Cairo-in-revolt was the first hotspot I’ve ever visited. The media reportage spoke of fire and brimstone mixed with teargas. But instead of fire all I got was a few good Facebook photos and a bowl of free koshary. I had some military experience in the infantry but I’d never been anywhere more dangerous than a bar filled with soldiers. And my feedback at recruit training stated that I showed “average potential” whose exceptional ability as a runner was negated by his exceptional inability as a marksman. In other words, I was better at running away than “seeking out and closing with the enemy”. Which explains why I eventually joined a reconnaissance unit. On other fronts, I spoke Arabic but like a white guy learning Arabic and while moderately well-travelled I was happily unaware that travelling to Egypt during the Arab Spring was different to family holidays to Disneyland.
The day before I flew to riotous Misr (“Egypt” in Arabic for those playing at home) I was soaking up sun on a beach in Tel Aviv, lapping up three-flavoured ice cream and celebrating an end to a two month Arabic course in Syria.
The drama in Tahrir Square was on the news. People in Egypt weren’t happy with their President, it seemed. Images of tanks were flooding the screen.
“Cool,” said the action hero wannabe within. “I’m going there tomorrow.”
“Whoah, slow down Sly Stallone,” came that other voice – the voice of common sense. “Mum’s email and DFAT have both given you a blunt ‘do not travel’ warning.”
“Nup. Too late,” said Sylvester. “Flight’s booked.”
12 hours later I was being strip-searched by the Israelis. A bloke about my age with blonde hair, a black stick and a name badge to go with it was waving a wand around my crotch.
“So you get the fun job then,” I said, hands in the air.
A gorgeous Israeli girl (they all are) with her own name badge was going through my bags. Apparently Tel Aviv airport security couldn’t figure out why an Arabic student would want to fly to Cairo at such a time for reasons other than terrorism. I told them “tourism” but I suppose “terrorism” and “tourism” are almost homophones, especially when sounded out in a thick Australian accent. After the only incriminating item they could find was a smelly keffiyeh, I was on the plane to Cairo via Athens. There was one other white person on the plane.
My first taste of Egypt was a six hour wait in transit. I didn’t have any Egyptian pounds on me and the ATMs in transit were all out of money. Someone told me that there was one ATM working but it was past border control. Stuck in transit with no access to money (and therefore unable to legally obtain a Visa and/or sustenance) I joined the refugee crowd of Westerners lining up for humanitarian aid sandwiches from the Arab cooks (a delicious role reversal I thought). As I waited in line, paying heed to the distraught sounds of American would-be tourists screaming at EgyptAir staff because their early flights out of the country had been delayed and/or cancelled, I wondered how I was going to get into the country. Then I second-guessed myself. Did I really want to get into this country? Everyone here seemed pretty keen to leave.
I turned my head to the left – a bevvy of Japanese tourists had acquired some cardboard boxes and were using it as bedding… To the right… what seemed like a commune of European hippies was playing cards and running out of bottled water. Everyone here seemed rather desperate. Needless to say, the idiot in me still took over and I was convinced I was going to make my way to the mystical ATM outside passport control in order to obtain the cash with which to obtain a Visa so I could enter Egypt.
After explaining my problem and bugging an incompetent and overly-bureaucratic Egyptian police captain for over four hours if he could assign me an escort to take me past passport control to the ATM (I even tried offering a bribe of 30 Israeli shekels) I was turned away, depressed. At this stage the criminal in me awoke and I snuck past passport control when the police manning it thinned towards midnight and scoured the airport in search of the mystical ATM… I was unable to find it.
Depressed, I returned to the transit lounge and decided my only hope of escaping the chaos of Cairo International Airport transit lounge was to head straight for passport control and hope the policeman manning the checkpoint “didn’t notice” that I hadn’t purchased a Visa. He noticed.
“Lazim inte teshteree Visa qebl al-dekhool,” he said. “It’s necessary you buy a Visa before entering”.
“Bess hada mesh mumkin. Ayndee bitake bess we ma fi feloos fi ATM hoon,” I replied. “But it’s not possible. I only have a keycard and there’s no money in the ATMs here.”
“Oh,” he said. “Tetekelem arabee.” “You speak Arabic.”
“Shwe.” “A little.”
“Come with me,” he said. “I’ll escort you to the ATM outside.”
A $10 stamp and a $20 “gift” to the passport officer later and I had my Visa and after spending a night on the floor of the airport (no one was going anywhere because of a curfew imposed by Mubarak and the police) I found myself waiting at an empty cab rank early the next morning. I turned my head left and right. Just like on the plane ride in, there was one white person at the cab rank.
The white guy approached me. “You’re a journalist?” He asked. British accent.
“Me? No. Just an idiot.”
We shared a cab ride Downtown and I discovered that despite the accent, he was in fact a Hungarian journalist named Balint who had just finished a four month embed with Marines in Afghanistan. After he discovered that I studied Arabic we made an agreement that I would go with him and translate for him as we waltzed around the city. First place on our itinerary was Tahrir Square.
I am not an expert on Egyptian politics and my Egyptian colloquial Arabic is (still) poor. But at risk of giving an overly-detailed analysis of the situation I was able to ascertain from my snippets of conversations with locals that “Army good”, “Mubarak bad”, “Army doesn’t shoot people, police shoot people”, “Army neutral”, “police terrorists” and the Egyptian flag can also be… a hat.
After our ground-breaking coverage of the riots, we walked back to our hotel room stopping briefly for a bowl of koshary. Groups of youth had set up roadblocks and oil drum fires on every street corner. They carried clubs and sticks and metal bars as weapons. Probably, they had all seen “Fight Club”. A well-dressed Egyptian-British man I’d met in the airport had described the streets around Tahrir Square as “Mad Max”. Suddenly I was inclined to agree. A few of them asked us where we are going. Some demand to see our “jewazs” (our passports), pretending that they could read English. Another man from across the road carries a tray with steaming cups of Arab tea over to his comrades manning the roadblock.
“Mad Max”… with tea.
We walked quickly to our hotel because the staff recommended we return no later than 10 o’clock. The community defence group that had formed outside our hotel consisted of the concierge, an old man who’d been sleeping next to the gate and few of their buddies.
One of them, a delightful Nubian looking fellow, toothless and grinning, put his hand over his heart in greeting, offering each of us a glass of tea.
“Ala rasi, ala ayni, al ‘elbi,” I say to him. “On my head, on my eyes, on my heart”…. or “cheers mate.”
His accent guttural, his Arabic inflected with Chadic sounds. I can barely understand his response. But the guy’s been standing outside the gate of my hotel with a stick since Friday so as far I’m concerned, he’s the coolest guy around.
I ask Balint to take a picture of me and my Nubian friend before we hit the hay.
Welcome to Cairo, I think to myself. What’s on tomorrow?