Group Has a Balcony View on History
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.
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.” ()
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
“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
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.