Notes from a revolution

Sunset while standing on 6th of October Bridge, I watched disco-lit pleasure boats cruise upon the darkening Nile while tinny Arabic pop music rose up from the river. I strolled down Talaat Harb Street.  The smell of freshly fried taamiya and charcoaled meat floated over Orabi Square. I sat down at a table and watched the men on the corner lay out their mats to pray.

“Welcome to Egypt,” the waiter said as I sipped iced hibiscus juice and the Muezzin began the call to prayer.

“Welcome to Egypt.” A man with a battered suitcase of fake Rolexes said as he approached my table to try to make a sale.

“Welcome to Egypt.” A couple of kids running past me yelled. “Welcome to Egypt. Welcome to Egypt.”

As I walked home a thousand shisha pipes scented the air with apple-perfume. Five more passersby welcomed me to Egypt. I rolled my eyes and sighed.

I woke up. Dazed, I sat up in my hammock and stared out at the sea. Tiny rippling waves lapped on the shore. I walked over to my friend’s hut to watch his TV. We sat silently as the powder-pink puff of the Egyptian Museum came into view. Pitched battles of sticks and stones and camels from the Pyramids charged across the nightmare screen. The reporter was standing on 6th of October Bridge. A friend in Cairo rang us crying. I mooched across the beach, shoulders slouched. One of the staff was raking the sand, erasing the remaining footprints of the last tourists to leave.

Marooned upon a stretch of white sand at my friend’s remote beach camp on the Red Sea I watched as a bland square in Cairo’s downtown became headline news. Tahrir Square’s traffic – all belching and burping out diesel and din – was nowhere to be seen. Our internet disappeared. Phone calls to friends in Cairo wouldn’t work. The sun loungers on the beach emptied as the tourists fled. Soon it was just me left. I drank the camp dry of diet coke and finished the last of the muesli.

“Now you eat like an Egyptian,” my friend said and I swapped to lemon juice and fuul.

When the phone rang it was Radio New Zealand requesting an interview.

“What’s happening? What have you seen?” The reporter asked.

“I don’t think I can help you out,” I said. “I’m in the Sinai and there’s nothing happening here.”

“Nothing at all?”

I looked out at the beach.  A fisherman’s boat bobbed lazily on the sea.

“Still no sniper-fire or tanks invading the beach yet,” I replied.

Bedouin women, cloaked in their embroidered niqabs, sacks of jewellery and scarves carried upon their heads, gave up their daily patrol along the beach. I tried to ration my cigarettes. We began to run out of fresh vegetables and my friend fretted about finishing the last of the generator’s diesel fuel. Banks had shut. ATMs had bled dry. Transport to and from Cairo had been cut off. The mural of Mubarak outside the newspaper building on Ramses Street invaded my dreams.

“You see that man in the aviator shades, the one that looks like a mafia boss? Well that’s our president.” My friend Muhammad would tell tourists.

I thought of Cairo at midnight when the city streets shrugged off their blanket of heat and the hint of a cool breeze brought everyone outside. Crowds of girls with hijabs pinned and tied in mysteriously intricate ways, fabric floating after them like peacock tails, as they walked arms-linked down the street. Families gathering together on street corners, eating tubs of koshary. I would lie in bed and be rocked to sleep by Cairo’s lullaby; somebody yelling and somebody laughing; screeching tyres and smashing glass; the dull thud of a car crash; the sound of children kicking a football against a nearby wall; and then the horns, always the horns.

Moonlight stretched its fingers through the bamboo roof of my hut and threw shadows across the web of the mosquito net. The light from my alarm clock told me it was 2am. I got up, turned on my torch, and padded across the cold sand to the bathroom. Somewhere on the beach a dog was barking. A truck rumbled across the highway, headlights briefly flashing down the road. Beyond it, the craggy silhouettes of the Sinai Mountains rose up like mythical beasts preparing to attack. The sea shimmered as the waves rolled in. I sat on the beach and had a cigarette. In the morning I watched the blackened beaux-arts facades of downtown reduced to a backdrop on the television screen. The internet came back on. I replied madly to worried friends and relatives; trying to explain my geographic isolation from Cairo.

I’m miles away in the Sinai.

The worst thing that could happen to me is if I run out of cigarettes.

Yes don’t worry I’m safe.

Mubarak was going to go. No he wasn’t. The military may stage a coup. Or they won’t. There was the Day of Rage, the Million Man March, the Day of Departure, when nobody actually left. I tried to guess what would happen next and failed. Lost within the pundits’ commentaries offering up conflicting opinion and hype, I watched desperate protesters breaking up the dusty pavement for ammunition on the TV screen. Tahrir Square had never been part of the Cairo I loved. More eyesore than attraction, its petrol-haze stench hung low near the ground and my eyes stung whenever I was nearby. I lay in my hammock and remembered the swelling despair of navigating the labyrinth underpass between its roads to arrive, sweat trickling down my back, into the blinding sunlight in front of the Mugamma building’s slab of Stalinist-chic and swallow metallic-tinged gulps of encrusted air. Hawkers flogging kitchen pans and plastic cups; one man selling popcorn; everybody rushing in and out the doors of the Mugamma with papers to be signed and stamped; engulfed whole into the building’s gloom.

The bamboo huts lay empty, the sea un-swum in and the snorkelling gear unused. My friend sent his staff on holiday one by one.  I went to Nuweiba to try and find money. Flocks of goats scuffled along the stone-pitted roadside between drooping palm trees and spindly acacias with their Christmas tree decorations of discarded plastic bags. In the manicured gardens of the Nuweiba Hilton where I finally found an open bank a lone camel, busily chewing on a wilting bush, was the only guest. The Cairo-bound bus began running again. It was time to head back.

Tahrir Square. A tide of people enveloped the roads; taken over by tanks and tents, men, women, young, old, wide-eyed and weary-eyed. Toddlers slung up onto shoulders and flags flown high. A boy sat with his grandmother on the pavement draped in black, red and white. A group of men lent against a tank reading newspapers and smoking cigarettes. One man had climbed to the top of a lamp post and was waving a huge Egyptian flag in the air. There was music blasted from loudspeakers, there were prayers. In the background the Mugamma building glowered down upon us. Posters were tacked across fences. The facade of KFC had become an exhibition space for revolutionary art. A man offered me a cup of free tea from his trestle table on a street corner. A fruit vendor had decorated his cart with flags and was selling revolutionary bananas. I fought against the sea of people still swarming into the square and walked out down a car-less Talaat Harb Street. A man approached me as I took a photo of the traffic-free road.

“It’s amazing isn’t it,” he said.

I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the silent street or the revolution or both. I nodded in agreement.

One more street block up, a five minute stroll from Tahrir, a street vendor sat on a pavement corner surrounded by plastic dolls dressed in pink and purple sparkly dresses and shaggy toy cats with flashing green eyes. He wound up the dolls so that they circled jerkily around on their little stands accompanied by scratchy music from a child’s nursery rhyme. A group of young men – faces red, white and black – marched down the road with voices raised high in a chant. The vendor looked up and watched them as they headed towards the square. He took out a duster and began brushing the desert dirt off a doll’s dress.

“Welcome to Egypt,” he said as I passed by.

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This story was previously published in Perceptive Travel

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