Tag: Revolution

Yella Beena. A Night in #Tahrir.

And here we go. Yella beena.

Everyone gets a mask, just in case of more tear gas.

I am 5 foot 1″. Approximately 113 pounds. I’m an American. I shaved my head in March for pediatric cancer research, so my hair is short. This haircut gets many stares and comments. As does the fact that I’m obviously a foreign lady.

So when I occasionally decide to go out into places such as Tahrir Square, I take extra precautions.

Yesterday I walked through the crowd, 2 million strong, sandwiched between two dear Egyptian friends who had my back no matter what. At times, the mass of people was so packed we could not take a single step in any direction. This was not frightening at all because the atmosphere was cooperative. Many women and children in the crowd. A few moments edged on joyous as an elongated, enormous Egyptian flag was passed overhead. Beautiful fireworks above. We passed people selling cotton candy, sweet potatoes, beans, koshary, Kleenex, Guy Fawkes masks, clinical face masks, horns, cups of tea, water, flags, face paint of flags, and jester hats. Twice I passed a young girl of 7 or 8 lost in watching her own flag dance in the breeze.

There is a tent city in the middle of the square for vendor families, political groups, etc. to sleep or stay in as the week progresses. Three of the tents are for artists.

My friends and I sat in a small roped-off corner section with a group of young activists including a celebrity, an actress from local TV and cinema. She has a face which drew a large crowd of fans with eager cameras. One friend sitting in the center of the group started to lead us all into song, in particular The Ballad of Beans and Meat by Sheikh Imam, a leftist Egyptian singer and composer popular since the 1960s.

This all reminded me of a local pub. Where everybody knows your name. A reunion. Revolutionaries pulling the signs out of storage. Nostalgia and hope.

The Egyptians I spoke to know that the revolution is not as easy as those 18 days in 2011. Revolution is never easy. This is going to be a bumpy journey. But now has the feeling of a last chance to get the revolution back on course. You cannot replace a dictator with a pharaoh. You cannot build an Sharia-based constitution out of a cry for Freedom, Bread and Social Justice. Or can you?

Each area of Tahrir Square had a leader step up from the crowd to lead the others in songs or chants. An enthralling and powerful sound. Thousands more people joined in, marching from the far ends of Cairo, packing into the square as the night carried on.

Full moon overhead.

My friends and I went to one of the nearby buildings and walked up many flights because the elevator was not working. There’s a generously cool man named Pierre who opens his home overlooking Tahrir Square to photographers, bloggers, activists, and friends. Loved the signage around the apartment: “The balcony is not for use by professional media. If it makes you money, do it elsewhere.” and “This is a work space. If you are not working, go out to the streets and revolt.”

I followed the swelling Revolution sounds from below, stepped out onto the balcony with my iPhone camera ready to roll. And this is what I saw:

#Tahrir Square – Tuesday, 27 November 2012

 

#Tahrir Tent City

 

#Tahrir – Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The best sight of all was the field hospital on the corner of Talat Harb Street.

Empty.

Other than some small clashes over by the mosque and the north gate wall of the American Embassy, this was a peaceful and promising day. Unfortunately, this coming Saturday, the Muslim Brotherhood has declared they will be taking over Tahrir Square with their own demonstration. With liberal groups holding sit-ins and sleeping in their established tent city, this sounds like a recipe for bloodshed. It is worrying, to say the least. I will stay home on Saturday and apply for work with The Ford Foundation, Amnesty International, and any other opportunities I can find. My hope is that the people there in the square Saturday, on both sides, can learn from one another while sharing a cup of tea.

I also hope to do a short performance piece just outside the square. A dance where all who wish to can join in. Probably not Saturday, but soon.

Today, there are just small clashes between youngsters and police. I saw an 11-year-old at the Metro station with a face mask and a tear gas canister. Tear gas is the main issue. Much of the tear gas is expired and says Made in the USA. Interesting.

Papa John’s refused to deliver to my neighborhood tonight. So we called Pizza Hut. When the delivery man arrived, his face was red and he was crying from riding his motorcycle through all the tear gas. We gave the poor guy some vinegar to wipe his eyes, allowed him some time to recover, and on his way back out, I gave him my face mask (pictured above).

 

***The views and information presented in my blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Scholar Program.

Look Where You’re Walking

Cairo has no sidewalks. No useful, obstacle-free sidewalks. Some have short palm trees with sharp leaves that you must dodge. Some have cracks and craters with no safety cones or warnings. Most lead to nowhere and require you to perform an entire Step Aerobics routine. Nowadays, post-revolution, sidewalks on the bridges are packed with plastic lawn chairs, the sign of illegal makeshift cafes. Sidewalks are also full of people. People strolling arm-in-arm incredibly slow, an entire family zooming dangerously close on a 1979 motorcycle, people out to harass or mug foreigners, gorgeous young couples in the most beautiful gowns and suits celebrating engagements, and women who can carry enormous bags and baskets on their heads.

It is a rare time when one can walk peacefully on a sidewalk for a long stretch of time in one direction. I got this gift yesterday afternoon.

Walking in Cairo

 

I walked the 20 minutes to Metro Market to get groceries. The sun was setting over the Nile. My thoughts were heavy. Weighed down by events on the Gaza/Israeli border. Weighed down by the horrors in nearby Syria. By the overwhelming poverty in Egypt. By the man on the bridge fishing in the Nile just for a chance to feed his family. By the horrid conditions of some state-run institutions here… schools, hospitals,… Weighed down by the decisions I have to make. Weighed down by the realization that I do not have enough money to make my dreams come true… in particular, the dreams of visiting Kenya, Uganda, Palestine, UAE, Bosnia, and my mother all in 2013. Weighed down by the cancers in and around us all.

But then the sun was setting over the Nile.

Something about the sun and the Nile made me stop.

Beautiful. Gamila. Falling in love with this city, faults and all.

Cairo is a place that sometimes makes you feel swallowed. It’s a spiral of activism and passivity, activism and passivity. A cycle of humor, hope, outrage and exasperation. The pollution is heavy. So is the smoking. Those 1970s motorcycles blow their exhaust right in your face. There is no place to sit at the crowded cafe. The buildings are leaning in. And the people put their hands on your back to shove you into the Metro train, right into a pile of sweaty men. These sweaty men are reaching for the handles above, so you get to enjoy your ride in the comfort of their armpits.

But back to the sunset and the Nile.

Horizon. Horizon. A bigger picture. I cannot put this into words. Sorry. It was simply perspective.

I stood there thinking of those who have lost their eyesight. Young men blinded during the revolution. Those who can no longer see the place they fought for. And those living with bullet wounds here in Egypt. Like my friend next to me, holding my hand perfectly as we walk on the nonexistent sidewalks. I thought of the folks who fought and won a revolution and are now watching disarray with heavy hearts. Like the heaviness I had. It is contagious and cyclical.

Thinking of those people here in Cairo who just shake their heads when they hear that thousands of their countrymen were bussed-in to Tahrir Square to demand that the new constitution be based on Sharia Law, like Saudi Arabia. The drafting of a new constitution is an understandably divisive issue.

In the face of all this, I am inspired by those who lost their eyes to Mubarak’s bullets and yet maintain their vision and the skip in their step. Yeah, I’m thinking of them.

Keep walking, my friends. That’s the only way to see the horizon.

 

***The views and information presented in my blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Scholar Program.

Art Doesn’t Die

Yesterday, I had the honor of seeing a memorial exhibition for the artist, Ahmed Basiony. I was accompanied by one of Ahmed’s close friends and could see the pain in his eyes at every piece, every article of clothing on display, his videos, his white rubber boots.

As Shady El Noshokaty describes, Basiony is considered one of the most important artists of the new generation of contemporary Egyptian artists. After acquiring his master’s degree in Creative Potential of Digital Sound Art, he was working on his PhD Thesis on The Visual Aspect of Open Source Programming in relation to the concepts of digital art. His practice varied greatly and evolved rapidly. His early large-scale expressionistic paintings. Then his work took a turn in a more experimental direction involving new media and multimedia installations.

On January the 28th, 2011, Ahmed Basiony died of gunshot wounds inflicted by snipers from the Egyptian Police Forces on Tahrir Square during the start of the 25 January 2011 revolution. He left behind a wife and two children (6 and 1 years old).

Ahmed Basiony

His last statements on his Facebook page: I have a lot of hope if we stay like this. Riot police beat me a lot. Nevertheless I will go down again tomorrow. If they want war, we want peace. I am just trying to regain some of my nation’s dignity. January 26 at 10 pm

It is necessary to be fully equipped while participating in the revolution: a bottle of vinegar to overcome the tear gas, protective masks and tissues to inhale vinegar, self-defense sprays, athletic shoes, Pradoral tablets, food and drinks… It is prohibited to use violence against security agents and to insult them. Vandalism is also forbidden for this is our country. Bring a camera with you and don’t be afraid or weak. January 27 at 12:09 am

In 2011, Basiony was selected post-mordum to represent Egypt in the Venice Biennale 2011. And now his friends celebrate his life, his companionship, his genius and his legacy with events throughout Egypt this month.

Just a short taxi ride away from the exhibition, 21 of the liberal and secular parties came together for the first time. They took to Tahrir Square to reclaim the original demands of the revolution and to protest the acquittal of the perpetrators of the Battle of the Camel and Morsi’s recent firing of the prosecutor-general. Young and old were in the square, literally babies and men with canes. Standing with a unified message. The U.S. Embassy sent a report that stated 8,000 people were out there. But a majority of the crowd packed in to Mohamed Mahmoud Street, just past the Hardees. Every couple minutes, a kid would be rushed back towards where I was standing safe on a curb. Strangers would get the injured guy medical care for some sort of rock wound to the head or face. The man next to me was bleeding from the back of the head, covered with a loose and inadequate bandage. This was not going to be the peaceful mass demonstration the liberals needed.

Mohamed Mahmoud Street has been the scene of the heart of the violence over the past year and a half. Plenty of blood spilt for various passions. Each time, a different enemy on the other side: Pro-Mubarak, SCAF, Pro-Morsi…

New mural on Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

Mohamed Mahmoud Street is also the home of the most elaborate and honored graffiti art in the city. Public murals with revolutionary messages. After the events here last month that started at the U.S. Embassy then went into Tahrir Square, all those murals were whitewashed. Saddening. Last week, artists, men and women alike, in the middle of the night, came with their paintbrushes and ladders to defend the progress of the revolution. As AhramOnline reported last month, “They are erasing history, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the father of a 19-year old killed during the early days of anti-Mubarak protests, said as he stood at the [whitewashed] mural street. And for some, repainting the wall just underlined the feeling that the Islamists have snatched the prizes of the revolution. This is not about the wall. It is about everything happening in Egypt.”

New mural on Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

At the far end of this same mural street yesterday, the liberals and secularists, the people who had first put the revolution into motion, were fending off the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). I couldn’t see that far down the street, but heard reports from the taller folks in the crowd. My friend who was with me could pretty much sense what was happening without looking. As more and more men were brought back with wounds, and ambulances started to crawl through the crowd, we decided to leave.

I spent the rest of the afternoon monitoring Twitter for news of injuries, movements of the MB from other areas into the heart of the square, tearing down the stage, claims of gun shots and maybe one death. My friends and I turned on local television and saw as the violence escalated in the heart of the square, to an embarrassing level. Egyptian v. Egyptian. Men in suits and casual, liberal clothes versus men in more religious wear. No police or security pretense whatsoever. Molotov cocktails. Buses on fire. Groups running in different directions.

The MB claiming their members were not in the square.

My friends and I spend the evening in conversations far away from the area. We talked about contemporary art, how to plant the seeds of progress during such a turbulent transition, about deep-seated hope, about Morsi and his party’s dealings, what Nov 4 elections will mean for Egypt, the World Bank, and how friendships are made and sustained here.

And about Basiony.

I kept having this thought that we need to have a day in Tahrir Square where thousands come to dance. To dance their hope, their anger, to grab hands and find counter-balance with one another, and then to boogie.

The media coverage for most of the rest of yesterday evening was of the MB chanting peacefully in front of the court building. They were the faces we were left with at the end of the night. This is not the unified power the thousands of secularists and liberals had planned. I said it felt like the day had been hijacked. Then, this morning, I turned on the tv to see what people were saying about this chaos a day later, but all I saw was the eerily symbolic message,

“We are sorry for the loss of service which is due to sun interference with our satellite. Thanks for your patience.”

 

***The views and information presented in my blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Scholar Program.

Masr On the Rocks

“on the rocks” : served neat, on ice

“on the rocks” : in difficulties, with high potential to fail

 

The Fulbright staff have tasked me to reflect on what I know and feel about Egypt before I go.

I know that Cairo (al-Qahira) is 6,150 miles and 7 time zones from Chicago. 83.6 million people live in Egypt, which is half the size of Alaska. 10.9 million live in Cairo. Up to 19 million in the greater metro area.

 

Men in Tahrir 2011

 

Egypt is an old country, with a young population, run by old men. Average age is 24.6. Unemployment rate for young women is a staggering 48%. For young men, 25%.

I know that most Egyptians are Sunni Muslims. Some are Coptic Christian, which is similar to Eastern Orthodox. Fewer are Jewish. Fewer still are multitheist, agnostic or atheist…at least publicly.

 

I know that Egypt is NOT here:

You should know I am not a journalist. I am a dance educator, a manager, a scholar interested in the role of artists in alternative areas of civil society. What I know about Egypt may not be accurate. It may not even be true. But it is my honest understanding, and as such, might be mighty interesting.

I know that Egyptians want freedom. Their freedom to be devout Muslims. Their right to bread. Their right to a functioning constitution, justice, and a vote. Their dignity. Their right to enjoy a Stella on Thursday night. Their rights as contemporary artists and media makers.

The official language in Egypt is Arabic, but a variation of the language quite different from other Arabic-speaking countries, full of slang. Making it even more difficult to learn or to utilize translation apps.

I know that Egyptians are more likely to make stuff up than admit they don’t know something.

They are a proud people.

 

I know that tourism is the piston for this place, known as the Mother of the World; and I know that tourism has dipped dangerously low since Mubarak’s ouster. Visit. Touch the ancient history. Relax on the stellar beaches. Come see the planets align over the Pyramids of Giza for the first time in 2,797 years.

So amazing.

I know that Egyptians, in general, are less comfortable discussing gay rights than people in say, nearby Libya. And I know that Cairo doesn’t represent all of Egypt. Just like Chicago doesn’t represent Illinois.

What I do not know is if there is a Groupon-like service in Egypt…, if they use proton beam therapy at 57357 children’s cancer hospital…, or if I will get fat on take-out koshari.

I have been taught the Arabic version of giving the middle finger and I know that some men in Cairo make me uncomfortable. So to the guys who’ve sent me messages this summer giving the impression they’re interested in only one aspect of who I am, I say two things: Yes, I am single. No, I will not sleep with you. On that note, fellas, please don’t insist on helping me cross the street. I’ve played ‘Frogger.’ I know what to do. Don’t assume I have lots of American money to spend in your cousin’s shop. Don’t assume I will be your “special friend.” Let’s acknowledge the difference between being a woman who walks solo down the street, and a woman who works the streets.

Also, I am not a spy. Never have been.

On a different note, coming from Chicago, the home of improv comedy, I can appreciate the Egyptian sense of humor. Relevant and on your feet. One cannot help but be impressed by the witty revolutionary signage and collective singing and political cartoons. Laugh out loud brilliant. Probably would be even funnier if I got the cultural references and/or read Arabic.

I know that for many Egyptians, the revolution continues. For some, Morsi and his presidential team are making their way toward stability and progress. For others, trash is filling the streets and Masr is on the rocks.

But some days have more hope than others. Fingers wave in purple ink. And every day brings a surprise.

Here ends any of my talk of me and them. Now it’s we. I have decided to join you in Cairo for a little while to experience that goodness. That potential for greatness and personal agency. To feel the pulse of a city that is thousands of years old in an era of mass change. Beautiful. Jamila.

Let’s pour some hope, served neat, on ice.

See you soon.

 

***The views and information presented in my blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Scholar Program.

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