Tag: 18 days

The Morning After

We softly hummed as we walked towards Villa Belle Epoque[1], breaking out into a spontaneous skip every now and then. We had started the day in no rush, hurrying nothing and no one, reveling in the quiet.

The night before, after the long day, after the ebbs of disappointment that had been effaced all of a sudden by the rush of excitement and relief, after losing friends then finding them, then losing them again, after the incessant ring of the cell-phone, after loud music being blown out of speakers and cars, after the continuous syncopated car honks bursting in unison, after walking and seeing the endless waves of traffic and bodies heading towards downtown and out of it, I had felt too tired to make it to al-Māʿdī to spend the night at friends, despite H and R’s appeals. Instead, I walked to Zamālik-which was quicker than taking transportation and I enjoyed watching people’s reactions and overhearing their conversations about what had happened- and stayed at the Mayfair[2]. With its elitist reputation and dense ex-pat presence, the mood in Zamālik was very different; there was hardly any visible registering of the news of Mubarak’s stepping down. It’s as if one had stepped into a parallel universe where none of the day’s happenings had occurred. People’s faces were almost morose. Brooding. Tense. I shrugged it off, “of course, people in this area have vested interests in preserving the status quo, that is why they aren’t celebrating” was my interior monologue. Perhaps, an unfair and naïve judgment. In the months to come, we would all realize that those who had vested interests in Mubarak’s regime were so many, far beyond our imagination and did not have to be well to do or living in upper end areas. In the months to come, we would realize that we had nothing to celebrate that night, nothing at all. The celebration was part of the problem.

In the morning, after a quick breakfast I made my way to H & R’s[3] place in Māʿdī. R said that she was going to invite us both- her younger sister H and I- for brunch at the Belle Epoque. We decided to walk, enjoying the sight of the green trees that drooped over the balconies of the two or three story buildings, the bushes that cocooned the gates and entrances. The scene was idyllic, as well as surreal, especially as we walked into the hotel. Such a far hue and cry from the eighteen days with its boundless din, energy and stress. I realized walking in how out of place I looked, for during the eighteen days I had paid so little attention to what I was wearing. I had stoically worn only jeans and alternated between two pullovers with a shirt underneath and a sweater or cardigan when it was cold. Black boots were my footwear and which I would continue to wear for the next five months – even when all the walking had worn them down-as if not wanting to let go. The pullovers I put to rest after that. Forever. In my mind, I felt it silly to pay attention and think about what I was going to wear during that time. I had also thought that that would help me blend in. To look more Egyptian. Jeans and a simple pullover, no different from many others. Gone were my colourful dresses and bright headscarves, my hipster silver rings, my favourite tops and dress trousers, my blazers.

We were led in and seated by the pool. After ordering and while eating, several times one of us started a sentence and then it just trailed off. But we enjoyed the silences. We needed them. Different birds twittered and sang and we tried to identify them. We were the only people there. We didn’t know what to say, how to express what we were feeling, or what would be relevant. Then little by little, we started to talk about what was possible, about what we hoped for, for the country, about what we wanted to do, what were the priorities. A lifetime of dreams and wishes all bottled up, came gushing out. R said that she was going to leave corporate work as she was tired of it and how meaningless it felt. She would give up her fat salary and work for a NGO instead or work freelance. She wanted to do something meaningful. H said that she would work towards her goal of opening a cultural space, one that would focus on bringing events and workshops to neglected cities like Damietta, Port Said and not Alexandria or Cairo that already had several cultural spaces. And I. Well, I said that going into politics was never the aim for me, it was just something that I felt I had to do, and that now I would focus my attention in any free time I had on an educational project or education reform on a volunteer basis. I thought then and still think now that education was the bud and the root. Now nearly six years later, R has quit her corporate job and is working freelance. H has her cultural space in Cairo that focuses on doing wonderful cultural workshops and events in Damietta, Mansoura and Portsaid. And I. I left.

[1] Villa Belle époque is a boutique hotel in Māʿdī and which is described as “A colonial-style country house in a peaceful neighbourhood with great staff a cool pool and a gorgeous garden.”

[2] Mayfair hotel is a two floor establishment in Zamālik, that is more like a high end hostel.

[3] R and H were friends and had participated for a few days in the demonstrations in Alex after I had phoned them and on one day we had actually rented trucks to gather and collect garbage off the streets when the garbage’s stench was starting to become a huge problem. The government had stopped collecting garbage in Alexandria. Some say it was a form of punishing people for revolting. They had returned to their jobs in Cairo at the end of January or beginning of February.

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Day One (Part One)…

 

For a month we had been reading what had been unfolding in Tunisia. For a couple of weeks, we had been following and talking about the preparations and instructions within the group pages. For days we had been posting on our own pages, and phoning friends trying to convince, elicit support, what we would later learn to call to “mobilize” or just to rev up our own courage amongst a general attitude of sarcasm, disbelief and hostility towards the call for nationwide protests on the day. A disbelief that even we secretly harboured. There were years of previous experiences of low turnouts, fear that had become inscribed on our bodies and a tide of seemingly unending rehearsals for a moment that never came. A disbelief that we had learned to hide when people scoffed at us day in day out, saying “you don’t have a chance”. They were right, we were wrong. We never had a chance. Not a real one anyway.

Instructions were read about writing signs of why we have chosen to protest. Instructions about how to use proxies, how to always carry coke cans to wash your eyes with to neutralize the effect of tear gas- which proved ineffectual when the time came, your eyes stung so hard you could not open them, groping around- what to wear so as not to stand out, not too baggy as to be easily grabbed by, but comfortable enough to be ready to run. And run. Instructions to always have a text ready to send immediately before your cell phone is confiscated, to one of the human rights’ lawyers on the list. Your name, your address, your ID number, a family member’s phone number. And “I have been arrested”. End text. A text that could be the difference between a chance disappearing forever and being found. Alive.

(A single black screen appears like those used during silent movies with white writing in small font)

Lesson One: Avoid confrontation with the security forces whenever possible.

There were a few starting points. The first was what used to be called Mohammed Ali’s square, later called La Place des Consuls, and which to our parents’ generation and ours was simply known as Midaan al-Manshiyyah. At 12 “o” clock. Reaching there on time, the Midaan was relatively empty. Usually crowded, overcrowded, bodies jostled left and right, bumped into unapologetically, side stepping every couple of minutes to avoid this or that. Now, hardly anybody there. As Egyptians we were usually never on time. Why on earth did I think that it would be any different when it came to starting a demonstration or revolution? Not that we knew it would be one then, or whatever it has been named and renamed ever since. Lower ranking security personnel in plain clothes permeate the place. Easily identifiable. Where and when did we learn that skill? Not at school for sure. Others loiter. Are they just onlookers, passersby, potential protestors? I wait, walk around the Midaan, look down the side streets for signs.

Lesson Two: Never start a protest on your own, especially in wide-open spaces. Wait, bide your time.

Impatience. Jumping into a taxi, I decide to go to another starting point at the other end of town. A hotel called Wardit al-‘Asaffrah. A hotel that belongs to the military forces. A piece of information that I did not know back then, like so many other things. It is now 1 ‘o’clock. Made a phone call to a number, one of many I had on my contact list. All equally anonymous to each other at that point. In response to my question, “there is a demonstration starting twenty five metres up ahead, go down the side street”.

Lesson Three: Always start in narrow side streets if possible. Police cars cannot reach them. Enough momentum can be gained. Easier for people to join, feel safe before heading onto the main streets.

Sure enough. There were three people there. I joined them. Starting to walk and chant. Chants that evoked possibilities. That evoked the wish for caring others. That wanted to shake people out of their apathy, our zombie like existence. Numbers increase. We look up, look up, look up imploringly, smiling at those in the balconies. Quickly propped up red brick apartment buildings with no paint, so close to each. Almost suffocating. Eclipsing the sky. We look down, burst open or clogged pipes leak raw sewage mixed with mud. We plod on. We are now in the tens. A woman walks next to me asking me what my signs mean. I start to read them out to her “I am against the institutionalization of corruption, and …….”[1] and then stop, realizing that the handwriting is not the problem.

Lesson Four: Use simple language that speaks to the people surrounding you. Remember why you are there, what you are passionate about.

Putting the signs down, rolling them up, I stop to talk to her. We talk about what she wants for her children. The things that need changing. Her daily challenges. Her husband’s hard work, his health. We walk on. We are now in the hundreds. A man comes up to me telling me I should walk at the back. Looking back at him, I tell him I will do no such thing. He apologizes, telling me that he was just thinking of my safety and that it is totally up to me. Finally seeing familiar faces, an older couple who are friends. We walk on. It is 3 ‘o’clock. Barricades meet the protest, trying to stop it from reaching the corniche. Attempt after attempt is made via different routes, each time we are met with cars, barricades and blockades. No violence. Yet. The protest breaks up.

[1]  أنا ضد مأسسة الفساد و تقنين البلطجة” و”
“ أطعمة ومياة للشرب لا تسمّم أطفالك، مسكن كريم يليق بآدميتك، ورعاية صحية جيدة، هي أشياء من حققك كمواطن ومواطنة”

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….”

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?