Tuesday 29 May 2012

What I learned today (8): reporting can be dangerous

So, I got into a bit of a gnarly situation, trying to do some reporting...

The big news last night was that protesters had broken into (and later supposedly tried to burn down) the headquarters of Ahmed Shafiq, one of the two presidential candidates competing in the run-off for the Egyptian elections.

I had kept myself updated on the situation throughout the evening via Twitter, and had briefly attempted to take some photos of a small protest in Tahrir with a friend.

On my way home, I start thinking.
I am supposed to be a reporter and I'm heading to the area where Shafiq's headquarters are said to be, because I live nearby. I've got my camera on me, so I might as well go check it out and see if I can get some good photos.

I decide to call a friend, who also lives in the area and has an adventurous spirit. We agree to meet at the beginning of Doqqi, the neighbourhood I live in and where the headquarters are supposed to be.

Since both of us have only a vague idea of where the office is located we start asking around to people on the street. Nobody really seems to have a clear idea of where it is, until this taxi driver stops and offers to take us there.

He mentions a street nearby so we decide to get in his taxi and let him drive us there. I get in on my side of the car and close the door behind me, expecting my friend to get in on the other side. But before he can, the driver puts the child locks on the door.

He turns around, looks me straight in the eye, and says in Arabic "I voted for Shafiq". Then he hits the gas and speeds off.

I get out my phone and send my friend who got left behind an 'oh crap' SOS text message. "What's going on? What are you doing?", I ask the driver in Arabic. "We're going for a ride", is his somewhat eerie response.

I'm not easily scared, but at this point nightmare scenarios of getting abducted, robbed and God knows what else start going through my head. I start frantically calling anyone I can think of that speaks Arabic, so they can maybe talk some sense into this guy.

It is around 3 am at this point, so unsurprisingly most of my calls go unanswered.

Looking out the window I can tell the taxi is clearly not going to the street we are supposed to be going to. After a few minutes the driver pulls over in a poorly lit street, near a group of men. These are definitely not Shafiq's headquarters.

The taxi driver gets out, grabs me by the arm and drags me out of the car. His grip is too tight for me to get loose. He yells out something I can't understand to the men standing nearby, who all start coming over. I still can't get out of his grip and start screaming from the top of my lungs.

Within seconds I am surrounded by the group of men. There are five of them. They start pushing me around and ask me a bunch of random questions in broken English. "Why don't you like Shafiq? Are you one of Sabahi's people? Are you one of Morsi's people? Are you from Israel? Why do you want to take photos?"

They ask for my ID, which I refuse to give and am not carrying on me anyway. They start leading me into a nearby building, the taxi driver still having a firm grip on my one arm, as I am getting dragged along by this fat guy holding my other arm.

We get to a teeny-tiny lift. The taxi driver and another guy get in and go up, while two others start making their way up the stairs.

It's just me and this young looking guy with a wild afro now, waiting for the lift to come back. "Let me go, I want to go home", I repeatedly tell him in both English and broken Arabic. "I am a Dutch journalist, I have done nothing wrong, I am just here to do my job."

As the elevator comes back down, he grabs me by the chin, turns my face toward him so he can look me in the eye, and says: "I'm going to let you go, but next time, be more careful. Cairo is a dangerous city and these are dangerous times."

The second he lets go of my face I dash out the building. I run as fast as I can for a few minutes until I reach a main street and flag down a taxi to take me home. As it turns out I'm only a few minutes drive away from where I live.


Now, hours later, I realise I just narrowly escaped a situation that could have turned very very bad. I don't think there could have been a safer way to go about it though, aside from not going at all.

On the other hand I am bummed I never made it to the headquarters, and still don't even know for sure where they are. 


  1. I'd be more than glad to help you retrace your steps, to find out exactly where you were abducted and maybe even by who. Let me me know if you're willing to take me up on that offer.

    Twitter: @NoorNoor1

    1. Thanks, might take you up on that - will be in touch!

  2. There was a safer way to go about it. For starters, this is not a good idea at 3 a.m. Secondly, knowing the address of the destination and the general area, or taking someone with you who does. Thirdly, going with a trusted driver, instead of a random taxi on the street. Fourthly, carrying your id with you at all times, especially when "reporting." Having a contingency plan for when you meet angry people on the street. How about not carrying your camera in plain sight? How about talking to experienced journalists, human rights workers or others, who might have an idea of how dangerous a "reporting" activity can be. Jesus. I am sorry this happened to you. But this is not a game.

    1. I do realise that the timing wasn't ideal, but when things happen at night, you should go out at night. I didn't want to get there in the morning when it was all cleaned up.

      I didn't expect to lose my friend the way I did. He is a fairly big guy, and speaks Arabic well. That's why I asked him to come along. For safety.

      I am familiar with the area, and so is my friend, we just didn't know the exact address of the HQ. And they probably took me to some place bordering Mohandeseen, 'cause I recognised a main street fairly quickly, where I flagged down a cab.

      I never carry my camera in plain sight, it was in my bag the whole time. Which they didn't check, which I think is interesting in itself.

      I usually carry a copy of my ID, police or military will usually accept that, thugs will just run of with your passport, causing even more trouble.

  3. What an experience - you must have feared the worst. I am glad to hear that you are okay and I hope it hasn’t scared you off.
    I am a foreigner living in Doqqi myself and I think you couldn’t have done much different. If you didn't plan to by Taxi you couldn't have used your trusted driver. I agree about the ID - Keep only the copy of the ID, this is usually enough and if someone takes it you still have the original as back up.

    I will definitely be following your blog from now on :-)

  4. I am really sorry for what happened. This is really the direct result of the criminal rhetoric about the "foreign hands" and the xenophobic scrap. I am just surprised it has not lead to bigger disasters until now. Probably because Egyptians are in general extremely respectful with (western) foreigners and, let's be realistic, because of the repressive system. Cairo streets are safer than any little countryside town in Europe (even at 3 am). Chafik's campaign HQ is just off Midan Vinni, close to the Wafd HQ for next time. ;)

    1. Finally someone knows where it is! I don't think I'll be going down there anymore now though, I saw some pictures and it didn't look that bad actually.
      I agree with Cairo being safer than European cities, I never feel unsafe when walking on the streets at night, especially not in Doqqi.

    2. Also I forgot to mention, about the reason why there is this relative sense of safety, it's because some kind of "social control". I once knew a friend who had something stolen in Behoos and the whole neighbourhood felt guilty about it as if it was of the responsibility of all the families in the area that it did happen (while obviously it's an outsider who did it). There are things that we can't understand in individualistic cultures. If you have other examples (or counter-examples) don't hesitate to mention them because I am still trying to understand. :)

  5. Did you signal for a cab, or did he stop unsolicited?

    I know it's too late for you now, but the third time I went to Cairo, (the second visit back after living there for a year) I finally learned an important lesson:

    Never get in a cab that stops for me before I signal for a cab. They are up to something or they think they can take advantage of me because I'm a foreigner.

    I was lucky because the ones who went out of their way to stop for me only tried to rip me off, by first driving the opposite direction I asked to go or by taking the looooooooong way there, thinking I wouldn't know the difference. Never had any problems with the ones I flagged down.

    Whoever said that going out at 3am was crazy is, frankly, wrong. Cairo is a very safe city, even for women traveling alone at night. I was just there in January and I regularly walked around with my giant camera dangling around my neck and never had a problem.

    1. The cabby that 'kidnapped' me stopped unsolicited. We were standing on the side of the road, talking to some locals, asking around where the headquarters were, when he pulled over and offered to take us there.
      I don't have the same experience as you though, sometimes the taxi drivers I flag down are dicks, sometimes the ones that stop without being signalled are. I don't see a pattern.

  6. "Whoever said that going out at 3am was crazy is, frankly, wrong. Cairo is a very safe city, even for women traveling alone at night. I was just there in January and I regularly walked around with my giant camera dangling around my neck and never had a problem."

    Maria: I didn't say it was "crazy" I said it was a bad idea. While it may be more comforting to pretend that we are living in pre-revolution Cairo, we are not. Just because you haven't had a problem, does not make this activity "safe". I was held at knife point by two men in December 2011 while walking by myself in the early morning in Zamalek. Please. Do not tell me we are living with the same security situation, especially at night, as there was before.

    Acidblind: How can I possibly not think you naive when the title of your post is "What I learned today: Reporting can be dangerous"? I mean, really? I am glad that you learned this, but you should have known already. I wrote my response because quite a few people I know personally, myself included, have had bad experiences in the past year and a half. And there have been plenty of other examples of reports of serious xenophobia. Yes, we do work at night. But that doesn't mean we don't think carefully before going into a very potentially risky situation. I am glad to know that you had a bodyguard who speaks Arabic and that you didn't have your camera in plain sight. But sadly, I am not that surprised that this happened to you. That's why I reacted so strongly.

    Also: I was under the impression that you are a teacher. My mistake.

    1. Holly, regarding the title, it's called sarcasm, you might want to read up on it.
      For the rest: we will agree to disagree. As far as I can see my only mistake was to close the door of the taxi before my friend got in. Trust me, that won't happen again.