“Enjoy your stay”
the three Al Jazeera journalists were accused of setting up a “terror cell” there: what Marriott Zamalek felt like in 2011.
Peter Greste was finally released after 400 days of jail. We hold our breath now for his Al Jazeera colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed. The three journalists were arrested in December 2013 in the hotel room they’re were working in at Marriott Zamalek. They were accused of setting up “the Marriott cell” - a terrorist, pro-Muslim Brotherhood unit. This was my experience in the same hotel in November 2011, right after the clashes in Mohamed Mahmoud street.
I arrived at Marriott Zamalek in Cairo on November 25, 2011, just across the Nile from Tahrir, on the eve of the parliamentary elections.
I was scared. Forty-four people, mostly young men, had just been killed over the last few days by Central Security Forces.
In a narrow street downtown, they were teargassed and shot to prevent them from reaching the Ministry of Interiors. Hundreds were injured, some of them blinded: one overzealous official — subsequently dubbed the Eye Sniper — gave orders to the CSF to shoot at eye level. Journalist Mona Eltahawy was sexually assaulted at the Ministry of Interiors, her arms fractured. In a few hours, I would walk through a dense, acrid smell of teargas still lingering on Mohamed Mahmoud street, my boots stained with blood that was mixing with rain pools.
Tahrir, then, was still very much alive, bustling with street children, bread vendors, and thousands of demonstrators discussing whether to boycott or to cast a vote — the injured limping, with patches over their eyes and bandaged arms. Activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, writing from the same jail where he is again imprisoned today, was warning his companions against the dangers of fetishising the square, as the revolution was still to be won in many crucial places.
(one of Tahrir field hospitals, still nursing people’s eyes after Mohamed Mahmoud clashes)
Meanwhile, very close but invisible from the square, a human barrier of well-organized supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood armed with sticks was now guarding Mohamed Mahmoud, blocking the way to the Ministry to prevent further clashes.
But the freeing of that way, the refusal to be pushed back to Tahrir — the scariest territorial battle since the 18 days of the revolution — was exactly the reason why those young people had died.
Big hotels have seen everything and anything, they deal with royalties and rock bands, they cater to sleepwalkers and airplane crews and throngs of vacuum cleaners salesmen. They are supposed to be safe havens, and more so for journalists, who very often need to set up a basic office. But during the 18 days of the revolution, the downtown Hilton had viciously locked press guests out of its premises, handing them over to the baltageya, the thugs who were targeting them. I had yet to discover the safer environment of other Cairo hotels and friends apartments.
Marriott Zamalek had once been the ancient royal Gezira Palace on the banks of the Nile. As soon as I pushed the reservation button, an Egyptian friend told me that rumours had it that Marriott Zamalek was a felool enclave —an old haunt for nostalgics of the Mubarak era. It was too late to change my mind. I dismissed the rumour as one of the legends of Cairo but accepted my friend’s advice to buy a tourist visa, which was quite common for short stays, bringing an ID that didn’t state my profession.
My check-in at the Marriott lasted over an hour. I was the only guest waiting, but the desk clerk kept bringing my passport and reservation in the back of the office, behind a heavily panelled wall. I could hear murmuring in Arabic and couldn’t grasp what was being said. He would then come back, look at me, pretend to check something on his computer and disappear again.
Was there anything wrong with my reservation?
He’d smile slyly and just say, “one moment”.
More walking in the back. More whispering. Then some phone call.
I was growing nervous and checked around me for any brown suit, tiny gold pin on lapel — that universal mark of DDR-style secret police. Tourism was already frozen, and there were barely other guests walking around on the plush carpets. The bank teller was open for business but the clerk was alone, reading the paper. The tinkling of glasses came from the direction of the back entrance, luring me into the garden.
Security guards worked their shift at the metal detector at the front door. They would become my nightly providers of cigarettes in the following days, since nobody I asked would admit to selling any on the premises — because I was a woman, you see — and I would end up buying my only packet on my last night, smuggling it from a guy at the garden pizza kiosk. By then, my silly plight was so obvious that the guards had — silently, generously, and patronisingly — let a couple of their own cigarettes slide into my pocket every night as I was going back to my non-smoking room after a day around the polls, making me feel like a teenager hiding from her parents. Actually, I was always grateful to the big, towering working-class men: for reasons I couldn’t grasp, they looked as scared and cautious as I was.
“Are you sure you’re a tourist, madam?”, asked the concierge stiffly.
“Are you sure you are a tourist?”
“Why, what am I supposed to be if not a tourist?”.
“A journalist, madam”.
My reservation, of course, had been made by my office. There was the word “radio” somewhere in fine print. Feeling cornered, I told the man it was a favour done to me by my office but really I was on vacation. He insisted the charge on my office meant I was on a working trip.
So I asked, even if that was the case, would I need the hotel’s permission to work?
“Not at all, madam”, the man said. “Enjoy your stay”.
I was reluctantly given my key and I darted to my room.
That night before dinner, a friend showed me the hidden, gilded secrets of Marriott Zamalek.
Halls and nooks and arched corridors and ballrooms of the old colonial palace lay hidden behind the modern remake — the beautiful gilded mirrors, the Ottoman stone banisters leading up winding stairs. We walked past abandoned cleaning trolleys and painter ladders, snooping into decorated wooden doors left ajar, under angel blue ceilings, over sculpted balconies, along unfurnished gigantic halls with french windows overlooking the palms in the garden.
Here a monumental Egyptian flag painted on a wall two storeys-high, there an intricate brass chandelier, a lonely powder-pink velvet sofa, some clerk eyeing us suspiciously. Outside, I knew, people were starving in the dusty streets, while from 1906 down to Mubarak era, time had stopped at different times in history in every room that no one was using. We were then caught and briskly ushered downstairs. It waas my one serene moment at Marriott Zamalek.
The following days were an intimidating trickle of clerks turning up at unlikely hours, stealing glances into my messy room, apologising for having knocked at the wrong door. A couple of mysterious calls from the reception inquiring into my plans for the next day. I was forbidden from inviting anyone over to my room, and so had to hold my meetings in the lobby. The very expensive wifi connection didn’t work in private rooms but only in common halls, so I found myself doing all my night tweeting and posting of pictures in plain sight.
All of my reporting on the phone in the mornings was done in the warm open air from the tiled space before the front entrance, still in my barely disguised nightdress, whispering so that no one could detect recognisable words. The more I tried to hide, the more my cell phone kept beeping with alerts from my embassy.
A few steps away from the entrance, taxi drivers were always waiting. On my first day, instructed by my friend not to ever mention that I was going to Tahrir, I asked the young valet for a taxi to take me to the Egyptian Museum, because what could possibly be more touristy. The young man handed me over to a driver who was likely one of his relatives, assuring me that he was to be “most trusted”. Despite his broken English, the driver managed to interrogate me as to whether I was or wasn’t a “foreign journalist” before dropping me unceremoniously at the Museum. On the following days I always avoided the valet service, and instead walked my way up to the mouth of 26 July, to a public taxi parking. Even there, it only took a couple of days before the chatting drivers standing by their cars started whispering malevolently “Tahrir”, “Tahrir” — soft enough to appear casual, loud enough for me to hear as I approached them.
The word that just across the river was so magic now sounded like a curse.
I was experiencing how much safer, ironically, I felt in Tahrir, and really, almost everywhere I went but there. At the Marriott I felt vulnerable, glaringly exposed, and spent my daytime terrified at the prospect of returning to my room, where I was so worried that I could scarcely sleep. A basket of lavish fresh fruit would be placed in the evening by the tv screen, where every channel would show loops of brutal footage from the clashes at Mohamed Mahmoud. There, the thick white teargas, the loud shooting. Here, the incongruous pineapple, the shiny papaya.
I kept hearing footsteps on the balcony, and often rose up in the middle of the night to check the garden window lock. On one of my last nights, crossing the lavish Saraya Gallery, I spotted two plainclothes police officers enjoying their drinks with a moustached man in a decorated uniform. A hotel manager was joking with them while standing proudly with a hand over the back of his seat.
I often think of the gilded, secret palace, where time stopped and patrons in the soft hushed corners were just waiting all along for the revolution to pass.
The sweep of nationalistic frenzy that since overcame Egypt, which is really fear in disguise, succeeded in turning decent citizens into informants. Among journalists, that about the “Marriott cell” long became a joke. Knowing Marriott Zamalek, that was also the most unlikely place for any Muslim Brother to meet. It was probably naive too of the Al Jazeera team to set up office there.
I still wonder though, whose fear gave the unknowing Al Jazeera team away.
Which overzealous concierge.
Which fealty or threat made someone answer, “yes, they’re here, I’ll show you to their room”.