I was briefly energised, optimistic. I happened to convince the kids to let me watch news instead of Nickelodeon, and there was the ever so brief announcement that President Hosni Mubarak had resigned, and was skulking with the family at the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el Sheik. Good choice, they could flee across to the Yahoudy in neighbouring Israel should the folks back home decide they wanted him to face fuller punishment for 30 years of dictatorial rule.
Two weeks ago, I was mesmerised by the televised uprising of Cairenes and the inhabitants of Egypt’s other cities against the autocratic rule of Mubarak and his National Democratic Party. It was great television, the shitty quality of the images notwithstanding. Hot on the heels of Tunisia’s popular uprising, the monolithic power structures of the latter-day Pharaoh look decidedly shaky.
I feel sympathy for the city of Cairo, the teeming metropolis where an ancient people struggle to make a life. Failure to succeed heaves one into catastrophic poverty. It has always seemed to me that the country’s geography mirrors its life – next to the life-giving Nile you can have a good life, but should you be pushed away from the verdant banks, only the harsh desert and death awaits you.
I have had two stays in Cairo, once on a visit while working for AP in Jerusalem, which then turned into a taste of the insanity of that great city.
A suicide bomber exploded himself and a truck packed with explosives at the US military base at Khobar Towers in the Saudi city of Khobar in June of 1996. Of course, we were trying everything to get a visa from the embassy to go cover a massive international story. Right, good luck. But I had to try and this required me to race back and forth across the city between the Saudi and the US embassies. Racing across Cairo is a bit of a misnomer; the traffic is shocking, and the drivers insane. Their roads are a slow-motion torrent of vehicles all competing to push in front of the others. My driver was One-eyed Mohammed and his rather battered older Mercedes Benz. I would have thought that having just one eye would be a disadvantage in a city that requires 360 degree vision to get around, but no, Mohammed was just fantastic.
But all in vain, no visa for me. I had given up, and dawdled back to the AP office when I got word that I could go with US Secretary of State Warren Christopher on his aircraft to the US base. The self same Sec. of State’s police-led escort that was closing all other roads as he too raced to the airport made the usual Cairene traffic worse.
We could hear the sirens in the distance, way ahead of us.
Mohammed said “Inshallah, we will make it,” he uttered with his broad smile and a crazed glint in his one eye. I wasn’t even anxious; there was no way we could get there in time. But as we weaved our way closer through a labyrinth of back ways, I began to believe that maybe just maybe Mohammed could get us there without killing us. Mohammed did it, and I scrambled on board, scarcely understanding how we did make it.
A few years later, I returned to Cairo, but this time on Leonie and my honeymoon. Staying with friends, we spent a week exploring the city. From Whirling Dervishes to an exhibition by the legendary Cairene photographer Van Leo, and the Antiquities museum. One day, we went on an all day walk through the souk, and a knock-off perfume salesman tried everything to sell us scents that smelt (to me, at least) just like the real thing, except for the fact that they were stored by the gallon. We did not want to buy, but the salesman / tout was very pushy. He just kept on going, eventually trying the age-old souk game of guessing the potentials customer’s citizenship to make a bond. He kept guessing, and eventually I said ‘No, none of those, I am Serbian.’ It was like throwing a bucketr of ice water over him. He stared at me, mouth moving silently as he though of the terrible things the Serbs had done to Moslems in the former Yugoslavia.
He kept trying to sell us perfume, but then asked why we were doing such cruel things to Moslems, and then he backed off and tried to sell again, but he was torn.
At first it was funny, then I thought, hmm, here we are in some little back alley and what if this guy decides to take revenge for the wrongs committed against his co-religious?
We fled, casting glances over our shoulders, as every man in a long shapeless dress looked like a potential kidnapper.
Then there was the day AP photographer Enric Marti took us on a ‘special’ tour of the pyramids, in his Jeep. We had Egyptian police with Kalashnikovs on camel back chasing us across the sands. Best way to see Giza.
As the Tahrir Square manifestation went on and on, my interest drifted, but hey, today, the fellaheen and the fedayeen, the upper classes and the students all rose to chase the Pharaoh out of town. The indomitable spirit and courage of one-eyed taxi man was evident among the millions out there standing firm. (note: images shot on a vintage 6 by 6 cm folding Zeiss Nettar, which used to be Leonie’s grandfather’s camera)