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Silenced in Egypt

June 23, 2010

So there we were.  Negotiating with a taxi driver at the Rafah border crossing after having spent a life-affirming and life-altering 72 hours in Gaza.  Getting into and out of the Strip, once all was said and done, proved to be easier, though just as dramatic as we had thought.  Now, having passed through customs at the Palestinian Authority/Egypt controlled Rafah border crossing, we were only a cab ride away from our fellow Gaza Freedom Marchers in Cairo, mere hours away from sharing our experiences with those who we had left behind, friends (like Suleika, a senior at Princeton) who were physically violated during a December 31 demonstration in the streets of the Egyptian capital.  We had escaped unscathed.  Escaped unscathed from Cairo and from Gaza, having only our patience and sympathies tried.  The home stretch was upon us.

We negotiated a price, one for the seven who were going back to their hotels in El Arish, the Egyptian sea-side town just south of the Rafah crossing, and another for the remaining four of us who needed to get back to Cairo.  And after arguing with an Egyptian customs official who would not return our passports to us, who said that we would get them back just as soon as we got back to El Arish or Cairo, who said that this was how things worked in Egypt, who laughed when I asked for, nay, demanded, my passport back, who was visibly unshaken when I said I would call my embassy because this was if not illegal, entirely unnecessary and completely frustrating, and who finally, after nearly 30 minutes of yelling, relented and gave us our passports back, after all of that, we loaded the mini-van and were en route to Cairo.

Trailed and led, of course, by Egyptian police escorts.

While holed up in the Commodore Hotel in Gaza City, on the shores of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, we had heard various reports of our Gaza marchers being detained at the border.  We were told, by Hamas officials none-the-less, that having defied the call to leave, we were forcing the Egyptian border officials to essentially hold our friends hostage until we left.  We were given until midnight to basically get the fuck out of Gaza, lest we all be immediately deported.  Our friends said otherwise.  So, after everyone, in two waves, had already left, we were verbally forced into a van which took us to the Rafah crossing and which now led us here: to a packed mini-van driving through Egypt in the darkness.

After about 30 or 45 minutes and having passed by the turn-off for the El Arish hotels, we pulled over on the side of the highway, surrounded by police cars.  We had no idea what was happening.  We were then abruptly, and with no warning, told that no one would be able to stay in El Arish.  “But all of our things were at our hotel just down the road!”  “We’ve already pre-paid for the next month at the Swiss Inn!”  “We don’t want to go back to Cairo!”

We were, incredulously, being detained, for no reason whatsoever, on the side of a darkened highway in the north of Egypt, just minutes from several activists’ hotels.  Over the next hour, many dozen policemen, armed with rifles and shields, would heed the calls for help, not by aiding our trip back to Cairo, but by helping to physically and verbally intimidate and silence us.  We were simply 11 activists, armed with nothing more than our luggage (as well as a general loathing for the Egyptian government who helped maintain the crippling Gaza blockade and the Egyptian police which had done this sort of thing to us earlier in Cairo and had assaulted our friends and which represses the Egyptian and Palestinian population everyday) and having done nothing but go to Gaza.  And yet we were detained.

Our situation began to deteriorate.  Stuck in a cramped van filled with 11 bodies and lots of luggage we were told that not only would we be unable to return to El Arish, but we would not be able to leave the van to use the bathroom or even open the sliding door to get some air.  Having just returned from a chaotic and overwhelming spat in Gaza this was the last thing we needed or even expected.  We though we were home free.  But yet here we were, unable to even use a restroom.  I had never been in such a situation: completely devoid of any right.  It was a very strange feeling, the flood of emotions which flowed and morphed with each passing minute.  As I am (thankfully) unfamiliar with the feeling of being surrounded by riot police, I was first, for just a moment, frightened. Quickly remembering the last time this happened, not one week earlier, my fear turned to confusion.  Why was this happening?  What had we done to deserve such mistreatment?

An Egyptian higher-up (who spoke terrific English) had told us, soon after first being detained, that he was just following orders.  Told us that we might try going back to Gaza if we stayed in El Arish.  Told us that a phone call from our embassy is all he needed to allow those who wanted to stay in El Arish to stay, for those who wanted to go back to Cairo to go there and that this situation would be over as soon as it began.  It sounded simple enough and had been, for the past hour or so, trying desperately to get anybody at the embassy interested in out current dilemma.  Earlier, while still at the border, our passports being held hostage, we had made a similar call which fell mostly on deaf ears.  Now our situation was even more urgent.  We didn’t know what the hell was happening or when it would be over or what we could do.  We were crippled.  Nothing we said could make the thugs policemen leave us alone.  Or willingly let us open the window.  Kelly eventually forced her way out of the van, crawling through a small open window in the back.  Once outside, she joined Sarah, a New Zealand native who was Muslim and who, most importantly, spoke Arabic.

The two made their way to the bathroom, and if it was anything like my trip about 30 minutes later (after Kelly an Sarah had demanded and hollered and forced the cops’ hand to eventually allow us all the same privilege) it consisted of all sorts of cursing (in Arabic, of course, foreign to most of our ears), laughing (at the fact that we were helpless dogs, having already submitted to their illogical reign) and spitting on the ground near them.

(Kelly eventually proved most heroinic.  Upon her return from the bathroom at the hotel down the street, she argued with the cops and, in despair, sat down in the middle of the street, refusing to get up until we were given some basic rights.  While I sat, steaming and with my bladder full, in the back of the van, I watched parts of this scene unfold outside.  I was, frankly, worried for her safety, though did not find out until later that she staged a one-woman sit-in.  Her actions speak volumes about her dedication to peace and respect for your common human being and it was not the first time that I was humbled in her presence.)

Eventually we got  not only an employee at our embassy on the phone but also the legal coordinator for the Gaza Freedom Movement, Sally Bette Newman.  And despite his earlier claims, the “head” officer refused to take the phone to talk to anyone sympathetic to our plight.  Sally sure wanted to speak with him.  I was struck by how cold and jaded he was.  Here we were, in his country, spending money in his economy, respecting his personal dignity and he couldn’t afford us the same privilege.  Sure, he works for a repressive regime and, barring corruption and embezzlement, probably doesn’t get paid much.  But we were pressing him to see the humanity in us.  To simply deny us of any right was beyond my understanding.  Egypt had proved a menacing and intimidating foe and I repeatedly felt unwanted in their country.  Such is the life, I suppose, of a political activist in a country which oppresses any dissenting voice, foreign or domestic.

We were yet to reach the climax of our ordeal, though, which would soon come in the form of a compromise.  The police said they would get us a second van to take us all back to Cairo.  Great news!  This would mean, though, that those who had their belongings in El Arish hotels and their rooms pre-paid in said hotels would be shit-out-of-luck.  What to do what to do.  Surely all personal belongings would have to be summoned from the hotels.  Surely all monies would have to be returned to the activists.  Luckily, one of the managers of the local hotels (where at least three people were staying) had arrived and for some time had been negotiating our “release” from detention.  A standoff ensued, with Ellen and David, two older long-time peace activists from California holding the keys to our van hostage until their pre-paid hotel room was refunded and their baggage returned.  It had been made clear that as soon as the keys were turned over we would be on our way.  But Ellen and David refused.  We yelled and they yelled right back.  We just wanted to go home, we told them.  We just want our money back, they told us.  A noble fight, for sure, but they were seemingly putting our freedom and our lives in jeopardy.  A back and forth persisted for a while until, due to clearly illegal means, their bags were retrieved from their locked room and their funds returned in full.  The Egyptian police had broken into all of the rooms in order to bring the Americans their stuff.  Talk about violating one’s personal space.  But I no longer cared about anything but leaving this hell hole of a van and getting back to our friends and our stuff in Cairo.  All I could think about was having this end as quickly as possible and once again tasting freedom.

In a blink of an eye we had gone from Gaza, arguing with a member of Hamas about wanting to stay, to arguing with Egyptian border police to return our passports to arguing with Egyptian police to let us use the bathroom and ultimately go home.  We were exhausted.  We were spent.  We had endured just a fraction of the intimidation and dissolvement of rights that Palestinians have had to endure daily for decades.  And then, in another blink, we had split into two vans and were on our way back to Cairo.

Our driver would try once more, while unloading in front of our Cairo hotel, to shake us down for more money.  We politely told him to fuck off and went upstairs to unwind and get back to “normal”.

I had never envisioned this kind of thing happening.  Of course, going into someone’s house and telling them you don’t like their decorations will inevitably lead to arguments and being kindly asked to leave.  I should have expected this.  But to actually live it was something for which I was not prepared.  It was a powerful personal growth moment.

One which I will not soon forget.

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