There are many events and memories of my time in Cairo that are etched in my mind, and I want to say how grateful I am to all the people who supported me and donated to our cause that allowed me, and ten other Londoners to have this incredible experience. It has been said before, but I am deeply saddened that we were not permitted to enter Gaza. My western born and trained mind does not often allow for the possibility of "What if the answer is NO". My usual response is (expletives deleted), "Well, how do we turn that into a YES". And then we do just that. Not so in Cairo. We were detained, coralled, subdued and beaten. But only for a week. The Egyptian people, as it became so clear, live in constant fear of a police state.
Yet there is a vibrancy on the street, a hum, a beat that is palpable..From the brightly lit stores to the sidewalks full of chattering people, from the ice cream vendors to the little girls and boys selling kleenex on the street while doing their homework, this city is alive. I was heartened as we wore our "I am GAZA" t-shirts downtown to hear supportive comments and shouts. There was no language barrier when it came to expressing support for a free Palestine. There are two events in particular, however, that have left a lasting impression of this city and its people and it is these that I want to share.
The first came on the night before the big demonstration at "Free Gaza Square". We had heard a rumour (which turned out to be true) that the police planned to blockade some of the hotels, preventing marchers from leaving. Our hotel was a big old rambling building, attached to other similar structures, so late in the night, three of us decided to explore the back stairways to see if there was another way out, should our hotel be blockaded. With flashlight in hand, we wound through the darkness, wading through landings covered in garbage, crawling with night critters. We discovered doorways to humble abodes, little communities of one room apartments, some with cloth barriers rather than doors, others decorated with thriving plants that seemed to say 'beauty in spite of it all'. When we finally made it to the ground floor, we turned a corner expecting to find an alley to the street. Instead we found a small cave-like room, inside were a half dozen or so men, sleeping on makeshift beds, startled by our light. As we appologized for our abrupt appearance, I breathed in the reality that is life in downtown Cairo.
My second experience also involved that mysterious old building...this time on the roof, where a lovely courtyard overlooking the Cairo streets is also surrounded by apartments. On my last night there, I wandered up alone to reflect and gaze one last time into the waning blue moon. As I did, a little boy, not more than two spotted me and came towards me. His protective father scooped him up, but not until he caught my eye and offered a smile. I quickly went to my hotel room and returned with a colouring book and some crayons for my new friend. Ibrahim quickly accepted, and disappeared himself to find his own treasures to share. His father offered me a chair, and Ibrahim's mother suddenly emerged with tea and sweets. They knew very little English and I know even less Arabic, but our bodies and eyes did the talking as we became fast friends. Before I knew it, others from this rooftop community began to join us, offering me their welcome and thanks for participating in the Gaza Freedom March. In the meantime, Ibrahim presented me with toy after toy, his favourite a plastic motorized fish whose fin kept falling off. The adults all laughed together as we read the "Made in China" label and lamented about the loss of industry in our respective home countries.
As I finally said my goodbyes to my new friends, and returned to pack my bags, I realized that despite the reason for my visit, the clashes with police and the sadness I felt for not being able to meet the people in Gaza, I would leave the next day with a little bit of Cairo in my heart.
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