Posts Tagged oppression

Jan 25, 2011, the Day Fear Died in My Country

Protesters lift bars as they try to advance and join another march, tear gas shown in the distance

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.

Massive march towards one of the oldest bridges in downtown Cairo, an entrance to Tahrir square

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.

“Umm, yeah.”

“Cool where will you go?”

“Shobra.”

“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.

I could not resist taking a quick picture of this man. He was sobbing as he chanted and joined the protest.

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.

An army of guards surrounds the state television building for fear of the protesters reaching it.

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.

 

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Rants of a Shackled Egyptian

I wake and sleep to the sounds of the traffic and sirens outside my window. I look at this and think twice before I go out for any reason. (Can you spot the ambulance on the left?)

How badly can you want something? What would normally be the thing to do when you are placed with someone who has authority over the thing you want so much and withholds it from you? Would you walk your talk, confront them and live up with the consequences? Would you speak with fear of being denied your thing and so you acknowledge the authority lest you wake the beast?

My story today may not be that dramatic, but little violations of my rights everyday can turn me into something I’m not pleased with.

I was driving home last night, trying to arrive within less than 30 minutes on a route that should in any other city take 10 minutes. I started my journey with my car crawling among other cars in a pool of chaos. I managed to get near the area where I lived around 7:30, exactly 30 minutes later. To my surprise I found that the street I normally take to reach my home was blocked with police rails and two officers were standing there. If I missed that street it would take me another 30 to 45 minutes of turning in the chaos to get back to a previous spot and choose another street. I had no option.

I spoke to one of the officers. “I live right there and I need to get home quickly.”

“Sorry madam, prohibited. There’s a tashreefa.”

Tashreefa has no literal translation in the English language, probably because there is no equivalent to the phenomenon outside our world. It is a deliberate blockage of streets in anticipation of a prominent politician passing in his bullet-proof car. The streets get decorated by soldiers, human beings that are placed on both sides of the road from beginning to end for hours until the sacred passing takes place. Until then the street is literally out of order. No forewarning, no easy access to alternative routes. You drive there, get stuck, and discover that it’s a tashreefa.

My blood began to simmer. “You cannot deny me access to my own home. I must get there now!” He went to speak to a higher authority sitting on a chair with its back to the street and busying itself with some papers. He came back with the same answer. “It’s prohibited, madam.”

At this moment the simmering grew to a boil. I found myself opening the door and charging out of the car in an anger fit I usually describe as an out of body experience. I suddenly acquire a much higher voice and begin to say and do things I have no control of. I walked to the “authority” on the chair and ignored the officer’s calls after me.

“I need to get to my home. All I demand of you is a little respect to my basic human right as a citizen of this country!”

The man’s eyes were wide open staring at me in disbelief. “You may take the next street.” I began to fume. “The next street is a one-way street and if one of you catches me he’d charge me 1000 EGP, and there is no way I can enter it since it is equally blocked with cars trying to get to the already blocked road we’re in. So now please allow me to get into my home. You may search me if you will. I have no weapons. I need to get to the child that is waiting for me there!”

I had no idea who that child was, unless I count my cat as one.

Predicting that he would not be rid of me soon, he waved at his subjects to allow me in. I walked to my car without another word and drove in. It was a party in the Turkish ambassador’s residence. Black cars, black suits, black dresses. I was thrown back into my black mood. I drove with so much fury and kept cursing out loud alone in the car.

I got to my home and all I could think of was how many of us end up being reduced to basic levels just to protect our rights to go by in the streets of Cairo with no hassle. What’s more important, I was alarmed at the things I said. I said “please.” Please?? What the hell was I thinking? Was I so afraid he’d let me do the 45 minutes turn and I was secretly begging for his mercy? A “child”?? What child? I lied!

Is it the systematic subordination we’ve been subjected to in our society for so many years that made inner submissive cowards out of us? Has the hierarchical system of authority been passed down to us individuals, making us oppressive to those below us and submissive to those above?

Yes. As children many of us went to schools where we were beaten by teachers for speaking in class or for not doing our homework. We were yelled at and humiliated in front of our peers in class. When we grew up we became used to laws and regulations being issued overnight and executed with no consideration of any say on our part.

The spark that I see in the eyes of Egyptians as I look at pictures taken some forty or more years ago no longer exists. The people I see walking in the street have a look of defeat in their eyes. The women have lost their glory, lines of exhaustion and fatigue have carved their ways on their faces. The men have lost their sense of self-worth. The little sense of control they still aspire to have is practiced on their children or wives.

Egyptians have been systematically neutralized by a smart centralized authority that has reigned above them for so many decades. They used to revolt, but now they can’t get more than a hundred people to stand still in a demonstration. A culture of prohibition overrules everything. I can’t get a refund in a shop, I can’t change my order in a restaurant, I can’t enter certain restaurants because I cover my hair. The list continues.

Inside me there’s a free soul longing for harmony with its surroundings, but sometimes I feel like it’s forever caged inside the body of the hesitant person I have become. I don’t know how long I will further have to wait until it is out, but I’m going to keep trying to unshackle it bit by bit until I, all of me, am free.

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