egypt - Ruth Sherlock - January 28 2011
Deputy police chief for Cairo city centre listens to pleas of Cairo University professor to let the protestors demonstrate in peace, January 28, 2011. Photo by Ruth Sherlock
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Military forces surrounded the television building back then, too. The large, semi-circular structure, perched like a blue bow on the banks of the Nile, was encircled by soldiers dug in behind sandbags piled high, holding bayoneted rifles and wearing coarse black wool uniforms. Back then, in the waning stages of the former era of revolutions in the Arab world, it was explained to us that if it were to happen in Egypt it would begin here, from these studios.

This week, the building, whose facade has never been repaired since then, was encircled again, the sandbags replaced by sand-colored tanks. At that time, the soldiers were protecting the building against opponents of the imminent peace with Israel; 34 years later, they are protecting it against a revolution that is liable, among other consequences, to put an end to that peace.

A childhood friend sent me this e-mail: "Are you going to Egypt, to close the circle? You were the first, now you will be the one to shut the switch. Just kidding." There's more to it than that, but this week it was impossible for Israeli journalists who do not hold a foreign passport to enter Egypt to fulfill a journalist's passionate desire to be there now, especially now. I consoled myself by watching almost nonstop, day and night, the English-language broadcasts on Al Jazeera, and by conjuring up the wonderful memories, both personal and professional, which surged powerfully to the surface this week.

Egypt, a love story; a tale of love and darkness, like the title of Amos Oz's international bestseller. It was love at first sight. In the early 1970s, the poet Mahmoud Darwish was thrilled by Cairo, the first city he had ever visited where all the street signs were in Arabic. So was I, the Israeli Jew who grew up with the belief that Egypt, like all the Arab states at the time, was for us beyond the hills of darkness. A few weeks before that first visit, I met a German journalist here who had just come from Cairo and told him with unconcealed envy, "I will never be able to visit Egypt." Not long afterward, I landed in Cairo in the dead of night.

 

That first trip, in December 1977, with the first Israelis who ever visited Egypt, was certainly the most electrifying journalistic mission of my life; nothing will ever compare to it. Nothing can compare to the first visit to an Arab country after all those years of darkness; nothing will ever be like that misty morning at the Mena House hotel, when I opened the curtain in my room and my unbelieving eyes saw the pyramids looming in all their glory. Nothing will compare to the night when we stole out of the hotel, away from our security guards, and went to see the marvels of Cairo night life. Nothing will ever compare to the shattering of all the myths and the disinformation with which our brains had been washed, as we encountered Egypt and its inhabitants for ourselves.

It happens only once in a lifetime, and it happened then, in the winter of 1977, when we believed, for a moment, that we would be able to lay down our swords and shields, because there would be no more war, no more bloodshed. Since then I have visited Egypt countless times, always making a point of rounding off the visit with a gin and tonic at the Mena House bar in fond memory of that first Arab gin and tonic in the colorful hotel.

On one occasion, I visited together with an Israeli television star, and to my amazement she was recognized by the manager of the Egyptian hotel, a viewer of Israel's Channel 2. For a moment, amid the massive wave of Israeli tourists who streamed into Cairo's Khan el-Khalili bazaar, it seemed as though the great dream had become reality. The dream has unraveled since then, and maybe now it will be torn to shreds, heaven forbid.

I'm looking at my Egyptian press card from 1977. To this day it hangs on the wall of my study, an everlasting souvenir. Here too is the handful of photos from that visit, when I, a young Army Radio reporter, walked through the streets of Ismailia with the prime minister of Egypt at the time, Mamdouh Salem. Here's a festive first-day cover issued by the Egyptian postal ministry to mark the peace talks, which we bought in the post office branch in the hotel lobby. Here's the picture of us with the Egyptian security people in front of Mena House during the talks that were held there, embracing for all eternity.

 

I traveled to Egypt by land, sea and air. Riveting journeys on the bus that used to depart early in the morning from the corner of Ibn Gvirol and Basel streets in Tel Aviv, cross the Suez Canal at midday and drop me off in the afternoon at the Nile Hilton - located in the famous Tahrir Square. There were night flights to Cairo, via Amman and Athens, and even one trip on a casino boat that carried dozens of Israeli gamblers from Ashdod to Eilat via the Suez Canal, including a stopover at Port Said and another visit to Cairo. There were peace conferences at the Sheraton and the Hilton, peace conferences in Heliopolis and Gezira, in Maadi and Zamalek; journalistic assignments on the anniversaries of peace and war, night conversations with Egyptian politicians and Arab diplomats, forbidden meetings with Palestinians and even a visit to the horror show of Fifi Abdu, the greatest belly dancer of all time. I remember my visit to the office of the Egyptian deputy foreign minister, Dr. Osama el-Baz, exactly 20 years ago, in his small palace at the edge of Tahrir Square, just after the first Gulf War. Then as now, El-Baz, like all my Egyptian interlocutors, implored Israel to resolve the Palestinian question once and for all; then as now, nothing happened. At the conclusion of the meeting, three of us went out into the dark and throbbing square: the PLO's eternal ambassador to Cairo, Saad Kamal, El-Baz and me. Waiting for Kamal was a monstrous black chauffeur-driven Mercedes, while El-Baz got into a small Egyptian-made Fiat without a chauffeur and offered to give me a lift to my hotel. He told me that he had given the Mercedes 500 he had received from Saddam Hussein to the Foreign Ministry.

Here's what I wrote then, in 1991, from Tahrir Square: "Just then, from the mosque opposite, the muezzin uttered with ear-splitting noise: 'Allah is great.' The soldiers with their bayoneted rifles in front of the palace mumbled, 'Allah is great.' The square was packed. The vendors of cheap fried potatoes made a fortune in their terms. Few in the vast square cared what was going on in the palace at its corner."

This week the thousands who packed the square cared very much about what was going on in the palace on the corner.

 

During that 1991 visit, I met the retired Egyptian ambassador to Washington, Tahsin Bashir, who was also at one time Anwar Sadat's spokesman. He told me about his conversations with Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt and his friend Nahum Goldmann, the president of the World Jewish Congress. It was easy then for an Israeli journalist to schedule a meeting with members of the Egyptian elite. The media adviser to President Hosni Mubarak, Mohammed Abdul Munaim, told me at the time in his office, which had a field bed in the corner, "In this crisis [the Gulf War] people learned what kind of leader Mubarak is: how determined, how moral, how brave, ethical and principled. That is the president's image in the eyes of the Egyptian people now, after the war."

 

Those days will never return. Nor will the days when Haaretz tried to station a permanent correspondent in Cairo. Yoram Hamizrachi, who died recently in far-off Winnipeg, spent lonely months in a hotel, trying in vain to navigate the labyrinthine Egyptian bureaucracy in a desperate attempt to secure a press card and find an apartment to rent. I accompanied him. One night we met in the Hilton cafeteria, over plates of umm ali, the simple and tasty Egyptian dessert, with one of Yasser Arafat's senior advisers. It was a period in which Israelis were officially forbidden to meet with members of the PLO, and Hamizrachi and I solemnly declared the meeting, which went on until dawn, to be an "international press conference" - the only framework in which we could meet with the PLO without breaking Israeli law.

Hamizrachi also took me for my first visit to the Cairo camel market. Thousands of the animals and their riders had made their way from the deserts of Sudan and Libya to this astonishing bazaar. A year ago, on my last visit to Egypt, I went again to the amazing camel market, which had in the meantime been moved to an obscure village. Here's what I wrote last February, after that visit: "The recommendation is unequivocal: Cairo. Put off another visit to Paris, forget another shopping trip to New York, and backpacking in Egypt is no less exciting than Tierra del Fuego or the shores of Goa. Head for Egypt."

Felfela and Groppi's had also hardly changed. Or maybe they had. At Groppi's, an old Cairo cafe, aged waiters still served tea and coffee to guests sitting at the same dilapidated tables and on the same tattered chairs as when Ezer Weizman served in the British Army during World War II. A year ago, I saw black-clad, veiled women there remove their veils and gloves to eat ice cream and chat. This week the masses swarmed into the square where Groppi's is located and the cafe shut its doors, maybe for the first time since its establishment. Felfela, a famed restaurant, has changed more since my first visit, which I made at the recommendation of Ehud Yaari's old tourist guide to Egypt. Over the years, the meager local restaurant became a bustling tourist attraction, still tasty and inexpensive, though it's unlikely that its specialties - stuffed pigeons, ful or grilled chicken livers were being served this week.

So I watched and watched the broadcasts from Egypt and my heart went out to that land. Every square bears a memory, every street corner evokes a sweet recollection. Exactly a year ago I walked across the Sixth of October Bridge, site of the great popular battle last Friday, on the way to get a glass of fresh mango juice in the garden of the Marriott Hotel in the Zamalek neighborhood on a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon, at a relaxed Egyptian pace, bourgeois and yuppie, which I thought then would last forever.