My life in Cairo is spent mostly in our house and the surrounding area of Maadi, which is about half an hour from the famous Tahrir Square. Friends and family in the states get nervous when they see the violence and flare-ups in Egypt, but the reality for me is generally far removed. Last week, however, we needed to take a family trip through the heart of the uprising.
Our destination was the American Embassy in Garden City, normally only a five-minute walk from the Square. Our son, Alexander, was born in Cairo three months ago, and it has taken us this long to secure an appointment with the embassy for his “Certificate of Birth Abroad” (the equivalent of a US birth certificate) and his first passport. We originally had an appointment at the embassy on the 29th of January, but that was a particularly unstable week around the embassy due to ongoing clashes, and so it closed for several days. All appointments were postponed. We were hoping for calm now, so we could get this process started. I didn’t like not having a passport for our baby, as I wasn’t sure what would happen if we were forced to travel.
Since our two oldest girls were still on school break, we ended up taking the whole family downtown for our adventure. We left our house around 8am with the hopes of arriving in time for our 9am appointment. Of course, when you are two adults accompanied by three smaller walkers, plus a baby slung snuggly on your chest, it takes a bit longer than normal to get places. We had an uneventful walk from our house to the closest metro station.
Unfortunately we were traveling during rush hour which meant the metro was packed. Emma, our oldest, gets a little nervous getting on and off the metro. She seems to have a fear of our family being split up as some of us get on the train, and others get shut out behind the door. This has never happened to us, but I understand her fear considering getting on and off the metro can be a real battle due to the sheer number of people.
As we saw the train approach, we noticed that the cars were all quite full. When the train stopped and the doors opened, we quickly pushed our way in, crowding together with those already in the car. The trip from our station to downtown is about 20 minutes, and it looked at first, like we would all be standing for that whole time. But as is common in Egypt, others in the car noticed our small children, and offered me and my baby-in-carrier a seat. I put Layla on one knee and Hannah on the other until a few minutes later, another seat was offered to Emma and Hannah.
As we rode along, I looked around me and realized there were no other women that I could see in this particular car. In fact, I was totally surrounded by men. I was really glad my husband was among them. Not only was I surrounded, though, but the men had made a barrier of space between me with my kids and everyone on the train. That was much appreciated considering that where we were standing earlier, there was no space around anyone. My thoughts went to the many articles I have been reading of violent attacks on women in Tahrir Square. They sound awful, and the men involved sound like barbarians. This, on the other hand, was an example of what my family usually experiences: considerate people who look out for the sick, elderly, and moms with young children.
When we arrived at Sadat station, the metro stop under Tahrir Square, I was glad to notice the absence of tear gas. I have never actually experienced tear gas, but Jayson has on several occasions, and so have some other family members when he has taken them to visit the Square. I had heard that over the last week, the tear gas was quite palatable in the station, and I was most concerned for our three-month old son if there were any lingering fumes. I was glad not to notice any.
We exited the metro, Jayson carrying Hannah and Layla, Alexander strapped to me, and Emma holding tightly to my hand. We quickly escaped the traffic that was exiting with us, regrouped in an open space, and walked toward the turnstiles. We then followed the crowd through the narrow door, up the steps, and into the open air.
I looked around and saw the white tents covering the center of the traffic circle. We considered taking a family picture, but, being that we were an American couple with three blonde daughters and a new baby, we didn’t want to linger and attract any more attention than we naturally do wherever we go in Cairo. We headed toward the embassy.
Normally this walk would take us only 5 minutes, even with the little ones in tow. However, due to the recent fighting, several walls have been constructed over the last few weeks. These walls are made of large concrete blocks, each one is probably 3 feet by 3 feet. The blocks are then stacked 3 or 4 high, and they cover the entrance to streets, blocking the thoroughfares to cars and people. This meant we had to walk out to the road which runs along the Nile, past the Semiramsis Hotel, which was sadly boarded up at every door and window due to the attacks from last week.
We walked two more blocks until we finally came to a road without a wall. Turning left, we walked another block to the road the embassy is on. People were milling about normally, and we noticed several police trucks and tens of riot police walking around, perhaps preparing for coming protests. The line at the embassy, on the non-American services side, was perhaps slightly shorter than normal, but long, as always. On the American services side, however, we got right inside once we showed the guard our appointment paper.
The embassy is a comfortable place to sit as you first wait for your number to be called, and then for the staff to get your paperwork started once you’ve submitted it. The girls enjoyed playing various games in the spacious waiting area. It is one of the few places in Cairo that I have seen a water fountain … the kind you drink from. The embassy also had done a good job preparing us for exactly what forms we would need to get the birth certificate and passport. We were able to submit the papers without any trouble, and look forward to seeing Alexander’s passport in a couple weeks.
Once the work was done, we headed back outside after grabbing our cell phones from security, and decided to walk back to a different metro stop since the Tahrir stop wasn’t as close as it used to be. Jayson is much more familiar with downtown than I am, so he led the way and eventually we found the stop were looking for.
The ride back home on the metro was a lot less-crowded. The whole family got a seat and we were glad to have accomplished what we set out to do. It even included a glimpse of the downtown scene.
- Smelling the Breeze, in and of Tahrir – April 26, 2011