Senior Hannah Ratliff is an A&E Page Editor for the Shawnee Mission East Harbinger. This is her second semester on staff. She enjoys visiting new places, watching action movies and being with her dogs. Read Full »
“I was just stunned at seeing this place that just looked like a war zone. There’s no other way to describe it,” 2009 East graduate and current University of Southern California junior Kate Collison said. “I’d never been in a place like that before.”
In the last year, Tahrir Square has seen its fair share of bloodshed. In one November riot alone, at least 23 people died and 1,500 were injured. Police mercilessly beat protestors, broke up their camps, arrested anyone they saw as a threat, and shot rubber bullets into the crowds. And Collison was close enough to hear the shots fired.
“They threw tons and tons and tons of tear gas, and fired lots of rubber bullets. Those are normal crowd control methods, that’s what they use to break up protests in the U.S., but the amount they were using, that’s what the problem was,” Collison said. “People were suffocating on the tear gas… then they started using live ammunition, and actually killing people, and that’s absolutely when it got out of line.”
As Collison was faxing in her applications to go to Cairo, Egypt was erupting. In the past year, Egypt has been uprooted by a revolution, sparked by the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president of nearly 30 years. Even as the distress continued in Egypt, Collison was still determined to go to a place where she would learn something new. She was confident that she would be able to stay safe.
“[My friends in Cairo] said that on the news, these events and protests seem really huge and seem like they’re all through Cairo, that they’re affecting everyone,” Collison said. “The reality was that it’s only happening in a really small part of the city… and everyday life really hasn’t changed. That made me and my parents feel a lot better about it.”
While in Egypt, Collison stayed in a USC dorm on the quiet, peaceful island of Zamalek. For the first few months of her stay, the riots were a far-off and forgettable problem that barely affected her as she attended classes and visited with friends. That all changed the week of Thanksgiving.
One November night, a fellow student came back to the dorm late and told Collison that one of their friends was still in Tahrir Square with two other students. They didn’t think much of it until the boys didn’t come back to the dorm the next day. Then they started seeing the tweets about three American students arrested in the square. They quickly called to inform the American Embassy of the arrests.
“The whole thing was just really surreal,” Collison said. “Every time we would turn on the TV, we would see our friend’s face there… Thanksgiving day, he was still in jail, and we were so nervous and worried, and then Thanksgiving afternoon, we found out that he had been released. It was the best Thanksgiving present ever.”
The riots had finally impacted her, but it only made Collison more careful. She learned that Cairo indeed was a hectic and sometimes dangerous place. But Collison still found what she was looking for there. She found a place that reminded her to be thankful for the clean, quiet streets and clean air she knew she would find back home.
“There’s trash everywhere, and there’s so much pollution, and there are so many people there, and there’s lots of traffic,” Collison said. “But I really think that it’s those moments that, though they’re frustrating at the time… it really makes you appreciate what you have at home that you don’t think of every day.”
Although many tourists feared the unrest and avoided Egypt in the last year, Collison explained that the riots were less widespread and severe than the media portrayed them to be. Since she was staying in a quiet, safe area, she was able to avoid the protests and still enjoy being a part of life in Cairo.
“[In Egypt], I think people try to just take time to enjoy life, and listen to live music, and dance, and sing,” Collison said. “That’s a huge part of the culture there, just to celebrate living…and I definitely think America could learn a little bit of that.”
So, as she stood in Tahrir Square last December, Collison thought of all the things she was lucky to have at home. As she looked at the broken glass in the street, she was thankful for her safety. The burn stains on the buildings made her appreciate that she didn’t have to fight for her right to a clean election in the United States. And as she stared at the burnt out cars that lay empty in the streets, she was grateful for her opportunity to learn about a culture she would never have known before.