I am not one of the hungry or the downtrodden, nor do I belong to a political party or a particular intellectual trend. I believe in freedom of expression but I do not believe that demonstrations that end with violence and detentions are necessarily the solution. I do not have suggestions to change the status quo and I do not see a better or worse future on the horizon. I see a dead end.
I finished grading some of my students’ exam booklets that routinely cause me depression because of the mediocre quality of the answers as well as their low intellectual and linguistic levels. But, as one of our deans once told me, the students should not be blocked at the university level for more than four years. So, they must succeed and graduate. In other words, I have to pass them no matter what. I kept leafing through the booklets, browsing through the answers, in search of one sentence that might make sense to justify the grades I was dishing out left and right. I felt bad because I knew that if I read their answers carefully, most of them would fail.
I looked at the clock; it was almost one o’clock in the afternoon. The demonstrations would begin at two o’clock according to posts on the “We Are All Khaled Said” page. I chose something practical and comfortable to wear; I put on some walking shoes fit for running, if necessary.
“Mama, I’m going to the demonstration in Shubra.”
“Since when do demonstrations take place in Shubra? Aren’t they always at the lawyers’ and journalists’ syndicates downtown?”
“Today they are expected to be in all of Egypt’s public squares. The demonstrations downtown normally attract some fifty or sixty people. They chant for a couple or three hours, they get surrounded by five thousand riot police conscripts, then they all get beaten up and some get detained. I want to go to Shubra to see what will happen there.”
“OK. Don’t be late.”
“I’ll only be an hour. I have to come back and finish grading.”
“OK, Take care.”
I had never been to Dawaran Shubra before. I called up one of my Christian friends who lives there to ask for directions. He helped me out and advised me not to go. But I insisted: “No, I’m going.”
I got on the bus to Shubra. At Ramses Square, I noticed a concentration of riot police vehicles. I asked the driver to let me know when we got to Dawaran Shubra. “It’s the next stop.” Another young woman behind me asked for the same stop. She got the same answer. I turned around and found a young, veiled woman behind me. She may have been a student or recent graduate.
“Are you going to the demonstration?”
“How did you find out?”
“There was an ‘Event’ posted on Facebook.”
“‘Event’?! This is not a Mohamed Mounir concert here. This is a demonstration!”
We smiled at each other and I asked her: “Do you belong to a political party?”
She answered: “No.”
We got off together and walked a little until we reached the main artery, Shubra Street. A huge banner in celebration of Police Day had been set up. We looked around us; nothing looked like there would be a demonstration. A small number of police officers were stationed at street corners; they kept looking at their watches. It was 1:45 p.m. A woman in her late forties stood alone on the pavement nearby. She walked towards one of the officers and began talking to him. I overheard a few words that had to do with demonstrations, justice, dignity, and the high cost of living.
“It looks like this woman is here for the demonstration. Let’s go and stand with her instead of standing alone.”
“Are you here for the demonstration?”
“I have come all the way from Heliopolis behind my husband’s back to be part of this demonstration. I parked my car in a nearby street and walked here.”
I was a bit surprised, so I asked her: “But why do you want to demonstrate?”
“Because the situation in the country has become unbearable!”
The police officers overheard our conversation. They started laughing.
It was now exactly two o’clock. The first group of demonstrators appeared on the scene. They may have arrived through one of the exits to the Metro station across the street; there were around twenty people in the group. You couldn’t really call them “youth” since there were women and men in their forties and fifties among them, side by side with younger men and women. The chants were rather conventional; the same ones I was used to from the late eighties: “People, people come and join us. Brothers and sisters, together, for all of us,” and “Freedom, freedom, come, embrace us. State Security stands between us.” The older and younger woman thrust themselves into the heart of the group and started chanting fervently. I stood aside, watching.
More groups emerged from side streets carrying Egyptian flags and banners that read: “Say No to Poverty,” “I Want a Job, Big Man,” “You Have Stolen Our Daily Bread,” and “Lentils cost 10 LE per kilogram.” The riot police started surrounding the demonstrators and tried to separate them. However, the officers continued to make way for those who wanted to join the demonstration, opening up the area they had just closed off. I moved closer to the center to take photographs of the slogans and to make out the words of the chants: “What does Mubarak want from us? People to kiss his feet, no less? No, Mubarak we won’t bend. The people will trample you in the end.”
One of the officers asked me sarcastically, pointing to the cordoned area with one hand and feeling my arm with the other: “Do you want to join them?”
I eyed him angrily, and yelled at him: “Are you feeling me up?”
He quickly removed his hand: “OK, no problem, please walk in.”
“I’m not coming in,” I answered defiantly.
I stood at a safe distance because I don’t like crowds and I don’t like shouting, nor do I like insulting chants or the stench of sweat of the riot police, who surrounded the demonstrators, pressing against them so that they remained on the pavement and didn’t take over the street.
In less than a few minutes, other groups of demonstrators began to appear. The riot police were somewhat at a loss. The different groups succeeded in joining each other; they were now in the hundreds. Some chanted: “We either get a decent life or we all fall in strife.”
I liked the chant so I started humming it to myself. The riot police closed off Shubra Street on both ends with road blocks. More riot police began to arrive; they stood side by side blocking off the street completely. I turned around and noticed an officer looking at his watch in exasperation. I smiled at him and said jokingly: “It’s still early. We just got started.”
“But we’ve been here since this morning.”
“Sorry about that, but this is your job!”
When the police officer saw that I wasn’t joining the demonstrators he said: “So, do you like what’s happening?”
“I actually don’t like demonstrations, but are you happy with your life?”
“No, I’m not. But do you believe that this is the solution?”
Friday of Deliverance
“Me too, I want my picture with you on the tank,” I said to Officer Maged, laughing hysterically.
“Wait a little, just wait a little until things get quieter. Take a look around you!”
Another raid of kisses and hugs by men, young and old, descended upon Officer Maged, who had come to be known as “the lion of the midan.” The soldiers laughed as they stood on their tanks bending over to grab little children in their arms posing for photos, bending over once again to deliver them back to their parents. Incredible that their arms were still functioning!
As I headed towards the Merit Publishing House I embraced everyone on the way, those I knew and those I didn’t know. Laughter, sweets, and cold drinks inundated the place. Joy, joy in all of Egypt, and possibly in the entire world that had certainly been watching our revolution.
I returned to Talaat Harb Street. The toktoks, our local version of rickshaws, made their way downtown loaded with passengers beyond their capacity, blasting with music. I laughed; the scene was quite unbelievable: toktoks in the heart of downtown Cairo; on Talaat Harb Street! The shabaabgathered in circles and started to dance. I walked back to Officer Maged.
“Come on, I want a photo with you.”
He laughed and asked the soldier to get a chair so I could climb up to the tank. He went ahead of me. I stood on the chair but the distance to the top of the tank remained difficult for me to climb.
“Give me your hand.”
Officer Maged grabbed one hand, and the soldier grabbed the other as I burst into a fit of laughter.
“OK, now, go!”
They pulled me up. I stood on top of the tank between them and felt proud. I gave my cell phone to one of the soldiers and showed him how to take a picture.
“How do I get down now? It looks pretty tough!”
“No worries, I’ll stand on the chair and bring you down.”
Officer Maged stood on the chair and I stood at the tip of the tank. He took my hand and pulled me toward him. We almost locked into an embrace. He began to apologize.
“I’m the one who should apologize.”
As soon as I landed safely on the ground I found young Emad waiting for me. He hugged me and congratulated me: “Congratulations to you and your martyred brother.”
Then he said: “Come and dance with me.”
“Over there,” pointing in the direction of a group dancing around the toktoks.
“Are these guys your crowd?”
“Yeah, they’re my relatives and friends.”
“And the toktoks?”
“Three of them belong to my relatives and the others belong to friends.”
“I can’t believe that they all came from Bulaq El-Dakrour in their toktoks!”
“Come on, let’s dance.”
I followed him to the circle. The shabaab began to cheer. I danced with Emad to music I had never heard before.
“What is this music? Where did you guys get this?”
“From Bulaq El-Dakrour!”
We laughed until our eyes watered. I was very happy for Emad.
I spotted a group of my friends, so I excused myself.
“Where are you guys going?”
“After Eight just opened!”
“OK, let’s go!”
We got to After Eight. Inside everybody was singing: “On my rabaaba I sing, live on Egypt.” Everybody was clapping and sharing drinks.
“Someone went to get a cassette player.”
We danced and sang until a friend came back with a big cassette player.
“Allahu Akbar! Great!”
We inserted a cassette and pushed the play button. We cheered and sang:
My life is pink
Pink, Pink, Pink, Pink
My life is pink with you by my side
I am by your side my love
And my love, you are by my side.”
The song ended.
We changed the lyrics:
My life is pink without you, Hosni
Without you Hosni, life is now pink
Pink, Pink, Pink.”
This article is translated from the Arabic by Samia Mehrez and excerpted from Ismi Thawra (My Name is Revolution) published by the author in Cairo in 2012.
Mona Prince is the author of novels and short stories, including Three Suitcases for Departure, The Last Piece of Clay, and So You May See. She is an associate professor of English at Suez Canal University. In 2012, she nominated herself for the Egyptian presidency, but failed to garner the 30,000 signatures required to appear on the ballot.
Samia Mehrez is the author of The Literary Life of Cairo, The Literary Atlas of Cairo, and Egypt’s Culture Wars: Politics and Practice, and editor, most recently, of Translating Egypt’s Revolution: The Language of Tahrir. She is the founding director of the Center for Translation Studies at the American University in Cairo, where she is a professor of Arabic literature in the Arab and Islamic Civilization department.