Getting From London to CairoEditor's Note: Last week Mate Nikola Tokić, an assistant professor of Modern European and East European History at the American University in Cairo, wrote about how the use of social media helped him deal with being stranded in London in December.
This week, Mate again amazingly finds himself stranded as he attempts the return trip to Cairo from his December vacation. Winter weather has played a minor part in his delay this time. The crisis in Cairo has proven to be more crippling and is capping a cruel travel trilogy for Tokić.
I could find some absurd humor during the first 2 times I was stranded while traveling over the last 10 months. Now, things are fundamentally different. The ongoing political turmoil in my present home of Cairo and across Egypt has given my travel difficulties a new sense of urgency. Nervousness and trepidation are mixed with anticipation and even exhilaration as the constantly evolving situation in Egypt has brought uncertainty to my personal and professional life. More importantly it brings a remarkable sense of optimism that long-overdue change is finally coming to Egypt.
My difficult year in travel began last April while attending an academic conference in New York City. A 5-day break from teaching history at the American University in Cairo turned into a 3-week holiday. I was on the wrong side of an ash cloud that had flowed southeast from Iceland's erupting Eyjafjallajökull volcano, forcing the cancellation of my connecting flight to Cairo through Frankfurt. Able only to book a flight for a date 2 weeks after my original planned departure, I was "forced" to enjoy New York City's many cultural, culinary and social opportunities. I also traveled to Washington, DC, to see family, including a niece who I knew mostly over Skype video.
This past December, as I wrote about last week, I endured a 6-day sojourn in London caused by the pre-Christmas weather chaos that affected much of northern Europe.
The start of my return trip from Washington, DC, to Cairo last week initially resembled my trip from Cairo to DC in December. My original flight via London was cancelled following a storm that left just over 7 inches of snow in a few hours at Dulles International Airport. The flight was scheduled to leave at 10 p.m. last Wednesday. After 5 hours of trying to reach Dulles by subway and airport shuttle, I got as far as a public bus bay to wait for a bus that got stuck in the snow and never arrived. My fruitless struggle to reach the airport was in vain; at 1.30 a.m. on Thursday, the flight was cancelled.
I secured a seat on the next day's flight and fully expected to return to Cairo for the start of the new semester. But call it comedy or cruel irony, I am again stuck in transit. This time, weather is not an issue. Rather, it is because of the fundamental and revolutionary changes sweeping through Egypt.
I had been following closely the events in Egypt starting with the protests that began on January 25. I first noticed the monumental demonstrations on Friday as I entered the mostly empty departure halls of Heathrow's Terminal 5 around 4 p.m. UK time (6 p.m. Cairo time) following my flight from Washington. Two large groups of tightly huddled people occupied the space. On one side were drunk Spaniards, enjoying their last moments of holiday in the UK. On the other side stood virtually all of the passengers, numbering about 200, from British Airways flight 155 scheduled for Cairo. They closely watched BBC reports out of Cairo on the large television screen next to the gate. Most appeared to be Western tourists or Egyptian nationals returning home.
For nearly 2 hours, a nervous silence engulfed the gate area. Once Hosni Mubarak ordered a sundown-to-sunrise curfew, it became clear that our flight, scheduled to land at 11.40 p.m. local time, would be cancelled. British Airways, anticipating that the flight would be rescheduled the following morning, arranged for all passengers to be housed overnight in a nearby hotel.
It was late evening by the time I reached the Renaissance Hotel near Heathrow. As I watched on television the dramatic events unfold in Cairo, I desperately tried to make contact with friends and colleagues in Egypt to obtain a first-person account of the situation on the ground after paying the £15 fee at the hotel to access my email and Skype. But Mubarak's decision to disconnect Egypt from the rest of the world by disabling both the internet and mobile telephone networks made this impossible.
Around midnight, I reached a friend whose landline worked. She had been out in downtown Cairo most of the day and related the escalation of the Friday protests from simple demonstrations to a full-fledged revolution. She spoke about a festive and peaceful atmosphere in Cairo punctuated by moments of confusion, chaos and even violence.
This calmed my concerns about the safety of people in Cairo but anxiety, anticipation and jet lag made it impossible for me to sleep. Our flight had been rescheduled for 7 a.m., and we had to be at the airport by 5.
Getting From London to CairoUpon returning to Heathrow, I discovered that my flight had been cancelled again due to the fluid situation in Egypt. Most tourists on the flight began securing refunds and booking flights home. For the Egyptian nationals, the situation was clearly more urgent. They were eager to return home to families and loved ones with whom they had not been able to communicate during the night. The earliest flight would be the following morning.
British Airways moved us to the more convenient and luxurious Sofitel Hotel. Thoroughly drained, I managed to sleep for the first time in 42 hours. When I woke up at mid-afternoon, I discovered that Egypt had re-established the mobile phone network that had been down the previous 36 hours. So, through Skype, I began calling as many people as possible in Cairo. The mood was generally positive. A sense of relative safety was mixed with excitement about the possibilities for a new Egypt. This began to change with night approaching as concerns about looting and vigilante groups became palpable. On several calls, I heard gunshots in the background as I spoke with friends.
From the luxury of my hotel room, I began to feel regret that a freak snowstorm in Washington had prevented me from being witness to one of the most significant political events of the new century. This was tempered by repeated phone calls from my mother and others lambasting me for considering traveling to Cairo. With my flight to Cairo scheduled to depart early Sunday morning, I was confronted by a real dilemma. Did I want to try to get back to Cairo to be witness to history? Or should I wait and see how things unfolded and placate the strongly voiced concerns of my mother by remaining in a fortuitous exile in Europe. As an historian, I leaned towards the former. Revolutions and social movements are things I teach and write about, but which I have rarely experienced. As a son, however, the anxieties and even distress of my mother was not something to take lightly.
I decided to travel to Berlin to be with family and friends in a familiar city rather than alone in London. I arranged for my flight from London to Cairo to be rebooked for a later date, and purchased a round-trip ticket from London to the German capital.
While in Berlin, I learned that the American Embassy in Cairo had begun evacuations of Americans. And it appeared that many foreigners and Egyptians were trying to find ways out of the country.
As it now stands, I have few options other than to wait things out. The start of the university semester was scheduled for January 30 but has been pushed back to February 6. With hundreds of thousands of protesters filling Cairo's central Tahrir Square on Tuesday and no sign that Hosni Mubarak plans to step down anytime soon, such a start date is clearly untenable.
The university website and webmail service has been disabled by the Egyptian government. It is exceedingly difficult to get information about plans to salvage the semester. And the university's New York office is having trouble communicating with the administration based in Cairo.
I have taken my situation as an opportunity to enjoy Berlin and focus on my research. The 100th running of the Berlin Six Days bicycle race ended earlier this week, and the Berlin film festival starts in a week. I've already made arrangements to visit the archives of the Stasi, the East German secret police, for research, and am considering a trip to Canberra, Australia, to complete archival work I began there 2 years ago if the crisis in Cairo drags on.
But my thoughts are focused, if not actually fixated, on Cairo. After more than 30 years of dictatorship in the country, the people of Egypt have said halas, enough. The thousands that are filling the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities are there to create a brighter future for their country. If this means I have to live out of my suitcase another week or 2 or 10, the inconvenience pales in comparison to what's happening in Egypt, where many have given their lives to bring an end to an autocratic regime. Theirs is a sacrifice that will not be in vain.
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