By Kelly Zatlin, editor
He ascends the Subway staircase crowded with people, all trying to get a peek. All he could see of Tahrir Square were the hoards of Egyptian police accompanied by the smell of tear gas. On January 25, 2011, Dordt student Adrian Hielema was in the midst of not only a riot, but of history.
Two months have passed since the protests in Egypt began, and Hielema, who is on the Middle East Study Program, originally stationed in Cairo, will not be returning to Egypt because of the instability, despite the fact that he would like to be there.
“It’s an awesome and beautiful country, and the people there are some of the nicest you’ll ever meet,” Hielema said. “I would kind of like to do a sort of a before/after thing, just get closure – we left rather unexpectedly.”
The protests in Egypt have been talked about all across the world and have even set off rebellion in other countries.
Hielema and his fellow MESP students just happened to be in the midst of it all. Though he would love to have stayed longer in Egypt, where all the action was, he is glad he was able to see and experience what he did.
“I mean we all knew even then that what we were watching would end up in history books on the Middle East for decades to come, and me being a history major, that was a pretty sweet feeling,” Hielema said.
After the initial protests began, the group spent the next several days in Luxor, as previously planned. Though they were away from the center of the riots in Cairo, the protests seemed to follow as a thousand people came and gathered along the main road in Luxor on Friday, January 28.
“The police launched tear gas over the Nile and into the crowds, but they continued undeterred,” said Hielema. “A wall of riot police formed, several protesters started throwing rocks, but the majority of the protesters simply walked around the line and the police didn’t follow them.”
When the MESP students made their way back to Cairo on Saturday, they were told by their Egyptian security guards that they had to spend the night in the train station. As they were sitting by the tracks playing games like “Mafia,” they heard loud cracks and were told to retreat immediately to a small room in the train station.
“About 30 of us and a few Egyptians were all cramped into a tiny room, trying to find places to sleep in chairs and on the floor,” said Hielema.
The students were allowed to leave the station and return to Agouza the next morning. They loaded into taxis three at a time and rode through the abandoned streets of Cairo.
“The taxi ride was surreal, the usually crammed Cairo streets were incredibly quiet (it was still curfew at the time),” Hielema said. “There were tanks in intersections and Egyptian soldiers on the streets.”
Once the students returned to Agouza, they were told to pack their things as they would be leaving Cairo to go on a month-long trip that was supposed to be planned for later in the semester.
Since then, they stayed in Istanbul for a week, were flown to Tel Aviv, and stayed at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, which lies between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Despite the fact that there might be more excitement taking place in Egypt, the students get to see and experience much of the Middle East. They have been to the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Petra, Jordan, Old Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and the Dead Sea.
They recognize that the decision of the MESP leaders to leave early was wise.
“The situation is still too unstable and they don’t want to take any unnecessary risks,” Hielema said.
Linda Van Wyk, Director of Study-abroad programs at Dordt, is pleased with the decision for the MESP to not return.
“Though Adrian’s group may be disappointed at their abrupt departure from Cairo and the fact that MESP will not be returning from Egypt, the safety of the student is always the priority in off-campus study,” Van Wyk said. “Because of the Middle East Studies Program’s history and their strong connectedness to the community in Cairo, they do have a good read on the risks of returning to Egypt prematurely.”
Hielema understands the risks involved with returning to Egypt, but that doesn’t mean he still wouldn’t want to go back.
“If they told us tonight that we needed to pack up because we’re going back to Cairo, I can almost guarantee the class would erupt in cheers,” Hielema said.
Van Wyk, as well as the leaders of the MESP, is aware of the student’s desires, but they still believe the students are fortunate to travel to the various countries across the Middle East.
“Fortunately for Adrian and his comrades, the group was able to continue their studies in Turkey, Israel, and Jordan, and will be able to complete their semester of study,” Van Wyk said. “And, returning to Egypt or not, Adrian must have learned a lot about the Middle East this semester.”
As Hielema reflects on his experiences in the Middle East up to this point, his favorite memory is that of standing in Tahrir Square on January 25, a day that will be remembered forever.
“It’s a cliché I’ve heard way too often this semester, but I got to see history being made, and that doesn’t happen every day,” Hielema said. “The cornfields of Iowa just felt so far away during all of it, but I never wanted to be anywhere else. To arrive just as the people of Egypt were claiming their greatest victory in the history of their country was pretty lucky. I couldn’t shake the feeling I was just an American tourist, but the Egyptians were so welcoming I sort of forgot about it.”
Photos by Adrian Hielema