Monday, February 7th, 2011
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Leaving Egypt, with Regrets: The Evacuated Students of Cairo

The other day, 19-year-old Dylan Sodaro was in line to register for classes at American University in Cairo. The Egyptian woman processing forms asked Dylan if he was Jewish. All week, people had been taking to the streets to criticize Hosni Mubarak, widely considered a friend to America and Israel. "Won't this hurt your people?" the Egyptian woman said. Dylan shrugged—at this point, he wasn't sure what the protests meant.

On Thursday night, the eve of the largest gatherings calling for Mubarak's resignation yet, a friend of Dylan's named Will was having a party. Dylan retreated to a bedroom with his best mates, Matthew Scarvie, also 19 and from New Mexico, and Gunnar Dancer, a 20-year old from Minnesota. It was very early on Friday morning when they made it back to a shared apartment they rented—a block from Tahrir Square, ground zero for the protests. The friends called the apartment "The Aviary," because of the birds they kept on the balcony. "They're probably dead now," Gunnar said.

They woke up late and bleary in the morning, the day protesters were calling the Friday of Anger. It was after 11 a.m., and they walked to a breakfast place called Kazaz, where for less than two dollars you could order an omelet, ful, falafel, tea and bread. During the meal, uniformed police entered the restaurant; they glowered at customers and searched the bathrooms. Just before 1 p.m., the boys saw green rugs unrolled and people kneeling in prayer. Dylan said there was a sense of anticipation in the air.

They stopped to get ice cream, and were picking out flavors when workers begin to pull the shutters. "Hurry, hurry," said the ice cream shop owner. Outside, the boys sat on a curb licking their cones when an older man began to speak. They were on the edge of the vast square, where crowds were growing, and they strained to hear over sirens. Then police vans began screeching through the crowd. At one point, an officer in a riot helmet emerged from a van, and—thud, thud, thud—tear gas exploded. From the roofs of nearby buildings, people began dropping bottles of water, oranges, torn-up cloth for gas masks and onions to staunch the tears.

The crowd was like a school of fish, dodging a shark, they said, rushing in waves from danger. Gunnar took shelter in a kiosk. A percussion grenade boomed, knocking over an older lady. The alleys, where the air did not move, were choked with tear gas. "That's the worst gas I've ever seen," Gunnar said, like a grizzled veteran. "If you opened your eyes, they would burn."

Through the dense fog, Gunnar saw a lone old man stand in the middle of a deserted street, berating a fearsome wall of police. Then the helmeted officers began charging, firing a hail of bullets. Gunnar dove behind a car. His pants split. He couldn't tell if the police were firing high or if the old man had been hit. He was a block from his apartment, but he couldn't get home.

He ducked into a shop, where eight people were hiding among the safety of bolts of cloth. "Take those off," said the shop owner, a tailor, pointing to Gunnar's pants. "I'll sew them for you."

At last, all the boys made it back to the apartment, where they turned on the TV. Across the street, they could see an old man dropping stones on the heads of police. The police thought the volleys were coming from a nearby parking lot. From their balcony, they watched a stream of injured people, out of breath, red-faced, in tears.

It got dark. The headquarters of the ruling party was on fire. You could hear gunfire and explosions. The college students were learning to distinguish between rubber bullets, live ammunition, the thud of tear gas canisters, percussion grenades and Molotov cocktails.

To explain the situation, Dylan gestured at my kitchen table. My arm was the museum. The square was my notebook, and the teapot was the government building. He seemed shocked to be describing a neighborhood he'd grown to love, a place that had become a war zone. "I've seen tanks at museums," Dylan said. "But these tanks were standing in the city I live in."

Saturday morning, destruction was everywhere. Windows had been knocked out. Businesses were shut and damaged; cars were burning on the street. The police were gone. At 10 a.m., the phones came back on, and everyone called their parents. They didn't have much credit on their phones, so the conversations were brief.

I asked what they told their parents. "You don't exactly tell everything you did to your mom," he said. "We're college kids; it's understood."

* * *

Sunday was the day classes were supposed to start. "It sort of felt like a snow day," Dylan said. "Except we were barricaded by the Egyptian Army." They looked out the window and saw crowds of guys with metal pipes. There was some sort of altercation. A guy swung a machete wildly, and the crowd convulsed in anger.

Overhead, helicopters circled. Dylan said Syracuse called, ordering him to join the U.S. government evacuation, but he didn't want to get on a plane bound for some random European capital. Matthew was in a similar situation. His school—Arizona State University—had decided to cancel the Cairo program. His funding would be cut, and dependent on student aid, he couldn't afford to stay on his own dime. Gunnar, meanwhile, was left behind—his university seemed to have forgotten about him. Talking to his mom, a sonic boom exploded. "What was that?" his mother said. "Oh, it's just the fighter jets," he told her. They ate a lot of pasta.

On Tuesday morning, at last they decided as a group they would leave Cairo. The cab ride to campus took them through a city under siege. When they arrived, two buses were waiting to take students to the airport. At this point, the departures were voluntary—classes had technically been rescheduled for February 13. At the VIP terminal, they were met by U.S. officials wearing Homeland Security IDs on lanyards. After sitting on the tarmac for two hours, a fellow student several rows back got a call from a friend whose apartment was being overrun; he was restrained from returning.

On the plane were also tourists and State Department personnel, including a young embassy family with a three-month old baby. Waiting to take off, they said you could see planes from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Korea, alongside sleek private jets. Even Iraq was evacuating its citizens.

The guys arrived in Istanbul to an empty hallway. On the other side of immigration sat a lone card table draped with an American flag. Several women with clipboards milled around, looking confused. They had four-page forms—agreements to repay the U.S. government within 90 days for the cost of the flight. How much was the flight? None of the women knew the answer, and so the boys refused to sign. On the table were packets of crackers. At duty free, they bought Lucky Strike cigarettes.

* * *

"It didn't feel abnormal," Matthew said, talking about the cab ride from the airport to the center of Istanbul. "It felt like a quick vacation," Gunnar said. It was amazing, Dylan said, to be somewhere clean, where people drove normally. "They have pizza here," Gunnar said, and grinned.

Gunnar told me he'd be heading to Minnesota. Matthew said he would return to New Mexico. Dylan said he hoped to resume studies, perhaps in Beirut. He told me about trying to talk to his mom, but getting interrupted when his sister came home from school. "I'm trying to talk about my life, this revolution, and my sister is trying to tell my mom she got 100 on an English exam," he said. "That's important, but I'm in a war zone."

So far, the U.S. government has evacuated several thousand American citizens from Egypt. Home was, of course, where most of the Americans were always headed after their time abroad. For them—as much as for any outsider—a place like Egypt is a blip on an otherwise overwhelmingly American radar.

Given that, how much, if at all, will the events unfolding at Tahrir Square remain a part of our lives? For what it was worth, Dylan, Gunnar, and Matthew seemed to offer a difficult answer.

Imagining talking to his friends for the first time, Dylan said he'd tell them about freedom, that he'd seen what real revolution looked like. "Like the American revolution?" Much better, Dylan assured me: "This was more real." But I wondered if his friends would understand.

"It's all still so fresh," Gunnar said. "But I'm really nervous about two weeks from now."

And what about the Egyptians? We sat in silence.

Matthew shook his head, perhaps sensing the difficulty of what was to come. "Maybe we never should have gone out," he said, as if they could still reconsider their decision to leave the apartment. "I think we may have been too casual about all this," he said.



Nathan Deuel is a writer who lives in Turkey and in Iraq, where his wife is the NPR correspondent based in Baghdad. When he quit his last real media job — at Rolling Stone — he packed a bag and walked from New York to New Orleans. This is his first piece for The Awl but his other writing can be found here.

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Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

"Take those off," said the shop owner, a tailor, pointing to Gunnar's pants. "I'll sew them for you."

This is a perfect example of Egyptian hospitality. Humbling in its graciousness, yet bordering on irrationality at times.

We had a doorman from Egypt for a few years with whom I would chat relatively often. Once he went home to visit his family. When he came back, he had brought me a bunch of souvenirs because I had told him how much I always loved Egypt. I was pretty much flabbergasted.

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