Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Saturday Stroll to Topple a Dictator

At noon, about a hundred Syrian and Egyptian men and women stood outside the high, anonymous walls of the Syrian Embassy. Most of the women wore full-face veils, while the men wrapped their hair, and sometimes their faces as well, in Syrian flags. They chanted “Freedom for Syria” and danced to a beat pounded out on a low, throbbing drum. I found myself wondering if embassies in Cairo are put in residential neighborhoods so that protests are subject to noise complaints. Then, I remembered that noise complaints would be ironic in what many call the loudest city in the world.

Riot police stood with long, thin batons and body-length plastic shields, producing a vague sense of tension, although it was clear that violence would be unlikely at so peaceful and harmless a demonstration. Every once in a while, tourists would emerge from the King Hotel, across the street, and look about confusedly before finding a taxi.

At around three, the excitement waned. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to turn this into a bloody, pointless showdown with police. The chants wafted away and the people started to disperse. All of a sudden, several women, anonymous in their long black dresses and covered faces, unfurled a banner of the Syrian flag. They began shouting “Allahu Akbar,” God is Most Great!, and walking down the street. A group of young men piled into and on top of an old, extremely corroded salmon-pink car. The driver lit a cigarette and turned the key, and the car sputtered and popped. 

Three men hopped off the top of the car, went around the back, and held their Syrian flags in their teeth as they pushed until the ignition started and the car finally rolled on its own. They hopped back on top as the vehicle, amazingly, crawled behind the women with the banner.

The hasty parade advanced up the street, chanting slogans, beating the drum, allowing ample time for me to fend off sales pitches from men selling Real Ancient Egyptian Antiquities. Several times, I saw Egyptian kids dance along and shout “Syria! Syria!”

The parade, now perhaps 30 or 40-strong, was heading towards the Arab League building downtown. It’s not a long walk, but it’s a walk more designed for a date than for a protest, crossing two bridges over the Nile and a quiet island that holds the Cairo Opera House and a number of manicured, sedate parks. 

As the nearly broken salmon-pink car full of men and the veiled women with the giant Syrian flag made their way across the bridge and the island and the second bridge, they passed couples arm in arm, old men waiting for the bus, and families with small children who would sway to the drum and the chanting.

Cars passing by honked loudly in support, but after a while, the honks started to drown out the marchers. The wind picked up from the Nile below, soaking up the drum, and the chants finally met their match as whiny pop music blared from a small boat sailing under the bridge.

Coming off the bridge, they made a stunning image against the sun, which was starting to dip for the day: the black gowns, the waving flags, the car about to give in to the weight of three young men walking on the roof. The whole delegation arrived at the Arab League building at 4pm, where their home base, the sit-in, has been lulling for weeks. A giant sign implored the Arab League: “Your silence is killing us!”

The marchers stepped across the construction rubble for a new hotel to find shade under an even bigger Syrian flag tied to some trees. Some of the men sat in plastic chairs, while their friends, who had been sitting-in all day, made them tea.

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