I Usually Ask for a High Floor–Tom Hurwitz, Witness in Egypt

This is an account of the battle in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, written by Tom Hurwitz.  Tom is an old friend and a respected documentary cinematographer for more than thirty years.   He vividly describes the night that pro-Mubarak forces threw firebombs along with rocks in a violent attempt to end the uprising. As Tom explains, he was in Egypt by coincidence, there to film something entirely different. He ended up in his hotel room overlooking the battle, keeping his camera on. One more witness to history. Tom has allowed me to share this.

— Alan S.


I usually ask for a high floor.  Somehow the morning’s sight of the burned out hulks of police riot trucks, the blackened shell of the Nile-front office building that used to be the ruling party headquarters, the refusal of the hotel staff to let us drive through the gate up to the entrance, the plywood covering the glass doorway of the Ramses Hilton…  set the demanding cameraman in me back on his heels. Anyway, it was only the director and I; and our rooms were next door to each other, and this was a giant step up from the little hole-in-the-wall hotel where we usually stay in Cairo.  So after a prolonged debate to convince Mahmood, the belligerent desk clerk who insisted that since the internet was down all reservations were off and rooms now cost twice what we booked them for, to honor the Hilton’s word, we trundled our stuff to our third floor rooms – and entered our box seats on the next 48 hours of Egypt’s revolution.

Bleary from our 20-hour trip and preoccupied with putting together our very stripped-down camera and sound gear, we spent almost no time at our windows at first. It was clear, however, that we had an amazing view. In the distance across a network of ramps and fly-overs that lead to the Oct. 6th Bridge over the Nile was Tahrir Square, not a square really but a huge plaza that stretches in front and around the great Egyptian Museum, a huge squat red stone building that looks a bit like a Victorian train station. The museum and the roadways hid the square itself from our view, but the roar from it, that rose and fell in volume, came to us as we opened our windows. Above it hung a cloud that was usually the dust of tens of thousands of protesters, but at times became dense with tear gas or the smoke of molotov cocktails.

We never made it to the Square. We never met the mass of people who embodied the hope of freedom for Egypt. Our tasks and the rush of events kept us back, but still the Egyptian revolution surged around us during our short time there.

Jed Rothstein, my boss, is the creator of our film about kids in Egypt, in a repressive Muslim world, trying to find their personal liberation through heavy-metal music.  A model of multitasking, he alternated between fiddling with sound gear and phoning to reach our subjects. As preoccupied as we were though, we became aware of something happening right in front of us. Crowds were gathering on the Corniche out our windows, loudly chanting.

Somewhat organized, we descended again into the lobby of the hotel and into the swarm of what is proudly called “the international press corps.” It has a far grander name than appearance. All a certain age, only a few in either real youth or later life, with faces that have seen too many deadlines and not enough sleep, too many crises and not enough holidays, they seem to shop at the same practical-clothes web site. A blonde attractive woman spoke in crisp sentences into a cell phone describing her observations of the morning. I smiled but I was too close, she stood and moved away lest I hear some secret bits that give her story its edge.

I have been around these people at events that range from war and rebellion to White House press conferences. At breakfast, alternately competing and sharing, they huddle in groups around tables — the TV crews — or sit singularly or in pairs — the writers. They remind me somehow of odd birds, wary of threat, flocking together or flying away singularly. News of the next development passes through them in a process all its own. It is sometimes shared, sometimes kept in confidence. Though they eat avidly in the Hilton’s one open restaurant, pecking away at the central buffet, their real food is information, which they consume voraciously. They look so much like their type that it feels as if I should recognize some of them, but I rarely do. Yet, I defeat my introversion and speak to some of the inordinately large number of French people, exercising my French to make up for my ignorance of Arabic.

I am with them, but I am not of them. We wear the same clothes, but we are cut from radically different cloth. They are here for the news story. I am here shooting a documentary in which the news story is only an episode, even if it is a world-shaking one. I am following my subjects; they are following the news – one team is already talking about going on to Yemen. Some are incredibly brave and skillful, the war writers and the still photographers. They produce the images or sentences that become emblems for whole historical moments. I have filmed the same bodies or dived into the same ditch for cover. A few are idols of mine, but we are really not colleagues. At times we may point our cameras at the same thing, but we have different goals.  I have to think about how my shots fit into the structure of a feature-length film. They have to think about how it will play on the news tonight, or in the paper tomorrow.  Every choice I make, who I follow, what I make my camera see, is put to a different purpose.  I shoot long-form; they do news.

As Jed and I were preparing our gear and trying to contact the heroes of our film, the crowd roar came in waves from the distant direction of Tahrir Square, our Moses’ view of the Promised Land. More and more, around our hotel, crowds of  aroused people were forming and growing, passing by in yelling groups on the maze of ramps outside our windows. At first, we couldn’t tell which side they were on. As they waved their signs that were indecipherable to us, shouted equally unknowable slogans, bellowing in very clear rage, we began to understand that this was a new presence in downtown. Groups of ten to twenty would take off at a trot, sometimes two or three squads rendezvousing in front of us, chanting. Later the same group would pass us, and again several times, cheering and chanting.

It became inescapable, even to our neophyte eyes, that these were counter-demonstrators. Who was organizing them? The crowds kept growing. At one point, dozens of young men rode by on horses and camels, whooping and whistling. The mood seemed upbeat but even then there was an odd sinister edge.  By circling, they were almost comically using the oldest trick in the book to multiply their affect. Yet, the picture was becoming no joke at all. We came to find out that the whole counter-demonstration was a bag of old tricks. Since Saturday, when the brutal riot police had been forced off the streets, the government had been stunningly absent. This morning someone, maybe the boss of bosses, was starting to fight back.

Old Mubarak tricks: claiming that the opposition is run by foreigners, this time Europe and Iran; busing in thugs; paying them 50 Egyptian pounds and a tablet of Viagra to beat heads, burn, brutalize and intimidate opponents; arresting journalists. They would resort to all these and more in the next 48 hours, as the confrontation escalated out our windows. Now around noontime, it seemed more like a loud bunch of football hooligans were gathering out there.

Osama appeared at our door with hugs. His face, with its salt and pepper stubble, was rounder than one remembers but just as engaging. Palestinian scarf around his neck, never out of his khaki jacket, his eyes crinkled affection for us. Our translator-fixer on every shoot of this film, he should be with us all the time, but he’s not. He should have picked us up as we arrived this early morning at the airport. Yet, out of the insane traffic of people trying to get out of Cairo emerged only Ahmed, a driver who was working for him. Where was Osama? The answer was that he is stuck to his Canadians. A large CBC crew has him on contract, has had him for weeks, even living at the hotel here so he can be available. We knew that. But, his other clients are not leaving in time for him to move over to us the way that they had planned. That, we did not know. He is amazingly tired, steering these people around, making their work happen hour after hour. He has guys working for him who can fill in. He can work with us, “it is a promise,” he says, one we fear that cannot be kept.

Working with Osama on past trips has made us love him. He laughs easily, and he is sharp and capable in a business that does not easily cross the cultural divide between first and third worlds. He is truly simpatico, and Jed has risked our trip here on his word that he will work with us. Without even the barest knowledge of Arabic beyond eight words each, we are useless alone. Our characters speak English, but we cannot make arrangements, drive places, and evaluate threats without him. Your fixer is your life-blood, and we have learned to rely on him. Now he was assuring us that he could split his time; we can work out a schedule so that he can serve both masters. His eyes were wild and tired, like he was pulled beyond his limits even before we had arrived. Jed and I were getting worried.

We were pulled out of our logistical dilemma; the girls arrived. Jed had made contact with two of our characters.  Shareen and Perry have formed a heavy-metal girl band called Mascara to play this male-centered music, in this male-centered society. They rock. Shareen growls. It is quite an act. They were just outside the door of our hotel and they were wild with fury.

They and the two boys who are with them had been chased by a group of pro-Mubarak demonstrators, up to the front of the Hilton but the doormen wouldn’t let them in, not even if we invited them. They yelled at the scrum of hotel security at the door, eyes flashing. To the hotel it was a logical security move, surrounded by demonstrations for seven days now. To the girls, it summed up their experiences since the morning. The beautiful solidarity of Egyptians, manifest in the last few days was breaking down. Egypt was dividing. “I am an Egyptian girl,” Shareen punches with her words, “and they won’t even protect me. What are we fighting for? What do these days mean?” They were very angry and they were afraid, the fear almost successfully covered. She and Perry were pulled away by their friends; then one at a time they turned back in rage; then were pulled away again; then turned back. I was filming, the hotel guys were furious at me.

Finally, we all left the safer precincts of the hotel and stepped out into a street full counter demonstrators and riot wreckage. Last Friday and Saturday, after the second day of peaceful demonstration, the riot police had attacked with truncheons, tear gas and water cannon. Enraged, the crowd had fought back for 12 or 14 hours, burning police riot trucks, police stations, the hated Interior Ministry, and the ruling DRP party headquarters, now an empty shell on the other side of the bridge ramps. Here in the street the girls were calming down as we made our way around three or four burned armored cars, lying cadaverous, and to the corner where the army barred entrance to the road. In and around their tanks, the soldiers stood guard, controlling. I was still filming, only half aware of the full situation. No one gets by the soldiers, but the guys who originally threatened the girls were still following. No I can’t film now, but yes we could get through if we go around and between the two metal-armored monsters.

Tanks are odd beasts. Stationary, they are so big that they seem like buildings, oddly static and sculptural. They are obstacles that are almost too big to feel threatening. Once they start moving, pointing turrets and machine guns, they become violent beyond measure. We walked through them and past a half dozen more guarding the television tower down the Corniche, the ordinarily graceful street next to the Nile. I started to shoot again. A few minutes passed, then the girls and their boys stopped me. We had entered what was clearly enemy territory.  The Corniche was filled with counter-demonstrators.

The crowd had been pumping up its emotions. They waved flags and pictures of Mubarak. Unlike the protesters who step on them and deface them, these people held them proudly as they chanted. One word of Arabic that I know is the word for filming. Guys were yelling it at me. Some wanted to be filmed; some were angry that I might film. Lock eyes with anyone as we walked – not too fast – and they began to scream and follow us. The girls, with their uncovered heads, beautiful faces with a piercing or two, flowing hair were obviously on the other side.  I, with my camera (though it was my least conspicuous camera) was clearly an enemy as well. Thugs followed us and then left us, only to be replaced by new followers in a kind of rotating one-sided argument. We just kept walking in a hurried but not too hurried broken field pattern, eyes carefully not focused on the faces and signs, finding the emptiest path through, heading north to the next bridge, angry shouting ringing in our ears.

After about a quarter of a mile we reached it. Cars were stopping on the bridge and unloading guys with signs, who headed down to where we had just come from. From the vantage point, we looked back. We had just walked through the huge rear area of the counter-demonstrators, where they were massing, building up their enthusiasm and starting off toward Tahrir Square.

We hadn’t talked much, but our guys were clearly shaken. Jed wanted to interview them. Sensing what they were going to say, I wanted have the counter-demonstration behind them as they talked to us on camera, but they were too scared. We were too close. We crossed the Nile and descended onto the island of Gesira. Within a block we were in a different world, the district called Zamelek, an old dowager of a neighborhood of graceful, slightly bohemian character, with decrepit buildings. In normal times it is calm respite from the crazed and bustling streets of Cairo, that day it was a dusty ghost town. A few men stood guard at their buildings in the absence of any police; otherwise the place was deserted.

We sat the girls down by the edge of the river, the boys watching nearby. The sound of crowd roiled behind them. Jed squatted uncomfortably next to me to keep the girls eyes close to the camera; I shot video with a `still’ camera. Their emotions rolled out of them. Shareen, round face with a profile from the wall of a temple and glistening Egyptian hair, Perry, lighter skin, pierced in a couple of places, they both have amazingly bright eyes, even when they are in despair.  The adrenalized fear of the past hours has left them. Now, depressed and hopeless they talked of leaving for anywhere, even America.

The last few days had been ecstatic, they tell us. The united people forced the fearsome police from the streets and then kept the city safe, even as Mubarak’s people let criminals out of the jails and spurred on looting. The desire for freedom brought the people together in the square. The feeling there had been a vision of the birth of a new land, a new spirit, and new culture. The people related to each other like comrades not rigidly divided by gender and class, caring for each other, keeping everything peaceful, Christians and Moslems, holding hands, each guarding the other’s prayer. All this felt to them as though it was now breaking down. Now Egypt was pulling itself apart, perhaps in the beginnings of a civil war. “I am sick of this place and this culture,” they said, “you don’t know how hard it is to be a woman here. Even if you wear modest clothes,” she gestured to their loose jeans and jackets, “they are on you all the time.” A couple of uniformed guards, watching over a shuttered floating restaurant, looked on inquisitively.

We finished the interview as the sun is setting, said goodbye to the guards and began to walk back through the empty streets of Zamelek towards the hotel. The girls would stay on the Island, safe. First, let’s all have some soda or something to drink. Jed and I looked at each other. We didn’t feature walking fixerless back through a crowd that could only have gotten wilder, in the growing dark. Nor did we need to walk further away to find a soda. Yet, needing to affirm our contact with them, relate to them as friends, not simply as subjects… and, really, overcome with affection for these beautiful and brave people, we followed to a `kiosk,’ really a small box, where the owner sells junk food to those in need of it, like us. We drank. It got darker.

Their friend Bashir, a photographer himself, volunteered to take us back. He is not tall, not distinctive looking, but deeply intelligent and calm, all good traits for a photographer. Normally fairly gifted with a sense of direction, I was immediately turned around. Left to my own devices I would have walked toward all the way to the wrong side of Cairo. We crossed back over the Nile and, taking a deep breath, down into the counter demonstrator base camp that we had left a couple of hours before.  The crowd was thinner and more thuggish now. Strangely, they were less concerned with us, and more with each other and what some speakers were saying. Yet still, some are on me immediately when I accidently look into the face of one crazed guy. They yelled and gestured. If I could understand what they were saying, I still would have kept walking, eyes forward. There was now a line of soldiers keeping the people back from a few intact government buildings. We headed for them. Trying to ignore the menacing gaggle that had begun to follow us, we stay next to the army, brushing their uniforms as we tried to walk slowly and inconspicuously, two gringos, one of them with a large camera-shaped bump under his jacket, being led by a somehow-too-calm Egyptian. The gathering darkness helps. So does the preoccupation of the thugs with their slogans and chants.

We made it to the hotel unscathed. In doing so, we achieved more than our safety. Jed and I were both thinking that we may have found our local cameraman, associate producer, guy who can go where we can’t, a true prize — but sorry, he still can’t get into the hotel.  While he waited patiently in front, we looked at some footage that he had shot with the girls over the past few days. It took looking at five shots to know for sure. This guy is a real cameraman. The qualities that helped get us back safely inform his work, intelligence, calm, grace under pressure, and… he listens. Jed booked him and paid him in advance.

Upstairs, we poured each other a drink from the bottle of good whiskey that we bought in the Paris airport and clinked glasses, digesting the day and feeling ravenous. We had not eaten since the nothing breakfast of the plane.

Osama and his CBC cameraman, a Palestinian named Samer, joined us at dinner. The news was bad. While we were across the Nile doing our interviews, the character of central Cairo had changed again. The pro-Mubarak crowds had trimmed to just young toughs. They had charged the square in a series of attacks, one led by the guys on horses and camels who had seemed so humorous earlier. The protesters were pushed way back into the square but seemed to have re-formed and held their lines. Many journalists were caught in the fight as the battle was joined.

Samer, a man who lives his life in occupied Palestine, and has faced death many times, was mad at Osama. He berated him in front of us, breaking protocol. Caught in the middle of a charge by rock throwing thugs earlier in the day, Osama had panicked and ran away from them. Worried about another crewmember, he had taken his eye off the situation at hand and, according to Samer, put everyone in danger. Osama smiles in embarrassment. Embarrassed, I tried to pull the conversation around to war stories, and off of tests of personal courage. It works.

We used a phrase in the student radical days, “gut check.” It meant that it’s a test. Do you have the courage to pass it or not? It occurs to me that part of the familiar rhythm of the news crisis, the war, the volatile situation is the gut check. Do you have the courage (or the love of the story, or the lack of concern for your family) to go out the next day, to drive up that road, to walk into the crowd, to take out the camera, to stand up and shoot when they are firing, to ask that very tough question? The other part of the gut-check is that you have to be smart. Being smart, like knowing when to run and when to walk, knowing which guy to follow and which guy to stay away from, knowing incoming from harmless mortar fire, keeps you alive. Courage is useless if you are stupid and get yourself killed, or stuck deep with a screwdriver like a German photographer the next day. Part of the brilliance of the crisis experience is that there are never-ending gut checks… pass the gut check, get the shot and be smart and stay alive… until you step on the mine anyway, or get beaten and thrown into jail anyway no matter how smart you are.

And yet I knew why this man was berating Osama. He is, in fact, afraid in spite of everything. His life has been spent in terror of the secret police. Growing up in fear of the state, Egyptians in all walks of life are gun-shy, or thug shy. They worry when a car full of men in dark jackets passes by. Osama, working with journalists, has edged out on the cliff over an abyss of arrest and torture, time after time. It has worn him down. A life in fear has turned him into a coward. Cowards can get you killed.

Back in our rooms, the sounds of the street brought us to the window. The whole world had changed again. There was a pitched battle going on out there. However united and friendly the people of Tahrir Square were, now with almost continuous fighting between it and our hotel, there was no way for us to get there. Our windows became our vantage point for filming and for seeing the making of history. We slept next to not at all.  In the background, CNN and BBC became the wallpaper of our lives, as the battles raged for the next 48 hours.

Though there was fighting all around the square, other directions seemed to be more easily defended than the north side, our side. Here is where the Mubarak forces attacked over and over again. The main battle lines were drawn off to our left under and on the six or seven raised access ramps for the October 6 Bridge, which crosses the Nile in front of our hotel. In the next hours we would hear both automatic and single firing, sometimes for five or ten minutes on end; we would see pitched battles with hundreds of Molotov cocktails thrown from the bridges and from roofs next to the battle. The main weapon of the next few days, however, was the rock.

Rock throwers, like medieval archers, led the charges, stood alone to face down enemies, forced thousands of men to retreat. Back and forth, the concrete landscape in front of us changed hands. The background sound was a percussion orchestra, the roar of voices in the tens of thousands, the rolling clatter of rocks hitting tin barricades and shields, the staccato punctuation of gun shots, all rising and falling in waves. At dramatic moments the roar of military armor would tear us away from what we were doing or rouse us from sleep. At 4 in the morning a tank going 45 miles an hour drove first east to west, then west to east across the bridge ramp, blowing tear gas behind it and chasing the fighters back, trying to create a buffer zone. Within minutes the lines had reformed. The next day, I was managing some of our footage on the computer. “Hey come look at this tank,” Jed said.  A huge Sherman tank was crossing the Nile, traveling on a line to go right under his balcony. Jaded by this time, I walked to the balcony, not even thinking about our lights. “He’s really moving.” I said as I stepped out onto the balcony. Immediately, realized my mistake as I saw the gunner swinging his 30-caliber machine gun toward us. Gunfire sounds totally different when it is aimed at you, sharper and meaner. Almost as soon as I heard it and saw the tracers coming right at us, I was 15 feet back into the room, picking myself up, cursing and turning off the lights.

Besides the combat-gut-check, another product of living in a moment of extreme volatility is crisis-bi-polarity. I have seen it overtake a crew many times, in wars in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America; crises in Haiti and here in Egypt. The more fluid the situation is, the greater the mood swings. The less you know about events, the more you rely on minor pieces of information to support your intuition and draw conclusions, the more stock you put on intuition, the more the predictions based on your intuition swing like a crazy pendulum. Over these 48 hours of the Egyptian Revolution, our mood swung from manic (Mubarak is going to step down on Friday and usher in an era of good feeling) to depressive (The whole thing is going to end with the army performing a Tien An Men right out there) several dozen times.

As we came down for breakfast on Thursday, a new variable entered the equation. They (meaning the pro-Mubarak thugs, the secret police, the army) were now surely targeting journalists. We had felt the hostility in our walk through the crowd on Wednesday, but it had escalated into policy. A broadcast on national television had said that a European woman journalist was stopped and pictures of military installations were found on her camera. Foreign journalists were spies, along with just wanting to make us all look bad – yet another one of the oldest tricks in the book.  As the restaurant filled, more and more bandages were showing up on the heads and arms of the press corps. Some guys were right in the middle, but others were just picked up near the hotel and dragged away and beaten. As the day went on, we learned about rooms in our hotel and others that had been broken into and broadcasting operations seized. The cameras that were pointing at the square were shut down, one by one. Our friends and families showered us with emails, telling us that journalists were being attacked. They needn’t have bothered. We were seeing it happen out our windows.

A camera in the hands of a European would be spotted… yelling… group gathering… pushing… chasing… the victim being dragged away or forced to run for it. A group of fifty clotted up around a woman reporter, pushing her for several hundred yards, poking and forcing her, scared shitless, to walk across the Nile away from the square. In the streets around the hotel, groups of screaming men were looking up and pointing, threatening to come up and kill whoever was pointing a camera over the side of his balcony or out his window. Behind the concierge desk were growing rows of cameras. Cameramen and photographers were forced to check them as they entered the hotel, and not bring them to their rooms to forestall these threatened invasions. The elevators stopped running to the lobby. It was the second story on CNN and BBC. Our hotel was featured. If the bi-polar pendulum was swinging already, it now went off its rails – how many days do we stay? Will the kids in the square manage to win? Will they bust us on the street, on the way to the airport, even? Will it be a massacre? When can we get out of here?

Mentally reeling, we tried every manner of byzantine calculation. On the basis of my own ill-informed bi-polarity, I predicted that Friday would be peaceful after these two days of fighting. I said we should stay at least a day. But remember, I stand to make more if we stay. Jed, who has a two year old, tended to see it from the other polarity.

Between setting Bashir up for weeks of filming and putting him in contact with all our heroes, working the phones to set up departure options and finding various contacts for help if we get stopped on the way out  (whenever that is), we watched the battle from our box seats. In a series of what must have been valiant charges, the protesters in the square forced the thugs back into their rear. They were running out from under the ramps, scattering like roaches. Unlike roaches, they stopped to throw stones, picking up the ones that were thrown at them, throwing them back and then running away. It was an amazing sight. People who at first desperately tried to keep things peaceful were now forcing their violent adversaries to retreat. They retreated around our hotel and turned on journalists, which sunk the morale in the Ramses. We discussed it again and again. Jed finally decided that we are out of there – the next morning at 6:30.

The trip the next morning was a blur. We forced Osama, a man who is immensely skillful at roadblocks, not to send his guy Ahmed, but to go with us himself. We took off in a cab just before the end of curfew, driving over the very ramps that had been the field of battle in the previous days.  The usually congested roadways were empty. The occasional roadblock stop was peremptory. Traffic was light until we came near the military installations on the road between Cairo and its airport. It then became incredibly heavy, heavy in the form of hundreds of tanks, painted desert-yellow, APC’s and armored cars, all fully manned on both sides of the road. All silently waiting. Suddenly, the blur left and everything became crystal clear. The pendulum swung way over to the left. Someone was clearly preparing for the final solution. No one knows if the choice of this solution will be made.

On Sunday back in New York, I find myself unexpectedly at church, having planned to still be in Cairo. The reading from Isaiah says “Is this not the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…” In the Gospel of the day, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.

— Tom Hurwitz






About asenauke

Zen Buddhist priest, activist, writer, father, musician
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