An American living in Cairo through the Coup*
Shannon Abulnasr, an American living in Cairo, writes about surviving the chaos of a revolution
Even when it’s not gripped by a revolution or a coup, my neighbourhood is a lively place, with locals fighting out disputes in the streets with swords, machetes, guns and metal pipes.
I am an American living in the suburb of Bolaq in Giza, Cairo. It is very poor, densely populated and riddled with crime.
As most Egyptians will tell you when they hear about anything happening in Bolaq, it usually involves criminals. But after having lived through the first revolution and now this coup, I think I have seen it all.
The Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr passed last week, marking the end of Ramadhan and the month of fasting. Egyptians celebrated the day as usual, even in areas consumed by the recent protests.
My British friend Aaliyah El-Sayed visited the central gathering point for pro-Mohamed Morsi protesters, Rabba Addawiya Square, for her family’s Eid celebrations. There, men were handing out goody bags for children, along with £5 notes with a stamp on them and a statement about how Morsi was the legal president of Egypt, and not military ruler General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
My husband, a native Egyptian, and I wanted to take our two-year-old son to the zoo for the day, but we couldn’t because the zoo is very near Cairo University and it wasn’t safe to go amid the protests. Disappointingly, Eid was spent at home.
But far worse was to come.
On Tuesday night, Muslim Brotherhood members in my neighbourhood marched from our road on their way to Cairo University. My father-in-law had travelled about two hours to visit us, and had called my husband and asked him to meet him two blocks away from our home.
Unaware of the protests, the two were forced to use back routes because, as the protesters reached the main road, they were set upon by what Egyptians call “baltigaya” (thugs) – pro-army supporters with guns. My husband saw them attacking the protesters and looting a well-known franchise store owned by an Islamist called Tawheed al-Nour. Workers were injured and the store was gutted.
My husband and father-in-law managed to avoid two makeshift checkpoints the baltigaya erected and manned. They beat and arrested anyone who appeared to be affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood – any religious-looking man with a beard.
After they returned home, I told my husband to shave off his beard to keep safe. But he refused, deciding instead that he would trim it very short.
I left for work on Wednesday and took a tuk-tuk, deciding against my usual 10-minute walk. At the nursery school where I teach, the previous night’s violence was all my foreign colleagues and I could speak about. By noon, we were told we could leave early because clashes had erupted all over Cairo. Bridges were closed, squares were blocked off by protesters and the chaos was spreading fast.
Before we left, we discussed that this was the first time we had all really felt the danger lurking among us, despite having survived the revolution. This time was different for all of us. The revolution was about an overwhelming majority united against Mubarak and the army supported the people.
But this time it is everyone against everyone, with bloodshed and seemingly an inevitable civil war.
When I got home, I forced my husband to sit in a chair while I trimmed his beard even shorter. I then forced him to shave the rest off completely.
I was terrified after reading news reports that snipers had been positioned all over town and were shooting those who appeared to be religious, with beards or niqabs – those they suspected of being allied to the Muslim Brotherhood.
I wasn’t going to risk it, nor would I let him risk it. It wasn’t worth it.
We remained at home on Thursday. Throughout the day we learnt of many friends who were shot and either killed or injured in the chaos.
One was shot in the face and had a bullet lodged under his eye. The hospitals are overflowing and, unable to find treatment, he returned home like that.
Another friend was shot in the leg and collapsed in the street. Strangers called my husband to help them find his home.
Yet another was shot in the shoulder. Another died of gunshot wounds.
All said they couldn’t find a hospital to take them and were sent home with their injuries uncared for.
My sister-in-law works at a specialist maternity hospital and said they were turning away many who had been shot in the head. One of their patients died and ambulance drivers told them to take the body to the mortuary themselves because they couldn’t. The mortuary was overflowing with people. Bodies were lying in the streets.
Families of dead protesters found that when they went to claim their loved ones’ bodies, officials refused to release them unless they agreed to sign off on a cause of death stated as “natural causes, suicide or accident”.
Ahmed Bedier wrote on his Facebook wall about how he had tried to claim his brother’s body and was told to indicate that his brother’s death was natural, despite the fact that he was shot to death. His plea for authorities to investigate caught the attention of international media.
Late on Thursday I asked my husband to go out and buy a few essentials we needed to survive the turmoil because stock was running low at stores everywhere and we needed to stock up on groceries.
He left home several times that day, forced to comb many different areas for necessities like nappies, chicken and other basics.
All the markets had run out of chicken, saying suppliers were unable to deliver. On his third trip, he finally found nappies.
He went further down the street to look for vegetables and came across a janazah (funeral prayer gathering) for a pro-Morsi protester at the end of the street.
As my husband arrived, the mourners were chanting anti-army slogans that were heard in the area.
The clashes began, machine guns were fired and my husband retreated home with only the nappies to show for his travels.
I wept as I cooked dinner that night, confused and anxious, unsure of what to think or do. As my friend and fellow American Heather Shaw said: “I’m in a state of a frozen heart for self-preservation.”
I feel the same way.