“The arrest ” , Thu Feb 3rd 2011
This describe the rest of my Cairo adventures during the civil unrest which started January 25th. I returned to Amsterdam on February 8th and am praying for the peaceful resolution of the Egyptian crisis.
As am posting this, it has just been announced that Mubarak has stepped down!
Thursday February 3rd
Today we were arrested.
Our day started peacefully .
At 10:00 this morning I awakened to the sound of a cooing pigeon. It had taken refuge in the air conditioner unit hanging on the wall outside the bedroom.
And on the balcony the chirp of birds was the loudest sound outside.
Cairo, quiet and still on a Thursday morning. It is never this quiet in Cairo even on Fridays.
The day was sunny, the curfew not until five in the afternoon so early afternoon we went shopping in preparation of the evening’s planned Egyptian meal.
By 15:30 we had returned to the apartment and dropped the football- sized cauliflower, the slender white aubergines and the fresh meat from the butcher’s on the kitchen counter before setting out on what has become Lorna and I’s ritual a short stroll to Shehab and Gamat el Dowal .
Being virtual prisoners in the apartment this is has been our only barometer of the mood in Cairo as we have not set foot on Tahrir square since the protests began. And although we are eight kilometers away from the eye of the storm this barometer has been very accurate so far.
Lorna’s boyfriend A. has arrived from Sharm and he accompanies us. We are looking for telephone credit cards which are scarce.
As has been my custom I take my little Sony cybershot camera along.
It has been with me everywhere since I arrived on January 21st. Lorna warned me people on the street do not like being photographed so I use a combination of stealth , discreet and respect while taking pictures. In the past week, though, people on the streets have often invited me to take their pictures.
We reach Shehab and turn right at GAD onto Gama’at el Dowal. Traffic is rushing along the boulevard in a fluid staccato . It’s easy for pedestrians to cross the boulevard today .
After buying phone cards we continue to stroll. Close to the shop a tank is stopped on the street , two soldiers perched on top of it. It will make a great photograph for my impromptu reportage on Cairo events .
To be on the safe side we ask for permission to take the picture..
The soldiers finally nod yes. By the time this negotiation has taken place and the photo taken a small group of men and women have gotten closer, frowning. Some are speaking in an animated tone of voice, almost shouting. .An old toothless woman wearing a black shawl hobbles towards me, raising her fist in the air.
We have annoyed them. We walk away at a fast pace.
Egyptian flags are on prominent display on many buildings and businesses, an airing of nationalistic fervor which I capture on camera.
At el Sudan square a man on the opposite side of the road is carrying a large pile of flat bread. The situation must be getting better if there is bread. L points out the bakery to me, across the street from us to our right.. It has a queue in front of it.
I snap a quick shot .
Almost immediately we are surrounded by a group men, arguing with each other and with us. They point at my camera.
If that picture is worth a thousand words then just now we are hearing the thousand words it represents . And they are angry ones.
And now I remember how quickly behavior which is frowned upon attracts attention on a Cairo street.
And how swiftly it is dealt with.
One evening last week as we were walking direction GAD fast food restaurant from our apartment I witnessed such an incident. L and I has just walked past a child carrying some heavy bags. He was crying and pointing at a young man who had just passed him .In a moaning voice he cried out “ Don’t hurt me” .
We never saw what the man had actually done but in thirty seconds or less, a group of ten men came from all directions to the child’s help and and encircled the accused, We watched him being harangued, given a lecture on harassing a child and being shamed on his behavior.
That night I stood in awe of this display of street justice by ordinary people. Not one second had the men hesitated to come to the child’s rescue and protect a defenceless person against wrongdoing.
Today we were the ones being accused.
There is now a mob of about twenty five men around us. This time A and L. are the center of the fury as they speak the lingo. After five minutes I hear “Yalla” which I take to mean we have convinced them to let the matter drop and that we can go.
But the men is still with us . “Yalla” means “Let’s go “ . Not “Go” ..
We are now being escorted somewhere. Why ?
Amongst the shouting I pick out: “homma sawwaru el furn” This I understand, the past tense is the first I’ve been learning.
“They photographed the bakery”.
A exercise in arabic conversation has turned into a practical one on how to handle inflamed patriotic souls.
L walks close to me and whispers in my ear : “ They want to take your camera.”
What I do not know yet is that someone who saw us photograph the tank has been following us and has alerted others. One picture, okay , two picture , maybe , three , no way .
But at that moment I certainly understand it would be preferable the army didn’t see the dozens of pictures I have taken of the looted streets in the past week.. And of the odd tank, guns, sticks and machetes.
L. has another concern : Are there any bellydance picture in your camera ? she asks me ..
She is afraid to be hassled if they find out her occupation. Bellydancers in Egypt do not advertise their profession freely to acquaintances, in extreme cases for fear of their safety but most often not to be shunned by those who consider this disrespectful work.
Fortunately, there are not. We haven’t had a chance for much dancing this week.
Under close guard by the locals, we cross the street back onto the other side of Gama’at el Dowa..
In front of us is another tank and around it army soldiers carrying guns with bayonets.
The local men address the soldiers ,gesticulating faster.
The soldiers surround us and gesture us to come with them . Very firmly . “come , come, ok, “
In a quick commotion,we are passed from one group to the other, grabbed by the arm by the soldiers and marched into a house being used as their post..
We have been arrested and handed over to the army.
We are marched inside by fifteen soldiers and along a short corridor into a square room 3m by 3m.
All three of us are standing close to the right wall, Lorna stands between A. and me.
A speaks to Lorna in Arabic.
Then things happen very fast,
He is pushed against the wall, his pockets emptied, his wallet opened. I glimpse a flash of greenbacks. The soldiers crowd closer around Lorna and I . Asking questions which I do not understand. Shouting. A answers back and then the soldiers begin smacking him on the back of the head.
And then he is roughly escorted into the next room and disappears from our sight.
I hear Lorna gasp and her breathing become shallow. My whole body is rigid and I have a hard time focusing to what is happening around me. Lorna hands over her zebra print wallet, it is turned upside down.
I hold up my bag to the soldiers. One of them grabs it and opens it.Out come the apartment key, 150 LE (egyptian pounds ) in small bills and my red camera.
The keychain gets turned over several times, the writing on one side examined in detail. More questions. L. tells them it’s from Mexico.
My bag and its contents are returned to me.
The soldiers are shouting even louder now . A short one which seems to be in charge shouts “Feen il memory card ? “ Even I can understand that one .
They want the memory card.
My mouth opens but no sound comes out.
I look down in an effort to keep calm. All I see are my hands again, hanging loosely in front of me in a natural , semi open hand position which prevents the arms and hands from tensing.
One of my bellydance teachers has dubbed this “ the coffe cup position” .
I relax both my hands a little more and hold the pose. I must focus and remain calm.
Meanwhile an old woman wearing a loose black dress and dirty plastic sandals has been called into the room . She walks towards us and before I even realize L and I are being groped in front of the fifteen soldiers in the room.. She is frisking us, not very well , but in a way which leaves no doubt of her opinion of foreign women.
We manage to turn around to shield ourselves from their prying eyes.
I am asked to take off my shoes as well and my bag is inspected again. In a swift movement , one or two banknotes from my disappear into her bra . The old woman is clearly practiced at this trick
Then she turns away from us and says to the soldiers. “ Mafeesh” .”Nothing”
Four soldiers lead us to another room off the corridor back towards the entrance.
The soldiers lay our bags and wallets on a desk which has papers and a telephone on top of it.
The short one addresses a man with a mustache who is sitting behind it. He waves the soldiers to the side and asks us in English where we are from and why we are not carrying our ID.
Not a minute later A. is brought into the room with us, also under heavy escort .
Lorna starts breathing normally again.
I tell the officer I am very sorry.about taking photos . He ignores my apology , turns to A. to check his identity card and then asks him again about our passports. It is clear the men are in charge.
“Fi ilbayt ” A. says . He is sent to get our passports at home while we are kept at the army post.
The four soldiers are now sitting on chairs beside the officer. From behind the desk where all three of us are standing I can see they are still fiddling with my camera. They turn it on and off, take the battery out, turn it on again , press buttons , look at the screen and pass it to the next soldier . The whole sequence repeats.
They are now looking at a slide show on the camera’s internal memory .There are no other pictures in the camera. They give the camera back to the officer.
More Arabic follows. .
The camera is returned to me . The slide show has been deleted.
We are offered to sit down on a tattered couch at the back of the room.
The atmosphere is a little more relaxed now .We are offered little boxes of apple juice .
Seems we are not the first priority anymore.
From a pile of confiscated goods one of the officers shows us a bottle of Martini brut and asks us if it’s good quality. This bottle must be from the large Duty Free building a block away which we saw earlier has been burned so probably looted as well. We give a big thumbs up.
We see more local tourists being brough into the room and being interrogated, one is a pakistani man with a wife and two young children . He speaks in English. Looking for a working ATM machine in a neighbourhood away from his hotel caused the locals to get suspicious.
Today just being out and about and not Egyptian is a crime.
A returns with our IDs . They are checked and then we are released back onto the street.
Back to the apartment, up th elevator . We lock the door . And then we hug each other.
Our friend Marta has turned the TV on. Today’s big news is that foreign journalists are being attacked by thugs all over the city Tension is up several notches. The neighbourhood vigilance we have witnessed since Tuesday is turning to suspicion with foreigners being accused of being spies.
L. tells me this is what happened at the army station. I missed this bit as I do not understand Arabic well enough. When A. was being smacked on the head he was being accused of being a spy.
First his hard earned American dollars from his job in the tourist trade in Sharm-el Sheikh branded him a possible foreigner.
Second him speaking to Lorna in simpler than normal Arabic immediately raised suspicions about him being a spy.
My legs feel weak and I let myself fall on the sofa. I am shivering
Our barometer walk has accurately reflected the mood outside. Cameras are dangerous accessories for any tourist in Cairo today.
We had a close brush with danger. We were lucky.
Lorna brings me a cuppa. It steams on the table in front of me. When I finally raise my right hand to grasp the cup the tea is cold. The leaves have settled at the bottom . I gulp it down.
I would like to be able read the future into the brown soggy residue and know what tomorrow will bring but I do not know how.
I look down and open my left hand. Maybe palm reading is easier.
But the lines of my hand are obscured.
All I can see is that today I, literally, held my future into my own hands..
I stare at the small rectangular piece of plastic, a 2 gigabytes reminder of what could have been..
The old woman is not the only one with a quick hand.