Throughout our first few weeks in Israel, protests had continued in Tahrir square and across Egypt. Doctors, lawyers, and professionals made their presence known in the demonstrations. Booths offering medical help, water, blankets, and food popped up in the center of the square. The people remained relatively nonviolent. We had trouble keeping up with the news because of our lack of access to internet, TV, and newspapers, but followed updates as often as possible.
Thursday afternoon, my roommates and I had taken the number 19 bus down to Ben Yehouda street, which is a main center of the city. Ben Yehouda, Jaffa, and St. George street form a triangle of restaurants, shops, and markets adjacent to the walls of the Old City. We had gone searching for more apartment necessities, and were just walking from the bus stop back to the Student Village when Sloane received a call from a reporter in the States. They asked her what she thought of the most recent news. We had been away from any form of news for the entire day, and had no idea what this reporter was talking about. One excited conversation later, Sloane hung up the phone and told us that Mubarak was due to give a speech “soon,” and that rumors were flying that he was finally going to resign. The army had been meeting without him, Suleiman was set as vice president, and foreign powers worldwide had been pressuring him to make tangible change. We all looked at each other for a split second before starting to rush towards the gates of the Student Village, bags in hand.
Minutes later, we arrived at our dorm, threw down our things, grabbed our computers, and rushed to the cafe a few feet away from our building. The place was almost empty except for the men working there and a couple of customers sipping coffee in the corner. We ran up to the front counter and begged him to change the plasma-screen TV to an English-speaking news source. He looked at us, perplexed, before telling us that there was supposed to be a big football game on in an hour and a half that they wanted to watch, but that he would change it for the time being. The TV, which normally shows MTV music videos all night, was changed to BBC World, and we plopped our bags down at a table with a front-row view. We turned up the volume full blast, pulled up Al-Jazeera and other articles on our laptops, and stared intently at the screen. Apparently, the announcement that Mubarak was due to speak “soon” had been circulating for hours, just as it had before his first speech during the protests. That first time, he didn’t actually come on-screen until after midnight- we hoped that he would be a little bit more timely today, since these cafe guys weren’t kidding about their football game.
An hour or so passed, during which we ordered food and told Jeremy to come join us at the cafe. Jeremy speaks Arabic almost fluently, so he sat with the Arab guys working at the cafe and discussed the situation with them. The mood at Tahrir square was described as being elated, and celebratory. We munched on french fries and tea, constantly refreshing our laptops and chatting amongst ourselves. And then Mubarak’s face appeared on screen. All of us immediately froze and set our eyes on the TV. Mubarak spoke for a surprisingly long time, but didn’t say much of importance. Through a translator, he assured the Egyptian people that lives had not been lost in vain, and that their demands were being listened to. The constitution was being re-assessed. He had dedicated his life to this country. Blah, blah, blah. About halfway through, Shannon and I looked at each other awe-struck, and said, “I don’t think he’s going to step down!” We listened to the rest of his speech, and by the end, felt completely deflated. It was a pity speech. Mubarak was just asking the people to give him a break, citing all of these things that he supposedly deserved praise for. He was delusional. There was absolutely no way that the people would accept this, and everybody knew it. News sources predicted massive protests in response to this speech. It just didn’t make any sense- why give a speech like that on a Thursday, when the people would be able to revolt the next day? Fridays had brought the biggest (and most violent) protests throughout the demonstrations. Either Mubarak wanted to draw the people into big protests for some reason, or this was really his attempt to ask the people to leave. It was bizarre.
In the cafe, we sat silently for a few seconds before discussing the speech amongst ourselves. It was a complete joke. Hundreds of thousands of people were gathered in Tahrir watching and listening to this speech. After this much time and effort, there was no way that a speech like that would drive them home. Mubarak needed to do something huge to move the people, and that definitely was not it. Disgruntled, we finished our food and allowed the cafe owner to change the channel to his football game before packing up and heading home. Most people were not completely shocked by Mubarak’s decision to stay that night, but the rampant rumors had really worked the people up. I went to bed that night expecting to hear of huge protests in Egypt and worldwide the next day.
Friday morning, we decided to spend the day in the Old City. Jeremy had walked there the day before, so we followed his route through East Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods before arriving about 30-45 minutes later. The walk itself was eye-opening: as we walked further and further away from the university, our surroundings became more and more dilapidated. Yards were overgrown with foliage, and graffiti proclaimed “Free Palestine!” on walls and fences. An open field was freckled with trash and plastic bags strewn across it. A playground entrance bore signs begging for donations in order to maintain the upkeep of the children’s area. And one single small building stood amongst the rest, side-by-side with the others, with Israeli flags billowing in the wind. The juxtaposition of the two was striking.
Once we passed through the residential area, we walked down a main street lined with shops- bookstores, currency exchanges, clothing stores, the works. Everything was in Arabic and English, with no Hebrew in sight. We stopped at a couple of places along the way. Analucia attempted to exchange her Egyptian Pounds, only to find that the exchange rate had almost doubled since the protests began. Her pounds were worth almost nothing at this point. We also stopped at a small store selling roasted nuts, newspapers and candy, and picked out some snacks while the shopkeeper inquired as to why we spoke Egyptian colloquial Arabic. The late afternoon brought some rainfall, causing us to run underneath store overhangs in a desperate attempt to stay dry.
Before long, we were walking along the imposing walls of the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. Shannon and I stopped at a small shop to buy a much-needed cooking pot and strainer before making our way inside the gate. It was almost like being back in Cairo. Women dressed in hijab and long skirts made their way past us along the wet, cobblestoned streets. Shopkeepers lined the narrow paths of the city, selling everything from zatir bread to Palestinian kufiyyas. We made our way farther and farther into the city, past shisha cafes, sweet shops, and souvenir stores. Eventually, we looked around and realized that we were surrounded by two ancient churches, with a tour group praying nearby. A man instructed us to continue walking down this path to visit the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing wall. It was Friday, after all, the Jewish holy day. Spending Shabbat prayer at the Wailing Wall isn’t something to be missed.
After passing abandoned blue doorways, stray cats, and shops selling both cross and star of David pendants, we finally approached a security barrier. Armed guards welcomed us to Israel after leading us through metal detectors and x-ray machines. We walked down a long tunnel, which spit us out into a large open area with buildings on one side, and the Wall on the other. The wall of the Old City and more security barriers stood ahead of us. Men in traditional Orthodox attire walked purposefully past us, in tall, wide brimmed or circular fur hats. The Wall was separated into male and female sections by a long partition. Sloane and I slowly walked down the ramp into the women’s side, towards the line of women huddled up against the wall. Some rocked back and forth in focused prayer, others sat in white chairs reading the Torah, and a few leaned up against the wall to slip a small, folded note in between the cracks. Rumor has it that prayers left here have a better chance of being granted.
As I walked closer and closer to the Wall, I suddenly felt ridiculous as I realized that I was still carrying a large metal pot in a shopping bag in the midst of such a sacred religious site. The women around me, though, took no notice of my presence. One was huddled in the corner, her face hidden by her hair. I could hear audible sobs as she stood with her hands against the Wall. Small, folded slips of paper filled every nook and cranny, and some had fallen out onto the wet pavement. Sloane had seen one written in childish handwriting which asked for a cure to her tummyache. I stood for a few minutes, just watching the people around me react to the site. Once the women felt satisfied with their time there, they slowly walked backwards towards the walkway. I had never heard of this before, but assumed that it was out of respect to not turn one’s back to the Wall. So, I slowly made my way, backwards, towards the exit. Sloane and I watched the men’s side through slits in the outside partition for awhile before meeting up with the rest of the group. We decided to leave the Old City to explore the City of David for a bit before returning for Shabbat prayer later that evening.
The City of David is just a block or two away from the wall of the Old City. It’s an excavation site of a settlement which was captured by King David around 3,000 years ago, and it includes Hezekiah’s Tunnel and the Shiloach Pool. Since we were there during shabbat, there was nobody working there, and I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to pay and get a tour inside, but we just kind of wandered around inside on our own. After making our way down a steep set of stairs, we were able to check out the ancient remains of the royal quarter, which basically consists of a few rooms made out of white rock. Biblical quotes had been printed on signs along the walkway which referred to the site right in front of our eyes. The main platform of the City overlooked hills of stacked houses, and the Mount of Olives stood imposingly alongside them. The Mount of Olives is beautiful- it’s a huge cemetery. Apparently, it’s where God will start redeeming the dead upon the return of the messiah on the day of judgement, so hundreds of thousands of Jews have been buried on its slopes. This has granted the Mount of Olives the title of “world’s oldest continually used cemetery,” and a few churches dedicated to Jesus’ supposed arrest and ascension to heaven stand there. In addition to the history, it’s a fascinating sight.
We eventually made our way back to the Western Wall to wait for Shabbat prayer to begin, which was a feat in itself because it was FREEZING outside. It had rained a bit over the course of the day, which meant that my shoes were soaked and not drying anytime soon (Tom’s brand was a great choice in Cairo, but they don’t fare so well in rainy Jerusalem). I was still holding that cooking pot, and as the sun made its way towards the horizon, the temperature followed it down. Shannon, Jeremy, and Analucia decided to go find a shisha bar and warm up a bit instead of waiting for sunset, but Sloane and I wanted to witness it. So, we stood and shivered as more and more people made their way towards the wall.
As time went on, it became apparent that I had made the right choice. The “open-air synagogue” right in front of the wall turned into a gathering of different groups of Jewish men ready to pray. Orthodox Jews crammed into the space nearest to the wall, which was made obvious by their wide-brimmed black hats, fur, and beards. In the center, nicely dressed men in yamikas and army officers stood together. At the very back of the area, Rabbis lead prayers, gave speeches, and sang to a group of young men sitting with their Torahs. To the far right, an enthusiastic man leaned over the partition separating men from women. The boys on the left and the girls on the right listened to him attentively as he gave them instructions in Hebrew. As time passed, more and more people walked towards the wall, and before long, both areas were packed.
Since this marked the beginning of Shabbat, no cameras or electronics were allowed in the area, so observers couldn’t take pictures or talk on cell phones. So, Sloane and I watched with wide eyes as the different groups prayed. There was no official start or end to the prayer, just waves of people culminating in one large singing, chanting, rocking mass. The young men and women near the partition sang songs and danced around in circles, linking arms in the middle. Men rocked back and forth, their eyes focused on the books in front of them. Visitors grabbed spare yamikas from the entrance and walked inside, joining in the spectacle. The air was filled with a feeling of celebration, unity, and intense focus on the wall in front of us. I was glad that I stayed and was able to witness all of it.
Eventually, Analucia came back to join us at the wall and watch the proceedings for a few minutes before leading us to the others. They had stopped in a walkway and had hookah set up on the ground, with a collection of chairs set up around it. They had run into a couple of other friends from Hebrew University, and had all sat down together to warm up for a bit before returning home. As we sipped tea, Shannon walked down the pathway, only to be turned away at the end of it- apparently, we had happened upon an entrance to the Al-Aqsa mosque, where only Muslims are allowed to enter. Instead of exploring further, we decided to pack up our things and make our way back to the Student Village. It was Friday, after all, and we had plans to meet up with a few new friends for another Shabbat potluck.
As we began to walk away, Jeremy started talking to the owners of the hookah, who started telling us that Mubarak had resigned. We all just looked at them strangely, and thought that they were referring to the disapointing speech that he had made the night before. I ignored them, and kept walking, but the more we walked, the more we heard. During a quick stop to buy falafel, the cart owner affirmed the rumors yet again. So, we decided to get to the bottom of this. We continued on the way towards a gate to exit the Old City, but stopped at a small internet cafe along the way. The place was packed with young kids playing video games, teenagers on Facebook, and men watching football games. Jeremy walked inside and demanded a computer, and actually ended up kicking one of the kids off of his video game to search for Mubarak news on the internet. The rest of the group stood outside as kids surrounded Jeremy in the cafe, staring at the computer and looking pretty angry at him. Just a few seconds later, Jeremy turned to us and gave us a thumbs-up. We all rushed the cafe and gathered around the screen to read the surprisingly short announcement on BBC.com: Suleiman Announces Mubarak’s Resignation. We all turned to each other in shock. It had happened- Mubarak was gone!
We quickly left the cafe and continued on our path towards the exit to the Old City, this time singing a completely different tune. Jeremy shouted anti-Mubarak slogans as we walked, which resulted in us getting a lot of attention, to say the least. A few shopkeepers chanted along with him as we passed them, while some orthodox Jews walking by after prayer shot us some confused, unamused looks. Along the way, a pastry shop owner invited us inside after hearing our chants. “Yescut Mubarak! (Leave, Mubarak!)” he proclaimed before giving us free sweets in celebration. Arabic-speakers within the City echoed our sentiments all along our walk to the gate. Soon enough, we had piled into Arab bus number 1, and were on our way back to campus. The driver (just like most other Arabic-speakers) instantly recognized the Egyptian colloquial pronunciation and slang in our Arabic, and asked, “Masrey? (Egyptian?)”. Once we answered in the affirmative, he excitedly commented on Mubarak’s departure, setting off yet another round of anti-Mubarak chants.
Once we returned to our dorms, we threw together another salad and cleaned up a bit before heading off to our potluck. One of the friends that we knew from the cafe in the Student Village, and one of his roommates, an Australian girl, had invited us to join their dinner that night. We showed up to find that they had produced a feast for us, complete with chicken, vegetables, our salad, and a rice mixture that the Australian girl had learned from her family. The ten of us sat down to feast, talking and joking for a few hours. At one point, Jeremy got into a heated discussion with one of the roommates there over the history of the Sinai, which is just another example of why the Egypt evacuees tend to stick together when it comes to current affairs. Regardless, it was a fun shabbat dinner. We ate our fill before heading back to our respective dorms, exhausted from an eventful weekend.