Throwback Thursday: Walking the streets of Cairo between riots, 2013

It’s hard to believe this was two years ago, almost to the day… Throwback Thursday it is, indeed.

3.10

I’ve written a bit over the past year about the life changing time I spent in Egypt back in 2013, but haven’t really yet touched on the fact that we happened to visit in between flare ups of rioting and fighting. The trip had been booked and paid for well in advance, and we weren’t about to cancel it without an extremely good reason. The official travel advisories stated that in the week we were to be there, it would be sufficiently safe; that was good enough for us! We were only in Cairo for a few nights, anyhow, and didn’t think we’d be getting too close to the troubled areas of the city anyway.

Turned out we arrived a day before the rest of our tour companions did, and our brilliant guide Medo had an offer we couldn’t refuse – a private tour of the city. Absolutely; we figured it’d be our only real chance to see it safely. It was a confronting experience, but I’m glad we did it.

3.5

The first thing that was blatantly obvious, was that I stood out like an elephant wearing a tutu. I felt like a zoo animal being walked around on a leash for the day. I was covered up, wearing pants, a long sleeved top, closed shoes. I left my hair out to cover my neck and partially hide my face. I wore sunglasses, and all of my tattoos were hidden. I wore no jewellery other than a simple black leather bracelet, a silver necklace chain and my wedding ring, turned around so that the diamonds were in my palm. I did my best to keep myself hidden in plain sight. But I couldn’t hide the fact that I was a lily white Western woman, with freckles and auburn red hair. That made me different enough for unending stares. The strange thing was, they weren’t rude stares; merely inquisitive. I didn’t feel like people were offended by my presence, I just felt like they were very curious about me. Medo put me at ease instantly, letting me know that I was as much a tourist attraction to them as the Nile was to me.

The second thing was the damage that had been caused as we reached Tahrir Square. Windows had been smashed. Buildings had been gutted by fires. Cars upturned. Store front boarded up and spray painted. It was exactly as it had been depicted in the media, yet I still wasn’t ready for it.

Again, Medo urged us not to worry; he explained that the locals understood very well that their livelihoods relied mostly on tourism, and as such, if any rioting was to break out, we could rest assured we’d be left completely untouched and unharmed. The riots were a hell of a lot more organised than we’d been led to believe from the media reporting, too; they were planned and announced, for the most part, in advance. That’s how the news reporters knew where and when to turn up. Hotels also let their guests know when to avoid the square for these pre-planned events. Real life on those streets was far less frightful than the news would have had us believe.

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We came from Melbourne to Cairo; “polar opposites” would be the phrase that first comes to mind. Coming from such a safe city, being afraid to leave my house for fear of fighting or rioting is not a notion I have ever had to entertain, not even in my most ridiculous dreams. I’ve never avoided an area in my city for fear of my personal safety. It’s second nature for me to walk around with whoever I want, wearing whatever I want, doing exactly as I please. I know that not everyone has that privileged, yet it’s not something I’ve ever considered myself lucky to have had. I’m glad we weren’t there on the day of a riot, because the aftermath was scary enough for me. But honestly, other than being the unwitting and uncomfortable centre of attention, I felt surprisingly comfortable in Cairo with Medo as our guide. The locals were as curious about me as I was about them, nothing was hidden, it was all put out there for the world to see. Somehow, that’s more comforting. It was an encounter I’ll always remember, and something I’m so glad I had the opportunity to experience.

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A day in London: West Ham United & a real Green Street Hooligan

I can honestly say this was one of the coolest, most utterly and completely unexpected, totally awesome things I’ve ever experienced! I don’t follow the EPL, I’m not even a soccer fan, and I know of the Green Street Hooligans only as much as Hollywood has told us, so when husband said he wanted to visit the West Ham United ground and shop, I shrugged my shoulders and said “yeah, alright… but I want to go to the theatre later!” figuring I’d be pretty bored and would need something else to look forward to. Man, was I wrong..

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

After a few obligatory photos out the front, we wandered around a little, with husband trying to determine whether or not the ground was open to the public. It was not. Disappointed but not completely deterred, we entered the gift shop. Up to 70% off everything sale. Oh dear.

Fast forward 30 minutes, and husband is still running around like a kid in a candy store, with me trailing behind, the pile of West Ham paraphernalia in my arms multiplying to the point that I could barely see over the top of it. It was like a movie scene… in total reverse!

We finally made our way to the checkout, and the guy laughed at us (understandably so – he’d been watching the whole spectacle unfold). As he was scanning and packing everything into plastic bags, I thought I may as well try my luck – husband would have done it for me! “I don’t suppose there’s any way we might be able to take a super quick peak at the ground is there?? We came all the way from Australia!” Husband’s eyes widened as he looked from me (in shock) to the sales guy (with hope), and almost fell over when he said “Yeah, sure, why not?!”

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

He unlatched the counter door and let us through, past the cash registers, to a back room that led onto the field. Holy hat, we were making our way onto West Ham’s pitch! We ascended up and surfaced right near the coach’s beautiful, leather, pitch-side seats. He let us walk around and take some photos, which was really cool, and told us a bit more about the club. After 15 minutes, he said he had to get back to work, but would call up the security guard who’d be happy to give us a tour of the locker rooms and what not (husband’s face = !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!).

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

This is when shit actually got really cool. The security guard, an older, but still burly and tough looking gentleman in slacks and a jacket introduced himself and proceeded to show us through the locker rooms, showers, rehab room, coach’s office, the works. All of the clichéd photos were taken, with the security guard’s assistance; husband “yelling” at him in the office, holding the team scarf up in front of the plaque on the wall, a shower scene in the bathroom.. We were feeling pretty privileged at this point!

Then husband asked him if there was still any animosity between football clubs, and if there was still a lot of the hatred that caused the violence and fighting that the movie Green Street Hooligans was based on; was the movie true to the real life events, to his knowledge, or was it typical over-the-top Hollywood exaggeration? He explained a bit about how and why the fighting all started, and then told us about his involvement in it all. He was part of that gang, the InterCity Firm. No, the movie wasn’t exaggerated; if anything, it was considerably toned down from the real thing. And how he was still alive and standing there talking to us is utterly and completely beyond me.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

The stories he told us were horrifying, but despite his hesitation, we kept asking him to tell us more; we were totally captivated. He started each story with “Sorry sweetheart, this ain’t real nice!” or “Pardon my foul mouth darlin’!” He regaled us with tales of the fighting in the 1970s that he was involved with. He told us of “the lads” sharpening coins by throwing them in the floor and scuffing them under their shoes against the concrete floors to sharpen them into throwing weapons. They’d fill syringes with dirty, muddy water and stab “them” in passing. He vividly recalled running “head first” into a brawl with nothing to defend himself but his own two fists; he was stabbed in the torso. That wasn’t his first or last stab wound either. His words, “I have absolutely not idea how I’m still alive – I certainly have no right to be!” He said, “we were all idiots, us and them, fighting last generation’s war for no other reason than our fathers hated each other.” They may not have understood why, but it was a matter of family honour. So they fought.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

We were both familiar with the story, the movie, the myths, but neither of us thought it could be so real, that there was an actual living, breathing face to it all.

It wasn’t at all what I was expecting from out visit to the ground, a detour meant to appease my husband’s love of any and all sports, and their memorabilia and paraphernalia. Walking out of the grounds, we absolutely couldn’t believe the surreal experience that had just transpired. And it was surreal. It also taught me two important things:

1. Without understanding, tolerance, forgiveness, and respect for each other, violence on large and small scales will continue, and each generation will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the generations before.

2. You’ll never know if you don’t ask. The worst than can happen is “no.” The best? An opportunity of a lifetime : )