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EGYPT: American expat in Cairo watches revolution

February 4, 2011 |  2:26 pm

Egyptexpat Just one Friday ago, immediately after the afternoon call to prayer, a few thousand protestors were repelled from a mosque in Giza by rubber bullets, water hoses and clouds of tear gas.  A stone’s throw away were young mothers with babies, sweepers gathering the trash and men hawking sweet potatoes and plump tomatoes.  I saw two young men walking  arm in arm when one stopped to choose a big onion — for later, I was told, when the eyes and throat burn from tear gas.  It was a lovely Cairene street scene filled with vivid colors and more than a little irony so I whipped out my tiny Coolpix.

I filmed as a distraught man came up close to the screen and ranted about his government.  An undercover policeman built like a bookcase thwacked the man hard against the head and then turned and demanded I erase it. I did.  So much for free speech. He was actually bigger than a bookcase. Nearby a canister of white smoke unfurled its sting. A small boy ran to douse it with water. The tear gas burned and my heart raced.

The revolution had begun.

President Hosni Mubarak responded but the people were still unhappy. Obama spoke and the people said “stay out of it.”  Buildings burned. Prisoners were set free.   The entire police force disappeared. Horses galloped through Tahrir Square. Camels, too.  People died.

The nasty turn in the square Wednesday shocked a nation of kind and sensitive people; they felt helpless against the tyranny of a few, even if they began the week with support for change. Inshallah (God willing) is no longer an easy suffix.

My own Maadi neighborhood is under siege, with armed phalanxes, makeshift barricades and campfires burning through the night. Four army tanks guard the main entrance. On Road 9, most shops are shuttered save the fruit vendors and the occasional hardware store. One man has made a sign that says “Yes to Mubarak” in English and Arabic. A few feet away, the man selling light bulbs says “Mubarak very bad.”

But the grocery stores have lots of food, even meat and bread. The trucks and donkey carts are getting through but there are fewer customers, and those remaining are running low on cash as the banks stay closed.   The man weighing the fruit still smiles as does the young man who waters the garden. It comes so naturally to most Egyptians. I think these two momentarily forgot their country is in convulsions. Most foreigners are gone and the rest are under virtual house arrest with curfew from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.  

Thursday at 5:30 AM, my father-in-law called to say that the State Department had just ordered all Americans in Egypt to go to the airport immediately. I pictured climbing a rope ladder into an Army helicopter, like in the fall of Saigon. But the first advisory quickly gave way to amendments: go after curfew ends at 8:00, and “if you want to.”  Even so, a spokesperson added that it could get “very nasty.”

My heart raced again and I began the singular task of deciding what to take with me. What if I never came back? Which possessions would make the cut: My son’s tiny bomber jacket he wore when he was a year old? My daughter’s satin dress she wore as prom queen?  My high school yearbook?  I spent the rest of that long day picking out the best 500 or so photos from the many thousands I had stuffed in cartons.

While the Egyptians were overthrowing their government I was in the emotional throes of choosing memories. While their future lives were on the line, my past was in danger.  Still, something in me wanted to stay, to see this through, and, maybe, witness the birth of a new democracy.

 So like an expectant mother, I packed my bags and waited.  

— Clare Fleishman in Cairo

Photo: Egyptian protester. Credit: Reuters

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