2011, Egypt, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Barrier of knives, carrier for ride

These pieces under the tagline “Ringside at Tahrir” were first published in The Telegraph in February 2011.

Feb 4, Cairo: Shafa Naguib spoke too early. He said we’d beat the end of Friday prayers and breeze into town. “No police, no problem,” he said expansively, dropped into the front of his ramshackle cab and nudged his son to drive.

The police were really nowhere beyond the perimeters of the Cairo International airport; we whistled along past unmanned barricades and dead traffic lights, just the kind of advance Naguib had promised.

“I said you, no? No problem,” he chattered self-importantly, “Give me cigarette, I take you hotel so fast.”

There was barely any traffic and there were barely any people. Hosni Mubarak loomed everywhere the gaze flew in the bereft afternoon air. A Soviet-style iconography of murals and friezes installed to immortalise a man who isn’t quite dead yet: Mubarak flanked by the Pharaohs, Mubarak surveying the Nile with Nefertiti, Mubarak rejoicing with victorious soldiers in the Sinai desert, Mubarak looming over the ancient wonders of Giza.

A spectre haunting the approach to a creepy town caught in tumult.

Beyond the Mohammed Ali Mosque, the alabaster domes glowing atop its seat atop a clayey escarpment, the road narrowed and dipped into a dense neighbourhood and Naguib shifted uneasily in his seat.

Ahead lay a makeshift barricade of corrugated sheets and blocks of concrete. Boys stood around it, waving the car down. One of them shouted a command and revealed a butcher’s knife a foot long. Naguib threw his cigarette away and asked his son to stop. “No problem,” he was still able to venture, “no problem”.

He fished out a card from beneath the folds of his waist, a tattered bit of plastic, and held it out. The boy with the knife smiled, saluted and waved us on. “Army, you see, me army, they respect,” he gloated, “no problem.”

There was nothing army-like about Naguib; he was round as a vat, had a straggly unshaven face and he spoke too much. But Egypt is conscription country; he’d been smart to save his card, it got us through.

But as we proceeded, the barricades multiplied, each attended by armed youngsters — machetes, rusty swords, truncheons, pistols that they wanted to wave even if they were being friendly. At one check-post they wanted the bags opened.

They pulled them out on the street, riffled through them and then flopped them back into the cab. “Good, no gun, no camera, go!” and they sent us off to the next barricade just a few hundred metres down the road.

This was off-camera Cairo, not the Cairo we see beamed off the news channels at home.

They’re are all in stationary vigil over Tahrir Square; we were caught up in the eerie intestines that feed what eventually flashes on news television.

Clutches of men and women had begun to gather around the crossroads, animated, agitated, some waving Egyptian flags. They were drifting in little trickles and becoming streams on the high street to Tahrir Square, the eye of the current uprising. They were screening traffic to ensure nobody got close with cameras or with guns. They were checking papers, asking those they suspected of potential trouble to stand aside and be questioned.

A helicopter had begun to drone circles overhead, a sure sign that Tahrir Square was filling up. Friday prayers were over, angry speeches had begun to resound from mosques in the inner city, and we were nowhere near the hotel.

But if Naguib hadn’t held his word, he did hold his nerves. He waved his frayed card ever more insistently, argued and pleaded barrier upon barrier and kept prodding his young son — cherubic Mohammed, only 16 — to drive on.

When we got to the appointed hotel, we found it boarded up with planks of wood and steel barriers commandeered from the main street. We knocked to no avail. We called and said we had a reservation. Eventually, four or five desk attendants —slicked hair, smartly suited —emerged from a side door, demanded travel documents and reservation receipts and politely excused themselves inside, saying they needed to check.

The human current had begun to flow thicker in the direction of Tahrir Square, bang in the face of the Nile’s flow, an army tank was rolling along behind it.

In a while, as we watched the build-up, the men came back out and said sorry, you do have a reservation but you aren’t allowed in, we have orders. From whom? The army, they pleaded, you must go away.

We were at the centre of a curious crowd coagulated around us on the side street and nobody seemed to know what next. Naguib was pleading with the hoteliers, they were shrugging their suited shoulders: Orders.

Presently, a young army officer tore into the commotion from nowhere and wondered what it was all about. Clear up! Clear up! The onlookers scattered away. The officer, meanwhile, spoke to the hotel staff, looked at the papers and motioned us to follow.

In next to no time, we were in an armoured personnel carrier, luggage, Naguib and all; Mohammed was instructed to trail us in his cab.

We meandered along Cairo for a while, able to see nothing of the streets from inside the military carrier. The officer said nothing other than to his driver. Naguib just sat there, a little shaken, perhaps wondering about his son, perhaps wondering if he should flash his superannuated army card to a serving officer. He was wiser for not doing that.

When we stopped, the carrier opened onto the courtyard of a hotel across the Nile. “Here,” the officer said, “This must be your place, designated place.”

The concierge — and an elderly man with an Omar Sharif moustache — came forward to pick the luggage and said this is the only place the foreign media are allowed to stay in town — across the river from Tahrir Square.

Naguib’s son had followed in our wake, but he was getting a lashing from the young officer. Naguib’s face looked as if he knew he’d spoken too soon.

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