Allen's Blog

Dispatches from Cairo

DIS-patch (n.): An official report from a correspondent (usually sent in haste)

Like just about everyone else, I’ve been riveted by the current events in Cairo. But my interest goes a bit deeper, because for a number of years in the 1970s, I spent months each year based in Cairo, shooting stories throughout Egypt and all over the Middle East. Cairo itself has always been a chaotic city, requiring tremendous inventiveness just to exist there.

Cairo men hanging off back of streetcar

At the time that Cairo was my base, there was no easy telephone service out of the country, and fax and FedEx barely existed; only telex — which, depending on your age, you may not have known ever existed. Sending a message back to New York meant a trip to the government press center, and a bribe to the late night operator (nothing new there, since virtually every single transaction with anyone in a position of authority required “baksheesh”). And in many ways, Egypt hasn’t changed all that much. Poverty, overcrowding,  unemployment, and corruption are still the rule, but mass communication and social media have put a new spin on this year’s events.

Telex - remaining in Cairo

Looking through a file of old telex messages produced this one that is a reminder of previous unrest. And after the story had been covered, getting pictures back to the U.S. meant going to the airport and finding a passenger or crew member travelling to New York who would carry a bag of unprocessed film to JFK Airport, there to be met on arrival by a courier on arrival. Interestingly enough, I never lost a roll of film to one of these helpful strangers.

When the current unrest began, some media reports referred back to the last widespread uprisings in Egypt, in 1977, over increases in the government-controlled price of bread. I was there for those, and though there was some tear gas in the air, a lot of rocks thrown,  and a small number of people with guns drawn, it was nothing compared to we’ve seen in the past several weeks. Nor did the demonstrations back then bring down the country’s president and government.

Mural of Anwar Sadat in Cairo

So here’s to Twitter and Facebook, and a lot of very brave people (including  journalists), with the hope that six months or a year from now, we’ll see a lot of real democratic progress in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. The part of me that forgets his bad knees and shoulders would have liked to have been in the middle of Tahrir Square again; the sensible part will insist I wait a while and return as a tourist.