Filming in Egypt was no easy task, for there was an atmosphere of suspicion that I did not expect. My mind was still entrapped in the euphoric freedom that exploded during the early days of the revolution, where a constant stream of videos premiered on YouTube. I was suprised to find Cairo quite the opposite when I arrived, nervous and tense.
From the onset of our visit, family and friends forewarned us not to take photos and avoid crowded public spaces. It was election time. At first I dismissed those comments as overtly cautious. However, as I started to film in various neighborhoods in Cairo, I began to realize the validity of the foreboding warnings. Walking down the street with a video camera made me the object of questioning stares, defensive glances and comments, accusatory questions, and discreet avoidances of the camera.
On December 28th, when we went to Tahrir Square, I decided not to take my video camera, which was a good thing. The caution that friends and family advised was not in vain. My ability to speak fluent Arbic with a Lebanese accent, and my mother and cousin's ability to muster an Egyptian accent, did not mask our foreign identity. There were many groups of Egyptians gathered around different speakers in heated debates over political parties, parliamentarian candidates, military council, price of meat, and their future. When my mother took out her iPhone to record the debates, a woman looked at her suspiciously and asked her where she was from and why she was there.
I describe the tenuous atmosphere in detail because it contextualizes the most eye-opening event of my travels. On my last day of research in Cairo we went to find the original headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ikhwan, in Darb El Ahmar, an old neighborhood in Cairo near the Citadel. I had seen photos of the building in my grandfather's study in Kuwait, with the leader Hassan Al Banna delivering his weekly sermon to a crowd of thousands. The pink exterior of the 1920's art deco building now stood starkly amongst the gritty four-story homes with faded signs. The white sign at the entrance of the building read, in Arabic: Darb El Ahmar Police Station. The Brotherhood's headquarters had been confiscated by Nasser in the early 1950's and converted into a police station.
As we arrived I surreptitiously filmed the side of the building from the car, having gotten no reaction from the guards, we parked, exited the car, and inched closer to get some better shots. We were in plain view of the guards.
Once we had gotten as close as we thought we could, we snapped a few last pictures, returned to the car, and proceeded to back out of the narrow street. We were almost on our way when a policeman tapped on my cousin's window and beckoned him to come out. Apparently they had noticed us taking photographs and were not too pleased. From the passenger seat it slowly became clear that the issue was not going to be smoothed over in a matter of minutes as the men followed the policeman into the Darb El Ahmar.
Minutes passed an they did not return, it began to dawn on me that this was a serious situation. I quickly and discreetly replaced the memory card with a new one, hid the orginial in my underwear and filmed some shots from the neighborhood that would come across as innocent enough, avoiding the police station. We had other pertinent information in the car, including my mom's laptop that we hid under the seat. Although we suspected that if they ended up searching the car it would be a futile effort.
I am not sure how much time passed, but eventually one of my cousins came back and said the police wanted our identification. I had left my passport in the hotel and was not carrying my student ID. My mom had her Egyptian passport and Emirates ID that says she is a US citizen. She hesitated for a few seconds as to which would be the better nationality to present. In Cairo we had sensed alot of suspicion towards foreigners, but on the other hand an Egyptian passport would mean that there wouldnt be the protection of a foreign embassy. Finally my mom decided to give them her Egyptian passport, but as it was not stamped for entry at the airport it would be clear that she is a dual citizen of Egypt and the USA.
We were escorted into the police station and taken to the chief's office on the second floor that was unlocked especially for us. We were detained there for three hours as they looked through our cameras and phone and interrogated us about the purpose of our trip to Cairo and interest in filming this specific location that was not a "tourist attraction".
Three different officials appeared in ascending order of "officialness" and seniority. We were offered tea and coffee constantly. The questions kept coming along with the tea. They asked us what TV station we were from; we told them we were tourists. They said that tourists never visit these areas; we told them that my grandfather used to live in the neighborhood over sixty years ago. They asked us why this specific building; we told them it was because of the unique art deco architecture. They asked us if we knew, "whose palace this was" before it became a police station; we answered that we didn't. They proceeded to tell us it was Hassan Al Banna's house and my cousin retorted that Banna was a modest man and would not have lived in such a place. My mother attempted to shush him. They asked us what we were doing in Cairo for the third time, we told them we came to attend a friend's wedding and decided to re-visit the places my grandfather grew up in. Throughout this interrogation copious phone calls were made corroborating the information we were supplying.
As we were being questioned, a variety of people from the neighborhood came in to plea their cases with the chief. Two teenage boys had gotten into a fight because one boy insulted the other boy's mother. Another boy was caught with "pills" in sizeable quantities and the police were interrogating the source. A man came in to plead the release of his nephew. At all times the plain clothed offical was stern and threatening.
At one point, when my mother objected to the policeman searching through her text messages, he deigned to tell her that, "we are under emergency law and the police can do whatever they want." A woman had entered the room and was sitting beside me, I wondered if she had been called in to body search us, as it turns out she had come to see the police to settle another matter.
The time continued to pass, the tea made me nervous, but the questions eventually died down and it became clear that everything was probably going to be ok. They had verified our information and received some level of clearance. They gave us back our identification, iPhone, and cameras.
While they were handwriting the incident report, the official sitting behind the big desk began to ask us what we thought of Egypt and the revolution. We tried to answer equivocally, saying that we don't really think about the revolution too much and that it is early to tell. A phone call came in from someone senior, and he reported that the military officers accused for shooting Egyptian citizens during the early days of the revolution, in an area known as Sitina Zeinab, had been found not guilty by the military court. The chief was clearly pleased that "justice had been served" and asked us what we thought. I smiled, my mom gave him a thumbs-up, and my cousins kept a straight face. We did not want to get drawn into another contentious issue as we were about to be released.
The report was completed, we all signed it, and finally were led down the stairs to our car. All of us held our breath as we drove away, no one spoke a word till we were safely on the highway to my cousin's home for what was meant to be lunch but had now become dinner. We all turned to each other and agreed that we were very, very, very lucky that they had not searched the car or taken the matter further. For inside the car we had the original prints of photographs my grandfather had taken while in prison (these had not left Kuwait for sixty years), the only memior my grandfather ever wrote, and a transcription of an interview with a member of the current Ikhwan. Had they searched the car all of the information that my grandfather had worked so hard to protect for over half a century would have fallen into the exact hands of those he was trying to keep it from.
It has taken me a long time to post this story because for a while I really was hesitant to continue this project. In some ways I was exactly what the military government in Egypt now feared; an individual sponsored by a foreign institution, probing political issues with specific relation to the Muslim Brotherhood, which at this time last year was still an illegal organization in Egypt.
Through all of this however I could not help but feel a strange sense of irony. I was detained at the exact place where my grandfather would have been arrested. My fear and anxiety about possibly not getting to go home was my grandfather's reality for many years. I understood in a deeper way how much courage it actually took and how much my grandfather had laid on the line to achieve something larger than him, something that he never got to see in his lifetime, which may possibly be achieved through the events that transpired in Tahrir Square on the 25th of January, 2011.