Change of Itinerary

Cairo seemed like a sure bet for Sloane Speakman’s study abroad. After all, “no real political movement had  taken place in the last 30 years.”
Cairo seemed like a sure bet for Sloane Speakman’s study abroad. After all, “no real political movement had taken place in the last 30 years.”

My study-abroad experience began much like anyone else’s. I spent months preparing personal statements, making travel plans, and preparing for the cultural transition. I would be Vanderbilt’s first, and only, student participating in an Arabic-language study-abroad program at the American University in Cairo, a premier university renowned throughout the Middle East. I could not have been more excited. Little did I know just how much of an adventure my time in Cairo would become.

I landed in Egypt mid-January, ready to improve my Arabic and embark on the journey of a lifetime. I lived with an Egyptian family for a week before moving into the university apartments. I enjoyed the opportunity to learn about Egyptian culture from within the context of my brief home-stay, particularly my delicious introduction to Egyptian cuisine through my host mother’s wonderful home-cooked meals. I had arrived early to do some sightseeing before classes commenced in February, and quickly learned my way around and began feeling at home.

The Egyptians were beyond friendly, inviting me to their homes for tea or going out of their way to help me when I was lost. Everything was looking great—I had made a great group of friends and was excited about my classes. Egypt’s extremely low cost of living was going to allow me travel everywhere I wanted.

A week after moving into the residence, however, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians began flooding the streets of Cairo and Alexandria in an 18-day revolution, protesting against their leader of 30 years and fighting for basic civil liberties.

On the days leading up to the protests, life continued as usual. I had heard about the demonstrations from a few other people, via word of mouth and also through the now-infamous Facebook group. The protests began Tuesday, Jan. 25—the national holiday of “Police Day”—in response to police brutality, which had resulted in the death of an Alexandria man, Khalid Said, in June 2010. Mr. Said had caught police officers smuggling drugs on camera. A few days later the officers paid him a visit, beating him to death and leaving his bloody corpse in the streets, a story all too common under the Mubarak regime.

The slogan “We are all Khalid Said” soon began appearing on bumper stickers and Facebook profiles across Egypt. The creator of this Facebook page—only recently identified as Wael Ghonim—also created the group page that ignited the January 25 Revolution, as it has come to be called.

On Tuesday, Jan. 25, I went sightseeing with friends. Classes were to begin the following Sunday, so we wanted to get in as many sites as we could. We visited the ancient sites of Coptic and Islamic Cairo, then headed to the renowned Khan el-Khalili bazaar downtown. As we made our way toward the bus stop, some commotion broke out across the lawn. Rumors of protest soon spread among the crowd, but we did not think anything of them. Maybe it would take longer to get home because the roads were blocked, but our life would go back to normal.

Besides, this was Cairo. No real political movement had taken place in the last 30 years.

On Friday, Jan. 28, a group of friends and I had planned to see the Great Pyramids. We got a much later start than planned, and made it to Giza with just enough time to see the main three pyramids and the Sphinx. We spent a peaceful three hours in Giza, watching the sun set over antiquity from the rooftop of an Egyptian’s home. As we wandered around the streets of Giza trying to catch a taxi in the dark, we passed two small groups of protestors chanting with signs in illegible Arabic. Other than taking a few photos, we didn’t think much about it.

When we arrived back at the residence, however, it was late, and we could hear commotion coming from the lobby. Security rushed us inside. We had heard there may be some more protests that day, but had obviously ignored these warning by going to Giza. Inside, the lobby was packed with people crowded around the residence’s only functioning TV, and it was there that I first saw exactly how momentous the protests had become. I had been too busy sightseeing and preparing to start school to keep up with the news, so I’d been surprised earlier in the day when I saw clips from protests in Yemen on a store television in Giza. What I was now watching, however, was nothing like the smaller protests earlier in the week. Buildings were burning. Protest signs were much clearer now: “Yusqut, Yusqut Hosni Mubarak!” (“Down, Down with Hosni Mubarak”).

“This is the largest pro-democracy protest in Egypt, perhaps the Arab world, in all of history,” Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute proclaimed as we anxiously waited for President Mubarak’s address. I couldn’t believe that not only was I living during such a historic moment, but I could hear it from my window. Tahrir Square, the focal point of the demonstrators, was 10 minutes from my building. From our roof we could see the city on fire as the building of the National Democratic Party, the political party of President Mubarak, went up in flames. For days we sat cooped up, with a diminishing food supply and no communication with the outside world, fearfully waiting for the moment the looters would cross the bridge and enter our neighborhood. As I slept that night, and every night until I was evacuated, gunfire could be heard outside my window, and the sky blazed red from the city burning across the Nile.

Loud explosions from the tanks echoed, along with the sirens, across the river to the fourth floor of my complex. I like to think I was never really scared; we were quite safe within the confines of the university residences. The real problem, the real source of any trace of fear, was simply living in constant uncertainty—of whether school was going to start, of when things were going to die down, or whether I was going to be allowed to stay in the place I was just beginning to call home.

Speakman captured these scenes from Egypt’s 18-day revolution. At American University in Cairo, she says, “many of my fellow students saw this as their opportunity to impact their nation’s future.”
Speakman captured these scenes from Egypt’s 18-day revolution. At American University in Cairo, she says, “many of my fellow students saw this as their opportunity to impact their nation’s future.”

During the day we would walk around outside to check out the damage. Debris and burnt cars sprinkled the soldier-lined roads. Because of the nationwide curfew, it was difficult to get to the protests in the evening, but several of my friends were able to make it. About 85 percent of the AUC student body is Egyptian, so many of my fellow students saw this as their opportunity to impact their nation’s future in a significant way. “Long live the revolution!” they would chant. Some of my fellow international students were chased out of Tahrir, accused of being Israeli spies and having their cameras smashed. Others experienced quite the opposite: Egyptians begged them to take pictures “to show the world what we are doing.”

Things were relatively peaceful for the most part, although several students came back with tear gas canisters and rubber bullet markings. One student’s body was red from head to toe, and she writhed in pain from the 13 rubber bullet marks on her body. She said it was worth every one.

Over time the protesters became quite organized. A clinic was even set up inside the confines of the militarized zone that was Tahrir. “Neighborhood watch” programs were organized. Men would tie a yellow or white string around their arm to identify themselves as being from that neighborhood. Someone else would keep watch from a nearby minaret and alert the others when looters approached, and would then run out sporting any household item they could substitute as a makeshift weapon to scare or chase them off. The operation was really quite efficient.

On the evening of Sunday, Jan. 27, I received a call from Vanderbilt. They told me the one thing I was hoping to avoid: that I would be evacuated in the next couple of days to a safe location. They understood that it was unlikely I would ever have this opportunity again and assured me the decision had not been taken lightly. They did everything they could to let me stay as long as they felt it was safe, and I believe they did.

Many times I have wondered why God led me to Vanderbilt University instead of some of the other institutions I had applied to in high school. I found my answer throughout the evacuation process. Vanderbilt was incredibly helpful and calm throughout the entire experience, and I cannot thank them enough for everything they did for me—and my mother.

I was evacuated in the late afternoon of Tuesday, Feb. 1, to the United Arab Emirates. My experience at the Cairo International Airport was about as bad as any I’d had during the protests. One reporter called the airport a “marble-floored refugee camp,” and that description could not have been more accurate. Out of food, water and toilet paper, people and whole families were stranded for days on end before they were able to get a flight.

Before arriving in Dubai, Vanderbilt called me with an opportunity to transfer to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I ultimately spent five uneventful days by myself in Dubai before flying to Tel Aviv, Israel, to begin my semester at the Hebrew University.

I am grateful to be here, but the transition has been more difficult than I imagined. I knew nothing about Israeli culture, food, Judaism and, other than shalom, no Hebrew. Little things like the higher cost of living and much colder climate have added to the struggle.

But I am settling in and, slowly but surely, getting back to normal. I live with three other “evacuees” from Cairo and have landed a volunteer position at the Ethiopian National Project. I have the wonderful opportunity to learn about Israeli foreign policy from a professor who fought in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, learn about important peace treaties that were signed in the classrooms in which I sit, and walk past the Dome of the Rock every day on my way to school. I learn about the history of the Arab–Israeli conflict, then live it in the streets of the Israeli settlement in which I live.

Although my three-week love affair with Egypt was prematurely cut short, the experiences I have had during the past month and a half of living in the Middle East have profoundly impacted my life. While many were fearful of the potential dangers the protests posed to our lives in Cairo, my excitement only increased. I was experiencing history and was not ready to surrender this opportunity. Living through the revolution in Egypt only enhanced my interest in the politics of the region, providing me with a renewed sense of passion for my studies. While other students chose to transfer to universities in Europe, I was grateful for the opportunity to remain in the Middle East.

I cannot honestly say how this experience has impacted me completely, as its effects are still setting in, but the one thing I know for certain is that it has only increased my affection for the study of the complex people, relationships and politics that make up the dynamic region of the Middle East. Watching the Egyptian people fight and die for the sake of their freedoms, freedoms I often take for granted as an American, has only fueled my desire to dedicate my future to the study of politics and democracy. I look forward to the opportunity to one day use my education and experiences in both Egypt and Israel to aid in the fight for freedom.

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