You start off by laughing at the people with weapons. Then you start looking around to see what you have in your home. Then you start hanging things up by the door: a kitchen cleaver, say. Eventually, as the attacks on foreigners multiply, you find yourself carrying a weapon: not necessarily to protect yourself, but to protect the people you are with.
By trade I am an adventure travel writer – which means that 90 per cent of the time I am sitting at home either planning or writing about adventures but not actually having them. But I spent last week sitting at home and having an adventure: living through Egypt's revolution.
My wife is Egyptian and works as a journalist. My two children, aged nine and 11, go to an international school – which since the uprising began in late January has had no pupils. I started teaching them myself, eventually, in our kitchen. Life by then had begun to revolve around our third-floor apartment, which looks down on a main thoroughfare in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo favoured by the wealthy – although our particular area is one of the less salubrious ones, with very few foreigners. This is good, because already the regime is trying to use foreigners as scapegoats for Egypt's troubles.
I've been going out everyday, scouting around like a character in a JG Ballard novel. There are burnt-out police trucks at each intersection; and, now, tanks and soldiers. But for two days there was nothing. The police just ran away and the army had yet to turn up. You would think that in such a situation anarchy would break out. In fact, most people have been polite and wary. But there has also been looting – apparently all done by government-backed thugs or prisoners deliberately released from the prison – which is just over the ring road from us.
My friend Paul called the other night. He sounded a tad excited, "We've got three guns to defend our building and they've rushed us nine times," he said. I felt I had to say something less exciting – and at that moment I understood instantly the whole English thing of calling a war an "incident", a riot "trouble", violence "confrontation" and so on. I said: "The mosque PA broadcast that there were some... rowdy men in the next street."
This was all last Saturday, which was when the "thugs" – ex-cons and cops in civvies – instigated most of the rioting and looting in our neighbourhood.
"I just feel so... naked," said Steve, another friend. "Without a gun. I got the kitchen knives, that's all." "Tape one to a broom handle and make a spear," I said. "Yeah," said Steve, perking up. "A spear can be f***ing unwelcome if you're not expecting it."
Weapons. That's what we respectable expatriates have been thinking about. But what do you do when you haven't got a shotgun – or a .38 Police Special like my friend Mohamed? (Though he said the ammo was made in 1957 or something and would probably kill him first.) I found an enormous Spanish meat cleaver from our kitchen and put it – as a joke – by the door. I also found an old dao – a headhunting machete from Nagaland – that my grandfather had given me. This soon began to look like a thoroughly prudent idea. "That guy has a baseball bat," the kids reported from the window, as yet another gang of sinister-looking marauders prowled in the street below. "And that one's got a cricket bat. And that one has a golf club." "A cricket bat?" I queried, on a kind of distracted time lag, "Yep," say both son and daughter, "and a ball."
I wasn't sure if they were winding me up or not. But it didn't matter. That is, I suppose, a benefit of living in a revolution. The normal things you worry about telling your kids – like being sensible – don't matter. All you care about is whether they are... not scared.
But they must be. Fear is a rational response, for a foreigner living in Cairo at the moment. You find yourself in a constant state of heightened alertness. The noises, for example: their significance becomes crucial – dog bark, scream, shout, whistle, the looters round our friend Paola's flat all whispering to freak out the residents they knew were hiding on their balconies in the shadows looking down.
For a few days – after a lot of gunfire outside – we barricaded our apartment door. It felt unreal. My mother-in-law helped me to move the sofa, two armchairs, a suitcase and some bits of old wardrobe against the door – and I didn't like to offend her by saying that she was putting the chairs in the wrong place. Even watching the tracer fire at night seems unreal – as long as you don't get hit.
One morning, I walked out to get my friend Roland some more high blood pressure pills. Miraculously, I found a drugstore open and, miraculously, was able to buy him the exact pills he takes. But I could feel my own blood pressure rising as I walked through the streets, thugs cruising past piled three-up on motorbikes or five in a car. Got to relax, I kept telling myself. But revolution is a young man's game: when you are under 40, you do not worry that your heart might explode however fast it is beating. But now you care.
Things are moving so fast you are perpetually trying to keep up. The main element of this adventure, which like all adventures you hope will end well, has been avoiding panic, keeping calm. It's a skill you need whether you climb, raft rivers or walk across deserts. I've found the skills you need on an expedition – which revolve around self-reliance – have been useful to me. Anxiety has to be kept within limits. Rumours spread like wildfire and you can find yourself getting anxious over things that are not even true. Someone told me with absolute conviction that a nearby library was being torched. When I went out to look it was fine – even the flag was still flying from the roof.
But I'll leave the heroics to the real correspondents down with the brave protesters in Tahrir Square. I'm unnerved by the fact that a bus from the US embassy was stoned on its way to Maadi a few hours ago – a sign that foreigners are now an explicit target. Foreign journalists have been targeted too.
Adventures are all about doing things that look dangerous – but by controlling the risk you have fun instead of injury. I can't do that any more in Cairo – and especially not when my family are at risk too.
Eventually, at the weekend, we decided that it was time for us to get out while the going was still good. Our relief when our plane finally took off was remarkable in its intensity. "I'd never seen a tank until today," said my son. "And today I've seen ten."Reuse content