01.02.2011 - 08.03.2011 25 °C
As I arrived in Cairo, I could barely contain my excitement. I'd left the city over five years previously after a stay of ten months where I'd attempted to learn Egyptian Arabic, but despite my initial determination to carry on studying when I was back in England, life had taken over and I hadn't spoken it or really opened a book and now I was struggling to remember it all.
It's hard to explain the love I have for this city, though somebody suggested recently that you always retain strong feeling for first place you travel to out of your comfort zone. However, Cairo seems to have a strong affect on many visitors, whether they hate it or love it. Every time I return a feeling of excitement and familiarity wells up inside me and I feel like I'm coming home.
Its also hard to explain why I love Cairo so much; its dirty, so crowded you can't imagine, noisy, incredibly polluted, has endless streams of traffic with its own language of frequent horn beeping and when you cross the road you feel like you are risking certain death! The answer to this question is, of course, the people. I always think its a shame that sometimes when people only visit for a few days, they only see the bad things and only meet the "tourist pimps". The real people of Cairo are, on the whole, very friendly and hospitable and will go out of their way to help you. After a while you do tire of being told "Welcome to Cairo", and sometimes its the forerunner to a sales pitch - tourism is Egypt's first income. But often its just a sincere pleasure that a foreigner is in their city and I think when it has only become an annoyance, its probably time to leave.
Egyptians are known across the Arab world for their sense of humour and sometimes it seems the whole city is completely crazy! I'm always impressed with their endless ability to enjoy themselves in any situation. Combined with their relaxed attitude to time-keeping these traits make it possible for 20 million people to survive in an area smaller than London. I could be in a bad mood, but the moment I walk out on the street, someone or some situation makes me laugh and in a very short time my spirits are immediately lifted. As long as you have somewhere to escape to from the chaos, its a brilliant place to be. I have an odd attraction to alley-ways and back streets has led me to some of the poorest areas, where I have always felt safe. Of course its not a city populated by only friendly, happy people, but it it felt like that on my first day back in years!
I arrived a few days after Mubarak had stepped down. I'd been in Dahab, a small touristic town on the coast of Sinai, where there had been very little evidence of a revolution, except that it had become slowly more and more empty, the banks were running out of money and the only cigarettes on sale were Cleopatra, which people joke are made from trees. We had heard some rumours of something happening on Facebook, but didn't think much would come of it Although I'd enjoyed my time there, snorkelling and enjoying the sun, I'd been desperate to see what was going on, but had to make do with whatever television coverage we could get. However, travelling had become nearly impossible, my visa had run out and the office remained closed and stories of people having their camera equipment taken away and worse, were making their way through the bubble of surrounding Dahab. Eventually Mubarak left, Dahab had a small celebration and I managed to get a mini-bus to Cairo.
It was a long but trouble-free journey in a tourist mini-bus though we were frequently stopped by the Army at check-points along the way. They only checked our passport and were very courteous, but we could see all the locals having there stuff strewn on the ground as they searched through it. A couple of days later I met a French photographer who been on a public bus and had had a lot of trouble,which had luckily been diverted by another foreigner as he had some "sensitive" photos. As we got into Cairo it was hard to tell if the chaos was just the normal sort or because of the revolution! I wondered if I had missed it all until I saw people coming up the cars in the traffic selling flags. I walked along the street to the hotel I'd stayed in for quite a while before and was quite surprised to be welcomed back by an assortment of people and was happy to find a lot of the same people working there. That did feel like a home-coming!
The hotel I stayed in was right in between the two main areas of action- Midan Tahrir and Midan Talaat Harb and I could hear the crowds building up and so I was itching to get out in case I'd miss anything, not knowing that 3 weeks later I'd be thinking "oh just another big demonstration!" if I heard a crowd. So I headed straight to Tahrir, accompanied by a new English/Pakistani new friend from the hotel, who as everybody thought was he Egyptian, would be a good chaperone if there were any problems. I'd met foreigners who'd had problems taking photos during the revolution and I wasn't sure what to expect. I put on a scarf just in case. If you've read my previous blogs you'll remember that there are various ways of wearing scarves in different countries and the Egyptian way involves some complicated folds, strategically placed pins and sometimes second scarves. My hastily put on scarf style wasn't fooling anyone and so soon I was being welcomed to Egypt and asked where I was from. The first thing I noticed was the army presence, the second was that people everywhere were posing in front of the tanks and handing their children up to the soldiers to be photographed. After 30 years of military rule, this was a sign of acceptance that the majority have towards the army. Conscription here means that most young men, with some exceptions, spend between one and three years in the army and the common soldier is generally regarded as coming from "the people". Orders had obviously been to be nice to the crowd and most of the soldiers looked as happy as the rest of them, but some of them looked so young and confused and weren't always sure how far to let people go. Of course the limits were pushed as far as people dared and it was quite a novel experience for all concerned.
There were people everywhere with flags - the flag sellers had obviously been doing a roaring trade! Somebody had mentioned to me that there wasn't a "logo" or symbol to unify the revolution, but the flag was doing the job. The atmosphere in Midan Tahrir was electric! The feelings of joy and most of all the pride in being Egyptian were everywhere to be seen. In England, we often feel rather embarrassed about our country and view any sort of patriotism as being suspicious, worrying about any prejudicial undertones, and I'm often as surprised by the outward patriotism displayed by the general public in most other countries, as they are by my lack of it. Yes, there was still chaos in the country, people were aware that there would be a long, hard struggle before the benefits of the revolution started to show, but for now they were just rejoicing in the pride of being Egyptian, from a country that had shown the world how to have a revolution with dignity.
Amongst the celebrating crowds were numerous, mainly young people, painting and clearing up - I wondered if this was the first revolution where this has happened, or at least so quickly. Walls, kerb-stones and railings were being painted, with people left there to direct people around the wet paint, there were people clearing up rubbish and lots of waste-paper baskets with slogans on tied to trees. When I was last in Cairo, the general feeling was that if there were no bins, you just threw the rubbish down and that would give employment to someone to clear it up, so there was quite a lot of rubbish lying around. I had never seen downtown Cairo looking so clean. This carried on for the 3 weeks I was there, who knows how long it will continue!
That night I went to Midan Talaat Harb, where I'd seen some demonstrations five years previously. That time there were stories of people who'd demonstrated being dragged off the streets afterwards by the secret police. This time there was a completely different atmosphere! Music was from a balcony overlooking the square, people were milling around with their families, a lot of people were dancing, and the traffic was attempting to take over again. People were directing the traffic and allowing people to cross in the absence of any traffic police. Everywhere there were men up lampposts, statues, scaffolding and anything that could be climbed, waiving flags and taking photos on their mobiles. Children were dancing on cars while everyone clapped. There were clusters of people dancing around drums being played and impressive fireworks were being held aloft right in the middle of it all!
Over the next few days this all continued. It was like a massive party that wouldn't stop, which culminated in a gathering of an estimated 21/2 million people on the Friday. I went to both Tahrir and Talaat Harb several times in the next few days - it was hard not to as I lived right there. I was welcomed at all times by the various groups of people, the worst hassle being the usual over friendly men, who were just a nuisance rather than a danger. A lot of people wanted me to take their photos or to be photographed with me, which I felt was a small price to pay for gatecrashing their party.
Now the traffic was back in Tahrir, groups of people were organising themselves as human fences, which, at times, confused people, who were used to just launching themselves across the road in all types of traffic. I'm sure I'll write more in the future about the delights of crossing the road in Cairo in a future blog as it deserves more time spent on it.
Every day, more and more sellers were appearing in the crowds, the flags, of course, of all sizes, cards to hang hand round the neck with flags and photos of those that had died in the revolution, t-shirts, noisy home-made blowers, head bands, numerous food barrows and precariously perched kettles on gas bottles heated water for tea and coffee. Everywhere people of all ages were having their faces painted with the red, black and white of the Egyptian flag. I often returned home wearing one myself.
Of course it wasn't all just partying. At least 365 people died during the revolution and they will not be forgotten easily. I've mentioned the badges with photos on and there were areas devoted to remembrance. Most of them were young people with their lives ahead of them died and many people were grateful to the youth for instigating the demonstrations.
On the first Friday I was there, where the numbers were estimated between 2 and 4 million, I went to square for Friday prayers. A quick note - Friday is the Muslim Holy day and prayers are quite happily performed in public in most places. The number there were impressive and, again, people made me welcome. I had wondered if I should be photographing this on my way there and decided to keep an open mind and just see how it went. I need not have worried as everyone had their phones and cameras out, some quite intrusively. As I stood their in the square facing thousands joined in prayer, the mixture of emotions were overwhelming. Tears sprung to my eyes as I watched. I felt happy for their joy, respectful of their obvious devotion and unity and sad that I would never have them myself, for whilst I see the many good points of Islam, I can never have that belief. There were so many different groups of people with lots to say, banners I couldn't read and speeches I couldn't understand, but, again, the pride in being Egyptian was common in all of them.
Over the next few days, Cairo slowly started to get back to normal, but the presence stayed in Tahrir and, to a lesser extent, Talaat Harb. With democracy comes freedom of speech, a luxury that was denied Egyptians for 30 years. With this, come disagreement and with such a massive population, there were many contradictory ideas of what should happen next. Some people wanted to carry on with the demonstrations, feeling that the changes hadn't gone far enough and some were worried that the many employees of the hated secret police were still around and that there should be no chance of them ever having power again. Others felt that enough was enough, let the politicians get on with the job and that the economy would suffer even more if things didn't settle down. Some just wanted their incredibly difficult lives to start improving as soon as possible - I met people who lived on the equivalent of 50p a day, Cairo is cheap, but not that cheap, so I couldn't imagine how they survived. People told me how it had been for them during the dangerous days when the prisoners were let out of the jails. Some communities divided themselves between those who went to Tahrir and those who stayed behind to guard the families and property, others could just guard their neighbourhoods. One man I'd know in the past told me that he couldn't join in the celebrations in Tahrir as, only a few days previously, he had sat in the square and watched people being killed and that it had felt like being in hell. One month on there were still demonstrations and crowds in Tahrir, though getting smaller. Coptic Christians are a prevalent percentage of the Egyptian population and there is a strong suspicion that the interdenominational problems before the revolution were instigated by the secret police. There was a strong Christian presence in Tahrir and one can only hope that the future problems that the country will inevitably face in the coming days will not create a divide.
And what of the future of Egypt? The country's main income is from tourism, followed by the Suez Canal revenue. There is no doubt that tourism has dramatically declined, although it is showing signs of revival and many feel that things must return to normal as soon as possible to protect it. The billions squirrelled away by dishonest politicians and businessmen wont fill the massive gaps in the economy and any future government has a massive job ahead of it. Many people also told me that they will be watching for signs of the old ways creeping back and that the people now know the power they have and wont hesitate to use it again! There are reports of an increase in crime in some of the suburbs of Cairo. This is sometimes blamed on the released prisoners, the lack of police presence and a shift of attitude in society. Personally, I think that any country that been abused whether by another country or by its own leaders, needs time to recover and re-establish its true identity. I can only hope that the impressive Egyptian spirit can make this happen as quickly as possible.
After three weeks of craziness in Cairo I returned the tranquillity of Dahab to relax in the sun, recover from the end of a six year relationship, work on my photos and to catch up on my blogs - they will be resumed!