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.