The Train From Cairo to Asyût

Writer Carl Hoffman traveled to Egypt in February 2011, a week after popular demonstrations led to the president's resignation. These are his observations.

British actor Michael Flanders said, “If God had meant for us to fly, he wouldn’t have given us the railways.” This is as true for Egypt as anywhere else.

“What do you think of our revolution?” Namir Galal asked me. It was midnight. The carriage was swaying, steel wheels clickety-clacking over steel tracks, a hot glass of tea from the porter in my hand. Namir, a round man with a neat, close-cropped beard, peered over my seat back, proffering a handshake and a bag of breadsticks. Within moments he’d worked some train magic, swiveling my seat around so I was facing him and his wife, Hana, who wore a head scarf.

On planes you feel hurried, harried, but on an overnight train there’s nothing but time—time to doze, time to wander between cars, time to get to know your fellow passengers. The Galals were traveling home to Asyût from Cairo, where they were visiting Namir’s family. Namir was an engineer, Hana a magazine editor, though so shy it was Namir who did the talking. And talk we did, as he showed me video, recorded on his cellphone from his sister’s balcony overlooking Tahrir Square, of chanting crowds. Namir reveled in his new freedom to talk politics.

The moon shimmered off occasional views of the Nile, and the Galals wouldn’t stop feeding me. Breadsticks. A ham sandwich. Tea. Like Egyptians across the country, they were beaming with optimism and empowerment. The train, the country itself, seemed less threadbare and crumbling, and ready for rebirth. “We saw guns, but we were not afraid,” Namir said. “Our country was dirty, but now it will be clean.”

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