Tea on Turbulent Tahrir

Cairo – 10,472 miles

The taste of freedom was fresh on our palates as we approached Cairo, and our excitement offset any apprehension we should have felt on approaching this hotbed of political strife. The world’s media was honed in on this city as the crowds expressed their discontent with the current government. The Egyptian people famously ousted their leader Mubarak in 2011, leaving the military to organise the country’s first ever democratic elections. President Morsi led the Islamic Brotherhood to a narrow victory in June 2012, and since then has been at the helm steering, rather clumsily towards what some fear and some hope may become an Islamist state. On the 22nd of November he issued a declaration which stated that his decisions were “final and unchallengeable by any individual or body until a new constitution has been ratified and a new parliament has been elected”. To many, this harked of a second Mubarak, and a step back towards the temporary state of emergency in 1967 which lasted for over 40 years. Morsi put forwards a new draft of the constitution on the 29th November which many Liberals and Coptic Christians felt encroached upon freedom of speech, women’s rights, and the recent democratic gains made by the country. Tempers boiled over in a spate of violent clashed between the Brotherhood’s supporters and anti Morsi groups, culminating in 5 alleged deaths outside the Presidential Palace on 5th December. Morsi eventually caved to public pressure and retracted his 22nd of November declaration. He has insisted however that the new constitution be taken to referendum, despite objections by the majority of opposition parties. Violent protests continued centered around the now famous Tahrir Square, even as the media drew comparisons with Syria’s downward spiral into civil war.

Heartfelt demonstrations on Tahrir (Photo: RWH)

Heartfelt demonstrations on Tahrir (Photo: RWH)

It was in the week leading up to the referendum that we approached Cairo. We were not afforded the luxury of time to worry, as we were fully occupied with navigation and personal safety. The drive into Cairo had us harking back to our childhood Mario Cart days, desperately trying to avoid the next banana skin. We were on a Gothen City-esque motorway flyover which elevated us from the cramped and grimy streets below. Our route had us dodging past incomplete and occasionally non-existent sets of car lights in a navigational no-man’s-land somewhere between the Michelin’s ‘Map of Arabia and North East Africa’ and Lonely Planet’s tiny map of ‘Central Cairo’.

We swung our way through the serpentine streets past shisha stands, chai stalls, and army tanks. We eventually found a cheap hostel populated by a rather perplexed receptionist, whose ample eyebrows shot up at the sight of three road worn Brits stumbling through the door into an otherwise empty building. We rather anxiously left our beloved Land Rover parked on the street overnight. Lying on our beds, exhausted from the drive, we contemplated our location. Barely four hundred yards from Tarhir Square, we could hear the sound of a huge crowd in the distance. The roars were occasionally punctuated with more organised chanting, and the distinctive sound of rubber bullets being fired.

Other than blatant tourism, the purpose of our visit to Cairo was to try and persuade the great nation of Sudan to furnish us with visas. Studying the map the next morning we discovered that although a short walk away, the embassy was inevitably the other side of Tahrir Square.

Being fully subscribed to the concept of ‘as the crow flies’, and afflicted as we were with a triple dose of young man’s curiosity, we set off with our wits in close proximity towards the square. We passed some respectable barriers comprised of a veritable smorgasbord of barbed wire, razor wire and other sharp objects. Massive concrete cubes effectively blocked access to the square from most streets. Fifteen feet high and two score wide, they provided a blank canvas that was quickly utilised by political street artists. Tie-wearing workers and would-be revolutionaries queued together, waiting to squeeze through tiny gaps between the roadblocks and street wall. Suited businessmen scurried to and fro, picking their way between burnt out cars and tut-tutting at the dust on their shoes from hundreds of trampled sand bags. Self appointed guards overlooked the proceedings sporting bandannas emblazoned with anti government slogans. One of them enthusiastically showed us a flail he had made from razor wire and a length of metal piping, the handle of which doubled up as a sort of lethal potato gun. Despite looking not a day older than eleven, he was a serious young man.

An anti-Morsi protester guards the entrance to Tahrir Square (Photo: DN)

An anti-Morsi protester guards the entrance to Tahrir Square (Photo: DN)

When we eventually made the square we found to our surprise that it hadn’t been consumed in some post apocalyptic battle that our imaginations and the media reports had constructed. There were hundreds of people gathered, their numbers occasionally swollen by marches arriving in the square. They were loudly and passionately protesting, but they were peaceful. In between the crescendos, an atmosphere quite unexpected revealed its self. Street vendors had sprung up everywhere. Whiffs of sweet potato, roasted chestnuts, and falafel mingled with the more acrid smell of street bangers and burning rubbish. Chai stands squeezed in between the crowds. Hawkers flogged masks, whistles, flags and balaclavas in a rather dubious display of free market economy. Men perched outside graffiti covered tents smoking shisha and putting the world to rights. These were touching glimpses of everyday life.

We felt exposed but not unsafe. We were the only non-Egyptians evident, other than a few film crews perched high in buildings overlooking the square, or scurrying to and fro from the ample comfort of the nearby Hilton. As such we were frequently approached, and spent an interesting morning sharing tea and exploring differing opinions. Although these people were in the Anti Morsi camp, their common enemy had very much united them, and they expressed a broad range of political preference. Away from the square we encounter fiery youths convinced that the occupants of Tahrir square are all remnants of the Murbarak era, intent on keeping their positions.

A growing proportion of people seem now more concerned with the freefalling economy than in political rivalries. Overwhelmingly, the response to us has been one of sincere and enthusiastic welcome and a concern about the Egyptian image abroad. We were continually hailed with cries of ‘Welcome to Egypt’. We have been made to promise that despite the political turmoil, we must go home and spread the word that Egypt remains safe and welcoming to the outside world. For a country so dependent on tourism this is of little surprise. However, Egyptians are ubiquitously proud of their ancient nation and are appalled to hear that they are seen as dangerous to outsiders. This is one thing a nation, increasingly divided and uncompromising, still has in common.

To the Egyptian people, democracy was for many years an elusive bastion of hope that would solve all problems. The reality has sadly proved much more tumultuous. Although the days of overt corruption and fearful secret police are gone, the country is still a long way off representative political stability. Referendum queues several thousand long and ongoing protests prove that dissatisfaction is still rife.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, we hope that the Egyptians can maintain a stable democratic state from here on in. Political consistency will reassure foreign investors as well as the international community and the IMF. Peace will flood their ancient monuments – currently deserted – with tourists once more, perhaps breathing life back into their floundering economy. We will watch the referendum results tomorrow with interest as we prepare to depart for the Sudan.

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Any Port in a Storm

As we pulled our mud-caked vehicle alongside the twilight outline of the Flintstone’s Cave hostel in Goreme, Cappadocia we were greeted by welcoming staff and a few friendly Erasmus students.

“Looks like you’ve had fun, what have you been up to?” one enquired.

It would be a few days before the obscure images of the past 24 hours had cleared from our eyes enough to answer that question.

Millions of years ago in Cappadocia, a volcanic eruption or two left this desert region strewn with thousands of slabs of igneous rock. Subsequently the sandstone beneath has been eroded by wind and rain creating a dramatic landscape. Long serpentine gullies sweep around basalt capped golden towers. Lofty plateaus frame a striking scene that is littered with ancient dwellings cut directly into the stone by Troglodyte tribes first and Romans after them. In the warm wind we explored the hills and valleys of this fairytale land. Christian imagery remains intact on the walls of Byzantine churches cut from the soaring towers. Thousands of Christians evaded Roman (and later Turkish) persecution here in vast underground cities. The centurion tasked with flushing out the Christians from these five story bunkers would have had to evade traps such as giant rolling rocks and fallingspears. We spent hours exploring tunnels and chambers, playing out scenes from Indiana Jones and generally larking about.

We left Cappadocia wanting to stay longer but our ferry from South East Turkey was imminent. We roared through the hills east of Iskenderun passing tiny sepia villages, unreal in the glow of scant halogen lamps. We smashed the delicate silence of each town into clattering shards, barking and yelping in our wake. As we awaited unpopulated countryside in which to camp Bas stirred from reflection, “how far do you think we are from the Syrian border?” Somehow it at not occurred to us until that point that, as we flashed through the hills, we were fast encroaching on the disputed Turkish-Syrian border. The mood in the car sharpened and the quest for a camp received new urgency.

Eventually we found our way to the top of a bare hill under gathering clouds. We decided that while it was perhaps unwise to park on a hill in an electrical storm pressing further and bumping into Syrian revolutionaries, the Syrian Army or being mistaken by the Turkish army for either of the above was less appealing. That night our dreams were troubled by phantom conflicts between Turkey and Syria played out in the crack and boom of the storm.

We awoke at dawn to a tap tap on the window and the face of a Turkish farmer peering in. The hilltop on which we had narrowly escaped electrocution and an international incident was revealed in the light of day to be an enormous field of parsley. Like surly adolescents we tramped out of the car to receive our reprimand from an appropriately furious farmer. This did not unfold. In fact the farmer seemed heartily amused by the novelty of finding a Land Rover and three bewildered tourists lost in his parsley. After much awkward laughter, manly backslapping and handshaking we were allowed on our way with a generous gift from our host.

We arrived at the port of Iskenderun by 9 o’clock. After a quick breakfast of parsley sandwiches we registered and parked to await our passage to Africa, the Nisos Rodos. We were to depart at midday. By midnight we had started uploading, things were already starting to feel a bit more like Africa.

After a pleasant 24 hours aboard we were downloaded to Port Said, Egypt. Muted by excitement we took our first breaths of African air as the shadow of our car rolled off the ferry. Our tiny vehicle was lost in a mechanized jungle looming black around us. Monstrous grabbers, lifters and haulers were cut out in monochrome by our stark spotlights. Men with uniforms shuffled out of the gloom, we were not going anywhere until morning. They lead us to a locked compound where we were left for the night.

We cast about. Our new home consisted of a large rectangle marked out by razor wire. The ground was made up of years of compacted grime and leaked lubricants resulting in a nonspecific sticky filth. The compound was inhabited only by a handful of lorry drivers sleeping in their cabs. In the far corner was a single dilapidated toilet cubicle. Inside, a steel showerhead hung from the cracked concrete wall over a squat toilet that could have equally been the drain in an abattoir.

There are none as optimistic as the desperate. We looked at each other, “It’s just one night…it will be fine”. Ravenous, we set about making some food. As I chopped the parsley I watched a skeletal cat sizing up a rodent across the compound. Little red eyes glared back at the predator with unsettling hostility. Gripped by this tiny war I almost didn’t notice the hunched figure that stepped silently from shadows behind. As the outline of a man walked slowly towards our car Rich put his hand on my shoulder and I turned to see a pair of sallow eyes my window. Startled, I locked the door. Several more tenebrous shapes gathered around and began exploring our car with there pallid fingers. Growing numbers gave the spectres confidence and they started speaking to us. “What you doing here, my friend?” choked forth the first. “Nisos Rodos” Bas managed and was met with a chorus of whispered echoes. The first croaked again, “you need anything, my friend?” ruthlessly dragging on the words, “you wan’ beercig’retteshashish?”

“We don’t need anything thank you” Rich stated firmly. The potbellied leader pressed his cracked lips then smiled. “We come back tomorrow, maybe you need something tomorrow” the misshapen bodies slowly melted away. We went to sleep uneasy.

DSCF2521The next day we were up early, keen to sort our paperwork and escape this dreadful oubliette without any delay. Guided by our excellent translator/fixer, Mahmut, Rich made his way through 11 offices. Each office housed a slightly fatter man in a slightly sweatier shirt than the last. Rich financed progressively bigger bribes and in return inky stamps endorsed certificates proving all manner of things. Nothing inspires confidence like a large illegible rubber stamp. A bureaucratic tradition left over from the time of Empire, perhaps. All was developing well until one such clammy colossus clawed in his nose and, when satisfied with his findings, shot the same chubby digit at an assistant dispatching him to check our chassis number.

This was a catastrophe we had been hoping to avoid. Our chassis number has been previously galvanized over leaving us with no proof that our car is the same as the vehicle that our registration document discusses and not a stolen one. Luckily this problem was managed in a distinctly Egyptian way. Mahmut phoned his friend Mohammed who soon arrived and knocked the chassis number in with a chisel. Despite Mohammed’s skilled workmanship we held reservations about our being able to convince the border guards of the legitimacy of our forged chassis number on account of it’s being written in Arabic lettering.

These delays resulted in two more nights spent in purgatory. The long hours were passed predominantly trying not to touch anything and periodically batting away probing interest from the vermin and the pushers. On the morning of the fourth day we tried the gate. Mahmut conversed with the officer while we sat in our idling vehicle. The guard surveyed us over the mountain of forms, stamped in triplicate, skillfully devouring salted sunflower seeds as he did so, spitting a cloud of chaff after each one. He ambled lazily over and asked to see the chassis number. Rich mumbled something and pointed. The officer peered into the darkness under our wheel arch. He peered for too long, something was wrong. Mahmut was perspiring. Suddenly he darted around the car and, concealed by his body, mashed a wad of notes into an expectant hand. Stony faced, the officer completed his checks and walked back to his office in silence. In the dense heat we waited.  Minutes ticked past and nobody spoke. The barrier creaked and lifted; we held our breath unwilling to leave without confirmation of success. Mahmut flicked his hand impatiently and we crept out onto the road. Free. We gathered speed on the road to Cairo and began to celebrate. We jigged about boisterously in our seats and all the tension poured out to the tune of “Free falling” by Tom Petty. We were out, and with a full tank of diesel for a tenner we were on the road to Cairo.