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Tour of a revolution

Egypt, February 14, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Sarah Warren/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A young girl proudly holds the Egyptian flag in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Photo: Sarah Warren/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Sarah Warren/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Today, Tahrir Square feels distinctly like a huge street festival, with vendor selling food and other wares, and children getting their faces painted with the Egyptian flag. Photo: Sarah Warren/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Sarah Warren/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Habib and Sakka. Photo: Sarah Warren/Mercy Corps

I arrived in Cairo just before dusk yesterday. First appearances indicated a fairly normal situation. Aside from a little added scrutiny of my baggage on the way out of the airport, the rest of the scene took on a familiar feel — the deluge of taxi drivers accosting me as I emerged from the terminal; the usual debate over how many Egyptian pounds they would extract from me for the trip into town; the hair-raising half-hour journey with constant honking, aggressive gesturing between motorists and an endless string of missed collisions.

But then we hit the center of town. Suddenly the taxi was trapped in a wall of traffic underneath a canopy of criss-crossing overpasses. We had arrived at the gritty outskirts of the now-famous Tahrir Square. Since the gridlock seemed permanent, I got out and dragged my suitcase the last few hundred yards across the cement pavement into the Ramses Hilton, a tall gray fortress molded from concrete.

After dropping my bags in my room on the 18th floor and admiring the blazing orange sun descending on the other side of the Nile, I ventured off to Tahrir.

For nearly an hour, I wandered through the crowds on my own, absorbing the sights and sounds and smells. It felt distinctly like a huge street festival. Jubilant people of all ages and walks of life clogged the streets, waving Egyptian flags, greeting one another, singing and chanting. Vendors sold popcorn and roasted potato wedges off the backs of rickety wooden carts Young artists painted children’s faces with the national colors. Parents hoisted babies and small children onto the sides of tanks lined up outside of the Egyptian Museum and snapped photos of them with their cell phones.

It was clear that I didn’t quite fit in, and every few minutes another cluster of people would yell out to me with palpable pride and excitement, “Welcome! Welcome to Egypt!” It sounded as if they were presenting a new country, a new Egypt. Several asked me where I was from. I have to confess that I was mildly uneasy about how my answer would be received. But each time, I got the same reply, “Ahhh, America! Welcome, welcome!”

At one point, two young voices beckoned me from a thick stand of people: “Welcome!” “Thank you!” I responded. “And Mabrouk (congratulations)!” I walked on a couple of steps but then realized I was missing the chance to meet real revolutionaries.

When I turned back, two young men came into focus in the dim light. One took off the tag that was hanging from his neck and slipped the ribbon over my head. On top of a picture of the Egyptian flag was an Arabic phrase that means “Egypt Above All.” With that, they took me by the arm and guided me off through the crowd, taking me on a three-hour tour of their revolution.

Habib is 26 and works in a cinema. Sakka (the k’s are silent) is 20, a student in the physical education department at the university, and an avid power lifter. In the best English they could muster, they took turns describing how they had kept vigil in Tahrir for 18 days, sometimes remaining awake for 48 hours at a time.

They avoided eating and drinking, because there were no toilets around the protest site. Every few days, they returned home to clean up. At first, they told their parents they were out with friends, but presumably their parents eventually caught on. When they came under attack from pro-Mubarak forces, Sakka hurled stones back until his shoulder hurt. Habib said he was shot in the shin, but I couldn’t see any evidence of serious damage.

My young hosts were determined to make me feel at home. They bought me sugary tea in white plastic cups from an outdoor stand, scoured the surrounding streets to find me a local card for my phone, and popped into a flower shop to secure me an early Valentine’s rose. As they escorted me back to my hotel, Habib giggled and shrieked about how much he “LOVES GIRLS,” while Sakka used his cell phone to show me videos of himself power lifting.

In a sign of the times, they requested my Facebook contacts and gave me a missed call to make sure I’d have their number. Before bidding me farewell for the night, they taught me two new words in Arabic that they thought were important for my lexicon: mutazaharin (protesters) and sawra (revolution).