- I apologise for the diaryesque nature of my upcoming blogs. This is not the intention of my blog, but due to the nature of my trip and time constraints, the column-type blog I plan to write will be put on hold until my return.
Christmas morning is usually a time of exchanging gifts and looking forward to a feast of a late lunch
This year, it was a 6 a.m. start, with bags to be packed ahead of my jaunt to Cairo and then into Gaza (inshallah - more on that later).
As we had exchanged gifts the previous night, the only present I received on Christmas Day was most unexpected. After a seat mix up on board my flight from Narita to Istanbul, I was bumped up to business class for the first time. A truly horizontal experience with 5 shoddy movies to boot.
I followed a short stop over in Istanbul, with three hours much needed shut eye on a delayed turbulent Boeing to Cairo.
Met by Ahmed at 3 a.m., he tore through the traffic to get my to what I thought would be my hotel. After several cups of tea with the workshy staff in a hotel with lifts of over 100 years, it turned out the Japanese contingent of the Gaza Freedom March were in a sister hotel. It was nearly five by the time I got there and some of my colleagues were getting out of bed - one of a room of three shared with two Japanese students.
News came in that the Egyptian government had forced bus companies to cancel our buses to the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Perhaps something to do with the $4 billion they get from the U.S. government in "aid" each year? Nothing to do with Israel, so the official government line goes.
We were told that we could get a service bus to a place 40kms from the border, but seeing as only two 50-seaters run a day, and there are over 1,300 foreigners looking to get into Gaza, plus numerous checkpoints (The Egyptian government is close to a dictatorship), the chances of getting that far were thought slim. News had also come in of six Palestinians being slain (three in Gaza) by the Israelis that day.
A beef kebab and a lot of sitting round in the hotel lobby followed. Reports and updates came flooding in from here, there and everywhere. Tired of all the speculation, we headed out for dinner of koshary - rice, macaroni and beans - an Egyptian yoshinoya (without the beef). A lot of fat people in that restaurant. And a lot uniforms patroling the streets.
Back at the hotel, news came in that the border would be open for four days from the 29th (surely not a coincidence), but that we were still barred from entering.
Bleary-eyed, we hauled ourselves out of bed for an 8:30 a.m. meeting at the Lotus Hotel. (Our original meeting place that evening had also been quashed by the authorities and delegates had been forced to split into three groups at various hotel lobbies).
Medea Benjamin (a dimunitive North American with great presence) chaired the meeting. She told us that on previous visits to Gaza the process had been difficult, but her groups had always managed to get through. She also said how the freedom marchers had worried the Egyptian government. This was evident for several reasons - The authorities were unable to negotiate with us while President Mubarak was out of the country; The foreign minister had gone on TV to say we were not welcome to visit Gaza, only stay in Egypt as "tourists"; and the fact that Israel had been pressuring the United States to pressure Egypt.
I volunteered to head out the Egyptian Press Syndicate with several others to hand out press releases ahead of the day's activities. My group included Jiji (a Japanese Peter-Panesque grampa), Mika (a freelance photographer), Mr. Inoue (a peace activist) and Poya (an Iranian-born Dane).
We met the director of the association, a body controlled by the government and containing the foreign press sector, and unsurprisingly, given the brush off. After many near misses with the chaotic Cairo traffic, we entered the offices of Usabaa (an antigovernment paper) and were given a near heroes welcome. They readily took a bundle of our press releases and even took us outside for photos with the editor-in-chief.
Next on the list was the League of Arab Journalists, again very helpful, forwarding our releases to media outlets such as Al-Jazeera. The top guy there laughed heartily when we said that "the Egyptian government has not been so helpful."
He got us in touch with the Interior Ministry-run broadcasting agency. We were strictly vetted and given a big smiling "No." there.
Our mission complete, we tucked into sandwiches and tea, and put the world to rights. My task was to interpret a conversation between Jiji and Poya that tore into the relationship between the UN and its Security Council, saying how unjust it was that the states with nuclear-power had the sway to veto anything the rest of the world wants.
Time to walk down the Nile to our next port of call, a pleasant boat ride along the river with a floating candle for everyone of the Gazans killed in last winter's Israeli attacks.
We heard the authorities had even stopped us getting on the boats, went down further to investigate and found a mass of marchers confronted by police and brown-jacketed thugs. Nothing got out of control, perhaps due to our determination not to incite violence, or perhaps due to the Egyptian government not wanting to look heavy handed with aggression against media-savvy pacifists.
They split us up and after an hour or so chanting, we trooped off to smoke some shisha and gather in Cairo's main square for any more snippets of information.
Tomorrow we'll go to board buses that are unlikely to come, and make further plans from there. The West Bank? Who knows? Things seem to change by the minute here.
(Apologies for the hasty nature of this blog, but I'm sure you all understand)