Posts Tagged uprising

This Beautiful City

This beautiful city
Finally fights to save her love
She awakens from the long sleep
and uncounts the river jewels taken from her bed
the sapphires he tried to use as eyes
the emeralds of envy
and the blood diamond she’d had as her heart
She uncurls each sacred story
and flies those ribbons beginning to sing again
She turns and turns
in the spinning top of hope
in the spinning top of hope

Linda Cleary (January 2011)*

This beautiful city haunts me. She holds me by the scruff of my neck in a dead, weary grip. I know that it would let go if I did but I never try. I see other worlds but something tells me I’d fall through a bottomless abyss if I let go. And so I stay. I don’t know what kind of magic Cairo works through people with her veined, callous hands, but she draws them in with a permanent enchantment and lives within them forever. There are those who manage to escape the spell but they never stop thinking of her. It haunts them everyday.

This city has shown me a thousand extreme faces in one lifetime. Sometimes those extremities race each other towards me within a second. I see vice and virtue walk hand in hand in the street and I see no child in the middle. One of them breeds the other and the other the same. They can’t exist without each other.

This beautiful city is back where it started. It has turned and it has turned in the spinning top of hope until it could turn no longer. The tyrant has hammered the final nail to her coffin as she dizzily fell into eternal despair.

This beautiful city has put on her ugly face. She lies in the arms of vice and sets out a trap for those who, by taking their brisk lively strides, by inhaling fresh, young breaths, by holding on to their books, by existing, are threatening her with hope once more.

The blood diamond heart has stopped beating and turned to stone. The river jewels are scattered everywhere, crushed by the judge’s hammer. The sapphires and emeralds taken away for good. The ribbons have been undone, pulled away and torn with delicate strands of hair and ripped to shreds.

This beautiful city has lost the fight. Her children have bathed themselves in blood, their kin tossed and turned in mud to put out the fire ignited in their souls.

What more can a young man give to this greedy witch other than his own life? And she still won’t stop killing him a thousand times over. How further unjust can injustice go? How can a man ever stop this atrocity of humiliation from continuing except by ceasing to continue himself? Should an Egyptian take a conscious decision to stop having children so that whoever is alive today would be the last? Let the young beating hearts grow old with her until they are no more. Let her take pride alone in the tyrants she has lain with over thousands of years. None of us care. Let her have her history. All we need is justice and, if it’s not too much to ask, life.

*The above poem was written by English poet and writer Linda Cleary who lived in Cairo for 5 years and was present at the time of the uprising in January 2011. I revisit her words today, three years later, after Mubarak and his police aids have been cleared of all charges in the murder of protesters. Below is a video shot of the families of the victims after learning about the verdict.

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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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The Silent Stallions of Libya

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.

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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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