Duke Grad Witnessing History in Cairo

“We’re not tourists who came to see the pyramids," said Andrew Simon, '10. "We’re living here and we plan to keep living here.”

Andrew Simon, pictured in Yemen in 2007 while participating in DukeEngage.

The scene in Cairo's Tahrir square is reminiscent of K-ville, according to Duke graduate Andrew Simon, who is currently living in the city studying Arabic amidst protests that began eight days ago.

"There are people living in tents, chanting 24/7, screaming their lungs out," he said during an interview Tuesday via Skype. "It's a very charged environment - the sense of unity is just amazing."

Simon, a native of Guilford, Conn., graduated from Duke in 2010 with a major in Arabic. He has been living in Cairo with other Americans since June as part of an intensive Arabic-language program. He said he plans to stay in Egypt, despite the ongoing upheaval.

"It's exhilarating," he said. "You have to be cautious, but this is 30 years in the making. This isn't something that's sprung up overnight ... people were disenchanted and they found an opportunity to raise their voices and demand their rights.

"It's pretty cool to see something from such a base level build within a week timeframe," he added. "This is a defining moment in the Middle East and across the region. People grab us on the street and say, ‘You're witnessing history in the making!'"

Simon describes a scene that is constantly evolving. From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. he is able to go out, walk the streets, and get something to eat. Otherwise a curfew is in effect, and Internet access has been disabled. He said his ability to speak Arabic has been invaluable in talking with native Egyptians about the ongoing events.

"It's a completely different experience knowing the language," he said. "People talk to you. People are willing to talk to you. Arabic is key to facilitating conversations. People have tremendous respect for foreigners who speak Arabic -- - even people who have studied for one semester."

"It's exciting to go out when we can and actually talk to people about what's going on," he noted. "You have some people who are just afraid and petrified about what's happening, saying ‘We don't want change,' but others say ‘We've just been repressed for so long.'"

He said the people want one thing -- for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in power for 30 years, to resign.

"The one thing they want the West to understand is, ‘Our demand is simple. Mubarak has to leave. Period. Nothing else will do,'" he said.

Hundreds of thousands of protestors are filling the streets, public squares and bridges everyday, he said. In the beginning, the protestors appeared to be mostly middle class citizens, but since then have grown to include children, the elderly, women, doctors, judges and teachers, Simon said.

"It is unprecedented and escalating," he said.

Still, Simon said he feels safe, despite no Internet or email access, crackdowns on looters and uncertainty about the future of his program and Egypt in general.

"Protestors were coming up to us asking if we were OK, patting us on the shoulder and asking us why we weren't evacuated," he said. "We're not tourists who came to see the pyramids. We're living here and we plan to keep living here."