Thursday, February 3, 2011


Pauline was intent on going downtown this morning, where all the protests are, to pick up an American friend Rosa, who wanted to stay with her. Rosa was petrified and didn't want to make the trip to Zamalek alone. I asked Pauline not to go. Mubarak supporters are out to get foreingers, because they are saying that the revolution can't be Egyptian inspired, it must have come from the outside. She said that if I wasn't going to go with her, that she would go alone. I tried all I could not to convice her not to go, but I didn't want to let her go alone. She warned me not to say that I was Palestinian. It was good advice. I thought of bringing a knife. My knifes would have been useless. It's a good thing didn't. I remembered in the taxi, that I forgot to bring my revolution photo filled camera... this may have saved our lives.

We were told that Tahrir Square was closed and tried to make our way around it through Garden City. When we got there we were stopped by a mob of toothless Medieval looking men wielding clubs and machetes. They asked to see our passports... and took them away. Mine is American and Pauline's is French. I was used to this by this point. People defending their streets is common. It's impossible to travel one kilometer without bumping into a community road block. These men were not from the that community. They were hired thugs and seemed to have a rank among them. Things changed when they asked us to get out of the taxi. "When are you from" asked a balding 50 something man. "I'm American." He said, "No, no, your nationality," meaning what kind of Arab are you... "Egyptian" I stated, "You don't sound like an Egyptian?" he said. I couldn't help it, but as the words were coming out, I was trying to stop them. "My mother is Palestinian." I couldn't believe I said this. I knew that it would get me in trouble. Egyptians like the Palestinian cause, but not Palestinians. I've been advised not to say that I was Palestinian many times here.

A green-eyed man, who seemed to be in charge, started asking questions about what we were doing and why we were there. Some members of the mob said "We are only supposed to check them for weapons and let them go." There was a little bit of an argument between them, including one veiled women who was on our side. Green-eyed man said "This is my responsibility." It was him and the balding guy who had it in for us. They whisked us away and said that they were taking us to the Police after frisking us for cameras and weapons.

At one point they lead us through a back ally and deserted street. I was terrified. I thought they were going to do something to use there. We turned the corner and thank God, we saw a police station with uniformed men. They handed us over to them and balding guy said. "We saw them smoking "bunga" (hash I think), in the back of a taxi. My heart fell to the floor. "Who would smoke in a time like this." I said. "I haven't even had my coffee yet. We are going to bring a friend back to Zalamek." We stated again and again. A half uniformed officer walked with us to the station also claimed to have witnessed us smoking hash in the back seat of a cab during a revolution. We're screwed I thought.

They had us empty our pockets in the middle of the half open gazebo type station. The mob began to form around us as we were searched and questioned. Someone from the mob yelled "Palestinian son of a Dog" at me (a big insult in Arabic). One guy told them to let us go if I was from "48," an Israeli Arab.  The half uniformed cop said that he was going to have the army deal with us. I said "Yes, please do." This was a relief because the army is the most professional and even handed of the mobs. As he escorted us through the streets a small group of very scary looking armed busy bodies followed us on a crowed street of thugs. We walked about two blocks before we finally spotted a lone soldier standing in front of a demolished car. Half uniformed guy handed him our passports and talked to him about the "bunga" and about the fact that I was Palestinian. I asked the soldier to take us away. The mob around us had grown to about 150-200 most with sticks, some with knifes and machetes. One toothless guy with a machete grabbed Pauline's arm and said come with me after blowing her a kiss. This was the worst moment of my life. I thought that they were going to try to separate us.

Hundreds of armed people were looking at us with hate and making comments about us. It looked like a scene from a Hollywood movie that wants to make Arabs look bad. The soldier gets in the destroyed car and tries to start it. It was a silver four-door wrecked car with the front windshield shattered and all other missing. We asked to go with him. He agreed and there was a moment of relief. The back seat of this wreck was removed. We sat on a folded cushion as the mob surrounded us. The guy with the machete asked Pauline if she was Muslim. She said that I was, but she wasn't. There were about four people who fought the rest of the crowd to stick their heads through the window as the car moved back for only two feet then stalled. We had to get out and back into the crowd. It was horror. The soldier escorted us through the crowd and we began walking through towards Tahrir. The mob slowly disappearing behind us. He took us through a checkpoint, the other side of which was relatively unoccupied. I breathed a sigh of relief. At this point I looked forward to going to jail.

We walked a block before the soldier stopped a civilian car and commanded him to drive us forward. He sat in the front,  us in the back as we tried to get our story straight. "We are just friends... we both live together in Zamalek... We were going to pick up a scared friend to bring home." The soldier was in full gear with helmet on his head and Ak47 type machine in his hand. He actually tried to console us, he wasn't too confident in the mob, but told us that he was taking us to the army post.

We drove a few blocks to an army post that was a bombed out police station near Tahrir, destroyed the days before. All windows smashed, three different spots of blood on the walls. There were about three soldiers in full uniform with flack jackets and fingers on the triggers of their machine guns. They asked us to wait while they held our passports and called someone. I was relived to be there, even with the bloody walls. A few minutes later walks in a young well dressed military officer with our passports in hand. He starts to speak to Pauline in French and at this point, the soldier who knew that I was Palestinian had left. I refused to speak anything but English and pretended not to understand the Arabic.

He was mild mannered and seemed educated, but I didn't trust him.. I could tell that Pauline was doing a good job at telling our story. I could hear the protesters in Tahrir and was hoping some event would happen so that they would quickly let us go. He continued to talk to Pauline as if I wasn't there. I stayed quiet, they seemed to have a good report . My phone rang during a lull and I had enough time to tell my friend Sarah that we were picked up and asked her to call for help.

About a half hour later, walked in a large, also well dressed man who later claimed to be the head of the army in Tahrir. He asked us similar questions, but he didn't speak English or French so Pauline translated in perfect Arabic. They seemed friendly and seemed to be interested in the story of us picking up her friend. "You shouldn't worry about her, it's safe out there" he said like he really believed it. At one point the chief asked Pauline to call her friend and tell her that we weren't coming to pick her up and she should go to Zamalek buy herself. I thought this a good sign because it meant he might let us go to meet her.

They kept us for another hour. This was not a good sign. If they bought our story, Why would they not let us go? I was concerned. Finally the young guy goes outside and has words with the chief, he comes back and says that he wants to let us go, but he doesn't know a safe route out. He said that he told his boss that he went to language school with Pauline and that she was okay. He suggested that we go back in the direction of the Medieval mob. We said "No way." He gave Pauline his number and asked her to call if we got into more trouble. We are indebted to him.

Each of the three groups, mob, police and army, were very interested in whether or not we had a camera. If they saw the photos of us in Tahrir square the days prior or behind the lines with the protesters, we would have been in real genuine trouble. This may have been the first time that I left my house in Egypt without a camera and it was only because it forgot it. I thank God for that.

The problem now was how not to get arrested again. We walked through several streets and turned back when we saw mob check points. It wasn't before long that we found ourselves in front of Rosa's house. It was a relief, we were on the protester's side now and that was a really good thing. They were awesome. We went upstairs and found Rosa waiting for us. There was a problem. The only safe way out was to walk through Tahrir Square. We had no other choice. It was closest to the bridge and we felt that the pro-Mubarak mobs were on the other side. It was tense. I was very nervous going through the first few mob checkpoints, but these were good guys, they checked out passports and welcomed us. We could see Tahrir a block away. While almost there, we heard screaming behind us. A pro-Mubarak gang had gathered to fight the protesters, we were between them. The protesters began whistling and yelling to alert the others. A wall formed and the mob retreated as we slipped past the protesters.

Tahrir square was safe and peaceful. One would never know that tens of people were killed there just hours before. I felt safest in the eye of the storm, the epicenter of the revolution. There were many many injured and bandaged protesters where still there and refused to leave. It was unbelievable. We bumped into some journalist friends and told them what had happened. We made it safely over the bridge to Zamalek.

It's early evening and I just heard that Rosa, the girl we just got arrested trying to help, was arrested herself after she left the apartment to buy phone credits. I was just on the phone with the embassy and they told me that there is nothing they can do. I'll keep trying.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

There's nothing like a little revolution to get a neglected blog going again.

We knew things were going to be bad when the Mubarak administration cut off text messages, the Internet and cell phone calls on Friday morning. It was a recipe for revolution and I don't believe it's over. As we were tending the goats in the garden, Pauline told me that she had decided to join the protests in Tahir Square. I tried to prevent her from going, used words like, "Egyptians need to do this for themselves," "Foreigners will be blamed for this" and even stooped as low as to say "You can't do this to your parents." It didn't work. There was nothing I could do to prevent her from going. It seemed that the more I tried the more the more she wanted to go. I remember seeing her off by saying "The first thing you do in a war is cut off your enemies communication and that's what the government just did. This is a war... be careful." She left and I returned to plan my day and finish my breakfast... fench toast (what she and apparently other French people call Eggy Bread).

I left the house boat at about 1pm to go buy eggs for banana bread that I was planning on making on Friday afternoon. I opened the front gate and saw hunderds of riot police and armored personnel carriers surrounding Kit Kat square and Kit Kat Mosque, which was about to let its cell phoneless worshippers out. It was a sea of blue officers, mainly 18 year old boys who looked like they were from upper Egypt. Most had peach fuzz growing on their faces. They were scared. The riot police set up their canteen right in front of my gate. I heard them argue when one boy asked the other in charge for an extra juice box. They had closed Nile Street off to prevent protesters from joining others downtown. The worshipers and others stood their ground... for the time being. The police refused to allow me to leave the garden. They yelled at me as I unlocked the gate. If they let me out, I would be between the two rows of riot police with their backs facing each other. I stood at the gate for the next several hours and watched the protesters begin to hurl rocks bottles and Molotov Cocktails, while police shot endless canisters of tear gas. There were some very tense moments. It soon became clear that there would be no banana bread to be had that day.

By late afternoon I could see bloodied and wounded police officers being rushed back to the camp. The protesters were in sight and the police were gathering stones to throw at them. This seemed really stupid because, there were plenty of stones already on the ground and they were just replenishing the protester's supply by thowing their stones back at them. The circle of police that was created earlier in the afternoon had split up to battle the protesters from the four streets that intersect Kit Kat. Protesters began setting fire to police cars and piles of tires. There was a thick mix of burned rubber smoke and tear gas in the air. Tear gas canisters were being shot with the frequency of a heart beat. There were nonstop clashes for hours. Police were slowly pushed back up until the point of my gate. Their lunch, tin canisters of rice and grilled chicken had been sitting in front of my gate since the morning, never to be consumed. It was about six o'clock when police captain called for a retreat. They backed up their tired cops in there several vehicles that resemble big box trucks with a series of three or four mesh covered holes cut out for air. These armored carriers look more like prison transport vehicles than police ones. There was a huge burst of excitement and euphoria from the crowd of about several hundred from each street that were now consolidated. The police moved back, but were still within sight. At this point I was free to leave the garden and walk about freely among the protesters.  I witnessed much destruction. I watched them set fire to a small police building just two doors down. This made me just a bit sad, because it is where I had the taxi cab drivers drop me off when I thought that they might rip me off. The crowd also set fire to several piles of chairs, political banners, wooden poles and anything else that would burn. The clash line was now about 100 yards away. I was surprised to see 10 year old boys and several covered women among them. Tear gas and rocks were still being hurled at us. I one point a canister landed a few meters away from me. It made me tear. I saw the police line take a direct hit from a Molotov Cocktail. The police began to fire something, where rubber bullets or shots into the air. The crowd retreated up to the point of my gate. The police didn't follow. After a few minutes, the protesters returned. At about 11pm, the police had fled completely, not only from my street, but from all of Cairo.

As the protesters marched forward some policemen were left behind. About half a dozen or so jumped the fence onto the property next door. They were terrified. These were not the the boys with the riot gear. They were 40 something officers with stars on their shoulders. Rocks were being thrown at them as they hid on the side of the boat. They were between the protesters and the nile. As the crowd moved forward, they stayed on the ledge of the boat for hours. Asking me for water, and at one point, a change of clothes so that they could go home in civilian garb. "Please brother, can you throw us a used robe... an old dirty one is fine," yelled a desperate man, who a few minutes before was commanding forces agaist civilians. My dilema was not whether to give it to them or not... I wanted them to leave. It was that the clothes that I brought to Cairo were my favorite ones. I wasn't really ready to part with them. I asked them to hold on while I went through my closet and found "my cleanest dirty shirts." I turned on my deck light, one floor above them, to throw the clothes over. This frightened them because they were no longer in the dark. They asked me to turn off the light while I threw, over a 10 foot gap in the Nile, some American Apparel t-shirts and thermals on to the 12 inch ledge that they we standing on. They changed and and asked for a shopping bag to place their uniforms. They stood on the ledge for another two hours before getting the courage to walk through the crowds and return home as the entire Cairo police force had just done.

As things calmed. I think around midnight, I walked over the bridge to Zamalek and went to see my friend who worked at the New York Times bureau to offer the pics and videos that I had (will post soon). There was almost no one in the streets by then. All of the five or six people in the office were scrambling to get news out. My friend directed me to a journalist and I showed him my footage. The times was apparently more interested in showing ministries burning that day than the burning tires and local riots that I had shot. They also filled me in on what happened in the rest of Cairo that day. I safely walked home and I went to bed at about 2 am, not knowing what to expect the next day.

I woke up the next morning and was surprised to find business as usual at the Imbaba market. Plenty of eggs for eggy or banana bread, old ladies with their fruit stands, the live chicken guy slicing throats and men puffing on sheesha while watching state news at the local cafe. Traffic was being directed at very busy street that I crossed to get there by a group of young men, who were doing a much better job than the cops, who were no where to be found. I stayed home that day and remember Pauline commenting that she was proud that the Egyptians had refrained from looting. That was about to change. Word on the streets is that the Mubarak admistration sent police officers to start looting. A number of early looters were arrested by citizens and were found with police ID. Instead of covering the protests, the state T.V. was airing phone calls of hysterical women, streaming about how there were thugs trying to break down their doors. Reports of prisoners being freed did not help. That night was one of the scariest of my life. Here is what I wrote while it was happening:

Right now: My houseboat neighbors and I are on alert, all holding sticks. Mine has nails in it. If I've ever wanted a gun, it's now. We can see looters roaming the streets and we hear gunshots and screams every few seconds with no exaggeration. Egypt went from being a police state of thirty years, to one with no authority or government whatsoever. There are reports of rich neighborhoods being looted and burned. I live in the Bed-Stuy of Cairo... Kit Kat square. It's between Zamalek, a wealthy island of embassies and poshness that splits the Nile and Imbaba, a poor to working class neighborhood, that has a great vegetable market and lots of small yumma and yabba shops. Although only yards away from Zamalek, across a 100 meters of Nile, they two are worlds apart. I can hear the mosque in Zamalek asking people for weapons on their P.A. system. The gunshots have been consistent for hours. Everyone is terrified. There are about six of us on the boat and garden, the groundskeeper and five others in four apartments. We've established a call system with the neighbors. I just saw a mob transporting three suspected thieves to a military post while beating them mercilessly and chanting self praising slogans. I'm thinking of hiding the kitchen knives. I hope the gunshots never reach their targets.

That night I got a call from Rania, who told me that Diane an older English astrologer was alone and terrified on a boat nearby (houseboats tend to have eccentric occupants; artists, homeopaths, healers, actors etc.). I called Diane and asked if she wanted me to come and get her. She said she did, but her gate was padlocked and barricaded because two men had told her that they were sent to take the houseboats they were scared off by the neighbors. I told her that I would ask the groundskeeper to take me over to her with his row boat so that she could stay with me and that's what we did. We got in the three meter, dirty old boat and rowed about six houseboats down. The Nile was spooky calm, but gunfire and screams were heard from all directions. The trip would have been beautiful sans sound, a midnight sail through the Nile on a clear night. As we neared her houseboat, I yelled her name and saw the lights turn on. She came out a bit shaky and made her way to us. I was expecting her to bring things... food, a laptop, clothes, but all she had was her small hippie handbag. As she entered the wobbly boat, I thought she was going to fall in the river, but she made it. She was grateful and offered to read my charts for free.  She came over, sat on my chair for two hours without moving while Pauline and I kept a lookout for looters and ran to my downstairs neighbor's apartment for T.V. news. She finally got up and did all my dishes and cleaned my kitchen and for that I am grateful.

More to come. I want to get something out before the internet is cut again.  Peace.