Tag: Vignettes

The Girl in the Blue Bra

 

The huge flag billows above me, the red, the white, the black slowly come down. I stare. Wondering. Imagining. What would happen if it were to be shredded into a thousand little confetti like pieces? Would they fall with a thud? Or splatter with a squish?

Feet treading, treading feet.

It is December. Every day after work, we meet or don’t, to confirm the plan for the evening; a protest, a meeting, giving a workshop about electoral laws, engaging with people on the streets about economic rights, screening Kazeboon[1]. Some days, we have dirty water hurled at us, words flying in anger. Some days, we are chased. Most days, we are not.

It’s a weekday. Early evening. Since Friday, the incident of the girl with the blue bra had gone viral. Heavy clouds gather above. Gusts of wind make their way from the sea. It is not raining. Yet. We gather in front of the bibliotheca Alexandrina. The Facebook announcement had said that this would be a woman’s only protest; parallel to one taking place in Cairo roughly at the same time.

The route is towards downtown this time on the corniche. Placards with images of a stenciled blue bra abound. Today there are many familiar faces from different places. Over the months, different people had joined and left “the revolution”. Our feet start to shuffle. The chants start. About the military, about the girl in the blue bra. We start off in the two digit numbers, little by little we increase in numbers and momentum. Men start to appear. Men we know as friends, not foes. They are on the outer circles. I thought it was supposed to be a women’s only protest, that means something today. I am told they are here to “protect us”; to make sure that no harm comes to us. I shrug my shoulders. Isn’t that the point we are trying to make? We Should Not Need Protection. We Should Not Need Protection.

We are several hundred. Not a big protest by usual standards. Today is different. Different ages. Powerful. Angry. Sad. Resilient. Persistent. Joyful in our collectivity. Our feet stomp. The ground rumbles. The wind cannot drown our voices. [2] We push onward. Cars drive by us, some slowing down to read, to listen. Giving us a thumbs up. Others shake their fists or look away in contempt. We are all that is wrong with the world.

“Shave your moustache, shave your beard.”[3] And ” Let’s go get some Tunisian men.”[4]

I stop. I open my mouth, nothing comes out. I open it again trying to explain to those surrounding me why those chants don’t…the voices drown mine and I end up looking like a fish gasping for air. I continue walking along, stomping. Silently.

 

[1] Kazeboon was a collective campaign that was started to show the violations and excesses of the Egyptian army. The campaign consisted of distributing fliers, stickers, and doing screenings in streets of compiled videos that documented all the army’s human right’s violations, transgressions and exposed its lies.

[2] It is hard to put this in words, the energy is difficult to describe but it is different from any other protest I had been in over all the previous months, years. I have to admit it was my favourite. It felt like we weren’t just protesting that incident but all the macro and micro-aggressions that we feel and are subjected to as females on a daily basis.

[3] أحلق شنبك أحلق ذقنك

[4]روحوا هاتوا رجالة من تونس

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.

Day One (Part Two)…

Quickly making my way to campus to sign some paperwork related to student internships. The Manshiyyah protest had come together after all and had made its way to the head of Port Said St. in front of the Bibliotheca. I join. It was now 5:00 pm. Still warm and light, no Alexandrian rain that day. Even when it did rain in the coming days, it was always a gentle drizzle, one that we found comforting, an excuse to be quiet for a while. The chants had already changed “The people want to bring down the regime”

Which people? There were so many peoples. Peoples who would change, align and realign. A constant state of flux. Peoples who two and a half years later, cheered or stood silent as the military came to power, as over a thousand people were killed in a few hours, seeing them as the other. As another people.

If I had written this then, I would have written about the…

(To be read out loud like a performance)

Rumble of the ground beneath our feet. Echoes of our collective being, our voices that bounced off each other, off the walls, amplified, intensified, floating, only to return unto us in intoxicating mouthfuls, savouring their flavor. Unbridled sense of joy at the realization that we were not dead. We were not dead. Leapfrogging through hurdles, years of mistrust. You can smile randomly at that man down the row. He will not harass you. Not today. That elusive moment that we are now forever doomed to chase, to try to recapture. Like the centaur, the unicorn, the phoenix.

But I cannot write that now. How can I?

News had reached us that the protest that I had left earlier, had regrouped, made its way finally through the barricades and was now heading towards us. Both protests joined would be U n s t o p p a b l e. Stopped they had to be.

One of my non-Egyptian students suddenly was walking next to me, camera in hand, taking shots, smiling. Hugging, I urge her to go. Go. Go. A few minutes earlier, we realized. What was happening. A row of high ranking police men, most of them in their official uniforms, shiny stars and eagles on their shoulders were behind us. Walking. Trudging. Grudgingly. Police cars and trucks behind them, slowly edging their way. In front of us, at the end of Port Said St, in front of the Jesuit Cultural Centre, row upon row of the lowest ranking security personnel were standing [1]. Black harsh uniforms. No shiny stars and eagles on their shoulders. Used to standing for hours in the scorching sun. Used to following orders. Used to beating people up. A Pincer. They made sure we saw. To scare us. We could still leave if we wanted, via the side streets. Don’t remember seeing anybody who did.

Dusk. We link arms. Need to get past those black rows ahead. Don’t break the line. Hold it. No matter what. No matter what. “If we step backwards, push us, don’t yield” we are told. We push. And push. Batons come down. Gunshots are heard. Panic. Human smell of fear. Everyone yields. Running. Running. Thinking

Please don’t let me fall and be trampled on. Please don’t let me fall and be trampled on.[2]

We all were afraid of something. One thing. Many things.

Scattering left and right. Running into allies. Standing in doorways. I am standing in a doorway in a side street. Turns out it’s a dead end street. Two girls standing next to me. One crying, shivering. Only eighteen. Shshhhh. Look her straight in the eyes, and make half a dozen promises that I don’t know that I can keep. But I make them anyway. We all hold hands quietly. Looking across the other side, another small group, in another doorway. We wait. And wait. They wait. Not going to go away. Want to teach us a lesson. We could wait here all night, wouldn’t make a difference. We look at each other, across, nod our heads, decide we will come out. All together. Line us up against a wall. Raise their batons. Arms and hands raised and crossed to cover head and face. One knee raised across to protect whatever can be protected. Instinct. We brace ourselves. Sobbing is heard. Sounds of feet running, running, shouting. Abracadabra. Men standing in front of us, telling us to crouch. They take the blows. Shouting “You don’t get to beat the girls”[3]. Don’t know who they are, never got to know their names, don’t remember their faces. It was dark. For whatever reason, and in whatever name they did that for, we are grateful. Grateful.

The shiny stars and eagles come now. Make us walk single file. Tell us to get lost, go home. Jeer at us “Hope you are happy with yourselves now, we’ll see if you will ever protest again.”[4] Can’t help giving him a look. Never gave it before. Have never given it since. A look that resounded with years of reading about beatings, forced disappearances, deaths, sodomization of people in the stations, corruption, and abuse of power that they had carried out. A hushed whisper behind me “Look ahead, please for my sake don’t look at them”.

We walk away, away. Some stay not too far off, listening to the shots. Thinking if things calm down, we can regroup. Traces of tear gas seen. Getting late. Nearly 10 pm. A phone call from home.

Ring the bell, walk through the door, tell them “I am famished”. Ask casually if anything was mentioned in the media about Alexandria. Not really. General mention in al Jazeera of protests. No footage. No mention of guns and teargas. Sigh of relief. Will spare them the details.

[1] عساكر الأمن المركزي

[2] On a personal level, more than any other form of violence at that point, I was most afraid of that. Not that I glorified at all being a victim of any other form of violence like being beaten or shot, but for some strange inexplicable reason I felt that being trampled on entailed a certain loss of dignity, a certain denigration of one’s humanity.

[3] “البنات ماتضربش فاهمين”

[4] “اتظاهرتِ يا ماما أنتِ وهي؟،فرحانين بنفسكوا أوي مش كدة؟ عشان تبقوا تتظاهروا تاني، يلا يلا”

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….”