Tahrir Square on February 1, 2011. (Photo: Zadokite)
“Gratitude. And a prayer for the martyrs.”
– Facebook status, February 11th 2011
A prayer for the martyrs is also to remember: The problem was not the events, but what happened. There are things about what happened which cannot be told it seems, some which cannot be told in writing, and there are some things which we don’t want to tell, maybe. We’re jealous over them, we do not understand them, and to be truthful, they are not important to anyone else. But of the things we tell, it is important to remember that the problem was not the events.
The morning before, on Tuesday, February 1, Tahrir had the translucent quality of a vision. We walked past the remains like old dinosaurs of the security trucks burned and overturned on the main wide boulevard of Qasr il Aini, the burned remains of the National Democratic Party buildings like the remnants of some past empire, and then, for days after, M. and I pointed to the sinister scorched segments of the road, and traced together the trajectories of bullets through lamposts and phone booths.
“The battle of Qasr il Nil bridge,” he called it, and chuckled in embarrasment, as he told me the story and what he had done. Someone later said, I do not remember if it was a friend or a stranger, with less self-derision and as much pleasure:
“After breaking through the lines of the Security Forces, you found yourself in Tahrir, and you took a deep breath, stretched your arms as wide as they would go, and thought: Our country!”
I wondered if Tahrir was translucent because of that fight. That is, I thought that I, or the people who had fought, or the thought of the fight, was making Tahrir glow, the way they say in the poems sometimes about people who are in love. But after we passed the army checkpoints, and after we had seen friends we had not seen for many years, or who had returned from their lives overseas to be here if only for a moment, and as I lay down in the grass and looked up at the sky I knew suddenly why.
It was the pollution. For thirty years there had been smoke and poison over the square where we went to university, in layers over the buildings, and the trees breathed it and it dulled their colour. It came from the cars, from the factories all over the country, the cigarettes even, from the burning of rice straw and garbage. It came, really- we can admit it now- from us. And now it had stopped. It was the first time in my life that I had seen the sky over Tahrir blue, and the rain washed the buildings clean and the trees, breathing clean air, sparkled as though wet with dew, although I knew it was past noon, and too late for dew. “It seems like justice makes for a clear blue sky,” I joked later to a friend. The air was so fine it shimmered whenever chanting began.
It was a frighteningly fragile thing. There were too many of us, you see. We were all there, the rich of us, the poor of us, the poorest and the ones in between. The ones with beards and the ones without, the old of us and the young, those who thought we would make it and those of us who thought we would never leave that square. Even the attention of those of us who couldn’t make it back yet was there, and the attention of those, we heard, who had never been here or who had visited us once and had fond memories.
We had no idea what to do. There was a sign at the checkpoint made by the protesters. It said: So that we don’t allow foreign agents among us. It was a familiar and sinister phrase in a security state, but when I asked the protester who checked my ID card why he looked at the back and didn’t even glance at my picture he said, “I just need to know your occupation.” And when I asked him why again, his answer made me laugh out loud, because I realised what the sign meant in this case: He said, “To make sure you’re not a cop.” As he searched me for weapons, he apologised. “Forgive me,” he said. So there we were in Tahrir, without the police, and without government, asking each other for forgiveness, and hemmed in by tanks.
Over the next days, we walked a line so fine, we never knew when we had lost it, or when we were on it. A. told me that when he was resting his head, exhausted, on his girlfriends shoulder, in Tahrir square, in the centre of Cairo, a young man probably from the Muslim Brotherhood walked up to the girl and said politely, “Miss. Is this guy bothering you?” And when she answered no, he said said with dignity, “In that case, excuse me,” and walked away, content. For the first time in years, women walked around without fear of being harrassed on the streets branching out from the square.
A man sat down next to me and began to speak: “I didn’t come to protest, I came to look for my brother. I have a wife and kids and couldn’t afford to protest. But my brother did and so I came to look for him. I went into that public toilet though, you know that disgusting one in the square, the one they never clean? There is a man there of so high and respectable a position, God knows best what his position is. I think he is a Professor at the university. He was on his hands and knees cleaning the toilet. It’s clean now. And somebody left a bar of soap there, you know, the kind that if you buy it for the mosque, you come back an hour later and someone has stolen it? There was a bottle of shampoo too, so you could wash your face. When I came out of the toilet, someone was there with a bottle of perfume and he gave me some. I think I’ll stay.”
Over the next several days, something happened in the square. We all knew exactly what it was, but we did not have a name for it. I think maybe it has no name. The newspapers, the television, some actors, one or two university professors and some other people, had many names for it. They knew what it was too but the names they used were wrong, so we won’t use them here. All that can be said is that it was a feeling that reminded one of something M. said to me later: what happens when two drops of water come closer, closer, closer and then, what happens after the quivering surface of one touches the quivering surface of the other.
Whatever it was, it meant that we spoke to each other the way we always wanted to speak to each other, softly, as if we were more important than what was being said; that a man came at one point and said he was a dentist, and did anyone need work done on their teeth; another three men, barbers, came and, just because they thought it would be uncomfortable to not shave for so long gave who ever wanted one, a shave and a haircut free of charge; and the man who sold koshary saw that this is all we were eating and sold it to us at what must have been the price it cost him to make it. Anything could have killed it, because it was like music, it had to be perfect or it became noise. The majestic anger, which could only be grown in the soil of thirty years of patience could have spilled into hate. The joyful humour could have slipped as it had for years, into a cynical defeatism. Even the heroism of the people of Suez, and willful militancy of the people of Mahalla, could have blazed into a violence which could not be stemmed. As I watched we walked by and gave greetings and flowers to the military, and they gave us back tired laughter. We sat in Tahrir square, and sometimes I found I was holding my breath.
What happened was, they tried to kill it. They prepared it carefully, the night before, that Tuesday night, at eleven in the evening, when the people in Tahrir were tired, and the several million Egyptians who had been there that morning had gone home, and the US administration had had a good night’s rest and was wide awake and listening. M. and I were on our way back home to our flat three streets away from the square. We had gone to drop off some friends further down the road and on our way back saw him speaking on the television in a small cafe. He seemed suddenly for all the world just as he was, an old man, who used too much henna on his hair to hide the grey, and too much wealth had tired his flesh and too much power for too long had given him an air of solitude and a hardness and a cunning which he was too old to hide and of which he was too arrogant to be ashamed.
He said we were foreigners, and later he would say that we were paid by them. He said we did not have care for Egypt. He said he was talking to the peasants, labourers, muslims, christians, the young, the old, the city dwellers and the country folk. We didn’t know who he was talking to, we thought that was us. He said he had never, ever been interested in power. He referred to himself in the third person. And then he said he was an old man, and all he wanted to do was to die on this land and be buried in it. The next morning, Tahrir square had the translucent quality of a hallucination.
We’re not the KFC type
They came very quickly. A friend had footage on his mobile phone of the speed of the escalation of the events, as they began to enter Champollion street into the square. The log says 12:53 p.m. The funny thing is, M. told me it was three o’clock when it began, and that is also what I think. Still, the facts remain I suppose. Perhaps, after all, that it only seemed later in the afternoon because the light took on that trembling quality which it seems to take when one is weakened by fever. As it began, I saw a young man, who had fallen to the ground facing the centre of the garden at the middle of the square, forehead pressed to the grass.
The frontline of the clash was to my left in the direction of the Egyptian Museum and Abdal Monim Riad square, but only fifty metres away. There were tears in my eyes. I was crying because of the agitation of the air caused by the violence, and because I knew that he had done it, and he had done it only because of his pride. I was crying because the people who were coming were us, and the people who were fighting them off were us, and we were watching, and we didn’t know what to do.
All around me, men and women were crying, some were fighting, and some were looking around them as though hypnotised.
On my right, there was a group of men yelling into the television cameras, “We will not get angry!” Over and over and over again. I think I was also crying because it seemed to me to be a thing infinitely pitiable that a man should shout with all his might, and with such desperation, simply to try for the dignity of not being reduced to anger. They knew, as did I, that what we were seeing was what had been happening in this country for thirty years. A malignant will had exerted itself in our direction, had coldly set us against each other, and we were stunned I think, by how we could have thought for so long that we hated ourselves, when we had shown such mercy to one another in the past week. It was like returning to sleep, and finding you had slipped and fallen back, into the same nightmare. In my memory there is M.’s voice, with prophetic clarity, close by: “It is as if all that has happened for the past week, never happened.” I have no image, but only an awareness of an intention: to make it to the boy with his head prostrated to the floor at the very centre of the square.
As I walked I said to everyone I passed, and many of them said to me in confusion: I will not fight these people, these people don’t understand anything. I felt a deep sense of shame, and that I had to get to the boy with his forehead pressed to the ground, and when I did I went down on my knees. He looked so still, but when I lay my hand, as gently as I could, on his back I could feel him tremble. His whole body was humming with grief. And he was making a frightening prayer: “God. Destroy them. Separate their unity. Cause them to stumble. Take them back to you. Quake the earth beneath them. Take them back to you. Burn them. Burn them. Burn them. Take them back to you.” And then, a tender prayer, but more frightening: “Do not punish them for the sins I have committed, do not curse them for the evils I have committed. Take me and leave them. God! Take me and let them be. Take me. Take me. Take me.” I became afraid for him and gripped him by the neck. “Do not say that,” I said to him angrily. “It’s a sin to call these things on yourself.” He held utterly still, but his hands, which had been turned up to the sky, gripped the grass until they became white.
And then the strangest thing happened. Out of the violence, which kept increasing in intensity and had moved some distance towards the Museum at the end of the road, came a ripple, and a light rhythmic tapping like on the darbuka drum which accompanies dancing and then, breaking through the crowd surrounded by ecstatic faces, came a white horse. It tossed its mane, and made as if to turn, and then pushed forward into the centre of the square where it was calmest. I walked towards where the horse had come from and a man passed by me, turned, looked me in the eye and said in disbelief: “They sent slavemasters. Slavemasters.”
What they had done was: send hired thugs, and regular egyptians who were afraid for their livelihood, which he had cut off by refusing to leave, and for their safety, which he had threatened by sending policemen and thieves and murderers to their homes. He sent with them police officers and security forces dressed in civilian clothing, to incite and direct them. He sent them into the square on several horses, and a camel, carrying whips and swords and sticks, to kill us. We found out later that they weren’t even paid more than they usually were to intimidate voters, or beat activists. Five hundred Egyptian pounds and a KFC meal, in Cairo. Two hundred in the provinces, where life was less expensive. I don’t know whether KFC was included in the provinces. The insulting high handedness, the casual contempt, the sheer feudalism of the thing, transformed the square as that horse trotted through it.
The strange thing about that horse is this: When it came through the crowd it looked tired and afraid, and it did not know which direction was home. But the farther away in time I move away from it, the clearer a memory I have of it, breaking through that crowd, neighing, fierce, joyful and, above all, proud.
My memory only begins again when I am standing in the ranks next to the Mugamma building, M. and S. standing on either side of me, and K. and W. behind me, waiting for them to come. I had that calm that can only come after there is no more crying. When I looked behind me at the centre of the square I saw the horse they had come in on to shoo us or slaughter us like sheep. After we had taken the thug off it and brought it into the square, there was now sitting astride it a little girl, in a bright red dress, and hand raised in the air. She was shouting at the top of her voice, but she didn’t look angry. She was surrounded by men and women, laughing and shouting behind her. I had a strange feeling, but it felt correct. I turned my back to it.
I yelled out to the young man who was holding our line: “Hey! Are you gonna give us our KFC or what?” The men behind me laughed, and I smiled. He was young, younger than I was and young enough to be the son of most of the men there. He was thin, and carried a school backpack. I don’t remember if he wore spectacles, but he had that look of a student of history, and was at the same time affable and forbidding. He gave me a look intimate and challenging, as though we had known each other for a very long time: “We’re not the KFC type,” he said, with a mocking smile, “We’re the fighters.”
This is the first of a two-part post on the events of February 2, 2011 in Tahrir Square.