Arwa Salah Mahmoud
Writer, revolutionary and a mountaineer wannabe!
Posted in Thoughts & Essays on June 16, 2012
I never thought the day would come when a year and a half after the revolution people would be rushing to the polls to elect a new president while I sit home and sip my coffee. I have to say that coffee never tasted so bitter.
On May 23 I went down and I voted for president. I was skeptical of those who chose the boycott. Yes the system was imperfect, but here was a chance and we had to grab it. I was full of hope and overwhelmed with memories of everything that we went through trying to bring down a 30 year old corrupt regime–only to discover less than a month after the president stepped down that the fight was in fact against a 60 year old military rule.
I still had hope because I believed in the man I was voting for. I had asked his representatives direct questions on how he proposed to rid the country of the military handcuffs and they had clear, concise, answers.
Today the second round of elections brings before us a military man with a history of corruption vs a Muslim Brotherhood man. Logic dictates to anyone who cares about the revolution that the man to vote for should be the second. Everyone knew that it was a tough but necessary choice. Some Egyptians abroad took pictures of themselves in front of the voting stations squeezing a lemon on their heads. It’s an Egyptian saying that if you have to gulp someone you can’t really take you squeeze a lemon on yourself and take them anyway.
Facts which further proved that the military was not up to a clean election were unraveling before us everyday. Lawyers’ appeals to enact a law drafted by parliament to ban old regime figures from participating in the election fell on the deaf ears of the constitutional court. And to top it, two days ago the military swept the institutions of the country clean. The parliament was dissolved, the military police were granted free action in the streets with civilians – and with the help of the judiciary – and the committee to draft the constitution was from now on going to be appointed by the military. In other words, the military was no longer ashamed to show us who’s the real boss of us. They’re coming out straight in the open and telling us, in our faces, that we don’t exist.
Uproar from most of the country’s activists and intellectual demanded from the brotherhood to withdraw officially in protest and to surround the parliament building with all of its members and to protest the blatant attack on legitimacy in the country. It became clear to everyone that we’re heading up against a dead end with a huge wall the size of the mountains of Moria! But do the brotherhood stand up to the magnitude of the catastrophe? Do they grab what may be their last chance of creating a united front and winning millions of people on their side? Oh no. They choose to walk on to the wall, dragging the whole country behind them, announcing that their way is the only way. Their way is the revolution. That will do nothing short of further stapling their role in Egypt’s history since the fall of Mubarak as pure pigheadedness. One that is actually stapling us all up that frightful wall.
And once again, the emotional blackmail resumes as if nothing happened. “Abstention from voting is a vote to the military man.” “Abstention from voting is surrender.” “Vote for the revolution.” And my favorite “Save the revolution!”
In the parliamentary elections that talk scared me. When the second round was between a brotherhood member and a salafi member, I rushed to vote for the brotherhood. I had to save the revolution. I had to save my country. I helped put up a man that was part of a majority in a parliament that let us all down, and not necessarily by choice, but by the mere fact that it was a powerless parliament under the military junta. And now the junta have flexed their muscles and roared and swept it away altogether.
And I’m now expected to believe that the next president will actually have powers.
We have no constitution, we are clueless as to what the president will be able to do, and we have no answers from the “revolution’s candidate” on what he plans to do in this mess. None of those that will vote for him have any answers. But somehow magically we believe that by moving on with the rest of the herd the military is shooing to the ballots we are saving our revolution.
Sorry. I’m not taking part in this farce. Egypt deserves a lot more than this. And the reason I’m not going to the ballots for a second time is not because neither candidate represents me, but because both candidates will end up subservient to the real boss in this country. A boss that has actually come out in the open after working for so many years in the dark. A boss that has actually used our blood to reign openly, unashamed, taking us back to the dark ages of intelligence police, detention, imprisonment, suspicion.
Sorry. It’s a lot bigger and messier than casting a vote in a ballot. The revolution is much bigger than a puppet helpless candidate that has shown little stamina in the face of catastrophes.
In fact, by now I realize that none of the chosen few politicians who claim to represent the revolution have shown any stamina in the face of catastrophes.
The revolution will never die no matter what the military does and no matter who the president becomes, because it was instilled in the hearts and minds of the youth. And the youth are the future collective mind of this country.
I’m proud to have woken up in time. I’m proud of the revolution. I’m proud of my clean finger. But I’m still not enjoying my coffee.
Posted in Thoughts & Essays on May 23, 2012
No sleep. I toss and turn. I send out a tweet. A buddy in Australia sends me back another tweet. “Get some sleep for at least a couple of hours,” but he knows I probably can’t even if I tried to. This was not supposed to be like this. I was relaxed all along the presidential campaigns. I knew that they would be far from perfect under the rule of the military junta, but I also knew that there was no way out of them if we were to come out of the impasse we’re in.
We’ve gone down the street, we’ve protested, shouted, struggled to get our voices heard, now all that is left for us is to make this vote. We earned it.
I get up in the morning and pour some coffee. Watch the news. Can’t stand the dumb commentary. I need to get ready for a long day, I think to myself. I look at the faces of the people standing in lines on TV. Everyone seems determined and confident. Those are faces of people that will not be fooled.
Ok that’s it. Can’t wait much longer. I get a bottle of cold water and pull on my jeans and off I go.
Streets are all so empty (and by empty here I mean smooth traffic). I take a taxi and I stare out the window but I don’t see much. I’m not in an emotional mood (yet). Suddenly a song I’ve known and loved since childhood starts playing in the radio. “Helwa ya Baladi.” My country, you are beautiful. And bam! Like someone suddenly put on a clip inside my head, completely out of my own will, with scenes from the revolution days.
I remember meeting with my two friends, Nadia and Adel (the latter is the one who tried to tweet me to sleep from Australia) all tense and pretending to have sandwiches under the penetrating eyes of the suspicious state security officers, waiting for the march to join it.
I remember the rising numbers of people in the marches that were everywhere I looked. “The people demand the fall of the regime” roaring everywhere and making my heart beat faster.
I remember the teargas. The suffocating moments where I thought I was going to die. The faces of the three men who came to my rescue and tried to give me water and onions to get rid of the effect.
I remember the sound of the rubber bullets. I remember the injured protesters fighting for their lives in the hospital.
I remember the ruling party’s building on fire. I remember maneuvering to cross the street to reach that tree without getting shot.
I remember the horses and the camels that came rushing into Tahrir trying to whip the protesters out of the square.
I remember the two men in Tahrir who tried to comfort me when I broke down and cried, telling me that it would all be alright. That they were not going to retreat.
I remember the night horrors. The live bullets down in our streets. The men in my family joining their neighbors taking night shifts in the street to protect homes and property.
I remember the minute we heard that Mubarak stepped down. The euphoria, the dancing in the street.
I remember the viciousness of the army in the months that followed. The continued killings and beatings.
I remember the beautiful smiling faces of the people who died.
I start weeping like an pregnant hormonal lady and throw the poor cab driver into a state of bewilderment. I ask for his tissues and blow away until we arrive at the polling station.
I can’t find any lines, I enter the school and find an average line inside, but it wasn’t mine. I didn’t have to stand in any lines. Low voter turn out? I think to myself. I go inside with my red nose and face all puffy. Didn’t get a chance to recuperate from that emotional drive. I take the voting sheet and mark my candidate. I leave.
There are no sirens and there is no music to highlight the drama of the historical moment. A moment that I, at 39, never ever thought I would see. Ever.
I know it would be simplistic of me to think that with these elections we have entered our aspired new era. Far from it. But maybe we’ve taken our first baby step in the middle of a field of land mines and ambushes. Not all the candidates are fresh blood. Some are old faces that have worked closely with the old regime. I don’t trust them. There are things they have done that have helped put Egypt in the sorry state it is in not only domestically, but regionally. Turned it into a shrunken mutilated version of a country that once was. If they win, the very democracy that helped put them there might be jeopardized. And we don’t yet have the system that can protect us from them.
We need a president that will help us build that system. That solid rock hard system that will assure that a corrupt president will be put on trial. If we have that system I don’t care who nominates themselves in the next round.
Thoughts, thoughts rumbling around in my head, beating each other for my attention.
No, we’re not there yet. But we have nothing but our vote so we cast it, hoping that we’ve made the right choice. Now all I can do is pray that the right person for the right moment would win, WHOEVER that person may be.
Posted in Uncategorized on January 5, 2012
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 3,900 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 3 trips to carry that many people.
Posted in Thoughts & Essays on September 26, 2011
The revolt’s first Friday was decisive. The preceding 3 days had shown that what had started on January 25 was not a mere demonstration. It spread like wildfire across the country. Police oppression cleared Tahrir square for normal use again, kept the streets flowing, but it was like a lid over boiling water. They knew – and we knew – that what had started was not going to stop and the protesters were not going anywhere. January 28 was intended to be our point of no return. Each one of us went to the street with that in mind. It was like knowing that nothing was ever going to be the same again.
It was also a decisive day in exposing many public figures, actors, singers, even imams, who went after their interests, so they either praised the regime and stormed the protesters with verbal attacks, or just remained silent, waiting to see how things would turn out, always wanting to be on the winning side.
I sat in the mosque waiting for the sermon to begin, wondering which kind the imam who was going to deliver it to us was. Word had spread that State Security police, Amn Dawla, had issued clear instructions to all major mosques around the country to preach that revolt against the ruler was a major sin, arguing that it threatens to shake the stability of the country and to promote division–a classic escape Muslim rulers have adhered to for centuries throughout Islamic history.
Unlike most times, none of the women in the mosque appeared to be engaged in any conversation. The place was mostly silent; some were praying and others were reading the Quran. The journalist began to take pictures, making some women uncomfortable. Soon the sermon began and Nadia and I listened attentively, waiting for the imam’s mistakes. Soon we discovered that we were not alone with this attitude. A girl clad in black sat before us, exchanging glances and smiles whenever the imam appeared to be wandering off in the desert, clearly over-making his points.
To me the sermon lasted an eternity. I was so charged on the inside I could no longer tolerate the normalcy. It was soon over, we prayed, and moved to the main exit where the women merged with the men at the large open space. Everyone walked normally towards the door and by the time the first in line reached it the chants began. It was a moment of transition from the wary calm and quiet that spread across the mosque and in the faces of the worshippers to a loudness that never ceased from that moment on. Looking around me, it was as if everyone felt the same way I did; waiting for that key moment in which they could finally raise their voices together and demand their freedom. We all rushed toward the outer door, crowding each other as we frantically searched for our shoes and put them on. I don’t recall ever putting on my shoes with more of a rush. I didn’t want to lose Nadia with the shoving of the crowd. I kept my eye on her until I was ready, and we were both out in Azhar street with the flood of people chanting out of the mosque, taking the center of street, past the officers and the plain clothes policemen with their sunglasses and walki talkis who stood by watching.
The Azhar road is topped with the Azhar bridge, reaching directly to the center of the city. It is a narrow, long old market street filled with fabric, spice, and book shops on both sides. It was where my father used to buy the fabrics he distributed among the poor of his hometown village every Ramadan. I had taken it thousands of times on my way to college or on a Fatimid Cairo outing with friends. Its penetrating spice aroma would always linger in my head for long hours after I had passed through it. To me, it was the aroma of home; the Egypt I had grown to love – its history and mine – and the many beautiful tales of I’ve read and heard when I was a kid.
As loud as the chants and shouts were as we moved through the closed space of the mosque exit, I expected that they’d disperse as we were out in the open space of the city, but they kept getting louder. The narrowness of the street and its relatively confined surroundings; the crowded shut down shops and the bridge overhead magnified the sounds of the protesters’ chants and shouts, echoing from one side of the street to the other. They seemed to be coming from all directions: in front of me, behind me, over me, and I could nearly feel the vibrations under my feet. The sounds felt like they were coming right out of the walls. Everything seemed to synchronize itself with the people. And as we continued more people were drawn to the streets out of awe or mere curiosity. Like most photojournalists some ran to the top of the bridge to get a better view. I could tell by the rising numbers that not everyone marching now was among those in the mosque. The chants drew many people in.
At this point all the resistance I could see from the police was a mere attempt to control the route of the march. Or perhaps just the density. Our march continued until we came to a human wall of guards in helmets blocking our passage, creating a small stampede. Some of the protesters tried to calm the crowds and stop them from getting into confrontation with the guards, so they signaled for everyone to jump on the iron bars that divided the two way street, the other side of the street being open for advancement. An older woman standing next to me began to panic with the pressing crowd. There was no way for her to go with the guards blocking the passage and the bars being too high. I held her by the hand and began to shout to one of the guards to let us through, given the condition of the woman. I used every bit of logic I could think of when my mere appeal to common sense did not do the trick with him, but all I continued to get from him were the same responses. “No. Sorry. Not allowed.” The more he said those words the more infuriated I became, so I began to push against him with all my might. He did not budge an inch. I know I’m not that weak and yet I failed to cause the slightest movement in him or any of his colleagues. I don’t call them a human wall out of nothing. They’re actually trained to be that. A senior officer places his orders and they are encrypted in their skulls. His words are final and there’s no rationalizing with them.
With the sheer force of the people they managed to create a gap in the iron bars and we went right threw it, marching on and out of the street till we got caught in more serious police resistance. We could hear rubber bullets being shot and people began to run everywhere. Sirens and showers of teargas canisters filled the intersection we found ourselves in. The air was no longer breathable. Nadia and I frantically looked for a place to hide until we found a small passageway between two buildings that many people were rushing into. As we followed them we found a senior police officer carried by some of the protesters and rushed into the same place, his face flushed red and he had difficulty breathing. For many of us this might have been the first time we encountered teargas so we were clueless as to how to combat its effects. All what many of us could think of was water. Many were calling out for water to give to the troubled officer and save him from whatever the gas appears to have done to him.
If that moment was anything to me, it was only proof and reassurance that our uprising was for beliefs, hopes, dreams. Those people of all ages marching around me held no grudges to uniforms or individuals; their only enemy was oppression and corruption. This was a war of ideas and beliefs, not people, because in that narrow passage there was no telling who was the enemy. The officer in the uniform among us was no more than just another helpless Egyptian desperate for a breath of fresh air. That’s what we all were.
To be continued.
Videos from the day:
Beginning of march from inside Al Azhar open space and out to the street:
The early spark. Egyptians from all walks of life join the march from Al Azhar mosque. Old men joined shouting “Down with Mubarak” while some carried their children on their shoulders:
Woman urging protesters to hold on:
Panic at the intersection, the sound of rubber bullets and me cursing:
Hiding from teargas in the narrow passage:
Police vehicle with its eerie siren gets caught among the protesters at the intersection. On that day many such vehicles have chosen to run over the protesters:
Posted in Guest Posts on July 8, 2011
By Salma Beshr
One eye shows the soul breaking free,
one eye shows nothing at all.
One eye has a lot more to see,
the other… has seen it all.
One eye has infinite clarity,
rinsed by the clear light of hope,
while the other eye, stung by reality,
has nothing but shadows to grope.
Side by side they both lay,
partners in every decision,
till one dark January day,
one eye was robbed of its vision.
But the eyes of the world would agree,
’twas taken only in name;
With only one eye left to see,
the vision stronger became
If I should be robbed of my right hand,
would I still have the will, the desire
to pick up a pen with my left hand
and somehow attempt to inspire?
Would that the heart–cold and cruel–
had instructed the hand that betrayed
to look reverently on so precious a jewel;
For freedom–a small price, indeed, to be paid!
Dedicated to Jawad El Nabulsi, who lost his eye during the protests and never ceases to inspire me with his cheerfulness, calm resolve and his vision of rebuilding the future.
Posted in Thoughts & Essays on May 6, 2011
The night of the 25th was like a surreal dream. People gathered in Tahrir after the protesters had taken hold of it. Groups of musicians, artists, poets, all gathered around in circles and expressed their demands in their own ways. Tahrir was a beautiful festival with Egyptians of all kinds, all backgrounds, sitting together shoulder to shoulder and demanding freedom. But it didn’t last for long. At 1 am some 60 tear gas canisters were thrown into the square to disperse the protesters. Suddenly the festive atmosphere became a spectacle of panic. As they tried to leave the square escaping the tear gas they were arrested and taken off the scene. The whereabouts of many remained unknown for a long time.
And from that moment on in the following days panic was the overriding spirit I could smell in the air. I live near downtown and Tahrir, and I could hear sirens of ambulance and police continuously ringing day and night as if it was the government’s final calls for dear life. Some of my friends who had stayed late in Tahrir on the 25th were now caught up in a friend’s apartment in a building that overlooked the square, but they were unable to tell me where they were on the phone. There was no chance for them to try to reach their homes because the police was frantically and randomly arresting anyone in the vicinity of Tahrir. They also spotted female police officers with sticks, ready to harass female protesters. So there was a little something for everyone. No one was to be ruled out or spared.
During this time things had begun to escalate by a hundred more degrees in other towns, especially Suez, a city whose people we always praised as brave resistance fighters one generation after another. The city has a long history of being the main battle front for most of the conflicts Egypt has gone through. Reports of live ammunition being used against the protesters were already reaching us, faster than those of similar incidents inside Cairo. The more the reports flooded the angrier everyone felt, and the more escalated the determination of the protesters became.
In only two days over 20 people were reportedly killed in Suez, and we are used to always doubling the official number announced. The families of the victims were requested to sign forms that denied the actual reasons of death by live ammunition in order to receive the bodies. They refused to sign and staged a protest outside the morgue, becoming the center of attention and inspiration to the rest of the country, igniting further flames of anger and determination. What began as a call for political and economic reform now became a full demand for the fall of the regime. No one was going to ignore what happened in Suez. Facebook, Twitter, and SMS were some of the main mobilizing techniques, which led the government to eventually block all three services from the country.
Soon a call for a massive protest in every street and every town after the Friday prayers spread like wildfire. A list of mosques in different parts of each city was issued and I, along with a number of friends in Cairo, decided to begin our march from Al Azhar mosque. The protests had never reached this size and magnitude before, and they had never lasted for more than a day. I felt that history was being made, that some profound change had already started to find its way in, I could tell just by the non-stop sound of the sirens I could hear even in my sleep. For that reason we chose Al Azhar, known for being an epitome for defiance throughout Egyptian history.
We made sure we agreed on time and place the night before Friday. By then we had no SMS service and a troubled internet. We woke up the next morning expecting the worst, and we got it. The first thing I tried to do was switch on my mobile phone. There was no signal. I went to the computer and found no internet. It was as if I had jumped into a time machine with my gadgets and woke up in another point in history.
Egypt was back to the middle ages.
If there was anything signifying that the end of Mubarak was near, it was these moves by the government. The more it sent out those signals of its own panic the stronger everyone of us felt. And that is how I felt as I closed my laptop that morning. Every step I took now counted. I felt I was walking, marching, sometimes running to freedom. Quite literally.
My friend Nadia was staying at her father’s place, a ten minute walk away from mine. She opened the door and as I walked in I found her sister closing up her backpack while two of her friends waited. They had decided to begin the march from another mosque. They calculated that it was in a large square with wider streets surrounding it, making it harder for the police to crackdown and control the crowds. I could see the logic, but our attachment to the idea of starting from Al Azhar anyway did not wither. We were willing to take our chance.
Nadia’s father, a 73 year old retired university professor, looked at us and said. “Go bring that dictator down. I wish I was able to go with you, but I’m too old now.” His words came to all of us like a brand new rush of excitement as we walked out the door. Few parents in Egypt, at this day and age, would encourage their children to go out and protest in the midst of imminent danger. But Nadia’s father is an old patriot and activist who has seen better days in this country.
With the mobile network shut down, our goal to stick together and try as hard as we could never to lose sight of each other was almost as important as the reason why we participated in this protest. Should anything happen to one of us, the others would know and hence have a thread to follow in finding that person.
We arrived at Al Azhar mosque a little before the noon prayers began. The entire area surrounding the entrance to the mosque and across the street into the old Khan Al Khalili market was covered in plain clothes policemen in dark sunglasses and mobile phones staring around doing nothing, intimidating everyone by their mere presence. Others in uniform seemed to be of high ranks. They held their buzzing walki talkis and stared back at everyone who looked at them. News of random arrests had been spreading like wildfire and the last thing we wanted was to raise suspicions around us before anything even started. Nadia was all set for tear gas and rocks with a helmet and vinegar in her backpack. Upon our first entrance to the market to buy some water and snacks our bags were checked.
“Are you a construction engineer?” Asked her an officer with a smile. “Yes.” He had said the lie for her. She couldn’t really tell him she was equipped for a revolt. Yes was, after all, a word the police always liked to hear.
We walked right past the plain clothes officers and we were inside the mosque. A foreign journalist had put on a hijab and placed herself among the women worshippers, taking random pictures, wanting to capture the first spark. It was hard to suspect in anyone that they were going to participate in any demonstration. The men and the women looked perfectly calm and normal upon their entry into the mosque. Most people tried to avoid looking around them like we did. I was too excited to hide anything, especially when I was inside the place of worship. I took a far end corner, leaned against the wall, and stared at everyone.
To be continued…
Posted in Thoughts & Essays on February 21, 2011
In Arabic we have a proverb that says beware the wrath of the patient. When Egypt rose against the tyranny, oppression, and widespread rooted corruption that had been governing it for three decades it was as if Sphinx had suddenly come to life and rose from his eternal rest. We toppled the president, a man known for his involvement in much of the plight of the Palestinians, if not his own people, but we still don’t feel that it’s over. Even before January 25, the day the revolution began, we had a series of little protests and semi-free press that criticized Egyptian domestic and foreign policies on a number of issues. Some journalists, although jailed later, criticized the person of the president. We expressed ourselves, but we were jailed, arrested, and tortured.
The Libyans have none of that. And they’ve had none of that for 42 years, not 30. I visited Libya in 2007 in a small attempt with a friend of mine to do some “Arab tourism,” visiting a fellow Arab country and seeing it through the eyes of a people who wanted to learn more about their immediate neighbors, with whom we share so much.
There was not a single day that passed without meeting a person who was either half-Egyptian or married to an Egyptian. Everyone was extremely kind, peaceful, calm. Nothing like what much of the media had tried to show of the Libyan people in many years that passed.
Posters of Qaddafi filled every street corner in such a way that made Mubarak appear quite benign, modern, civilized, and democratic. It was the 38th year of the coup d’etat which Qaddafi liked so much to refer to as a revolution. Larger than life images of him greeting his people, with the number 38 shamelessly plastered next to him.
We focused much of our trip on Benghazi, the land of the Sanoussis, the ousted royal family whom Qaddafi continued to despise, showing his hatred to the past with exaggerated and appalling neglect for the city. Streets were poorly paved, much of the buildings affected by the coastal weather were left unpainted for years. Government buildings were rundown, with broken windows left unfixed. Benghazi was a beautiful, neglected stallion ready to spring the minute it broke free of its curb.
People there were mostly silent. We were warned beforehand that it would not be wise to speak politics with any person. We were given the chance to visit the grandson of Omar Al Mukhtar, the legendary freedom fighter who fought the Italian invasion in the early twentieth century, now an elderly sheikh with an open lounge for students and visitors paying their respects. I was especially curious to listen to his views on the situation in the Middle East, especially after the 2006 war in Lebanon had just ended. The man’s eyes widened and he became extremely tense, refusing to talk to me, while men surrounding him decided that my friend and I were no longer welcome in the place.
Qaddafi does not just oppress dissent, he refuses the mere concept of opposition. Educators, professionals, writers, and many more skilled Libyans are living abroad. And outside Libya, if they oppose his regime he hunts them down and kills them. If you’ve ever tried talking to a Libyan about the truth of the Libyan regime prior to the current uprising you would know what I mean. Qaddafi haunted his opposition even in their dreams.
The more I watch the media the more evident the size of the horror gets clear to me, and that’s not just because of the sight of dead bodies or severely injured civilians. It’s because of the quivering voices of the anonymous eyewitnesses that can’t fight back their tears as they plea for help to the outside world, be they men or women, young or old. It’s in the shivering jaws and hands of the old opposition Libyans living in the UK, the US, Germany, and virtually most countries on the planet except their own, as they spoke with mixed emotions of grief and pride, their eyes wide in disbelief as they saw the liberation moment coming so close. Those silent people who couldn’t even speak about the regime even in exile were now exploding with horrors of the past they had witnessed, and appealing to the world with their plight.
I’ve seen it in my own country. If the fear is broken nothing else brings it back. If the wall of silence crumbles nothing will ever build it again. And it is crumbling everywhere in the Arab world, exposing the ugliness of the savage rule it had been subjected to for decades. And the Libyans, those amazing people who can teach the world lessons of patience, are bound to show the world how they will present their lives to the mad beast that dwells among them. It is their only gate to the world outside.
Posted in Thoughts & Essays on February 20, 2011
I’ve been feeling so trapped inside my body. There’s a bundle of emotions swirling around me, so dramatized by all I’ve seen, that I feel so drowned in its deep waters. It’s been 26 days now and I still have not been able to tell my story. But I know I need to get it out fast before the memory starts to fade away, before I finally ride up on one of the strong tides that keep pushing me adrift off and away from the shore.
Ever since it all started I’ve been shrinking in my own eyes. It’s like when a cat is suddenly face to face with a lion – wherever that might happen – and suddenly realizes its own insignificance. The silence that overcame me crept into my inside, making me doubt whatever I might want to say or share, believing it would by far be less significant than what many others had to say, or have already said.
But I will try. It’s my experience, and this is my blog, so feel free to search elsewhere if it doesn’t grab you!
I arrived back home in Cairo on January 24, one day prior to the scheduled protests on the 25th. I had been in Saudi Arabia for three weeks with my mother’s family. I had by then managed to train myself to shed off much of the pains and sorrows of the past and to wake up each morning with a fresh look towards a new day. I overate, overslept, overindulged myself in perfumes and nail polish. My busiest times were the times I sat to read a book of my choice. I had deliberately chosen to stop following political events around the world, I had started to doubt whether I actually wanted to have a career in political science or even the media to begin with. I no longer cared what happened in Egypt, because all the events sounded the same, and all the results were boringly predictable. There was the corrupt government whose mummified faces didn’t seem to be going anywhere. There was our ridiculously unprofessional state-run media blabbing away about the divine qualities of the president, his family, and his associates.
And there was the usual handful of activists, intellectuals, and professionals who wanted change.
This handful of lone protesters always seemed to be standing on an island of their own. They weren’t many when compared to a population of over 80 million people, but they were working day and night to empower the poor and the workers. Their morale did fade sometimes, their hope did become a vague, unrealizable dream, but they continued to work the way a street sweeper continued to sweep, even though passersby threw trash right after he finished.
And it was no accident that those protesters were standing on an island. They were quite literally placed on it. With police forces three times the size of our army, few Egyptian streets were void of police officers or truckloads of guards parked near a university or a mosque, ready to quell the faintest sign of ‘unlawful’ assembly. So a demonstration of 200 people would be surrounded by a thousand uniformed guards, tens of plain clothes officers, dozens of sunglasses and mobile phones, and officers of so many ranks I lost track of. It would not be allowed to march, but remain cornered in place, like caged animals in a zoo, while passing cars would slow down to try to hear what the chants were saying to no avail.
This lasted for as long as I could remember for the past 30 years of Mubarak’s regime. This was the people’s only channel to speak directly to the regime in an attempt to be seen and heard by all, not just the educated elite or even merely those who could read newspapers.
With this background I eyed the call for the January 25 protest with so much doubt and skepticism. I had the burden of the years behind me, of the scenes and the frustrations that never seemed to cease. And I did not believe that change could be brought about with an appointment, setting date and time to take the road against oppression. Revolutions didn’t happen that way. They were spontaneous. They had to be spontaneous. They weren’t a rendez-vous with freedom.
I woke up on the morning of the 25th feeling lazy, and guilty for being lazy. My friend Nadia called and insisted that I go, so I got off the bed because I knew that I would not be able to live with the guilt of not being out on the street on that day.
As I later found out, we were like many other skeptical Egyptians who were going out of a fading sense of duty. We knew there was nothing else we could do if we wanted any change. So the step now was to decide where to go to begin the demonstration. A number of places had been discussed by those who said they’d participate. Some had planned to have breakfast in a chic cafe in an upper class neighborhood and move from there – adding much to my already skeptical attitude – and others had decided to begin in Shobra, a busy, crowded neighborhood known for its mosaic of inhabitants, from Christians to Islamists. So Nadia and I opted for Shobra. We wanted hot events and we wanted to see them for ourselves.
We signaled for a taxi and got in, immediately putting on our casual girls all out for fun act. The taxi smiled and pointed to two people that had signaled for him before us. “Do you see those idiots? They stopped me and said, ‘take us to the demonstration!’ Demonstration?? I want to live!” And he laughed. “So why are you going to Shobra, young ladies?” We looked at each other and Nadia instantly replied, “We’re visiting a friend.”
I sent my first tweet that I was on my way to the demos and received a phone call from my friend Adel. “You’re going to the demonstration?” He asked with excitement. All I could think of was to control all my replies lest I horrify the taxi driver.
“Cool where will you go?”
“Shobra! Why is that?”
“Just like that.”
“Just like that. Choice. Ok… maybe I’ll go in Mostafa Mahmoud, then.”
I couldn’t wait for Adel to hang up so that I could SMS him on why we wanted Shobra or why I spoke to him that way.
We arrived in the main square in Shobra. Neither we nor the taxi driver had ever been to the place and we didn’t know how to find it, but the sight of an increasing police presence told us we were close. Someone pointed out to us that it was further ahead, and the minute we reached it we knew we were in the right place. Dozens of police trucks were parked on the sides, dozens of plain clothes men in dark sunglasses, dark coats, and neat haircuts had pulled up plastic chairs and sat on the sides of the road, believing that that way they could actually blend among the people. Those were the famous Amn Dawla, the humungous state security apparatus that had been terrorizing political activists for decades, bullying all dissidents whenever they felt like it. Men in uniforms of too many ranks stood talking to their radio receivers, barring some shops with iron bars and helmeted guards.
And there was not a single protester in sight.
Like many other Egyptians, the mere sight of heavy police presence unnerved us, because we knew that under the emergency law that’s been ruling the country for 3 decades, they could easily pick us up off the street and arrest us for no apparent reason other than being physically there. We kept walking back and forth with no place to go until we decided to settle in a restaurant and wait for Adel to join us. That way, maybe we wouldn’t really attract too much attention.
Adel arrived and asked the police to allow him into the restaurant, signaling with his hand that he wanted to buy a sandwich. We were all oblivious to the oddity of people deciding to just hang out in a restaurant under police siege.
Time passed and nothing was starting. Action was already beginning in that upper middle class cafe we had rejected, however. Nadia learned that our friends there were arrested right out of that cafe and carried in police trucks, only to be released in a far suburb away from the center of the city. We figured that plans where we were might have changed. Nadia was always inseparable from her mobile phone, following everything on Twitter. So she read that a protest was actually growing in downtown Cairo. We immediately took the decision to go there. We stopped the taxi and continued on foot, when suddenly we found ourselves in an overwhelming crowd of people marching in the streets, chanting against the government and calling for the fall of the president. This was the first time I had ever seen a protest allowed to actually march in the streets of Cairo.
We kept walking along with it, and people were standing in their balconies in all buildings watching. Others stood on the sides of the street like they were looking at a parade. It felt like one to me, because I had never seen such young fresh faces calling for freedom before. They were the kind of people that I only saw when Egypt won a soccer game. Suddenly those young men were rallying for change. Suddenly they were out, risking everything, for the right reasons.
This march did not appear to have any leaders. Hundreds were growing into thousands, and the young were carried on shoulders in many groups, shouting the regime down. They seemed to come from every street, every alley. And the more time passed the more crowded it became. My heart was beating fast. The sounds of the crowds almost shattered the walls. And the protesters looked up to the windows, calling upon the people watching to come down and join them. They called for every person standing by to join. I could see people beaming at the protesters, eyes lit up, filled with joy and hope, yet standing pinned down to the ground, too afraid. As I walked along I could hear hums very near to me. I turned and found a middle aged man in tears and a look of disbelief chanting the national anthem. He had decided to join the march.
Nadia and I began to run from one end to another in each rally, trying to figure out the size of the crowds, then I began to see the hesitant faces that had previously stood by now in the midst of the marches, shouting off the top of their lungs, “Down, down with Mubarak!”
The destination of the marches in different parts of Cairo was Tahrir, or liberation, square. Being the largest in Cairo, the place holds special significance for both the people and the government alike. It was as if those who controlled it held the upper hand and were seen and heard by all. And as the crowds began to grow and the police tried to isolate marches from each other, I knew that there was no way the police would allow a soul into Tahrir.
The larger the number the safer and more assured most people began to feel. They challenged the police to continue their marches to join those on the other side, and when they failed they spontaneously changed direction, in thousands, to another path leading to the same destination.
The coordination was perfect. An advanced row would begin to shout to the back “Go back!” And it would be transferred from one row to another until an entire batch of at least a thousand or more people would change direction with no clash or division.
Not being bound by a single group, Nadia and I were able to penetrate even to the side of the police, changing our occupations and purposes of being in the street as we went along depending on who asked us. One minute we were journalists, the other we were trying to get home. I could see that the situation was extremely tense on their side. I overheard an officer speaking on the phone, “This is only getting worse! We can’t handle these numbers!” The minute I heard that sentence I knew that the time had come. This was the time to do it. If not now then the chance wouldn’t come again, not for another 30 years.
The crowds were finally able to enter Tahrir, pushing the police toward the ministry of interior building, by which time the police had redeployed throughout the street that led to it, pointing water hoses and using tear gas to disperse the crowds. Suddenly there were rocks flying in the air. We took shelter in a corner right at the street where the battle began. The further the protesters advanced the more cheerful they became, and soon they were joined by thousands more coming into Tahrir from all directions. Tahrir had become theirs.
I stood speechless. I left my home that day expecting a few hundred to be surrounded by an army of black-cloaked helmeted guards, and I found scores of people from all walks of life chasing the police out of Tahrir! I had never ever imagined a protest of this size or magnitude. And the amazing contrast of moods between the crowds and the police was what struck me the most. The minute I was among the protesters there was nothing but defiance and determination, yet among the police there was nothing but horror and panic.
Something very big had happened in my country. The people were no longer afraid, the regime was.
Posted in Thoughts & Essays on December 31, 2010
I was seventeen the last time I cared that a new year was approaching. I was at the height of my stressful months on the final school year before college. I was too stressed to even study, and I needed to get my mind off everything. I had a wild party with my friends and we sprayed each other with everything sprayable.
Today I find myself thinking of the year that passed and I can’t help smiling. I don’t recall any year more dramatic than this one, because a life normally changes gradually, but my life changed almost with a switch of a button. It was like a literal closing of a book, placing it on a table, and picking a brand new fresh book, with a glossy cover, and opening it with curiosity.
2010 marked the ending of a way of life I’d had for as long as I can remember. I lost people who were a part of my existence. Some were the frame that defined my life, my priorities, what I did, what I cared for, and some changed me in ways for which I will forever be grateful, shattering the ground underneath my feet and awakening the wild, crazy part in me. And I met new people I never thought would have so much impact on me. I ventured into new domains, I saw new horizons, and for the first time in my life I began to free myself of me. I decided to look in the mirror of my mind and ask myself for once who I was, or who I thought I was. I didn’t like the answer because something inside told me that it’s not really what I wanted. So I closed my eyes, blocked my nose, I dove into the sea of the unknown. I loved the cold splash and the separation from reality the sound of silence under the water gave me. I emerged feeling so fresh, so new, so washed. I was again in touch with the six year-old who had unlimited dreams of what she wanted to be. I had really, really missed her.
2010 was a year of grave loss and incredible gain. My emotions barged on a bumpy ride. I had the saddest moments of my life, and I was comforted with the divine hand that led me on a new path, giving me the most exhilarating experiences of my life.
I am grateful. And I won’t wait for tomorrow; I will surprise it!
Posted in Travels on December 22, 2010
It took me two hours of shivering with everything on to get my body warm enough to sleep last night. I began to get into grips with the feeling that this was no longer an enjoyable experience. Either it was colder than my capacity or I was way weaker than I used to be. At times there is an unspoken joy in the suffering, one that lies in knowing that it is all for the sake of the place and the experience, but last night my continuous panting, coughing, and nose blowing felt like pointless torture. I missed my home, my bed, my mom, my cat. All I wanted was to be go back home. And to top it all, I had reached a part in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air book where he began to explain in detail the suffering some of his climbing partners went through minutes before they died. “Get me out of this place!” I shrieked, and I miserably cried myself to sleep.
I woke up at 5 am and jumped quickly out of bed in panic; it was 30 minutes past the time I had set on my alarm and I had to get ready to the biggest day so far. We were going to summit Kala Patthar, which rises to 5545m above sea level. Kala Patthar was our acclimatization attempt for Island Peak, and it was our closest point to Everest. The view of Everest, we were told, was actually better from the summit of Kala Patthar than from the Everest Base Camp. It was going to be a long day and there was no time for breakfast before our departure. I rushed out of my room and found everyone already on their feet waiting for me, so there was no chance for coffee. I tried to say good morning but no voice came out.
I went first in line on the trek. The day was already starting to break in and that gave me a renewed sense of energy. Our incline was so gradual that once again I was tempted to go faster than usual; I did not feel any need to slow down since the terrain almost felt flat, or perhaps I was subconsciously making up for coming out of my room later than everyone. As any experienced trekker would guess, however, I soon began to pant. We were gaining altitude and that meant that we were entering a domain where a small movement of getting up from a chair or walking briskly to a nearby table could leave a person short of breath. I discovered that the fast pace I began with was not a good idea. Soon that visual blur I had begun to feel in my left eye the night before was getting bigger. I started to feel as if a heavy force was pushing me back and down to the ground. Once again, my feet began to twist as I walked like a drunken and my hands felt heavy on the poles. I was pressing the poles noticeably, shaking them as they hit the ground. I felt like an old woman struggling to reach her bed for the last time in her life.
All I could think about at that moment was how each time I thought I was going through the misery day of the trip another day would prove me wrong. It was a misery phase and I wasn’t sure when it would end. I wasn’t suffering from altitude problems; it felt more like an altitude challenge that was shaking me on the inside. It felt as if my lack of confidence over my endurance this time was somehow read by an evil spirit that dwelled on these mountains. It smelled my weakness and began to hit me where it hurt the most. For the first time I began to grasp the true fear of the mountains: It was the fear of the known rather than the unknown. It was the natural, legitimate fear that any human, even the best of climbers, could have.
My fear generated anger at myself. I could no longer take Karma’s reassuring smiles at me. Everything was so blurry that I imagined him telling me “See the price your slacking makes you pay?” In my mind everything had a negative meaning.
Unlike Kilimanjaro’s Machame route, the trek along the Khumbu Valley in Nepal is two ways back and forth. Trekkers exchange greetings as they meet along the way. I loathed each trekker that seemed so relaxed and happy on his or her way back down, smiling and greeting me and expecting an equally cheerful reaction. I don’t believe any of them heard my breathless ‘hello’.
By the time we reached Gorakshep my eyes felt like they were going to explode. I was in no shape to engage in any conversation no matter how minimal. I dropped my backpack and my poles and sat down, rested my face on my palms and waited for breakfast. When Omar looked at me and asked how I was feeling I had already been fighting back my tears, but I lost the battle and couldn’t speak. I gestured with my hand that I was finished and my tears burst out. I was embarrassed and upset. He began to suggest alternatives. Hani was going to split with us from Gorakshep to go to Everest Base Camp while we were to continue to Kala Patthar, so Omar suggested I go with Hani to Everest BC instead. I immediately refused. To me, any reformulation of the route because of my mere weakness signaled defeat, and I wasn’t sure I could take that yet. “I just need to have my break-down moment,” I told him, and then it was time to eat.
Like magic, I began to feel life running through my veins again after I ate, and my determination to reach Kala Patthar and get as close as I could to Everest was renewed. We began our further push from 5100 to 5545m. Omar went first in line and I was immediately behind him. Because of his long legs, his steps were more like strides, which had kept him at a considerable distance from us most of the time, allowing him to stop many times to take pictures while he waited for us to catch up. I was focusing on his boots with my every step, expecting them to start disappearing, but after about an hour I was surprised to realize that I was still behind the same boots, and I wasn’t tired.
As silent and seemingly aloof to those who don’t know him, Omar was a doer more than a talker. His positive vibes still spread out to all of us and I could tell that he genuinely cared about his clients. His steps were as small and as slow as mine. He wanted me to get to the top and he was taking me there. It was almost like we all needed that pace so the order of the line did not change; we continued behind him like ducklings following their mother, making the same turns at the same angles.
Kala Patthar is strategically located in the middle of a valley, surrounded by enormous peaks. It is a thin slope that rises to a sharp cliff. On the last few meters we had to leave our backpacks and poles and crawl up to the cliff against a sweeping wind. I was holding on to each rock and I could feel my entire body being pushed around from all directions. At the final point the space was barely enough for the three of us, and we had to remain seated. I looked to my left and my jaw dropped. There was Everest, or Sagarmatha, standing magnificently next to its 8500m neighbor, Lhotse. The colorful Buddhist flags placed on Kala Patthar were ruffling strongly in the direction of the two magnificent peaks, sending out prayers and blessings to the Goddess of the Sky, which seemed to be barred from us by Lhotse, its guardian.
Trying to take as deep breaths as the altitude would allow me, I could not take my eyes off the mountain as the history I was reading about in my book spread before me, represented by mere names repeating themselves in my mind: Chomolungma, Deva-Dhunga, Sagarmatha… Seated at the border between Nepal and Tibet, Sagarmatha had always had two local names, one Tibetan, Chomolungma, meaning Mother of the World, and one Nepalese, Deva-Dhunga, meaning The Seat of God. Sagarmatha was the name attributed to the great mountain in 1960 during a border dispute between Nepal and Tibet. Each name sounded and felt stronger than the other, because they were names attributed to the mountain by its own people, who sensed the true spirit of the place and were one with it. Everest, on the other hand, was a name given to the mountain by the surveyor general of India, Sir Andrew Waugh, who gave it in honor of his predecessor Sir George Everest – despite the latter’s objection – when he was told that the highest peak in the world was discovered by a Bengali, Radhanath Sikhdar! This was in contradiction to the official policy back then to maintain the local names of the mountains.
For that reason Everest, the name, to me means nothing.
It was as if I had reached the point of salvation as I sat at that peak and drew in deep breaths. The sound of the ruffling flags calmed me down and I felt like I was being abundantly rewarded by divine company. I went through a long, draining journey that began in a run-down Alexandria airport just to get to be that close to Sagarmatha, to take pictures of it, and with it. I was happy again. And I had the lungs of a horse! So I paced down afterwards and began to spread out my smiles at the trekkers who were yet to reach the top. I was, for the first time, the one who received all the loathing by breathless trekkers still struggling to reach the top.
It felt so damn good!