Abu Ray comes home

Abu Ray is a contributor to the blog who brought us this great series on his trips to Iraq in the last several years. He just came home to Cairo from a trip to Indonesia.

 

It is one of the miracles of modern travel that less than 20 hours after I was playing in the surf on Bali’s Legian Beach with my son, I was back in Cairo. And it is also one of the miracles of modern social movements that in the 10 days I’d been gone the city had changed irrevocably.

 

I had left Cairo and come home to Baghdad.

 

Hulking sand colored M1 tanks squatted menacingly on the nighttime roads from the airport and everywhere makeshift barriers blocked off the neighborhoods of what had once been an open city.

 

At 3am airport was almost deserted and instead of the usual mob of taxi drivers clamoring for my business, I was lucky to find a young cabbie pulling through the empty parking lot. He agreed to take me (Helen and Ray would enjoy Bali for a while longer) back to my distant Nile-side neighborhood of Garden City and we embarked on an odyssey that would last till dawn and was ultimately unsuccessful.

 

Curfew had closed the main roads forcing us to take the sidestreets through the nearby district of Heliopolis and into a maze of impromptu checkpoints, just like in Baghdad when people closed the roads to their neighborhoods to stop nighttime marauders during the dark years of sectarian infighting.

 

Men with sticks and sometimes handguns warming themselves by fires would surround the car, demanding ids and firing questions to know where we were coming from and what was planned.

 

At first I took it in stride until the checkpoints were coming every few minutes, often within sight of each other in a triumph of paranoia and redundancy.

 

It hadn’t helped that the government, in an frantic effort to displace the blame for the most obvious culprit for the whole mess, went on the air to warn against foreign agent provocateurs.

 

It’s an odd strategy for a country that sets so much store by its lucrative tourist industry, but it seemed to have worked and so many of those self appointed guardians against chaos seemed convinced that foreigners were behind the problems in their country, rather than, say, a sclerotic regime finally falling apart.

 

At one of the earlier checkpoints they insisted on taking apart my bags provoking squawks of outrage from me as I passionately expounded on my deep Egyptian roots. They apologized, but I was soon to find that that behavior was more the norm than the exception.

 

We finally ran into an army checkpoint and there an officer instructed his man to painstakingly sift through my belongings, with items of interest deposited on a plastic lawn chair in front of him.

 

Aside from obvious problem objects like my camera and sundry accessories, they singled out for further inspection: my flashlight, Ray’s bendable dinosaur, and my underarm deodorant. One soldier did spend an inordinate amount of time staring at Ray’s little yellow toy Volkswagen beetle, but it was eventually allowed through.

 

The underarm poked bafflement at least two checkpoints, and lacking the language on this one, I had to pantomime what it was used for.

 

“Can you buy this in Egypt,” asked one soldier in wonder. “Of course," growled a plainsclothes iofficer who had been supervising the search, “every big supermarket sells them.”

 

In the end, though, it was a particularly self important civilian checkpoint that sank our journey. The fat fellow not only dragged us back to one of the military checkpoints we’d already passed and made them re-search all the belongings, but then had the gall to say he would still not let us pass until the curfew ended at dawn, still an hour away.

 

Luckily that particular checkpoint was a near a metro station and I was allowed to catch the next passing train. Weirdly, my taxi was then allowed to leave.

 

During the 10 minute walk home from my destination metro station, I had to pass through three more impromptu checkpoints, including one just minutes from my apartment where they insisted on another baggage search, prompting a full scale rage attack on my part.

 

Cairo, a city where you could once wander through any neighborhood at any time with total impunity was now ruined, wracked by fear and suspicion.

 

We had become news. It certainly feels different when the focus of the world’s attention is your backyard. All those other reporters flying in where just covering another conflict zone, but for the local corps of journalists, though, this story was largely about the disintegration of where we lived.

 

Which come to think of it is how our Iraqi colleagues have probably felt for years.

 

A few hours after making it home, I went out into Tahrir Square, the center of the world’s attention for the past week and three blocks from my house. It was ringed with tanks but inside was actually quite lovely. It was almost as though all the brotherhood and camaraderie that had been leached out of the rest of the city had been concentrated into one place.

 

They were conscientious about security, not surprising considering the many attacks by pro-regime thugs, but apologized after the pat downs and we wished each other good luck. Everyone wanted to talk about why they were there and the years of frustration that had brought them to lay siege to the center of the city with this act of occupying defiance.

 

Occasional suspicions were easy to disarm with a few words and exchange of smiles and few conversations ended with bad feelings.

 

And ringing the borders of the square were makeshift barriers made of burned cars, aluminum siding and random bits of junk. Beyond lay a no-man’s land of stones and roving mobs of self-appointed vigilantes and a city I no longer knew.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.