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.


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Friday, February 4, 2011

Aside

I will continue the "tick tock," as Dave would say, of our last few days in cairo, but thought this was cute and if I don't write it down I'll forget. This is still a baby blog after all:

We were talking with uncle Arthur tonight via skype, and he was saying that if I'd written a blog about being a mom in Egypt for babble.com, the "urban parent" site, so many people would be reading it now. And I said I was just as glad because i didn't want to have to worry about what a bunch of snarky hipsters thought. Immediately Thomas, behind me, stopped his chariot pretend game and asked, "what's a Snarky Hipster?"

I deferred to uncle Arthur who defined it as "someone who likes to laugh at everything and wears tight pants.". Which is as good of a definition as you're likely to find.

Thomas ran under a table, now concerned that Snarky Hipsters were lurking under the beds.

good times here in Dubai.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Leaving cairo

Emmett is napping, and Thomas is at our new hotel's kid's club for the time being, so I am going to take a stab at recording some of our experience of the last few days.

Starting from my last post, just to note: clearly, I underestimated the Egyptians. As we all now know, they did not need the Internet or social media or whatever to continue the protests. I've now seen some CNN and fox news analysis giving a lot of credit to twitter and facebook. Yes, these tools were instrumental in making things happen, and it's awesome how they work, ok. But to lionize that seems to me to slight what I did see those days the Internet was down: the incredible bravery and dedication of ordinary people.

The civilian patrols the days after the looting were enough to make you cry- sweet, sweet guys- dads and teenagers holding golf clubs and using branches and sand to form barricades to keep their neighborhoods safe. More on this to come-

I don't know how the Egyptians were so brave. Every day the rumors were bad- that the police and army would shoot people who came out, that not enough people would come and those who did would be thrown in jail and disappeared. And yet every day the crowds came out again, and larger. I have no idea what made people so brave- I do not know enough Egyptians. It could have been desperation but I don't think so. Say what you want about Egyptian gender roles, and Islamic traditions, and there is a lot to say, but I do think family and civic ties are stronger in Egypt and that the large and determined protests reflect that. And i would guess that the traditional religious observance makes up some of the difference.

More specifically, I think and from what Dave saw, what allowed the protests to go forward logistically were the mosques. This is a country where everyone who can attends prayer together daily. Friday, the day the internet went down, is the sabbath in egypt and everyone attends prayers. So it was maybe not that tough to coordinate everyone marching from different points to try to reach Tahrir square, because you were starting with large groups to begin with. These were not religious protests. At all. But Egypt is a religious society, and that social fabric helped. Sure, and so did twitter, but just sayin'.

Ok, but you can read dave's articles to hear about the protests. What about us? This has been so surreal because while Dave was out in the thick of things, and being so brave, we were pretty much just living life as usual.

The night before the big Friday protests Dave had just come home from tunisia. He was working late into the night on deadline about a story there. We were wondering whether the Internet would really go down the next day as the rumors were saying. Dave thought certainly not, Mubarak would not want to signal to the international business community that Egypt was so chaotic. Sure enough, the next morning neither of us could get online. Then we realized the cell phones were down too.

Dave had to leave with our driver and car to cover the protests. I couldnt really face being alone with the two boys and totally cut off from everything else, so I packed them in the stroller and walked to my friend chloee's house. Her kids are older and everyone was just getting up. We had a nice morning playing in their sandbox and with their impressive collection of trucks. Chloee and her husband are great foodies, and they fed us kiwi and bread and chocolate. At this point we were all still debating whether anyone would show up at the protests or whether people would be too scared. Everyone had asked their Egyptian drivers what they thought, and the consensus seemed to be that only crazy people would risk turning out.

At noon, Chloee and her boys set off for the playground but it was close to emmett's nap time so I started for home. On the way we met up with thomas' friend giacomo and his family. They had been driving over to our house to coordinate plans to go to Maadi House for kids movie night since phones were down. They stayed for lunch, which was nice, except Thomas and Emmett were tired and cranky and behaved terribly. Someone called on the home phone, which was working, to warn that protests were planned in Maadi that day after noon prayers. Isabella, giacomo's mom, got nervous and decided to leave - though we could pretty much hear from the house that nobody was protesting on the main square outside.

All of us were wondering and speculating how Dave and the other reporters could file anything with no phone or Internet. Isabella thought maybe they would try to hire protesters to act as runners ferrying news from the reporters back to the bureau. I called the office to check in and see if maybe I should be trying to round up helpful teenagers or something if they did in fact need runners. Dawlat, the office manager, said they did have a satellite Internet connection at the office. All the reporters (extra staff had flown in) were calling in from land lines in people's houses or the big hotels and dawlat was typing up the reports and filing them. She hadn't heard from Dave yet, but I decided to take that as a positive sign.

Later we met up with giacomo and family again at Maadi house. Lots of friends were there. Everyone was ordering beers and joking about the revolution. People who didn't have tv at home kept leaving the table to check al jazeera which was finally covering the protests. They had been massive- much bigger than at least we expats had anticipated. The nice Egyptian waiters were setting up the lawn for the movie and Thomas and giacomo were playing on the climbing frames. At about 5:30 the tv announced a curfew had been set for 6 o'clock. The nice waiters gently told us to get out, Thomas was furious and giacomo started crying when they heard there wouldnt be a movie. Mostly I think they were scared. Everyone was so nice to me- rushing to make sure I had a ride, and help, because I was the only one there with two small kids and no spouse. We got home to a messy house (no help on weekends)- I made a terrible dinner and let them watch a movie on the computer while I snuck peeks at the news.

It took forever to get the boys to bed. Chloee broke curfew to drive by and make sure we were ok since we hadn't been answering the phone and I hadn't told her about our Maadi house plans. Dave called and said he was ok and had had quite a day. Since the US is 7 hours behind Egypt he still had several hours of writing to do before deadline in new York. Emmett wanted extra snuggling and I lay down next to him and fell asleep.

I woke up to banging in the kitchen at about 4 am. There was Dave standing at the sink trying to finish off the dinner dishes I had left lying around. Before he'd left that morning he had said, as he usually does when he feels bad about working late, "leave the dishes for me.". I had pooh poohed him but when he got home and saw the kitchen he thought I really had gone to bed and left all the dishes for him to do. (Which ok I had actually done but not on purpose.) So, after a full day of covering protests and getting tear gassed and harassed by police, he rolled up his sleeves and started washing the pots. We had a good giggle about this. He ate some of our leftover dinner while I finished up and heard about his adventures.

Among other things he told me the back of the car window had been smashed by tear gas cannisters and the car smelled terrible. Two police men had ripped up his notebook, but he had not been arrested, which was a relief. earlier in the week dozens of journalists covering the protests had been arrested so it was a real concern. Mostly though he had watched unarmed protesters battle police over a single bridge to Tahrir square. The protesters had been beaten, tear gassed, and sprayed with water cannons but they refused to give up the bridge. He said he watched for hours. Finally the protesters pushed the police back off the bridge and continued to Tahrir square.

I guess I'll leave it here. It's now night time and the boys are sleeping. After a few hectic days we have had quite a soft landing into a beautiful hotel by the beach in Dubai. I hope this is interesting. It does feel as if I should write it all down, though maybe a baby blog is an unusual forum.

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Location:Dubai