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Evan Hill
Al Jazeera journalist and Madison West graduate Evan Hill in Cairo last fall, before the protests began.

Last Wednesday, the day the government struck back in Tahrir Square, Evan Hill hopped a makeshift fence made of electric cable and found himself face to face with the revolution.

It came in the form of a small squad of men standing in front of a large barricade, a mix of metal and spiked fences.

"I held my hands up," Hill noted later, "palms out."

Hill, 25, a 2003 Madison West High School graduate, is covering the Egyptian uprising for Al-Jazeera, the Arabic news network that launched an English language channel in 2006.

He had walked from his temporary home in Cairo — where for hours he had seen rocks thrown and Molotov cocktails exploding out his window — down along the Nile River to the Kasr al-Nil bridge, which leads into Tahrir Square in central Cairo.

The square has been the primary location for the anti-government protests that began in Egypt in late January.

As Hill stood with his arms raised, one of the men asked for identification. Once they had seen his United States driver's license, and learned of his affiliation with Al-Jazeera, the mood relaxed. The men were protesters, and those in the movement — unlike the pro-Hosni Mubarak government people — respect Al-Jazeera.

"You tell the truth," one said. He then patted Hill down. "Security," he explained.

Hill was introduced to the protester in charge of the barricade. He noted the man's long black beard, the blood stains on both his white head wrap and gray coat. The man introduced himself and took hold of Hill's shoulder.

"Remember my name," he said. "If I die here tonight, you will tell our story."

Less than two months ago, Hill had begun to wonder if he was ever going to get to cover a real story. He was back in Madison then, visiting his parents for the holidays, and just before he left in late December — flying from Chicago to Al-Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, Qatar — Hill said something his mother, Marguerite "Boo" Hill, would long remember.

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"Mom, I'm going to be so bored."

Boo and Christopher Hill have lived in Madison for two decades. Boo remembers their son's fascination with the film "Lawrence of Arabia" before Evan was even a teen. Evan himself told me he studied Arabic during his years at Northwestern University (2003-2007) and "fell in love" with Cairo when he spent a semester at American University in that city in 2005.

When I reached Evan on his cell phone Monday, he was back in Tahrir Square. It was a day of relative calm in Cairo. Things were returning somewhat to normal, Hill said. "The banks are opening and traffic is flowing," he said. Still, there were crowds in Tahrir Square.

After graduating from Northwestern, Hill spent a summer landscaping in Madison and wondering if he should relocate to the Middle East. He thought he could begin by freelancing pieces. Instead, he followed his girlfriend to San Francisco and got a job with The Recorder, a legal publication.

In his down time, with a Northwestern friend, Hill began a blog devoted to Middle East news. Eventually, the head of online at Al-Jazeera English took notice, and Hill joined the network, in Doha, last spring.

He wasn't crazy about Doha, and when the protests erupted in Cairo, Hill requested and got the assignment.

It has been both scary and exhilarating. "They shut down our bureau," Hill said, speaking of the Mubarak government's campaign against Al-Jazeera in Cairo, "and detained four or five of our journalists."

His presence in the middle of the revolt has cost his parents back in Madison some sleep, but they're proud of his reporting, which is getting noticed. On Jan. 31 an online forum listed the 10 "must-follow Twitter feeds" for the Egyptian protests, and the first one mentioned was Hill's: twitter.com/evanchill. He currently has more than 13,000 followers.

"The Egyptian people have been stereotyped as politically apathetic," he told me. "To see them openly expressing themselves on the street, to view it firsthand, is exciting and inspiring."

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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