I've Moved!

My new blog is called Reflections from a Global Nomad, in order to acknowledge that we no longer live in Maadi and that we are, in fact, global nomads, not staying in one place longer than two or three years. Please join me at http://DeborahReflections.blogspot.com

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Balancing Act

Life as an evacuee is a balancing act.

I have a life here. But it isn't my real life, the one from which I was torn away so abruptly. I don't even know if I'll be allowed to return to that life. State Department regulations state that evacuees who are scheduled to leave post within a certain time frame (90 days, 6 months, I'm not sure of the specifics; reports vary) won't be allowed to return to post. If it's a 6-month rule, I'm already within the limits, and the powers-that-be won't send me back. If it's a 90-day rule, I'm only a few weeks away from the limits. There is some question of whether that rule will be waived in this case. There also is some question of whether the rule allows us to return if we pay for our own airline tickets, rather than being reimbursed by the Department. But more importantly, there is some question as to whether the evacuation order will be lifted before we're scheduled to leave anyway, making the rule a moot point.

But back to the balancing act. Alexa and I are in limbo. We are experiencing what our lives would have been if we hadn't moved away from my hometown, or at least something resembling it. I'm being a stay-at-home mom, but the home where I'm staying is my mother's house, not my own. I'm attending a small, close-knit church where everyone knows and cares about each other--and they've been very supportive of me and Alexa--but I don't know anyone. I'm driving in my SUV (Jeep Grand Cherokee--very nice!) to my nephews' basketball games and birthday parties, but the SUV is a rental and when I get to those basketball games and birthday parties, I don't know anyone other than my own relatives. I've been living away from this area, coming back only to visit, long enough that I don't have any friends here anymore, so my time is spent with my mother and her friends, or with my siblings or sister-in-law. The highlight of my days is talking--or better yet, skyping--with Jeff.

The bottom line is that I don't belong here right now. If I'd made different decisions in the past, I could have belonged here. Depending on the choices I make going forward, I could belong here in the future. But right now, at this moment, I don't belong here. I belong in Egypt, with my husband, living the life that we've created together.

But if I'm not allowed to go back to Egypt, I'll be here until September, other than a few short trips to DC for processing or to other states to visit other relatives. (Our plan has been to spend most of the summer here on home leave between posts.) That'll be seven months total. Over half a year. Long enough that I should try to belong here. Long enough to make it worthwhile to rent a furnished apartment, find a playdate group, join a Bible study. Settle in a little and act like I live here.

But if I am allowed to go back, it will be sudden. If I go back under Department orders, with them covering the expenses, I'll have three days from the time the announcement is made until I have to be on a plane. That's three calendar days, not even three business days. If I'm in a furnished apartment, my understanding is that they'll pay the fees associated with breaking a lease, but have you tried to make those arrangements suddenly over a weekend? I haven't, and I don't want to. If the order were lifted today, I could call the travel agent, pack our bags, and be on a plane first thing tomorrow morning. If I settle in here more, that would be much more difficult.

It's the uncertainty. Some who were evacuated, especially those with school-aged children, made the decision from the start that they wouldn't return to Egypt, or they wouldn't return until the end of the school year. Their families, their children, need that stability. I need stability too, but much less than those families. So I haven't made that decision, and I won't make that decision, because what I need more than stability is to get back to my life in Egypt, to wrap it up the way it should be wrapped up before I leave for good.

There's so much still to do in Egypt. I haven't even started sorting and purging for our move to our next post. I haven't bought any of those beautiful alabaster lamps with the copper accents. I haven't even taken a tour of Coptic Cairo! And I haven't said good-bye. To my friends, to my church, to the guards who worked so diligently to protect us. To Road 9, the Khan, the drivers who won't stop so I can cross the street unless I step out in front of them. The taxis whose horns create a cacophony of beeps, honks, and out-of-place melodies. The women on the metro who wouldn't offer me a seat when I was pregnant and wearing short sleeves, but who insisted that I sit when I was holding a baby and wearing culturally appropriate clothing. To all the sights, sounds, and smells of a huge city in a developing country. I need to say good-bye, to all these things, in my own way.

I so hope to go back. I so need to go back. But in the meantime, I'll go on with my balancing act. Fitting in enough to stay occupied, to provide the stability that Alexa needs, to use this time to allow relationships to develop between Alexa and her extended family. But not enough to create problems if I do get that call, that email, that notification that we have three days to board that plane. I'll continue to tell myself that we're going back.

Because I just can't bring myself to accept that my life in Egypt is over.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Evacuation Day

Monday, 31 January 2011, began early and lasted late. My alarm clock went off at 5am, after I’d been asleep for only four hours. For the last several nights, I’d averaged four hours of sleep a night. As someone who needs eight or nine hours each night, let me tell you: I was beat. Already.

Nevertheless, I got out of bed and headed toward the shower. As I went into the bathroom, I heard the squawk of the emergency radio and paused to listen. It was the same announcement I’d heard the last several mornings: Curfew is still in effect. The streets are not secure. The embassy is closed until further notice. Do not try to approach the embassy unless your supervisor tells you to and arranges secure transportation for you. Stay off the radio unless it’s an emergency.  The same announcement would be repeated throughout the day, unless something happened to change it.

But today I wouldn’t be able to hear it. I was evacuating.

I showered and dressed. Ate breakfast. Went through my mental list of things that had been packed, trying to figure out if any substitutions should be made—I was at the weight limit for our luggage and beyond the limit of what I could carry on my own, so additions could not be made without corresponding subtractions. Jeff and Alexa woke up. Jeff held his baby girl, not sure when he’d be able to do so again. She was evacuating with me.

We’d been told to be ready the moment the vans pulled up. They’d be leaving at 8. At 7:30, Jeff went downstairs to get the car seat and reported that people were gathering already. We decided to head down as well. We spent the next two or three hours sitting in the common room, waiting for the buses to show up. I chatted with a couple of other ladies who were evacuating, one who—like me—wouldn’t have left of her own volition but was being pressured by her husband’s managerial hierarchy; another who was so conflicted that she hadn’t made the decision to leave until one o’clock that morning. I envied her the choice. Jeff continued to hold Alexa. I watched them, drinking in the sight of them together.

Finally the vans pulled in and we began loading. We had too many people to fit in one load, but we managed to fit anyway. The vans were needed to pick up other evacuees in other locations—we already were running behind schedule, and no one wanted to waste the time for a second trip unless it couldn’t be avoided. We crammed in for the 15-minute drive to the commissary compound, where processing would occur before the caravan of buses left for the airport.

As we drove through Maadi, I was struck by how quiet the streets were. It made Friday morning—the typical quiet time—look like rush hour. Almost every street we passed showed the remnants of the barricades set up by last night’s vigilante militias: a stack of sandbags here, a pile of junk metal there. A tank sat in each major intersection. I wished I had my camera, but with all the things I had to carry, I'd made the decision to leave it in my carry-on bag, despite knowing that I would miss some great pictures. It was the right call, but ... oh, the pictures I missed!

Just two turns from our destination, we stopped. A group of Egyptian men surrounded the front of the vehicle. After a short conversation in Arabic, our driver made a U-turn through the pass to the other side of the divided road. We drove a few meters—passing through a small crowd of waving, smiling young men—then turned right and began a convoluted journey that eventually led us back to the main road a scant distance farther down than where we were stopped. From my new vantage, it was easy to see that relatively permanent road blocks had been erected, and although most vehicles could maneuver through if they went slowly and carefully, our larger vehicles simply wouldn’t fit.

After that, we arrived at the commissary compound quickly. People and bags—one checked, weighing less than 44 pounds, and one carryon per person—were unloaded, and the vans sped off to collect more evacuees. We were directed to a long table where we checked in, and the administrators made sure that appropriate travel orders had been issued for everyone. Those who were low on cash had the opportunity to collect an advance against their travel per diem. We all waited around, making trips into the commissary as necessary to use the bathroom and buy travel supplies, until the order was given to start loading the nine or ten waiting buses.

As the buses were loaded, I stood aside with a few others. The dependents from my husband’s office planned to travel together so that we could help each other along the way, and most had not yet arrived. Several of us have small or multiple children (one family has four), and two young girls were traveling without any parent, as dad had to stay and mom was already in the States when all this began. Those with no or older children planned to stay close and help those of us who needed it. So the few of us who had arrived watched the buses fill and eventually leave without us.

Finally everyone had arrived. There were no more large buses, so we loaded up into a smaller tour bus, packed in like sardines. Our luggage was tossed into an open cargo truck, and we could only hope none of it flew out on the bumpy roads leading to the fast, smooth sailing of the Autostrade. We were content, though—our support group was intact.

Tanks were in abundance as we made our way to the airport. One young boy excitedly counted 35 or so. They sat in intersections and alongside the busy road—traffic outside of Maadi was lighter than usual, but definitely there. Soldiers stood near the tanks, lounged on top of them, or sat nearby. Atypically, none seemed to notice cameras aimed at them, even when those cameras were pressed to the window as we passed slowly by.

Soldiers turned us away from the first airport gate we approached. We backtracked, turned around again, and went to a different gate, where we were allowed entrance. As we approached the arrival hall that would serve as our departure hall, I saw masses of people milling around outside: the evacuees, “official” (diplomatic passports) on one side of the doors, “non-official” (tourist passports) on the other. American law states that non-official U.S. citizens are to be given equal opportunity as official citizens to evacuate in these situations, so each plane would carry half official evacuees and half non-official evacuees.

We unloaded ourselves—de-pretzeled ourselves, actually—from the bus and headed to the back of the long, winding line on the official side of the doors. The truck with our luggage made its way toward us, then parked while the luggage was unloaded. As they were unloaded, the bags were placed in long lines stretching across the driveway. I saw one of our bags and went to claim it. “Don’t touch that!” A man barked at me. “It’ll make them all tip over; someone will get hurt. Just wait.” Surprised, I turned to one of my fellow evacuees. “He yelled at me, too,” she admitted. Unsure as to the problem—the bags were being placed in a single layer, so even if they tipped over, they wouldn’t touch anyone, much less cause injury—I watched as all the bags were unloaded. When the go-ahead was given, I joined the others in gingerly stepping over all the not-my-bags to reach mine, then pulled it out of line. Sure enough, the bag beside it fell over—and landed harmlessly on the ground, not even causing the anticipated domino effect.

Our group organized ourselves pretty well. The two of us with infants were responsible primarily for our own babies, two or three kept an eye on the 11 mobile children, and the remaining two or three made sure that all the luggage kept up with the group as we inched forward. Before too long, one of the security guys approached us. “Am I to understand that you’re a large group of single moms traveling with a bunch of small children?” Affirmative responses all around—the two without children were particularly critical to our group, so there was no way they were being left out of anything. “You’re exactly the kind of group that we want to expedite and get on your way. Follow me.”

We followed him toward the front of the line. Progress was slow, as children were corralled and made to help with the copious amounts of luggage, but eventually we made it. The security guy told us to “wait here” while he went to arrange things for us. Within just a few minutes, I heard an abrasive voice: “You can’t stand here, this is a traffic lane, I need you to move NOW!” It was the same guy who had yelled at me over the luggage. As we laboriously moved ourselves and all of our bags onto the sidewalk, clearing the wide and deserted driveway where we’d been parked by our security guy, he continued to yell. Finally he went away. I overheard our de facto leader telling another member of our group: “You know, it was weird, the first thing he said when he came over was ‘what office are you with?’ What does that have to do with anything?”

Shortly after that, our security guy came back, an apologetic expression on his face. “Between when they told me the policy and the time it took me to find you and bring you up here, the policy changed. They’re not expediting groups like yours anymore. I’m sorry.” He helped us make our way back to the end of the line.

Hours passed. Diapers were changed on changing mats laid out on the grass. Snacks and water were distributed and consumed. For the most part, we didn’t move. Telephone conversations revealed that the first planes that were boarded, before we even arrived at the airport, were stuck on the tarmac waiting for approval to depart. The ambassador herself was making phone calls trying to get the evacuation planes cleared. The Regional Security Officer made an announcement that they were trying to get us all out that day, but some may have to spend the night at the airport because of crew rest laws kicking in as a result of departure delays, especially for the two planes that were scheduled to make two round trips. It was getting chilly, and I was glad that I’d packed for a potential overnight in some freezing European city (we wouldn’t know what city we were going to until we were assigned a flight).

Finally there was significant movement. Another plane obviously was being boarded, as the line ahead of us decreased by a third. Children again were corralled to help us move ourselves and our bags to our new position. The security guy who had tried to help us before came to give us an update. While he was speaking with some, another security guy approached me, as I was standing off to the side and couldn’t hear what the first was saying.  He told me what to expect with numbered cards and such, which we would receive once we’d been assigned to a plane. Then he said “Now that all the groups with connections are gone, the rest should be able to go according to plan.” Excuse me? He must have been exhausted and frustrated to have let that little tidbit slip.

Not long after, I was approached by the first security guy who had tried to help us. “How old is your little one?” Almost seven months. “We’re taking infants under 12 months first for the next flight.” Great, can the whole group go? “No, only immediate family members. But we’ll be upping the age limit as we clear the little ones, and we may be able to fit everyone on the next flight, so you may end up together anyway.” Thanks, but I’d rather stay with my group. I need them. “If everyone doesn’t fit, the ones who are left may have to spend the night here.” That’s fine. “It’s going to get cold, and they may not be able to go inside.” I’m prepared for that. Thanks for your concern, though. “Ok.”

A few minutes later, security guy number two, the exhausted and frustrated one, approached me. We repeated the same conversation, with only minor variations.

A few minutes later, the guy who liked to yell came up, trailed by the other two. Both of the nice ones looked embarrassed and a little worried. Not a good sign. I don’t recall all the details of this conversation, but I was ordered to leave the support of my group, the group that my husband had told me to be certain to stay with, the group whose help already had been needed time and time again. “You have no choice,” he said to me. “I’m responsible for her,” referencing my daughter. I remember my response to that unbelievable statement: “No, you’re not,” with a measure of steel in my voice. “I’m responsible for my daughter.” His responsibility extended to keeping looters and potentially dangerous opportunists away from her (and from the rest of us) while we waited our turn to board a plane; I was and am responsible for everything else, including keeping her fed, clean, and warm—all of which I was prepared to do even if we did spend the night outside that airport. I had planned and packed for four days of travel in conditions ranging from hot to snowy.  One night outside in Cairo’s chilliest was not going to be a problem; I wouldn’t even need to break open the checked bag, as blankets, extra clothes, and bottles all were stored in her diaper bag. All I needed was the willing assistance of my group to help hold her, prepare bottles, or guard and move bags.

In the end, I acquiesced to separating from my group and taking the earlier flight—not gracefully, not even politely, but with open hostility and anger—only because my husband also had told me that no matter how heavy-handed and dictatorial this guy became (I’d complained about him in earlier phone conversations), I was not to resist him so much that I risked being sent back to my apartment instead of evacuated. (My husband knows me well enough to recognize temptation on the horizon.) There were two more confrontations, though: one when he insisted that I move myself, my daughter, her car seat, her diaper bag, my backpack, and our two suitcases immediately, without help, while I was holding a screaming baby and trying to prepare a bottle for her; and one after I’d checked in and tried to move to where he’d told me he wanted us—inside, where Alexa could be warm—only to be told that I couldn’t go inside yet. I was livid at that point: he was so concerned that my daughter be warm that he was forcing us to separate from our group—whom we needed—but once he’d accomplished that goal, we were left to wait outside in the cold anyway?!? I found myself grateful that my hands were so full; otherwise I’d have had a hard time resisting the urge to wring his neck.

After another half hour or so, one of the women in my group approached me. She told me that the mom of an infant younger than Alexa had gone willingly into my plane load, and that a mom of two and a mom of four had been forced, like me, as they filled the plane with progressively older children and their families. There were two seats left on my plane, and one of them was designated for a helper from our group. In the end, my plane carried five adults, six young children, and two infants from our group. We left behind two adults and the five oldest children.

We made our way through security and checked our bags. After passing through passport control, a short bus ride took us to the plane. One member of our group took Alexa’s car seat as I carried the baby. When I reached the top of the stairs and tried to claim the car seat from the flight attendants, who had taken it from my friend, they refused to give it to me. “We don’t know how many passengers there will be. There may not be enough seats.” There will be; my baby was counted as a passenger, and she has her own seat. State Department regulations require it, and State Department regulations require that I use that car seat. “We don’t know. We need to keep it here. We’ll put it in the cargo hold and you can get it in Istanbul.” You can keep it here, in the front of the plane, until the plane is completely boarded. Then there will be an empty seat beside me for my daughter, and you can bring me the car seat once you see that there’s room. Don’t put it in the hold. She’ll need it during this flight. “Okay, we can do that.”

Eventually, finally, the plane was fully loaded. As soon as I heard the announcement that all passengers were aboard, I flagged down a flight attendant, pointed out the empty seat beside me, and requested my daughter’s car seat. Her face brought to mind the phrase “deer in the headlights,” but she disappeared up the aisle. Several minutes later, she came back. “The seat is in the hold. I cannot bring it to you. I cannot get to it.” In a firm but controlled voice, I replied “You can and you will. It was not supposed to go into the hold. Get it.” At least, I thought my voice was controlled … the man three rows up who turned his head to see what the fuss was about may not agree. Several more minutes later, the flight attendant timidly approached me again. “What color is your seat?” Orange. But I saw another orange one up there, too. Mine is the Chicco. Finally, after another several minutes, I saw Alexa’s car seat being held aloft, over the heads of seated passengers, approaching me. As I buckled Alexa in, I hoped that the drama was over for the day.

Not so, but at least I had nothing to do with the rest of the day’s drama. An elderly passenger toward the front of the plane suffered from faintness and vomiting en route to Istanbul. He was attended by two doctors on board; they gave him oxygen and had him lie down. Upon arrival in Istanbul, he was taken to a hospital. I have no idea who he was or how he’s doing.

We landed in Istanbul around 2am on Tuesday, 1 February. I had left my apartment 18-1/2 hours earlier. It would be another 25 hours before Alexa and I arrived at my mom’s house. We left Istanbul around 6am, then made two more connections before arriving at the local airport 45 minutes from my hometown. Luckily, Alexa allowed me to sleep a good bit on the way. I was informed by flight attendants and other passengers that as I snoozed, she smiled and cooed at anyone and everyone who passed by our row.

Upon arrival in the United States, I discovered that the authorized evacuation under which I had left Egypt had been upgraded to a mandated evacuation. That information did make me feel slightly better about being forced to leave, but still … then and now, I yearn to go back.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Lockdown Pseudo-Twitter: Saturday and Sunday

In this post, I'm continuing to publish things I wrote while locked down in our apartment in Maadi. Please remember that errors, contradictions, and uncertainties were left in deliberately in order to reflect my experiences at the time. The following updates were written on Saturday, 29 January, and Sunday, 30 January. This is the last of what I wrote while I was there.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

8:06am – Internet’s still not up. The curfew ended just over an hour ago, but we’re still being instructed by the Marines to stay in our homes. I’m not sure what’s going on outside. The AFN news channel is showing its normal lineup, meaning it’s showing what aired on Fox News last night (morning shows tend to be shows that were shown live in the States the night before), so it’s still showing images from last night. CNNi has moved on—it’s on some international business show now. I heard a siren a few minutes ago, but there’s no telling what that was for. I can’t even look out the window and see anything useful because of the direction our windows face.

Jeff came to bed around 2am. I hadn’t been sleeping well up to that point, so I woke up enough to ask what was going on. He told me that Mubarak had finally given a speech—what took him so long?!—and that Mubarak was dissolving his entire government, to be reconstituted, presumably taking into account the protesters’ demands. I’m not sure that’s going to be enough; after all, their primary demand seemed to be that Mubarak himself had to go. We’ll see what happens later today. If the protesters are satisfied, it will be quiet, or mostly so. If not … well, we made it through yesterday okay.

11:11am – We got mobile phone service back an hour or so ago. I called my mom even though it was 3am where she is. I thought she’d be worrying and would want me to wake her, especially because we don’t know if or when mobile service will be cut off again. I was right except for one thing: She wasn’t asleep. She’d spent most of the day blissfully unaware, because she was at work, but she got very worried in the evening when people started calling her.

Jeff just left. We’re still supposed to stay in our homes, but certain mission-critical people need to be at the embassy in a situation like this. Jeff’s office keeps the Cairo-DC communication flowing, so the office needs to be manned. Throughout the embassy, people who spent the night last night are going home, and they’re being replaced by others. The RSO sent transportation. We packed a bag so that Jeff has everything he needs to spend the afternoon, night, and all day tomorrow at the embassy. (No, I didn’t tell my mom that Jeff was going in and that Alexa and I will be alone tonight. The purpose of the call was to reassure her, not to worry her further. We’ll be fine, even if tonight is a repeat of last night, but she wouldn’t believe that, so she doesn’t need to know right now.)

11:25am – CNNi just reported that people are again gathering on the streets of both Cairo and Alexandria. It looks like Mubarak’s plan to dissolve his cabinet isn’t enough—the people want him gone.

1:56pm – Jeff just called from the embassy. There will be a curfew in effect from 4pm today until 8am tomorrow. So it’ll definitely be just me, Alexa, and the cats tonight. Jeff asked if I wanted him to send a mass “we’re okay” email or just email his sister so he can ask her to let people know without letting everyone know that he has email access (ergo that he’s at work and we’re home without him). I asked him to just email his sister.

2:06pm – The Today Show just came on AFN News. They’re actually showing real news! Yay! It’s the first live coverage I’ve seen today. I think the footage they’re showing is from yesterday though.

I’ve heard that 35 bodies were taken to a single hospital in Cairo yesterday. I wish the total had remained at one. But the protesters aren’t backing down, so it looks like there will be more, especially if the military decides to go all-in for Mubarak. The question now is: who will blink first, Mubarak or the protesters?

5:02pm – I’m sitting in the middle of a mass uprising that might topple a government … and I’m bored. I’m stuck in my apartment. The news is getting repetitive. There’s no internet to browse. Who knew being in the middle of history could be boring?

Ah, the news just got interesting for a minute. They talked about “rising angst against America” and asked if there had been any reports of the American embassy or Americans being targeted. Nope. They still aren’t interested in us. That’s fine by me—I don’t want it to get that interesting. At this point, I just want it to play out. However it’s going to end, go ahead and do it already. I want my husband back home.

6:56pm – Ok, I’d like to be bored again, please. I just got back from a building meeting called by the RSO guy who lives here. He didn’t have too much concrete to tell us as far as plans go, but he just wanted us all to get together for a minute. He was talking about having requested a fast-response Marine team, not being sure how he’d handle it if our walls were breached by looters (if he shot one, there’d be two; if he shot them, there’d be four, and they’d be really mad then; he could beat up a few—with the aid of the guards, I’m sure—but not a lot …) I think the bottom line is that we’re on our own, and if looters breach our walls, all we can do is hunker down in our safe rooms, let them take our stuff, and hope that they have no interest in us. He confirmed that there’s looting on Road 9 (VERY close by) and that there was attempted looting next door, but their guards fired into the air, the military showed up, and the looters went away. Basically all we can do is hunker down, ride it out, and hope that our walls and guards are enough to deter them, or that if they do come in, they’re satisfied with busting up our cars downstairs. I started hearing gunfire while I’ve been typing. I’m not a fan.

I’m worried now. I was fine before the meeting, but hearing the tension in the RSO guy’s voice, seeing the fear on the others’ faces … knowing that we don’t have the resources in place to protect us or to get us out if something happens tonight … I had been believing the news reports that today has been more peaceful than yesterday, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s been more peaceful between the government and the protesters, but now the looters are coming out and they’re the ones I’m worried about. I hate that Jeff had to go in. I’ve done all I know to do to prepare for anything. I have go bags packed for both Alexa and myself. If we have to go, I won’t be able to take the cats, but I put down extra food and water for them, because if we have to go, there won’t be time to do it then. Of course we can’t go tonight because there aren’t any plans to protect us while we go.

I have supplies for myself, Alexa, and the cats in the safe room … other than food. I’m going to go put some cans of soup and a jar of peanut butter in there. (I already have food for Alexa and the cats in there.) The logical part of my brain says that it isn’t going to be an issue; tonight won’t be any worse than last night … except that I’m not sure I really believe that. The looters make all the difference. They’re my fear now. The army won’t protect us from them, and the police aren’t around anymore. I’m not sure I’ll be sleeping tonight.

8:15pm – I just received a phone call from our floor warden. She told me that there is a group of people outside our walls with sticks and clubs, but not to worry about it: they’re the good guys. They’re the bowwabs and some residents from the neighboring buildings. They’ve banded together to protect the buildings from looters. I’m relieved. Their goal is not to protect our building, but in protecting their own, they also will increase security for ours. I hope our precautions also help them.  In a very real way, we’re mooching off of the risk that they’re taking.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

7:39am – Last night was interesting. I finally decided shortly before 11 that there was no point to staying up. I gathered our go-bags, the cats’ travel crates, litter box, and food and water bowls, put them all in the safe room, then called Jeff to give him an update on the situation.

The whole time it was obvious that both of the cats and Alexa all had picked up on my stress. Isis wouldn’t leave the safe room, once all of her supplies were in there; she’d approach the door but wouldn’t step foot out of it. Cleo left the room every time I opened the door, but if I called her name, she came running. Cleo typically does not come when called; like most cats I’ve met, she’s more likely to look at you as if to say “silly human; if you want me, you must come to me,” if she doesn’t just take off in the other direction. Not last night, though. She practically galloped down the hall if I stood in the door and called her, as if she were afraid I’d close her out.

The saddest, though, was Alexa. She was happy as a clam if I held her. She was content if I put her down but remained within arm’s reach and facing her. But the moment I turned my back or, heaven forbid, took a step or two away, her little face crumpled and she cried pathetically until I touched her. Some primal part of her little brain seemed to realize: “Mama’s afraid. If Mama is afraid, then I’m in danger. My only hope of survival is to keep her with me.” And she was very effective at keeping me with her.

I got in bed around 11:30 and fell asleep shortly thereafter. Around 12:30, I was woken by a phone call from the CLO. They were contingency planning: If an evacuation were authorized, how many in my family would go? Well, Jeff wouldn’t—he’s mission critical. I’d have to talk to Jeff about whether or not Alexa and I would go, but it would depend on … at this point, my sleep-fogged brain failed me. It would depend on a lot of things, I thought. Definitely on whether or not we could take our cats. She said that they’d be able to go on a later flight than us. My brain woke up enough to say “That’s the best you’re going to get; agree,” so I said that I’d still have to check with Jeff, but we’d probably go. We got off the phone and I called Jeff, who had wanted to know any and all developments. I told him what she’d said. He told me that downtown was eerily quiet; the demonstrators had heard that their homes were being looted and had gone home to protect their families and their stuff.

After the information exchange, I tried to go back to sleep. That part didn’t work. I heard what sounded like gunfire, possibly close, and it was all over. I was awake. I had to go to the bathroom. I was hungry. I took care of all my physical needs and still lay awake for at least two hours. I saw the clock hit 2:30. I was probably awake until 3 or so. Then I was woken at 7 by the Marines reminding everyone on the radio that the curfew is on until 8, the embassy is closed until further notice, everyone should stay in their homes, and no one should try to go to work unless their supervisor tells them to and arranges transportation.

Jeff called just a few minutes ago. He’s coming home this morning. He couldn’t say exactly when for security reasons—the situation out there has them treating Cairo as if it were Baghdad, from an op-sec perspective—but he will leave the embassy within the next couple of hours. The curfew doesn’t end until 8, so I doubt they would leave before that.

I’m exhausted. I need a shower but can’t take one because Alexa will wake up any moment. I have a headache. Being in the middle of a revolution—or attempted revolution, if they end up failing—really isn’t any fun. But it’s part of the territory sometimes, apparently.

8:18am – When Jeff and I were married, we registered for everything in blue and green. Blue for Jeff, green for me. We have a great set of dishes—12 dinner plates, 12 round salad plates, 12 square plates, 12 bowls … all of them six blue and six green. I’ve always organized them carefully in my kitchen cabinets; that’s just my nature. The dinner plates are in one stack, alternating colors: green, blue, green, blue, like clockwork. The small plates and bowls are in side-by-side stacks, one stack green, one stack blue. All neat and organized, like a store display. Yesterday as I put up some dishes, I thought it might be nice to introduce a random element. So I grabbed the dishes from the dishwasher and just put them up without concern for organization by color. I ended up with two greens, then a blue on top of a stack of blue plates. A series of three blues and then two greens on top of my dinner plate stack. This morning as I put up some more dishes, I realized what I was doing. I’m deliberately introducing a little chaos into my kitchen cabinets, because somehow that makes the chaos in my life right now seem a little less chaotic. Sometimes psych majors realize the darndest things.

9:19am – Jeff is home. We believe that an evacuation has been approved, but whether or not it will go into effect will depend on how things go today and tonight. It may be the beginning of the end for the protests, as people can’t focus too much on protesting when they’re having to protect their families and belongings from looters. The looters may have ended this uprising and given Mubarak a little more time, although the handwriting is on the wall for him. Jeff reports that things outside, between the embassy and Maadi, are “eerily normal.” Traffic is normal for a Friday morning (though not for a Sunday), very light and fast. Civilians are directing traffic, some with sticks and knives, replacing the missing traffic cops. Very few people are out walking around. Neighborhood vigilante groups formed last night and I would assume are still in effect, even though the members may be taking sleep breaks. Basically people stayed close to their own buildings but had whistles—hear a whistle, go help your neighbor, knowing he’d do the same for you.

12:06pm – It’s official; there is an authorized evacuation tomorrow morning. Now we have to decide if Alexa and I are leaving. Today is a pivotal point. If the security situation remains unstable, it will continue to be dangerous at night. But there is a military presence in Maadi now, making it much safer. Depending on the reactions of Mubarak and the protesters, things could get better, or they could deteriorate rapidly. If we leave now, we can take the cats out with us. If we wait and it gets worse, we may not be able to. Once we leave, we may not be allowed back in for some time, possibly not at all, if it takes long enough that they determine that we’re too close to our PCS date by the time they lift the evac order. And Jeff will be here, not with us. We have to decide today. I don’t want to leave, but there are factors to consider other than my desires, including Jeff’s safety too. If we leave, he’ll feel freer to just stay at the embassy instead of going back and forth, with the travel being the most dangerous part. We need to decide …

2:19pm—Looks like we have little to no choice. The pressure is on from Jeff's bosses in DC. Alexa and I are leaving. The cats can’t go after all. An employee who will be here for the duration is a cat lover who has agreed to take responsibility for Cleo and Isis, since Jeff won’t be able to take care of them if he gets stuck at the embassy. Her maid will care for them if she can’t get home. I’m probably done with updates for a while now; gotta get ready to go.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Lockdown Pseudo-Twitter: Friday

In this post, I'm continuing to publish things I wrote while locked down in our apartment in Maadi. Please remember that errors, contradictions, and uncertainties were left in deliberately in order to reflect my experiences at the time. The following updates were written the evening/night of Friday, 28 January 2011.


Update 7:29pm – a member of the Regional Security Office who lives in our building told Jeff that (1) the guards downstairs, who can’t go home tonight due to the curfew, are okay for food; (2) there are cars burning near Maadi Grand Mall; and (3) someone breached an embassy parking lot (not the embassy compound itself) downtown. I hope no one tries to breach the embassy itself. I won’t talk about my opinions regarding this protest—it isn’t my place to have an opinion in a public forum, although I do have one in private conversation—but let me say this loud and clear to anyone and everyone: The U.S. Embassy compound is sovereign U.S. territory. If anyone breaches that, it’s up to the RSO and the Marines what consequences they will face.

7:37pm – Jeff just called me out to the walkway, telling me it was my one chance to see it. The protesters are in the midan a short block away. I ran out there to see, but Jeff pulled me back in less than 15 seconds later, before I actually saw anything. He wouldn’t let me take the camera. When we came back in, he asked me to take Alexa and go into our safe room, just in case. We usually have several police around our compound in addition to our guards. Currently we have two.  We’re more vulnerable now than we usually are, and if anything were to happen, it would happen fast. Better to be already in the safe room.

7:41pm – Jeff just stuck his head outside (wouldn’t let me do it) and reported that the protesters seem to have been just passing through the midan near here on their way somewhere else. I’m allowed back in the living room now.

8:00pm – We heard gunfire outside. It wasn’t really close, but fairly close. Couldn’t tell if it was really guns or if it was tear gas. This is turning into an interesting evening. I think we’ll be up late tonight, monitoring the situation.

8:13pm – they’re in the midan again. The shots—it sounds like tear gas—are coming fast and loud. I heard what sounded like heavy vehicles right outside our compound wall. Jeff is looking to see if it’s the military replacing our police officers. The police around the embassy downtown also were pulled. They were supposed to be replaced by military but I don’t know if they have been yet.

8:18 pm – it wasn’t the military. The protesters are filling the midan to the point that incoming traffic is being diverted down our street. We’re hearing shots that don’t sound like tear gas but also don’t sound like the AKs carried by Egyptian police and military. Not sure what that is.

We’re staying in touch via landline with other embassy people, primarily those in Maadi. I’d like to check on my non-embassy friends, but I don’t have their landline numbers. Our people are all okay so far, staying in their homes. The protesters aren’t mad at us this time, so there’s no real reason to think they’ll try to breach our housing, but the guards turned off the walkway lights as a precaution. The protesters are targeting police stations and public buildings like ministry buildings and NDP headquarters. We should be okay as long as we don’t go out. But I don’t see this night ending without more casualties among Egyptian protesters and/or police.

8:28pm – Jeff just confirmed that people are getting shot in the midan outside. We don’t know if the police/military (not sure who’s firing) are using rubber or metal bullets, but the guards are listening to the police radio, and people definitely are getting shot.

8:35pm – Alexa just fell asleep, hopefully for the night. She slept in her crib last night for the first time. Not so tonight. She’s sleeping in the safe room tonight. We don’t expect anything to happen to us here, but if it does, it will happen quickly enough that we want her already in there.

8:41pm – I no longer have any desire to go out on the streets. I occasionally poke my head out the door onto the walkway, being careful to have no light behind me (silhouetting is bad). We just received a transmission from the Marines over the emergency radio: “Anyone outside will be shot.” I assume that’s the rules of engagement the Egyptian police and military are using at this point. Some idiot actually replied to the Marines with “Are you serious?” I loved the Marines’ response: “Be advised, anything coming from [call sign] is serious.” Come on, people—if you’ve been listening, you’ve heard the stress in that young man’s voice increase throughout the evening. Shut up, listen up, do as  you’re told,  and let the man do his job.

10:39pm – I’m beat. It’s been quiet here for a couple of hours. Last I heard, the military were entering Maadi. The police had backed the protesters away from this area to the Maadi Grand Mall area. By now, I would assume that the military is on the scene and the police are off the streets. The people like and respect the military a lot better than they like and respect the police (for whom they have zero liking and even less respect), so military presence alone should calm things somewhat. I need to go to bed. Jeff is planning to doze on the sofa with the news on TV. Hopefully things will be better tomorrow … but honestly, things are already worse than we expected them to get at all, so there’s no predicting how the weekend will play out.