I arrived in Cairo in the early morning of July 9, exhausted from an overnight flight from South Africa. The days activities consisted only of wandering through the city, exploring the streets of Cairo while taking in the sites and sounds of a culture so different from my own. This was followed by a full day of site seeing, from the Citadel of Egypt to the old famous Mosques to the Coptic Christian area to the Jewish Synagogue. It was a great start to a trip in a country with so much history that it’s hard to truly fathom. Even more so, I found myself in awe of how unexpectedly safe I felt here. People had tried to fill my mind with all of the awful things that could happen here but yet I was experiencing the exact opposite. The men (mostly) were friendly and gentlemanly, the women all smiling back at me as I passed them in the streets. While I recognize I’ve been in a metropolitan capital city, I was expecting to see more women in a hiqab, but instead most were wearing beautiful, elaborate hijabs, not only showing their full faces but also revealing a piece their personality with the designs and colours. Beyond this, there were so many women not wearing head scarves at all. All this to say, the evening of July 10 I found myself chatting with friends at home telling them how Egypt seemed far more progressive than I had anticipated and how safe I felt here, definitely more so than in Rio or Johannesburg.
At about 6:30am on Saturday, July 11, I was awoken with a ferocious jolt. I literally sat up in bed the second I woke up, immediately recognizing something was wrong. I can’t be certain if it was the sound or the building shaking that woke me, because both seemed to go hand in hand as if it were the same effect. The explosion was so loud I immediately knew this was something far worse than a car backfiring or the fireworks of Rio De Janeiro. (Side Note: In Rio, when fireworks inexplicably go off mid-day, it means the drugs have arrived at that location, for anyone who was waiting for them.) No, this was something so loud and had such force to awake me in such a panic that I immediately said to Preeya “Something bad definitely just happened”, as dust and debris rained down on us due to the force with which the building was shook. But yet as minutes passed and nothing else happened, no hostel staff coming to the door, I went back to sleep writing it off as a normal occurrence I just wasn’t aware of yet.
When I woke up again at 8:30am and checked my email, I saw a breaking news alert from CNN which read “A car bomb exploded outside the Italian Consulate in downtown Cairo early Saturday morning, significantly damaging part of the building, police said.” I yelled to Preeya to wake up and told her what happened and we both just sat there in shock for a few minutes. I went and knocked on the door next to ours, and told my friend Andrea, who had arrived in the middle of the night from England, the news. All three of us kind of just stood there, absorbing the reality of what had happened. But then for some reason, just as the rest of the city seemed to do, we went about our day as if it hadn’t happened. We went to see the pyramids, the Sphinx, ride some camels, all of the things tourists do in Cairo, as if it were just another day.
On the way back to our hostel, we saw the aftermath of the bombing since it was so close to where we were, just over a kilometre away. It’s one of those things that I’d see on the news at home but yet it’s a one day story before the media are on to the next story. In person however, seeing it first hand, there’s so many additional implications the city has to deal with. The explosion ruptured water mains underground causing the surrounded roads to flood. Cars in the vicinity of the explosion had all of their windows blown out, in some cases even bumpers had simply just fallen off. The building itself had one side blown out, with the interior floors falling into one another. Seeing the site definitely made the reality of the situation feel that much more real, for lack of a better word, but yet we still went about our business as if it hadn’t happened. There was nothing we could do to help, we would just be in the way at best, or be part of it if there was another blast at worst. So we did what we could; we continued being tourists, doing our part to try to help an economy still so fragile and trying to rebuild themselves post-revolution.
As the messages rolled in from my family, close friends, and even friends who I haven’t spoken with in some time but saw the news and messaged me, I realized the degree to which everyone at home was genuinely concerned. It’s hard to explain to someone not here, but the best comparison I can make is when the Eaton Centre shooting happened in Toronto. Everyone from there knows it’s a safe place and the shooting was a complete anomaly, and this feels very much the same. The city itself was safe, the people were fantastic, and never once did I feel the need to look over my shoulder. Like any post-revolutionary place, Egpyt, for such an ancient country, is going through the growing pains of a country being reborn. It definitely has challenges in front it, from the aging and dilapidated infrastructure to what seems to be the peoples’ complete disregard for their community, with the garbage piling up all over the streets because people just throw their garbage on the ground. The country has so much potential to be great again, and I genuinely hope it does. If someone were to ask me ‘is it safe, should I go to Egypt?’ my answer would undoubtedly be yes. While I of course would not say the same for places like the Congo or still West Africa right now, you can never wait for a place to be 100% safe or you would never leave the house!