Last night, Egypt opened their World Cup qualifying campaign with a 2-0 victory over Mozambique. The team then boarded a bus and headed directly back to Cairo. With the Pharaohs gone and our shoot in Alex complete, we followed suit.
We had been scheduled to switch fixers today. In addition to working with journalists, our fixer Ahmed is an Egyptologist and a tour guide and he had a group of Americans arriving today that he would spend the next week with. We met Sherif, whom we had spoken with before leaving the States, in the lobby of our hotel and started the long journey back to Cairo.
Surely, there were things to see and film, but these moments have fallen away in my memory, which is now occupied solely by one event: our trip to Tahrir.
As we wrote earlier, we had been to Tahrir on the first day we were here. Though we had expected to find it charged with post-revolution energy it seemed to be just another square, albeit one decorated with worn protest signs and political graffiti. The rather blasé attitude we saw gave us confidence that filming there would give us great footage that would capture the flavor of an Egyptian protest without actually having to be in one.
Our first sign that things might be different today actually came closer to Alex. As we pulled into an “On the Run,” Sherif received a phone call. He fielded it in Arabic, and then turned to us and said, “They have reached a verdict in the Mubarak trial.” When we had planned this trip, we noticed that it fell neatly between the initial election and the runoff to determine the new president. We figured this would be a relatively calm period and, so far, we had been right. We hadn’t counted on the Mubarak verdict being released when we were here; it was the sort of news that could further divide the passionate rival factions throughout the country.
Truly the perfect picture of blissfully unaware, we checked into our Cairo hotel, sorted out our gear and boldly told Sherif, “To Tahrir Square, please.”
About halfway there, he turned back to us and said, “There could be some protests.” We asked if it was ok for us to go. “Yes,” he replied. “Depending on how comfortable you are.”
We had survived an Egyptian protest the day before. In Sierra Leone, we made it through a literal mob of people to film a soccer game. We had seen Tahrir. We’d be fine.
We parked at the entrance to the square. It was instantly obvious that today was different. A never-ending stream of people filtered past the van. Flag-waving, faces-painted, they called out chants as they stormed towards the square. It was the moment of truth. I asked what the group thought, Chad spoke first. “I think we should do it.” The boys echoed his zeal. We geared up and headed in.
I don’t believe that words can quite capture the feeling there (though Clay’s photos sure do). When one chant died down, another replaced it with an even more robust energy. Men, women and children marched together. Body painters stopped everyone–including Clay and Ty–and scrawled “Egypt” on arms and faces. Vendors sold flags—and tea. People prayed. It was, in every sense of the word, invigorating.
We were tentative at first, shooting in a four man radius, everyone facing out like we were a herd of elephants protecting a calf. Slowly, as we began to get acclimated, we branched out a bit (our bravado no doubt enchanced by the fact that Ahmed, whose tour was over, had joined us). We started talking to people, rather than just filming them.
And people wanted to talk.
Everywhere we turned, they offered to tell their stories. Almost uniformly, they welcomed us to Egypt and thanked us for coming. We rolled continuously. Clay shot so many pictures, his battery died (Sherif quickly disappeared to buy a new one). It was simply captivating.
We tried to get atop the nearby Intercontinental Hotel to get an aerial timelapse shot, but our request was denied. Ahmed and Sherif suggested that we try another building, if we were up for it, but said it was across the Square. With Clay’s batteries replenished, we headed back into Tahrir. In the short time since we had left, a barricade was set up where men in plain clothes stopped us to check our credentials. Satisfied that our papers were in order, they let us in. Chad and Ty went with Ahmed and talked their way into a building where they could gain roof access. Clay and I stayed in the thick of Tahrir, where the number of people seemed to have doubled (later estimates pegged the crowd at 10,000 strong).
Again, we were stopped at every turn. Many protesters spoke only Arabic, but managed to communicate even though we spoke only English. Clay had one of the most defining moments of the day, or perhaps the trip, when two young men offered to help him get a better vantage point to shoot from. They stood on top of a giant flowerpot and reached down to pull him up. One spoke no English whatsoever while the other spoke enough to get by. In halting English, he translated for his friend who told Clay to look at his face and, specifically, his beard. He told Clay that men that look like him do not hate Americans. They welcome us. It seems he was as aware of the images we see back home as we were.
For me, that experience was symbolic for our time in Tahrir. We had come to expect one thing, but found something completely different. Admittedly, this is still probably an overly naïve and simplistic view of what was happening today. There are complex political issues at play, issues which we’ve only just begun to understand. It’s impossible to grasp a new country and its people and culture in four days and we won’t pretend that we have. Are we more connected to what the people are going through? Maybe. Are we more compelled to continue to try to understand? Absolutely.
The Copper Pot Crew