Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A foreigner's worst nightmare makes for a good story.

A foreigner's worst nightmare makes for a good story.

Every weekend for the past 6 weeks I've been going out with from friends to a suburb of Cairo to play soccer. I met these these friends (Egyptian and foreign, guys and girls) through some German friends who work at the German development agency (GIZ) here in Cairo. When they told me that they play soccer two hours every weekend, I jumped at the chance to join them (about 12 people) as Cairo is very polluted and it's hard to find a good place to work out here.

Last weekend, on a Thursday night, we met up to play from 23h to midnight. In Egypt's it quite normal for people to hang out so late, especially on weekends and with people who work during the day. After soccer, we drove back to Cairo to eat dinner at a sandwhich/meat place called "Baba Abduh" across from the famous "Bab al-Foutouh" (one of the 7 gates which once guarded Old Cairo). After a delicious meal, ending around 2am, most of the group decided to go out to a café on a beautiful street in Old Cairo called Moez el-Din. Me and two of the other soccer guys from soccer decided that we would head home as it was getting late and there would be big protest the following morning (Friday) downtown, in Tahrir square, protesting against the military interim government's inaction (more of less).

So, me and these two guys (AA and MM) –after arguing for about five minutes about how I would take a taxi/how AA should drive me home because it was late and it would take a while for me to find a taxi– finally, I caved and agreed to let AA drive me home. AA and MM are both super cool, they're really good players, they're always way more fair play that the others, and they never really argue over fouls, etc… so they seemed like pretty nice guys. Nevertheless, I don't know them that well, I don't have their phone numbers for example, but whatever, friends offer to drive you home late at night, so you accept, right? Right.

So, we get going towards where I live, which should have been a 10 minute ride. 5 minutes later, we get stopped at a checkpoint downtown where police were checking IDs and searching cars randomly because of the coming protests the coming morning. Pretty normal for Cairo right now. So they check our IDs, and then they ask us to pull over to the side to search his 4*4. Still pretty normal. So they searched, and found about 5 military coats in the back of the AA's car. okay… weird, and suspicious, given that there are 2 Egyptians with a Frenchman in a car late at night, and that these coats could, for example, be used for people to pose as soldiers and cause chaos between the people and the Army. But then MM told me that AA's dad owns a clothes making factory and that he makes clothes for the military, so that we should be okay. But then, it turns out that AA had forgotten the permission papers he needed in order to have these on him. Also, this was his father's car, and it's still not clear to me why his father had them in his car. I had no idea these were in the car before getting in and never would have had I known.

So once it became clear that AA didn't have the right papers, a police officer took us to the police station about 5 minutes away by foot. There, we went up to the second floor into the officers' office. On the way there, we saw some drops of blood on the top of the stairs. By this time it was about 2h30am.

Once we arrived in their nice, posh office (with tacky Egyptian furniture where we'd stay the whole time), they sat us down on big leather couches. There, they begin the asking AA more details. They also asked me about what I'm doing here, where I work, what we had been doing, etc. Two of these officers spoke mediocre English, so I took advantage of this and only spoke English with them. This made it easier for me and harder for them, and helped avoid suspicion that I'm a spy. Also, at this point, I had only told them that I'm French, as I only had my French passport on my (visa expired for about 3 months now) but then decided to tell them openly that I'm also American, etc. I knew they would ask more questions and find out anyway, so it was better to be open and direct with them.

There, they alternated between asking AA and I questions. They looked through my camera which had nothing interesting on it for them except photos of children's drawings (from my NGO, photos about what children want for the future of Egypt –slightly political) and randomly a paper I had forgotten about on the way the parliamentary system works here, also slightly political, but nothing they could really say about it.

Then, AA admits to them that he's also has German citizenship through his father. So I could totally, understand these officers: now two foreigners, one Egyptian, military clothes and a big protest the next day against the military = VERY suspicious. (a few days later, I found out that MM also has Eritrean dual citizenship through his father…)

Sometime during their interrogation, MM told me that on the way downtown AA had been scared when we went through a checkpoint (they were only randomly checking cars) because he remembered that he had the military uniforms without permission. That got me pretty upset (didn't show it though) because AA had offered to drive me home knowing that he had those in his car and it was super stupid of him to do so given the context and the potential consequences. I'm also glad that I was with them because perhaps if they had been stopped alone, they would have had a much more "uncomfortable" interrogation. But who knows

Then I started thinking "What if AA really IS an activist?? I don't know him very well. and he has a beard, maybe he's a TERRORIST!!! Oh my god, this could get really really bad if he doesn't have the permission of if his story doesn't verify. Maybe I should call the embassy?" But I stayed calm (probably because of the exhaustion).

So, by about 5:30am they finally tell us that the story seemed fine, and that they just had to wait for investigators to wake up to physically verify the locations of the factories and company that AA's owns which would take about 2 hours. They said we could sleep if we wanted (I maybe slept an hour total –it was freezing in the room). By about 6:30am, AA's dad's business partner showed up with the papers certifying their authorization to manufacture military attire. I thought we would be able to leave, but we still had to stay to wait for the story to check out.
By about 7:30am, AA's dad showed up. This whole time they offered us tea twice. The first time I declined because I wanted to sleep, the second time it took 3 hours for the tea to arrive.
This whole time from about 6am until 10:30am, a third police officer would not stop talking. Literally. He talked about his heroic stories for over four hours with little rest. This was a big problem for my sleeping.

The whole time, after looking through my French passport at least 3 times, they never mentioned anything about my visa being super expired, not one thing, nor that I didn't have a work visa.

It was also bizarre because most of the police there were from the south of Egypt (darker skin) and they seemed to be operating like a mafia.

So that's about it. Basically, I went home and slept until 5pm and felt shitty the rest of the weekend because of the messed up sleep schedule. It was a bad experience that's probably every foreigner's nightmare and I wish it hadn't happened, but it ended up fine and makes for a good story.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Gotta Love that Freedom of Speech

So I always have been going ahua (coffee shop) since i've been living in Cairo, and NEVER did people really talk about politics or having any interesting debates/disagreements/ideas, etc...

until now.

Here's a perfect example of the nascent freedom of speech that Egypt is going through:

This says:
"Hey President! Come back!
We were just kidding with you"
-With respect, the Children of the Revolution

Obviously, the humor isn't so good, (exemplified by the fact that he needed to specify that it is a joke. But that's not the point. The point IS, only a week ago, nobody would have ever dared to post this in their coffee shop, let alone, have their photo taken next to it!
Maybe next he'll be a contributor to "the Canard Enchainé's" equivalent in Egypt!!!