I arrived in Cairo, a lone cyclist pedaling into a metropolis, on the evening of 28 January, 2011 at the end of a tour of the western oasis circuit from Luxor. From the warnings of local contacts I knew that I should keep vigilant. The city — indeed much of Egypt — was rising to a new pitch in the protest against the government. Today, Friday, a day off work and a day of consultation after prayer, was expected to be a turning point, and it was. By now the world knows of the events on that day from television images of burning and overturned police tactical vehicles, teargas braving mobs, rocks against rubber bullets and water canons, allegations of live fire in some cases, and tanks rolling across urban bridges and through downtown streets.
My approach was from the southwest, through Giza. This brought me right past the pyramids, strikingly juxtaposed with encroaching ordinary apartment buildings and businesses. They looked bigger than I expected. I mused about how bizarre it would be to wake up and look out the window of your flat to see them, but I’m sure that, like all things, even ones of transcendent human effort and majesty, one would just get used to it.
It was about 5:30, which turns out to have been just before curfew (which I was, of course, unaware of). Traffic, myself included, had been moving along the highway just fine. Up ahead there was a slowdown, and the main offramp to central Giza was being blocked by three police vehicles. I backtracked in the breakdown lane — along with dozens of in-reverse cars and semi-trailers — to the prior exit. I was then on the surface streets and immediately in crowds. The mood was a kind of tense euphoria. It was certainly not menacing, and though I knew it was not an ordinary dynamic, and though I knew it was surprising for people to see me, I viscerally felt there was no chance I would be singled out in malice. Avenues were darker than they should be. The majority of people out were men, but women in groups and women with children were well represented. The next afternoon I heard someone on CNN claim that this was virtually an all male affair, and I can say that that is flat out not true.
I was immediately stopped by a tall Egyptian with shiny smiling eyes, he was sweating as if from running perhaps, and he grabbed my hand and told me he loved me. Just like that, he said, “I love you,” and he dropped my hand and marched off with the throng. The sparks I could feel around me — raised voices, exaggerated walking strides, displays of affection — were all indications of the cauldron of emotion this was. I cycled past a mosque where there were many young men milling about, many called out to me, and I was greeted seemingly with cheer. I could not, of course, understand the remarks that were made in my direction but none of it was hostility.
I rode up to a group of police officers next to their pickup truck. They were unusually isolated, I thought, and a bit furtive. Their attitude seemed to me to be of men who would prefer not to have been there and, barring that, prefer not to be noticed. One was older but three were young, in their early 20’s. They were curious at my approach, but gave me no reason for concern. I asked for directions to my hotel, and they gave them. I’d made reservations weeks ago so as to be equally close on my last day to the pyramids and the museum, the latter one of the great collections of the world. That museum is a few hundred yards away from the source of those Cairo news images. In retrospect I wonder how long those officers stayed at their post that night.
I didn’t understand the distances included with the directions (but wasn’t concerned about getting totally lost, since my GPS was working), so I well overshot the recommended turn and was headed into downtown. I ended up cycling for about 45 minutes and stopped numerous times to consult with people and triangulate. This was a striking span. Sometimes I was riding with the crowd, sometimes against it. The expressions were ones of exultant purpose, and the faces I saw were lucid and clear in spite of the emotion. When I was off main streets and just in the dark side residential and neighborhood alleyways, people were just going about ordinary life. I remember vividly an old woman crossing my path to dump a pail in a trash filled lot across from her apartment building. I chatted with a fruit seller working under fluorescent lights and doing calm, brisk business. I rode with children who were oblivious and just wanted to play with my blinking taillight.
The highest profile opposition leader Mohamad ElBaradei was under house arrest not very far from where I was.
I arrived at my hotel and was greeted by harried but coping staff. Chinese, Italian, Spanish and American tourists sat around glumly. As is well known, there was no Internet or mobile service throughout all of this, but I was able readily to make a land line call.
The next day my movements were fairly restricted due to safety concerns, and the evening cracked with frequent gunfire outside my window. By then there were tanks outside of the hotel. There were also overlapping community groups of men armed with batons and machetes helping to direct traffic and question strangers. They waved at me and gave thumbs up.
The doorman hugged me and teared up as I was leaving and asked that I urge my president to pressure Mubarak to step down. The taxi ride to the airport was uneventful during the early morning Sunday. I saw numerous burned out police stations and other buildings. The airport was packed and in chaos, but the Turkish Air ground personnel handled the panicky mass professionally during the three hour check in.
My flight took off another three hours late, Cairo and smoke receding below us.
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