As a young girl, I dreamed of visiting the land of the Pyramids.
Mighty Isis was my favorite comic book heroine. On my teenage bedroom walls, posters that featured ancient Egyptian tomb paintings with Nefretari and Isis flanked my Led Zeppelin poster. I was fascinated with the art, religion, history and mythology of ancient Egypt.
In graduate school in France, I studied Egyptology with experts in the field.
After graduation, I earned an internship at an English language monthly magazine in Cairo. My childhood dreams were coming true.
I stepped off the plane in Egypt and quickly realized I knew nothing about the modern country and its culture.
On my first night in the hotel that would be my temporary home, a colleague came to welcome me. Three men burst into the room and escorted my guest to the lobby. I was a single woman and I was not allowed to have men in my room, the interlopers told me. They publicly chastised me and called me a prostitute.
Ahlan wa sahlan fi Misr. Welcome in Egypt.
I learned the men were members of the mukhabarat, the secret police. I would have many encounters with them during my three years in Egypt.
As a foreigner and journalist, I was under surveillance. My phone was tapped; my movements were monitored. I became adept at identifying the plain-clothed mukhabarat, who often followed me.
On one assignment, I accompanied a reporter from Reuters, the British news agency, to cover a press conference announced by a Muslim sheikh in a town outside of Cairo. The sheikh was rumored to be both abroad and under house arrest in Egypt. It was a good story.
We were stopped on the road outside the oasis town. The police asked for our documents and refused to answer our questions. My colleague handed over her British passport; I kept mine. Once they had her passport, they told her that she could not legally proceed.
I got out of the car and starting walking.
Where are you going? I’m walking to the press conference.
By this time, the police forced my colleague into a vehicle. I had a choice: leave her, or go with her and abandon the press conference.
I went with her; I still did not relinquish my passport. The men took us to a small building in the middle of the desert in the middle of nowhere and stuck us in a room with two metal chairs and a beat-up desk.
Am I under arrest? No.
Then I’m free to leave. No.
I want to call the American embassy. No.
I was not under arrest. I was being held against my will. I had no rights.
Ahlan wa sahlan fi Misr.
Hours later, they released us. They had successfully blocked us — and other reporters we later learned — from attending the press conference.
They told us to go back to Cairo. We didn’t. We were bound to determine if the sheikh was indeed in the country and under house arrest. We spent the night in town. A secret policeman followed our every move on his tiny motorcycle. He wore a fake leather jacket and a long, white scarf that trailed behind him. He sat in a corner of the restaurant where we ate dinner, hiding in plain sight.
The next day we went to the mosque we’d heard the sheikh attended.
As we waited, the mukhabarat gathered at a distance on all sides of the dirt road. As soon as the sheikh crossed toward the mosque, the secret police pounced. They dragged me in one direction and my colleague in another, lifting us off the ground. I resented being manhandled and resisted. Resistance is futile, as the “Star Trek” saying goes.
They roughed us up and sent us on our way again. We left. We had the story.
Twenty years later, I was in Alaska when the events began in Tahrir Square three years ago. As a journalist, I longed to return to Egypt, to witness and document the historic uprising as the people who packed the square for weeks demanded an end to the rule of Hosni Mubarak, who’d been president since 1981.
In this case, resistance was not futile. Through social media and solidarity, the crowds held against the authorities. The vice president announced that Mubarak resigned on Feb. 11, 2011.
Last semester, a young woman came to my office and asked to join our news writing class. Her name is Reem Abou Elenain and she is a Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant from Alexandria, Egypt.
The class is full, I told her. She expressed her enthusiasm for learning about journalism and news writing. I could put you on a waiting list in case a spot opens, I offered.
She wouldn’t take no for an answer.
I told her she had the qualities of a journalist: passion and persistence. I added her to the class roster. She brought fresh perspectives of American news coverage of events in the Middle East. She now writes columns and works as an editor at The Campus, the student newspaper.
Reem was in Egypt when the revolution began on Jan. 25, 2011.
Before the revolution, Reem said people were terrified and without hope. They felt watched.
“I didn’t feel that Egypt was my country,” Reem said. “Other people owned it through corruption and monopoly.”
“When the revolution happened, it was the happiest moment in my life,” Reem said. “I was screaming from my heart and it was never too loud. We united as a people. It was beautiful. As women, our voices were loud and heard.”
“We removed the most powerful and corrupt person,” Reem said, referring to Mubarak.
Now Reem believes there’s a future for her and her country.
“Now it’s mine. I love it. There is hope.”
This Thursday, Feb. 13, Reem is bringing the Academy Award-nominated documentary, “The Square,” to Allegheny College. I couldn’t be in Tahrir Square in February 2011; I will be in Quigley Auditorium at 7 p.m.
Ahlan wa sahlan.
Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.
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