This article is the story of how the Arab Spring taught me an abrupt lesson in being open and letting go of expectations while I traveled and studied overseas.
“Aren’t you afraid something like this might happen in Egypt?“
my mom asked.
It was December 2010. NBC Nightly News had just come to a commercial break and we briefly exchanged glances – hers worried and mine rather nonchalant.
Just seconds earlier, scenes of protest and revolt were projected into our living room. Tunisia had erupted into chaos after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable cart owner whose sole source of income – his wares and produce – had been confiscated by police.
I was 20. I was invincible. And I was going to Egypt – not Tunisia.
Sure, the Middle East has been a volatile region for decades. But I was adamant to prove to my friends, my family, and my peers that the Middle East was more than just a hotspot of Islamic extremism and instability. Heck, Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, had been in power for 30 years, and he certainly wasn’t going anywhere soon.
Tunisia was an outlier.
That’s what I kept telling myself. And that’s what many Egyptians kept telling me when I finally arrived in the country a few weeks later.
I was even prepared for the isolated demonstrations that did break out on January 25, 2011 – Egypt’s National Police Day. Apparently anti-police brutality protests were held every year on this day, a small but tolerated jab at the Mubarak regime.
So when I was on a student tour of Old Cairo on January 25 and our guide abruptly ended our walk through the market stalls of Khan al-Khalili, I wasn’t too worried. I wasn’t worried either when we were told to board buses to New Cairo, a suburb on the city’s outskirts, and stay there for a few hours until the demonstrations simmered down.
And they did, at least for a little while. Nobody, not even the locals, thought this year’s protests would be any different than in years past.
But while the protests simmered down, they didn’t die out completely.
Family and friends sent concerned emails, having seen the demonstrations on the news. But in a city of 10 million inhabitants, life goes on if only a few thousand are protesting.
Four days later, I went for a walk with three other students down the leafy streets of Zamalek, an affluent suburb in central Cairo where our dorm was located. We approached a riverfront cafe and were lured in by the smell of cardamom coffee. I sat down on a white wicker chair and looked across the Nile.
And then, finally, I saw it: Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the demonstrations.
I wasn’t frightened. I wasn’t nervous. I was, to be frank, excited. “Well, this will make for an interesting story,“ I thought to myself. I took out my camera and began to take pictures. We were at a safe vantage point anyways… or so I thought.
That’s when my plans to study abroad in Egypt were turned upside down.
As dramatic as it may sound, there really is no other way to describe it.
I had hardly had a sip of coffee when I heard gunshots. But instead of a sound that reverberated from across the river, the gunshots were fired from somewhere behind us.
And then it came. At first it was just a tingling of the throat. A tickle. I thought I had to sneeze.
Suddenly, my eyes began to water. It was as if I had just inhaled the contents of a pepper shaker. My throat was burning now.
It dawned on me: tear gas.
I looked across the river and, to my astonishment, saw that the protesters were now fleeing. They were being dispersed from Tahrir Square, and many of them were running across a nearby bridge straight toward us… and also straight toward the riot police waiting somewhere behind us.
I will never forget the words of the Egyptian waiter who tried to calm us down in that moment. Kuluh tamam, everything is okay.
But everything wasn’t okay.
We shoved the waiter a 50 pound note and ran to the sidewalk, waving frantically at every passing car and taxi while burying our faces in our scarves and jackets.
The first car passed and the driver shook his head and hands. No.
Another passed. Also no.
Finally, a taxi slowed down and all four of us bolted in. “Ala tul, ala tul, straight ahead,“ I shouted.
Thirty minutes later, on the rooftop terrace of our dormitory, I looked out at the city around me. Plumes of smoke were rising on the horizon. Car alarms and sirens were blaring in side streets. Gunshots were being fired in the distance.
Later, this day would be come to be called the Day of Rage.
In the next few days until my ultimate evacuation from Egypt, I was plagued by a sense of uncertainty I had never known before. Nationwide curfews were imposed early in the afternoon. Internet and cell phone service was shut down. Supermarkets began to run out of fresh produce.
It was now obvious that these protests weren’t something normal. Perhaps Tunisia really wasn’t an outlier after all.
On the night I signed up for an evacuation flight, January 30, 2011, I went into the bathroom and began to sob.
I was upset because the semester I spent a year planning for had vanished into thin air.
I was upset because my attempt to prove the Middle East isn’t always an unstable place had failed.
I was upset because I had taken the whole affair so lightly at the beginning.
And I was upset because, for the first time in my life, I had absolutely no idea what to do.
I had no idea where I would be evacuated to (I ended up on a flight to Istanbul). Nor did I have any clue how to proceed with my studies (it was too late in the semester for me to return to my home university in the United States).
In the end, I managed to find a study abroad program in the United Arab Emirates that took me in at short notice, and I even went back to Egypt that summer to volunteer at two NGOs.
But I won’t sit here and tell you everything turned out alright.
I was robbed of an opportunity to explore Egypt to my heart’s content – a country I had dreamed of visiting for some time. In retrospect, I was so focused on visiting Egypt that I didn’t really enjoy my time in the Emirates.
I left the Middle East feeling disoriented and confused.
Before Egypt, I had hoped to pursue a Master’s Degree in Middle Eastern Studies or International Development. My life after graduation was all planned out, or at least a part of it. After eight months in the Middle East, though, I returned to the United States not knowing what I really wanted to do anymore.
I was lost. I was directionless. And I was frustrated.
Looking back on this trip almost five years later, I realize that, at the time, there was one important lesson I hadn’t yet learned:
While you may know your destination, you’ll never really know where it will take you.
Sometimes, this can be thrilling and exciting. But it can also be incredibly nerve-wracking, as Egypt showed me.
At the end of the day, though, the only thing I really could do is to stay open to the experience, be flexible, and let go of any expectations. And that, I believe, is one of the most important, but also hardest things to do when traveling.
I’ll admit, it’s a skill I haven’t mastered yet…
But if anything, Egypt certainly nudged me a good bit closer. And for that, I will be forever grateful.