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By Eric Weld   Date: 2/4/11 Bookmark and Share

Smith Group Has a Balcony View on History

It’s not every day one witnesses history in the making. But that’s exactly what two dozen Smith alumnae and friends experienced as they watched events in downtown Cairo last week from the fourth-floor deck of the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel.

Scenes from Egypt (click images for enlarged views):

“It was surreal,” describes Mary Maples Dunn, president of Smith College from 1985 to 1995, who participated in the Egypt tour. “We could see it all. There we were on this elegant terrace, comfortably viewing it all… That’s the only word for it—surreal.”

After arriving in Cairo as part of the Alumnae Association tour on Thursday, Jan. 27, and making a trip to Giza the following day to view the Great Pyramids and the ancient Sphinx, Dunn and the other travelers returned to the hotel Friday afternoon. Once back, the travelers watched the buildup of a massive crowd of anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square (Liberation Square) below. By Saturday, the throng had swelled to hundreds of thousands.

“We were seeing a lot of violence,” recalls Dunn, “police measures, using tear gas, rubber bullets and water guns, and protesters hurling rocks. The sound of gunfire was almost constant. There was a pitched battle on a bridge right below our hotel. A huge fire was burning.” (Read an account of the experience by Dunn and Smith alumnae on the trip.)

The Smith group occupied rooms on the upper floors of the hotel, overlooking the Nile River on one side. They spent much of Friday and all day Saturday and Sunday watching the action from their rooms and from a poolside deck on the fourth floor.

As the political turmoil unfolded before them, Dunn says the group was aware of the historic moment.

“We had wandered into a war,” she says. “It was very clear that this was historic. We had CNN on all the time, and had access to Al Jazeera.”

What’s not clear, Dunn agrees, is what will happen next in Egypt—and indeed, in other Middle Eastern countries contending with their own growing democratic protests. As the violence escalates in Cairo with clashes between pro-government backers and anti-government protesters, Egypt’s direction will depend largely on where the military aligns, she notes.

Despite the unrest on the ground outside the hotel, Dunn says she never felt in danger.

“There were some spooky things,” she says. A stray rock smashed through a hotel window, which allowed tear gas to waft into the building’s lower floors. Hotel businesses on the ground floor shut down during the height of the protests and elevators stopped at the second floor. Hotel patrons were advised to remain on the premises. “But I never felt in danger. The hotel did an amazing job of keeping its guests supplied and safe.”

Dunn and her group were able to secure a flight out of Cairo on Sunday, Jan. 30, thanks, she notes, to the quick work of travel company Odysseys Unlimited, in coordination with fellow traveler Judy Milestone ’66, a former executive with CNN, and Elizabeth Bigwood, assistant director of Smith travel. After an adventurous trip through the city to the airport, Dunn flew to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, and arrived at her home in Philadelphia Monday.

It was Dunn’s first trip to Egypt, a place she had always wanted to see, she says. Though her trip was cut short due to the protests, she looks forward to visiting Egypt again. “This was a life dream,” she says. “I plan to go again as soon as I’m able.”

While it’s impossible to predict what will happen in Egypt’s near future, a small group of travelers from the Smith community can always say they witnessed its beginning, from the balcony.

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