February 02, 2011

One ever changing week in Egypt

Revolution and a Peaceful Oasis
By Tamalyn Dallal
Cairo International Airport- As I said goodbye to my friend, Hiromi, chaos engulfed the airport. Crowds of Japanese stood outside the door of Qatar Airways, waiting for their flight to Tokyo. I was not allowed inside. Before walking away, I said "I'll get a room near the airport. Call me if you have any problems." It is amazing how quickly one's reality can change.
One week ago, we met at this same airport. Hiromi, a bellydance teacher from Kyoto, Japan, was with my friend and guide, Fathi, who had come to Cairo to take us to his town. He is from the remote Siwa Oasis, deep in the Sahara desert. We set out on a ten hour drive through nothingness- a flat desert with lots of rocks and an occasional camel. Yet, there were tea houses, where bedouin men sat, sipping tea, coffee, and smoking water pipes. Our minivan pulled up to a dusty structure where we sipped our first of many tiny cups of thick, strong desert tea.
When I saw familiar olive trees and date palms, I knew we were finally in Siwa. It was 5am.
Fathi asked "Anyone up for a swim?"
All I could think about was a bed. It was my second night of travel; One red eye flight from New York to Cairo and one red eye drive through the desert.
Fathi added "It's almost time for sunrise."
How could we resist?
Three adorable desert dogs, white with black spots, greeted us at the end of a dirt road. One of them had markings around his eyes like the mask of Zorro. They followed us, traipsing past Bedouin tents, through sand to a steaming pool of natural sulphur water bubbling up from the earth.
In Siwa, men use bathing trunks, but foreign women go in the water fully dressed. Local women never venture into the pools.
The dogs trotted happily toward an orange ball of sunlight which rose from behind a sand dune.
Suddenly, Hiromi exclaimed "Your shoe!"
Zorro was running through the desert with one of my fur lined Sketchers in his mouth. Fathi jumped from the water in hot pursuit - barefoot and wet in the frigid winter air. Hiromi and I tried to help, but it felt like we were running on ice. Fathi returned, triumphant, with my slobber covered shoe in hand. Meanwhile, I had discovered my other shoe missing.
The happy ending was that, it seems one of the doggies had carried it back to the car for me. The insole was ripped out, but at least I wouldn't spend the next few days hobbling around the oasis on one shoe.
In the town of Siwa, the hub of the oasis, we enjoyed a lavish breakfast in the shadow of an ancient mosque.
A young Berber waiter asked "Did you hear about the protests in Cairo?"
Hiromi and I looked at each other, then I joked "You got your shopping done just on time."
She had gone to the Khan el Khalili market in Cairo to buy bellydance supplies for her students.
Although Siwa is situated within the borders of Egypt, the Siwans are of a different ethnic group, speak a different language, and are governed by eleven tribal chiefs.
The waiter said "Nothing will happen in Siwa. We're not like Egyptians."
"We have our gardens, eat dates and olives, and we love life."
"Bab el Shal," where we stayed, is a hotel built from mud and salt. The lamps are made of pure salt. All furnishings are made from natural fibers. Another friend, named Helal, had chosen a two story suite for us. I fell into a deep sleep until late in the afternoon.
Upon opening one eye, I remembered where we were.
"We're going to miss the sunset!" I exclaimed.
Hiromi and I hurried out to climb the ancient "shali," which was once a five story maze of houses... a fortressed town where Siwans lived for centuries. In 1926, 3 days of rain melted the town. Now it stands as a monument, and an ideal vantage point from which to watch sunsets.
On our way down, we ran into Fathi drinking tea in a carpet shop. I asked if he knew about the demonstrations.
Later, at dinner, when several local guys arrived to drink tea with us, Fathi said "I didn't want to tell you, but a lot of streets in downtown Cairo were already closed by the time we left."
He added "Siwa is the safest place."
Hiromi changed the subject "Why are we the only women here?"
I later explained that in Siwa, men and women live separate lives. As foreigners, we can move between both worlds.
Day Two
Under the shadow of the shali, we lingered long after breakfast, drinking tea and reading the grinds of our Turkish coffee cups.
Fathi said "Dr. Mounir is here. Did you see him?"
Dr. Mounir Neamatalla is a wealthy, powerful and creative man. He built the hotel we stayed in, the hotel we ate in, the bus station, renovated the mosque, and has a luxurious ecolodge where presidents and film stars stay when visiting him in Siwa. Bespeckled with solid gold framed vintage style glasses accentuating expressive blue eyes, he invited us to sit with him. A French speaking Tibetan woman and her turbaned Sufi (mystic) partner were at the table too. Dr. Mounir invited Hiromi and I to his home in the desert for lunch and arranged a driver to pick us up the next day.
My Blackberry comes with me everywhere. It is an addiction. During lulls in conversation, I sneakily peek at my e mails. If there is no lull, I excuse myself to use the restroom and look, to make sure there is no unfinished business in some other part of the world.
Part of my purpose for being in Siwa was to arrange the details of a summer retreat where my friend, photographer Denise Marino and I will lead a group of international women to the Siwa Oasis to meet Siwan women, camp in the desert, and see traditional dance and music. Fathi will make all the arrangements.
The people who had already signed up sent alarming e mails "Is the retreat still happening'?" "Should I buy my airplane ticket or wait?" and "Are you okay?"
In Siwa, it is normal to see television sets on the street, surrounded by tea drinking men in turbans and long robes. The scene is usually peppered with cheers for a soccer game or wrestling match somewhere across the world. This time the men were silent. Images were not of sports. They were watching the demonstrations in Cairo.
Whenever I asked what was going on in Cairo, the response would go something like this "Stay in Siwa. It is safe here."
We spent the rest of the day at the home of my friend Helal, with his mother and sisters. We drank "karkade," a dark red concoction made from hibiscus blossoms, water and sugar. Women in Siwa have three means of making their own money; traditional embroidery, henna, and owning land, which male relatives work and administer. They often offer to sell the clothes they have sewn to visitors. Hiromi bought a beautifully embroidered wedding shawl. We got henna designs painted onto our hands. Many of the geometric Berber designs have lost their meanings, but we were told that the hand shape means Fatima (the daughter of Prophet Mohammed PBUH) who had healing hands. Another represented a fish, which is also lucky.
Helal took us deep into the desert dunes to ride up and down in his four wheel drive, like a roller coaster, finally stopping to watch the sunset from atop the highest dune. Hiromi brought silk and some red dye to experiment with sand patterns on textiles, at the request of a famous Japanese textile artist who wanted to see the result.
Day Three
Friday is the day of prayer throughout the Muslim world. Every day, one is supposed to pray five times. On Friday, many people don't work. It is urged to go to the biggest mosque and gather many people together to increase the strength of prayer.
This particular Friday was being watched carefully.
News commentators said "This is the day we will know if demonstrations weaken or strengthen. We will know how serious the situation is."
I turned to my Blackberry and searched for the CNN icon. There was no internet. I tried to call Fathi. There was no phone service. Most communication was completely cut off.
Serendipitously, Fathi appeared.
"We're back to land lines and faxes," he noted.
We pondered how dependent every corner of the world had gotten on cel phones and internet, and how quickly they had transformed our lives.
Soon after, Dr. Mounir's driver arrived to take us past Roman tombs, onto a road dividing two salt lakes. Behind a majestic mountain called "Adrere Amelal" (White Mountain). Dr. Mounir has a large earthen home, with every furnishing made of salt or natural woods and fibers. There is no electricity. Just candles for light.
He offered some fine wine and invited us to see the grounds; organic gardens, and saltwater pool, all in the shadow of the magical mountain. Dunes flanked one side and a salt lake the other. It was an atmosphere of peace and sheer contentment.
His Tibetan and Sufi friends shared a gourmet meal, much of which was created by his relative, a bearded Iranian- Egyptian taoist who lived traveling the world. Amin, the chef used us as guinea pigs for scrumptious new recipes that would be offered at Dr. Mounir's hotels.
After a languid and luxurious afternoon enjoying nature and earthly delights, we went to Fathi's village of Maraqi to visit his family.
In Siwan homes there are few windows. Dust is everywhere. Dust is a way of life in the desert. Windows would only invite more of the earth to invade. Walls of the mud homes are painted bright shades of blue, pink and green. Mats cover floors and guests sit on colorful flowered cushions on the floor. We drank tea, ate olives, and took photos with the children. In one room a 120 year old woman woke up and smiled at us. She was part of the extended family. Fathi said the oldest person in Siwa had recently died, at 132 years of age.
We stayed until late, sometimes surrounded by a room full of men, seated on the floor eating from pots of stewed vegetables and meats, using home made bread as utensils. Other times, we were surrounded by women. They removed their black veils, which cover the entire face, eyes and all, and shed the embroidered blue fabrics (tarfotet) that covered their backs. They wore voluminous dresses of silky fabrics with additional layers beneath. Their heads were covered by thick knit scarves to keep out the cold. Little girls wore braided hair with long ribbons tied at the ends, ruffled dresses, and often carried the smaller children. Everyone speaks the Siwan-Berber dialect, also known as "Amazigh". Some women know Arabic, though often the two languages are mix together. This was my seventh visit to the Siwa Oasis. The words I have been picking up might be in either one or both of these languages, or even in the Bedouin accent of people I have met along the way.
It is not unusual, when I get back to "Egypt" for my new fluency to elicit puzzled stares. I could shared limited conversation with women in some of my rudimentary hybrid Arabic, while Hiromi communicated more successfully with the children by letting them play with her camera.
Day Four
Telephone service returned, but internet did not. I was feeling a sense of relief from my Blackberry obsession- like a vacation. Hiromi's flight would leave from Cairo the next day. People urged us to stay in Siwa. She called the Japanese embassy and Qatar Airways, who assured that her flight had not been cancelled. We opted to leave. Along the way, I wanted to show her the beautiful beaches and fabulous foods of the Bedouin city, Marsa Matruh. There was no trouble there... Not yet.
We did last minute shopping, buying embroidered fabrics from Abdullah. Local women give Abdullah their handicrafts to sell in his shop. They name their prices and he adds a percentage on top.
Fathi offered to transport us as far as Marsa Matruh, and arranged another driver to take us further to Cairo. A handsome Kuwaiti tourist named Khaled came along to give Fathi company on the ride back.
We ran into Dr. Mounir at the last minute.
"Don't go yet. Wait until tomorrow." He urged….Adding "You may want to stay in Siwa for awhile."
We assured him that we would be fine.
The trip was truly dull, as expected. Nothing to see. We looked forward to our tea and bathroom stop.
Near the gates of Marsa Matruh, Fathi said he felt something odd.
"There are usually police guarding the city. Where are they?"
His phone rang repeatedly. Call after call came in. Unrest had made its way to Marsa Matruh. The police had abandoned their posts. In fact, police were stepping down throughout Egypt. Soon, local Bedouins were called upon to guard the city gates. Fathi took this very seriously. We didn't understand the meaning.
He took us to a hotel facing the ocean. The assistant manager showed us video from his mobile phone of burning shops and pillaging of an ATM machine. We wanted to find a place to eat, but he urged us not to go out.
"You are foreigners. Let the guys get food and bring it back."
He switched the TV to CNN just in time for us to see footage of the Egyptian Museum being looted and ancient antiquities broken. We drank tea and expressed mutual concern.
I phoned Fathi. He and Khaled were taking an extremely long time.
"It's bad out here!" He exclaimed breathlessly.
"We don't need to eat." I urged them to come back.
They arrived at the hotel lobby laden with two kilos of succulent lamb meat. It was the softest and best lamb I'd ever tasted. There were mounds of bread, and no utensils. Tanks rolled by on their way downtown. Two tanks parked up the block from our hotel.
Day Five
Early morning, we met our next driver, whose name I never got. He drove us for the last five hours through the desert to Cairo.
The gates of Marsa Matruh were blocked by dozens of turbaned men, some with guns. Others bore clubs or large knives. They smiled and nodded at us as we passed through. These were the local militias that had formed overnight. Their job was to protect the town. To me they looked like a group from one of the late English adventurer, Wilfred Theisengers books "Arabian Sands." I felt the time warp growing backward at a quickening pace.
Aside from an occasional peek at a turquoise blue sea from behind sand dunes, the drive was uneventful. So uneventful that I decided to finish reading the last few pages of my book about an Egyptian poet named Ahmed Rami. He had dedicated much of his life and his art to Umm Khulthum, the most famous Arabic singer who ever lived. By learning about the lives of famed artists of the Egyptian Golden Age (1930's to 1960's), I am better able to understand the country's social situation as it has developed from colonial times until today. I was reading the epilogue, which underscored the poet's feelings of darkness toward the future of his grandson's generation. Hiromi gasped.
I looked up from the last page of my book. Chaos had ensued at one of the many roadblocks entering Cairo. Young soldiers sat atop tanks bearing machine guns and bayonets with brutally sharp knives at the ends. They waved us through.
"Guys were on the ground at gunpoint. You didn't see." Hiromi said.
There were more and more roadblocks. People were walking away from vehicles with their suitcases in hand. Some discarded suitcases lay by the side of the road, unzipped with clothing spilling out. A few men were handcuffed or laying on the ground, guarded by bayonet and gun bearing soldiers far younger than they.
Our driver said "I will leave you at Carrefour (A huge supermarket at the edge of Cairo) to take a taxi."
We called Fathi, who told him he had to stay with us until we got inside the airport, even if we all had to sleep in the car.
Curfew was 4pm in Cairo. That was the time we arrived at the airport. Our driver was scared as he didn't have permission to transport people in Cairo. We gave him money for a hotel and told him not to leave until the next day. Hiromi's flight was 5:30. I never knew if she left or if she became stranded inside the airport, along with thousands of other people that were being interviewed in the news. I was not allowed in, as my flight was the following night.
All hotels near the airport were full. My only option was to to venture into town. The driver flagged down a lopsided Russian Lada taxi. Both drivers piled and tied my luggage on the roof. Just then, Hiromi called me from her Japanese number…repeatedly. I could only hear people yelling in Arabic. When I returned her calls, a recording would come on in Japanese. I returned to the airport but a guard told me, impolitely and in no uncertain terms, to leave.
We headed into town, toward the Windsor hotel where I usually stay. Mohammed from the front desk knew me well. He said the streets were calm and he had plenty of rooms.
The driver begged him to explain the route. There was no route. It was past curfew, but there were no police or military to enforce the new rule. Neighborhood militias had formed… Men and boys, as young as 12 years old, armed and in bands of up to thirty people. They bore baseball bats and nail laden clubs, swords and large knives. Molotov cocktails in soda bottles were at their feet. I asked the driver if I should sit in the back seat. He shook his head. I motioned to take my most important suitcase and put it inside the cab. Stone faced, he refused.
He said "When they see you, they let us through. Your bags show that you are a tourist."
There had been a prison break the night before. A thousand prisoners had stolen arms and munitions and were wreaking havoc on Cairo. Protests were not violent, but the escaped prisoners were. Militias were protecting their homes and families. They gladly let anyone who didn't look suspicious to go through.
We were directed to go the wrong way up an abandoned freeway ramp and encountered soldiers and tanks. He was happy to see them. The ramp led us to a blocked off area.
"Mashallah!", the driver exclaimed.
"Liberation Square."
That was the center of the demonstrations. We weren't allowed to go further. I saw a sign that said "Hilton" in the distance.
"Hotel…Any hotel" I pointed.
He dropped me off where a private guard with a large bomb sniffing dog helped me bring my bags to the hotel premises.
The Hilton jacked up prices- to $350 a night for a very average room with old plumbing and intermittent hot water. Everywhere I turned were people with cameras. The hotel was full of journalists. Their respective news agencies were willing to foot any bill for them to stay there.
For me, $350 was a lot, but a fair price for safety, as a hospital bill or losing my belongings would surely cost a lot more.
I chatted with reporters from Canada, Britian, and other western countries. Some bureaus hired Palestinians to cover the story. To them, this was another gig. For the westerners, it seemed like an adrenaline fueled way of life. They compared notes on the Tunisian uprising, which they'd covered weeks earlier, with that of Cairo. They had a hurried, sense of urgency and importance. The Palestinians did their job, then sat back to drink tea.
I met two frustrated Brits from "The Guardian." They had to fax their articles, as the only internet connection was at the luxurious Semiramis Hotel. Semiramis locked people in after the 4pm curfew.
I heard a woman in the elevator say "I'd rather be here with no internet. At least they let us go out and get into trouble."
She laughed.
A man from Canadian Broadcasting Co. asked "Is this your first revolution?"
I nodded.
He added "Everyone should experience one or two in their lifetimes. Revolutions are fun!"
Day Six
Much of the night, I was glued to CNN and BBC…Reruns of the previous day's news. Words didn't match the lips of BBC reporters. Al Jazeera reporters had been expelled by the Mubarak regime. Signals for that network were scrambled. 10,000 people slept in nearby Liberation Square, defying curfew and wanting to be early for the next mornings demonstrations. The hotel's front desk clerk made a point of telling me that my balcony faced away from the Square and that I would have a lovely view of the Nile instead. I wondered if the rooms overlooking Liberation Square were a hot commodity for foreign correspondents. News sources expected crowds to swell to 100,000 by mid day. Everyone, from both Egyptian and foreign press, was watching to see if President Mubarak would leave the country, just as the Tunisian president had done two weeks earlier. It was a waiting game. Today was relatively calm, in preparation for tomorrow's "million man march".
I called Ethiopian Airlines to enquire about my flight to Zanzibar. It seemed that I'd reached a call center in India. The woman informed me that my 2:35am flight would leave fifteen minutes late. She recommended that I get to the airport three hours ahead, but had no idea there was unrest in Cairo. She couldn't see why there would be any interruption to my flight.
I sat in the hotel lobby, drinking tea as usual, at four dollars for the same tea bag that costs twenty cents on the road to Siwa. Reporters were abuzz, coming and going, talking loudly on satellite phones to their editors back home.
One man shouted through crackling reception "The airport is in utter chaos! There are no flights in or out of Cairo."
I decided to try my luck and act as if I trusted the woman at the call center in India…The curfew was moved up to 3pm. The hotel arranged for a luxurious car to take me to the airport. This driver took out his frustration on the road, honking and speeding through groups of pedestrians at an alarming rate.
He said, breathlessly "I want to be off the road before the militias come out, or I'll never get home."
We arrived in record speed of twenty minutes. I was more terrified of his driving than of the impending revolution.
Inside the airport, people crowded in, but very few got on flights. The floor was full of days old garbage. Janitorial staff in light blue uniforms collected garbage, but their efforts barely made a dent. They came by with big mops, rearranging the dirt, as there was no place to put it. One employee tossed buckets of disinfectant water on the floor, creating dark brown rivers. Children played, pushing each other around on empty luggage carts. People staked out their spaces and sat atop piles of luggage. I parked my cart next to a family waiting for their flight to Libya.
"What time is your flight?" I asked.
"We don't know if there is a flight." replied the mother. I settled onto one of my bags, took out my computer and proceeded to continue typing this journal.
I sat for twelve hours. Nearly everyone I saw sitting on bags atop luggage carts topped over, onto the floor at least once. I was no exception. While typing, a young man accidentally kicked the wheel of my cart and sent me flying.
Two female toilet stalls serviced several thousand people. The stench was unbearable. Some women would looked at the long bathroom line, sniff and walk away. There was no place to buy food or water. Luckily, one of the stranded Libyans handed me a bottle of water. All I could give in return was some chewing gum. Toppling off a nearby cart was an American car company executive, who had come to Cairo for a meeting. He hoped to catch a 4am flight. We waited and waited, watching each others carts while the other went on an information seeking mission. There was no one to give any information. It was a futile effort, but a good excuse for stretching one's legs.
Suddenly, groups of Chinese people marched by. The Chinese embassy was evacuating it's citizens. A few commercial flights remained operational, but an increasing number were charters organized by embassies for their citizens. The exec and I were told to wait until three hours before our flight times to find out if we would fly. The American embassy's answer to it's citizen's calls was a secretary with no information telling everyone "Leave your name and number and we will call you if there are any updates."
I was headed to Zanzibar, and the first transit point was to be Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Finally, after eight hours, the reader board read "Ethiopian Airways to Addis Ababa- Cancelled." In fact, all flights after midnight were cancelled. Airline offices were closed. There was no one present to answer questions. There was no way to leave the airport due to the curfew and safety concerns. Depending on how the next day's million man march would go, many said, flights might be cancelled for days. Some airlines had already cancelled all flights in and out of Cairo indefinitely. I found someone who worked for a Kuwaiti Airline. He suggested I wait until morning and try to go to Kuwait as a standby. There was also availability on a flight to Baghdad.
I wandered the airline counters. There was no information at all. A young man with a broom in his hand led me to a counter for the Royal Jordanian flight to Amman, Jordan. They were offering free transport to Jordanian students studying in Egypt. The agent gave me a price and said there were plenty of seats. I whipped out my credit card.
He shook his head. "Egyptian pounds only… Cash."
He suggested I go to the ATM and pointed to one forlorn little machine, with no electricity and no cash. He was sorry, but pounds were the only option.
Meanwhile, two men surrounded me, insisting that I travel to Amman with them. They wanted $500 one way. That was triple the normal round trip price.
A third man approached. "How much can you pay?"
After some friendly bartering , he made a call and knocked $100 off the price. He even said I could pay when we got to Amman, where I would be accompanied to an ATM and I would give him the money.
This fishy deal was probably my only option. Weighing that fact, I took him up on his offer. Suddenly, there were people from Thailand everywhere. I was led to the Thai embassy's repatriation flight for their citizens. The embassy had rented the plane for them and it would be stopping in Amman, Jordan.
The Thai embassy representative was furious that I was on their plane.
He scowled "I rented this airplane."
Finally he conceded. "Tell her to move to the back of the plane. I don't want to look at her."
At the Amman airport, the Jordanian staff tried to get me through the line quickly. It was five in the morning and I was only one person. The not very diplomatic embassy guy insisted that I wait until every single Thai citizen had passed through and their paperwork was finished.
Finally, it was only me and the man I had promised to pay $400 to left in the airport, standing in front of an ATM. There were no taxis into town. It was cold, wintery and raining. He kindly asked the friend who had come to pick him up to drive me to a hotel. We went all over Amman looking for a place that was between a five star $300 plus place and the fleabags that guidebooks recommended even the heartiest travelers against.
Day 7
By 6am, one week after my Egyptian adventure began, I was securely tucked away in a non descriptor, medium priced, middle class hotel room in Amman's trendiest area. By afternoon, I walked up the street to a travel agency, and purchased a ticket to Zanzibar, with a hotel voucher in Dubai thrown in for free.
I hailed a cab to go downtown.
The driver kept repeating "Welcome."
He pointed out his favorite restaurant and recommended that I eat "mensef." Mensef is the national dish of Jordan; a concoction of yellow rice and lamb cooked in yoghurt. The yoghurt is dried then re constituted as a broth for the lamb. He also directed me to a sweet shop to get sticky desserts and date filled cookies.
I went to a coffee house where men smoked shish and drank tea. The overhead TV showed nonstop news about Cairo.
It also informed us that "Due to demonstrations in Jordan, the king ordered a complete change of government and appointed a new prime minister."
The bustling streets and appearance of business as usual gave no indication of unrest.
I picked up an English language newspaper, which read "We are not Egypt…Our government has changed, but life will go on as normal."

Changing the subject...
Take a look at this video; Musicians from Zanzibar, dancers from 10 countries, including; China, Japan, USA, Bahamas, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Argentina and more. I'm proud of it.