Sunday, February 13, 2011

Back in Cairo

Today was our first day back. It is so nice to be home with familiar things. The housekeeper came at 8. The boys went off to school. I had time to think for the first time in weeks.

We saw some tanks on the drive from the airport, but mostly unmanned. On one, a man was holding his young daughter up with an Egyptian flag to take a picture. Everyone greeted us with big smiles this morning. It is funny- the people I spoke to first, the Times travel agent from Dubai, and Mohammed the driver at the airport, were nervous. They are older and have done relatively well under Mubarak. They told me they thought this sudden change was foolish. But the younger men on the street- they are proud. You can see it everywhere. Everyone is smiling so big. I think we are some of the first expats back. People are nodding at us and saying good morning, and welcome, which never happened before. It's as if it's a new country now, one that they own, and they are letting in the first visitors.

Thomas and I counted 5 Egyptian flags on our walk home from school. I didnt even know what it looked like before. I tried taking Thomas and Emmett to the local mall, where tanks had been stationed to deter looters, for a photo op, but the tanks were leaving as we arrived. I've also heard that some soldiers take offense to westerners trying to pose with the tanks. Fair enough.

So, it feels a little stale, but ill try to remember back to that last day before we left. You'll recall, faithful readers, that we'd spent a worrying night with fears of looters and sounds of gunfire. The first thing I did the next morning was call my friend Diana who has two boys the same age as thomas and emmett. She had told me the afternoon before that her husband's company was evacuating them to Dubai. The minute she said it I had thought, "hmm . . .". It was warm- I wouldn't be trapped inside with the two boys the way I would if we went north to Europe. It was a short flight. And the boys would have friends to play with. She had wanted to know our plans and I'd said I didn't know- we might leave for a few days but I didn't know where. She had joked that I should come to Dubai, and I'd thought that maybe I should.

It was clear from the night before that our being around was going to be a big distraction for Dave. I still didn't feel in much danger. But things could change at any moment. Also, probably more importantly, schools were closed, and it was another 4pm curfew. Both the cleaner and the housekeeper/babysitter were too scared to come to work that day. It still wasnt safe to move around the city. If I stayed I was looking at house arrest alone with two small boys.

So I called our friend and said I thought we'd try to go to Dubai too. I asked where they were staying. Her husband was actually in charge of arranging the evacuation for his company, and she asked if I wanted him to try to put us on their plane. I said yes, please, remembering that Michael and Chloee had gotten a similar permission from coca cola and not really thinking it would be that big of a deal.

The same friend who'd told me the night before about the looting of private villas called to check on us. She is one of my favorite people here- a fiesty, artistic Brit- and, I was learning, somewhat susceptible to rumors. She reported that the entire us embassy staff had been evacuated in the middle of the night. Having spoken to Isabella late the night before I was pretty sure this was not true. I called to check, and found Isabella and family at home- still ordered not to leave their home, but having a nice time hanging out with the other embassy families in their apartment building. She invited us over to play.

At their house too, everyone was talking about whether to leave, and what was going on. Isabella said that if they were evacuated they wouldn't be able to come back for at least 30 days. Thomas played some kind of electronic follow the leader game with giacomo and another boy. It involved running to different colored sensors. Except Thomas was having his usual trouble absorbing verbal instructions when he's nervous. So he kept picking up the sensors and hiding them or taking so long the machine turned off, to giacomo and the other boy's extreme annoyance.

Isabella's apartment has a balcony that offers an amazing view of the city perimeter and three different pyramids. We stood on the balcony and tried to figure out where the sporadic gunfire was coming from. We couldn't see anything- no angry mobs, no clashing between guards and looters. But we could definitely hear gunfire.

Here's a video when we were on the balcony. You can hear gunfire at the very beginning but then it stopped.


YouTube Video


Dave had gone to check out some of the local carrefour supermarkets. He was curious, as I was, about whether the looting stories were true or wildly exaggerated. I think we both suspected the latter. Later that morning he called to say he thought we should try to go to Dubai and he was asking the office manager to get tickets for us the next day. He didn't say it then, but I could tell that something he'd seen at carrefour had disturbed him. A lot.

I left Thomas at isabella's and came home to pack and put Emmett down for his nap. Dave had told Mohammed to stay with us that morning, so he drove us home and went and got more milk and baby wipes for us. The stores were open, but he said the grocers were charging double the usual prices.

Emmett napped and napped until I woke him up at quarter to four to go get Thomas before curfew. Mohammed had gone to the airport to try to get tickets to Dubai for us, since all the ticket offices in town were closed. I took Emmett in the bugaboo stroller with the surfboard on the back for Thomas. As we walked, the civilian patrols were already setting up barricades at the end of each street. One street had branches and buckets of sand. Another just a few big potted plants. Here's a few hasty shots of the streets on the way over:





If you blow the one below up really big on your screen you can just see the barricades and the guards beyond.




Of course, I took a long time gathering Thomas and saying goodbye to Ben and Isabella, so when we left it was about 4:20- or 20 minutes past curfew.
The second we left the building - me pushing a big goofy blue stroller with an enormous two year old and a big five year old standing on the back- a man stopped us. He raised his shirt to show us his gun and told us it was too late to go out. I thanked him and said actually I was trying to get the boys home. He nodded and said ok and waved us forward and signaled to the guys at the end of the block to let us pass.

It went on this way at every checkpoint- and the checkpoints had multiplied in the half an hour I'd been inside at isabella's. At the end of the block a huge steel water pipe had been laid across the road. It was being guarded by a bunch of sweet young guys holding sticks and bats and one with a golf club. Two of them came out and helped me lift Emmett up and over the barrier. "we are doing this for you," they said. "to keep you safe."

At the next block a bunch of young guys were checking id's and searching cars at a railroad crossing. They lifted up the gates and nodded us through. At the place with the branches and sand, the original fence had been fortified with double the amount of branches and the sand had been piled higher. We could no longer get through. Three nice young guys came over and dismantled a bit of the fence so that I could lift Thomas, Emmett and stroller up and over. They joked that it had been too easy for me and Emmett to get through on the way over so they had decided to build up their defenses. I smiled and said thank you over and over again.

I was so blown away by these guards and the seriousness and sweetness with which they undertook their posts. They were all Egyptians. I have no idea how they were able to organize a citywide block patrol effort so quickly. Dave says there is something called "the Shabab" in Arabic, and it means, roughly, the young men; a kind of tribalistic concept of a youth guard with certain privileges and responsibilities. Once the police had abandoned the city, families had fallen back on this reserve system- the shabab- to guard their neighborhoods. It was achingly sweet and also awe-inspiring to watch in action. I didn't get to see the masses of protesters in Tahrir, but I felt as if I saw some if their spirit in the neighborhood guards.

That night I felt absolutely safe sleeping with the boys alone in the house.

The next day our friends came early to pick us up for the charter flight to Dubai. It was monday. After waiting for hours in a line at the airport, the soonest Mohammed could get a ticket was for Thursday. (and actually egyptair ended up canceling all it's flights for a few days because none of their staff was coming to work.). Diana's husband meanwhile was able to put us on their company's charter the next morning. But with a catch- I had to pretend to be diana's friend from home who was just visiting when the crisis hit.

We spent most of that day in a big hospitality suite at one of the hotels near the airport. It was evidently total chaos at the airport so we were not going to go until the plane was all set. We were supposed to leave around 1, but I think we didn't take off until 11 pm or so. Diana's husband was really stressed out because this was his show and everyone was grumbling and complaining. A lot of expats, especially the ones who work for oil or oil-services companies, are used to the company being able to buffer them from all of the inconveniences of life in Egypt. We all get a little spoiled. So many of the other families were annoyed at being suddenly thrown in with the chaos. Diana was trying to help her husband and make the other families comfortable. So I ended up spending a fair amount of time looking after all 4 boys.

This wasn't so bad- they were all kind of entertaining each other. But I was kind of a spectacle- this one woman seemingly traveling alone with four unruly kids. A couple of the other mothers came over to try to offer some help. It felt truly ludicrous when they would ask who I was, and I had to say that I didn't even live in Cairo and just happened to be visiting. Because what kind of nut job would take her four sons alone on a holiday in the Middle East, let alone to a place already convulsed with epic protests?

I managed to take some photos in the hospitality suite because we did have quite a bit of time on our hands.











And here's some video Thomas and his friend Juan shot of each other:


YouTube Video

Once we got to Dubai, the company had cancelled the original hotel booking. It was so late/early that everyone was just being rerouted onto connecting flights to their home countries leaving that morning. Diana and her family had been booked into a hotel apartment, but there had been some kind of kerfluffle about who got to stay in Dubai versus who had to fly home, so I couldn't stay at the same place anymore. The upshot being that Thomas, Emmett and I climbed in a taxi at about 7 am after being up all night and drove from hotel to hotel looking for a room. There was some kind of shopping festival going on and the city was fully booked.

We ended up that first night in the ibis, a business hotel. Although they were very nice and tried to be understanding, it was a nightmare managing these young, wiggly, anxious boys in its ultra-sophisticated techno-modern spaces. After Emmett nearly squished himself in the automatic revolving door I got on the phone with the nyt Cairo bureau chief and threw a good old-fashioned hissy fit. That afternoon we checked into the nicest hotel I will ever stay in- the jumeirah beach- which looks like a spinnaker sail and has a kids club, beach and multiple pools.







So the next few days, while Dave was chased around Tahrir by machete-wielding thugs, we three relaxed in proper style. Heroes of the revolution, each of us.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

9 comments:

Kath said...

Amazing Laura. So glad you wrote this all down. It's such a mystery and so fascinating to anyone who wasn't there. I've got to sleep on all of this. big hug.

William Bradford said...

Much of this reminds me of life on the Mayflower, though not the beach hotel, the Festival of St. Shopping or the "bunch of sweet young guys holding sticks and bats and one with a golf club".

Glad to see my descendants safely home after another family refugee experience.

Warmest personal regards,

WB

Occhio said...

I trust that the events leading up to the "hissy fit" reveal the frivolity of any further whingeing about fried clam dinners in airports.

Clara said...

You have every right to throw a hissy fit- in fact, multiple ones. You are amazing, Laura. I hope these next few school days you sit back, put your feet up and breathe. Love you. Clara

Mom said...

Yeah the hissy fit telephone call to the Times Cairo Bureau Chief resulting in a reservation at Dubai's best hotel - well, POWER TO THE PEOPLE !

arthur and maggie said...

Nice to see some pictures too! Loyal readers, each one of us!

Neeta Ogden said...

laura, this was awesome, such a different and wonderfully personal narrative on everything going on in E. i can just imagine you navigating that bugaboo;) we miss you!! xxoo

Laura said...

The description of the Shabab is amazing. I sleep better knowing you guys have them there! (And yeah, it's nice to know the old Gray Lady has some power in the UAE!)

Jennifer said...

Hi Laura:
Nancy told us about your blog. Wonderful to see the human-ness of the transition in Egypt. Plan to share with those who only believe news can be bad. You all take care.
Jenny Moore