Al-LIJAAN ASH-SHA’ABIYYA

“This is becoming ridiculous, please get out of the car, I am calling it a day, it’s impossible to work this way, you are on your own now” said the taxi driver, followed by profuse insults. The insults were not levied towards us, they were against al-lijaan ash-Sha’abiyya (people’s committees), the civilians who had taken it upon themselves to patrol the streets post the 28th of January when the police had fled and abandoned all their stations, posts and with it their duty “to keep the streets and people safe”.

A security vacuum had ensued, with the army stepping in but only to protect important sites and capital, in the hope that the scattered tanks here and there would impose enough fear and signs of authority that would prevent all hell from breaking loose. All hell did not break loose, yes we heard stories of break-ins and thefts, but on the whole life carried on much as before with the exception of the curfew, an intensified form of panic that some people experienced fuelled by rumors and propaganda, and al-lijaan ash-Sha’abiyya. In each area, each street, each alley, the men had decided that they would provide the security needed at night, self-proclaimed vigilantes in a way, who would stop and search cars, ask where people were going and even chase those whom they thought looked suspicious and were up to “no good”. They would have with them items for “self-defence” ranging from wooden planks, to tennis racquets, to kitchen knives, to more menacing items like saws, swords and guns. You would see them huddled up in groups, developing camaraderie amongst themselves they never knew existed, you would hear them laughing, eating and sometimes shouting. They quickly developed codes amongst themselves to signal “danger” or to convey to the next committee that this or that car is to be given safe passage and has been already thoroughly searched. During the day, you would hear them complaining how tired they were because they had been up all night “protecting the neighbourhood”, cussing the police’s withdrawal, but you could see that that was all rhetoric. There was a glimmer in their eyes as they talked about their nightly escapades, about the would-be thief they caught and “how they taught him a lesson”. It became a ritualized process that they imbued with a great deal of reverence, a calling, a fulfilling of childhood fantasies, a grown-up play of “a’skar wi Harimiyya” (soldiers and thieves). People lauded them for their courage. Few back then and now see, how they and that was part of the problem.

Our daily demonstration’s route had ended in Mahtit Masr that day which was a good 20-25 kilometres from where I lived. The curfew had begun at 3 pm and it was already 6 pm. I had shared a taxi with a seeming stranger, a middle aged delicately built Egyptian woman whose raspy voice showed that she was or had been a heavy smoker. I quickly found out five minutes into the ride that she was a friend of my sister-in-law’s family and that she too was in the demonstration; H. H was head of the comparative literature department at NYU, and I had previously read many of her articles. We were enjoying the ride discussing all kinds of things. The taxi –driver on the other hand wasn’t. He was sick of having to be stopped every five minutes for his car to be searched. He told each lajna that the one before had already searched his car, but his objections were in vain. He let us out half way back, and we were left with the only option, which was to walk back to our respective homes, a common daily practice.

We walked centre road so that we would be visible. The streets were empty, the debris and paper wrappings fluttering in the evening winter wind. The sounds of our footsteps echoed and were amplified by the tall high rises that lined both sides of the road. We had passed a few lijaan Shabiyya whom hadn’t approach us, but who had furtively watched us walking by. Then one stopped us, or to be precise a man in one of them stopped us. He came up close, hands in his dress pants pockets, dark brown leather jacket, looking us straight in our eyes, slightly hunched forward. In a low commanding tone he asked us “where are you coming from?”. H was quiet. I faltered for a second and then said pointing “from a few roads down …shari’ surya, I was visiting an aunt sir.” He looked us, up and down. To him we didn’t look or sound like the kind of people who would be in a protest. Retaining his seriousness, his face broke out into a half-hearted condescending smile, “I will stop a taxi for you to get you back home safely and in the future make sure you are home before curfew.” We nodded mustering a half-smile back. The minute we were in the taxi, H sighed a sigh of relief, “I was so afraid that you would tell him the truth, that you wouldn’t realize….”

Advertisements

Egyptians just like them…

Cairo had its Tahrir, a centre to which people gravitated. Stubborn Alexandria defied that. We tried, we did, choosing different centres to gravitate towards and stay put in. MaHtit Masr, Sidi Gaber… but it eluded us every time; was it because of the nature of the coastal city that both beckoned and mocked circumscription? So we gave up and chose to walk, to map the city with our feet and voices. To rediscover it and in the process rediscover our selves. Experiencing sensations that we never knew existed, realizing that whatever we felt or did exceeded the sum of our individual bodies and selves. We walked for hours on end every day, a new route, a new area, a new street, changing our slogans, adapting to each place, resting our voices and walking in silence at times, feeling an expanded sense of safety in our togetherness, despite the raw fragility of our existence. A sense of safety that managed to quell our fears and gently efface the effects of decades of shared aloneness, a mass aloneness that we had become so accustomed to in spite of or maybe because of our overly populated streets . And we made sure that people heard us and saw that we were not the Lebanese Hizbullah-Iranian infiltrators-Israeli Zionists-Qaeda affiliates that they said we were, we were Egyptians just like them. Or were we?

Time Travelling

If I could ever choose to go back and relive one moment of time, it would be this. Not that it would make a difference at all to what would happen afterwards. Everything was already there, we just couldn’t see it.

It is dusk. The outbursts of chants, the animated chatter, all the words, the emotions had now subsided to the dull-like ambience of background noise. We shift around restlessly, anxiously. Tired, drained. Looking at our phones, we see that there is still no coverage in the square. It’s day number 18. Air jets fly low over us. A familiar event by now. We need to decide on a number of things, some more immediate than others. We look around us, the lives being lived out. A glimmer of the future in the present.

A sudden murmur turns into a clamor. Alert now, we look around trying to see, to find out. Do we need to run? Regroup? Find a safe place? ”He stepped down, he stepped down”. The words are being shouted out, but we ….. It’s the third time over the past few days that we have “heard” that one. We look at each other, and shrug our shoulders.

A man starts running around the square with his laptop showing the live streaming news to the incredulous ones, like us. It’s for real this time.

People jump up and down, run around frantically crying. “The people have already toppled the regime” and “Walk with your head held high” break out in unison. The sky is peppered with fireworks. A friend’s father makes his way to us and tells us that we should get going, that things will get out of hand. I ain’t going nowhere, no sir. Bodies come together and move. Cell phones ringing like crazy. Friends calling “congrats, you did it” including those who tried day in, day out, to talk us into seeing how wrong it was what we were doing. I see an older friend and his wife, we don’t say anything to each other. We hug, laughing.

My mom calls and tells me “You can come home now, you can come home now dear”.