An Egyptian Election

"How did they die?" I ask the consular officer.

"Mostly they were run over. The army ran them over in tanks and personnel carriers. They killed 60 in one go like that." Her head bobbles a little. The Nile waters amble past us eleven stories below. "Of course some were shot. Soldiers are supposed to fire their rubber bullets into the ground and make them bounce but a lot of times they just fired directly into the protesters."

The office was quiet. Most of the staff were out monitoring the first round of parliamentary elections since Mubarak stepped down earlier in the year. This was the first day in a new era, a public holiday was declared, the shops were closed, and the streets were relatively quiet.


The drainage in Cairo is awful. There is a thin layer of water in almost all the toilets and bathrooms I used. There is no toilet paper, rather people use a bidet or a hose and tap or a bucket of water. Hence the floors are covered with water, but what gets me is that it doesn't drain away.

Similarly the puddles on the streets grow into ponds. It was raining the night I arrived, and as I approached Tahrir Square on foot in the darkness, I could see people walk in single lines at odd angles. As I was pondering this odd behaviour I stepped off the sidewalk ankle deep into a lake, my foot breaking the smooth surface which I had thought was the road. Someone giggled behind me.

As I approach Tahrir square from the north, trying to avoid the puddles even though my feet are already soaked through, I see a large road block ahead and a line of people on one side against a building wall. I join them, and we are frisked by plain clothes police and our IDs checked. Once past this checkpoint we enter Tahrir Square. It is the evening before the first day of elections, and the square is crowded full of protesters, curious onlookers, hawkers, and plain-clothes-men.

A massive crowd gathers on one side, holding banners and chanting and jumping and clapping. Elsewhere, circles of middle-aged men discuss politics in earnest. Scattered towards the edge of the protest crowd are the hawkers, offering tea, barbequed corn cobs, steamed sweet potatoes, rice with chicken, and so on, all cooked on self-contained kitchens on wheels. In the center of Tahrir Square are the protest tents, screened by banners and placards. Throughout all this are groups or couples or individuals like me, wandering about for the atmosphere and to see what was going on.

It is election day morning, and I have to walk from my hostel on the northern side of Tahrir Square to the Sudanese embassy on the southern side. I set off on foot. There aren't many people on the streets and hardly any traffic. The sun is out and the air fresh after the rain, although the puddles and ponds remain on the streets. A crowd gathers next to a cart on the side of the street, and I join them to buy a falafel sandwich.

Walking further down the street with falafel in hand, I see that people further on have turned back as the road has been blocked off by iron spikes and debris. We turn back, turn into a side alley, and emerge on the next parallel street and continue south. This time there is a checkpoint: soldiers in camouflage carrying rifles, metal barriers where civilians queue to have their IDs checked and to explain why they need to pass through this area, barbed wire, armoured personnel carriers, trucks with platoons of soldiers lounging inside or nearby, burnt out cars.

I pass through and walk south down Al Kasr Al Aini. There is a large crowd in the front yard of a school. The crowd spills out onto the street, and forms a single line down the pavement for quite a length. They are all women, and they are waiting patiently at this voting point to cast their ballot.

Throughout the day I walk through various quarters of Cairo. It is crowded, the streets are grimy and muddy. Posters are plastered everywhere with portraits of hopeful candidates. Leaflets meld into the muddy pavements. As a voting point is approached, the concentration of people increase, until it suddenly explodes into a massive crowd gathered at a door or gate. Leaflets and flags and posters burst out in sympathy, as seemingly bored soldiers in green watch proceedings with their rifles pointed at their feet.

I try to take a photo, and a busy young man rushes in front of me and shouts: "No photo!" but a young lady stops him. The people in line are validating their IDs with a man sitting on a crate with a laptop. A loudspeaker truck swerves past, it's propaganda slogans deafening, it's loudspeakers and posters arranged haphazardly, like the way it is driving.

I walk away down a street, with shops on both sides and the wooden planks on the ground so that pedestrians won't get bogged down in the mud. A man on the street suddenly stops me and offers a tour of the area. I smell 'tout', so I make some polite conversation while firmly rejecting his advances. He suddenly tells me that: "The elections are valid, not like last time. This time the Europeans, the Americans, they are watching." And he disappears as suddenly as he appeared.

The organisation of the elections were a bit confusing. There were going to be multiple stages of elections: in November, then again after a few months, and another a few months after that. Was it 3 rounds of elections? 4 rounds? Even the hotel manager was confused. The morning of election day I asked if he would be voting and he nodded and I wished him happy voting. That evening when I asked how it went he looked at me bemused, and sighed: "for me, it's tomorrow."

As I walked up the ramp to the gate, touts accosted me: "The gate is closed mister! The other gate is this way! I'll show you, I'll give you a lift on my horse!" And then once the grounds are entered more touts, posing as archeologists or security guards. One chap with spiky hair and sunglasses and a pink whistle screamed at me from afar: "Hey you! Where is your ticket!? Show me your ticket!!" as he rushed over. I showed him my ticket, and he said: "Ok, now you come with me to the tomb of X." I was having none of it, and continued on towards the pyramid of Chephren.

An hour earlier I had wondered what the pyramids really looked like as the bus jostled through the vast megalopolis that is Cairo, home to 7 million people. I imagined sandy tetrahedrons peeking above the desert curves like icebergs, with a sharp blue sky and plodding camels in the foreground. Or steep sandstone blocks under the deep red sun.

As I was wondering, the bus was driving down the streets of Giza, lined with buildings 5 or 6 stories high. People were just opening their shops, and cars and trucks and buses clogged the busy streets. Suddenly, out of the morning smog and through the dirty window, loomed a gigantic black triangular shadow, like a spaceship. The awe and surprise was physical: I inched back, then forward, then squinted.

Throughout history the power and mystery of the Pyramids at Giza were well acknowledged and recorded. They were a wonder of the world four and a half millenia ago. They were considered ancient by Herodotus. They had been measured by Thales, and had looked down upon every man-made structure until the 19th century A.D. Imams had tried to tear them down. They had seen the armies of Alexander and Napoleon. And now a democratic election was passing under its gaze.


16 hours in Syria

"Goodbye my lover, goodbye my friend,
You have been the one, you have been the one for me..."

The music stops suddenly as the bus office manager presses a button on his phone: "What was that? The last phrase?"

I look at him: "I think it's 'you have been the one for me'."

"Ah yes! That makes sense." He smiles and jots down something in his notebook. We are sitting in his tiny office, inside the intercity bus station on the outskirts of Aleppo. I am waiting for the bus to Jordan, and to escape the cold the manager has invited me into his office for a cup of tea as I wait. 

The manager is a tall, well-built, balding man, with a large fur coat and bushy eyebrows. He's an English teacher by day and looks after the bus office at night. It is 2 hours before the bus is due to depart, so we drink tea to keep out the biting cold and chat and try to decipher James Blunt's lyrics.


10 hours earlier I had crossed the border into Syria from Turkey, at the Reyhanli crossing. Once across the modern Turkish post and through the fence the road winds into a narrow defile among the brown hills. Now and then a watchtower would appear, gazing at us from above, as we pass pieces of barbed wire curled up on the side of the road like hedgehogs.

After about 5km we reached the Syrian post, consisting of a long building with a door at either end and inside a number of windows in a line: the immigration officer, the bureau de change, the customs officer, etc. I don't have a visa, as I had heard that there would be better luck trying for a visa-on-arrival rather than prearranging at a Syrian embassy somewhere.

I am ushered into the office of the immigration officer. A portrait of President Assad hangs over his desk as he regards me with his chin: "Why do you want to enter Syria?" I try to look humble and honest: "I'm a tourist. I would like to transit to Jordan." He picks up a tattered folio and starts flicking pages until he gets to one which has a list of countries and prices. "Australia," he mutters, then looks up: "I'll give you 3 days. Pay $100AUD at the counter." He snaps shut the book and I head over to the payment window.


It was the 10th month of the Syrian uprising, and activity was still isolated to certain areas of Hama, Homs, and Deraa. It hadn't yet escalated to current levels, although at that time there wasn't much news coming out of Syria, and I imagined passing through the country via countless roadblocks and checkpoints. Most of the fellow passengers from Turkey, after immigration procedures, walked off into desert, while the few remaining climbed into a minivan which proceeded on to Aleppo.

The air was clear and fresh as we sped past village after village. We didn't pass a single checkpoint or roadblock, and reached Aleppo without stop. The city itself was bustling, and I left my bag in the office of the local bus station and strolled towards the old town, sprawled beneath the citadel. Hawkers lined their wares on the pavement, cheap Chinese goods, biscuits and lighters. I bought a lighter off a chap just inside the old wall. Another sold me a cup of hot custard sprinkled with cinnamon, scraped from the bottom of a shiny pot. A kid about 12 years old boils a pot of corn cobs and shouts his vendor's cry.

Passing through the massive gate into the old town I enter the covered souks. First are the butchers, then grains and dried foodstuffs, then miniatures, metalwork, fabrics, perfumes. Narrow alleys shoot off to the side, flanked by shops, with wares spilling out into the steady stream of customers, like tumbled rocks in a flowing gorge. After some time I reach the end of the covered souks through to the other side, emerging into the sunlight with the massive citadel before me.


The citadel was built in the 10th century on top of ruins as old as the 9th century BC. You enter from the south-western side into a stone guardhouse, now the ticket booth. A stone ramp bridges the deep moat, and a massive Syrian flag in the shape of Syria covers the lower wall to the left. The main entrance to the citadel is a maze. Dead ends, 90 degree turns, ramps, all watched over by loopholes from above. Aleppo citadel was considered in olden times to be one of the toughest in the middle east to crack.

After leaving the maze of the entrance way and passing through the portal into the sunlight, the ruins of the citadel stretch out and up. The mosque, the ramparts, the cistern, the museum and cafe, everything in an area the size of two football pitches. Groups of youths and students wander about or sit on the grass near the ramparts. One group calls out to me as I stroll past: "Hello! Where are you from?" I sit with them, a group of dance and theatre students from the University. They ask me a lot of questions, joke around. One of them performs a dance routine. My photo is taken with them, all smiles. Suddenly one of the students pierces me with his brown eyes and says: "Our government is good, we are strong. We love our country." We hadn't talked about anything remotely connected to politics so I just nodded.

Continuing my walk I was stopped every so often by people, mainly youths about college age, who wanted to take a photograph of me together with them. This happened almost every 10 minutes, and by the time I left the citadel I counted roughly 15 photos with various groups. Students, couples, an old gentleman. Before entering Syria I thought I would be counting the number of times I would be stopped by policemen or soldiers, but instead I had to count the number of times I was photographed by friendly Syrians!

(Days later, in Cairo, an Australian consular officer told me that when she had visited Syria years before, the same thing had happened. She was photographed with many friendly Syrians who approached her off the street. "But," she said, "some of them are 'intelligence', and your photo is now on their files.")


It is evening and I had been wandering through the streets of Aleppo for a few hours, drinking some carrot juice off a street vendor, eating a sandwich at a roadside restaurant, browsing antiques, shopping for Aleppo soap. Aleppo is famous for its hard soap, made from olive oil and laurel. The first recorded mention of soap is from Babylon and the Levant, where Aleppo is a major city. Aleppo itself is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with evidence of activity since the 5th millenium BC, so it is very probable that Aleppo soap has been produced here and in the same manner for thousands of years.

I enter a shop stacked full with bricks of soap. The shopkeeper comes over and introduces me to the various grades. "This is okay soap, this is good soap, this is better!" He takes out a wire and slices a bar open. "Smell that, smell it! This is good stuff." I purchase a bar and he seems happy. "Nowadays no business," he says, "All the tourists are gone. There used to be many Japanese! Many many Japanese. But now it is quiet." As if on queue he falls into a quiet. But suddenly he raises his head and looks at me straight through: "Maybe one day we will have democracy, and everything will be better."

I walk out into the streets once more. People are leaving work, picking up a few groceries on their way home. There are no signs of any conflict. No sign of policemen or soldiers, no barricades, no burned out cars or protesters or angry graffiti or lingering tear gas. T. told me a few things about Syria a few weeks before, having worked there many years ago. Most of the anti-government protesting goes through Lebanon. Information is smuggled across from Syria, organised and disseminated from Beirut. She tells me of a Syrian friend who was a protester and was caught by intelligence and interrogated.

One of the things they did was hand him blank pages of paper and a pen at the beginning of the day and order him to write down every detail of his life that he could remember since birth. These pages were taken away at the end of the day and studied, and the next day he was handed new blank pages and ordered to do the same thing, write down every detail of his life that he could remember since birth. This was repeated for two weeks.


I left Aleppo that same night, by coach to Jordan, stopping on the way at Hama, Homs, and Damascus. These were all trouble spots in the uprising, but the manager assured me that the coach would only stop at the coach station in each town, far from the center of the action. The bus was late and we stood shivering uncontrollably in the desert cold, which cut through us like a scythe. Finally the coach arrived and we bundled in and found our luxuriously large leather seats.

The coach had a TV, and as the driver pulled away from the station he put on an action movie, which as far as I could work out was an Israeli-Palestinian action counterpart to Rambo. It basically consisted of people trying their best to kill each other, with machine guns, rifles, grenades, pistols, knives, etc. There were interrogation scenes, scenes of firefights in the streets, and of course buses being ambushed and blown up. It was still freezing as there was no heating on the coach, and we were well on our way towards Hama, the city which the elder Assad had shelled in the 1980s, killing around 10,000 people, and which was now itching for vengeance.


"It may be over but it won't stop there,
I am here for you if you'd only care."

Silence again as the bald-headed manager presses his phone. "'If you'd only care'," I say. "Ah ha!" says he, and scribbles away. Meanwhile I stare out the office into the waiting hall, where there is not a single person waiting. I realise this fact only after a dose of staring, and once realise I ask the manager: "Why aren't there any passengers here?"

He looks up from his scribbling with arched eyebrows: "Because today is Thursday. Tomorrow is Friday, the holy day, when people pray, and after prayer they go to demonstrate. Lots of trouble tomorrow. So today, the people stay home, to avoid the fighting. Now, it's 'You touched my heart you touched my . . . ?' "

[A nice introduction to Syria is Chapter 59 of T.E. Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom". Almost 100 years old but still relevant in parts.]