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.