egyptian friends who are simultaneously mourning a generation’s violence and celebrating a generation’s hope.
I’d like to think that all of this has a purpose and that those brave Egyptians willing to die to make their country a better place did not die in vain. A recently retired friend of mine described the way she intends to spend her days until all of this is over: “I’m picking up trash in Cairo with my friends. We are starting on Road 9 (the central boulevard) and moving outward. The young people can have their Revolution. We’ll leave them the beautiful country that they deserve.”
Well done Egypt. May God grant swift peace and justice here.