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Love and Other Revolutions – Notes From Egypt in Crisis

When you travel you should expect everything and nothing.

Seven months ago I traveled to Egypt on a whim. My two-month trip to Southeast Asia had been planned 8 months before and cancelled a day before I was to leave. I found myself befriending a young Egyptian man whom I had talked to several times through a mutual friend. I guess it was a mixture of the Cairan heat, the near death experiences of road-crossings, nights at the Opera and felucca rides that came together to transition friendship into something deeper. So, it was without surprise that first chance, I would be back in Egypt.

I found myself with a job, an apartment and a new lifestyle. As an outsider we observe things in a superficial way partly because our perspective is more than often an ephemeral one. But soon enough we realize how vulnerable we are towards feeling intrigued to a place, to a culture and that’s when it happens, we become part of it as it becomes part of us.

Jan 23, a quiet morning quickly turned Tahrir Square into the passageway for the New Revolution of Egypt. My apartment was only a street away and all day I heard the noise of the people and smelled the smoke. Jan 25 was, as I described it that day, the longest day of my life. With no communication I found myself alone, enclosed in an empty apartment with neighbors who only spoke Arabic, a language that had become my personal nemesis.

And then it hit me… I’m screwed. I remember falling asleep on the sofa, watching local news waiting to see familiar faces among the protesters shown on tv. The next morning, after the curfew was lifted for the day I sailed out onto the streets. Smoke and silence filled the scenery. The air was heavy with what felt was more tension than pollution. After a while I set out to my friend’s family house where I remained for about a week.

In life, it is either or, either we are forced to grow or we choose to. In times like these we tend to exempt ourselves from reality… this will never happen to me, and then life goes ahead and decides for us. During my stay with my ‘savior’ family I was taught or rather forced to speak Arabic, since the other members knew only fragmented English we decided to make a deal, a trade; English for Arabic, Caribbean cooking for Egyptian. This is when I learned to overcome linguistic barriers by going to the primitive within; hand movements, exaggerated face expressions and overly-conscious body language.

With nowhere to go and basically nothing to do in the outside world we all found ourselves going back to the simple pleasures of human activity; conversation, interactive board games, exploiting the imagination through books. It was a time for reflection, one where I realized today, we are human again. Kind of like those times where the lights go out and the family then shares together to be amused or entertained.

The nights were tough. The men would go down to defend their homes and businesses from thieves escaped from jail while we women stayed indoors making sure they had water and food. Once or twice one of them would come up to stock up and we would get the details of a fight we had heard. In the distance we could hear gunshots and on occasion the speakers of a mosque would turn on with an Imam urging the the violence to stop.

In the crudest moments in life there will always be a ray of quirkiness. One morning I awoke to the excited voice of my love:

“Habibty! Come! Quickly!” He took my hand and I followed him to the balcony and was amazed at the scene I was encountered with. A young boy, not six or seven years old was dressed in a spider man costume, half hidden behind a window he was looking outward with a toy gun.

“What are you doing?” we screamed. Fully concentrated on the horizon and not looking up once he very determinedly answered:

“My father is resting, I’m defending my family from the robbers”.

A scene, which we captured both in photograph and in our hearts, gave us a comic relief in this act of life’s drama. Sweet innocence knows no boundaries and knows just when to show up.

The way to the airport was long and apprehensive. We had made a plan which essentially involved me being a dutiful wife who didn’t talk to men, just in case we got stopped by armed groups. Stop number seven was the worst one as they took my passport and unmasked my identity, threw my suitcase onto the road and searched through every corner.

After several minutes of debate and heated emotions, we were allowed to pass and hurried on our way to the airport. Once at the airport, things went by in fast motion. Saying goodbye through a glass window to someone you love is inhuman. Then again, so are many other repercussions of revolutions.

Caroline Keller