Saturday, February 5, 2011

More on leaving Cairo

Now that we are safe and can catch our breath in Dubai it is hard even to remember what it felt like in Cairo. It didn't feel scary, most of the time.

So where were we- last saturday after the first big Friday protests. When we woke up on Saturday one of he first things Dave said was that, just in case, where would I like to take the boys? He made it sound light- the nyt would pay for us to have a nice little vacation somewhere. There was no obvious choice though and we didn't make any decisions.

That turned out to be the theme of the day- expats fleeing. Dave left to cover events downtown and I went back to chloee's. It was a very different mood. Michael's company, coca-cola, was one of the first to decide to get their people out, and Michael and Chloee were being told they had to go to Istanbul the next day. Chloee's nine year old son Julien told me the news when we arrived. Then chloee came down and told me not to tell the boys (hers) because they didnt know anything yet. So i had to tell her that yes, in fact, they did. This was a very hard balancing act for all of us- how much to tell our kids, what to say in front of the children of others. And of course they soaked it all up on their own. Even emmett was jumpy as a cat and wouldnt nap that day.

Michael and chloee's house is really pretty. Chloee had a much better sense then I did of what this evacuation would mean, and she was calling the driver and the housekeeper to coordinate who would watch their things and guard the house after they left. Michael had a satellite phone and I borrowed it to call my dad and start exploring options for us to leave as well. But it was really different- coca cola was calling the shots for them and making all the arrangements, including chartering a plane. While Michael and Chloee coordinated all this, friends called in to report that carrefour, the big French supermarket in an upscale mall outside the neighborhood, had been targeted by mobs of looters the night before.

We left chloee's house after lunch and the streets seemed even more deserted than usual for a Saturday. Maadi is usually filled with expats, but the only people I saw walking home were Egyptian. It didn't really register at the time, but one thing that was different was that the usual phalanx of guards and police at all the embassies and crossings were not there, except a single guard at the Korean embassy across the street from our house.

We were supposed to go to a friend's for a bbq and I called another friend Eden to find out the address. Cell phones were now working again. Eden was already at the bbq, but she said not to come. There was now a 4pm curfew, and more rumors of looting and gangs of people wandering the ring road around the city pulling people from their cars and stealing the cars. Eden said their car, a wonderful big old chevy-style truck, had been stolen the night before.

I checked in with Isabella who had called that morning. She and all the other embassy families had been ordered to stay in their houses. She asked if I wanted to come there with the boys and maybe even stay the night. At that point it was close to 4 and, I guess remembering how badly behaved Thomas was at lunch the day before, I really didn't want to have to deal with corralling the boys in someone else's house. It also seemed like maybe not a great idea to walk over there and we didn't have the car. Michael called later to say that the army had moved in to protect the perimeter of the neighborhood and he'd seen tanks on road 9, the main little shopping road at the edge of Maadi. He asked if I wanted him to try to secure a seat on the coca cola plane for me and the boys to go to Istanbul the next morning. He thought he could do it but has to know then. I couldn't really imagine leaving that soon, and, since Michael and Chloee weren't even sure they would stay in Turkey, I wasn't sure what I would do with myself once there. So I thanked him and said no.

Writing all this it seems odd that I wasn't more panicked at the time. But the thing was, I had called Dave in the afternoon, and he had said that all was peace and love down in Tahrir square. The police had backed off and the situation seemed to be moving toward a positive, peaceful conclusion. Isabella, who had access to us embassy reports, had also told me that the army had announced that it's job was to protect the Egyptian people, which was being widely interpreted as a signal of support to the protests. There had been some concern that the military would come in and crush the protests and things would get really bloody. That seemed off the table. So the idea of tanks on road 9 was actually reassuring. The us embassy was not ordering it's people out and, like many, I was using them as a kind of barometer for the situation.

Just as I was putting the boys to bed another friend who lived near the Israeli embassy called to say that there were reports of attacks on the local police station and the embassy and also some looting of private villas. She said that neighborhood patrols were being organized and her husband, who is Egyptian, was participating. They had the numbers for the patrols and if I felt at all unsafe I should call her. "I don't want to worry you," she said, "I know it's a big story, but maybe Dave should come home and work from there tonight.".

Of course I was good and worried by then. On the one hand, lots of rumors of things turned out later to be not true or exaggerations, so I didn't want to panic the boys and ruin dave's story for nothing. On the other- well, i forget when we started to hear gun shots but certainly by then I could hear occasional gunfire. We live in a one story villa right near the center of Maadi. I've always felt very safe because there are two embassies right across the street and usually a half dozen armed guards at the corner. I looked out the window to try to see if the guards were there, but it was dark and hard to see. if there were looters targeting villas, ours could be vulnerable too.

I called Dave and asked if he could send Mohammed the driver home. Dave offered to come home and write from there. But I didn't like the idea of him or Mohammed being out on the main roads, and it wasn't really clear that his being home would make us much safer. Also there was some reason neither of them could leave right away. Even if they could the drive home would take at least an hour with all the road closings and check points etc. I called Isabella to see if Ben, her husband, could come pick us up and take us over there as she lives in a tenth floor apartment. But their cars had been ordered into some secure garage and locked in for the night. I for sure did not want to pack up the little boys and walk them over the ten blocks or so in the dark if there were mobs and looters around.

This was the toughest moment for me. Through all these phone calls I'd managed to get Emmett to bed but he was still awake and calling for me. Thomas had been playing quietly by himself in the playroom but now had a project he wanted to show me. I was trying to peek out the windows to see if any guards were around, monitor the news, get the lights off and close the wooden shutters all around the house without panicking the boys. While looking at thomas' project I started to hear voices and see men moving around outside. I heard the sound of something large and metal being moved across the road just outside the house.

I pulled Thomas out of the playroom, which is at the front of the house, and turned off the lights. He kept asking why, and I just said I wasn't sure it was a good room to play in right then. He had all these pieces and props to this giant Lego thing he was building that he wanted and he kept coming back in to get them and also to be near me. Poor guy- I really scream/hissed at him to get out of that room NOW.

I stood at the window and with the lights off I could see much better what was going on. There was a group of twenty or so men with sticks and guns. They had pulled the metal barricades from the guards' station across the road to stop any cars from going by. They were talking calmly to each other and did not seem especially excited or like they were going to break into chants of "Death to America!" anytime soon. I decided they were the guards dressed in plain clothes who had come back to secure the embassies.

Once I made the decision to think they were guards, everything got much easier and clearer. We could stay the night in the house. Not only should Dave not come home then in the middle of writing his story, but he should not come at all. Traveling the main roads outside Maadi would be too dangerous. It sounded as if downtown was safe, and our corner right here was safe, so we should each stay tucked in our little safe pockets. I called Dave and told him he should stay put, and that we would be fine. He sounded relieved, and agreed that was the best plan. He said he would send Mohammed when he could.

It may sound as if I was being cavalier about mohammed's safety as opposed to dave's, and that's some true. But it's also true that Mohammed is Egyptian, speaks fluent Arabic, and is very agile at dealing with all the crazy restrictions and nuances of making one's way around Cairo. I thought he had a good chance of staying safe dealing with whomever he met on the roads, but that Dave maybe would not. I guess I also thought that at some point it was someone's job to make sure we were safe, and since Dave had to write a story, Mohammed was the right choice.

I then finished getting Thomas to bed and watched the news until Mohammed arrived. Dave had told him to take a good look around Maadi and see if it was really safe or seemed dangerous. I couldnt really follow everything Mohammed said when he came, but he said it was very safe. He had had to go through many checkpoints on the roads, and he also talked about barricades and check points all through Maadi. I had no idea what he was talking about since I still thought the people on my corner were the usual embassy guards. Later I would learn about how the police had abandoned their posts and about the amazing civilian patrols that had sprung up all over the city, but just then I gave Mohammed a hug and went to bed.

That's all for now.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad.


Laura said...

The tick tock, as it were, is fascinating.

Hopefully, this will end quickly and you all will be back together soon - Insha'allah.

Lots and lots of love to you and the li'l guys! I hope we get a chance to talk soon.


Sam said...

Laura, thank G_d you are all safe. Keeping you, the boys, and David in my prayers and thoughts.


Anonymous said...

Dear Laura, It was just as terrible for you as I was imagining! but it sounds as if you navigated your way through the lack of news, actual news and rumors beautifully. What a superwoman you are! I am holding my breath for the next installment. Grandma Nancy

TJB said...

The word spread quickly that you had posted a new accounting of your last few days in Cairo. This is superb Laura !

EL said...

I felt shivery reading all of that. So glad you are all safe. xoxo

Kath said...

If i'd known all this was happening at the time I would have felt just like Emmett, skittish as a cat.
lot of love, Mom

arthur and maggie said...

jumpy as a cat!