On January 25, 2011, a historic revolution began in Egypt. Soon after, so would mine. The Egyptian's distant fight for freedom played across the evening news with a passion, courage and peaceful solidarity like nothing I had seen before. I was inspired and moved to go see for myself and learn what life was like during the Arab Spring.
These photographs were taken throughout Cairo a couple weeks after the revolution began and reflect my experience with Egyptian life at this precarious and historic moment in time. The heartbeat of the peoples' uprising remained intense and optimistic. I could hear it coming from down the street. With the sudden exudus of foreign emissaries and tourists, most people were genuinely happy to see me. Some were not. For part of my time there, I worked with a small Egyptian news crew interviewing demonstrators and several high-ranking politicians.
It was my first full day in Cairo, but I still didn't feel quite present. On a long walk through this sprawling city of 12 million, I could hear the resonant beat of change coming from Tahrir Square. As I got closer to the source all movement began to slow. I noticed this painted plea to the western world as these women and children passed through my frame. I'll never forget her suspicious stare.
I was no longer watching on CNN. I was working with an Egyptian media agency at the epicenter of it all and conducting dozens of interviews about the prospects of new government elections. Though people were generally accepting and inviting of my camera, there were many intimidating men turning me back. They were highly suspicious of any outside influence or biased scrutiny. I set out with Badr, one of the young guys in our crew, and explored the passionate voices throughout this vast square. He had my back, as I did my best to capture the energy of that day.
At times, the intense energy of Tahrir Square felt more like a carnival. I returned here on my first Friday, the national day of prayer, which brought many hundreds of thousands to the Square. It was a sea of red, white and black. In so many ways, this revolution had the face of youth. Amidst all the furor and celebration, there was an older woman with three children, grandchildren perhaps. She proudly held the two youngest up high, so I would be sure to take their picture. The eldest girl stood confidently on her own.
While spending a day exploring the back alleys and mosques of Cairo, it was difficult for me to fully comprehend all its religious history and significance. The prayers coming over loudspeaker were quite beautiful in a way, and left little doubt that I was no longer driving around America. While seated at an outdoor cafe and absorbing the scenes around me, the call to prayer beckoned all the men to mosque. Even for those that didn't go, they would pause their busy day to pray where ever they happened to be. I would often take notice of all the shoes left neatly by the door or beside their small mats.
Just one month ago it would have been so much different at the Great Pyramids of Giza. The police and caretakers of this place, dressed in black, seldom bothered to lift their head from a book or private slumber. They were no longer accountable to anyone, no regime to fear and no loyalty to the citizens. I was seemingly alone and free to follow my curiosity—discovering the Pyramids as if maybe the fifth or sixth person ever to do so. After ascending a small dark tunnel out of Cheops tomb and back into light, I noticed this young boy. He played lookout to three men that were in some way restoring a chamber of limestone carvings. The boy seemed as curious as I was.
It was a very long night in search of a man named Amro Moussa—quite possibly the next president of Egypt. Our small Egyptian news team were patiently, and rather blindly following Sami, the leader of our oddly assembled outfit, from one dark and dusty old government building to another. I was anxiously anticipating a sudden meeting with a future president, one where I would have only minutes to take the candid portraits I was brought along for. As I didn't understand anything that was said that night, it was often difficult to know what was really happening. While passing through this building's lobby, we began discussing some concerns this Italian woman and myself had about the integrity, and safety, of these men we were going to meet.
In a nondescript government building, disrepaired and dirty from the streets outside, there was a labyrinth of old offices connected to each other by very tall wood doors. We had come here to interview Sameh Ashoor, an attorney of very high status, perhaps the next Minister of Law. We were shuffled between several offices with brown leather furniture, thick with smoke and an awkward quiet in the air. Serious old men with jobs that were a mystery to me, seemed to form checkpoints along the way, gradually allowing us to move closer to our goal. When we went into the office of Ashoor's deputy, seated here, I immediately noticed a black hand gun on the desk and the prayer beads always moving between his fingers. We waited with him for about a half hour, admiring all the portraits of his boss and pictures with heads of state. That's my tea cup on the chair, beneath the security camera.
Having taken the train north to Alexandria, I set out on a late night walk and lost myself not all together accidentally amid a strange maze of back alley vendors. Wander I may, but lost I am not. Despite the late hour, there were lots of people and rodents on the street who seemed to be at home here. This neighborhood was desperately poor, and the conditions I walked through were some of the worst I have ever seen. My feet and senses were growing quite tired and I was starting to wonder how I would find my way back to my hotel overlooking the Mediterranean. As I turned a dark corner the street opened up a bit, framing the soft glow of this old woman's produce stand.
Riding in a taxi on a frantic Cairo highway, we passed this precarious family riding on a moped. It was very alarming to the norms I was used to, and at first I couldn't quite figure out what was wrong with this picture. I came to know Egyptians as a proud, warm-hearted people surrounded by tremendous riches. But ironically, there also seemed to be a distinct lack of common sense, from the highest order of government to the most basic civic functionality. When combined with the tragic, undeserved poverty in which so many citizens lived, it makes scenes like this a little more understandable.
One of the first things I do when traveling to a new part of the world is to find a pub and television somewhere to watch my beloved Manchester United on match days. It's a simple pleasure and tradition I've enjoyed for many years. It also gives me an objective—a need to navigate and engage with new surroundings, normal citizens and various means of transit. My arrival at Cairo's airport was chaotic and surreal, and a long taxi ride past Mubarak's presidential palace felt more like a portal into another universe. Within an hour of arriving my hostel deep in the center of Cairo not far from Tahrir Square, I found an open air café with an Arabic broadcast of an important Champions League match. United lost that night, but even so it was a great experience for me. It was a little normalcy in a strange land at a very precarious moment in time. I went back to this café several more times during my visit, each time greated warmly by a small group of young men with the only English phrase they knew: They called me Wayne Rooney.
It was a cold, meandering winter and I was coming to the end of my second month on the road, rounding the Great Lakes to my dad's house in upstate New York. It was January 25th, but the spring was already here.
On the other side of the world from the cold highway I was on, heading south through Ontario, my car radio was fixed upon a revolution. Days later, dad, Sue and I were watching the dramatic images from the dinner table. I was completely fascinated and inspired by it all—the peaceful pride of the Egyptian people, and the passion and courage they demonstrated. Seeing their movement transpire in real time from this idyllic country place, didn't seem real at all. Selfishly, I wanted to feel why this was happening, and I wanted to drink what they were drinking.
The news cycle would sometimes pan away from the battle of Tahrir Square to all the Egyptian tourist workers standing disconsolate in the midst of so many wonders of the world. The embassies were shuttered, and a groundswell of tourism unabated for hundreds of years, had now vanished overnight. I would half-jokingly say aloud, "Ya know, now is probably a good time to visit. Someone should go there." As if I was talking about anyone else but me. I was testing out what I already knew.
Then it happened. The martyrs from Tahrir Square, along with the rest of the civilized world would celebrate. Conceding to the unity of Egypt's citizens, Hosni Mubarak, their brutal dictator for three decades was now gone. It was at that moment, my decision was made as well. A week later I was walking amidst the intense and wonderful chaos of Cairo.