Tuesday, February 2, 2016
A Bad Day Remembered
Do you know where you were five years ago today? I do, and not (just) because it's Groundhog Day. Some days you relive each year when the time comes 'round, and this is one of those: the Day of the Battle of the Camels.
I was in the Sandlands in those days, as you may remember, but all my attention, like that of so many of us in those bizarre and tumultuous weeks, was in Egypt. On that particular day, I had had to motor up from the home office to Dubai for meetings and a conference. With me was the most senior member of my little team, a very dignified, elegant, and worldly-wise Egyptian lady d'un certain âge, Nabila.
As happened in those days, although we'd gone for business purposes, at the conference conversation soon turned to politics, Bit and pieces of news drifted in, and soon enough the panel discussion on marketing trends turned into a sort of informal referendum on what wasn't yet called the Arab Spring. Talking of politics in the Sandlands is always a dicey prospect, fraught with discomfort and even a tinge of genuine danger. It's one thing to flirt with deportation if you have a lovely blue passport and somewhere to go, but for many of one's colleagues its was (and remains today) on the edge of courting a death-wish, and never more than then, when for a while at least it seemed every day brought another toppled regime; that sort of thing makes princes nervous.
But talk we did that day, and in the midst of it, someone looked up from their phone and said, "Turn on the television. There are camels in Tahrir Square." It seemed incredible, like saying there were eagles flying through Times Square or a stampede in Piccadilly. But we did, we put on one of the international news channels on the big flat screens at the front of the conference hall, and there it was: the Battle of the Camels.
In its desperation for this unnerving thing, these demonstrations, this suddenly potential revolt, to go away, you see, the old man who ran Egypt and his henchmen (such an appropriate and satisfying word) that day decided that nothing was too far, nothing too bizarre in the quest to make it all stop. They brought in from the Pyramids a troupe of men on camels, paid them in petty cash and cheap drugs (Egypt has a real problem with something called Tramadol, an opiate), armed them with switches and even scimitars, and set them on the 'til then peaceful demonstrators who had occupied Cairo's most famous public space.
"Motherfucker," said Nabila, and I knew, as the saying goes, that, just then, shit had got real.
The symbolism of this, you see, the import, for Egyptians, was enormous. It's one thing to have lines of police, riot shields drawn, even to have water cannons and mass arrests; Egyptians had been used to that for years. It's quite another to set on people with camels, turning a tourist attraction into an assault tactic, attacking ordinary people both physically and in some almost indescribable way, metaphorically. It's asking a culture to kill itself.
At that moment, although it would take another week or so, Hosni Musbarak, president and éminence grise of Egypt since 1981, his portrait on every corner and his name on every public building, sealed his fate.
As for us, there was little more business to be done. We found a hotel lounge that had television and hunkered down. Later, when our car returned for us, we drove back home, an hour or so down the coast, still glued to the screen, now an iPad fitfully receiving enough signal to broadcast what then seemed almost unimaginable. The riots had continued, mounting into what seemed a full-pitched battle. The reporting was unclear, the events chaotic. Nabila and I sat stunned, trying to figure out how a place so familiar suddenly seemed to have been swept into something mad and dangerous and irreversible.
The worst, though, was the possibility of fire. Someone - the government? extremists? but of which camp? it wasn't clear - was throwing Molotov cocktails from rooftops. Into the crowd, but just as - more - alarmingly, into the gardens and even onto the roof of the Egyptian Museum, the graceful, dilapidated old Beaux Arts heap that anchors one side of Cairo's main square. Our hearts sank, and that elegant old woman and I just stared at each other. Fire at the Egyptian Museum. The building, loved but almost wholly neglected, is almost certainly a matchbox, waiting for a light. And in it... even now, five years later, it doesn't bear thinking.
It was the longest short ride I can remember. At length, though, we got home, and the driver dropped first Nabila and then me at our houses. In those days you sat up half the night listening to the news, but I went straight to bed, just not able to bear any more, afraid to hear the worst.
In the morning, the news was bad, but not that bad. Hundreds were injured, and more than ten dead. The Museum, though, still stood, although all around were burned out cars, broken windows, and ruined storefronts.
Nine days later, the Mister and I were back in Dubai, sitting in a glamorous hotel Executive Lounge, as one did in those days, watching in gleeful disbelief as Mubarak stepped down, the camels and the thuggery and the endless years of gray repression at last having backfired. For a little while, anything seemed possible. We raised a toast, the international crowd around us glad and proud to have an Egyptian in their midst.
But revolutions, of course, are long-form exercises. Our own, here in these United States, started in the early years of one decade and didn't finish, properly, until the later years of the next (and some would argue even longer). What started there in Tahrir remains unfinished and, at the moment, actually seems more or less permanently stalled.
Egypt, though, knows more than most countries about time, and patience.
Up top there is a picture I once took of the center hall of the great Egyptian Museum, dotted with the detritus of several millennia of ancient glory. The couple in the back, seated and serene, are Amenhotep III and his chief wife, Queen Tiye, the greatest pharaoh of Egypt's greatest dynasty and his smiling consort. They are vast, rising, to give you a sense of scale, nearly three ordinary stories about their lesser cousins and descendants. They preside with a majesty that shames the lesser imitators of today, Mubarak and his preening wife among them. Barring some horror, arson or worse, they'll continue to do so for a great deal longer than any of us will be here.
But I doubt that they'll see many days more filled with hope and horror than February 2, 2011, the Battle of the Camels.