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You say you want a revolution

Sarah Mervosh | Wednesday, February 9, 2011

CAIRO — Friday afternoon in Cairo was supposed to be spent seeing the Great Pyramids, one of the seven ancient Wonders of the World.

Instead, Friday afternoon was spent watching black smoke stream into the sky, placing scarves over mouths to avoid inhaling tear gas and hearing explosions echo off the city’s many buildings.

All of this was a result of the thousands of people who took to the streets this week across Egypt to protest the 30-year regime of the current president, Hosni Mubarak, and express their political and economic grievances.

The conflict began Tuesday and reached an unprecedented level Friday. The protesters redoubled their efforts, the government blocked all Internet and phone services and then sent the military in to restrain the crowds.

But with all forms of communication down and the local news being delivered in Arabic, the study abroad students at the American University in Cairo (AUC) spent most of Friday in the dark as to what was going on in the area within walking distance of the dormitories.   

Naturally, the rumors were flying.

The courtyard of the dorms has been tear-gassed.

The protests are going to pass right by our dormitory.

Two, no, six, no, 50 people have died in the protests.

As with all rumors, there was some semblance of the truth. 

People did die, but we had no idea exactly how many. A very small portion of the protests did cross the bridge toward our dormitory, but they were peaceful. Tear gas had seeped over to parts of Zamalek, the island where we live, but the dormitory itself was mostly fine.

From a terrace of the American University in Cairo (AUC) dorms, we watched black smoke seep up from behind treetops and once in a while heard the muffled explosion of tear gas canisters being administered.

The area surrounding our dormitory was relatively quiet. Eerily quiet, in fact. The normally bustling streets were vacant, except for the occasional flock of birds that burst from the trees at the sound of an explosion.

Back home, our parents were most likely watching the news and frantically imagining the worst. A week into our semester abroad and CNN’s headlines read “Egypt’s Friday of Wrath.” It was a mother’s worst nightmare.

No, mom, I was not mistakenly set on fire during the riots, as I’m sure you assumed. But we did not have to be smack dab in the middle of the crowds to experience the mayhem.

Fed up with a day locked inside the AUC dormitories without information about what was going on right downtown, a few of us went to the roof of an apartment complex next door for a better view.

As we left the dorms, we saw a sign telling us to cover our mouths outside to avoid inhaling tear gas and an Egyptian student came up to us and warned that we must be back by 6 p.m., when a city-wide curfew would be in effect.

This type of crack down, with curfews and blocked Internet access, was something I had read about in newspapers, but never experienced. Thoughts and questions swarmed my brain.

Is this really happening?

Is the government allowed to do this?

This would never fly in the United States.

By the time we got to the apartment complex, only a three-minute walk away, I already began to feel the effects of the tear gas.

My nostrils burned, like when I accidentally eat too much wasabi with my sushi. Only this time, the sensation didn’t subside. My eyes burned too and I began to cough.

I wrapped my scarf tighter around my face.

On top of the apartment building, which is about 16 stories high, the effects of the tear gas were worse, but the view was incredible. I soaked in what I was seeing and felt satisfied that I finally had a semblance of an idea about what was going on downtown.

A large smoke cloud, presumably from a burning building, obscured my view of the crowd of protestors standing in the street. But in front of the crowd stood a single-file line of policemen meant to block the crowd’s advances.

All over the city, I could see tear gas canisters shoot off like fireworks, sear through the air and emit a trail of gray, toxic smoke. The sound of an emergency vehicle’s siren blaring was appropriate background music to the chaos.

It was like a scene out of a war movie and like nothing I had ever witnessed in my sheltered life. But soon, it was nearing 6 p.m., when the city-wide curfew began, so we headed back to the dorms.

On the way, I caught the eye of a Muslim woman. Me, in my skinny jeans and north face. Her, in a full-length dress and hijab. Both of us had our mouths covered with a scarf to ease the pain of the tear gas and in that moment, a strange feeling of allegiance came over me.

Back at the dorms, the other Notre Dame students and I sat together, eating pizza and reflecting upon the day’s events. For the first time, I think it began to sink in that we were going to be here for an entire semester.

That’s four months.

That’s 17 weeks.

That’s 120 days.

And there’s something about that realization that turned the news headlines into reality for me. 

There’s something about feeling the burn of tear gas fill your nostrils.

There’s something about the sinking feeling of typing your mom’s number into your phone and seeing that the call failed.

There’s something about witnessing a part of history.

There’s something about being here that makes it hit home.

And for better or worse, if we have any say in the matter, we will be here.