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Too Far Away to Celebrate

February 11, 2011 is a day that will go down in history.  The man who has been president of Egypt for 30 years finally took the cue from his people after 18 days of protests and stepped down.  Having lived in Egypt for the past 18 months, we were heavily invested in this story. We rejoice with the Egyptian people at what they have accomplished and how they have accomplished it.  We admire their steadfastness and their commitment to peace over these last two weeks.  And we quietly mourned as we watched the celebrations because we were not there to join them on this joyous day.

In some ways, this is a very selfish reaction.  How can we possibly mourn when the people that we have come to love and identify with are rejoicing?  At the same time, this may show some of the depth to which we wish to belong to them.  How could we leave them in the midst of their suffering?  As Jayson said, “If we didn’t stay with them in their suffering, we don’t deserve to celebrate.”  He agrees this may not be the truth exactly, but it sums up how we feel.

The last 18 days have been an interesting journey for our family.  We anticipated the first day of protests on January 25, police day. We didn’t really know what to expect.  We had followed the events in Tunisia with interest because we had lived there previously and had many friends there.  We were excited for their successes, but also glad not to have been stuck in some of the unrest that took place.  We didn’t really know what might happen in Egypt; would this day be an isolated incident?  And so, we listened to our neighbors and friends and followed the Twitter feed to see what was happening in Tahrir Square on that first day.  More or less, the day went by without too much hype.  Many people showed up for protests in a few parts of Egypt, and most of the population went on with life as normal.  Wednesday morning came, Jayson went to work, the girls went to preschool, and I went shopping.  Would this fizzle out?  Was this a one-time event that didn’t have much effect?

On Thursday we started to hear about the call for nationwide protests following Friday prayers.  There was a hope that people would leave their mosques on Friday and join the protests all over the country.  Again, we weren’t sure what to expect, but we noticed more fear this time among some of our Egyptian friends.  Emma’s afternoon Sunday School class was cancelled in anticipation of the unknown.  I went to a choir practice on Thursday night at our local Coptic church, and while I didn’t understand all the Arabic conversation going around, I definitely sensed fear that things could get out of hand.

Friday morning was the first day of the blacked-out internet.  Not only that, but all cell phones were shut off for the entire day too.  We went to church in the morning as normal, but the crowds were definitely smaller and the priests were urging the people to go straight to their homes following mass, as we didn’t know what would happen by noon.  We obeyed the edict and made ourselves comfortable inside our house.  We have a large mosque right across the street from our house and we noticed the police barricades and extra officers stationed in the area.  Jayson was interested in seeing first-hand what might happen, and walked out the door around 1pm to watch what was coming.  The girls and I stayed inside, watched movies and played.  We didn’t hear anything unusual outside when the prayers were ending, so I figured this thing that was hyped up basically fizzled out before it started.  However, I learned more later after Jayson was able to go along with the protesters and witness both the peacefulness and some of the conflict that occurred when they met up with the riot police.

While he was with the protesters, I was with the girls hanging out in our house.  I actually felt pretty isolated because the internet and cell phones were off; I had no way of communicating with anyone, or finding out what was happening outside of our house. After a few hours, I packed the girls up in our stroller and walked down the street to a friend’s house.  We had planned to have dinner and a playdate with them that evening, so we kept the appointment even though I couldn’t contact them to confirm.  My friend was home alone with her boys as her husband had been out of the country when the unrest began and was unable to get back into Egypt.  She felt for me as well since there was no way for me to contact Jayson in the last four hours since he left the house.  It was comforting to have some fellowship as the kids played together, unaware of both the personal and national events taking place around them.

Fortunately, the TV wasn’t shut down by the government, so we could follow the events through CNN and al-Jazeera English.  We watched as Tahrir Square filled up more and more, as violence increased in clashes with police, and as ultimately, the army rolled into the square and the police disappeared!  It was a little scary to watch as we heard news of tear gas and water cannons, and watched the NDP building burning.  It seemed that things were getting out of control, and even though the square was not that close to our homes in Maadi, we didn’t know how the effects would trickle down.  I was greatly relieved when a little while later, Jayson showed up at the door.  We watched the news together, he ate some dinner, and we packed up to walk back to our house even though it was past the newly established 6pm curfew.

The next few days were a bit crazy, but we did settle into somewhat of a routine.  In the mornings and early afternoons, we tried to get out of the house and walk around our neighborhood.  Jayson went out of his way to say thank-you to the local militia who had organized themselves to protect the houses and shops in the area.  We saw some of the burned out cars and broken glass that were the result of the looting and fighting that was occurring during curfew hours.

I did some shopping and saw most of the shops closed down and boarded up to prevent looting.

The few stores that were opened reminded me of the pre-snow rushes that we’re familiar with in New Jersey when news of a big storm comes.  We tried to schedule play dates for the girls each morning as the preschool was closed and some of our friends were feeling the strain of broken routines with their kids stuck inside all day.  Not only did the kids enjoy the company, but being able to talk together with the other moms was comforting.  We all had our news, stories and questions for each other.  Once the cell phone service resumed, I tried to call many of my friends, both Egyptians and foreigners, to see how they were weathering this storm.  My Egyptian friends thanked me for the call, made sure we were all okay, reminded me NOT to open the door in our home for any stranger, and seemed a little nervous about where things were headed.  Many of my foreign friends were making plans to leave the country as the US started sending evacuation planes for any citizens who wanted to leave.  It was a disconcerting time as we tried to weigh what we should do in this situation.  We felt safe, but more and more people seemed to be leaving, and the protests had a different flavor each day.  It was confusing.

Our curfew times were spent inside the house of course.  Some days this started at 5pm, other days it was 3pm.  People in our building were intent on securing the place and making sure we were all safe.

Some friends who lived closer to a more volatile area in Maadi came to stay with us for two nights before they left Egypt.  The camaraderie was nice.  Jayson took periodic trips upstairs to our neighbor’s house to watch the news as the internet was still off and we had no television.  One night we were warned that the water would be shut off in half an hour, so while trying to get our very tired girls into bed, we were also filling every container we could find with water.  Cooking was tricky as we tried to conserve food in case grocery stores started to run out of food, while at the same time use up perishables in case the electricity was shut off.  We tried not to eat too much food, but didn’t want to waste food if we ended up leaving the country quickly.  For someone who likes to plan ahead, it was hard to not be able to do that.

Jayson had a great experience on Tuesday when he visited Tahrir Square and got to witness first-hand the peaceful and unified protesters.  He really got to feel the spirit of the Egyptians who were gathered in the square … some for the first time, and others who hadn’t left for several days.  He saw the signs and heard the slogans, noticed the families having picnics and talked with some religious scholars about their philosophy.  He took lots of pictures and was eager to share these positive images with others.  On the way back home, though, he was stopped by some local militia who made him delete ALL the pictures on the camera.  This was a huge disappointment for him, and a disconcerting conversation overall, but one that he learned from.  We couldn’t believe the scene just one day later in the square as we watched on television as pro-Mubarak demonstrators began attacking the protesters with rocks, clubs, horses, and camels.  Once again, it felt like things were really getting out of control, and we didn’t know how far this would extend.

During this whole time, we were in conversation with parents and people from our organization regarding the situation on the ground.  I felt like my emotions were all over the place at times, one minute thinking that things were just too unpredictable here and we should get out of Egypt right away.  And the next minute, seeing the stores reopened and men filling the coffee shops, it seemed like life was back to normal and there would be no reason to leave.  We would watch the news and hear from friends about the US encouraging and then urging their citizens to leave Egypt, and we would wonder what information they had that we didn’t know.  It was really hard to know what to do, but in the end, on Thursday morning, Feb. 3, we made the decision to take the last guaranteed US evacuation plane out of Egypt.  There were various factors that went into that decision, but once made at 7:30am, we packed very quickly and left our house by 11am headed for the airport.  Our landlord graciously offered to drive us there, and once there, we were processed quite quickly for the next flight out to Frankfurt, Germany.

Our evacuation experience was really quite smooth, all things considered, and we are grateful to the US embassy workers in Cairo and Frankfurt for all their work.

After deciding to leave Cairo at 7:30am on Thursday, we touched down in Philadelphia by 4pm (local time) the next day.  All four of our parents were there to greet us, and following an hour-long drive where two of the three girls got car sick and three of the three girls fell asleep, we arrived at my parent’s home for the night.  We’ve now had about a week to adjust to the time change and get over our colds and enjoy time with extended family.  We definitely appreciate being here and all the positives that are here.  At the same time, we watch the news and talk to friends in Egypt and wonder if we still shouldn’t be there.

Yesterday was one of those days that we really wished we were in Egypt.  Mubarak’s resignation brought a mixture of joy and sorrow for us.  Joy for the Egyptian people as their commitment to peaceful demonstrations finally brought the downfall of the regime.  And sorrow because we watched from our living room in the US.  We wish we could have been there during the celebrations; maybe not among the tens of thousands in Tahrir Square, but at least among the hundreds in our neighborhood of Maadi.  We rejoiced with them from far away, and hope soon, that we can celebrate with them on their own soil once again.

One reply on “Too Far Away to Celebrate”

A perfect expression of how it felt to watch Egypt’s success from afar. I share the same, perhaps selfish, bitter-sweet feelings from here in Istanbul. Glad you, Jayson, and the kids are well. I hope that I can celebrate with you on your return to Egypt.

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