Posts Tagged Egypt

I Visit Him Everyday

A portrait I drew of Saleh

A portrait I drew of Saleh

This day one year ago I was whining and complaining once again over the detailed drapery I was supposed to draw tied in the background to a bottle and a jar.

“Sharpen your pencil! I keep asking you to sharpen your pencil.”
“I did.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes I did. You saw me.”
“That’s not sharpening your pencil. Let me show you how.”

And he took my pencil and knife and sharpened it to a needlepoint, then he made me get off the chair and began to set an outline for the shadows and the curves that were evident in the drapery. He pointed to details I could barely notice. Thus began my first lesson in the most important prerequisite for art: patience. There was no chance for a good drawing with a real life looking outcome except with precision, and precision comes with patience.

He then walked away from my easel and left me to what was my third or fourth attempt as I silently cussed and cursed until it was time for me to leave. I was more or less satisfied with the result. The guy was right, I never sharpened my pencils. Before I left I decided to show him what I managed to accomplish and looked for him in the studio. I could overhear him talking to someone from his private room so I decided he was too busy. No big deal, I thought, I’ll see him again in two days and then I can show it to him.

Only he never got to see it again, and I never got to hear his voice again. A few hours later after I walked out of my last class with him, Saleh, that assertive, fiery, funny artist who walked into my life and shook it vigorously died of a heart attack at the age of 37. That bolt of lightening that used to show up suddenly behind my shoulder whenever my lines began to shake and dwindle out of frustration, was snuffed out as easily as a candle.

The drapery. The last drawing when Saleh was alive. I deliberately left it with a plain background to preserve his hand sketch on the left, barely seen here.

The drapery. The last drawing when Saleh was alive. I deliberately left it with a plain background to preserve his hand sketch on the left, barely seen here.

Before I met Saleh I had a liking for art, but as much as I used to enjoy drawing as a child my attempts never went too far beyond what they were; an eight year-old’s drawings. In the last few years, however, my liking turned into a passion, and I was always the type that needed to get physically busy, I needed to be able to express myself with something that was other than words, because sometimes emotions can run so sore it’s hard to find the right words to express them, or sometimes silence can be your best cry. Drawing can deliver emotions of love, anger, and serenity with the strokes of a pencil, and that was what I hoped to achieve but never dared to express for lack of confidence. So when I first walked into Saleh’s studio and looked around at the paintings and drawings I stood in awe as I stared at a detailed pencil drawing he told me was at entry level. “Could I possibly draw like that just by the end of the course? I can’t imagine,” I said with my eyes popping out with wonder. “Yes you could,” he replied, “and you will. You’ll see.” He said it with so much confidence that I felt a little puzzled and, to be honest, motivated.

Saleh was actually glad that I had no proper background except for my childhood drawings. Students of this kind are so much easier to teach, he said. It’s always easier for a beginner to learn new techniques than it is for an established artist to change to new ones. Art is always very subjective and affected by the person who delivers it to you, but a good messenger would take you bit by bit, hand in hand, until you’re strong enough to stand on your own and go on alone, developing your own approach and technique. That’s the kind of messenger Saleh was.

There’s not a day that goes by whenever I think of my drawing that I don’t see Saleh and remember the sound of his oud as he played for us in the background while we struggled with the shadow outlines–that incredible technique that, to me, is the whole difference between a real life picture and a drawing that is just a drawing; one that borders subjects with actual lines. Sometimes his dog, Picasso, would wiggle his tail and sit at his feet whenever he reached for his oud and begin to sing along each time Saleh began to play. His favorite song was Zorooni (visit me), a famous old sad Egyptian song lamenting loneliness: “visit me once a year, do not forget me.”

Little did I know then that I would be visiting Saleh every moment of every second I’m holding a pencil and staring at a blank page.

I recently went through my old morning pages and found that I had written this three days after Saleh had died:

Third morning I wake up with him gone. The emptiness surrounding me and the lump in my chest grows bigger everyday. I’m still left hanging from a cliff, his hands are no longer holding me up, I’m holding on to nothing but a thin rope we were supposed to strengthen together. Now it’s just me, my grip, and the rest of my body and soul in the air. Just what am I supposed to do now? I feel lost and helpless, but I can almost hear him say “Hold on with a stronger grip, pull yourself up and you’ll get there, and I’ll be there. You’ll find me when you try. I’ll always be there.”

I drew my cat

I drew my cat. I had to use two pictures for this, one with the face only that didn’t have the ears, and another one of the ears that I shot especially for the drawing, getting bitten and chased in the process.

After Saleh’s death, and at the very moment I walked into his empty studio to finish the drawing, met the grief-stricken eyes of his assistants and took his lonely, confused dog into my arms I resolved to turn my grief into art. There was no better way to honor his memory. So I set my easel and looked at that drapery that used to give me so much pain with much more determination. I could feel him looking over my shoulder as I did my layering with the perfectly sharpened pencil he had prepared to show me, and I began to draw with my tears streaming uncontrollably down my face. Luckily there was no one else to watch me except Picasso, who sat huddled in a corner with his eyes over me until he fell asleep. From that day on I decided to turn his loss into a positive energy that simmers within and brings out the best that it can.

When my drapery was done I left out the background where the outline he had done for me to illustrate his technique was on the side. A small, unintentional gift that I will continue to cherish.

And from that day on I didn’t put my pencil down. I had found that unspoken language I could use whenever words were nothing but a fuel for war. In a time when Egypt was even more turbulent in the summer of 2013 people were becoming more and more polarized as I felt more and more alienated from everyone. My only refuge was the art that Saleh taught me, so I grabbed my pencils and tried to draw some more on my own. I decided to draw my cat, and since there was no way I could keep him still I had to copy from pictures. Later I decided to draw Saleh himself. It was a rather ambitious project for me, he hadn’t gotten to a point where he explained human skin and how to depict it. I put every bit of emotion I felt for his memory out there, and I know that if it hadn’t been for this, the madness that was happening around me and the unsettling words that came to me from the social media would have killed me. I could see Egypt on the verge of a civil war and I had never felt more frightened. My friends may not have realized it, but without uttering a single word I let my passion bare itself for the world to see, and miraculously I was able to pull everyone together to agree at least on one thing: my work. It was a chance for me to remember the important things, and I thought perhaps it was a way to remind my friends to cherish the people they love every second, because life is very, very short.

For that reason and for countless others I thank Saleh. He may or may not know it, but I do visit him everyday.

 

 

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The Healing Hand of Art

Primavera by Sandro Boticelli (1445-1510)

The streets are happy. The TV shows are happy. Fireworks never stop in my street. We have a new president. No one wants to hear any words of truth right now. Those who wish to speak of anything that is not remotely euphoric are considered party poopers. I keep my mouth shut as I have had it for the past two years. There’s a war going on inside me, but I’ve learned over time to live with it. I’m tired and drained of sharp argumentation. I’ve learned to marginalize my feelings and my sentiment and enjoy the day, but sometimes I fail to ignore a piece of news or a little article and the feeling overtakes me once more.

Now it’s all over me because I just finished reading an article by Ahdaf Soueif titled “Let Them Rejoice” that goes on to list the young people who are held captive in prison without visitation or even lawyer rights. All fine, energetic, well educated young people. Some were picked randomly and some have a history of activism. All from the age group that constitutes the majority of the population. All are the kind of people that a rising nation would anchor itself to if it entertained any hope for a better future.

There is nothing I can do about any of this except sit and take it. So I’ll take you with me and show you how I deal with this. We’re flying to other places and we’re talking about other things. We’re talking about art. I’ve never studied art, but I have an ignorant man’s drooling passion for it that I find myself drawn to museums and galleries like a magnet.

Boticelli's Flora

Boticelli’s Flora

Let me take you to the sunlit hallways of the Uffizi gallery in Florence. This beautiful old building that was originally a private property holds a treasure of the Renaissance art that always mesmerizes me. I remember last year when I went there with my family. We had one day to spend in Florence and we tried to compact the entire city in a few hours. By the time we were at the gallery it was going to close in minutes. We created our own tour and decided on the particular works we absolutely had to see and began our mission, racing from one work to another until it was time for the reason why we got in in the first place. There shone down on us Sandro Boticelli’s Primavera, spring, that beautiful, colorful, almost sparkling painting bursting with life, symbolizing love and, to me, hope.

Venus stands in the middle of the picture, yet the face that draws me is that of Flora, the goddess of flowers, who stands on the right. The serenity in her face and the soft, subtle smile inspire me. That’s the mental state I wish I could stay in all the time. Yes. All the time, no matter who says what and no matter who kills whom. I want to keep that face and I want to keep that inner peace that comes with it. Some people do that no matter what goes on around them. They give flowers. They blow me away and make me feel ungrateful.

Anyway, back to my journey.

Time Orders Old Age to Destroy Beauty

Time Orders Old Age to Destroy Beauty by Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787)

How about London? I could sure use a nice cup of coffee while I take in the beautiful June breeze of Trafalgar Square, then eagerly fly up the gigantic stairs of the National Gallery and walk in silence and contentment as I let the refreshing scent of old wood awaken my senses and tickle my brain. Unlike the freaked out visit to the Uffizi (which I intend to go back to with more time on my hands), I was blessed with countless visits to the Gallery. Over there I’m a dreamy wanderer floating from one painting to the next. Sometimes a certain one grabs my attention and I stand still before it, sit down if I can, and stare at it for as long as it takes. A particular one that captivated me was eighteenth century Time Orders Old Age to Destroy Beauty, by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni. There stood a hunched, old woman reaching to a young woman’s face, while Father Time sat pointing at the face. The painting is very large, large enough to be a mural. So the first time I saw it I sat back and looked into it for a very long time to take in the lighting, the drapery, and the detailed feathers of Father Time’s wings. But in reality I think that it was the idea itself that grabbed me the most; the thought of time and what it can take away from you. Looking back, it wasn’t about the fear of getting old as much as it was about the things we lose over time; all those people and moments we take for granted.

Le Lion de Florence by Nicolas-André Monsiau (1754-1837)

Le Lion de Florence by Nicolas-André Monsiau (1754-1837)

Apart from Primavera, I seem to have an unusual taste in paintings; ones that have a sense of anguish and loss usually draw me. That’s something I wasn’t aware of until a friend of mine pointed it out to me on our visit to the Louvre as I wandered everywhere trying to show her that painting I saw on my first visit with my father when I was only sixteen. It was a painting of a screaming mother whose baby was snatched from her breast by a lion. I didn’t know the title of the painting and I didn’t know who had painted it, but the mother’s expression had stayed in my head for 24 years. I found the painting with a miracle. It was also from the eighteenth century, painted by Nicolas-André Monsiau and titled Le Lion de Florence, the lion of Florence. I could not understand how a human hand could depict emotion so truthfully, how it could – with a paint of a brush – create sound and send chills down your spine. This is the beauty of art.

La Jeune Martyre by Paul Delaroche (1797-1856)

La Jeune Martyre by Paul Delaroche (1797-1856)

And it’s the very transcendence of European art that grips a person like me, coming from another part of the world and living in a faraway future, and matches her silent cries with a flash of light stemming from a painting or a pair of eyes that draw me into the souls behind them. During my visit to the Louvre, when my friend gave me her observation of my taste, I was a little drawn into myself, I didn’t know if it was true that I went after such paintings. It was too soon for me to accept that, but then my feet were suddenly stapled to the ground before a nineteenth century painting by Paul Delaroche, La Jeune Martyre, The Young Martyr. It depicted a beautiful dead young woman with tied hands, floating in dark water against a dark background, but her face was lit by a halo that was brilliantly reflected in the ripples. If you look closely in the dark background you see a silhouette of a man on a horse about to run off. I’ve read some interpretations that the silhouette was a symbol of moving on, of letting go, and hoping for a better future. To me, though, it was like a fragment of an ongoing war that resulted in the death of this young beauty. The focus on her in the painting told me that she was what mattered the most, she was the only thing at stake, and yet she was lost and the battle continued, indifferent to her loss, and the water carried her further away, out of the sight of the man on the horse, but further into the center of the picture, making her forever the most important, irretrievable loss.

Just like the young men and women in my country who dared to dream for their homeland. Some gave their lives, and some are losing it slowly behind bars, and the battle wages among us, making us lose focus and sight of what really is at stake.

So this is what I do when the ugliness begins to choke me. I travel with my brain to beautiful places and recall the memories I have of them. Yet somehow I always find myself coming back, seeing everything with the lens of the anguish and sorrow that I feel. Albeit with a deeper perspective that shows me that my feelings are universal. Art delivered the hands of the masters over time and across continents to me, to pat my shoulders and tell me that I’m not alone.

 

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The Powerhouse of the Ignorant

Reenactment of Ashoura procession used to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment

Reenactment in Ashoura procession used to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment

A few days ago a close friend of mine posted a picture of two Muslim women dressed in black wearing the headscarf in a conservative fashion, covering not only the hair and neck but a large part of the chin as well, leading a line of little girls shrouded completely in black, their faces unseen, and their hands were tied together in chains. I normally don’t pay much attention to the many shares my friends post on Facebook because over the past few years I’ve realized that hardly any of the articles or pictures are accurate, but my friend’s horrified comment next to the picture made me want to see what the caption said. I clicked on it and went to its original post. The caption associated with the picture read “Muslim girls being lead off in chains to meet their new husbands.” Looking around within the picture I could see that the women in the background had their hands on their chest in what was clearly a rhythmic beating. I realized that I was looking at a Shiite Ashoura procession. The girls covered in black and chained were performing a reenactment of the aftermath of the battle of Karbala where the granddaughter of the prophet was brought chained to the Caliph in Damascus after her brother had been decapitated. Shiites mark this time of year to be a time of mourning and sadness and recall the heroism of the prophet’s descendants in the face of tyranny.

There were over five thousands likes and thousands of shares. There are over fourteen thousand likes to that picture as I write this and a sea of comments that doesn’t seem to end. Most of the comments are hateful rants towards Muslims and Islam that go all the way to extermination. Some have actually commented that Hitler “started with the wrong religion.” And in between these comments there were those who were trying to show the reality of the picture but they were either being ignored or shunned. The thread had become a powerhouse to the stubborn, angry ones who didn’t want to be told they were ignorant. Comments like “we don’t need to know the truth, this happens anyway” or “it doesn’t matter if the picture isn’t true” received dozens of likes.

Apart from the clear Islamophobia inherent in the post, there was more importantly a brazen show of disrespect to the audience that reminded me too much of the kinds of posts I see everyday about the situation in my country, where suddenly all people ever talk about is politics. There was a clear attempt to stir up emotions, and for the past three years most of the posts I’ve seen about Egypt were of this kind. One would think that ignorance is silent, receiving, acted upon, but I realized that there’s really no sound louder than the sound of ignorance, and no people more confident and outspoken than those who have no idea what they’re talking about.

We’re all ignorant about many things, and in difficult times when feelings are sore it’s hard to remain reserved and not say something, anything, to let the steam out. What we’re usually doing then is just that: letting out steam. We’re not adding anything and we’re definitely not receiving much. In conversations like these no one is even listening; it’s hard to dissociate what we’re receiving – be it a comment or a picture or a piece of news – from our feelings and from our previous related experience, so our reaction is usually marred by whatever that thing we’re receiving has conjured up. Rarely is it merely a reaction with the same size and magnitude of the action itself.

My friends recently bullied a person who was trying to pinpoint a technicality in the Egyptian justice system. She could have been saying something worth paying attention to or she could have been talking gibberish, but she was stating a fact worth looking into first before deciding on the value of her words or even her political allegiance. Yet somehow my friends quickly dubbed her as a voice from the enemy camp and tucked her away into a categorical mental box. She was immediately dragged into the forcefield of the powerhouse. Perhaps they knew her allegiance beforehand and perhaps they didn’t, but there was nothing in what she said, in my opinion, worth conjuring all of that. That is why I use the word “bully” and I mean it in every way. The mere fact that she was not joining in on the wailing automatically placed her in the opposite camp. They started jumping on her words and taking them to further hypothetical ends she never explicitly expressed. Needless to say the conversation got unnecessarily ugly from all sides, and I watched mortified as my friends continued to shoot at that person even though she had withdrawn from the conversation and blocked half of them. I actually considered interfering to her benefit, neither to attack them nor defend her, but rather to show them what their emotions made them do, or to just show them what the conversation looked like to me from the outside, but I thought better. My friends were way too emotional that I knew I would be risking being placed on the enemy camp along with her. I would say that that shouldn’t happen because, after all, they were my friends and they knew me well, but in reality I didn’t think our wounds allowed us to see each other anymore.

Behind the safety of the keyboard there is a liberty many of us aren’t really aware of. It just acts itself out as we clack our emotions away. Some people become passionate lovers and others become dreamy children, but the troubling ones are the sociopaths. I read some of the words in the comments on that picture of the little Shiite girls and I started wondering what the people who wrote those words were like in their actual lives. I looked at their profiles and there was nothing out of the ordinary, yet they seemed to be so ignorant of Muslim culture that they’ve been easily manipulated by fear of the unknown. I couldn’t help comparing them with our situation at home. Some of us show indifference to the suffering of others simply because they happen to come from the wrong side of the political camp. I know some such people personally, and some I know very, very well, and I know that they are nothing but regular individuals leading quiet, ordinary lives. It’s disturbing to wonder how many nice people in our lives hide inside them hating, aggressive, vulgar sociopaths that only come out in the virtual world, but I think the reality is that ignorance of the other has generated unbearable fear, a kind of fear so out of proportion that it can be easily manipulated into anything. Somehow, this fear only finds solace with the fear of others. From behind the screens we, the ignorant, bond and our confidence grows until we’re ready to gang up on anyone who dares to challenge the comfort of our ignorance. We choose to leave our real world and forever live in our powerhouse, and somehow, the scared, the lost, the confused become the confident, the know-it-all, the judgmental.

It scares me to think of what humans are capable of producing in collectivity, and I place myself as no exception. This realization that one is “not alone” is of course comforting, but it can have very dire consequences.

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Inhale and Hold On, Exhale and Let Go

A fragment of my kitchen, or my mind

Wow! I just walked out of my kitchen with some very scary realizations about myself. I’ve had this strong desire to hold time standing still for so long I’m starting to see what my life really looks like inside my head. I’m in one of those gloomy, sorry weeks and I haven’t been clearing anything I use in the kitchen. Coffee mug used? Right where I left it. Next day other coffee mug used? Still there. Tray out? Right where I left it with its corner sticking out the edge of the table. Spoon used? Yes, right next to her sisters in the sink. Day after day with mug after mug and spoon after spoon, and before I’m aware of it I have a disgusting kitchen with piles of ridiculously dismissed items that hadn’t really needed more than a quick rinse to begin with. Now if I try to look for a clean spoon I wouldn’t find one. All would be used.

That is precisely what I do with the life I have outside my kitchen. I hold on to everything, good or bad. Each bad experience, no matter how small or big, comes in, carves something in my gut and sits right there, and I do nothing to clear it. I leave those experiences intact instead of picking them up and working out where they need to be stacked so they could be more useful and less painful. Needless to say, I dig into my brain for one creative thought and can’t find any; all are too busy twirling around old experiences, keeping them alive and simmering.

My kitchen is the perfect visual representation of my mind. And I can’t count the number of times I was advised by close people to let go. Somehow I find this to be the single most challenging uphill task I have to take. Everything around me seems to be screaming at me to get over myself. I see it in that bored look my cat gives me whenever I start to space out and stare emptily at the TV, in the janitor’s snicker when I fuss over the lit cigarettes in front of the elevator, and now it’s crept into my dreams.

Yep, my dreams. Now as I write this the dream I had last night is actually falling into place. I dreamed that my sister and I were waiting for our mother to show up in some mall and she didn’t. I got worried about her but my sister didn’t seem to be as concerned as I was. I checked with my aunt and she didn’t seem concerned either. I was so frustrated that no one was worried, but when I checked with a friend of mine and she seemed to conceal something, I kept pressing her until she walked into a room and came out with my mother. I rushed to her and hugged her, but she didn’t hug me back. Her body was cold, but it wasn’t the kind of cold that works its way through the skin from the weather while the core is still warm; it was that inner, lifeless cold that crept its way out through the skin and to the hand that’s touching it.

My mother was forever gone, and no amount of persistence brought her back to me. I was the only one holding on to something that was no longer there, unlike my sister and my aunt, who had accepted the fact that she was gone and simply let go–or so it seemed in my dream. Holding on to the memory of my mother’s presence in my life has been like taking a deep, satisfying breath of fresh, salty sea air. But because it’s just a memory, the air soon becomes a burden and nothing can relieve me except a powerful exhale. That’s what letting go is like; it’s like a much needed relief of a burden ripping at your chest, and I’ve been living my life with just an inhale.

But seriously now, I’m not sure what this is, to be honest. So before I conclude this particularly pointless post I’m going to go ahead and blame it on Cairo, as I always do with everything that annoys me. So maybe it’s a Cairo thing? Because I look around me at Cairo’s streets and whoa! That is one big grimy, slimy old kitchen that hasn’t been cleared up since the Mamluks. Cairo has layer after layer of history, and on a less romantic note, layer after layer of garbage and abandoned junk either crowding backyards of buildings or creeping into their service stairs, making them nice little hubs for rodents and reptiles. Many people have grown so accustomed to the mess around here that they no longer take notice of it. They’re aware of it, but they just accept it as the sorry reality that is their home city. It creeps into their subconscious and puts them in a bad mood each time they hit the streets, which could explain the road rage and the street fights and the honks. So yeah, Cairo has crept into my subconscious and gave me this messy kitchen. And yes of course you’re reading this messy post, because how can I be creative with a mind as overloaded and messy as that kitchen, or as Cairo?

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Rwanda Slaps Me in the Face and Grins

Two nights ago I watched a video posted by a friend on Facebook of three little Arab girls with solemn faces, cloaked in black, sitting stiffly on a couch and singing about the length of a girl’s skirt as protection from the eyes of young men, her careful, slow walk as the best cover of her body, and her hijab as the “ideal” crown on her head. The three young expressionless faces chanted on how happy that girl was that she’d covered her ‘awrah, her nakedness, her intimate parts, her whatever you may call it. There’s no actual word for it in English.

The following morning I woke up with bloated fingers, puffy eyes and half a brain (from pizza, not the video), browsed with one hand and held my coffee in the other when suddenly National Geographic informed me that, twenty years on after the genocide, women in Rwanda now have majority seats in the parliament, and that in fact by achieving that in 2008 Rwanda was the first country ever.

Now the expressionless face was mine.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m very happy and inspired that Rwanda is quickly getting up on its feet and seems to most definitely be on the right track. It’s just that the dichotomy hit me a bit hard since I clearly hadn’t had enough time to recover from that traumatic video of the night before.

This is not a post typically making unfounded comparisons or misinformed bla bla bla. It’s also not an attack on Islamic dress code as I don’t see the Islam that I know anywhere in that abusive video (and it would take a lot more space than this post for me to explain why). This is just a passing rant of a person once described by a close friend that she’d chosen to stay aboard a sinking ship.

I don’t know much about Rwanda, this article could be showing a very narrow side of things. It could be, of course, but it’s there and it can’t be based on nothing. There’s an Egyptian proverb that says “There’s no smoke without fire,” so surely this article must be based on something? How about the fact that women hold a majority of seats in the parliament?

According to National Geographic, that percentage of women is very small given that the majority live in rural areas with limited or no education. But that small percentage made it to the parliament, dammit! So those people have got to be doing something right.

And that’s Rwanda. You know what Rwanda was to a lot of Egyptians especially during the horrible days of the genocide? As much as there was widespread sympathy over what they were going through there was also racist jokes over the contamination of the Nile because of the dumping of the bodies in thousands. You see, we’re known among the Arab world to joke our troubles away and we’re known to be the most hilarious nation with unbeatable jokes, but that multitude of jokes also has an excess of ill-tasted, sometimes sick, punchlines that come out more as insults than innocent entertainment.

‘Cause that’s what we do. We slouch around in our own filth and love ourselves so much we think no nation can ever be greater and point fingers at other countries’ mishaps.

Rwanda is a proud example that a weak, recovering state does not have to be inefficient if it is smart. Because of its inability to penetrate it has empowered the local communities. Rwanda has something called “community-policing committees” which is a group of people empowered to help maintain law and order in their respective communities. Those people are actually trained by the police to prevent crimes and protect women and children from violence.

Our state is neither weak nor recovering. I’m going to forget about all the big words and just put it in couch and popcorn language. Our state has the force of a hurricane and it doesn’t hesitate to use it when angered. It’s also lazy, old, quite grumpy, and stupid. So in the early days of the January 25th uprising it acted “wounded” and “upset” and disappeared off the streets after driving over people and shooting a bunch of others in the chest and the head. It left us to fend for ourselves, so the closest we got to those police committees was of our own efforts. Residents of all neighborhoods created their own guarding units and took shifts protecting streets and property and even directing traffic.

As for the women, our notorious streets harassment record actually skyrocketed, so another version of these committees was created and continues to operate, a purely grassroots initiative to spot and prevent street harassment of women, either by helping the victim file a case against the aggressors or just shooing the fellows out of the way after giving them a good tongue lashing. Our problem, however, is that once these committees have caught the transgressors there’s a very fragile system to take them to in order to effectuate already existing anti-harassment laws. The overriding culture that it is essentially the woman’s fault clouds many of the officers’ judgment, and the woman often finds herself presented with narrow options and threatened to tarnish her own reputation if she wishes to proceed with the case. So our individual efforts to create a sense of security, accountability, and just simply some sanity in the public space go almost completely unsupported by the state.

And just like the rest of the Arab world, the misogynistic, hormone injected view of women continues to thrive and even gets passed on to generations as I have seen in the video, ruining every woman’s sense of self-worth as a human being before it even begins.

What is it about Rwanda that makes it so on the right track compared to Egypt? The country was reduced to ashes and yet somehow, miraculously, most of those in charge seem to be doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Or does it take a climactic, post-apocalyptic form of destruction like the one Rwanda witnessed for people to come back to their senses and start doing the right thing instead of wasting precious time loving themselves and hating each other? What is that force that keeps dragging us into this dung filled pit? What’s our secret, really?

 

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Leaving

Each time I travel I keep thinking of the distance from the place and the people I leave. I actually watch it happen from the minute I walk out the door to the moment I reach the clouds and go above them to wherever lies ahead. I sit in the plane, I look at the flight monitor and I think of the actual physical miles that start adding up by the minute. And upon my arrival it blows my mind how many oceans and continents have now come to divide us. I silently thank God that I live in an age where my loved ones are just a click away. I can always talk to them and see them on my little gadgets. I don’t have to write a letter and wait for three weeks or more to get a response. When my brother went to study in America in 1977 I was a four year old and I don’t remember much, but the sight of my mother’s tears pouring down her face all through the flight back to Cairo stayed with me until today. She helplessly waited for his letters and couldn’t call him except through a switchboard and a very, very poor connection they’d both be yelling to the receivers to hear each other across continents.

Now I’m about her age at that time and I don’t have to go through any of that hassle. It’s ironic how these gadgets have come to work in my life. At times they’re the cloak I hide behind and talk to everyone through when I’m depressed, a cloak that soon turns into thick, brass walls that trap me inside and echo my own thoughts and obsessions and so add to my misery. Yet at other times they’re simply the only window to the faraway world I think about while I’m away.

And it’s funny how the people in my life are constantly shifting from the flesh and blood real to the voice and text virtual. I’ve spent all of my life with my heart cut in half between the here and there. The accessible near and the dreamy far–a far that is often entangled in longing, worry, and much, much anxiety. I have very close friends that live in two different continents, none of them my own, and I have a whole half of my family, with cousins I grew up with, living in a fourth continent. Heck I’ve even fallen in love across continents! That never lasted, of course.

With all of these people, sometimes we would meet and talk about everything on these little gadgets and it feels good to think we’re close. But we know we never actually are. Nothing compares to the physical nearness of a person you care about.

And just as we happen to be scattered all over the world, some of us end up in countries with much turmoil, tearing at the hearts of those faraway from them. Phone calls after phone calls run back and forth to reassure each other that we’re OK, until we finally get together and try to will time to stand still and hold the moment for as long as it can, but it can only hold it for as long as a human can hold a breath. Eventually it lets go–as it probably must. But then I try to hold on to the moment in my head for as long as I can too but it brings no comfort to me to think of a moment I’m not living anymore. Eventually I let go and I find that it’s actually a relief. Each time I say goodbye to a close one as they leave – or as I leave – knowing that our paths would cross again gives a temporary soothing numbness that takes me on to the next moment, and the next, and the next.

The uncertainty and the disenchantment of living in Egypt right now does not make separation easy, whether I was the one leaving or the one left behind. Egypt, where I stayed and continue to stay, used to be the hub for everyone I knew. Everyone used to come back and stay and they would be willing the moment to stand still, wishing with all their might to come back. My mind races with thoughts on my future and the future of my family. Is this going to pass soon or will we all be strangled in a limbo? We’re living our everyday quite normally but there’s an overarching feeling of depression residing in the air. The economy is down and there’s little or no tourists walking around (it’s actually strange how the sight of tourists in Cairo’s streets was so characteristic it feels almost unrecognizable without them now). I can’t stop asking when will this nation pick itself up again and I know the answer is not soon, because right now it’s still busy dismantling itself into scattered pieces and there are some who are actually trying to turn the pieces into lots of even smaller ones.

But it doesn’t do any good for me to think too much. I’m just a dot in history. I’m neither judge nor God to know fate; I’m only a passing witness so small and tiny for the universe to see with the naked eye. So much has happened over the seven thousand year old history of my home country that I can never know what is going to happen. But I know that it all comes in cycles and that it will pick itself up again, though probably not in my lifetime.

I think that what I’m trying to say is that as seemingly exciting and rich a traveler’s life can be, with friends and loved ones in every continent, when the ground they once stood so solidly on – that anchor point they always came back to – suddenly begins to shake, all they can think about is how much they long for bringing everyone they love together and staying put with them in one reliably solid, safe place where no one can ever get hurt and no one ever has to say goodbye. I’d give up all my traveling and all my flying around for just this and the peace of mind that comes with it. That’s just the way I feel.

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Election Day, Revolution Blues, and a Bitter Coffee

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.

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I Voted for President. It Made Me Remember

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.

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Friday of Anger: The Birth of a Revolution (Part 2)

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.

Panic as the march reaches the human wall of guards. Senior officers in plain clothes watch from a distance behind the guards.

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.

Crowds gathered on top of the bridge until rubber bullets began to disperse them.

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:

 

 

 

 

 

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Guest Post: An Ode to a Revolutionary

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!

Jawad El Nabulsi telling his story on his first TV appearance

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.

Salma Beshr

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