Oak Parkers were on hand as Egyptians overthrew their oppression

Making history in the Mideast

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Click here to read a story and see photos from Jared Rifis, an OPRF grad who also witnessed the events in Egypt.

When the revolution began in Egypt, it probably comes as no surprise that several Oak Parkers were eyewitnesses.

Temma Ecker, who runs an enrichment travel company, Journeys of the Mind, Inc., from her home in Oak Park, had just boarded a cruise ship in Aswan for a trip down the Nile, when demonstrations broke out on Jan. 28. The government had shut down all cell phone and Internet connections and let criminals out of prison to wreak havoc and instill fear in the population in response to the uproar in Cairo. At least that's what she was hearing from the contacts and friends she has built up since 1987, when she began organizing tours to Egypt.

"The criminals were being paid to steal, rob and start fires," Ecker was told. "The government also closed the banks and the airline and imposed an early curfew. You couldn't move." Thugs roamed the streets and the hated police were nowhere to be found.

"People set up their own neighborhood security systems to watch their property," she said. "Roads were closed, there was no gas for cars and people were running out of food."

The boat took her as far as Luxor. There the ships docked one after another in a row, making them vulnerable to attack, so she disembarked and headed to a hotel run by a local man she knew and stayed put there for the next several days.

"Tourism," she says, "is a study of the movement of people." In this case, her experience told her to stay put.

"I never felt physically challenged or in danger," she said. "The challenge was dealing with government corruption."

She was able to use a land line and called one of the staff members of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, who was working in Egypt. She found out the U.S. State Department was offering a charter flight to "safe havens" in Cyprus and Greece, but you were on your own from there.

"It wasn't the greatest option," she said.

Instead she got reservations on Lufthansa and made her way to a hotel near the Cairo Airport, which was definitely better than being stuck in the airport.

"It was a nightmare," she said. "You didn't know if they would honor your ticket, and there were thousands in the parking lot who didn't even have tickets."

Rubbing elbows

About the same time, a group of Oak Park travelers was deeply imbedded in that nightmare. Joe McDonald, Madeleine Raymond, Joan Wrenn and Kathleen and Dan Foley were among 42 members of a Chicago Theological Union-sponsored trip, led by Rev. Don Senior, president of C.T.U.

They arrived in Cairo on Jan. 26 and managed to visit the Cairo Museum, located near Tahrir Square, without incident, although police were everywhere, wearing riot gear and carrying very large guns.

Everyone was courteous, however, and their Egyptian guide kept them up to date on the unfolding events and why they were happening. Their hotel was in Giza (in sight of the Great Pyramids) about 20 km west of Cairo city center, so they never felt in danger, but there was a military barracks across the street, and they had a clear view of the rough treatment given to some of the motorists who came through the checkpoint.

"It was really brutal," said McDonald. Some of it, they think, was reserved for the 8,000 or so "escaped" prisoners who were running amok.

On Saturday, Jan. 29, they were restricted to the hotel, which killed their chances of climbing Mount Sinai to see the sunrise.

It also cut short their visit by a week as they drove in unmarked vans to the airport the next morning and proceeded to stand for 11 hours, shoulder to shoulder with, as Dan Foley put it, "Forty thousand people on their worst behavior."

Everyone was under stress, they noted, and some handled it better than others. At one point, they found themselves next to a reporter from the Washington Post, who was 18 weeks pregnant and decided it was time to leave when a canister of tear gas came through her window at the Ramses Hilton. She gave the travelers some of the background the airport TVs weren't providing.

"It was a middle-class revolution," Dan Foley said, "no conspiracy, no planning, no leadership. The Army is the only institution that operates with efficiency. The people had good reason to be disgusted."

They finally flew out at 5 a.m. the next morning. The Foleys and Wrenn headed to Tel Aviv in Israel. McDonald and Raymond flew to Amsterdam.

It was a unique experience, they all agreed.

"You had a sense of being a witness to history," McDonald said.

"We're just praying it turns out well," added Raymond.

"I didn't think I could stand in one place for six hours," marveled Wrenn.

Choosing liberty

Tecker has nothing but praise for the protesters.

"The kids who started it were exemplary," she said. "They were non-aggressive, even when they were attacked by horses and camels. They never faltered. Mubarak made them choose between security and liberty. They chose liberty.

"The Egyptians deserve our support. I feel privileged to have witnessed them breaking down their wall of fear. They have changed the Arab world forever. This could be as important as the fall of the Ottoman Empire."

She says she's glad to be home, and will be concentrating on trips to other countries until things stabilize in Egypt. But she's glad she had the experience.

"I think the world now realizes how wonderful the Egyptians really are."

Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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