The first strange thing I noticed that morning as I came down the stairs from my apartment was that the “bowab” — as they call doormen in Cairo — was not at the door.
He was a conscientious man, and his absence was unprecedented.
The next thing I noticed — as I walked out that unmanned door — was how extraordinarily quiet it was in Cairo’s usually cacophonous streets.
Then I heard the shouting.
“Hunak al-harb! Hunak alharb!”
I turned to my right and saw the bowab running down the street straight toward me — frantically waving his arms and shouting.
Did I understand him correctly? Was he saying: There is a war?
“Hunak al-harb?” I asked, as the bowab gasped for breath.
Before he could answer, two fighter jets screamed over our heads. They seemed to almost skim the rooftops — and literally rattle the concrete beneath our feet.
“Al Israeleen?” I asked in utter puzzlement, considering that Israel and Egypt had been at peace for several years by then.
“La!” he said. “Al Misrayeen.”
“Al Misrayeen” meant “the Egyptians.” Was he telling me Egypt was at war with Egypt?
I thanked the bowab for this warning and immediately ran t o w a r d the front door of the Cairo Marriott, which was only a few blocks away.
I burst into the lobby and noticed a considerable line of bedraggled tourists queuing up at the front desk.
I turned to the concierge.
“What’s going on?”
“There is martial law.”
“You can’t go outside.”
“Do you have any vacancies?”
Just then, a large bus pulled up to the front of the hotel. It started unloading another very weary-looking group of tourists.
I instantly took my place in the line at the front desk and succeeded in booking a room. I was ready for an indefinite stay in an overpriced hotel — just blocks from my own apartment.
This was Feb. 26, 1986.
I had moved to Egypt in the fall of 1984 to study Arabic at the American University in Cairo.
In the intervening months, I had come to realize there was not one Egypt but two. One was the place that Western tourists saw; the other was where Egyptians actually lived.
The tourist version ran through posh hotels and occasionally detoured to one of the Pharaonic monuments Americans came to this country to see.
The other Egypt ran through dirty, narrow streets and overcrowded neighborhoods and then out into sunburnt fields where overworked fellaheen did backbreaking labor to produce agricultural goods that were sold overseas.
I soon learned — as I hid out in the Marriott — that there was a war going on between the small group of Egyptians who could enjoy the tourist version of their country and a group of angry young men from the other version.
In Egypt, you see, all young men are required to serve in the military. But they do not serve in the same military.
Young men who graduate from college — the ultimate measure of the Egyptian elite — serve in the officer corps. The least educated serve in the security police.
The security police in those days lived in barracks on the desert fringes of Cairo and were bused to various places in the city each day to serve their shifts, standing — with rifles on their shoulders — in front of public buildings.
“Rebellious paramilitary policemen fought pitched battles with troops in the capital today as the Egyptian government struggled to put down a revolt that began overnight in the luxury hotel section near the Great Pyramids,” The New York Times would report of the day I checked into the Marriott — which was not near the pyramids. “A round-the-clock curfew was ordered for Cairo and its suburbs.”
“The policemen, thought to be mostly young conscripts, began rioting because of a rumor that their tour of duty would be extended to four years from three,” said the Times.
After I secured my hotel room — and learned the curfew had not yet officially started — I ran back to my apartment and packed a bag of clothes. I was anticipating a long lockdown.
That night, I put on a suit and tie and went down to the casino — one of the Marriott’s main attractions.
The show at the roulette wheel did not disappoint. The main actor there was a man from one of the oil-rich nations east of Egypt. Dressed like a British banker, drinking Kentucky bourbon, he started with a stack of chips that would have — quite literally — made a Saudi prince happy.
Each time the wheel turned around, he would lay out enough chips to cover nearly half the numbers. Yet every time the ball would fall, it would fall on a number he had not covered.
“I know how you can leave here tonight with more money than you would otherwise,” I finally told the man.
“Really?” he said.
He turned to lay down more chips — which, of course, he lost.
“How’s that?” he asked.
“Each time you stack all those chips on the table,” I said, “give me one. I will put it right here in my coat pocket and not go anywhere. When you are done, I will give you back 90% of your money — which you would have lost at the wheel — and keep 10% as a commission.”
He looked at me in contemplative silence.
“Well, what do you think?” I said.
“Interesting idea,” he responded.
I started thinking about how much money I might make in that Cairo quarantine.
“No!” he said.
A few days later, the rebellion was crushed, the curfew was lifted — and life returned to normal in the narrow, crowded streets of that other land called Egypt.
Terence P. Jeffrey is the editor in chief of CNSNews. com.