An account of an incident at a train station in Egypt.
The tourist police arrive an hour after the incident.
By now, the train platform has returned to the animated calm that I’ve come to recognise as characteristic of Egypt at night. A bored child tugs at his mother’s hijab, pressing his knuckles into tired eyes. Two men sit laughing outside one of the station cafes, sucking up tiny glasses of Arabic coffee in single gulps.
The four policemen stroll over to us. Tonight I’ve learnt that the tourist police have different responsibilities to the normal Egyptian police – primarily, to keep tourists out of troublesome situations while they’re travelling in the country.
‘We recommend that you vacate the area for your own safety please,’ one officer says in monotone English. It’s a line I imagine he practices in front of the mirror every morning.
I look at them blankly, too exhausted to articulate a reply, and my eyes flicker towards Mohammed. He speaks briefly with them in Arabic and they move down the platform, stopping to offer their advice to a trio of backpackers slouched against a crumbling wall.
‘It’s not good,’ Mohammed says. ‘Since the revolution…it’s not good.’
I nod silently, and we continue to wait for the sleeper train, now five hours late.
My mother had begged me not to go. Footage and commentary on the BBC News at Six had told her everything she needed to know: that Egypt was no place for her 20-year-old daughter.
‘Why can’t you go to Italy or Spain?’ she asked me three days before I left.
‘Because I’ve been offered the chance to go to Egypt, Mum. And it’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go.’
She sighed. ‘Why now? Why not give it a year or two for things to settle down a bit?’
I glanced at my father, hoping for a supportive comment. He was staring at his dinner plate, busying himself with arranging and rearranging his spaghetti bolognese.
‘I’m going, Mum.’
She shook her head, the action soundtracked by sighs and grunts, and turned to my father. ‘Mohsen, can you please speak to your daughter?’
He finally looked up, his eyes measuring us each for a moment before he spoke. ‘Lynney, you know as well as I do, that once she’s got an idea in her head, there’ll be no stopping her.’
We finished the meal in silence. Later, my father told me he’d drive me to the airport, and slipped me £250 cash ‘in case you run into trouble’.
I’d been travelling in Egypt for two weeks when we decided to take a train back to Cairo. I’d had only two jetlag-ridden days in the Egyptian capital when I first arrived, and I was keen to get back there and explore.
I’d spent most of my time so far drifting down the River Nile on a felucca, a traditional Egyptian sailboat, stopping to explore ancient temples and tombs along the way. The voyage had given me ample time to get to know Mohammed, the twenty-something tour guide who’d quickly become a friend.
So far, all the other transport had been in air-conditioned minibuses – complete with their own television sets and WiFi connections. I wasn’t coping well with Egypt’s over-the-top tourism amenities. They were stifling and disorienting. I wanted authenticity. I wanted to do things the local way. I told Mohammed this.
By the time we arrived in the market city of Aswan, we’d journeyed more than 500 miles south of Cairo. Aswan was Mohammed’s hometown, and he spoke with wide eyes about its plethora of possibilities.
On our first evening in the city, we had set off together and lost ourselves in the hum of the streets. Market vendors and childhood friends stopped to say hello, and soon we were with a group of university students, talking politics and smoking shisha in a rickety street café.
It was April 2012 and it had been over a year since the Lotus Revolution ousted President Mubarak and ended his three-decade rule. The following month would see the first free presidential elections in the country’s history. The future of the nation seemed to be at the forefront of everybody’s mind, and each new person I met wanted to talk about it.
Hours later, the group had disbanded, and we were left sucking on an apple-flavoured shisha pipe. The conversation steadily turned from the political to planning our route to Cairo, and Mohammed suggested taking a sleeper train back up north.
The trains were ‘modern’ and ‘comfortable’, and popular with locals because they were cheaper than flying, he explained. It would take twelve hours. Meals and coffee were included. There were smoking areas. Sleeper cabins held two people and had everything you could possibly need inside: beds, a sink and a window.
We booked the tickets. I saw it as a much better option than another minibus full of sunburnt middle-aged Westerners. Plus it sounded like an adventure.
Above the smog of the city was an oversized yellow moon. It was close enough tonight to make out the dark grooves and imperfections on its surface.
Mohammed and I had set off early in case traffic was bad on the way, but ended up arriving forty minutes before the train was due.
The station was lit with a scattering of cafes, their tables creeping out towards the tracks. We drank tea and chatted about Cairo and London.
Forty minutes passed, and the platform became busier and more animated. An hour passed. Then two hours. Soon, we stopped keeping track. Nobody had any information. Everybody was waiting. People shuffled about restlessly and drank tea and coffee they didn’t want. I began to lose faith the train would ever arrive.
Out of nowhere, a howl shot down the platform. Rising male voices followed it. The old woman who’d shrieked shrunk down on her knees, wailing and whispering intermittently. What seemed to be a disagreement between two men had turned physical. They tugged on each other, nails digging into necks, and shirts ripping in the struggle. I felt the beat of my own pulse begin to echo in my ears.
Two more men approached, circling the commotion like lions. They tried to stop the fight, but quickly became involved themselves. Another two men stepped forward, then another three. The growing knot of men seemed to shudder; sides were taken, punches were thrown, and things escalated further.
Throngs of Egyptian men – from teenagers through to the elderly – joined the ruckus, palms in the air and bodies sprawling on the ground. I couldn’t tell which limbs matched which faces. The handful of women I could see were standing back, shouting their pleas and protests between gasps.
One man grabbed a wooden chair and hurled it into the fray. My whole body tightened as it narrowly missed the head of a scrawny teenage boy. The café customers shrunk away or got involved. A proprietor ran out of his cafe carrying a crowbar and smacked someone over the head with it.
Why not give it a year or two for things to settle down a bit?
Once she’s got an idea in her head, there’ll be no stopping her.
My parents’ words reverberated around my brain, and for the first time since I’d arrived in Egypt, I wondered if I really should have gone to Italy or Spain.
‘Come, move this way.’
Mohammed ushered me down the platform as the fight took the shape of a riot. Panic was rippling across his face. I stood and watched it all unfold; it’s the only thing either of us could do, our exit blocked by the throbbing pack.
‘Why are they fighting?’ I asked.
Mohammed shook his head. ‘Something about someone’s sister.’ He paused. ‘Small problems have a way of becoming big problems in Egypt now.’
I considered this for a moment before responding. I thought about the fights I’d seen on Friday and Saturday nights outside pubs and nightclubs back home; how violence can emerge quickly from just a wrong look or a muttered sentence.
‘It happens in the UK too,’ I told him.
As the conflict continued, I noticed three men in police uniform were stood watching what was going on.
‘Why aren’t the police doing anything?’
Mohammed paused. ‘Police corruption was why the protests started,’ he explained. ‘Now, after the revolution, they are punishing us for it.’
As we spoke, the commotion began to dissipate. It was forgotten as hastily as it started. The cafés reopened and the patrons brushed off their seats and returned to them. The men whose disagreement had fuelled the mini-riot were checking on the frail old woman who had first alerted us to the situation with a scream.
For the first time, I had experienced what the media has been calling ‘unrest’. Egypt really was ‘in a state of flux’. There were everyday symptoms of the revolution on the streets now, and this train station episode was perhaps just a glimpse of the larger picture. The country’s cracks were displayed for anyone to see. And, according to Mohammed, they were getting bigger. This was the other side of the revolution.
It’s after 3am when the train finally creaks into the station.
Mohammed speaks to the conductor and then turns to explain – finally – why the train is late. It turns out an entire village came out onto the tracks further down the line, a peaceful protest to draw the government’s attention to their living conditions. The reaction to this news is muted. People don’t appear surprised; this kind of disruption seems to have become commonplace in post-revolution Egypt.
I want to ask more about the situation, but I look at Mohammed and decide he probably doesn’t want to talk about it further. His eyes tell me he suffers the weight of his altered nation as much as he’s excited by its new potential. I wonder how long he’ll stay in Egypt, and whether it would be easy for him to leave if he wanted to.
We board the train and begin the journey back towards Cairo.