February 26th, 2011
I was in the Bahamas when the revolution in Egypt began. It was my first vacation in a long time. But while conversations about real estate and gossip swirled around me, I longed to be in Cairo. A massive protest there was nothing short of miraculous. Years back a friend who lives in Cairo, Yasser Alwan, told me Mubarak’s regime ruthlessly quashed all dissent. I emailed him to check on his well being and see if I could stay with him as I watched events unfold on TV. With the internet down and the revolution in full swing, I hesitated before booking a ticket. In the streets, Mabarak’s thugs were on the attack. At the airport, some photographers’ gearwas confiscated on arrival. I finally heard from Yasser, who said I could stay with him. I decided, despite the risks, to go. I bought a ticket on February 9 and left the following day, stashing atiny point-and-shoot in my coat pocket and hiding a flip video cam inside a container of wet-wipes in my suitcase. I hoped my small rolling bag of professional gear would make it with me into Cairo but was prepared to buy a new point and shoot if none of my gear made it into the country with me.
At the airport in New Orleans, I read online that the story was rapidly changing. Rumor had it Mubarak was stepping down that day. On my Jet Blue flight to New York City’s JFK Airport, I listened to reporters’ speculations and watched as crowds in Tahrir Square began to celebrate in anticipation of Mubarak’s resignation. Someone in the state department confirmed Mubarak would step down. It looked like I was going to miss a key moment in history. Waiting at the gate for my flight to Frankfurt, I heard Mubarak’s speech on CNN; he would not resign. It seemed regime change would wait for me after all.
When I arrived in Cairo International Airport the next day, the customs officer confiscated my gear and that of ABC reporters Jim Dolan and Joseph Tesoro, Fox News’ Courtney Kealy and ITN News reporters John Ray and Robert Bowles. Though Mubark’s regime in recent days had pledged to allow freedom of the press, that proclamation had not made it out to the airport. I did my best to talk my way past the first Customs inspector saying I was going to the Red Sea resort of Sham el Sheikh (where, it turned out, Mubarak would end up), not Tahrir Square. But that didn’t work. It was time to call the American Embassy. I got Adam Lefort, the press liaison, on the line. In the background, Nolan declared they’d have to put him in jail before he’d give up his equipment. Not what Lefort, wanted to hear. He’d been dealing with detained journalists over the last week. Could I please calm Nolan down, Lefort asked. He would send a fax to the airport that might free up our gear, but it became clear a fax was not enough. I’d have to try to retrieve my gear the next day. Nolan too finally gave up and watched as his gear was packed up in an empty Jack Daniels carton. My camera bag was sealed with a string slipped through a zipper and secured by a wax seal that was melted with a piece of paper set on fire. We were all asked to sign papers written in Arabic listing our property that would serve as our claim tickets. (My Arabic-speaking friends later looked at my paper and laughed. I had signed a statement saying I had left my gear at the airport on my own initiative and would pay a storage fee for the service.)
I got into town and headed for the foreign press office at the National TV Building with the Embassy fax and a letter from my photo agency, Corbis to start the process of getting a press pass. The building was under siege, surrounded by barbed wire, tanks and a massive, angry crowd. As night fell, the crowd suddenly erupted. Mubarak had stepped down. In an instant, Cairo turned into a massive party, the streets alive with singing, waving flags and jubilation. I took out my point-and-shot and flip video cam and went to work.
The next day I filled out a press pass application, but no one at the foreign press office could tell me when It would be approved. I needed a new letter from the Embassy saying I would take my gear with me when I left the country. (Why wouldn’t I, I wondered.) The rules were evolving daily. And if I had all the proper passes and papers, properly stamped and signed, I had better go out to the airport’s camera repository at the proper time. I learned from photographer Alan Chin, whose ordeal began on February 6th, that the storage room with its hundreds of cameras closes at 2 p.m.; he got there too late and returned to Cairo empty handed the day before. At the Embassy, Lefort gave me the new letter and said what was going on was unprecedented. There was no go-to guy as there would have been before the revolution to clear things up.
I called a the press office Sunday and was told my pass wasn’t ready. I explained I had to get to a meeting at the pyramids for a press conference to help revive the tourism industry and how horrible it would be to go there without my equipment. Bingo. Suddenly I had the name and number of a senior official who would help. Back to the state TV building where another protest was in progress. I had to fight my way into the lobby, go through a metal detector (it beeped, but no one seemed to care). Once in the foreign press office I enquired about my pass again. No, it wasn’t ready, but when I told my story about how I planned to cover the pyramids, everything changed. I was ushered into the office of the senior official. Press pass? he said. The Embassy said you needed one to collect your gear? You don’t. Special stamps on special letters? No, I didn’t need those either. He’d sign my letter from the Embassy with his own personal signature. Then I should go see Muhammad at the airport right away and if I made it before 2, maybe I’d be able to retrieve my cameras. No guarantee, he said. But the odds were 70%. Better than going to a casino, I thought, pushing my way through the protestors to get into a cab on a traffic-choked street.
It took an additional five hours to get my gear. Muhammad at the airport had me call Madame Laila who walked me through the process. First I had to pay the Egyptian equivalent of $1.50 to get a badge to enter the Customs area a few feet away . I put it in my pocket; no one ever asked to see it. Then I went to Madame Laila’s office where I waited with another female journalist. I paid another dollar for a Customs document and a $2 storage fee. I signed form after form, all in Arabic, hoping I didn’t put my name to something I would later regret. I passed time watching another woman in the office shuffling papers, matching receipts to documents. There was a log book in front of her I had to sign before my stuff could be released. I saw that CNN, PBS, CCTV, ABC and the New York Times had all been there before me. At last I was brought into the storeroom and retrieved my camera bag. The room remained packed with gear. Another hour passed as my bag’s contents were inspected. I was the last journalist they dealt with that day. “You’ll have to come back tomorrow,” a Customs official said. It took me a second to realize he was joking. I took my bag and headed out the door into another taxi and spent the rest of the day in Cairo’s rush hour traffic.
The protestors risked everything for what they believed in. The risk I took to cover the revolution pales in comparison. I got off easy compared to journalists who covered the story from its inception. The Kafkaesque bureaucratic process i dealt with to get my gear back is something Egyptians deal with daily. I salute the people of Egypt for toppling a brutal, repressive regime and all those who put their personal safety on the line to report this story. It was an honor to photograph the jubilant crowds who cheered when Mubarak’s VP announced his departure and the millions who turned out the following Friday to celebrate their victory.
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