Out of Egypt: one family’s story of the Egyptian uprising

Lynn Chandler, author of Embracing a Concrete Desert, was born in Muslim West Africa and spent her childhood in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the US. After 9/11 she moved with her family to Cairo, home to over 20 million people, to serve as the music director in the Anglican/Episcopal international church that her husband pastors. This is her moving account of being caught up in this year's Egyptian uprising.

The ink was barely dry from a poem I had just written, ‘When a detour calls’, when a revolutionary detour suddenly hit our lives. One morning the rumblings of a revolution in Egypt stirred the air and the next morning there was no turning back. I met friends for coffee at a local café two days after the drama of the ‘day of rage’ here in Egypt (Tuesday 25 January), when peaceful protesters were first attacked by water cannons and tear gas.

My Indian friend, whose husband works for UNICEF, arrived at the café with details on how to assemble a ‘go bag’, and we all laughed at the improbability of needing such an evacuation necessity. I shared information I had learned on how to access the soon-to-be popular Facebook site ‘We are all Khalid Said’, dedicated to a young Egyptian man arrested for no apparent reason and brutally murdered by police the previous summer; in the current state of emergency law here in Egypt, this could happen to anyone. At the end of the morning we left praising the ingenuity of modern communications in enabling us to stay linked with information, and looking forward to seeing each other in church the next day.

Little did we know what lay ahead and that by morning our mobile phone texting and internet connections throughout Egypt would be intentionally severed by the current government regime. Our church service was full that evening and the next morning. We joined together in praying for peace, listened to each other’s stories and were encouraged to head straight home after the worship service. Friday prayers at the mosques would soon conclude and the planned mass demonstrations downtown would begin.

Before heading home we decided to investigate our own wider neighbourhood to see if spreading rumours were true that our area, Maadi, was being sealed off at its bridge entrances, as had been done after 9/11 to protect the many foreigners living in the area. We drove over to the bridge that leads to the Nile Corniche and were unable to drive around the traffic square there, due to at least 100 riot police linked in formation with their black helmets, shields and clubs at the ready. No way would anyone be breaching their fortification.

We drove straight home to see if our one satellite television news channel would be covering the local events taking place. It was quickly evident that things were escalating in downtown Cairo as riot police began to follow orders to subdue peaceful protesters with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets.

Weeks later we spoke with an Egyptian friend who had helped carry off nine dead people killed from real bullets that day, one shot in the head by a sniper, just yards away. He had stood his ground, expecting to die as bullets sprayed round his feet.

In our ‘quiet’ Cairo neighbourhood, just a mile from the Nile River and half a mile from a nearby prison, we began to hear occasional bursts of gunfire and felt the effects of tear gas in our eyes when we stepped out on to our balcony to watch what was happening. As we live in a building on a main road right next to a railroad track, it was unusual to find that traffic noise had almost ceased entirely. Once darkness enveloped
us, we began what would be our best night of sleep for many days to come.

When morning arrived, my husband Paul-Gordon went to church to check on things there and planned to drive by the fortified traffic square that we had seen the day before, just out of curiosity.

At church the usual 24/7 crew of armed and plainclothes police officers had diminished to just one man. He greeted Paul-Gordon apprehensively, handed over his set of keys to the church property and then said goodbye, with no explanation as to where he was going or when he or his colleagues would return. Knowing about the previous day’s clashes with police downtown, we assumed he was being redeployed elsewhere, not recalled into inaction. Soon we would learn of a young woman in our church who lived in a downtown apartment and had heard police pounding on doors, begging for civilian clothes during the height of the riots.

Many Egyptians had sympathy on them and helped to protect them by giving them clothes; she would later open her door to find abandoned police uniforms strewn along her hallway. In our area, where a day earlier we had seen the swarm of armed riot police standing their ground, my husband now saw only the remains of a burned-out police truck and several army tanks. Knowing we would not want to miss any of the action, he called to say that he was coming home to fetch us for a photo opportunity, and we picked up my cousin Ben, also the assistant minister in our church, to document the event.

It was mindboggling that this was taking place in our peaceful little neighbourhood. At lunch that day, in an effort to support our favourite local restaurant, whose usual clientele were rapidly fleeing the country, we learned the details of the burned police truck and consequent battle from my Indian friend with her ‘go bag’, who had watched it all take place during the night from her bedroom window overlooking the square.

Even so, she wasn’t ‘going’ but planned to stay until the UN forced her to leave. Within the week, they did. A nationwide curfew was officially announced in the wake of the riots and the fear of looting grew: police had disappeared from their usual street corner posts and rumours rapidly circulated of released prisoners at large. Several people in our church lived in apartments overlooking the nearby prison and
witnessed the gun battles there in the attempts to restrain prisoners who had escaped their cells when the police force was recalled. The prisoners had promptly looted the arsenal but could not breach the fortified wall to get out of the prison property.

Paratroopers succeeded in forcing the prisoners to exhaust their rounds of ammunition before landing in their midst and reclaiming control. Apparently only 30 prisoners escaped successfully and several were caught soon afterwards. We wondered at our neighbours’ ingenuity when the apartment owners gathered at the front and started to pull their cars up to block the building’s entrance, preventing looters easy access. Soon we saw weapons appear and my husband went down to find out what in the world was going on.

My cousin Ben called me soon after to ask if I had packed a ‘go bag’. I laughed at first, thinking he was joking. He said that he and his wife were spending the night with a few friends in a nearby building and that they all had bags packed: his main concern was fire. ‘Fire?’ I asked. ‘Yes, it only takes one Molotov cocktail in your window.’ I conceded and started packing, adrenalin creeping into my bloodstream.

Given the political unrest, that day (28 January) the US Embassy advised all Americans living in Egypt to consider leaving as soon as possible. The German teachers in our building left the country immediately and the Danish couple in our building dropped by that evening to use our international telephone line and to deliberate on their plans.

We soon learned from the rest of our Egyptian neighbours that they had organised themselves into a self-appointed defence team and they were prepared to protect their wives, their children and us: we had nothing to worry about. An ex-military man stood among them, efficiently putting together a plan: one shotgun, (eventually another would emerge), two pistols and a rifle, not to mention our boabs (building maintenance brothers) wielding large clubs and enthusiastically accepting our son’s baseball bat as a backup.

At moments it seemed almost comical as visions of Barney Fife and the ‘Apple Dumpling Gang’ flashed through my mind. We served them tea and snacks each night they stood guard, but we were more of a liability than an asset on the front lines, considering how well armed they were.

Over the next days of the peaceful revolution, we accrued quite an observation list of local makeshift weapons, ranging from large kitchen knives, swords, spears, water pipes (sometimes with the taps still attached), a spear gun (normally used for Red Sea fishing pursuits) and what looked to me like a very large lion trainer’s whip. Street blockades were almost as creative, made from broken-down street lights, toppledover police sentry boxes, fallen tree trunks and even our own building’s large clay flower pots. Self-imposed checkpoints began almost immediately in an attempt to enforce curfew and keep unknown drivers off our usually busy street.

I will never forget the sight of our gentle boab Abdu waving down a car to make it stop in front of our building as our shotgunwielding neighbour pointed his weapon at its front window. Abdu checked the occupants’ papers, made them exit the car to open their boot and then signalled the ‘all clear’ by raising a windscreen wiper upright so that they could safely move through the next road block run by trusted neighbourhood

Because we were advised not to keep our apartment lights on, we could easily see from the vantage point of our low dining-room windows, in the darkness, two storeys down to the street and the front entrance of our building. Occasionally we would slide open our windows a crack to hear better, and regretted it the moment we heard and saw our shotgun neighbour pierce the night air with fire in his first attempt to ward off a mob of looters heading in our direction.

The next day we learned that the Cairo Police Commissioner lived three buildings down from us and a determined mob had swarmed his building, looting as they went, until army troops and tanks secured the scene. Nine times that night, looters made a run toward our building and nine times our building’s weapons shot ear-shattering warnings over their heads. I had never heard the noise of an angry mob in person before, but I doubt the sound will ever fade from my memory. I can best describe it with sounds I’ve only imagined hearing before - the combination of an amplified swarm of giant killer bees muffled by the charge of a panicked camel caravan. From our windows we could see looters across the railroad tracks just in front of us, running in and out of buildings, creating chaos.

Gangs would sweep through areas with pickup trucks between their marching formations in an effort to carry off loot more efficiently. Paul-Gordon received a phone call at one point with the report that mobs had broken through the bridges attempting to seal off our area of Cairo and had been spotted heading our way. The story sounded overly dramatic at the time but it was completely to separate reality from rumour, so we acted on instinct. He yelled for us to barricade our front door and called my cousin to get inside and do the same. How a wedged table barricade was going to save us, I’m not quite sure, but my son Treston and I quickly complied, and it sounded as if Ben’s revolution party had a refrigerator barricade in place in record-breaking time. Soon we were exhausted from adrenalin pumping through our veins for hours on end.

Every time I looked at my watch, thinking an hour had passed, time would have moved barely ten minutes forward. Would the night ever end? Slow motion was disorienting. Eventually we decided we were making no progress watching out of our window, so we decided to lie down and rest for a while. Still in our clothes and without turning on our usual sound machines to drown out the night’s noise, we felt much safer being able to hear what was going on. No sooner had we gone to bed than we heard what sounded like a massive army tank bearing down on our building. We jumped up and flew to the window just in time to see an enormous tank roaring by so fast that it seemed surreal. It was heading full speed in the direction of the prison. As soon as it got to the end of our street, we heard an outburst of celebrative cheering. The surreal feeling continued.

Our twelve-year-old dog Pepsi had held up quite well in the face of distant gun shots—but then the shotgun bursts and speeding tanks began sending shrill sounds through the unsealed panes of her own windows. Shaking like a leaf in a sandstorm, she lunged her 70 pounds into the refuge of our laps, panted horrible breath into our faces and started moulting like a machine. I began to wonder what we would do with her if we did have to suddenly detour our long-range plans and evacuate the country immediately. First thing the next morning, we called the kennel: ‘No room. Call back tomorrow.’

The looting done during the night turned out to be minimal in our area, thanks to the determined efforts of the neighbourhood patrols. Government-associated buildings were the main targets and the police station right next door to our Egyptian priest at church was burned to the ground. A Mubarak-sponsored library nearby and a giant Carrefour grocery store were looted and then set on fire. Paul-Gordon met a guy who was proud to announce that his friend had got away with a brand new television.

The driver of one of our neighbours showed us his rubber bullet wound, acquired while trying to breach the police station in our area. They never brought it down, that day or ever. We drove by it the next morning, when an eerie stillness had returned to the streets, and saw numerous tanks and army commandos carrying unsheathed bayonets attached to the ends of their automatic weapons. The sight of that would keep
me in line, for sure.

That day, many of our friends began to evacuate. I waved goodbye to several buses full of friends who worked for the oil company, as I stood at an outside vegetable stand, paying at least double the usual price, to buy food to deliver to embassy families in our church with children who were not allowed to leave their buildings but had chosen to remain together until mandated to leave: that happened soon enough. Quickly it
became easier to say who was left in our church congregation rather than who was gone. All along, the Episcopal Church in the US was urging us to leave as they had received news from the Lutheran Church that their workers had already been evacuated.

Paul-Gordon assured them that we personally felt safe (hard not to with highly motivated neighbours, armed to the teeth, protecting us) but, if things deteriorated further or anti-Western sentiment began, we would agree to leave for a while. Family pressure to leave was even more intense, with images of chaos now consuming news reports all around the world. It was hard to be reassuring and convincing, with gunfire bursts as a backdrop to telephone conversations. We did appreciate their care and concern and welcomed their assistance once the time to leave became obvious.

The next night, my cousin Ben and his wife Emily moved in with us. Ben slept on the living-room couch so that we could have a better night sleep with the thought that someone was on guard. Emily, with her nursing skills and generous spirit, agreed to help us put our dear old dog Pepsi to sleep if the worst came. We forced ourselves to buy whatever drugs would be needed and prayed that we wouldn’t have to face such a decision. There was no luck the next day with room at the kennel, but finally, on the ninth day of the revolution, a place opened up. The kennel owner’s usual pet taxi was out of commission so we hired our driver friend, Musa, to take us out to the countryside kennel. Things seemed quite calm that morning so we decided to drive by Tahrir Square downtown on our way home, seeing that traffic around town had thinned
to almost nothing.

As we approached Tahrir Square, not all the entrances were open but many of the side streets showed the first signs of pro-Mubarak protesters. We hadn’t heard of such protesters before but they looked very intense and Musa had us lock all our doors while voicing his apprehension in driving us to the heart of Liberation Square. We promised not to stay for long, and it was only 11.30am, so we assumed most protesters were probably still sleeping anyway; he agreed. As soon as we got to the square, we were surprised by the number of protesters already marching around, holding banners, some eating in designated donation places, others sleeping off to the side on pieces of cardboard or in tents.

Soldiers in tanks blocked the entrances and volunteers searched us for weapons, with separate lines for men and women. We discreetly took a few photos of a construction crane picking up a burned-out car, with the Egyptian Museum and the remains of the charred political ruling party’s building in the background. Musa looked on in concern from a distance until an older Egyptian gentleman approached us, kindly asking us to leave as he felt something bad was going to happen. We thanked him for his concern and left immediately. Three hours later, violent clashes broke out in the square. At first we refused to believe the news that horses and camels were being sent into the crowds to wreak havoc.

We were told that those images were not being shown on the State-controlled news channels; instead, the State television was brewing up increased trouble for Westerners, implicating them in creating the unrest. By the next day, anti-Western sentiments would infiltrate our own neighbourhood and force us seriously to consider our church’s pleas for evacuation.

Plans to meet again at our favourite local restaurant for lunch with other church members were still in place. Several people backed out at the last minute but we decided to go ahead and drive over. Homemade blockades still littered the streets during the day, making it almost impossible to drive on anything but the main roads. Just as we were driving to the restaurant, we got a phone call that a red car a couple blocks away had been stolen and the drivers were armed and dangerous. Apparently army forces nearby had been notified and a chase was on.

Several days later, we learned from friends that they had been eating at that restaurant before we arrived and had had to duck from a drive-by shooting involving the red car. As we turned the corner, only blocks from the restaurant, a gang of young men stepped out in front of our car. With weapons flashing, they demanded we stop for their neighbourhood checkpoint. One young man held a homemade spear with a very long, sharp, steel blade, and another an intimidating machete. My husband rolled down his window and handed out his Egyptian driver’s licence. Next they wanted the car papers, and then they asked him to get out of the car and open the boot. Their attitudes were extremely serious and the carefree joking we usually enjoy with Egyptians on the street, even with policemen, had been replaced by distrust.

Eventually we were waved on, thankfully, but my imagination quickly shot into overdrive. Once we arrived at the restaurant, we were told that a rumour was going around the area that two Westerners with weapons were threatening Egyptians. True or not true, our neighbours were acting on that information.

Things were deteriorating quickly. Unless we wanted to hole up in our apartment and not go outside, it was going to be a very long revolution. Reflecting back on the checkpoint event, I feel so grateful that nothing harmful took place. Stories from that day quickly circulated of people being stopped at similar checkpoints and then blindfolded, taken elsewhere for questioning and extorted for money—definitely not an event I wanted my 16-year-old son to witness or fall victim to (nor anyone else, for that matter). Stress began to weigh heavily on us, but the anticipated guilt of leaving people behind in a decision to evacuate continued to keep us from going.

Curfew announcements were coming earlier and earlier in the afternoon, making our evening worship service that Thursday night impossible. Our Egyptian bishop advised us not to hold our weekly Friday service either, as the protesters had announced it would be the ‘day of departure’. Army tanks had secured Tahrir Square downtown and it was still unclear whether they would use force to subdue the thousands of people gathered there. Still no guards had returned to defend our church. The bishop felt it would be wise if we left the country, and to pack with a view to being gone for up to a year.

We met again with Ben and Emily and finally decided that the time to evacuate had come, but we would do so with hopes of returning as soon as possible. I called my sister-in-law in Switzerland and asked if we could come for dinner the next night (Friday 4 February). My plans to meet my 14-month-old niece the next month would certainly evaporate in the wake of this detour, and she and my goddaughter, her five-year-old
sister, were just the people I wanted to be with right then.

Once the evacuation decision was made, our next concern was the trip to the airport, as we had heard that army tanks and checkpoints now lined the route. We abandoned our first plan to take a van together and decided it would be safer to go separately in private cars. A generous friend with connections arranged for a secure driver to pick us up—a Muslim who lived in the Old Christian section of Cairo. Learning that we worked with a church, he proudly told us how he and his neighbours were protecting the churches there from looters, knowing that many Coptic churches contained much gold from ancient times. The trip to the airport was as smooth as it could be, although it felt odd to be weaving our way among tanks. At one point, a van in front of us was pulled over by a group of soldiers, but we managed to avoid eye contact and drove on by.

The days that followed found my husband glued on our behalf to all forms of electronic communication: computer, television and multiple telephone connections, trying to keep in touch with our congregation, now spread out around the world from Texas to India, as well as to Egyptians and other friends still in Cairo. I needed an emotional break from watching the images of revolution, day in, day out, and prayed and longed for a peaceful resolution while soaking in the silence of clean air, void of blasting shotguns and machine gun fire. We eventually ended up back in our apartment in the US, where Treston and I were able to treat ourselves to snowshoeing every morning. Discovering hidden deer beds and active rabbit holes in the hushed forest preserve behind our home soothed my soul, calmed me in the face of an unknown future and gave me courage to rest in the detour that had called us away from our home.

We had evacuated on day 11 of Egypt’s peaceful revolution, and by day 18 it was over; the iron grip let go and President Mubarak exited the scene. Although a stable future was still not completely certain, an outer layer of peace returned to the streets almost immediately. My husband flew back to Cairo ahead of us to be certain all was well, and I returned exactly two weeks after leaving, giving me enough time to visit our daughter at university. Only time will tell how things will unfold for Egypt, but for now we are thankful to be back and look forward to welcoming others when they are allowed to return, yet realising that some never will. Now that the waves of change have washed away the sandcastle we spent so many years building, we finally understand that things of the spirit never fade.

God is with us, near and far, and the bonds we share with humanity are eternal. We have all had losses in the process and we have all had gains. I just heard the clip-clop of a donkey cart passing by my front window, a sound I have not heard in our part of Cairo for many years, since government bans were imposed against the use of donkey carts to pick up rubbish in our neighbourhood. A new moment of time is now upon us. It has been ushered in by the peaceful will of the people of Egypt and God’s grace. It is a time to support them and to join together with likeminded spirits, full of vision and courage. It is a time for rebuilding and for hopefulness.

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