Student tells of evacuation from Cairo

SVHS grad and UC Davis student Caity Tremblay talks about being evacuated from Egypt this week because of mounting political unrest:

July 4. With two hours left in our transcontinental flight from Parist to San Francisco, it seems surreal that this time yesterday I was in Cairo, Egypt. The events of that last day keep repeating in my dazed mind.

I woke up at 7 a.m. to finish my midterm paper on Midaq Alley, comparing the characters Abbas and Hamida. Although most of hte students in my program were still asleep, the AUC dorms hummed with subdued morning life. I greeted the guards sitting at the entrance to the girls quarters and wandered sleepily into the computer lab. As usual I opened my email first and received the not unexpected but still upsetting email: UC Davis was canceling our program and evacuating us to California. I spent an hour reading emails, working on my now time-sensitive blog, and checking Facebook for updates, which is where I learned Noha wanted to meet with all of us.

At 9 a.m. I met with her and the other students to discuss our situation, which at that time was very uncertain: when would we leave, where in Europe would they fly us before SF, could we continue our course work in California, would we get any money back for the time we lost in Egypt? Complicating the matter, several people had other travel plans for after our program. Trying to salvage the situation, Christine Sifferman went on a crusade to quickly organize hostel reservations for an impromptu trip to Europe. “If we have to leave Egypt I at least want to get to visit Europe,” Christine said. “Who knows when I’ll next get to be out here?”

Even with the end looming, we continued with our plans to visit the Citadel of Salah al-Din. The vast medieval stone fortress on the hill is also home of the 19th century mosque of Mohammed Ali, which now dominates the skyline around the citadel and is iconic for its beauty and grandeur.

“We were some of hte only tourists there. The armed guards watched us with surprise and amusement as we tenaciously explored the compound. All the museums were closed, but the two mosques were open, as was the prison area. We scurried about, taking lots of group photos to document our last day together, and buying last minute knick-knacks from the tourist starved vendors. I bought a delicate scarf for 100 pounds, a larger sum than I paid at the bazaar, but I didn’t begrudge the money.”

“As Noha wanted, we left before noon (traffic and city life are usually very quiet in the morning). I was in the girl car driven by Noha’s friend while the others caught cabs. Back at the residence I ate my last bowl of Cairo koshari and discussed our situation with the other students. We hadn’t heard any news, but we composed a letter requesting to have a 48-hour layover in our European city so if the situation in Egypt stabilized we could return.”

Many of us went out in the afternoon to get out of the residence and to do our final shopping. Christine, JPan and I visited the scarf store right by the restaurant where we ate the first night and I had a pleasant surprise. The shop owner was a friendly man and we struck up a conversation — in Arabic! “انة اسم كاتي و ادرس اللغة العربية في جامعة كاليفورنية قي داقس” My name is Caity and I study the Arabic language at the University of California in Davis I told him. He was Syrian studying fusha in Egypt, so we threw sentences back and forth and I could understand! The clothing in the shop was also very nice, and I bought two scarves, effectively spending all my cash.

Many shops were closing or closed because of the military ultimatum for 4:30 that afternoon, so we headed back to the residence. I checked my email and was frustrated there was still no word from UCD on our situation. I spend the afternoon packing. At seven we met Noha in the lobby to go to dinner. Apparently UCD had sent her emails but not us, so she filled us in: we were scheduled to fly to Paris at 6:30 am and from there directly to California. Our plea for time was met with a curt refusal.

We walked to dinner at the Cairo Kitchen, a delicious Egyptian food place past the 26th of July street. It was nice to have a meal out together, though it was under unfortunate circumstances.

I was planning to sleep when I returned, but it was already 9 o’clock and we were scheduled to leave at 2 am so it seemed better to just stay up. The television in the lobby of our dorm had been on nonstop since the beginning of the protests, and now there was a crowd of people listening to a military spokesman.

“This is the speech people have been waiting for,” Noha commented.

Occasionally I could understand a word but overall I didn’t know what he was saying. Apparently it pleased the protestors because when the speech was finished I could hear honking and excited chatter from the streets, which had been dead quiet during the speech, while fireworks and an excited hubub could be heard in the distance.

At 1:45 I trundled down to the lobby with my luggage. When everyone had arrived we lugged our stuff out to two vans; the drivers loaded our stuff in the back and tossed it precariously into a slight basin on the van’s roof. Cairo international airport is on the opposite side of the city, so our drive took us on a last winding tour through Cairo.

We crossed the bridge out of Zamalek and the city lights were reflected on the dark waters of the Nile. The night was dark but not quiet.

The atmosphere in the streets was one of jubilance. We passed cars with people hooting and waving flags, and like the first night we arrived there were lots of people smoking and talking on the streets, and even one man herding goats on the side of the road. We passed butcher shops where skinned cow carcasses were hanging, and cafes where men sat smoking hookahs. We passed dilapidated apartment buildings and mosques with elegant minarets illuminated by the surrounding lights.

From the van window I watched Cairo slide by, and silently wished it goodbye and goodluck.


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