I'm living in Maadi, a Cairo suburb, watching events unfold. “If only I had a gun,” Steve said down the phone to me, pretty clear, he’d said call me on the land line- I could tell he wanted his mobile open at all times. Just in case. Just in case. It’s that “Just in case thinking” that builds the anxiety, the stuff that can harden into fear- you don’t want to go there. As my pal Roland said this morning as we sipped tea on his balcony and tried to see where the shooting was coming from and then, after a decent pause, agreed it was probably better to be inside as no one else was on a balcony anywhwre to be seen. As Roland said, “It’s the ‘what ifs’ that get you.” I said, “After this is over, if we leave then I’m putting steel bars across my door.’ “Another what if, said Roland. “No its not I said, a trifle hotly, but it was.
Back to Steve, “If only I had a shotgun I’d sit at the top of the stairs and wait for ‘em. No problem.” “You’ve been watching too many movies,” I said. And I really did, as he spoke, have this cool image of Steve, who is pretty cool, he’s a film maker who’s dodged tanks and bullets in Palestine, sitting in the half shade at the top of his stairs cradling a pump action like Clint or something. The thing is I know that people keep coming when they are shot and as Samia my wife says it all depends on how courageous they are. Back to courage. Old hamingway, I must say I had grown to think him a deplorable tosspot until this morning. All that stuff about courage- well he was onto something – except wrong in this way- talking about courage builds too easily into its dangerous illegitimate brother- bravado- rather talk instead about the absence of fear, the chasing away of fear, the ignoring of fear, or actually it's vanguard- anxiety. Knotted stomach. Thoughts in a stiff glassy rut going nowhere. People reveal themselves so very obviously. Matthew sounded desperate, “Get this you won’t believe it but the guys in my building instead of guarding the front just started opening beers and drinking and then at 11pm they all fell asleep so I had to take another stint on guard duty and when I said , come on guys they ignored me. Can you believe that? Mathew lives in Digla pretty close to Tora where they let out all the prisoners- they say- another rumour- but still just over the tracks from him Paul Gordon was rushed nine times by ‘thugs’. They call them ‘thugs’- my wife Samia does too- a direct translation. These thugs are either chancers or ex-cops or cons on the lam. No one is sure. They ride three up on motorbikes and five ina car, the dusty saloons with busted tail lights. I saw a whole load of them ten bikes, three or four to a bike roar past and they looked pretty normal. Must be other guys judging by the pictures on the TV of ten captured thugs- they really look rough. Saw one guy like that this morning as I walked to get Roland his high blood pressure pills. “Got enough for five days,” he said, a little carefully, certainly not his usual laissez faire self, the self on the balcony watching the tracer fire with his binoculars. So I miraculous find a drugstoe open and miraculously buy him the exact special pills he takes “they’re not cheap” he had warned and then when I tell him the price I can tell they were even more than usual but we find there are enough for two weeks instead of ten days so he is happy. Blood pressure. I could feel mine rising on the way to the drugstore to buy his blood pressure pills. Got to relax. The reason revolution is a young man’s game is when you are below 40 - you do not worry that you’re heart might explode however fast it is beating. You’re BP can skyrocket- who cares? But now you care. And anxiety can blow it high. And dogs. The dogs. Behind our house is a garden full of dogs. Five dogs. They used to bark a lot until the owner forced a servant to camp out in the garden with them and quiet them down. But the servant is gone and the dogs- they do bark. I could not sleep, or I was sleeping as tense as a log and then this barking seemed to mix with shouts and gun fire and I realised I was getting tense and anxious and…not fearful but you simply cannot afford to get tense and anxious- that is the key, plus avoiding the ‘what ifs’. Anyway I did this tension and release exercise without much hope of it working and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep and awoke and the light was coming in through the window and no one had invaded or tried to invade our house…
My friend Paul had called the night before and Samia had taken his call and said he was somewhat anxious because there were thugs in his street. He lives on a wide throughfare- the direct route from Tora prison to the fat heartlands of Maadi where all the rich folk like us live. I called him and he sounded a tad excited, “We’ve got three guns on our building and they’ve rushed us nine times,” he said. I felt I had to say something less exciting. I understood instantly the whole English thing of calling a war ‘an incident,’ a riot ‘trouble’, violence ‘confrontation’. I said, ‘The Mosque PA broadcast that there were some…rowdy men in the next street.” He sort of acknowledged the deliberate downplay but realised it was not a put down but an attempt to be calming.”Thank you friend,” he said. Paul is a priest and always cracks a joke or laughs when we speak- a very necessary way of keeping things in perspective, especially with all the rumours flying around. I heard that the local library had been torched because it was opened by Suzanne Mubarak. I walked down to have a look- not only was it untouched- the flag was flying and a timid security guard was making tea in the shadows. Though most of the Americans have gone Paul feels he must stay, take each day as it comes.
“I just feel so…naked,” said Steve, “Without a gun. I got the kitchen knives that’s all.” “Tape one to a broom handle and make a spear I said. “Yeah, a spear can be fucking unwelcome if you’re not expecting it, Steve said, perking up.
Weapons. What do you do when you haven’t got a shot gun or .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 got my wooden sword out, the one I did aikido with in Japan. In samurai times guys with wooden swords sometime beat guys with steel swords. It feels surprisingly light and ineffective. I find – as joke- an enormous Spanish meat cleaver we have and put in by the door. In about ten minutes it looks like a good idea- not a joke at all. The kids are looking out the window, “That guy has a baseball bat, and he’s got a cricket bat, he has some wood- that one has a golf club.” “A cricket bat?” I query ona kind of distracted time lag, “Yep.,” says both son and daughter, (9 and 11) “and a ball.” I don’t know whether to believe them or not. But it doesn’t matter. That’s the great thing about living in a revolutuion. The normal things you worry about telling your kids- do this don’t do that- it all goes out of the window- all you care about is whether they are …not scared. I’m becoming like my mother in law, who is here with us now, her building having been the home of a former minister- now long gone with his slouching bodyguads and police protection. There is no police. None. That is weird- have ever been anywhere urban in the world where there are no police? Some are hunkered down in their police stations but many stations have been burnt to the ground, as have hundreds of police wagons, lorries with little looholes they used to peer out of wearing their riot helmets- all gone. Like some JG Ballard novel.
I crept out each day to scout around my neighborhood- Maadi- which is about twenty five minutes drive from the centre when there are road bocks or traffic. The nearby Carrefour hypermarket – the biggest in Cairo was looted and torched they say- though in my street and the ones around there has been very little looting. Last night some people tried to loot the Telephone company office and the army- who are here now in force, after the hiatus of nothing but neighborhood watch committees with their sticks- shot them all from the comfort of their tank. Roland watched it from the top of his building and said it was, well, the real thing.