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EGYPT: One American woman's diary under curfew

February 1, 2011 |  8:46 am

Mubarak 123

I am under curfew, banished from the streets after 4 pm.

There’s still no Internet, which evokes mild withdrawal symptoms. Cellphone service is back after a day, when dusted-off landlines proved their worth.

Mona, who lives in the apartment upstairs, shows me the walking stick she’ll use to fight the thugs when they arrive. Her mother, Nourdar, laughs and warns her it could be used to hurt her. We debate security measures: plug-in night light or chandeliers ablaze? Kitchen knife or cane? Fight or surrender? The three of us end up laughing hysterically.

Mona, a lifelong Cairene, says if she doesn’t laugh she will cry. Army tanks dot the perimeter around my home of four years which is in a pretty suburb called Maadi (Santa Monica without the beach, as one expat described it).

The older man in our building, who usually struggles to get up the stairs, is walking nighttime patrols in the neighborhood. The police have deserted their posts. Gangs of escaped prisoners roam our leafy streets. One group tried to invade a villa not once but nine times. Gunfire from the vigilantes pushed them off, nine times.

Rumors are circulating of Filipino domestic workers being raped by taxi drivers in the desert. Truth becomes a casualty and fear takes over. But I’m not taking any chances. I set up enticing decoys near my door: a busted-up 2000 Dell Inspiron laptop and a clunky old cellphone. And then I wedge the wrought iron kitchen table under the door knob.

Chaos reigns in this once complacent land, but only at night. A big Egyptian sun blanches most fears. I walk to the beauty salon (just in case being presentable will be useful in defending against hooligans). Egyptians live hand-to-mouth and can ill-afford a day without wages. I’m just doing my part with a $6 blowout.

I pass army tanks and shuttered police stations, busted up Coke machines and blasted out bus windows. The hairdresser, Mohammed, is sitting in the dark but jumps up when he sees a customer.

"Aiyawa, aiyawa, please come in," he says.

He and I both seem relieved to be able to do the shampoo, rinse and conditioner thing. When it’s time for the blowout, I burst out crying.

"La, La," he comforts.

Poor Egyptians. The people need this revolution but it will come at great cost. My Canadian friend Lynn is ordered to leave. Her chubby drooling cat is her main concern, but the thought of leaving her grown children’s early art work, the photographs and hundreds of sentimental objects has her sobbing. 

I walk over to see Ahmed, the young boy of 14 or 15 (he doesn’t know his birthday) who lives on the street near my house. He sells baskets by day and stretches out on a cardboard bed by night. I urge him to go to Fayoum where his family lives. But he needs about $43, he says. Last week the trip cost $10, tops. Revolutions bring inflation too.

Last time he returned from Fayoum, he brought me an entire holiday meal still hot in a 10-quart metal pot wrapped in his winter coat and roped tight within one of his jumbo baskets. He had hauled it back to Maadi on a minibus. We lit some candles and enjoyed roasted meat and about a hundred meshi, tiny cabbage leaves filled with delicious spicy rice.

CNN and BBC and Al Jazeera bring me news of the protests across Egypt. I can’t access the Los Angeles Times online. Being inside the storm is quiet: The International Herald Tribune stops coming. Banks close. ATMs dry up. The Metro market is cleared of meat and bread and, oddly, corn oil.

There is plenty of canned tuna though, which makes for a fine high- protein meal with some left over for all the bewildered stray cats.

Join the club.

-- Clare Fleishman in Cairo

Photo: A protester holds a picture of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Protesters have gathered for eight days in a row demanding Mubarak step down after 30 years in power. Credit: Getty Images

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