Reporter's Notebook: Laying low, shredding passports

Having come this far, my dilemma was how to cover Egypt’s popular uprising when it had become too dangerous to be where it was unfolding.

pro-mubarak protestors (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
pro-mubarak protestors
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
It’s 1:30 a.m. on Thursday, February 3, in Cairo’s Zamalek neighborhood, and I’m cutting my friend’s Israeli passport, press card and credit cards into tiny fragments, hoping the American and Saudi students I’m staying with don’t walk in.
Along with my friend, a French- Israeli journalist who will remain nameless, I had arrived at the city’s Tahrir Square two nights earlier, just in time to hear President Hosni Mubarak promise his people he would step down in six months and hold elections in which he would not be a candidate. We had spent 20 hours in transit – riding to Eilat in a bus full of African migrants, crossing into Aqaba, flying to Amman and then Cairo, taking a cab through the deserted streets of Africa’s largest city and passing dozens of vigilante checkpoints – only to come to the conclusion that we had missed the story entirely and would have nothing to show for our efforts.
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We were wrong.
By Wednesday morning, the Internet had come back on in Egypt, bringing the biggest Arab country back into the 21st century and allowing me to file a color story about the ride into town through the vigilante checkpoints, as well as a piece on the Tahrir Square crowd’s reaction to Mubarak’s speech. This was all I thought I could salvage, and I planned to spend the next day touring the pyramids before flying back to Israel.
I went outside and saw a large mass of Mubarak supporters walking, and began to interview them, noting that in nearly every direction there was a similar march descending on central Cairo. I was heading back to the nearby Ramses Hilton hotel to file when I began to hear screaming and hollering coming from all directions, at times faint and then deafening, as the mobs began to surge in waves toward Tahrir. Something very bad was happening and I had to get there as quickly as possible.
At this moment I saw at least 50 Egyptians crowding and pushing a silver-haired westerner into the parking lot of the hotel, and snapped a few pictures of CNN’s Anderson Cooper only moments after the “beating heard round the world.” I asked him if he thought it was safe to go to the square. “No, it’s not safe,” he told me, his voice shaking and angry.
Nonetheless, I began to walk toward the square, and every 15-20 meters an Egyptian stopped me and pleaded with me not to go any farther, using pidgin English and pantomime to tell me that my camera and my life were in mortal danger.
The cynic in me told me they might be Mubarak supporters hoping to deter foreign reporters from documenting the bloodshed.
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in EgyptClick here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
Then a dark-skinned guy in his early 20s with long hair came out of the crowd and grabbed me, asking in perfect southern California English, “Are you a journalist? You need to get out of here. I’m a journalist; they just took my camera and my phone, and they’re looking for anyone with light hair or light skin. They’re looking for you.”
My cynicism faded and I began to retreat, all the while very conscious of the Israeli cell phone with Hebrew letters in my pocket, and suddenly more in touch with my Judaism then I had been in years. Standing in a crowd of tens of thousands of hungry, angry, exhausted Arabs surging in all directions, many of them yelling Allahu akbar, will do that to you, I guess.
The curfew was approaching and I waited outside the Hilton, the rendezvous point for me and my French colleague, who unbeknownst to me was photographing lynchings and mobs throwing rocks, and witnessing the hand-to-hand-to-camel-to-horse combat in Tahrir Square.
My colleague never showed, but an Indian-American tourist I had met on the road to Cairo appeared and, wanting to leave the downtown area of clashes before nightfall, we decided to flee across the river, slipping behind an Egyptian army tank blocking our exit and walking quickly across the May 15th Bridge. In the garden neighborhood of Zamalek, peace and quiet reigned, albeit tempered by the presence of armed vigilantes blocking every intersection.
For the most part they were nice guys and apologetic, mainly wanting to speak to me about America, with one asking me what I thought about New Jersey because he had just spent two months there visiting family.
In Zamalek, I sat in the restaurant at the Flamenco Hotel, where I had my first meal since the day before, and met a group of six American study-abroad kids, as well as a Saudi Arabian student and another of Egyptian origin. Their semester had been canceled but they refused to be evacuated from Cairo. They boasted, bragged and slurred about their stubborn refusal to leave, the empty Sakara beer bottles a testament to their thirst for alcohol, if not adventure.
With ATMs out of service across the country, I became concerned that my money would run out – I would have nowhere to sleep and would have to stay up all night with the vigilantes and sewer rats. My fears were heightened by the fact that the hotels seemed to be charging astronomical prices to desperate Westerners. This was especially true of the Umm Kulthum Hotel, where on our first night in Cairo, the desk clerk told us the price listed online had doubled.
To emphasize his point, he twirled a Walther .38 and pointed it at my colleague’s chest while smilingly telling us that without a reservation, we’d have to pay the price.
My money fears, along with a desire not to stay in the same place each night after hearing reports that the security services were searching hotels for journalists, led me to call one of the study-abroad kids, a 24- year-old northern Californian named Justin, who had an extra bedroom in his dormitory across from the Flamenco Hotel. I relocated to the dorm and listened to Justin speak of his plans to hike from Turkey to Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, where the trail would end in “a town called Hebron.”
I dropped off my and my French colleague’s luggage, which included all of our Israeli documents, as well as a set of tefillin he had brought to Cairo; evidently he had reasoned that if there’s anything you want to carry around in an Arab revolution, it’s a set of phylacteries in a bag covered in Hebrew.
At this point and for the rest of my trip, the road from Zamalek to Tahrir was too dangerous. Some journalists made the journey, but the air around us was rife with whispers and rumors that were impossible to confirm but seemed foolish to ignore: The vigilantes, who only the night before had seemed like fun guys, had suddenly become a menace, harassing and robbing foreigners – at least as far as we heard at the Flamenco.
Rumors were also circulating that the security services were raiding hotels even in Zamalek, looking for journalists on tourist visas and detaining them.
Furthermore, it seemed that most of the foreign correspondents I met in Zamalek were now laying low, hesitant to go to Tahrir. None were Jews or Israelis, but their constant manhood- measuring contest with talk about their experiences in Kosovo, Iraq or Afghanistan made my decision to cool my heels feel more sensible by the moment.
No one seemed able to credibly predict the future or had any idea what the next day or even hour would bring. The road to the airport was still safe – but would it be tomorrow? The clashes so far were confined to the area in and around Tahrir Square, but would they spread? The situation on the ground, it seemed, could change in an instant.
Having come this far, my dilemma was how to cover the story when it had become too dangerous to be where it was unfolding.
I decided to make lemonade out of the proverbial lemons and began speaking to posh Cairenes sipping lattes in a Zamalek cafe, crafting a story like those articles on “the party keeps going in North Beirut while South Beirut lies in ruins” that were common during the Second Lebanon War.
That night I decided to book a Friday flight to Amman. Then I heard from my French colleague, who was going to stay on in Cairo for another three days. He was perched on a hotel balcony over Tahrir Square, giving interviews to French media outlets and watching the square boil.
“You need to get rid of my passport, press card, and all my Israeli credit cards,” he urged me. “Shred them and flush them down the toilet. The tefillin you need to find a place for, maybe bury them somewhere?” By this point, my friend and I had both read dozens of online articles about journalists being arrested and harassed, as well as reports that mobs on both sides, as well as the Egyptian authorities, were looking for Israelis and Jews, presumably because they were still angry we had trained sharks to eat their tourists.
An hour or two later I was in the dorm room, where, luckily, the students were nowhere in sight, probably being off drinking or smoking hashish somewhere after curfew. I found scissors in the kitchen and began cutting the passport and cards into tiny fragments, stashing them in a plastic bag. I tried not to think what would happen if the students walked in. They might justifiably think they were in some low-budget version of “Munich,” and that this shadowy American “tourist” they’d met only a day earlier was in fact a Mossad agent now hurrying to cover his tracks in their apartment.
I lay down, still coasting on adrenaline and cigarettes. The door opened and I heard the Saudi Arabian student, Muhammed, making a phone call in the living room, speaking to someone in Arabic as I drifted off to sleep with a shredded Israeli passport in my pocket.
Thinking about pikuah nefesh, the Jewish dictate that says human life is paramount, I knew I had a halachically- sound excuse to ditch the phylacteries at the first opportunity. Still, I did nothing, and left them in my friend’s gym bag – which he safely picked up the next day when he walked to Zamalek from Tahrir shortly after dawn.
We parted ways, and then, together with my Jerusalem Post colleague Melanie Lidman, overcame the series of obstacles that blocked the journey home. First, there were the 12 hours of delays, most of which were spent in a Cairo airport departure hall with passengers waiting for flights to Iraq and Yemen. After that, we watched as six men without luggage, but with black eyes and cuts across their faces and covered in blood, came straight through our gate and onto the Royal Jordanian plane, no questions asked.
Then we walked out to the tarmac, where two Egyptian state security officers in suits stood at the plane’s door – and promptly took me aside for a thorough search.
Finally, the two secret Israelis flew off, homebound, into the night.