Memories of an Egyptian Revolutionary

On March 5, 2014 I am due to give a talk in Barcelona to mark International Women’s Day. The talk is titled, “Arab Spring or Desolate Arab Winter?” It continues to be very difficult for me to prepare for this talk, as it involves delving into my experiences of those fateful 18 days and the events of the three years that followed. Finding the ability to sit down and face the demons of Egypt’s recent history – and my own –  has proven to be difficult. Images keep coming back to me of things that happened to me and others while in Tahrir. And it reminded me of a blog post I wrote little over one month following the Revolution. I repost it today as a reminder of memories that can never be erased.

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It’s been very hard for me to even consider writing lately. When I write, I share my soul. And my soul is dark these days.

This man's image is forever etched into my memory along with many others. It is horrible not knowing whether he and so many others I saw fall survived.

This man’s image is forever etched into my memory along with many others. It is horrible not knowing whether he and so many others I saw fall survived.

Egypt – and Egyptians with it – has witnessed since the start of 2011 some of its most difficult and its most triumphant days. Within a period of less than three months we have experienced the full range of human emotion in its utmost intensity: curiosity, wonder, hope, fear, desperation, anger, absolute loss of fear, grieving, resolve, steadfastness, and more hope, fear, desperation, anger, loss of fear and grieving. Festiveness, light-headedness. Looking death in the face and accepting it should it come to take us. Hope, indignation, anger. And boom! Triumph! Then exhaustion. The most intense exhaustion one can imagine. Mental and physical. And a return of grieving. Followed by hope. Then confusion. A continuous unrelenting state of confusion. But always, ALWAYS, there is hope.

In my head, images from the past two-and-a-half months go round and round and round. I keep them in this state of constant motion. This way they are only a blur. But every once in awhile, an image will jump away from the blurry mass and bam! A jolt of intense memory electrifies me. These runaway images are more likely to jolt me if I’m watching television and actual images of the revolution are shown. Early on, I learned to shut my eyes as tight as they can be shut when such images go by on the television screen or to change the channel altogether.

Memories of a revolution – a revolution hardly over and just beginning. Memories I need to document, to share, to lighten my soul. They are way too many to list. They are in too much of a jumble to put in any sort of chronological order. No matter how painful some of them are, they are all dearly cherished and have come to be a part of me and of who I am.

So in no particular order – other than the order they desire for themselves as they jump out of the moving blur only to jump right back in again – are my memories of a revolution:

Leaving my dad’s house with my best friend Arwa Salah on Tuesday, January 25. We were making fun of a group of our girlfriends who were taking the proposed January 25 protests way too seriously – we felt.  Those girlfriends had started a girls-only Facebook group a few days before to give advice to each other about how to handle oneself during a protest: what do you bring with you, what do you wear, how do you protect yourself in case you are attacked. Arwa and I spent at least two hours gossiping about our friends and how serious they were taking it all. “They think they will change the face of Egypt,” Arwa joked and I laughed in return. “They’ve never been to a demonstration in Egypt before. They have no understanding of how these things go,” I said superiorly, having had been to – and even led – countless demonstrations since my university years. Arwa and I decided two days before to separate from the larger group. We weren’t up to dealing with inexperienced, over-excited little girls.

BAM!

My phone rings in the early afternoon of January 25. Arwa and I had been marching for the past two hours in the largest most amazing protests we had experienced in our lives.  We were both in a state of awe and utter excitement. Ahmad Mustafa, one of my diving buddies, tells me that he was picked up by the police together with the large group of girls Arwa and I were joking about earlier. My sister was among them. They had all met up in Cilantro. Part of our mockery revolved around this posh group of women who start their protests in an expensive coffee shop. It seems some of them had taken out large cardboard sheets and were writing out anti-government slogans. The police rounded them all up and put them in a police truck only to dump them many kilometers away in another neighborhood in Cairo where protests were not expected. The media reports “Muslim Brotherhood arrested by police in Cilantro”. Not a single member of that group was Muslim Brotherhood.

BAM!

Friday, January 28, Arwa and I discover that we are at the frontlines on Qasr El-Nil Bridge and the only thing that separates us from the State Security is about three small lines of protesters. It’s dark. We could see the tell-tale white smoke of tear gas just ahead of us. We could hear the constant eerie noises of the State Security truck sirens meshed in with unrelenting gunfire. Since day one, we went everywhere with my arm hooked into hers or vice versa so we would not separate among the masses never to be able to find each other again. Suddenly, the three lines of protesters ahead of us dissipate and I catch a glimpse of riot police only a few meters ahead, lined up one next to the other, guns pointed upwards. A canister of tear gas falls right in front of me and Arwa. We turn back and find a second just behind us emitting an acidic cloud of smoke. Arwa and I experience two seconds of utter confusion. We’re on a bridge. There is nowhere to run except forwards or backwards. Sideways would mean a drop into the dark waters of the Nile to a sure death. Already our faces are covered with scarves to protect as best as possible from the gas. Arwa seems to yell, “RUN!” I run away from the police and through the horrid cloud of gas forming behind us. As I run, I need to take deeper breaths, but I can’t because that means breathing in the tear gas. When I do breathe, it feels like acid is being poured down my throat. When I hold my breath as I run, I almost black out and faint. I continue on, my heart pounding. Arwa is holding onto my backpack with one hand and onto my neck with the other. I have no breath to tell her she’s choking me. There is no time to raise my hand to hold hers away from my neck. And my mind is completely aware that she is suffering behind me and she can do nothing about it. I fear she might fall so I continue forward, pulling us away from the smoke.

BAM!

We’re out of the smoke on Qasr El-Nil Bridge, forcing ourselves to breathe in gas-free air. Our throats and lungs ache. I am bent over, hands on knees, spit drooling out of my mouth. I hear Arwa saying, “I’m going to die, Nadia. I’m going to die.” I look up and catch the eye of Muhammed Ghafari, a young journalist friend of mine who has climbed Mt St Katherine with me many times. He looks tenderly at me and says, “Ma3lish,” (roughly translated to: it will be all right). I shake my head, a gesture meant to express “I can’t believe what’s happening.” I lose sight of Muhammed and a man with a bottle of Pepsi offers it to me and Arwa to clean the tear gas from our faces; advice given to us by the Tunisian protesters only days before. We take it, gratefully.

BAM!

Tuesday, January 25, a small number of protesters stands in front of the Arab League building and Qasr El-Nil Bridge. The police are not preventing them from moving around freely. For the first time in my memory, protesters begin crossing Qasr El-Nil Bridge from Tahrir into Zamalek. I stand facing the protesters as they march onwards, filming them with my video camera. Ahmed Ragab, a journalist friend of mine who shared a previous – much smaller – protest with me a few months earlier, passes by, sees me, gives me a small wave with a smile on his face and a shimmer in his eyes, and marches onwards, his arms hooked into the arms of two other protesters, chanting something along with everyone else.

BAM!

Tuesday, January 25, around 5pm. Tahrir has been transformed into a war zone. I sneak up along the walls of the large government building in the square to reach the front lines between protesters and police. Rocks have been going back and forth between the two. Countless protesters yell: “Peaceful! Peaceful! No rocks! No rocks!” A water canon is turned against protesters and the whole area gets very wet. Protesters and police run towards me into Tahrir, the latter running after the former. Both pass by me and urge me to move into the square towards safety. I stand my ground. Only minutes afterwards, protesters run back after the police, passing by me once again in the opposite direction. Soon, I see a protester standing on top of a fire truck parked at the entrance of Qasr El-Eini Street to the square. He waves the Egyptian flag triumphantly. Protesters gather around the truck and cheer. About five more protesters join him on top of the truck and dance and chant. The protesters are jubilant, as if they’ve achieved a minor victory. But soon, the police attack again and we all run for cover.

BAM!

Saturday, January 29, Muhammed Ghafari and I have met in the square. Arwa wasn’t with me that day and I didn’t want to be alone. Muhammed and I hear that fighting is going on near the Ministry of Interior just off Tahrir Square. It is the last stronghold of Egyptian police. The protesters want to bring it down. I’m filming on a pick-up truck belonging to the police that was burnt by protesters the night before. Gun shots. Muhammed pulls me down and ducks.

BAM!

I’m running from gun fire. I get stung in my leg by two metal pellets. I’m far enough away though that they don’t leave a mark. Tear gas. The horrid acidic tear gas. I can’t breathe. God I’d rather face gun fire than that horrid tear gas.

BAM!

Muhammed Ghafari and I sit on a corner in front of the American University in Cairo very close to the fighting at the Ministry of Interior on Saturday, January 29 catching our breaths. We’ve been running back and forth for at least a couple of hours and we’re tired. Gun fire again. Muhammed yells at me, “Cover your face!” Metal pellets whiz by every which way. I turn towards him and smile endearingly, “Are you really yelling at me, Muhammed?”

BAM!

People falling. People keep falling. The fighting at the Ministry of Interior is intense. With every round of gun fire several men fall and are rushed away, carried always by several other men. Some of those carried away are limp, eyes shut, lifeless. Those men will haunt me forever. I don’t know if they lived or died that day. How can I find out? Oh God, please keep them alive and protect them and their families. Oh God, please send me word of how they got along. When I think of that day, when I think of those men, one image stands out in particular. A man in his late twenties or early thirties, red jacket, mustache and receding hair line. Carried by four men. His left arm is sprayed at an odd angle over the arms of the men carrying him. Eyes closed. What happened to him? God, what happened to him?

BAM!

Friday, February 11 I’m standing in front of the Presidential Palace just after the noon prayers. A small group of protesters have gathered. A young woman in overalls is leading the chants. A strand of hair has escaped her pony tail and gently touches her face. Her face, though, is full of anger and resolve. “The people…demand…the toppling of the regime!”

BAM!

Tuesday, January 25, just before the noon prayers. Arwa and I are sitting in a small sandwich place, Momen. We’re joined by Adel Abdel-Ghafar, an Egyptian adventurer who climbed Kilimanjaro with Arwa a few short months earlier. I had heard much about him but this was the first time for me to meet him. We immediately feel a sense of brotherhood. We talk at the table and have a few laughs. Nothing seems to be happening in Shobra. We were expecting Shobra to be where the action takes place – if it ever did. The Coptic Christians had been expressing anger over the past three weeks since a church was bombed in Alexandria and the building of a religious complex was stopped in Giza. We wanted to be where the action was and to support our Christian brethren. Police and police cars were everywhere, but protesters were nowhere to be seen. Adel gets a call from a friend. Go to Tahrir, he’s told. The action is in Tahrir.

BAM!

The morning of Saturday, January 29. Having spent a few days at my dad’s house, I decide to go home to get some clothes and things. The taxi moves through Pyramids Road. Army tanks line the road every 200 meters. The main government building at the beginning of the street is partially destroyed. Several night clubs down the road are completely burnt. Police trucks are completely torched in several areas. What happened in Pyramids Road last night?

BAM!

I’m sleeping in my own home, in my own bed, alone. I hear a round of automatic gun fire. It’s very loud. It’s very close. Instinctively, I wake from my sleep and duck. I realize it’s futile to concern myself now with what is happening in the street below. There is not much I can do. I need to sleep. Tomorrow will be a long day. I immediately fall back into a fuzzy sleep.

BAM!

A morning at my dad’s house. Many mornings. Every morning. My heart is heavy. Some friends gather at my dad’s house, which is only 25 minutes walking distance from Tahrir. I feel like I’m leaving the house to face my death. I’m almost certain I will not return home today. My dad stands, his gray hair and his gray beard lighting his tanned Egyptian face. “Go out and remove that dictator,” he tells us, as his only two daughters shut the door behind them.

BAM!

Thursday, February 10. It’s night. Sometime around 10pm. My friends and I have gathered in Tahrir. We have all heard the rumors. The president is going to resign. We are singing. We are chanting. We are jubilant. We stand on an elevated ventilation duct near the main stand set up by protesters in the square. We all have our flags. The flags are swaying beautifully back and forth and back and forth. Arwa and I vow to belly dance in public if Mubarak resigns tonight. Adel buys me a new flag after the stick in my original one falls down the ventilation duct when our friend Kamal Saleh – a diving buddy – holds it for awhile. Arwa crouches down on the ventilation duct and I cover her with my body so she can hear the BBC on the phone as she’s being interviewed by them on live TV. Mohammed Yahia and his wife Ola, their friend Ahmed, my diving buddy Ahmad Mustafa, all excited. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Mubarak appears on the big screen set up behind the man stage. Expectant. Hopeful. Is this it? The sound doesn’t reach us so everyone around us asks relatives at home to put the phones up to the TV sets so we can hear the president’s statement through the phone. Arwa and I try to hear through Ahmad Mustafa’s phone. We get bits and pieces. It’s not good. He plans to stay. I yell out in frustration, “Hasbi Allah wa ni’m alwakeel!” Sufficient unto me is God! Arwa repeats the chant. People still trying to listen to the rest of the presidential statement shush us. We are ready to cry with rage. And suddenly, someone in the square ahead of us raises a shoe. Then another. Then another. Quickly, every man, woman and child standing in the square holds up a shoe as a sign of indignation. “This is priceless!” I exclaim to Arwa. “Look at that! It’s just priceless!”

BAM!

Friday, February 11. I’ve just prayed the sunset prayer on the lawn in front of the Presidential Palace. I hear that there will be a presidential statement soon. I call my father and ask him to call me and put the phone next to the TV when it starts. A soldier climbs onto the top of the army tank he occupies and puts up the Egyptian flag. What does that mean?? I ask anyone who is hearing me. What does that mean?? A man behind me gives some ludicrous conspiracy explanation of what it means for a soldier to erect a flag at this particular angle. I watch with awe. Minutes later, the phone rings. It’s my sister. The crowd begins to roar. I can’t hear my sister on the other end of the phone. What did you say?? Meaningless jabber comes through from the other end. Aisha, what did you say?? The crowd’s roar is almost deafening. Then: “Aisha, did you say that the president has resigned??” I can barely believe my ears. I look up at the crowds. Arwa suddenly emerges from the middle of the crowd, taking her phone away from her ear. Her arms are open. Her face is writhing with disbelief and astonishment.  “He resigned, Nadia! He resigned!” I jump down from my perch where I was watching the crowds. Arwa and I hug and cry our hearts out. “This is for the martyrs,” we tell each other. “This is for the martyrs.” We emit the celebratory sound like a proper Egyptian woman does to express sheer joy, “loleeloleeloleeloleelooooo.” I hug the women standing next to me, one a woman I had met a couple of hours earlier and the other a complete stranger. I can’t stop the tears from running down my face. I don’t want to stop the tears. The people in front of me are jumping up and down, cheering, waving their flags, and then there’s a rush. “Off to Tahrir!” someone exclaims. Arwa and I start a final pilgrimage to Tahrir Square.

BAM!

Saturday, February 12. I wake up at 6 am in the morning to pray the dawn prayer. I go back to bed. I cry. I spend half an hour crying for those who died over the past few days for Egypt to be a free country. “We honored your deaths,” I say to them as their images go through my head.

BAM!

Saturday, February 12. I wake up around 10 am in the morning. It suddenly hits me. Damn! I was shot at! I was tear gassed! I slept through nights where gun fire was my lullaby! What craziness have I just woke up from??

BAM!

A few days later I’m in the United States attending a conference. I was scheduled to speak a few times about a conference we were organizing in Cairo for June 2011. We were not sure whether we’d be able to hold the conference still given the circumstances. I was not sure what I should say when I took the microphone. I had my Egyptian flag. My flag from Tahrir. I stood in front of the audience. “I hail from Egypt,” I exclaim with a sincerely happy smile on my face. I wave my flag. The audience of journalists erupts in applause. I find myself bowing in appreciation. I tell the story of Egypt. Tears run down my face. I hear sniffles in the crowd. I end my story. The crowd erupts again in applause, an applause that doesn’t end. Wilson da Silva, an Australian journalist and a good friend, is crying and wiping the tears off his face. He is looking at me and shaking his head. Pride, I think, is what I read on his face. I shake my head back in amazement. For the next hour, people line up to talk to me. Some to hug me. Some to take their picture with me with the Egyptian flag waving victoriously.

BAM!

It’s a new Egypt. But our journey is far from over. Rumors abound. Anger remains. Vigilance is the game of the day. Thuggery continues. Corruption charges are filed against almost every single minister that worked in the previous two governments. The constitution is being amended. Egyptians stay up late at night watching talk shows that attempt to explain what the amendments mean. What is the next step we need to take to save our country? There is no clear answer. But we already knew there was no clear answer when we began this journey. We needed to start with a clean slate. The slate is not yet clean enough for most of us to be able to start. Turns out, there’s more cleaning to do than we might have anticipated. We’ll do the cleaning. We can do the cleaning. But we’re also oh so tired. We also just want to go on living, loving, singing, dancing. Hope. We live on hope amongst the confusion of it all, amongst the frustration of it all, amongst the continuing danger of it all. We live on hope.

The original post was published on March 15, 2011 here https://nadiaelawady.wordpress.com/2011/03/15/memories-of-an-egyptian-revolutionary/

3 comments

  1. You are an inspiration. I hope historians happen upon your words in fifty years.
    There is something tragic about those who saw ‘it’ coming, were pre-prepared, and knew either element of supremacy on both sides, MB and Army, would not give up their power without using the population as a human shield. And something tragic about the imagioned division between those who refused to become human shields and ultimately died for their own freedom, and those who accepted the manufactured martyrdom of the role of human shield allocated to the by military and poltical (by that I include politically religious) elites.

    What is even more tragic is that no one does, or can, understand what you have been through. The media, from Iran to the US, reporting on the space you inhabit has turned commentary and strategic empathy into a Picasso-like surrealist Guernica, there being nothing more inhuman that political moral relativism. So thank you for trying to transmit these memories, even if the process is painful, because your words are transnational here and are the beginning of an understanding not bounded by borders.

  2. Awesome Nadia, this predates my following you (which makes Mr sound like a stalker!) so I had no idea what you had been through. It explains so much of what you are feeling now. Hope Barcelona goes well.

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