Armed guards were everywhere. The line to the final customs check point looked like it would take an eternity to reach. Groups were clustered about the line, as it bent around throngs of people, some sitting on the floor, some consoling crying children, others oblivious to the bedlam. Every so often the line would move suddenly, I’d quickly gather my luggage and lunge forward, protecting my position. It was a madhouse as suitcases, kerosene burners, crates and boxes made for an obstacle course along the way. Total chaos reigned.
I tried to ignore my surroundings and read my book but it was impossible to concentrate. Glancing up I noticed a dog wandering in and out of the crowd, indiscriminately sniffing passengers. A drug dog I suppose, I’d never seen one before but had read about them. It was fascinating to watch his covert movement, unlike the guards that were randomly pulling passengers out of line, demanding their luggage be opened immediately, right there on the floor. Clothing and personal items were scattered about like a rummage sale. When the barking started I practically jumped out of my book. Startled, I turned to see what was happening. Guards were rushing towards me. I panicked. I saw the offending alarm; a massive German Shepherd. The barking stopped as quickly as it began. He now stood perfectly still, teeth bared, with unblinking intent, staring down the passenger just behind me. Three guards rushed up pulling him and his baggage from the line. They disappeared into the crowd. Without a word, the dog turned and with ghost-like stealth also disappeared into the crowd. The line behind me crushed in. I went back to my book, trying not to make eye contact or otherwise be engaged. The crowd and chaos made me anxious, all pushing to move forward. Pushing. Pushing.
“Passporta Madame. You have contraband or other items in your possession which you have failed to indicate on your landing card? ” Glancing at my passport, “You are Meredith Dean?” asked the customs officer in a heavy accent.
“No. I mean yes, I mean I am Meredith Dean and No I don’t have any...uh …contraband.”
”Egypt enters into rebellion. Why now you choose to visit?” His voice was harsh and insolent.
I wasn’t sure how to respond but knew I didn’t want to invite more questions. There was still confusion and commotion around me. Clearing my throat, as if to speak with some authority I declared, “I’m visiting …visiting old friends.”
“I see you are American, you have here American friends?”
“Yes.” I hesitated but then answered again, “Yes, at the American school, here in Cairo.” I was very nervous; I only hoped he couldn’t detect the lie as it left my mouth.
He looked at my passport. He looked at me. No, he stared at me. I thought about my passport photo and how differently I looked now. In college I wore glasses and my hair was darker and cut in short layers, now I wear contacts and my hair’s long with blonde highlights. I still had brown eyes. I was still tall and slender, but was that enough I wondered. His staring made me nervous. I remained calm. Then without provocation he growled, “You Americans do not understand our ways. You are alone?”
“Yes. Yes, but my friends are coming …for me. I will be with my American friends.” I lied again, but stood very still and bravely stayed with my story. I could feel the stress beginning to creep into my neck; any self assurance I had before, now deserted me.
“The address on your landing card is for Hotel Intercontinental. What is the address of these American friends you speak of?” He clicked his pen as he spoke.
“Uh, I don’t know, I mean, I’m, uh… not sure. Uh, I mean they’re picking me up here at the airport then taking me to the hotel. You see, I’m not actually staying with them, but just visiting them here.” I tried to explain, covering up my lie again. It was starting to sound awkward, I didn’t know if I was making sense. I silently prayed, Oh God, please don’t let me be next to be pulled out of line.
He glared… then begrudgingly handed me my passport, waving his hand in dismissal. “You have six days. Move on.”
I swallowed… and moved on.
Young Egyptian men with luggage trolleys patiently waited for foreign tourists as they left the final customs area. Like a desert falcon searching for prey, one quickly grabbed my luggage and started the ancient Arab art of negotiating. “Five American Dollar Sister. Just five dollar. Ok sister, Ok?” And down the ramp flew the trolley with my luggage before much of an agreement could be made.
I smiled and followed.
“Shukran.” I thanked him in the little Arabic that I still remembered and gave him the five dollars he had bargained for, as he unloaded my luggage and hailed a taxi.
“No! No Americanea!” The two Egyptians haggled back and forth. Arms flailed, both kept looking back at me while speaking very fast. Tempers were erupting. Other travelers standing in the Taxi line crowded in, apparently understanding the argument better then myself. They began loading their own suitcases, then pushed ahead of me, commandeering the taxi. The driver abruptly darted to the driver’s seat and off they went as exhaust fumed from the back of the car. I guess Americans are not the respected guests they were before, I thought to myself.
“I get you taxi sister, I get you taxi.” The young Egyptian with the luggage trolley flagged a second cab. Again they shouted back and forth while making exaggerated gestures to each other. At last some unknown deal was struck and the trunk to the taxi opened, I moved my luggage forward. I gave another five dollars to the young Egyptian.
“142 A El Tahrir St., min fadlek.” I handed the driver a slip of paper with Amani’s address written in Arabic on it, as he closed the trunk on my luggage. Exhausted, I crawled into the back seat. It had been 23 hours since I left the safety of my world in Norman, Oklahoma. I was hungry and worn out. But at the same time, I was exhilarated to be back in Cairo and on the eve of revolution.
“El bayt, Madame. El bayt!” The taxi driver was shouting thru the open window to me as he hurriedly tossed my luggage to the sidewalk.
I must have dozed off. At first I woke confused, not sure of where I was and who or why someone was shouting. Slowly the fog in my mind lifted. I think I was dreaming about meeting Amani for the first time almost ten years ago. She was quiet and shy and at age 23, just finishing her thesis. Amani was brilliant with a promising future only a handshake away. Then she stepped back into darkness, where a dowry held more power a diploma. Her family instructed her return to Egypt immediately and marry a young Civil Engineer, Ahmed Ansari. How different life was now for us both. Rubbing my eyes and shaking my head, “ Shukran. Iwa. Iwa. Shukran. Ismak eh, min fadlek?” My Arabic was lousy but Amani had already told me how much to pay from the airport and warned me not to haggle.
Haggling ensued, it’s just apart of Arab life, to deny it would be to deny breath. As I completed the complicated transaction with the driver, the front door to the small apartment building swung open and Amani quickly waddled out. (As quickly as a nine month pregnant woman can move that is.) “Meri! Meri! I have missed you. I am so glad you are here now.” She was draped in her traditional tob seblah. The green flowing dress complimented her wavy dark hair. I’d almost forgotten how her piercing blue eyes flashed against her caramel skin. She looked absolutely beautiful.
Her sister, Alma trailed behind her; admonishing us both, “Quickly, quickly, come inside. It is not safe for foreigners to be on the street!” Amani threw open her arms for hugs as she herded me into the building. Alma followed helping with the luggage.
Only Amani has ever called me Meri. It was so nice to be far away from home and hear the familiar name Meri again. Oh how I have missed my dear friend, I thought to myself.
The apartment looked beautiful. I could smell all of Egypt as I entered through her door. Memories flooded back. Amani and Alma had probably been cooking for days, maybe even weeks. The aroma of the Turkish coffee smelled sweet and unforgettable. I came alive again. The table was set with a feast of Arabic foods, as always enough for an entire clan. This was so characteristic for Amani, so typical for an Arab. Amani started right in, “Come Meri, come and sit. I am so glad you are here with me my friend. The baby will be here in two days or…they will induce the labor come Wednesday.” She clutched her bulging stomach. “Ahmed and his family are so excited. The baby will be named Kalif, after Ahmed’s brother, you remember, eh?” Her smile vanished.
“Where is Husna?” I asked, wanting to change the tone of the conversation.
“She is upstairs sleeping. You shall meet her soon.”
Before she could finish, I asked “…and where are all the others? Is only Alma with you here tonight?”
“Yes, my friend. These are difficult times and the future holds revolution for Egypt. Ahmed and the others are gone. They have been gone for weeks as they prepare for this great Egyptian uprising against Mubarak and his fraudulent government. This time Ahmed will not fail.” Amani spoke with clarity, purpose and conviction. Before she married, she was shy and reserved and for a woman to speak of politics would have been forbidden. A life time ago it seemed. Ahmed also was shy, such the intellectual and then Tunisia occurred. It was just after their daughter, Husna was born. He never hid is disappointment that his first born wasn’t a son. It was a crossroads for them both.
“I do not know when Ahmed or the others will return or if they will return. It is only Alma, myself, Husna and now Kalif. You have not met Husna, let us go to her now and rejoice in Allah’s grace. Meri, you must also pray to your God for the birth of my son, our safety and that of Egypt’s future.”