The Egyptian Revolution
Traveling to Egypt in January of 2011 was one of my most intense travel experiences–and I don’t say that lightly, considering I’ve traveled to many crazy places during many crazy events!
I’ve taken awhile to write about this because it was such an all encompassing experience. It’s hard to really do the whole thing justice; how is one really supposed to describe what it feels like to be a part of a living history? So please forgive me for holding out, and know that I will do my best to capture the essence of such a truly unique experience. I have written about the revolution in the past for the GAdventures blog (at the time, they were GAP Adventures), however, it’s since been taken down. Another roadblock in the completion of this post was the theft of my laptop in 2012. Sadly, I had none of my pictures or videos backed up and the thief stole all of my media from both the Egyptian revolution and my trip to Turkmenistan and Iran. Thankfully in the case of Egypt, I had uploaded some photos to Facebook before they were stolen (the other trip, sadly no). The accompanying photos were saved by Facebook, and for the lack of video, I apologize, again, all the footage was lost to me when my old laptop was snatched from my car.
To begin: I had always wanted to visit Egypt–it was number 1 on my list of dream destinations. I had always been fascinated with the Ancient Egyptian culture, ruins, monuments, mummies and hieroglyphics. Who isn’t, really? While my first trip overseas wasn’t to Egypt (I thought I’d get my feet wet going somewhere with a little less of a cultural difference, so I hit up Eastern Europe first), my second trip most definitely was. I booked myself a spot on the Absolute Egypt GAdventures tour, picking that specific tour because it touched on various parts of Egypt that most tourists don’t get to see; namely the Western Desert and it’s many oasis towns (Siwa, Dakhala, Farfara, etc). I had been obsessed with the Western Desert ever since I had first picked up a copy of “The English Patient”. Michael Ondaatje’s breathtaking descriptions of the desert that the explorer Almasy chronicled around WWII had me in a swoon. I would have done anything and everything for even a glimpse of such a beautiful desert! So, when picking out my Egyptian tour, I made sure to book one that had a few stops in the Western Desert.
I will write more about the rest of my Egyptian trip in another post; here, I will focus on the end of my tour, which was cut short by the Egyptian revolution. I was visiting in January of 2011, and little did I know that by the end of my stay, Egypt
would be in the midst of a full fledged revolution. Despite my love for conflict zones, I genuinely had no idea going in that a revolution would break out. Of course I knew about what had happened recently in Tunisia, but I, like most other people, did not expect anything similar to happen in Egypt. Egypt was a much larger country, with way more freedoms afforded to it’s people than Tunisia. At the time, if you had asked any Egyptian a week or two prior to the revolution, they would (and did) say the same thing–“We have Facebook here, mobile phones! What need do we have for a revolution? We are too big, we cannot have one, things are too complicated here.” Those very words were spoken by my tour guide, Said, at the beginning of our tour in Cairo. Some member of the group had asked about the Tunisian revolution spilling over into Egypt. Said casually dismissed the thought, dismissed it outright.
The tour commenced and I was having a wonderful time. We visited all the major tourist sights.
We began the tour in Cairo, and then took an overnight train to Aswan. From there, we sailed up the Nile a ways in a traditional Egyptian boat called a felucca, stopping occasionally to see many historic sights, to take lunch, and finally, to sleep. We visited the Valley of the Kings, had a dinner in a local home in Aswan, stopped at the Temple of Edfu, and ended up in Luxor. As I stated, I will cover all this in a later post.
This story begins in Luxor, on our second day in the city. Said, our tour leader, was on edge, and when we pressed about what was bothering him, he mentioned that it was a national holiday–National Police Day–where Egyptians were to celebrate the police force. This was a tricky thing, since most of the police force was utterly corrupt and acted like assholes. You’d see them on every corner, semi-automatic weapons drawn, big bellies hanging over their belts. They were local bullies who would show up to local stores and demand to eat for free, and sometimes would even trump up fake charges for local business owners who wouldn’t refuse their requests for free food and labour. Long story short–everyone in Egypt hated the police force. So what to do on National Police Day? Organize a protest, or a march, against the police force’s long abuse of power seemed to be the answer. Said had gotten word from friends in Cairo about a planned march in protest of this holiday, and was worried that the protest would get out of hand and result in violence. Said and I were pretty close–much closer than the rest of the group–and he confided more to me than to anyone else. He held
back with the rest of the group, out of a desire not to cause panic, but in private relayed to me that as the minutes passed that afternoon, the group in Cairo had gotten bigger and bigger. Everyone who had started the protest on Twitter had showed up, in addition to about a million more people! This was entirely unexpected and suddenly it wasn’t just the police force the people were protesting against–it was now every oppressive part of Egyptian life, which pretty much meant the protestors were now calling for an entirely new government!
That evening, Said took me to a shisha cafe on the outskirts of Luxor and ordered me an apple shisha and mint tea–my favorite combination. As a woman, I was normally not allowed in shisha cafes anywhere in Egypt, but Said worked something out with the owner of this cafe so he and I could spend some quality time alone. It was unthinkable for a single man to hang out with a single woman pretty much anywhere in Egypt, as dating is not a common practice and men and women who are not family are not supposed to spend time alone except after marriage. Given this, it took some special work to spend time alone, and since it looked especially bad for us to hang out alone together in our hotel, a shisha bar was the most viable option. Said and I had a good time talking about various things, but I was mostly concerned about what his thoughts were regarding the situation in Cairo. While worried, he felt that because the average Egyptian was better off than say the average Libyan or Tunisian, that these Egyptians would eventually go back home soon and forget about the whole thing after expressing some of their frustrations. Said said that perhaps if the imams rile people up after the Friday prayers, maybe it will last a few days. But nothing longer. He was more
concerned for his family in Aswan. He had left his mother and sister alone without a male guardian and, being Coptic Christian, he worried that if the protests spread to other cities, they would be in danger. We ended up staying out pretty late, having a great time. I liked Said a lot; maybe in another culture or situation I would have dated him. But as it was, we both ended up going back to the hotel and sleeping alone.
The next morning we awoke to chaos. We had planned to stay another night in Luxor, but as we awoke up to the smell of heavy smoke rolling past our hotel, we realised this would not be feasible. From the hotel rooftop, we could see the building across from us smoldering. In Egypt, there are not many building codes; in the neighborhood where we were located, most buildings were made from either concrete and dried mud or just dried mud. A fire could easily and quickly spread from building to building. Ergo, we had to evacuate pretty quickly, and come to find out, the building across the street from us was none other than the local police station. The situation had escalated dramatically overnight. As our tour group rushed into a hastily prepared and waiting van, we saw hundreds of protesters marching up the local side streets towards the Luxor’s city center. Things were not “dying down” at all.
Said quickly called his company’s headquarters for advice–they told him to come to Cairo and get the tourists evacuated as soon as possible. Said made a few more calls into Cairo and found out things had REALLY escalated there, with lots of violence, nighttime raids on local houses, and groups of armed people going through, raping and plundering family homes. He made a final call and decided to go against his company’s orders and drive us out into the Western Desert, a few days before we were scheduled to go anyways, to wait out the protests. He called his mother and sister and assured them he would be back to Aswan soon, to look after them. Thankfully Aswan, being at the far end of Egypt, was barely affected
by the protests. In hindsight, I respect Said a lot for putting us random foreigners and our safety and our happiness over the health and wellbeing of his own family. That choice should say a lot about both his character specifically and, generally, the amazing generosity of the Egyptian people. Above all, throughout this whole ordeal, I was made to feel nothing but goodwill, protection and kindness from all the Egyptians I encountered, and most of all, from Said.
We broke with our itinerary and immediately began to drive out into the Western Desert. The Western Desert is a huge swathe of desert that blurs the borders between Western Egypt and Eastern Libya. It’s one of the most remote and inhospitable places on earth and for thousands of
years has only been inhabited by roaming bands of Bedouins, or native desert tribes. Even to this day, apart from small oasis towns, there are no permanent inhabitants in the area. It’s a rather dangerous area too, known as a conduit for trafficked drugs and human slaves, funneled from North to Central and South Africa. Being the case, we were supposed to pick up a police officer to protect us before entering the desert proper, but since the revolution had begun, all the police officers had fearfully abandoned their posts. We did, luckily enough, find one policeman just outside of Luxor willing to travel with us, weaponry included (but sans official uniform). He too wanted out of the city and thought hiding out in the desert sounded like a great idea. So, he joined our little party and we drove west into the desert after swapping out our tourist van for two JEEPs, filled with the necessary provisions for several nights of open air camping.
The first part of the Western Desert is the White Desert–a very surreal place, filled with windblown chalk formations. The entire desert is covered in white–it looks like a layer of snow on top of yellow sand, but it’s actually a very fine layer of chalk. In some areas, huge white chalk formations rise up out of the desert sands, shaped and molded by the strong winds that blow through the
region. The White Desert and it’s chalk formations are truly a sight to behold and continue to be one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I am a lover of deserts, above all else, so to me, I was overjoyed to stay out in the desert and explore forever! Of course I wanted to get into the fray in Cairo too, but at the time, the magic of the desert overpowered my desire to follow what was going on elsewhere in Egypt.
When night fell, we set up camp and cooked a dinner of lentils and flatbread over an open fire. It was wonderful falling alseep piled together on a bunch of mats beneath the bright desert stars and silvery moon. We saw a few desert foxes out and about at night, looking for shiny things to steal from camp. In the morning, we all enjoyed hot tea as we watched the slowly sun rise. Being
January, it was freezing cold at night but thankfully not too hot during the day. After a few nights in the White Desert, we proceeded onwards to the Black Desert, which, just as with the white, was covered in a light layer of black volcanic stone, giving the sand a black sheen. Large volcanic looking hills sprouted out of the flat desert floor all around us, and we climbed up a few of them for a fantastic panoramic view of the vast emptiness of the Western Desert. Again, I was elated and again, we camped out under the stars, stopping around noon at a beautiful hot spring for a quick bath and scrub!
However, after a few days of camping, we were beginning to run out of petrol, food, and water.
The next day we turned and drove back to the nearest oasis, Dahkala, hoping to restock on provisions and to receive some news of the situation in Cairo. The Egyptian government had shut off all cell phone, data, and internet service, so we had lost contact with the outside world and many of us (Said included) were very keen to get word of what was happening in Cairo and to assure our loved ones that we were alive and safe. We pulled into the nearest town, Dakhla Oasis, got some cheap rooms at a local guest house, and proceeded to plant ourselves in front of the only working TV in the
building–a small, maybe 10″ set, with a working cable connection. We were astounded at the images and words coming through; blown away at the millions upon millions who were now occupying Tahrir Square. None of us, including Said, or the owner of the guesthouse, or the driver, or our police officer guard, had expected this. We all just sat around the TV in shock. Said translated for those who didn’t speak Arabic–“an estimated 8 million people are marching…” “…they demand that Mubark step down as President…” “…there have been many violent conflicts at night in residential neighborhoods; many people have been killed and houses and hotels have been looted…” Said was beside himself with worry for his family in Aswan, and tried to call on a landline, with no success. All forms of communication save radio and TV were cut off and we were essentially stranded in this oasis town because–guess what!–we had also run out of both petrol and food.
And by “running out of food” I mean we had run out of provisions in addition to the hotel as well. There were no local restaurants that had food either. No local markets with food. The Egyptian government had stopped the transportation of petrol to all parts of Egypt in an attempt to quell the revolution and this had resulted in no trucks being able to transport food to remote places like Dakhala. Since Dakhala didn’t produce much food on it’s own (it’s an oasis, all they produce are dates), that meant that people were beginning to starve. It had been about a week since the first protests had begun, and people were slowly running out of food stock. There
weren’t even the basics; no bread and babies were hungry because there was no milk. Our dinners at the hotel (we were not allowed to leave due to violence in the streets) consisted of a meager cup of chicken broth with one or two lentils swimming sadly in it, and moldy flatbread. It was becoming a dire situation. From the roof of our hotel the next morning, I watched a bakery store open. Within about 5 minutes, all the bread had been sold and there were still hundreds of hungry people waiting for a chance to eat. A fight broke out between people, women with babies started screaming, and suddenly a gun shot was fired. Fists were flying, someone was down, and blood was fanning out on the street.
We were all very concerned about our situation, Said most of all. Along with a lack of food, we had no petrol and hence no way to leave the oasis. We were stranded. For several days we stayed in Dakhla, and every night Said and I would sit and eat some of his private stash of dates that he had smartly purchased before the revolution began. He told me he wasn’t sure we would actually make it through. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t contact anyone. He couldn’t continue to keep us at this hotel. In desperation, he had gone to the tribal leader of the oasis and asked if we could borrow some of the petrol that fueled the main well that fed the city water. It was a crazy thing to
do–to ask this man if we could endanger his entire city and potentially deprive hundreds of people water simply to get some foreigners home, but out of hospitality and duty he felt he had to ask. And thankfully, and because Egyptians are truly amazing people, this elder consented and we were rationed a small amount of fuel to get us back on the road towards Cairo. It wouldn’t take us all the way there, but it would get us close. We prayed we would run into another source of petrol somewhere along the way.
Luckily, the day we left Dakhla, the cell service in Egypt was turned back on again, and Said was able to speak with his family and his company headquarters in Cairo. His family was thankfully safe, although many of his friends in Cairo were not. The company told him under no uncertain
terms to head directly to international airport in Cairo and to get us on evacuation flights out of the country before it was too late. The US Government (along with most other Western nations) had been running evacuation flights out of Cairo for about a week now, and were about to stop doing so. Anyone left behind would be, well, left behind, with no consular assistance and with zero ground support from their home nation. It was imperative we get on those last few flights out of Egypt.
We drove through the night, but ran out of petrol less than half way to Cairo. Despondent and trapped without water or food, we waited for someone, anyone, to drive by and offer help. We were near a petrol station, but it had been abandoned and vandalised. Said called his friends and fellow tour guides seeking aid, and finally, Mohammed (later to become a good friend of mine) happened to be close by with another van full of foreigners and agreed to come over to help us. He showed up, siphoned some of his own meager supply of petrol into our gas tank and both of our vans hit the road to Cairo.
At the outskirts of the city, we ran into many road blocks. Military equipment, tanks, shell casings, and random artillery lay everywhere alongside the road. Fires were burning out of control and all the buildings had been abandoned. We were not allowed through roadblocks several times, as the millions protestors were marching to Mubark’s house and demanding his resignation that very day. To get to the airport, we needed to cross the path that the protesters were marching, and no member of the military would less us through. Finally, after a long hard discussion, Said and the plainclothes police officer who was with us, with his guns, turned to us
in the van and said “We are going to drive off road. Please lay on the floor of the van and do not look up. You may see things you don’t want to see.” At this point, the police officer stuck his guns out the window and the driver veered off the road and down over a ledge. The police officer shot a few times into a crowd, trying to make way for our bus to get through. People cleared, but starting throwing rocks at us, angry, thinking we were pro-Mubarak thugs. It was pretty crazy for awhile. People mobbed our van, climbing up the sides, shaking it violently, grabbing things through the windows, throwing stones, molotov cocktails, bullets and all manner of objects at us. Eventually we made it through, mostly due to our police officer guard, who kept shooting the mobs of people who were threatening or too crazy with the van.
Finally, we pulled up at the Cairo airport. Everyone was let off at their country’s evacuation
points, and I was last, as I am American and of course, we had taken over an entire terminal! Said and I had grown close and it was hard to leave him. I stood for maybe 45 minutes, watching families being ripped apart. The mother can go, she’s American, the son must stay, he’s Egyptian. The father can go, he’s American, the newborn baby without a mother has to be left here. It was gut wrenching. Families were wailing, begging US military members to be allowed to go with their other family members. People were foisting babies in the US military member’s
faces–“Give my son a chance! What life will he have here? Maybe he will die! Do you want to be why my son dies?” Remember at this point, no one knew what would happen, and it seemed at that moment that nothing but utter chaos and anarchy would reign. For the Coptic Christian minority, fearing a Muslim Brotherhood majority, religious violence was also looming large.
I was handed a piece of paper and told to sign it–it was my official document of evacuation. Essentially it said that I was being consensually evacuated from Egypt and that I was agreeing to pay the price for the evacuation flight. It also told me I could end up in one of three places–Cyprus, Istanbul, or Athens. The document told me I wouldn’t know until I landed. The price for the evacuation flight was left blank and I took issue with this; how was I to sign a piece of paper promising to repay an amount that was unspecified? They could write in $10 million dollars! I could never repay that! How was I to tell how much the government would charge me for this? The last flight out before the final US military presence was removed was queueing up to board and I was still arguing with some US official about the paperwork, standing with Said, who was holding my hand. He wanted to come with me. He had never left
Egypt, was a Christian, and for all he knew, he and his family would end up being the targets of violence and bigotry for years maybe decades to come. For a good long moment, I stood resolved not to get on the airplane. I would stay with him and I would stay in Egypt and I would write about what I saw and what was really happening. I would call the BBC, or hell even CNN, and stay on and ride it out. But then I made the mistake of calling my mother to tell her this and she threatened to send a privately chartered jet to come get me if I didn’t get on the one waiting for me on the tarmac. So against my better wishes (and in hindsight I truly believe I should have stayed), I turned, said goodbye to Said, and got on the plane.
We touched down in Istanbul about 2 hours later. I had amassed a group of fellow Americans who were really scared and lost–the sort that get jostled by these kinds of scenarios (as opposed to me, who is energized by them). I had been to Istanbul many times before and knew my way around the city and had quite a few friends, so I offered to get these Americans a cheap, good hotel room and give them tours of the city while they got flights back home. I called a friend of mine at the Hotel Niles and pretty much filled his hotel up with guests (my room was free of
course, muhahaha!). I showed these Americans the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, took them to the waterfront and put them on cruises. A lot of them were GAdventures people from various tours in Egypt being run co-concurrently, so the GAdventures company reached out to me and offered me a huge thank you, a free tour in the future, and a place on their blog to write about my experience (which I did, but which sadly has been removed).
End of the story– I stayed on in Istanbul, waiting for flights into Cairo to recommence. All air in and out of Egypt had been suspended, but I waited and I waited, I followed the news and I waited some more. But it took too long and I had to get back home. I waited because I wanted to see Said again and I wanted to go back to that lovely country who’s people risked their lives for a group of strangers. I was as in love with Egypt as I was with it’s people, and I wanted so badly to go back, but the revolution took longer than anyone ever suspected. I ended up returning September of 2012 to finish my tour, and again in November of 2012, but
sadly I haven’t seen Said since the revolution, although we stay in touch over Facebook. I also sadly have not visited Egypt in several years, but I hope to return soon. I cannot say enough good things about the country, it’s people, and it’s history. No matter what the situation is politically, make sure you visit Egypt and be sure to support all the amazing tour guides that put everything on the line for their group members when called upon to do so. As they say, once you drink from the Nile, you will always return. I’ll see you there.
Recommended Tour: GAdventures, “Absolute Egypt“. $1279 USD for 16 days, Cairo to Cairo. $449 USD single room supplement (if you want your own room without a same gender roommate). It’s a comprehensive tour that touches on all the best that Egypt has to offer–all the major temples including the Valley of the Kings, the Temple of Hatshepsut, the temple complex in Luxor, Edfu, and of course, the Great Pyramids. It also includes a felucca sailing journey up the Nile from Aswan, an overnight train from Cairo, and several days out in the Western Desert, along with a night in Alexandria and a visit to the famous library.
To Stay: Hotel Niles (Istanbul). Rates fluctuate from $100/night during the off season (winter) to $200/night during high season (summer). A 10% discount is offered on cash payments if booked through the hotel website. Rooms are gorgeous, decorated in the continental style with small local flourishes (such as a turkish bath in some rooms). A lovely terrace at the top of the hotel has an amazing view of the Istanbul harbor and every morning a large breakfast spread is put out on the terrace for guests, free of charge. The hotel is located within walking distance of all major tourist attractions in the city (Topaki Palace, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, etc). Airport transfers from Ataturk Airport are roughly $30, one way.
To Listen: A good friend of mine suggested that I add a few song recommendations to each travel update, and I happen to agree with him, it’s a great idea, and a great way to capture the spirit of a location. Here are my recommendations for this post:
- “Wakhali” (Empty) by Omar Souleyman (one his videos)
- “Aicha” by Bayta Ag Bay from the album compilation “Music from Saharan Cellphones”
- “Shou 3melti Feye” by Haytham Shoumali
Note: Despite the many official government travel warnings, I’ve always found Egypt to be a welcoming, hospitable place. As long as you have a good guide if you’re a first time visitor or a non-Arabic speaker, you’ll be just fine. I returned to Egypt under many heavy travel warnings and never had any issues, as I was under the advice and guidance of honest, hardworking tour guides. If you have any question about the character of your guide, because some can be shady, I recommend you call an international tour company and ask to rent out one of their guides for private hire if you do not want to go as part of a group. Egypt can be hard to navigate on your own, and whatever you pay to your guide will be more than worth the hassle and expense of hiring him or her. If you are a woman, be sure to adhere to local dress codes, especially in more rural areas. This means cover your shoulders and cleavage, do not wear shorts, and cover your head with a scarf if entering any mosques or churches. If you choose not to follow these local customs, prepare to be harassed often. As a Western woman you will already attract enough attention as it is, and highly advise you to minimize this impact by simply covering up, even if you’re inclined, due to the heat, not to. It’s better to blend in than stand out for both safety and sanity reasons.