During this Arab spring, when the sting of tear gas mingled so easily with the scent of jasmine, I was glued to the nightly Al Jazeera live feed on my iPad and transported back to my days as an idealistic, young public-radio reporter passing through Tripoli and Benghazi, Ismailia and Cairo. Though brief, my time in Libya and Egypt, nearly forty years ago, was enough to experience the repression and corruption that would harden over the following decades and crack so dramatically with this year’s uprisings.
I was twenty-two and had just lived through the revolution and counterrevolution in Chile when I was sent to cover the Yom Kippur War from the Egyptian side. I can say today with only the slightest cringe that with the Cold War raging I had a rather romantic naivete about the Arab world. The very sound of it all held some promise to my more ignorant self. The Syrian Baath Socialists. The Libyan Revolution. Anwar Sadat following in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nonaligned, anti-imperialist footsteps. There was even some sort of socialist revolution or another, it seemed, in a place called Iraq. All of it appeared to be a refreshing contrast to the dark night of military dictatorship falling over Latin America.
One can learn only from experience that labels—especially political labels—are often deceiving. Left or right mean little when there are no civil liberties, when material needs are not met, when independent thought is suppressed.
I was no blind cheerleader for every Third World regime that postured as radical, but I think intrigued would be the proper way to describe my feelings for the Arab states. And to be fair to my younger self, I had few illusions, if any, about the then five-year-old Gaddafi regime, which from afar already seemed somewhat rancid.
Libyan reality hit me hard as soon as my plane from Paris touched down in Tripoli. The airport was a crowded, steaming-hot mess. My task was to take a connector flight to Benghazi and, from there, find a car and driver to transport me eighteen hours across the Sahara Desert into Cairo (the airport there was closed because of the war). Fellow journos would soon dub this trek the Benghazi Express.
The squalor of the airport and of the landscape visible from the plane was overwhelming. The steely-eyed stare of the guards and cops was less than reassuring. Gaddafi, in an early fit of his craziness, and under the cover of a defiant nationalism, had banned the use of any language other than Arabic in official venues.
Sweating like a pig in a leather jacket and packing a whole lot of radio stuff, I was totally lost. With not one English sign to direct me, I had no idea which of the seemingly endless lines was the right one for the flight to Benghazi, and nobody felt comfortable speaking with a foreigner. Paranoia struck deep quickly. I ran into an equally confused Brit, who, with his eyes watering and his skin flushed, couldn’t direct me to the right place, but did manage to scare the shit out of me by blabbering about two of his countrymen, who had just been pulled out of a line by Libyan secret police and hauled away. He was afraid that with his UK passport, the same fate would befall him.
My concern was less dire—I had some sort of VIP visa from the Egyptians and had already gotten a pass from Libya’s Paris embassy. But where in the hell was that line for the flight to Benghazi? Exhausted, stressed, and somewhat spooked, I joined a promising-looking queue, tossed all my stuff on the floor, and exhaled out loud, “Shit!”
A portly, well-dressed gentleman—about fifty years old—immediately turned around and said to me with a thick Arab accent, “You speak English?”
Hell yes! To my great relief, the man was a wealthy Egyptian, a Cairo-based travel agent just returning from Acapulco, heading out on the same flight as me to Benghazi and also wanting to rent a taxi to Cairo. Talk about good luck. At that moment, Ibrahim Gazarhim was the Greatest Man on Earth. He was clearly ready to adopt me and was even happier that I would split the cost of the car to Egypt with him—about $900.
For two hours we sat in the airport lounge with a portrait of Gaddafi in Ray-Bans staring down at us. An eerie silence engulfed the claustrophobic room; it seemed as if folks were trained to keep their simplest thoughts to themselves. When I tried to chitchat with Ibrahim about the war, he glanced up toward the Gaddafi portrait and furrowed his brow. Could there actually be a microphone behind the picture? Of course not. But you couldn’t know who was sitting next to you. It’s hardly fair to judge an entire nation by one airport, but I had spent enough time in banana republic shit holes and was an experienced-enough reporter to pick up the vibe. Revolution my ass. This was one more fear-based and irrational dictatorship.
Once airborne toward Benghazi, we shared some sort of whiskey Ibrahim had brought on board, and as I swirled the liquid in my glass, he casually asked, “So, do you speak any Arabic?”
“Not really,” I answered. “You know, just a few words. Like inshallah. And shalom aleichem.”
“Shalom aleichem?!” Ibrahim excitedly sputtered. “That’s Hebrew! Hebrew! You mean salaam alaikum, no? Are you a Jew?”
Damn. My first-grade Hebrew was about to give me away. I had just told Ibrahim that much of my family was Italian—and I didn’t disclose that my mother’s maiden name was the very Jewish Sosnovsky. Let me be clear that I eventually found few Arabs to be anti-Semitic during my time in Egypt and, later, Lebanon. But I wasn’t taking any chances. So I lied like hell.
“Oh, no, no, no,” I protested to Ibrahim. “You know, the Zionist control of the media is so strong in America that I just got confused.”
Ibrahim bought that b.s.—which was pretty scary in itself. I took a deep breath and another swig of booze.
Benghazi at nightfall was a welcome relief from the Tripoli airport. I remember an onshore, salt-scented breeze, a vibrant fish market, men smoking and lounging in the dusk on café terraces, and the same sand-colored Bulgarian-style apartment houses that I see today on Al Jazeera.
Ibrahim took me to a lavish dinner at the Omar Khayyam Hotel, where a meal would cost the average dockworker his weekly wages. The waiters were immaculately dressed in pressed whites and artfully served the meal, paying little attention to the ubiquitous Gaddafi posters that marred the gilded walls. We would have a coffee, Ibrahim told me, and then he would negotiate for a car to take us on our journey. I almost blew the whole deal when, with my coffee, I lit up a Marlboro, only to be scolded by the wait staff, who reminded me that we were in the middle of Ramadan—no smoking, habibi. One more sign that the secularism of socialism had not quite penetrated the historical veil of Muslim tradition.
By 10 p.m. that night, literally in some dark alley, Ibrahim secured a car and driver. A black Tunisian guest worker—more or less the equivalent of a slave in Libya—would take us across the Sahara. Cool. As long as I just had to sit there and let Ibrahim do the talking, I was ready to ride in the backseat and float into this world in which I understood nothing but a creeping fear. At 1 a.m. sharp I was officially on the Benghazi Express, motoring through the desert night toward Cairo.
In the morning, I awoke from a deep sleep to the sound of Ibrahim screaming at our clearly exhausted driver, who had pulled off the side of the road after we crossed the Egyptian border. We were on the outskirts of Alexandria. I didn’t understand a word but got the drift when Ibrahim bitch-slapped the poor driver.
“Fucking nigger!” Ibrahim said to me in English, showing off his own particular knowledge of American culture. “He wants to take a nap! I told him to keep going and get us to Cairo right away or I would take him to the police.”
The incident was jarring. I’d expected Libya to be a piss pot, but Egypt was the cradle of Arab civilization. Nasser had put modern Egypt on the map, he had stared down the Brits, fought like hell for the Suez, survived the 1967 war (at great cost), and was one of the architects and leaders of the emerging Non-Aligned Movement, in which countries challenged the bipolar world imposed by the Cold War by trying to stay clear of both superpower blocs. And while I was no Pollyanna, I did have some rather elevated expectations about Anwar Sadat, who had succeeded Nasser three years earlier.
Around 8 p.m. we finally rolled into the driveway of the Cairo Hilton Nile, and it felt like paradise. Ibrahim headed home. I checked into the Hilton just as a cease-fire with Israel was called. That was good; it would make my war reporting a bit easier, given that it greatly reduced my chances of catching a stray bullet.
As the clerk handed me a room key, I asked for a phone call to be placed to New York so I could file a brief report on the cease-fire before having a couple Singapore slings and turning in for some much-needed sleep.
“Would you like the call transferred to your room or here in the lobby, sir?” the clerk asked.
“In my room, please,” I answered.
“Excellent,” said the clerk. “The call should come in forty-eight to seventy-two hours. We will let you know.”
“Um, excuse me,” I said, feeling my heart race. “I’m a journalist. A reporter. This is an urgent call.”
“Oh, of course,” said the clerk. “Press priority call?”
“Yes! Press priority,” I said repeating his jargon and feeling instant relief.
“Very well, sir. My pleasure. Press priority call,” said the clerk, with Egyptian deference to social station. “In that case, it will be twenty-four to thirty-six hours. We will notify you.”
Just as I was about to panic, I saw a familiar face staring at me across the lobby. The Dutch radio reporter Anton Foek, a pal of mine from Chile, was smiling and walking toward me. For the second time in two days I was about to be saved from my own ignorance by a chance meeting.
Or so I thought.
Anton told me how to get around the phone problem—basically, we had to book time on Radio Cairo’s satellite system and broadcast our stories from its studios to an IT&T uplink in New York. Problem was, to get studio time, your script had to be checked and stamped “approved” by government censors. The censors were up on the second floor of a ratty, fluorescent-lit, unmarked building. You simply got in a taxi—which, everyone told me, was almost certain to be driven by a secret-police snitch—then said the word “censors” to the driver, who would take you to the right place.
Now these censors were a pretty ineffective crew because, as far as I could make out, they didn’t speak or read much English. And when we got to the studio to broadcast, no one really paid attention to what we said. Still, the whole censor thing, the creepy taxi drivers, plus an order from the army-run press office barring us from interviewing anybody without prior approval, punctured whatever lingering notion I might have had about Egypt being some sort of beacon of enlightenment—long before the reign of Hosni Mubarak. It seemed, all of a sudden, just a much bigger, somewhat less impoverished, and slightly more polished version of Libya.
For days we reporters pushed and cajoled the Egyptian press nannies to let us get around the interview ban and do something, anything. No dice. That is, until one Idi Amin showed up in Cairo and we were hustled to a joint press conference with him and Anwar Sadat. This is what you call a teachable moment. I was a twenty-two-year-old kid torn between radical idealism and cool skepticism. But that gulf closed fast when Sadat so gleefully hosted the Butcher of Nigeria.
Idi was a jolly old fellow, full of fun—and bullshit. He pledged the support of 5,000 Nigerian soldiers, who never showed up. But even more fun, he had an “explanation” as to why the Egyptian army’s advance to take back more than a small strip of the Sinai Desert had been halted cold by the Israeli Defense Forces. The Israelis, he revealed, had deployed the use of “battlefield nuclear weapons.” Nukes? Man, this was History! This was a Big Story! A Scoop!
Like a scene out of an old black-and-white movie, all of us reporters rushed out of the press conference to report this “news.” Three times that night I wrote three different scripts, and three times the censors rejected them. Clearly they had been told to look for the words “Idi” and “nuclear.” And the usual stumble-bum cen- sors had been replaced by guys who looked like they had finished college, or at least the police academy. I tried to transmit the story anyway over the radio link, but this time the director’s booth was occupied by a government thug who’d pull the plug and wag his finger if those magic words “Amin” or “nuclear” crossed our lips.
After days of being cooped up by our Egyptian “hosts,” we journalists staged a rebellion and demanded that the government press office take us on a tour of the front. “There’s a cease-fire in place,” we said, “so it should be no big deal.”
“Meet us at 7 a.m. and you’re on,” was the surprise answer.
Nearly a dozen reporters gathered in the Hilton lobby at the appointed hour, and the army piled us into a caravan of Russian jeeps. We were told that before we went to the front, we would visit a special training camp to see how President Sadat’s call to train and arm a civilian militia was underway. Confession time again: my hopes slightly revived. An armed people’s militia? Awesome.
Turned out that the special camp was actually inside the very posh Giza Country Club. Like Keystone Kops, our army escorts drove us across a rolling lawn full of wealthy and overweight Egyptians who were lazing in the sun, sipping on drinks or napping while the sons of their housekeepers were at war a few miles away.
In its infinite ineptitude and indifference to reality, the Sadat regime had unwittingly given us a close-up tour of a feckless and morally corrupt Egyptian ruling class, the same kleptocrats who would constitute the primary constituency of the Mubarak reign.
But the real dog-and-pony show awaited us when we got to the racetrack inside the country club. The army had assembled about twenty teenagers, who, dressed in ragtag olive greens and using dummy wooden rifles, were undergoing “militia training.” Two of these kids had inked swastikas onto their soft combat hats, and the PR idiots running the show didn’t seem to think it made any difference. This was the “people’s militia.”
From there, it was a bumpy ride to Ismailia, the point where we crossed the Suez Canal and landed on the West Bank of the Sinai, territory that the Egyptian army had freshly recaptured from the Israelis as a nationalist trophy. How much territory had the Egyptians reclaimed? Authoritarian regimes are anything but transparent, and Egypt had been claiming that its military forces had taken back a fifteen- to twenty-mile-deep swath of the Sinai. The Israelis, telling a story much closer to the truth, said the area was more like two to four miles deep.
Our Egyptian army escorts, instead of conceding to the reality that much less territory had been captured, had a simple solution: they looped our jeeps around in sweeping concentric circles over the barren sand dunes to make it seem as if we were going in much deeper than we were.
But things went wrong. Our army driver suddenly got agitated, and the chatter on the radio among the other drivers turned nervous. Some Brit riding shotgun with us understood a bit of Arabic and said to me, “I do think these chaps have gotten lost.”
Right after he said that, we screeched to a halt in a haze of dusty sand. The army drivers piled out into the middle of the desert and started pointing, looking at maps and arguing with each other. As the debate dragged on, we got hot and cramped in the jeep and decided to stretch our legs.
We clambered up a few feet to the top of the dune we were parked on and our eyes settled on a vast valley in front of us. Oh yes, one other detail. There was also a brown line of troops and equipment in the sand 300 yards in front of us and … a blue-and-white Israeli flag.
We were lost all right. The Egyptians had driven us through the cease-fire no-man’s-land and right into the Israeli front lines. Our escorts figured out the same thing (I think the Mogen David flag was the tip-off) and they started motioning and yelling at us to hurry up. “Yella! Yella!”
They grabbed us and pushed us underneath the jeeps, and within seconds an Israeli jet roared toward us, swooped down, and fired a burst of warning shots about fifty yards to our side. I wanted to open my shirt and flash the Mogen David medallion I had left back at home. Before the Israelis came back for the real thing, the Egyptians packed us all up and tore ass back down the dune and toward the canal.
All I wanted was to get back alive to one of those chaise lounges at the Giza Country Club. Of course, when we finally did make it back to Cairo, the censors did not let us report that we had bumbled into the cease-fire zone.
The next day I grew a set of balls and decided to defy our handlers and do an interview without permission. The late, great Paul Jacobs (cofounder of Mother Jones) had given me the names of some dissident Egyptian intellectuals, one of them in the Muslim Brotherhood, and I thought time had come to go meet with one of them. A good move for an experienced reporter. A stupid move for a kid who could put someone’s life at risk.
I did some asking around and an Italian reporter I trusted turned me on to a taxi driver she absolutely trusted. Before noon I was tooling freely through Cairo and felt like I had entered the Seventh Circle. The traffic, the incessantly honking horns, the massive, jostling crowds on the street, the folks you could see living on rooftops, and—most shocking—our quick tour of the Cairo cemetery, where thousands of people lived among the graves and crypts. The sight was one more blow to my youthful illusions. I could see no material benefits to Nasser’s revolution now in the hands of Sadat.
By early afternoon we were in a nondescript residential neighborhood, pulling up to the apartment of a dissident. My driver, Ali, tapped on the rearview mirror and in his broken English said, I thought, something like, “We are being followed.” Frankly, I didn’t want to believe him.
The interview with the dissident, whose name, rather embarrassingly, I cannot recall, went swimmingly. He freely spoke into my recorder about Egypt’s lack of democracy, the lack of civil liberties, the rampant cronyism, the fear of repression, the kabuki of a staged “democracy.” We finished, shared a glass of tea, and I packed my recorder into my briefcase and got back into my taxi.
On the ride back to the Hilton, Ali looked a few more times in the rearview mirror and smiled and gave me the thumbs-up. All was cool. Indeed, Ali insisted he take me for a meal and clumsily tried to describe the delicacy he wanted me to sample. I couldn’t quite figure out what he meant, but he took me to a delightful working-class café alongside the river and ordered our early dinner. What looked like chicken showed up on my plate. When a pigeon landed on the sidewalk near us, Ali excitedly pointed to it and then to my plate. Now I got it. It tasted fine.
We eked out a conversation over dinner and Ali told me he had three children and worked twelve hours a day six days a week. He didn’t want to talk about politics, Sadat, or the war. All he would say, at the end of our talk, was: “I am poor man before the war. I am poor man after the war.” And then he insisted on buying my meal. I took a shot and told him I was Jewish and he gave me a hug. “Arabs and Jews, brothers,” he said.
The bonhomie abruptly ended after I left Ali and reentered the Hilton lobby. As soon as I picked up my room key, I was cut off by two hefty six-footers in cheap suits and dark glasses. “Mister Coo-pehr?” one inquired in delicately accented English. “Please,” he said as he directed me to sit at a table and chairs in the lobby.
These two guys were about the most polite and scariest sonsofbitches I had ever met. Very quietly, very calmly, they told me they were from the Interior Ministry and that I had violated the no-interview rule.
“A glass of tea?” one of them asked and clapped his hands before I could answer. An intimidated waiter rushed to him and obediently took his order.
There would be no problem at all, I was told, if I would be so kind as to simply hand over the tape recording I had in the briefcase sitting on my lap. I couldn’t do that, I told them (knowing full well if they pushed the point hard enough I would have folded). I figured my best shot against getting hauled away was to remain calm and stay in the lobby, which was crawling with other reporters. During a thirty-minute bargaining session, voices never raised, threats never made, we agreed on a compromise I would have never expected. If I would destroy the tape in their presence we could finish our tea and forget the whole thing.
Deal. They shook my hand and expressed their desire that I enjoy my stay in Egypt.
Almost forty years later I live with a weight on my conscience, wondering what, if anything, happened to the professor I interviewed. He seemed fearless. But who knows if that was enough to save him?
The next morning, the news wire said Henry Kissinger was coming to town to begin shuttle diplomacy. The tone of the English-language Cairo paper abruptly and radically shifted. The strident anti-Americanism magically morphed into paeans for the wisdom of Henry K. It was on that morning, I am pretty sure, that Egypt switched sides in the Cold War. Those Russian jeeps would soon be replaced by American tanks and fighter jets.
Meanwhile, the Cairo airport had reopened and, given my encounter with the secret police and the impending arrival of the American secretary of state, I thought this was my cue to get out of Dodge. Anyway, once you’ve met Idi Amin, who cares about Kissinger?
I never went back to Egypt or Libya, but did spend a horrific ten days in Saddam’s Iraq on the eve of the first Gulf war. I was no supporter of the second invasion of Iraq, but I shed no tears for the demise of the Baath dictatorship.
This past winter and spring I have been transfixed by the great Arab uprising. I found the same sort of idealism I carried on the plane bound for Tripoli rekindled. It mattered not that just below the surface I knew that disappointment and outright betrayal were most likely brewing. The Facebookers and tweeps who stood down the Tunisian regime, the hundreds of thousands who filled Tahrir Square and squeezed the Jurassic Mubarak regime from power, and especially the courageous youth of Benghazi, who stood unbowed by one of the most murderous and megalomaniacal dictatorships on Earth, can fail to inspire only the most coldhearted or the most ideologically blinkered. I look at them and I am reminded of the moving human decency displayed by the driver Ali as we munched on roasted pigeon. I think of the thugs in the Egyptian secret police, the goons who have plundered Libya, and the lazing fat cats at the Giza Country Club, indifferent to the lives of the lesser, and I can only wish them the worst.
I have long ago abandoned any faith in political categorization, and it matters not a whit to me if these regimes, or their opponents, call themselves left or right, revolutionary or democratic. The world is, in reality, a much simpler place. There are those who wish to be free and those who wish to enslave. Whose side you are on? It’s an easy choice to make.
Jul 5, 04:47 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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