Thursday, February 24, 2011

Saturday, January 29

The next day, Saturday, was a big day for us. This was the day Paul's parents were to leave, the day we tried to get money out of multiple ATM machines only to find they were all out of service, and the day that police were no where to be seen.

After our failed attempt to withdraw money, we went to stock up on food. Could the stores run out of food? Would the employees stop showing up to open the stores? How long would our money last? Paul's parents helped us to stock up. Paul's dad insisted we buy an entire kilogram (over two pounds) of gouda cheese. At noon we said goodbye to Paul's parents. They gave us all of their Egyptian Pounds, hugged us and got into a taxi. From there we could only hope that they would be able to depart. We had heard that all planes had been grounded, but the US Embassy encouraged them to try anyway. In the end, they were on one of two flights that departed for Europe on Saturday. We did not have cell phone or internet service, but we did continue to watch the news on the TV. We knew that, like Friday, Tahrir Square and other parts of downtown swelled with people protesting.
Not long after that we began to hear stories of looting. Apparently with the lack of police, looters were going to the neighborhoods of the wealthy and expats. Already, some of the major stores had been broken into and their merchandise stolen overnight. At about 3 in the afternoon, I looked out on the balcony and my heart sank. I saw men, several dozen of them, standing on the door to our apartment building. They were holding sticks, lead pipes, and knives. Some of them were standing in the street, yelling at those who were standing on our stairs. I ran inside and told Paul what I had seen.
We ran next door to our neighbor’s apartment. I had actually never seen them, but Paul had met them once and told me there was a young woman who teaches English and lives with her parents and other family. So, we went to their door and the English teacher answered. After we introduced ourselves and told them what we had seen she told us, “Do not worry. They are men from our building and they are there to protect us from the looters.”
We live in a big apartment building, it has over 20 floors, and the other buildings by us are like ours, so there are a lot of men to protect us. This gave us some comfort. We returned to our apartment and after about 20 minutes someone knocked on our door. It was our neighbor. She handed us a pitcher and said “Orange juice. Do not worry, they will keep us safe.”
Such kindness in the midst of such anxiety and chaos, but also typical Egyptian hospitality.
That night, there was a lot of noise. Firecrackers, gunshots, whistles, men yelling, and on one occasion, women screaming from a nearby building. We learned we could recognize some gunfire from firecrackers by the rhythm. I remember one point Paul was on the phone with Michelle, updating them again on our situation when he abruptly broke off the conversation with, “Michelle, I hear a lot of gunfire really close to us. I will call you back.”
At one point we woke up in the night to very loud cries from the men downstairs, “Teleta Arabaya.” This means three cars. There was a whole message about these three cars, but our Arabic is not good enough to pick it out. The cries about the three cars began to our left. But the men were passing the message down, and the yelling moved down the block, below us, and then to our right. After a minute, someone from the local mosque, to the right of us, made an announcement over the loudspeaker to the whole community about the three cars.
At another time, we awoke to men yelling “Mustashfa!” This is the word for hospital. We crept out on our balcony, on our bellies because there was still gunfire, to see what was happening, because the hospital is just across the street from us. We saw lots of men had climbed up on the hospital wall, looking out into the complex. After some time and some yelling, they gave up what they were looking for and dropped back onto our street. Sure enough, when they dropped off the wall, we saw a man go running through the hospital field.
These groups protecting their homes became known as neighborhood watch groups. Throughout the city people had organized themselves. In many cases they organized themselves so that they protected in shifts, some sleeping at home while others were outside. When they were successful at catching looters, they were turned in to the army, who arrested them.
The last time we talked with Peter on the phone he told us we were going to leave. In the morning, he would pick us up in his car and we would go to the airport. So we packed our second bag and two carry on bags, unsure of what would happen or if we might return.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Protests Spread

The first thing I remember about Friday morning was surprise. We had no cell phone service and no internet. It was surprising just how cut off we felt from the rest of the world. We did have an antique (literally) phone that worked through the land line, which was not shut off. We could call people locally through that.

This was supposed to be Paul's parents' last day in Cairo. So in the morning we did what everyone does on their last day, we went souvenir shopping. There were not many people out on the streets, but they were by no means empty. And the shops were open. When we saw our first protesters they went marching along an overpass that crossed the street we were on. They were chanting loudly, but walking peacefully. It took about a minute for them to pass. Later, at lunch, Paul's father came to me after looking at the TV and said, “Wow, they really came out for this today.” He was referring to the news showing downtown filling with people.

Before long we were back at home, glued to the news. People had filled the downtown areas, especially Tahrir Square, the place where Paul and his parents had been just last week to see the museum. At some  point, I remember reports the police were using tear gas. Then I remember reports that the police were firing rubber bullets at protesters. We could go out on our balcony and could see smoke from downtown. Soon it was dark. Down the street from us we could hear a lot of commotion.  Then from somewhere close, we started to hear gunfire. And we could hear a big crowd of people. The TVs were showing videos of the protesters trying to push police trucks into the Nile. Reports were that the people had become very angry with the police. Then, down the street, we could see the crowd we had been hearing, illuminated by a fire. Our local police station, and the trees surrounding it began to burn. We could see throngs of people running around it, throwing things at the building. We had begun to regularly update our boss Peter, and we called him once again.

It is difficult to explain why the people would attack the police. There could be many reasons. Whatever the reason, Friday night, the people of our community expressed their anger as a powerful group. I remember as went to bed that night Paul said, “If I were a police man I just wouldn't show up to work tomorrow.” With this thought in our heads, listening to the protests continuing on our street, we tried to sleep.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Ramping Up...

How to define such a historic moment for Egypt? I don't imagine we can in any complete way, but here's a description of our experiences of the first few days of protests. We'll share more stories soon.

The first of the large protests was scheduled for a Tuesday which the government was calling “Police  Appreciate Day.” A few days before this we were actually (ironically) on vacation with my parents several hours to the south of Cairo. Our first hint that this could be big was from our tour guide who told us that he was getting countless facebook messages from his friends encouraging him to join a big anti-government protest for an event that the people were renaming“Police Brutality Day.”

We arrived back in Cairo from our vacation Tuesday morning. When we arrived at the train station our driver loaded us into his van, but then he said that we needed to wait a minute so that a police car could escort us back to our place. Our driver assured us that this was normal, but Stephanie and I new that it was not, because we had never heard of or seen such a practice before. But we arrived back in our apartment easily enough,. The protests on Tuesday were very large indeed.

For the next two days one could avoid the reality of the protests if one wanted to, as they were confined to the downtown area around Tahrir square. On Wednesday, which was the day Stephanie took my parents to see the pyramids just outside of Cairo, I (Paul) got word that protests in Tahrir square were getting heated, and so I decided I needed to give them a call to warn them to avoid driving through downtown on their return journey. I heard Stephanie pick up and began to speak my warning, but was interrupted with...  “Paul, your mom is getting on a camel!!! Woo Hoo!!!”

This was not what I wanted to talk about. But the surreal truth of that moment was that Cairo existed in two worlds. One that was the same as always, and one that existed downtown that called for drastic change. But they arrived home safe, and Thursday was similar in it's split reality to Wednesday.

On Friday, the protests came to us all...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Back in the United States

Due to unrest in Egypt we have been evacuated. We are now back in the United States. Thanks for your continued prayers and well wished for us, and for the Middle East. We will share stories and updates as time goes on.

Paul and Steph