Posts Tagged Egypt
The revolt’s first Friday was decisive. The preceding 3 days had shown that what had started on January 25 was not a mere demonstration. It spread like wildfire across the country. Police oppression cleared Tahrir square for normal use again, kept the streets flowing, but it was like a lid over boiling water. They knew – and we knew – that what had started was not going to stop and the protesters were not going anywhere. January 28 was intended to be our point of no return. Each one of us went to the street with that in mind. It was like knowing that nothing was ever going to be the same again.
It was also a decisive day in exposing many public figures, actors, singers, even imams, who went after their interests, so they either praised the regime and stormed the protesters with verbal attacks, or just remained silent, waiting to see how things would turn out, always wanting to be on the winning side.
I sat in the mosque waiting for the sermon to begin, wondering which kind the imam who was going to deliver it to us was. Word had spread that State Security police, Amn Dawla, had issued clear instructions to all major mosques around the country to preach that revolt against the ruler was a major sin, arguing that it threatens to shake the stability of the country and to promote division–a classic escape Muslim rulers have adhered to for centuries throughout Islamic history.
Unlike most times, none of the women in the mosque appeared to be engaged in any conversation. The place was mostly silent; some were praying and others were reading the Quran. The journalist began to take pictures, making some women uncomfortable. Soon the sermon began and Nadia and I listened attentively, waiting for the imam’s mistakes. Soon we discovered that we were not alone with this attitude. A girl clad in black sat before us, exchanging glances and smiles whenever the imam appeared to be wandering off in the desert, clearly over-making his points.
To me the sermon lasted an eternity. I was so charged on the inside I could no longer tolerate the normalcy. It was soon over, we prayed, and moved to the main exit where the women merged with the men at the large open space. Everyone walked normally towards the door and by the time the first in line reached it the chants began. It was a moment of transition from the wary calm and quiet that spread across the mosque and in the faces of the worshippers to a loudness that never ceased from that moment on. Looking around me, it was as if everyone felt the same way I did; waiting for that key moment in which they could finally raise their voices together and demand their freedom. We all rushed toward the outer door, crowding each other as we frantically searched for our shoes and put them on. I don’t recall ever putting on my shoes with more of a rush. I didn’t want to lose Nadia with the shoving of the crowd. I kept my eye on her until I was ready, and we were both out in Azhar street with the flood of people chanting out of the mosque, taking the center of street, past the officers and the plain clothes policemen with their sunglasses and walki talkis who stood by watching.
The Azhar road is topped with the Azhar bridge, reaching directly to the center of the city. It is a narrow, long old market street filled with fabric, spice, and book shops on both sides. It was where my father used to buy the fabrics he distributed among the poor of his hometown village every Ramadan. I had taken it thousands of times on my way to college or on a Fatimid Cairo outing with friends. Its penetrating spice aroma would always linger in my head for long hours after I had passed through it. To me, it was the aroma of home; the Egypt I had grown to love – its history and mine – and the many beautiful tales of I’ve read and heard when I was a kid.
As loud as the chants and shouts were as we moved through the closed space of the mosque exit, I expected that they’d disperse as we were out in the open space of the city, but they kept getting louder. The narrowness of the street and its relatively confined surroundings; the crowded shut down shops and the bridge overhead magnified the sounds of the protesters’ chants and shouts, echoing from one side of the street to the other. They seemed to be coming from all directions: in front of me, behind me, over me, and I could nearly feel the vibrations under my feet. The sounds felt like they were coming right out of the walls. Everything seemed to synchronize itself with the people. And as we continued more people were drawn to the streets out of awe or mere curiosity. Like most photojournalists some ran to the top of the bridge to get a better view. I could tell by the rising numbers that not everyone marching now was among those in the mosque. The chants drew many people in.
At this point all the resistance I could see from the police was a mere attempt to control the route of the march. Or perhaps just the density. Our march continued until we came to a human wall of guards in helmets blocking our passage, creating a small stampede. Some of the protesters tried to calm the crowds and stop them from getting into confrontation with the guards, so they signaled for everyone to jump on the iron bars that divided the two way street, the other side of the street being open for advancement. An older woman standing next to me began to panic with the pressing crowd. There was no way for her to go with the guards blocking the passage and the bars being too high. I held her by the hand and began to shout to one of the guards to let us through, given the condition of the woman. I used every bit of logic I could think of when my mere appeal to common sense did not do the trick with him, but all I continued to get from him were the same responses. “No. Sorry. Not allowed.” The more he said those words the more infuriated I became, so I began to push against him with all my might. He did not budge an inch. I know I’m not that weak and yet I failed to cause the slightest movement in him or any of his colleagues. I don’t call them a human wall out of nothing. They’re actually trained to be that. A senior officer places his orders and they are encrypted in their skulls. His words are final and there’s no rationalizing with them.
With the sheer force of the people they managed to create a gap in the iron bars and we went right threw it, marching on and out of the street till we got caught in more serious police resistance. We could hear rubber bullets being shot and people began to run everywhere. Sirens and showers of teargas canisters filled the intersection we found ourselves in. The air was no longer breathable. Nadia and I frantically looked for a place to hide until we found a small passageway between two buildings that many people were rushing into. As we followed them we found a senior police officer carried by some of the protesters and rushed into the same place, his face flushed red and he had difficulty breathing. For many of us this might have been the first time we encountered teargas so we were clueless as to how to combat its effects. All what many of us could think of was water. Many were calling out for water to give to the troubled officer and save him from whatever the gas appears to have done to him.
If that moment was anything to me, it was only proof and reassurance that our uprising was for beliefs, hopes, dreams. Those people of all ages marching around me held no grudges to uniforms or individuals; their only enemy was oppression and corruption. This was a war of ideas and beliefs, not people, because in that narrow passage there was no telling who was the enemy. The officer in the uniform among us was no more than just another helpless Egyptian desperate for a breath of fresh air. That’s what we all were.
To be continued.
Videos from the day:
Beginning of march from inside Al Azhar open space and out to the street:
The early spark. Egyptians from all walks of life join the march from Al Azhar mosque. Old men joined shouting “Down with Mubarak” while some carried their children on their shoulders:
Woman urging protesters to hold on:
Panic at the intersection, the sound of rubber bullets and me cursing:
Hiding from teargas in the narrow passage:
Police vehicle with its eerie siren gets caught among the protesters at the intersection. On that day many such vehicles have chosen to run over the protesters:
By Salma Beshr
One eye shows the soul breaking free,
one eye shows nothing at all.
One eye has a lot more to see,
the other… has seen it all.
One eye has infinite clarity,
rinsed by the clear light of hope,
while the other eye, stung by reality,
has nothing but shadows to grope.
Side by side they both lay,
partners in every decision,
till one dark January day,
one eye was robbed of its vision.
But the eyes of the world would agree,
’twas taken only in name;
With only one eye left to see,
the vision stronger became
If I should be robbed of my right hand,
would I still have the will, the desire
to pick up a pen with my left hand
and somehow attempt to inspire?
Would that the heart–cold and cruel–
had instructed the hand that betrayed
to look reverently on so precious a jewel;
For freedom–a small price, indeed, to be paid!
Dedicated to Jawad El Nabulsi, who lost his eye during the protests and never ceases to inspire me with his cheerfulness, calm resolve and his vision of rebuilding the future.
In Arabic we have a proverb that says beware the wrath of the patient. When Egypt rose against the tyranny, oppression, and widespread rooted corruption that had been governing it for three decades it was as if Sphinx had suddenly come to life and rose from his eternal rest. We toppled the president, a man known for his involvement in much of the plight of the Palestinians, if not his own people, but we still don’t feel that it’s over. Even before January 25, the day the revolution began, we had a series of little protests and semi-free press that criticized Egyptian domestic and foreign policies on a number of issues. Some journalists, although jailed later, criticized the person of the president. We expressed ourselves, but we were jailed, arrested, and tortured.
The Libyans have none of that. And they’ve had none of that for 42 years, not 30. I visited Libya in 2007 in a small attempt with a friend of mine to do some “Arab tourism,” visiting a fellow Arab country and seeing it through the eyes of a people who wanted to learn more about their immediate neighbors, with whom we share so much.
There was not a single day that passed without meeting a person who was either half-Egyptian or married to an Egyptian. Everyone was extremely kind, peaceful, calm. Nothing like what much of the media had tried to show of the Libyan people in many years that passed.
Posters of Qaddafi filled every street corner in such a way that made Mubarak appear quite benign, modern, civilized, and democratic. It was the 38th year of the coup d’etat which Qaddafi liked so much to refer to as a revolution. Larger than life images of him greeting his people, with the number 38 shamelessly plastered next to him.
We focused much of our trip on Benghazi, the land of the Sanoussis, the ousted royal family whom Qaddafi continued to despise, showing his hatred to the past with exaggerated and appalling neglect for the city. Streets were poorly paved, much of the buildings affected by the coastal weather were left unpainted for years. Government buildings were rundown, with broken windows left unfixed. Benghazi was a beautiful, neglected stallion ready to spring the minute it broke free of its curb.
People there were mostly silent. We were warned beforehand that it would not be wise to speak politics with any person. We were given the chance to visit the grandson of Omar Al Mukhtar, the legendary freedom fighter who fought the Italian invasion in the early twentieth century, now an elderly sheikh with an open lounge for students and visitors paying their respects. I was especially curious to listen to his views on the situation in the Middle East, especially after the 2006 war in Lebanon had just ended. The man’s eyes widened and he became extremely tense, refusing to talk to me, while men surrounding him decided that my friend and I were no longer welcome in the place.
Qaddafi does not just oppress dissent, he refuses the mere concept of opposition. Educators, professionals, writers, and many more skilled Libyans are living abroad. And outside Libya, if they oppose his regime he hunts them down and kills them. If you’ve ever tried talking to a Libyan about the truth of the Libyan regime prior to the current uprising you would know what I mean. Qaddafi haunted his opposition even in their dreams.
The more I watch the media the more evident the size of the horror gets clear to me, and that’s not just because of the sight of dead bodies or severely injured civilians. It’s because of the quivering voices of the anonymous eyewitnesses that can’t fight back their tears as they plea for help to the outside world, be they men or women, young or old. It’s in the shivering jaws and hands of the old opposition Libyans living in the UK, the US, Germany, and virtually most countries on the planet except their own, as they spoke with mixed emotions of grief and pride, their eyes wide in disbelief as they saw the liberation moment coming so close. Those silent people who couldn’t even speak about the regime even in exile were now exploding with horrors of the past they had witnessed, and appealing to the world with their plight.
I’ve seen it in my own country. If the fear is broken nothing else brings it back. If the wall of silence crumbles nothing will ever build it again. And it is crumbling everywhere in the Arab world, exposing the ugliness of the savage rule it had been subjected to for decades. And the Libyans, those amazing people who can teach the world lessons of patience, are bound to show the world how they will present their lives to the mad beast that dwells among them. It is their only gate to the world outside.
I’ve been feeling so trapped inside my body. There’s a bundle of emotions swirling around me, so dramatized by all I’ve seen, that I feel so drowned in its deep waters. It’s been 26 days now and I still have not been able to tell my story. But I know I need to get it out fast before the memory starts to fade away, before I finally ride up on one of the strong tides that keep pushing me adrift off and away from the shore.
Ever since it all started I’ve been shrinking in my own eyes. It’s like when a cat is suddenly face to face with a lion – wherever that might happen – and suddenly realizes its own insignificance. The silence that overcame me crept into my inside, making me doubt whatever I might want to say or share, believing it would by far be less significant than what many others had to say, or have already said.
But I will try. It’s my experience, and this is my blog, so feel free to search elsewhere if it doesn’t grab you!
I arrived back home in Cairo on January 24, one day prior to the scheduled protests on the 25th. I had been in Saudi Arabia for three weeks with my mother’s family. I had by then managed to train myself to shed off much of the pains and sorrows of the past and to wake up each morning with a fresh look towards a new day. I overate, overslept, overindulged myself in perfumes and nail polish. My busiest times were the times I sat to read a book of my choice. I had deliberately chosen to stop following political events around the world, I had started to doubt whether I actually wanted to have a career in political science or even the media to begin with. I no longer cared what happened in Egypt, because all the events sounded the same, and all the results were boringly predictable. There was the corrupt government whose mummified faces didn’t seem to be going anywhere. There was our ridiculously unprofessional state-run media blabbing away about the divine qualities of the president, his family, and his associates.
And there was the usual handful of activists, intellectuals, and professionals who wanted change.
This handful of lone protesters always seemed to be standing on an island of their own. They weren’t many when compared to a population of over 80 million people, but they were working day and night to empower the poor and the workers. Their morale did fade sometimes, their hope did become a vague, unrealizable dream, but they continued to work the way a street sweeper continued to sweep, even though passersby threw trash right after he finished.
And it was no accident that those protesters were standing on an island. They were quite literally placed on it. With police forces three times the size of our army, few Egyptian streets were void of police officers or truckloads of guards parked near a university or a mosque, ready to quell the faintest sign of ‘unlawful’ assembly. So a demonstration of 200 people would be surrounded by a thousand uniformed guards, tens of plain clothes officers, dozens of sunglasses and mobile phones, and officers of so many ranks I lost track of. It would not be allowed to march, but remain cornered in place, like caged animals in a zoo, while passing cars would slow down to try to hear what the chants were saying to no avail.
This lasted for as long as I could remember for the past 30 years of Mubarak’s regime. This was the people’s only channel to speak directly to the regime in an attempt to be seen and heard by all, not just the educated elite or even merely those who could read newspapers.
With this background I eyed the call for the January 25 protest with so much doubt and skepticism. I had the burden of the years behind me, of the scenes and the frustrations that never seemed to cease. And I did not believe that change could be brought about with an appointment, setting date and time to take the road against oppression. Revolutions didn’t happen that way. They were spontaneous. They had to be spontaneous. They weren’t a rendez-vous with freedom.
I woke up on the morning of the 25th feeling lazy, and guilty for being lazy. My friend Nadia called and insisted that I go, so I got off the bed because I knew that I would not be able to live with the guilt of not being out on the street on that day.
As I later found out, we were like many other skeptical Egyptians who were going out of a fading sense of duty. We knew there was nothing else we could do if we wanted any change. So the step now was to decide where to go to begin the demonstration. A number of places had been discussed by those who said they’d participate. Some had planned to have breakfast in a chic cafe in an upper class neighborhood and move from there – adding much to my already skeptical attitude – and others had decided to begin in Shobra, a busy, crowded neighborhood known for its mosaic of inhabitants, from Christians to Islamists. So Nadia and I opted for Shobra. We wanted hot events and we wanted to see them for ourselves.
We signaled for a taxi and got in, immediately putting on our casual girls all out for fun act. The taxi smiled and pointed to two people that had signaled for him before us. “Do you see those idiots? They stopped me and said, ‘take us to the demonstration!’ Demonstration?? I want to live!” And he laughed. “So why are you going to Shobra, young ladies?” We looked at each other and Nadia instantly replied, “We’re visiting a friend.”
I sent my first tweet that I was on my way to the demos and received a phone call from my friend Adel. “You’re going to the demonstration?” He asked with excitement. All I could think of was to control all my replies lest I horrify the taxi driver.
“Cool where will you go?”
“Shobra! Why is that?”
“Just like that.”
“Just like that. Choice. Ok… maybe I’ll go in Mostafa Mahmoud, then.”
I couldn’t wait for Adel to hang up so that I could SMS him on why we wanted Shobra or why I spoke to him that way.
We arrived in the main square in Shobra. Neither we nor the taxi driver had ever been to the place and we didn’t know how to find it, but the sight of an increasing police presence told us we were close. Someone pointed out to us that it was further ahead, and the minute we reached it we knew we were in the right place. Dozens of police trucks were parked on the sides, dozens of plain clothes men in dark sunglasses, dark coats, and neat haircuts had pulled up plastic chairs and sat on the sides of the road, believing that that way they could actually blend among the people. Those were the famous Amn Dawla, the humungous state security apparatus that had been terrorizing political activists for decades, bullying all dissidents whenever they felt like it. Men in uniforms of too many ranks stood talking to their radio receivers, barring some shops with iron bars and helmeted guards.
And there was not a single protester in sight.
Like many other Egyptians, the mere sight of heavy police presence unnerved us, because we knew that under the emergency law that’s been ruling the country for 3 decades, they could easily pick us up off the street and arrest us for no apparent reason other than being physically there. We kept walking back and forth with no place to go until we decided to settle in a restaurant and wait for Adel to join us. That way, maybe we wouldn’t really attract too much attention.
Adel arrived and asked the police to allow him into the restaurant, signaling with his hand that he wanted to buy a sandwich. We were all oblivious to the oddity of people deciding to just hang out in a restaurant under police siege.
Time passed and nothing was starting. Action was already beginning in that upper middle class cafe we had rejected, however. Nadia learned that our friends there were arrested right out of that cafe and carried in police trucks, only to be released in a far suburb away from the center of the city. We figured that plans where we were might have changed. Nadia was always inseparable from her mobile phone, following everything on Twitter. So she read that a protest was actually growing in downtown Cairo. We immediately took the decision to go there. We stopped the taxi and continued on foot, when suddenly we found ourselves in an overwhelming crowd of people marching in the streets, chanting against the government and calling for the fall of the president. This was the first time I had ever seen a protest allowed to actually march in the streets of Cairo.
We kept walking along with it, and people were standing in their balconies in all buildings watching. Others stood on the sides of the street like they were looking at a parade. It felt like one to me, because I had never seen such young fresh faces calling for freedom before. They were the kind of people that I only saw when Egypt won a soccer game. Suddenly those young men were rallying for change. Suddenly they were out, risking everything, for the right reasons.
This march did not appear to have any leaders. Hundreds were growing into thousands, and the young were carried on shoulders in many groups, shouting the regime down. They seemed to come from every street, every alley. And the more time passed the more crowded it became. My heart was beating fast. The sounds of the crowds almost shattered the walls. And the protesters looked up to the windows, calling upon the people watching to come down and join them. They called for every person standing by to join. I could see people beaming at the protesters, eyes lit up, filled with joy and hope, yet standing pinned down to the ground, too afraid. As I walked along I could hear hums very near to me. I turned and found a middle aged man in tears and a look of disbelief chanting the national anthem. He had decided to join the march.
Nadia and I began to run from one end to another in each rally, trying to figure out the size of the crowds, then I began to see the hesitant faces that had previously stood by now in the midst of the marches, shouting off the top of their lungs, “Down, down with Mubarak!”
The destination of the marches in different parts of Cairo was Tahrir, or liberation, square. Being the largest in Cairo, the place holds special significance for both the people and the government alike. It was as if those who controlled it held the upper hand and were seen and heard by all. And as the crowds began to grow and the police tried to isolate marches from each other, I knew that there was no way the police would allow a soul into Tahrir.
The larger the number the safer and more assured most people began to feel. They challenged the police to continue their marches to join those on the other side, and when they failed they spontaneously changed direction, in thousands, to another path leading to the same destination.
The coordination was perfect. An advanced row would begin to shout to the back “Go back!” And it would be transferred from one row to another until an entire batch of at least a thousand or more people would change direction with no clash or division.
Not being bound by a single group, Nadia and I were able to penetrate even to the side of the police, changing our occupations and purposes of being in the street as we went along depending on who asked us. One minute we were journalists, the other we were trying to get home. I could see that the situation was extremely tense on their side. I overheard an officer speaking on the phone, “This is only getting worse! We can’t handle these numbers!” The minute I heard that sentence I knew that the time had come. This was the time to do it. If not now then the chance wouldn’t come again, not for another 30 years.
The crowds were finally able to enter Tahrir, pushing the police toward the ministry of interior building, by which time the police had redeployed throughout the street that led to it, pointing water hoses and using tear gas to disperse the crowds. Suddenly there were rocks flying in the air. We took shelter in a corner right at the street where the battle began. The further the protesters advanced the more cheerful they became, and soon they were joined by thousands more coming into Tahrir from all directions. Tahrir had become theirs.
I stood speechless. I left my home that day expecting a few hundred to be surrounded by an army of black-cloaked helmeted guards, and I found scores of people from all walks of life chasing the police out of Tahrir! I had never ever imagined a protest of this size or magnitude. And the amazing contrast of moods between the crowds and the police was what struck me the most. The minute I was among the protesters there was nothing but defiance and determination, yet among the police there was nothing but horror and panic.
Something very big had happened in my country. The people were no longer afraid, the regime was.
The last thing that occurred to me as I imagined my blog entries on my trip to Nepal was that the first title I would use would be The Airport. But airport is all the experience I’ve been getting so far, and after 4 days of leaving Cairo.
On Thursday night, November 11, 2010, I kissed my cat goodbye and walked out of the door with my backpack and duffle and headed to Alexandria. My flight to Kathmandu, Nepal, was to start from Alexandria, stop for 6 hours in Sharjah, UAE, then fly to Kathmandu. I was supposed to get there by the afternoon of Friday, November 12.
I met Amr and Caroline, two of the seven trekkers headed on the same trip, at the entrance to the Alexandria airport. There we were stopped outside the airport and told to wait until, well, until some time. They stopped us because there wasn’t yet room for us inside the airport. Other flights had to finish their check-in and boarding first for us to be able to go inside and take their places in the check-in and boarding cues.
The airport was a ground floor only facility in a building of four or five stories. The actual area designated for travelers is an averaged sized hall with compartments for specific areas. There was one waiting room incubated by dirty glass in old, broken aluminum frames, one dusty shop carved into existence by the same fashion, and a single desk on the side with one security official to stamp all our passports. There were no officials in any of the little glass cubicles stamping any passports. That single man was doing it for everyone.
The waiting area was jammed with people. I found a seat next to a woman sitting with her two little girls. Both girls were restless and kept fighting and arguing, and when they grew tired of each other they began to brush themselves against me. I don’t recall hearing any official announcements about our flight, or any flight. Soon news began to spread – like rumors and gossip – that our flight was indefinitely delayed because of the thick fog that resided over Alexandria. Our plane had in fact turned around and landed in Cairo. It was 2 am and there was no hope of the plane showing up any time before the day broke. No official in the airport had any clear answer. We accepted our fate and waited.
Waiting makes me watch the people around me. I’m hardly the type that can get herself busy in a book when there’s so much to be looking at. I began to focus on those two girls and their mother. What a life of hardship for so many Egyptian families, the women have to drag their children in the middle of the night to catch a flight and go to the father in another Arab country where he’s probably underpaid, but surely better paid than he would be if he were to stay in Egypt.
Soon, however, my sympathy turned into utter horror as I noticed lice in both girls’ hair! I impulsively began to cringe each time either one of their heads brushed against my clothes. I desperately looked around for other seats but there were none. And sitting on the sticky, smelly, stained floor was not yet an option for me.
Alarmed by my behavior, Caroline looked inquisitively at me. “The girls have lice in their hair. Lots of it!” I explained. She impulsively pulled her own hair to the opposite side and responded: “Really??”
The waiting continued. Soon a person carrying a large plastic bag called out for passengers on the Sharjah flight to present their boarding passes. For each boarding pass you get a packet of biscuits and a small juice carton. If your boarding pass says you’re on another flight then no biscuits or juice for you. The seen was shameful, with juice and biscuits flying over people’s heads and going to others. The little child next to me was unfortunate enough to not be going to Sharjah. The minute the man showed up all I could hear was her wails. “I want juice! I want juice!”
There was no way I would get my juice and sip on it while she watched and wailed. I took the biscuits and juice from him and handed them to her automatically.
Soon a distant sound of ululation came from the entrance to the hall. A large crowd entered the airport and in the midst of it a large white figure appeared. A bride in her wedding dress and a groom, surrounded by their happy family, were making their way into the airport to join the flight to a new life in Sharjah, still oblivious to the long hours of waiting they were yet to endure.
As the hours passed I eventually had to give up my seat to go to the bathroom. As always expected in most public facility bathrooms in Egypt, there is never soap or toilet paper, but there is always a lady sitting somewhere inside willing to give you some of the toilet paper roll she has in her hands for a tip. Being personally equipped with my own toilet paper and hand sanitizer gel, I didn’t notice that there were no women sitting anywhere for this purpose. Soon after I got inside a couple of them appeared and a tense conversation began.
“You forgot to clean the second toilet.”
“Well I just cleaned off the kid’s puke! So spare me! You know I can handle anything but puke!”
“Who else is to clean it?”
“Why of course! You just hang around all day and when there’s something to be done it’s me, the one who wipes puke off floors, who has to do it. I do nothing here but wipe puke. I’m the puke cleaning person around here!”
Almost puking myself, I barged out of the toilet, rinsed my hands, and resorted to using my hand sanitizer. I was not going to ask puke lady for any soap.
On my way out I discovered that outside the hall, only a few meters away across two junior policemen, there lay a haven of empty chairs waiting to be occupied, or so I thought. I flew, with as much speech as the crowd would allow me, to Amr and Caroline and told them about my discovery. We carried our backpacks and headed towards the chairs when we were stopped by a muscular official.
“Sorry, madam. You cannot go there,” he said firmly. I tried hard to dissociate this moment from the long history I’ve had with unjustifiable forbiddens the government had always bestowed upon me everywhere in the streets. “There happens to be five meters away, and it is only three empty chairs for me and my friends to sit on. There is no room here for anyone.”
“You have already stamped your passport so you cannot go past this [imaginary] line.”
Shock overrode me. My eyes probably began to bulge out at him. “If we don’t walk those few extra steps to sit on those chairs we will end up on our feet for as long as it takes for this fog to lift and our plane to arrive from Cairo. Given that we’re human beings, we need to sit down.”
His face suddenly went red. “For the way you have spoken to me now, you will not go sit on those chairs!”
Another classical example of an official abusing the only sense of control he has over anything, or anyone.
I don’t recall what else I said after this climatic statement was barfed at me. What I do remember is that all three of us ended up going to sit on the chairs, which made the little staff that the airport had go find some extra chairs and place them inside the waiting hall for us. That way we could sit down and still be within safe passport stamping domain.
Not for long, however. Soon there were new passengers allowed into the hall, after hours of waiting in the street, who needed to check in. So we were once again asked to leave our chairs to make room for them to stand in the check in line.
I stole a man’s seat as he went to ask around for any news on the flight. I placed my backpack in front of me, rested my feet on it, and dozed off until day broke. Having given up on any decent response from any of the airport staff, Amr tried phoning the Cairo airport to inquire about the flight.
A lazy voice answered on the other end of the line. “No. Call us in the afternoon.”
The fog began to lift near 10 am in the morning, but we were only able to board our flight at 2 PM. When it became known that it was time to board the flight people flocked towards the gate and pushed each other frantically, sending a wave of panic among the airport staff. Little voices of wisdom began to call out for decency among the crowds to allow an old man, barely able to stand up, to cross till the beginning of the crowd to be allowed first out and into the bus. Then suddenly some women began to call out immediately after the old man had passed. “Make room for the bride!”
The bride! I had almost forgotten about her. I looked in her direction and there was the groom, all sweaty, his hair messed up, his tie undone, and his shirt all wrinkled, trying to escort an intact bride in the middle of the crowd, followed by the weary, faded smiles of their mothers. I felt sorry for the faded joy of the whole family, yet the bride’s make up and veil had miraculously stayed on her for the full 13 hours in this wondrous place of hygienic horrors. That either stood in testimony for the craftsmanship of our hairdressers, or the family’s superb ability to preserve their bride somewhere in midair.
I was glad to finally get out of the place and breathe some fresh air. 13 hours in this chamber of a terminal were further highlighted by the suffocating passivity I saw in many people’s faces, by the bored routine-scarred faces of the staff who endured the place everyday to make a living, and most importantly by the utter humiliation we all felt for being kept in the dark for such long hours.
We landed in Sharjah to a whole new culture. The airport was sparkling clean and and there was a lot of individual space. All three flights to Kathmandu on that day had already departed so we were given hotel rooms to stay in.
A young Asian man showed me and Caroline to the room. He smiled at me and said, “You’re catching your flight to Kathmandu?”
“Yes! It’s our first visit to Nepal!”
“I’m from Nepal, you know?”
Awesome! I was still not even close to Nepal and there I was standing face to face with my first Nepalese. With a close look at his sharp features, the first question that jumped to my mind was ‘Are you a Sherpa?’ But I didn’t want to be the typical dumb tourist. To him it might have sounded like “You’re Arab! Do you have a camel??”
“So what is the most famous thing about Nepal?” He asked me with a beaming smile. “Buddhism!” I responded confidently.
“Well, there is also Everest?”
“Why yes of course!!” How could I miss THAT? Why on earth was I on this trip to begin with?
“But Everest has its own native name, right? What do you call it?”
That fell more comfortably on my ears.
Now for the fourth day in Kathmandu, sitting in the same spot in the airport, staring at the same faces, Sagarmatha is all that my mind calls out to me in the midst of the noise that surrounds us. It gets stronger with each repetitive announcement of a delay or cancellation of all flights heading to Lukla, where the trek to see Sagarmatha should begin.
No flights till now due to the heavy fog. Sagarmatha is closed.
By Salma Beshr
Kilimanjaro…what a beautiful mountain! Not that I’ve climbed it or gone anywhere near climbing it. Apparently I’ve seen it, or so my parents tell me, somewhere between the ages of 0 and 3, when we were living in Uganda, where I was born, but I can’t really say it’s etched in my memory or that I have any recollection of its majestic beauty. Maybe they tried to point it out to me: “Salma, look at the mountain!” “Where?” “That big big thing over there, see?” “Wheeere?” Or something like that.
That doesn’t mean I don’t feel a connection to it. I’ve seen pictures of it, of course, and heard stories about it over the years. I think, more than anything, the word Kilimanjaro was part of my vocabulary from an early age, so of course that special bond was created long long ago. It’s my mountain. I was born near it. I could say the word ‘Kilimanjaro’ at the age of 3, whereas other children couldn’t. So it’s MY mountain. I dare anyone out there to tell me it isn’t!
Having said all that, that doesn’t mean I’ve been thinking about it constantly or that a beautiful picture of it has long been the wallpaper on my screen or anything like that. Far from it. It lay way at the back of my memory until talk about it resurfaced a year or so ago when Nadia El Awady, back then only a close friend of Arwa’s to me, climbed to the top. I admit that when I first heard about her accomplishment, my initial reaction was: “but that’s my mountain!” Again it lay dormant for another year after this event, then it became a hot topic in our extended household when Arwa announced she was going to attempt the same feat herself. All the details of the preparation for it, the expedition itself, and her final triumphant return with 25 other climbers has given our often dull gatherings a much-needed boost.
Her pictures, her videos, but more than anything her vastly entertaining account of the arduous climb to the top, no detail spared (thank you very much) have succeeded in firing our imaginations and in leading us to believe that if she – this relatively normal member of our family who is addicted to pizza and crazy about her cat – could do it, then maybe we could too. Certainly, what inspired me the most was the romanticism of it all: you suffer, you have doubts, you think of quitting the whole thing, but eventually, out of sheer determination and will power, you make it to the summit and stand way above the clouds; literally on top of the world. So much so, I even wrote her a poem about it.
So much so, I let her talk me into a preliminary expedition, to test the grounds, so to speak and to discover if I truly had it in me, which she utterly believed everyone did. She was so convincing that I agreed to go with her to Sinai to climb Mount St. Catherine, the highest summit in Egypt which stands a mere 2624 meters high compared to Kilimanjaro’s 5895. A glorified molehill, a walk in the park, how could I not go?
And so much so, that my well-known fear of heights became a tiny, insignificant detail.
Over the years, my parents, then my husband and even my children have taken delight in regaling stories of me standing with quivering knees and eyes closed at the top of such buildings as the World Trade Center in New York (before 9/11), the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the top of St. Peter’s Cupola in Rome, and the bridge between the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. The whole point of standing in a long queue and taking a speeding elevator or an endless flight of winding stairs to reach the top has been one and the same in all of these buildings: to enjoy the breathtaking view of the city from the top. In none of these buildings have I had the courage to face the view, let alone enjoy it. While other tourists, including my own children, would be oohing and aahing and taking shots with their cameras dangerously near the edge, I would be the one with my back to the view, my face firmly to the wall.
But mountains are different, I thought to myself. There isn’t the same steepness you have in a building or the fear that this tall, thin, man-made structure might snap into two. Mountains have been around for ages, they are huge and solid and slope gradually to the summit. And I was reassured that there is very little steepness in St. Catherine compared to other mountains.
So I agreed to go. When he heard of the scheme, Hussein, my 15-year-old son, decided to join in and so, together with Arwa herself, and Ali, our 21-year-old nephew who was in from the beginning, we took off. My decision to go was a very last-minute thing (in retrospect, I think if I had had more time to think about it, I would definitely have backed out) and, since we are not an outdoorsy sort of family (my husband hates camping) there was quite a lot of shopping involved–head torches, sleeping bags, hiking shoes, etc. as well as snacks for the climb, sanitizer gel and so on. We spent the day before the trip getting everything in order and declared ourselves ready to take on Mount St. Catherine.
A pang of guilt for my 19-year-old daughter who had wanted desperately to go on this trip, but who was detained by her heavy Thursday schedule at university, made me stay up all night to help her out and to keep her company as she embarked on one of her endless architectural projects. Her job is to design the model and decide on how best to construct it, my job involves cutting and pasting. Finally, at around 7 am, I left her and went to bed. I woke up at 10 to start getting ready before our scheduled departure time of 12 noon, and hoped I would be able to catch up on my sleep on the way to Sinai. We had already decided to go on our own by car rather than by bus with the rest of the group.
With Arwa at the steering wheel and Ali as her co-pilot, Hussein and I took turns leaning on each other in the back seat and trying to doze off, but I don’t think I slept more than 20 minutes tops. We arrived at the Bedouin Camp at the base of St. Catherine at around 7 pm and joined the rest of the group for what would be our last hot meal for the next 24 hours, as well as our last cup of tea. I knew no-one except Nadia, the organizer of the trip, but a look around gave me a lot of confidence: none of the others looked particularly like mountain-climbers; most were first-timers like me. We, on the other hand, were seen by the rest of the group as being in the company of an expert climber, not to mention a downright celebrity who was just back from her latest exploits on the Roof of Africa!
After that we used our last toilet, made our last phone calls, washed and prayed and got ready for our hike. Before embarking on our expedition, Arwa announced she was going to go through our backpacks and decide what was necessary and what was not, since a heavy load on our backs was not in our best interests. One by one we submitted to her close inspection and allowed her to confiscate items of clothing which were deemed unnecessary, wallets, keys, etc. Even the snacks were reduced, her determination to teach us the right way to climb a mountain reaching a point where we haggled over 2 triangles of cream cheese instead of 4, and where a heated argument with Ali took place over his toothbrush, which she lost. Three liters of water for each of us was established as the necessary amount, and having bought it from the local store, we set off with the others.
We started our hike at 8 pm. By then, it was completely dark, but this is where our head torches came in handy. I am not usually a night owl, but the excitement and possibly also the lack of sleep had given me a second wind and I was all energized and ready to go. As we made our way in the dark on a trail covered with rocks and pebbles, we were informed that we had not yet begun our ascent, that, in fact, we were not even close to the mountain; it would be some time before we reached it. How much? A vague response ensued. This was one of the main characteristics of this trip: no specific times for anything were given throughout the whole expedition, I think for fear of demotivating the climbers. So, for all intents and purposes we were in the dark, metaphorically-speaking as well as in reality.
To make things easier, we were divided into 2 groups according to pace, each group being assigned a guide. I started out thinking I could be with the faster group, but ended up being in the slower one, which was fine. Almost 2 hours after we had begun, we reached the mountain, which we could barely see, but the panting and sweating told us we had begun to climb. Now, for those who have never climbed a mountain before, you may think that 2624 meters is nothing, that’s like 3 laps around the track at the club. No sir, the trail keeps going from one end of the mountain to the other horizontally, zig-zagging its way until the summit, which means that the actual walking distance is 8 or 9 kilometers.
Add to that the elevation and the rocky trail and you have your work cut out for you.
The first hour or two of the actual climb passed by relatively easily. In spite of a wobbly left knee, which I have unfortunately passed on to my son, too, I enjoyed the exercise immensely. I could feel my muscles becoming hard and having just emerged from Ramadan, the month of eating rather than fasting, I looked forward to a substantial weight loss. I even joked with Nadia and Arwa that if I didn’t lose at least 5 kilos, there would be hell to pay!
Every now and then we would stop for a short break, drink some water or have a light snack like dates or juice. The interval between breaks became shorter as we proceeded, and each time it became more difficult to get up again and continue on our path. But Nadia kept telling us we needed to proceed if we were going to reach the summit and sleep for a couple of hours before sunrise. So we continued, undeterred by the fact that one of our fellow climbers had a mild panic attack which resulted in shortness of breath, and led to a unanimous decision that she should return to the camp immediately and not go on as planned. Nadia asked Feteih, the guide in charge of the slower group to take her down and the rest of us would carry on with one guide.
But where was this guide? No-one knew. He had vanished entirely; in fact, he had been so swift in disappearing that the majority of the climbers in his group hadn’t even had time to get to know his face or to make a connection with him. One or two of the faster climbers who had gone on ahead of the rest of us said that he had left them early on with the excuse that he had dropped his cell phone on the way and needed to look for it! Any word beginning with ‘B’ would be appropriate here!
So we were on our own without a guide, relying solely on Nadia’s expertise and our own intuition. “Is that the trail?” “Yes, that looks like it” or “No, no, around that big rock over there.” As long as we were all together, there was no cause for alarm. And anyway we were sure to meet the two fellows with the camels carrying our sleeping bags somewhere along the way.
At this stage of the climb, my adrenalin was still running high and although I was puffing and panting a bit, like the rest of us, I could not say that I was exhausted. I still had a reserve of energy and the snacks helped a lot. But people seemed to think I was tired and kept offering to carry my backpack: Ali, my sweet nephew, Arwa, and Nadia practically insisted on it. But I was determined to carry my own backpack, not only out of pride, but because I honestly felt it wasn’t weighing me down. In order to pacify them, I allowed myself to use Arwa’s trekking poles for support as I have small feet which invariably get stuck between rocks and cause me to lose my balance. Twice my dear son, walking behind me, prevented me from toppling over.
Another two hours of putting one foot in front of the other passed, sweating and panting, but concentrating only on the feet. By now my t-shirt was wet and although my body didn’t feel any cold, I could tell that temperatures were dropping so I fished into my backpack for a jumper and put it on. The head torch, which is secured around the cranium with an elastic band was bothering me and I kept removing it and drying the sweat from my face. My IQ must have been dropping too at that point, because I remember thinking: “What will I do tomorrow in the sunlight when I have the head torch and my sunglasses on at the same time?”
It was around then that I started losing hope of ever reaching the summit; we had been walking for 6 hours and still there was no end in sight. We were reassured that the end was near, but then we kept on walking, mechanically taking ever slower steps. Then, suddenly those who were ahead of us started turning back and, much to our horror, they told us that somewhere we had taken a wrong turn and that the summit could not be reached that way. So with knees now trembling, we had to make our way down again and take another path.
It may have been just an hour more at that point, but to me, at least, it felt like eternity. Nadia went on ahead, taking one of the other climbers with her and, asking the porters with the camels for directions, she made it to the summit herself to make sure we were on the right track, then joined us a little below the summit to give us the glad tidings. But by then we were all so exhausted that it was decided that rather than continue now and sleep in the little hut at the top, we would just unfold our sleeping bags and sleep then and there, then resume our journey just before sunrise.
Easier said than done. Looking around, I could see we had picked a perfect spot for camping out: there was hardly a flat piece of terrain. The ledge, although big enough to hold us and the camels, was extremely rocky and bumpy. Nothing to do but to make the best of it, so I unfolded my sleeping bag and tried to snuggle inside, wearing an extra 2 jackets and covering my head with 3 hoods and my feet with another pair of socks. I tried to ignore the sharp rock jutting into the small of my back and to concentrate on the beauty of the starlit sky, but every bone in my body was aching and every muscle was throbbing. Unable to sleep on my back, I tried to turn over on my side with little success, and eventually dozed off for 5 minutes. The whole camp was silent, except for Ali and Hussein who, too cold to sleep, had decided to have a little private party of tuna and cheese, giggling and talking to each other in loud whispers. Ah, the joy of being young and carefree!
When I woke up from my tiny nap, all the feelings of pain returned and I could do nothing but lie there, wondering how in the world I was ever going to walk again. Just then Nadia started to wake up those of us who were asleep and to remind us that we had very little time before sunrise if we wanted to watch it from the summit. So, with every ounce of will still left, I pulled myself into a sitting position, then crawled out of my sleeping bag and somehow managed to stand on my own two feet. The trek to the summit was short and relatively fast and the sky had begun to turn a pale yellow. Once at the top, people started pulling out their cameras and gasping at the beauty of the sun as it soared from behind the clouds. That had been the whole object of the climb and this was what we were here to watch. Well, everyone except me, that is.
Climbing in the dark was one thing, but being at the top and looking down at the valleys below and being able to see, actually see, what I had brought upon myself, well, that was another thing altogether. I sat crouching on a rock and tried to keep my eyes glued to the rising sun and not at the valley below, hardly daring to breathe. Every now and then someone would urge me to come and look at the view from this side or that side, but I ignored them all and sat with my heart pounding inside my chest, and all the blood draining from my face as I contemplated the options before me: a) I could stay here forever and become a sort of hermit living in the little hut and feeding on thyme or marjoram or whatever it was we smelt on the way up, or b) I could stay here forever. No question about going down whatsoever.
I must have been a pathetic sight, because Yosri Fouda, the eminent journalist who happened to be in our group, took a look at my white, anguished face and said: “I think I’ll write an article about you, maybe call it ‘The Martyr of St. Catherine’!”
A few more minutes of this torture, and it was time to start the journey down. Only the thought of my poor mother, worried sick about us and waiting for us back home with my husband and daughter made me stir and attempt to make that arduous trek in broad daylight. Words cannot express the panic that had taken hold of me and while others were admiring the views, I was keeping my eyes on my own two feet, determined to see as little as I possibly could.
Suffice it to say that the climb up, as exhausting as it was, had been a breeze compared to the journey down. All my courage and bravado had gone out of the window, and all that was left was an old woman, a tiny shell of an old woman, in fact, holding onto her poles, or crutches, rather, for dear life’s sake. Where before I had stepped lightly and confidently, now I dragged my feet, slower than a turtle, clutching at rocks and depending entirely on my two brave boys: one to lead the way and the other to catch me when I fell. The first of three falls resulted in a twisted ankle, which was all I needed, but with no spare legs in my backpack, I had to do with what I had.
One foot, the other foot, rocks, rocks, rocks and more rocks. Big rocks, medium rocks, small rocks. Tiny rocks like pebbles, slippery like soap. It was an eternity before we reached the Arbaein Valley. Arwa tried to point out the multi-colored rocks in hues of pink, blue and lilac, but by now I couldn’t care less. “They’re still rocks, aren’t they?!” I shouted in my mind, but without actually saying anything because that would have been too exhausting. I knew for sure I never wanted to see another rock in my life!
Now and then we would come to a steep cliff where the trail was very narrow. With shaking knees I would reluctantly let go of my poles and hold on to the wall of the mountain, not daring to turn my eyes to the sheer drop below us. Then once more, right foot, left foot, rocks, rocks, rocks. Oh God, please help me, please let this be over soon!
This is where Moses spoke to God and received the ten commandments. Well, not exactly here on this mountain, but in the same area. I have hiking shoes, sunblock on my face for the scorching sun, Nike dri-fit clothes and the poles. How did he make it up, I wonder, with only sandals on his feet and whatever sort of robe they wore in those days? Well, not entirely true, he had a staff on which he leaned, the one common thing between us. But he was known to be a hefty man, he killed another man with his bare hands. He probably did this a lot, going up and down mountains. And of course he was on a mission to spread the word of God, whereas I’m only here because I was unbelievably stupid!
Needless to say, because of my turtle pace, we were the last people in the group. Everyone else had gone on ahead except for Nadia who made sure she was the last one behind. She is an amazing woman, Nadia. She is like a shepherdess, watching over her flock of sheep, making sure none of us go astray. At one point she notices that my shoelace is undone and bends down to tie it for me. I cannot begin to explain how tired and weak I must have been to let her do that instead of doing it myself. Two sleepless nights in a row had taken their toll on me and all I could manage was an inaudible ‘thank you’.
We had started out at 8 am that morning, and it was now nearly noon. Just when I have completely lost hope, we meet two groups on their way up. It is all I can do to keep from saying: “Go back! Don’t even think of going up! Are you crazy?” But they look so excited and eager that I force myself to shut up.
By now, another two hours have passed and we are on the trail from the mountain to the place where the bus is expected to meet us to take us back to the Bedouin Camp. I feel I am like one of those people you see in the movies, who find themselves alone in the desert, with a handkerchief tied around their heads, their legs twisting around each other, and their lips chapped and dry as they croak: “Water, waaater!”
There are only a few more meters to go, or so they keep telling me, but whatever reservoir of energy I had is now completely empty and I am dragging my feet on a battery that is about to run out. Someone has released me of my backpack, I think it was Hussein, and I have no energy to argue. I have lost all control. Arwa takes matters into her hands, and seeing that I’m about to die, makes use of the newly-found signal on her cell phone and orders someone somewhere to send a camel for me. “I don’t like camels,” I manage to tell her. “There’s no other option,” she says, firmly, “you can’t go on like this.” Again, I don’t argue.
Eventually, the camel arrives and somehow I get up on it, dreading the moment when, first his hind legs, then his front legs, go up and I am swaying to and fro on this great, unstable beast of burden that is supposed to carry me and relieve me of my exhaustion and weakness. The sloping path, though far less steep, is still rocky, and the combination of that and me sitting on the hump of a towering camel is the equivalent of a roller coaster. NOT my favorite ride at the amusement park. All I will venture to say about this part of the expedition is that for years to come, my son will have endless fun at my expense, telling everyone he meets about my shouting and screaming, imploring the camel to go slowly and bursting into tears at the end.
What can I say? It was entirely my decision to go and I bear full responsibility. Sure, we had our fair share of bad luck, what with the guide disappearing and causing us to lose our way, and being forced to sleep outdoors. He re-appeared at the very end, by the way, and both Nadia and Arwa took it upon themselves to let him know exactly what kind of vermin they thought he was.
Words cannot describe the relief and joy of sitting on the upholstered seat of a car after a 14-hour hike on my own two legs and a death-ride on the back of a camel. I wasn’t meant for this kind of thing, I conclude.
Would I do it again? Absolutely not. What about Kilimanjaro? Yeah right.
What I can safely say is that were it not for my incredible companions on this trip, things would have been far worse for me. And the fact is, that the more exertion and suffering you put into a project, the greater the reward is sure to be. And in this case the reward was the knowledge that I have raised a man and that in later years, if God so wills, I will have him to lean on. Not just him, but Ali as well and all those young men out there who have learnt the meaning of responsibility and who bring pride and joy to their mothers by being who they are, may God bless each and everyone of them.
So for the time being, no more mountains or camels for me, no more adventures. I will be forever satisfied to be on solid ground and to recall from my memory files this incredible experience. For better or worse, St. Catherine is now my mountain while Kilimanjaro belongs to Nadia and Arwa and the 25 other climbers who made it to its summit on September 17th. Well done to all of you, I now have an even greater respect for your accomplishment!