The last time I was in Cairo, I had dinner with a young Egyptian man who had lived for a time in Atlanta and studied with his wife at Georgia State University. He pulled out his cellphone and showed me several photos of their beaming boy, then about 3, born soon after they moved back to Egypt. The proud papa beamed, too.
We dined overlooking a small park where children frolicked with their mothers and aunts, and old men watched croquet being played on a long green lawn.
Now fathers in Cairo patrol the dangerous darkness with sticks and swords and baseball bats — this in a country where almost nobody plays baseball — to protect family and property from looters. I wonder how the young couple and their small son are holding up in the chaos.
Watching revolution on CNN is more fun when you don’t know some of the people caught in the crossfire.
I have visited Cairo four times, and I have made friends there. It remains one of my favorite cities for the very reasons some people don’t like it: It is old, a little dirty and full of restless people. And there is nothing more awesome than viewing the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza for the first time, even with a Kentucky Fried Chicken just across the street.
I watch the revolution on TV and look for sights I recognize. I see armored trucks and soldiers under a viaduct. I think it is the viaduct near Al-Ahram, Egypt’s largest newspaper and the place where I helped conduct a workshop on feature writing for Egyptian journalists in 2004, where my friend Leonard Ray Teel and I stopped by for hot tea and a chat with one of the editors in 2009.
Dr. Teel is director of the Center for International Media Education at GSU and helped found the Arab-U.S. Association for Communication Educators. He has been to Egypt and many other points in the Middle East many times. Occasionally, he lets me tag along.
Through AUSACE, I have met some of the men and women who built Egypt’s communications network. I was at Nilesat one night when they were realigning one of their satellites in outer space to get a better TV signal. At the AUSACE conference in 2009, one of the speakers was the manager of Google Egypt.
Now most satellite communication is shut down, and Google Egypt’s marketing director is missing.
On CNN, I see the bridge that we take from the heart of Cairo to a compound of fine restaurants across the Nile River. I remember the fresh fish stacked on ice for customer selection at one restaurant and the excellent pasta dishes at another.
I see the bridge now in a fog of tear gas, and an armored truck is trying to run over demonstrators on the bridge.
When last we were in Cairo, we rented a horse and carriage to cross the bridge after visiting the U.S. Embassy and managed to beat most of the suicidal rush-hour traffic back to our hotel. The sky was clear and the Nile was steel blue except for the occasional faluka taking tourists for a river ride.
Tanks surround the Egyptian Museum, already violated by vandals. I went there on my first visit to Cairo in 1998. I laugh now when some American museum announces the display of an Egyptian mummy. The Egyptian Museum has more mummies and sarcophaguses in closets than are in all American museums. The King Tut exhibit, sent to the U.S. occasionally to much fanfare, is represented at the Egyptian Museum in a small room off one of the huge hallways.
Because of the museum’s ancient treasures, it’s probably the one place tanks should be.
I see photos of burned-out cars on a street near Tahrir Square, one of the main gathering points for demonstrators. Not far from there is Felfela, one of the restaurants we always try to visit in Cairo. It has great lentil soup and fuul, a bean dish popular with Egyptians. But, mostly, it has an odd connection to home.
The manager inevitably guides Western visitors to a shelf near the entrance that holds an autographed photo of Jimmy Carter, the Plains, Georgia, peanut farmer who brought the Middle East the closest thing to lasting peace that it has had. It is unclear whether President Carter ever actually dined at Felfela during his talks with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat — whose assassination brought Hosni Mubarak to power — but it is a wonderful, simple monument to the Camp David Accords, which have preserved peace between Israel and Egypt for more than 30 years.
I see people marching. Now what?