Published on Arab Voices

The Egypt exodus: Part 1

ImageThe phone rang.  It woke me up shortly before 7:00 AM.  I hadn’t slept most of the night due to the sound of machineguns firing consistently outside our window.  And, this is the way it had been for a week since the curfew came to be.  As soon as it got dark, shooting would start and it would be constant throughout the night.

Tanks and armored personnel carriers were deployed all over Cairo.  In Maadi, they were in every square and main intersection.  With the internet and international lines all severed, communications with the outside world were impossible.  Cell phones could not dial internationally, or receive calls from abroad.  The security services had managed to trap us all at home for half the day, and the only phone calls you could make were local.  Shutting down the internet was the government’s way of preventing people from deploying in Tahrir and other parts of the country.  Even with this, even with the curfews, the mass demonstrations were on-going.

But, shutting down the internet and international calling had consequences.  For our family, we were no longer able to coordinate my mother’s treatment between her doctors in Washington and her doctors in Cairo.

For the millions of tourists in Egypt trying to leave, they couldn’t re-book on the web, or reach anyone outside Egypt to help them.  And, they were desperate.  Egyptian television was airing daily clips of absolute chaos in all of Egypt’s airports. 

For me, staying in Egypt no longer had a purpose.  Engulfed by grief, I understood that it was time for me to leave, to get back to work that I had to abandon weeks ago.   But, I too had no way to leave, no way out.  All of the airline offices were closed, or not accessible due to the insecurity in the country.  With no internet to change my reservation on line, or to call my airline’s international booking number overseas, going to the airport would be redundant because I had no confirmed seat on an airplane.

But, amazingly a very good friend had found a way to call our home land line using a satellite phone that the government seemed helpless to shut down.  My friend had spent the previous days trying to re-book me only to be told there was no possibility of this for weeks to come.  The airlines were flooded with calls of friends and relatives trying to get their loved ones out of Egypt and with millions of tourists in the hunt for seats days before I ever considered leaving, my options seemed limited. 

But, as fate would have it, my friend had done the impossible.  She had found me a seat on BA whose regular flight time had changed from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM.  Apparently, she was calling on the hour, every hour, in the hopes of a cancellation as the BA representative had instructed.  She called, advised me of her success with BA, and also told me that given the insecurity she had read that all airlines would suspend flights out of Egypt the following day.  If I were not to leave with the booking that was made for the following day, there would be no incoming flights the day after and everyone trying to leave would be in limbo.

I had come home to be close to my mother in the hospital only to be caught up in a revolution, a revolution that had turned bloody and violent.  But, if I didn’t leave now, it wasn’t clear when I could ever get out.  I also couldn’t get any work done.  No internet, no email.  No international phone access, no blackberry.  You just sat there with only one form of access to media, the government media, and they weren’t telling you much.

 As usual, I went to sleep at about first light when machine gun fire started to die down.  Calm always seemed linked to the call of the first prayer of the day that sounds at first light.  Once the utterance of Allah-ho- Akbar, God is Great, was heard, the chaos seemed to dissipate. 

I had barely closed my eyes, when our house phone rang just before 7:00 AM and I jumped when I heard it ring.  It took a few rings for my heart beat to slow down to be able to answer.  It was my sister on the line saying that her brother in law was going to the airport to pick up his daughter arriving from the U.S.  She said she had agreed with him to pick me up and drive me to the airport.  At 7:00, the curfew was lifted and it was now or never.  I had a confirmed reservation, with no incoming flights the next day.  My sister, Sherifa, could hear the reservation of leaving in my voice, but she said with conviction that she had a “premonition” that leaving now was the right thing to do.  When I told her that my flight was at 4:00 PM, why should I head to the airport at 7:00 AM?  She said again, with a strong sense of conviction that her inner vibe said I had to be in that car heading for the airport now. 

I listened and how right she was.  Seeing all the tanks on the way to the airport was very very scary. I thought of taking a picture, but was too scared of the potential consequences to do so.  Getting to the airport from Maadi took only 30 minutes as no one was on the road.  Getting from the main entrance to the terminal building took over an hour.  I got as close to the terminal as possible and walked the rest of the way.

Inside terminal 1 was chaos.  Absolute chaos.  In a building which could contain maybe two thousand people, there were likely over ten thousand or more.  And, everyone was pushing to get inside.  I had no idea where my ride was now, and like everyone else I started pushing too.  When I saw a woman desperately trying to hold on to the hand of a small child in front of me, I stopped pushing and made sure everyone did too.  I was expecting this to get uglier as we got further, but it didn’t.  The terminal was wall to wall with people, but somehow everyone started being accommodating.  People were helping the elderly, helping the mothers and children, and this was an international crowd mostly tourists from everywhere.  A diabetic was in bad shape, he didn’t have his injections as he had lost his bag.  Someone came out of nowhere and gave him insulin from his bag.  He was a diabetic too.  I will never forget that kindness.

Will Khaled make his flight? Read Part 2...


Khaled Sherif

Chief Administrative Officer

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