The man was about 20 years old and he was violently banging a heavy, two-foot-long machete on the roof of our taxi… just above Don’s head! The man was yelling something that I didn’t understand. I thought this is it! We are going to die!
How did it come to this?
It was early 2011 and we had been in Ghana for about three weeks, seeing the sights and meeting our in-laws in Zabzugu, in the north. During our final night in Accra, the hostel manager overheard us talking about heading next for Cairo. He told us that according to news reports, incredible violence had erupted in Egypt.
The next morning we left our luggage at the hostel and headed to the airport to change our travel plans. Egypt Air personnel told us that all was fine and to go get our luggage, they would be flying out in two hours. We dashed back to our hostel, grabbed our bags, but still ended up waiting five hours for take off.
Getting off the plane in Cairo, we noticed no other passengers were disembarking. That was strange to us but perhaps not remarkable, we knew the flight was continuing on to the Middle East.
What was remarkable, and utterly surprising, was that once we passed through immigration, we faced an airport full of people. Some sitting in chairs, many camped on the floor, luggage and stuff everywhere. Wall-to-wall.
Don called our hotel to see if the driver was here somewhere in the crowded airport and we were told the driver was on his way.
The driver soon arrived and spotted us. A young woman asked if it was okay to join us as she needed a ride to her hotel. As it turned out she was a journalist from Lebanon and she filled us in on what had been happening in Cairo over the previous 48 hours. On this late-night ride into the city, we were stopped every few hundred metres by either the army or rows of armed civilians at roadblocks, the police had gone into hiding. We noticed that sometimes we were waved through — the journalist explained that when they saw women in the car, they signaled to the driver not to stop.
Our journalist friend was excited for us… we were here at the best time to see the revolution! The Arab Spring had reached Egypt and the people would be happy to have us here as witnesses. She helped me feel brave, not scared.
As we neared our hotel, even in the dark we could see the fire still smouldering in the National Party headquarters building, scattered burnt and blackened police vehicles along the side of the road, and a water-soaked and virtually deserted Tahrir Square. I was quite in awe, as I had never seen anything like this. By the way, the drive that should have taken 20 minutes, took us 90.
When we checked into our hotel, on the seventh floor of an old office building, the other guests couldn’t believe people were arriving just as they were desperately trying to find a way out of the country.
In search of the Canadian embassy
The next morning was sunny, warmish and calm. The government had cut off the Internet and cel services, and we could not look-up or contact the Canadian embassy, so we decided to head for an area where a city map showed a concentration of embassies, in hopes of finding a Canadian flag. We walked through Tahrir Square — there were tanks and soldiers everywhere just watching as people started to gather. An English-speaking soldier kindly gave us directions to the Canadian embassy. At the embassy they advised us not to leave the city (we had planned a side-trip to Luxor) because the trains might not keep running. Sure enough, the trains in Egypt soon came to a grinding halt.
We walked over to see the Nile River, it was the only thing to do. There were no other tourists about; every restaurant, bar, shop, and tourist attraction was closed. The streets were quiet, eerily so. Along the river all the tourist boats were tied up and looking abandoned.
A taxi pulled over and the English-speaking driver stopped to chat with us. His name was Hesham and for three days he did his best to get us to into now-closed attractions, inside the city and beyond. He took us to the Coptic Church in the side of a mountain. It was really cool… and we were the only people there. He took us to the famous necropolis, resting place for 500,000 dead and home to thousands of people living in abandoned tombs. He drove us to ancient pyramids outside Cairo because the ones at Giza were closed (by the way, our blog title photo is as close as we got to them).
Hesham was really kind and we met his wife and had lunch with them in their apartment. Hesham even found us the only cash-giving atm in our part of Cairo. The banks were closed, shops were barricaded, and the streets were empty.
After our second day with Hesham, we went back to Tahrir Square. It was full of students with placards. A few of them came over to find out why we were there. They were all quite nice. They thought we might be journalists…we said no… just tourists. A secret service man came over to us and told me it wasn’t safe for us to be there. I asked him who should I be afraid of? Him?
The next day, February 1, 2011, we joined the march of a million. When we arrived at Tahrir Square, we were patted down to make sure we had no weapons. Female students patted me down, and male students patted Don. They appeared to be really well organized, and they were giving out water, dates, etc. There were also collecting and taking bags of garbage out of the square. I was quite impressed with this.
It was getting really crowded and a man on the wall above me told me not to worry, they would take care of me. I wasn’t afraid, but was concerned Don and I would get separated. We decided that should we get separated we would meet under the clock tower across the way.
We joined a line of people snaking through the huge crowd. Don was in front of me and there was a man behind me. I couldn’t see him, but definitely felt his penis being pushed into my lower back. I told Don I would jump in front of him as soon as possible because the guy was not stopping what he was doing. I found my opportunity and got in front of Don. Needless to say, the guy did not push his penis into Don’s back. Other than that incident it seemed to be a very peaceful protest. I am glad we went and witnessed it.
Mobs attack peaceful protesters
The next day after spending much of it with Hesham, he had to drop us off on the bridge as there were mobs of people taking over the end near Tahrir Square. The feeling on the bridge was polar opposite of the jubilation of the march the day before. These people were Mubarak’s and they were pissed off. The government had turned the cel phone networks back on, Mubarak rallied his supporters and there were busloads of Mubarak’s people coming over the bridge to taunt the protesters in the square.
As we were walking across the bridge, through the gathering mob, Don stopped to take a picture of graffiti that declared “Mubarak equals sadness”. Angry people surrounded him and started yelling and trying to grab his camera. I said nothing but grabbed Don’s arm and we walked away as fast as we could… people still yelling at us. A soldier obviously witnessed this and had a look in Don’s backpack before allowing us on our way.
When we were off the bridge and a few minutes from home, we saw a group of several dozen men wielding machetes, clubs, and sticks, running past us towards the square. They looked as angry as the people on the bridge.
Safely inside our hotel we watched BBC and Al Jazeera to see what was happening. We heard gunshots from the square in real time and then we heard the same pattern of shots on TV six seconds later. Many protesters were killed or badly wounded that night. The military had stepped aside while Mubarak’s thugs did their damage.
Time to get out of Cairo
This was not good, and in the morning we thought we better organize to leave Cairo as soon as possible, but the cel service was not reliable. The last of the other guests left before breakfast. We headed back to the Canadian embassy.
The atmosphere outside was very different. Protesters were regrouping behind makeshift barriers, and the army was still in the area, but the roadblocks we encountered around every corner were civilian and aggressive. One group told us to go around the block, and that’s where a very tall young man with a metal rod was standing guard and wouldn’t let us pass. He wanted to take us to his leader and of course we said no. He was very threatening and when we said “you wouldn’t hit a woman”, he started yelling and many other young men started running towards us.
Fortunately, Don had spotted a military jeep crossing a street about a block behind us, and this time he grabbed my arm, pulled me, and started yelling to attract the attention of the soldiers. Thankfully, it worked!
One of them spoke English and he called his supervisor to describe our situation. We were taken into the security zone around the Interior Ministry. The supervisor took our passports and started questioning us. Fortunately this was on the street and not in an interrogation room.
Another one of those dark-clothed secret service men came over to where we were being questioned. He said that he had seen us on Saturday coming out of the American University in a limo. I laughed at him and said we were Canadian, not American… sometimes saying weird things works…
Anyway, the supervisor gave us back our passports and even granted my request to have someone walk with us so we could pass through the military checkpoints on the way to the embassy.
When we did arrive at the Canadian Embassy, it was full of people. We took our number and I sat down next to an Egyptian man who told me his children were half Canadian. He was trying to get them out of Egypt. He was extremely upset. He told me that he had been with the protesters for about five days, but when Mubarak said he would step down, the man went home. His best friend had been one of the people killed the night before in Tahrir Square. He thought if he had stayed and fought maybe his friend would not have been killed. His grief was palpable. I listened, but didn’t say too much. I didn’t really know what to say.
While I was talking with the man, Don had been on the phone trying to reach KLM and lo and behold he got through… everything must work better in embassies! They booked us on a flight the next day (a day earlier than our planned departure).
With great relief, we left the embassy and decided to take one last look at the Nile. We sat for a while and then thought it best to take a taxi home to avoid repeating our scary morning experience.
We walked to a nearby high-end hotel and discussed the fee with a few taxi drivers parked out front. We agreed to an amount and got in the taxi. We told the driver to go to the ancient market closest to our place so we could hopefully buy a souvenir.
All was good… we were driving on the highway… then suddenly our driver took a turn onto a rough side road. We were immediately stopped and quickly surrounded by a large group of angry men and boys. The driver was dragged out of his seat and he disappeared into the crowd. A man about 20 years old was violently slamming a large machete on the roof of the taxi… right above Don’s head. I thought this is it! We are going to die!
There was a small boy about the age of seven on my side of the vehicle, looking in my window. I showed him my passport (keeping it very close to my body), pointed to the “Canada” on it and mouthed to him that we are tourists. Don did the same thing from his side of the vehicle.
I have no idea how long we were there… it seemed ages… then just as suddenly, our driver was pushed back in the taxi and we drove off. Though I was extremely thankful we were alive, I was really pissed off at him and yelled “Why did you do that? We were fine on the highway. What is wrong with you?” I was still stressed when we got to the market… found the back door locked and demanded he let me out. He did, probably not wanting this very stressed woman yelling at him more, but he wanted more money from Don… needless to say, we did not pay him extra…
One more encounter with thugs
After we bought a small souvenir, we headed home, only needing to walk about a kilometre to our hotel and thought that would be easy. Not… we were stopped once more by angry young men. This time though, Don yelled at them and made quite a scene… a few older men came running to help us… they had probably seen us walking in the neighbourhood and didn’t think we were a threat.
It seemed to us the older people had much more sense and understanding than the angry, young men.
The next day we got a ride with Hesham to the airport… a quick 20-minute ride this time. We think good thoughts for Hesham, with the politics and the tourism industry suffering it would be hard for him and his family. We hope he is well.
I did not relax on the plane until the wheels had left the ground. As it turned out, our flight was the last to leave Cairo before a 24-hour curfew was imposed. We were very lucky indeed!