Reporter's Notebook: Our woman in Cairo

My first international assignment – no contacts, no Arabic, and no way to find people or understand what was going on.

By MELANIE LIDMAN, JERUSALEM POST CORRESPONDENT
February 6, 2011 22:50
Melanie Lidman in Cairo's Tahrir Square

Melanie Lidman in Cairo's Tahrir Square 311. (photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)

 
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CAIRO – “What do you mean, no Internet?” Suddenly, all my plans to be an intrepid war correspondent in my first big international situation seemed to be evaporating before my eyes.

I had arrived in Cairo by bus from Jerusalem just an hour earlier, and was at a hotel on the outskirts of the city after attempting to navigate my way downtown. I gave up as the taxi filled with tear gas and the shells of burned out cars blocked the roads, accepting the driver’s recommendation that I stay at the ominously named Hotel Beirut.

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“Do you have free wi-fi?” I asked at reception. “And I’m going to need to buy a phone card so I can call my contacts on their cellphones.”

I was absolutely shocked when the truth came out: Egypt had no Internet and no cellphones. Somehow, in my nearly 24 hours of transit from Jerusalem to Cairo, I hadn’t heard that all connections to the 21st century had been severed, in an attempt to dampen the demonstrations. Here I was: my first international assignment and my first time in Cairo, no contacts, no Arabic, and now no way to find people or understand what was going on, no way to connect to the larger world.

I slept uneasily the first night, getting up frequently to check the Internet connection. I was incredulous – how could I be in a strange country, in a dangerous situation, and have no way to connect with the rest of the world? The next morning I took a taxi to the only place I figured I’d be sure to find English-speakers: Cairo University, in the Giza suburb, just 15 km. from the Great Pyramids.

I did find English-speakers there, people who were all too happy to talk to me. I was outside the five-block radius of the hoards of journalists, and there were dozens of Mass Media and Communications students outside thrilled to speak with the international press after their final exam of the semester had been canceled because of the situation.



But when people started demanding to see my press credentials (should I show them my Israeli Government Press Office card? Probably not), I decided to get out of there.

On my way out of the university, I struck up a conversation with a drama student who asked if I wanted to accompany her to Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the demonstrations. I thought back to the frantic conversation I had had with my mother before I left Jerusalem: “No mom, I promise you I won’t go to Tahrir Square, I’m looking for the stories that happen outside of the square.” “Sure,” I said. And we set off. Sorry, mom.

The square was pure chaos, or so I thought, until it got even more chaotic and violent five days later. I walked next to my new friend Haneen as she translated all the signs and chants for me, and accepted a free pita bread that they were handing out to demonstrators – thus far, my only food that day. There were flags waving and passionate chants and people milling around. I could hardly believe that two days ago I had been watching and reading about this very scene, and now here I was, among tens of thousands of demonstrators and hundreds of journalists.

I got separated from Haneen as a corpse was carried through the square on a stretcher, and a crowd of people chanting and their pumping their fists into the air swept through like a rushing river. It was time to leave, I decided, since I couldn’t tell where the gunfire was coming from that had killed the demonstrator.

Around this time I decided to tackle the next hurdle of the day: How do I send an article to Jerusalem, when there’s no Internet in Cairo? I asked as many people with cameras as I could find, and found out that most of the journalists were staying in a five-star hotel on the Nile, one block from Tahrir Square, in a hulking pink building. I headed there, hopeful that some large American network would take pity on me, from a small English-language paper in Israel, and let me send one document using their line.

Entry was barred to the hotel, until I found some Australian journalists who had a reservation there and were just arriving from the airport, and slipped through by saying that I was part of their entourage. The entire lobby was dark, windows boarded over with plywood and lights turned off, so I sat in a corner and wrote my article by headlamp.

Just as I was finishing, I heard someone enter the elevator and yell to a colleague, “I’m in 1962, come over when you’re ready to send!” Well, I thought to myself, I am ready to send, see you in a few.

On the 19th floor, I ran into a radio journalist I had been stuck with outside while we were trying to get into the hotel, also on her way to 1962.

“Hi, I was wondering if it might be possible for me to send one document?” I asked in my let’s-be-honest-the-Jerusalem-Post-is-not-your-competition voice. They weren’t happy about it, but they took pity on me, a defenseless first-time correspondent who really had no idea what she got herself into.

“Cute,” they said, when they heard I was 25.

“What room are you in?” one of them asked. “Well, there seems to be a couch in the lobby with my name on it...,” I shrugged, explaining that one night at the hotel was approximately half of my monthly salary at the Post, and that it was way too dangerous for me to be walking around outside looking for a hotel room in a strange city in the midst of riots.

The radio journalist took pity on me, and offered to let me sleep on her floor for the night. It was the first of many miracles that would help me survive and continue to send my articles over the next few days.

I later joined the journalist for dinner, dining on an elegant meal of grilled chicken and vegetables, complimented by toasted rice with pistachios and a selection of traditional Arabic deserts. Soft, soothing jazz played in the background as waiters in tuxedos came to bring me freshly squeezed orange juice.

Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt

The scene was so much in contrast to the chaos and mayhem, not to mention dead bodies, I had witnessed just three hours earlier that my head was spinning from sensory overload. I felt like a true international correspondent, lifted from the pages of Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem.

The next afternoon I came back to the hotel, crowding around a service entrance with a dozen male journalists and photographers, all trying to get inside to use the Net.

Despite an Internet blackout in the country, this hotel was able to restore service in the rooms, and it was the hottest ticket in town.

“No one is getting in!” said the beefy security man. Then he spoke rapidly on his phone in Arabic. “Okay,” he said to the crowd. “Where’s Susanna? Susanna’s the only one who’s getting in.”

“That’s me!” I piped up, taking my chances that they wouldn’t ask to see ID.

“Where’s your photographer? Aren’t there supposed to be two of you?” “Oh, he’s buying a phone card,” I answered. I never knew lies could just tumble out of me like that. And suddenly, I was inside.

The lobby was still pitch black so I settled onto the 15th floor stairwell, which would be my correspondents’ desk for the next few days. Hotel staff scurried by me, bringing room service to the journalists, giving me quizzical looks.

“It’s just so loud and crazy in my room,” I would tell them. “I needed some peace and quiet.”

They started bringing me Twix bars and bottles of water, making sure I was okay.

After finishing my article, I hung around the dining hall with my computer, waiting for someone to head up to their room so I could send my article using their connection.

After two hours of trying, I returned to the 19th floor and used the Internet of my savior from the night before.

After another elegant dinner with copious amounts of brie cheese, I headed back to my hostel across the Nile in the Dokki neighborhood quite late at night. It was my first time out in the city after dark, and I hadn’t expected the amount of vigilantes that I would encounter, out to protect their neighborhoods from looters during the night.

Granted, they weren’t worried about me, a short foreigner with a large backpack, but walking by lots of men armed with bats, metal poles and machetes and big as long as my arm, was terrifying to say the least.

I had procured an unused room key to the pink hotel, one of the smartest things I was able to do in Cairo, and showing that key and my passport the next day made my entry into the hotel a breeze, flying past dozens of other foreign correspondents pleading, begging, practically crying with the unmovable security guards to let them inside.

“This is getting too easy,” I thought to myself. And I was even more shocked when I turned on my computer and saw – could this be possible? – that wireless Internet had been restored. I camped out on the 15th floor, wrote and sent my articles, and for the first time was able to talk to my parents via Skype for more than one minute, just to let them know I was okay.

But the next night my cover was blown.

“Can you come over to the desk?” a security guard asked me as I waited for the elevators to carry me to the 15th floor. I knew it was over, but I held out the vain hope that I’d be able to talk my way upstairs, the same way I’d been talking my way into and out of various sketchy situations over the past few days.

But no. After word had gotten out on the streets that this hotel had functioning wireless, they had become even more stringent about entry, wanting to scan room keys and check passports against a master guest list. Now it was my turn to beg, plead, and cry.

It’s the most frustrating feeling for a journalist, to have a story that you want to share with the world, and no vehicle with which to get the message out. The begging didn’t work, and the next thing I knew I had a security guard on each arm, escorting me forcefully out to the street.

I called a contact on Anderson Cooper’s CNN crew to see if I could use their Internet, as the silver-haired TV presence had been at my hostel for lunch with his entire crew earlier that afternoon, just before he was attacked by Mubarak supporters.

“Nope,” came the answer from the Cooper Camp.

Dejected, I made my way to another five-star hotel on the Nile to try my luck there, hoping for another miracle. I had no problems getting in (“My colleagues are in room 1132, but I’m based in Cairo, so I’ve been staying in my apartment,” I said confidently, flashing my passport like I knew what I was doing), but this hotel had no Internet.

“Our fax works internationally,” the business center told me. The printer was down, so I spent an hour and a half handwriting my articles, as small as I could so it would fit on two pages. I felt so bad for the assistant editor on duty at the Post that night, who had to decipher my tiny print and type it all up, but at least I could file something.

On Wednesday morning, the Internet was restored at exactly noon. It was as if a giant weight was lifted off my shoulders.

Without the challenge of figuring out how to send my stories, I could concentrate more on the quality and content of my writing. As I walked through a calm and fairly empty Tahrir Square, I thought, perhaps this is the last day, perhaps it will all end tomorrow.

But just as I thought things would get easier with the Internet restored, the protests in Tahrir Square turned nasty and demonstrators started targeting foreign journalists. I was in a hostel in the middle of the square, with a balcony that overlooked some of the most violent hand-to-hand combat I had ever seen.

Having Internet in the hostel meant I didn’t have to go traipsing around after dark, looking for ways to connect to the world. Instead, I chatted with the JPost Internet desk as CNN filmed a live report on our balcony, against the backdrop of Tahrir Square. “Listen carefully,” I told the desk, who was watching CNN in Tel Aviv.

I went outside and coughed really loudly. “We heard you!” they wrote back.

As the protests continued to get uglier and uglier and target more and more journalists, I made the decision with the other Post reporter in Cairo, Ben Hartman, that the time had come for us to leave. Discussing the arrests and attacks of journalists that day with a hardened French war correspondent, I casually mentioned that four Israeli reporters (from Channel 2) had been arrested.

“Yeah, well, you’d have to be totally stupid to come here as an Israeli,” she snorted. “Definitely,” I agreed, gulping.

CNN had evacuated the hostel in Tahrir Square after rumors and reports that government security forces were watching balconies at all of the hotels around the square with high-powered binoculars, and when they saw cameras, they would come in and smash the equipment. The Hilton had been targeted and thousands of dollars of cameras smashed, one reporter said he had heard.

With all of the rumors swirling around the war correspondents, no one knew what to believe. We sat in the darkened dining hall, hoping the lack of lights would convince the security forces that the hotel was empty, and I listened to a French and a Russian photographer, who had known each other since one had been kidnapped by Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1991, talk about how they would stay alive the next day while continuing to do their job. Just some after-dinner chitchat.

Despite worrying about the vigilante checkpoints on the way to the airport for our flight to Amman, which were apparently looking for the international media, Hartman and I arrived at the airport on Friday with no problems. We still didn’t feel as if we could let our guard down, as our plane was delayed for nine hours, but we chatted with all the passengers on our flight using fake stories about traveling through Europe. Many of the non- Egyptians shared stories of being accosted by mobs and brought to the police station. If that had happened to Hartman or I, they would have found something connecting us to Israel, perhaps a shekel in the bottom of our bag or our phones with Hebrew on the keypads, and that would have been the end for us.

As we were finally boarding the plane, we saw six passengers who hadn’t been waiting for the entire day. They were dirty, wearing coats that were spattered with blood, and all of them had black eyes. They carried no baggage and spoke to no one, but it was obvious that they had come straight from the fighting in Tahrir Square without a minute to even change their clothes. Who knows what side they were on, or what they had done to need to leave the country in such a hurry. Perhaps the plane was held up for them, we have no way of knowing. It was just another reminder that we had narrowly avoided some very dangerous situations, but we still held our breath until the plane was in the air.

The worst came after we had landed in Amman. The man in the blood-covered coat and his friends with black eyes had not stopped to collect any baggage, and they were right in front of us as we passed through security to exit the airport.

Shalom, mah nishma [how are you?]?” one of the Jordanian security guards said to me in Hebrew. “Tel Aviv, nachon [right]?” I had to bend over and catch my breath, I was so frightened at being outed as an Israeli, at the very end of my journey, just as I thought I was home safe. And then I realized, maybe this whole past week, I wasn’t fooling anyone, after all.

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