Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Egyptian girls are the red line!

Egyptians returned to Liberation Square last Friday for yet another demonstration to voice disapproval of their military rulers.

Two prominent signs with the word kaathiboon or “liars” in bold red were displayed in the square. The epithet refers to the military junta or Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) which last week ordered soldiers to assault peaceful protesters in the square. In doing so, they beat a young, veiled woman unconscious on the pavement, her headscarf and shirt ripped off, revealing a blue bra against a pale chest.

A few soldiers surrounded her, dragging her limp body. They carried batons and one of them stepped on her half-naked body. This is only one of the various images that Egyptians have witnessed this week in their ongoing revolution as they struggle with a basic question of who will rule their new political system.

Even under Mubarak’s regime, such an act was never perpetrated. Many Egyptians feel a new boundary has been crossed. Taxi drivers now talk of going to the square to “restore her honor.”

I asked one of my Egyptian brothers, how does one go to the military council to “restore” lost honor? The question tripped him up a little.

In visiting Liberation Square this past summer, I witnessed a number of so-called debate circles, where Egyptians would discuss calmly and cordially different subjects. Now, these same debate circles are filled with venom. Men shout. Women shout. Men shout at women. Young men shout at other young men. They are angrier than before. I admit I am a little distressed at these images. Somehow, they frighten me a little more than the men with machetes who walk around the square.

I ascend the stairs from the metro station and am met by the civilian guards who ask me for my passport. I display my Chinese teacher’s ID from my year teaching English abroad in 1998—more than 13 years ago. I hope my youthful picture still matches my current mug. “China? You Chinese? We like China. Enter!”

Gamal, one gentleman in his 40s, was accompanying his colleagues in carrying a giant Egyptian flag. Sporting a Palestinian kufaya around his neck, Gamal first asks me to take some pictures of him. I oblige him. He then asks me to send him the pictures. When I ask him for his email address, he asks another gentleman on the side to write his address for him. I surmise that Gamal is illiterate.

Gamal invites me to a cup of tea and gently pulls me to the side where a tea lady has set up shop with a few bottles of bottled water, instant tea and a Bunsen burner on a piece of wood. I ask her, “how’s business?”

“Pretty good today. Pretty good,” She replies cheerfully.

As we talk, Gamal tells me that he works in a hammam, or bathhouse nearby in Boulaq, a working class neighborhood by the Nile. As he speaks, he reminds me of a Chinese monk with his shaved head, high cheekbones and long eyebrows. He even has a wide nose and piercing eyes. Yes, definitely Chinese monk from the Ming Dynasty.

Using hand gestures, he describes the bath house and the international clientele. They are open every day and he would like to invite me there to try it out. “We have all the best techniques!” In all my time in Cairo, I had heard of the bath houses, but only got close to one a few years ago, but it was closed at the time. So, this intrigued me.

Gamal hinted that perhaps, he could show me the bath house after we finish the tea.
I hinted to him that maybe we should walk around the square a little. He hooked his left arm in my right arm and led me forward.

Every few minutes or so, we stop and he would ask me to take a picture of him in front of a flag or sign or some other background. Then, he would offer to take my picture, even though I was not particularly interested. He insisted. Being polite to my new guide, I relented. When he stepped back to get a better angle, I had the momentary feeling that he would run off with my camera.

I stopped at some hand-drawn cartoons posted on the side and spent a few minutes trying to decipher them. He urged me to hurry up by saying, “yella?” or “let’s go?” I took my sweet time.

Sometimes, when I gave him the camera, he held onto it for an extended period of time, not returning it to me right afterwards.

Close to one of the main stages a man holds up a religious protest sign: “our revolution will not kneel except for one God.” A noose wrapped in the Egyptian flag is attached to the sign.

Gamal spotted a young lady and her mother with some colorful signs. He snapped a few photos and then climbed the concrete platform to take additional photos. The young lady held a home-made sign: “to the military council—we don’t want your service. Return to your barracks. Thank you!”

On her chest was pinned a black and white poster of three photos of women abused by the military police in recent days.

The young lady explained that these actions were simply unacceptable. She was present tonight to protest military rule.

One man on crutches and missing his right leg is on disability, but only receives 130 LE ($21) a month. I asked him how he could live on that small amount. “I can’t!”
A young student of about 14 in a crisp white shirt asked me if demonstrations like tonight’s were possible in China. I replied “no.” While China has economic freedom, there is no political freedom. Whereas Egypt is the opposite. The young boy asked me which one I preferred. I explained that ideally, both would be good.

While I was talking, Gamal stepped off the platform and disappeared into the cro—with my camera. My worst fear now confirmed, I ran after him and quickly caught up with him. It appears that he was simply following the crowd, taking pictures. My guess is that he’s never owned a camera before.

We followed the chanting protesters for the next 30-45 minutes down empty streets.

A mock casket draped in red bunting floats on the protesters’ shoulders. The words on the side read: “Martyr of the military rule.”

A car with a large sign displays the same image of the police battering the women protesters from last week: “Where’s the glory?”

A middle-aged man approaches me and asks me politely: “you are not Egyptian, are you? You don’t belong here. If the police see you, they will arrest you. You should go.”

The teenagers around me tell me that I can do anything I want and should ignore the man. We wait a minute or so for the crowd to pass before we head back to Liberation Square.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Voting night (12/22 Thursday)

Voting in Egypt takes a little more effort sometimes.

I accompany my friend Hatem to go vote in Bulaq, a working class neighborhood. Hatem even warned me that the area is “very, very, very shaabee” meaning ghetto-like. Having visited Bulaq frequently before, I am unfazed.

Hatem is an aspiring actor who will join part of an Egyptian TV series next year. Having voted once already, Hatem is returning this time to vote in the run-offs between the candidates.

We take a tuk-tuk for about half an hour through heavy traffic. The driver, a young man in his late 20s, makes only 80LE ($13) daily. He spends 15LE on gas and maintenance, 25 LE on food, 20LE on his son’s education, 10 LE on cigarettes, and the rest for his family’s daily use. The next day, he begins at zero again.

Couple of times, we get stuck in a rut and our driver jumps out to push or pull the tuk-tuk in various directions. Though he appears thin, his arms are quite strong. I compliment him: “you are much stronger than me. I am weak.” Later, Hatem tells me that this compliment delighted him.

At one point, he bangs the dashboard when another car nearly hits us. I can tell this man is full of fire.

He blasts the music. The loudspeakers are right behind our ears. It feels like an earthquake going through my eardrums. I joke with him and say that the music is not loud enough and that he should turn it up. Unfortunately, he thinks I’m serious and complies.

The driver tells me that he is pleased with the elections and believes that there will be accountability in the new system. “When we vote, the politicians will know our pain. So, that they know that we need to clean the streets or build new roads.”
When we arrive at the school house entrance, several soldiers stand vigil at the doorway with brown AK-47s. Two clerks with uniforms and name tags around their necks greet me. They inquire about my identity.


Hatem explains that I am his friend. I try to insert some humor, saying, “Hatem is with me.” Initially, the clerks are reluctant to allow me entry and the soldiers tell me I need to wait by the door while Hatem votes.

As soon as I tell them that I am Chinese, their frowns turn into smiles. I explain that I am from China, the same place where their clothing is made in. I point to the soldier’s AK-47 and say, “and the same place that produced your gun!” After a minute or so, they let me in without checking my bag, which contained a camera. Or my person, which contained a digital recorder.

We climb the stairs to the 4th floor. There, in a small schoolroom are a handful of clerks. Hatem enters. I hesitate at first, but then enter the room. They welcome me and we chat for a few minutes. The first gentleman offers me a seat and then an orange. When I tell him I am Chinese, his face lights up. “Oh China! Old civilization. 5,000 years old!”

I agree with him, saying that it is just like Egypt.

I remain in my seat, not wanting to appear threatening in any way. I ask him a few questions about the voting process; he explains that the votes are delivered to a central place for tabulation and then reported to the media. He is optimistic about the immediate future.

Downstairs, before we climb into our tuk-tuk again, I thank the election clerks and the soldiers. The head clerk asked me with tongue-in-cheek, “You didn’t see any fraud here, did you?”

“No, of course not. Thank you so much for allowing me entry. I saw and learned a lot tonight and know more about the new voting system. May God be kind to you.”

On our way back home, the Tuk-Tuk driver engages Hatem in a long and full conversation. Once he delivers us to our destination, Hatem fills me in on their talk. At Hatem’s encouraging, I thank the driver with the new phrase, “May God protect you.”

Hatem is impressed by our driver, believing him to be both a possible criminal and also a colorful character.

“He knows the locations of drug dens, burglar hideouts and whorehouses. In fact, one time, the police asked him to become an informant, but he refused that and said he had pride. Another time, he took his sick brother to the hospital, but he did not receive treatment until it was too late and he died right then and there. So, the driver returned later and stabbed the doctor in the back of the head with a knife. He fled and didn’t know what happened to the doctor.”

I’m glad I complimented the driver when I did.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Yusuf the flight attendant turned revolutionary

With a small radio in his left hand and a paper shopping bag with a helmet and some newspapers, Yusuf heads to Midan Al-Tahrir, or Liberation Square. It is early Sunday morning, about 6:30am and the streets are still empty. Yusuf, an elderly gentleman who sports a grey coat and a light sweater over his shirt, black pants and black loafers, has been a regular visitor to Liberation Square since January.

“I used to have money. Lots of it. I used to drive a Benz. Then a BMW 520i.” He speaks excellent English, having practiced it for years as a flight attendant in Saudi Arabia.

One day, President Mubarak destroyed his company. “I lost everything. Then, I became poor. Do you know why I am single? I never married or had children because I had no money,” he recounts his story. Deep wrinkles run across his forehead in waves.

Yusuf’s hair is a mane of silver. Bags hang from his eyes. He has a light salt and pepper mustache on his top lip. I interrogate him in Arabic; he responds in English.
Yusuf now works part time for a small company selling pharmaceutical equipment. When he was looking for work, most managers would say, “old man, you’re just too old! Why don’t you just work in a cafeteria somewhere?!”

Without prompting, Yusuf’s anger swells up against the previous regime. “Mubarak—that dog destroyed everything! He and his fellow dogs destroyed this country,” decries Yusuf.

As we converse on the street near Liberation Square, another gentleman with a yellow helmet and a large gauze bandage underneath his jaw passes by. Some of the protesters resemble construction workers these days with their blue or yellow helmets, which protect them against shooting soldiers and against machete-wielding thugs. He was injured two days ago.

I say “sorry” to him. He replies, “Alhamdulillah! Praise be to Allah I’m still alive.”

Wanting to hear more of his story, I invite Yusuf to breakfast. He says there are a few places nearby. When we walk to a café, they are still preparing for the morning customers, so we head to a second place. We find a food stand and order an Egyptian classic: ful (boiled beans) and one hard-boiled egg cut and mixed with the beans with a bit of salt and oil. Two other customers stand next to us.

Hatem, the ful vendor says that before the recent violence, he stayed busy daily; however, now he has few to no customers. ”Everyone is scared to come to downtown. So, they stay away,” he laments.

After the meal, I pay Hatem and leave 3 LE for tip.

Yusuf and I walk back towards the square. He gives me his phone number and asks me to contact his colleague later. “I’m usually by the KFC after 8pm, so you can find me around there.” I tell him that he is a book and I have only seen his front and back cover, but he has yet to reveal the content. He kisses me three times on my cheeks and tells me that he is sure of only one thing: God. He is not 50% or 80% or 90%. He is 100% sure of his faith in Allah, who provided him dinner last night and breakfast this morning.

Yusuf’s paper bag splits open, spilling his blue helmet out on the sidewalk. I pick it up and return it to him. I will look for him by the KFC later.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ramadan Kareem!

It is still an hour or so before dawn of the first day of Ramadan. I hear some fireworks outside. Do people celebrate the arrival of the Holy Month of fasting the way Americans celebrate the Fourth of July?

This month I am trying to fast, so I prepared a fairly large suhoor, or morning meal before dawn so that I will be able to withstand a full day of forgoing food or drink. You will see a bowl of beans (plenty of protein to keep the stomach happy); a bowl of cereal--corn flakes with 10 sweetened peanuts covered in sesame and honey, 5 dates and one serving of yoghurt; two fried eggs with one piece of bread; a serving of left over soup from two nights ago; and a banana for dessert.

Once I go to bed (about 330pm or so), then I should be ready for the day, insha' Allah.

An American friend who has lived here about 5 years or more recently told me that if I have no strong reason to fast, then I should NOT. She should know since she has fasted for two consecutive Ramadans, even though she is a devout Catholic. "Unless there's a really good reason, I will never fast like that ever again. One week will give you a taste, but really it's after two weeks that you really start to feel the effects of fasting. Which are not good, actually! lol"

That sounds like an ominous warning.

I now hear the Ithaan (or call to prayer) outside my window, and it's different from the regular call, which usually sounds like a recording.

Happy Ramadan!

Stay tuned...

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A visit to Midan Al-Tahrir

I wait for my friend Hatem at the Hardee’s Restaurant in Midan al-Tahrir, a common meeting point for demonstrators.

The flag salesman is doing brisk business. When I inquire with him about his sales, his voice is hoarse. Perhaps, from his participation in the demonstrations?

Hatem and I dive into the crowd of mostly young men. Three platforms have been set up. We proceed to the main stage where a dynamic young man is delivering a fiery speech that draws rapt attention from the audience. I remember him as the same man from two weeks ago who captivated the audience with his rhythmic and poetic slogans.

“Allahu Akbar” shouts a man behind us, as he passes by. “God is great!”

In what has become a typical scene from the square, a young man with a long paintbrush walks around painting the Egyptian flag on people’s hands or faces. Though it is free, he usually expects a tip of at least one pound.

On stage is a munaqaba, or a completely veiled woman, an unveiled woman, who turns out to be a national TV broadcaster, and a young kid with a white T-shirt with the Superman logo emblazoned on the front. The banner behind the speaker reads,
“We cannot match the blood of our young martyrs from the justice and freedom.”
When the dynamic speaker finishes, a patriotic song is performed.

At a second and smaller stage, Dr. SalaH Al-anany, a calligrapher, is pontificating on the difference between the army and the military council. “The army is on our side, but the military council speaks politics.” The speaker is a middle-aged man with curly hair down to his neck. Bespectacled, he holds the microphone with his right hand and punctuates most sentences with his left hand.

The banner behind him reads, “From administration of the country’s affairs, returning to an original position and forming a temporary, civilian council for the administration of the country’s affairs. And we invite general personalities to debate in the Square initially to agree in the square.”

Some are on a hunger strike.

While we chat with the medics, a man carries his younger brother to the parked ambulance. The young boy has fainted. Another patient is receiving some medicine inside the van, so there’s no space for the boy. Furious, the man screams at the medics, “he’s my younger brother. I will not abandon him or let him die!” Despite the medics trying to explain to him their limitations, he’s adamant. A few people in the crowd try to restrain him to no avail. Eventually, he is led away.

A young veiled woman, 19, next to us tells us that she arrived the previous day from a nearby town. She wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
She is playful and pinches me a couple of times.

However, some men in the square robbed her and now she needs to return home. Sadly, she is lacking the 35LE for the bus ticket. Hatem reached into his pocket and gives her three pounds.

I offer her the remaining bag of peanuts in my hand. She takes the entire bag and eagerly dives in.

As we turn away, I tell Hatem that she’s a con artist. Hatem is now embarrassed that he was snookered. However, I tell him not to feel too badly. After all, for three pounds, he now has a story that he can retell for the next few months or years.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Mulid of Sayeda Zeinab

Imagine a loud karaoke room, but set outside and turned up to the maximum with the subwoofers blasting a man’s voice and drumming and horns. Fill the streets with cars and Egyptians swaying to the beat to celebrate the birth of Sayeda Zeinab, the grand-daughter of the prophet Mohammed (PBUH).

A wall of sound surrounds us, but it is really more of an assault on the eardrums than anything else. It is at this moment that I realize the Western ear is clearly more sensitive than the Egyptian one. Our hearing has been spoiled by regulations modulating decibel levels. We sell ear plugs; silence is observed on Sundays by banishing church bells; we have an “inside voice” and an “outside voice.”

Men are swaying back and forth on their heels, almost like they’ve been possessed by the Holy Spirit. Pendulum-like…Back and forth. Back and forth. We might as well be at a southern Baptist revival meeting, minus the preacher.

An elderly woman, veiled in black, to my left, sways back and forth, to and fro, aided by her companion, who greets my gaze and smiles briefly. I try not to stare.

I am with Tom, a 21 year old British wanna-be journalist. He ventures into the breach of the crowd with his blackberry camera to capture a photo or two. A few minutes later, an Egyptian man with a bottle of liquid – 7 up?—oil?—playfully douses Tom’s hair with the strange concoction. And then laughs, revealing his brown, tea and tobacco stained teeth.

We return to the cheap hotel of my Egyptian friend Mohamed Aly. It is now filled with visitors from upper Egypt. They can be identified by their crisp galabeyas (flowing robe) and headdress, which are not normally worn by most Cairenes.

One room is full of middle-aged men, seated against the wall, drinking tea, smoking sheesha and chatting. Each time a new visitor enters the room, he goes around the room and greets everyone with “Salaam Aleykoom” or peace be upon you. It seems to be a necessary ritual.

As we are invited to a meal next door, I notice charcoal in a metal tray outside the room. The local fire marshal probably is unaware of this. (or maybe he is aware).
Another room is reserved for food—a few large communal plates of pita bread and potato cubes, chunks of boiled beef with some bits of fat attached. A cross-eyed man with a cane and a galabeya approaches and welcomes us. Another man—perhaps a caretaker?—quickly ushers him away from us. (Is he afraid that the man’s presence will disturb us?)

The man across from me is from Suhag in Upper Egypt and greets me warmly as we share bread and boiled beef. Then, the perennial question, “deenak ey?” or what’s your religion? I try to be coy and quote the Qur’anic scripture, “In Allah yeHdee min yesha’!” or God leads those whom he wills. It’s a fairly nebulous statement open to interpretation for many people. However, for this gentleman, it is not enough. He presses on, “so, what’s your religion?”

We return to the first room with the sheesha imbibers. I sit first next to a gentleman who speaks basic English. He interrogates me in the King’s English; I respond in Egyptian Arabic. He asks why I chose to study the Egyptian revolution, of all the revolutions.

I then sit next to an Arabic teacher who works at a local high school teaching girls. He asks me for my opinion of the Jan. 25 revolution. Odd. I tell him, “I should be asking you the same question!”

Every few minutes, another attendant asks me if I want tea. Or food. Or a sheesha. Or a cigarette.

“La…shookrun!” No, thanks!

On the last night of the Moulid, we visit the Sayeda Zeinab Mosque.

The Crowds, elbow to elbow, body pressed against body, arm on shoulder, flows forth like a small river. There is no turning back. Pilgrims remove their shoes at the door, but are given only a split second.

Several bowabeen or doormen take the incoming supply of shoes, and hand each pilgrim a small tag with a number. Wait—is this an actual system?! I hold onto my shoes, despite their protests, not wanting to lose them in the confusion.

The crowd is mostly men, upper Egyptians of galabiyehs; they are pilgrims here to worship Sayeda Zeinab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohamed. As I enter, a man grabs my hand and asks if I am from Malaysia. Indonesia, I respond. (not really, but I am playful). He then introduces me briefly to an Indonesian pilgrim before I am conducted forward.

As we approach the exit, a small group of men – seated on the carpet, begin talking with Peter, my American classmate from MN. The usual questions pepper him: where are you from? What do you do? Your religion? I serve as the informal interpreter. The men—mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, are a chocolate complection, with a mustache or two, and a working class flavor. They are from Assiyut and arrived two days ago. They have stayed at the mosque ever since, praying and sleeping and resting.

“Why are you here?” Peter asks them.
“For the Mulid of Sayeda Zeinab,” They respond.
“What do you hope to get out of this?” Peter presses further.
“To honor Sayeda Zeinab,” they explain.
It is that simple.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Walking with Dr. Yasmin

“look at the fingernails—see how black they are? That’s Fungus in there!” exlaims Yasmin, an Egyptian dentist living in Dubai.

Sure enough, at the end of the old man’s wrinkled fingers were blackened fingernails, like a character out of the Lord of the Rings. He grabbed a few used glasses on the countertop and asked me what I wanted. “A cup of sugar cane, please!” While I heard Yasmin’s words, my thirst was stronger than my repulsion or disgust at the fungus in the fingernails. I put the glass to my lips, said a quick “Bismillah” or “in the name of Allah” and began drinking.

Ohhhh…the sugar rush was so satisfying; the sweet, sweet, sweet sensation of sugar cane on the tongue and down the esophagus was simply too rewarding to think about the warning of the dentist. I thought of the old adage, “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Preachers and Protests

On my way to work, the Imam’s voice from the nearby mosque was delivering a Friday-like sermon, yet today is not Friday. I caught the words “Bin-Laden” peppered intermittently. The vendors and a few seated men were paying rapt attention. As I approached my office, I asked a few men outside about the voice broadcasting on the speaker system. They explained that sometimes, the Imam teaches students about the Qur’an or religion, so was simply practicing a sermon.

When I arrived at the non-profit office upstairs, the door was closed. Apparently, they had moved and did not notify me. Oh well.

Below in the quad, one of the men I had asked earlier about the mosque broadcast approached me. It turns out he is deaf and mute. With only a few signs, he explained that he was married (pointing to his wedding ring), had four kids—two boys and two girls, who were all grown and out of the house, leaving him and his wife (he made the sign of a person with breasts) alone in the house.

I wrote my name in Arabic for him and he wrote his, Azmy. A middle-aged man with some missing teeth and short cropped hair, he signed that he has seen me walk back and forth a couple of times in the last week. As I left him, I wished him peace. I have a feeling I will see him again soon.

Protests in the metro system
A group of maybe 50-100 metro workers staged a boisterous sit-in inside Sadat metro station, starting yesterday. Not knowing what was going on, I asked a man near me for an explanation. He said the workers were demanding that the metro system director leave his post because of corruption.

The protesters had a few signs, but kept their protests civil and to chants. A young metro worker to the side explained that before Jan. 25, this kind of protest would not have been allowed or tolerated.

Friday, June 03, 2011

How much for a fridge repairman?

How much do you pay the repairman? In the US, it’s fairly straightforward. He quotes you a price and you take it or leave it. In Cairo, usually, you don’t ask for the prices before a visit. The repairman does his work, then quotes you a price. If you ask for the price before the visit, this means you are a foreigner who deserves to be screwed.

Typically, a plumber who comes for ½ an hour to an hour to repair your kitchen or bathroom pipes will usually get between 5-10 LE ($1 to $2). However, several other variables can also complicate the final price. For example, where do you live? Are you in a working class neighborhood? Or in Zamalek, where most (rich) foreigners live? How good is your Arabic? Are you a fresh arrival? Does the repairman come with an assistant? Do they take more than an hour? Are the repairs complicated?

Now, fast forward to yesterday when Showky, the fridge repairman came to fix our refrigerator, which has been acting up for the past 2 weeks or more. The freezer does not freeze and the rest of the appliance is lukewarm, causing much of our food to spoil. Before Showky arrived, my good friend Mohammed Aly’s mother had told me to pay between 80-100LE and not a guinea more. I also repeated this very statement to my Korean roommate, who has been in Cairo for a year. However, when the repairman arrived and quoted her 250LE, she asked him to drop it only 25LE to 225LE. When I arrived, I didn’t argue with him, as I thought we could renegotiate after he finished. He spent a good hour or two replacing the Freon gas, making loud knocking noises here and there during my Arabic lesson. When he was finished, he asked for his money.

When I tried to renegotiate, he became furious. The smile turned upside down. Even my tutor Mustafa tried to intervene to say that our roommate did not have the right information and had made an ill-informed decision. They spent a good five minutes or more back and forth. I decided that it was all a big waste of time, so just paid the man.

When I asked him If he would return if the fridge acted up again, he said non-chalantly, “who knows?”

He was starting to irk me, so I wished him peace, “Salam Aleykoom” and ushered him out the door.

My tutor Mustafa and I agreed on this: much of life in Cairo is like buying a T-shirt at the Khan Al-Khalili Bazaar. There’s some give and take, and no price is ever set firmly.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Return to Tahrir: Second Day of Rage

Friday was the second day of rage in Midan Al-Tahrir or Liberation Square. The army, fearing violence, protested the protest by staying out. Police were mostly absent as well. Despite fears, the protest remained peaceful and people governed themselves accordingly. Here are some images from the event.

To enter Liberation Square, we first had to show our IDs to pass through this volunteer security line.

Fishing for freedom.

A number of improptu debates formed within the Square. Men were debating men; men with women; young and old; most were heated, but civil. One or two turned into shouting.

"Mubarak was president for 30 years. What did the people have to eat during this time? Nothing but chicken feet!"

Martyrs of the revolution are honored on a poster.

A painted Egyptian flag was quite popular for the protest.

How did they get up there?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Revolution is all around us

Midan Sayeda Zeinab is a working class neighborhood close to downtown Cairo.

After a koosharee dinner next to my hotel, my friend Mohammed Aly, his friend and colleague Ismail and I walk to the burned police station around the corner. During the revolution, more than one half of all Cairo police stations were systematically burned by the people. As we approach the burned out edifice, I see a vendor on the side. His wares are covered and tied up for the night.

Amr, the youthful vendor, is perhaps in his mid 20s. He sports a scalp of short, curly hair drowned in gel. He is in a dark T-shirt and slippers.

“See, this WAS the police station. NOW, it’s the WC (toilet),” he explains as he unleashes a loud laugh. He seems delighted. A little too delighted. Like a man who had exacted his revenge and now was experiencing shadenfreude.

Amr points to his head and shows me a gash the size of a quarter. A scab has formed already, but it is recent. Amr spent a year wara al-shams or behind the sun. Street slang for prison. For what? The police saw him as a trouble maker and arrested him one day.

“The police wanted to buy a small item from me for 4LE, but then return it the next day and demand their money back.” If they do this repeatedly, “How do I eat?”
He laments his run-ins with the law. “My luck is bad.”

With six sisters and his widowed mother to support, Amr is at the stand daily. In the evenings, he and his younger brother take turns keeping vigil for thieves. He puts his hand underneath the blanket and shows me a knife about a foot long—Crocodile Dundee size.

When he learns that I am originally from China, he wants to do business with me. I quickly explain that I know nothing of trade or business. Amr then offers me Hasheesh, or marijuana. He then requests a gift from me—a machine that can roll joints. I tell him that I’ll look into it.

Amr shows me two tattoos; a coiled snake on his arm. The second one on his shoulder blade is a woman. Who is she? A former lover? A pop star?

As we leave, my friends walk a little faster than me. With the concern of an overprotective den mother, my Egyptian brother Mohammed Aly warns me, “Take care! There is no government now, no police. He deals in drugs. He is not a educated man. Take care!”

President Hosny Mubarak is being erased from all around Cairo, starting with the eponymous Mubarak Metro Station. The station is now being called shoohada "Martyrs Station" after the brave souls killed by Baltageya (government thugs) during the revolution.

Mohammed Aly, my Egyptian brother poses next to a sign in the metro station that declares, "We build the future."

Summer in Cairo, part one

I have arrived safely in Cairo. Simsim (Sesame), an Iraqi refugee who has been here 7 years, and a friend of a friend, picked me up. He must have done this before since he had a piece of paper with my name scrawled on it, like the other chauffeurs waiting for their guests. He is about 30 and has an Egyptian girlfriend.

After we placed my bags in his car, he asked me if I wanted to stop by the duty-free shop. I didn’t really need anything, but Simsim needed alcohol. So, off we went.
As we re-entered the airport doors, the metal detector seemed abandoned, so we proceeded. Of course, our cell phones set off the magnetometer, but the security guard on the side – half asleep, waived us through.

As we pull out of the parking lot, the wooden traffic arm barrier slams down on his windshield. No damage is visible. Simsim speaks politely with the parking attendant, “hey man, please be careful!”

“Welcome to Egypt!” I reply. On the drive to downtown, Simsim tells me he’s a manager at Cook Door, a fast-food restaurant in downtown that’s known for its Viagra Sandwich. I tell him that I will have to stop by for a bite later. We are in a Honda 4 door. “In Iraq, there was a system for driving. Here, no system.” It took him a year to get used to the fluid traffic of Cairo.

We pass a large mosque for the police with twin minarets that reach for the sky. A few minutes later, we pass another majestic mosque. It is also for the police, but for special occasions such as weddings and celebrations. (Are there any more occasions for the police to celebrate these days?)

The roads are clean and smooth. We are still in Masr Gedida, or New Cairo, northeast of downtown. A white van speeds past us and cuts in front without signaling.

When we park close to my hotel, Simsim says normally, we would not park here; however, now the police do not monitor the parking so much. Perhaps, this is one unintended benefit to the revolution.

I'm now at a cheap hotel in Midan Talaat-Harb for 85LE / night (or about $15). I had to bargain them down from $35 / night or 210LE. I think speaking Arabic helped somewhat. I don't see anyone else here on the floor. Tourists have been scared away in the last few months.

I am searching for a simcard so I can reconnect with a few friends. I stop by Midan Al-Tahrir, Liberation Square, which is just a few minutes away. Several dozen young men are milling about in the middle, surrounded by taxis and the regular flow of traffic. Many of them still have protest signs. Gamal, a middle-aged vendor explains that there was a demonstration today and next Friday another large protest will take place. Is it about human rights? The elections? “About freedom!” explains Gamal.

It is good to be back.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

No Longer About Bread—Egyptians Want Mubarak's Head

New America Media, Commentary, Andy Lei,
Posted: Jan 29, 2011

The last time Egyptians took to the streets was spring 2008, to protest the rise in food prices, especially bread or aish, also the Arabic word for life. For Egyptians, the two are synonymous. A dozen died, becoming “bread martyrs.”

Before then, Egyptians rioted in 1977. Again, over bread. Their popular slogan: "The people are famished." About 800 perished before the army crushed the protests.

On Jan. 25, 2011, Egyptians took to the streets once again. Not for bread, but for Mubarak’s head.

To continue, click here No Longer About Bread—Egyptians Want Mubarak's Head