It’s 3pm. The call to prayer sounds from rooftop megaphones in Tahrir Square. The constant din of honking, motors, and shouting seems to slow, and if you pay attention, Cairo takes a breathe. The cacophony fades into the background, along with the exhaust fumes and the smell of garbage. Birds chirp on the lamp post, wind blows through the trees, a reminder that, yes, trees do grow in this city. While Cairo already has its own “city of the dead,” a massive burial ground for the Mameluk and Fatimid sultans of the past, it’s easy to forget that Cairo actually fosters life.
In three hours this place will become packed with people- fathers, mothers, students, revolutionaries, everyday citizens gathering and standing together to voice their mutual dissatisfaction with the current “religious” regime of the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Muslimin Iquan. Clashes with police and levels of brutality have been increasing this week, with January 25th occurring only six days prior, (the second anniversary of the revolution) and one year exactly since a nefarious act of state-incited violence that killed 74 youths at a football match on February 2nd, 2012.
With international news media reporting their nightly approximation of protester deaths and a detached recounting of the day’s events, the Egyptian Revolution, as it is, may be in danger of falling through the media cracks, victim to the ever-shrinking attention span of the common viewer, and overshadowed by ceaseless political drama in the United States.
Mahmoud Abdul Nasser, a young revolutionary and member of the politically charged Ultras Ahli, an infamous, hooligan-like football fan group-turned radically anti-establishment, has lived in Tahrir for three months. His friend, also Mahmoud, shows me a spent tear gas canister he collected the previous night. Revealing a golf ball-sized welt on his right leg, the canister in his hand was shot at him last night during the clashes, apparently from almost point blank range. He emphatically shows me the make of the empty gas canister, with three black letters printed neatly at its base: USA. He continues to tell me through our mutually broken languages that during this same clash he witnessed his friend be beaten to death by the police.
We sit in silence. I peel the small tangerines he generously offers me, and watch the people milling about the square. There are a surprising amount of women and children present. Vendors selling foul (beans,) pita, and tea from simple stations offer the bare necessities of the Egyptian diet: caffine, sugar, bread, and beans. Two years after the revolution and Tahrir is still in utter disarray, with cars broken down in the street, covered in graffiti like ivy and overgrowth. There is a general feeling of tempered chaos. Yet organically, humans manage to create some order out of total pandemonium, and life goes on, people drinking their tea from polished glasses served off the concrete. A sense of normalcy must persist, no matter how improvised, to keep people’s spirits from breaking.
Attempting to talk politics through our smattering of languages, we come to understand each other, both politically, and philosophically, as allies. Mahmoud expresses his profound hatred of the police, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and president Morsi. He tells me about clashing with the police, acts of senseless brutality he has witnessed, and his hopes for a better Egypt. But it cannot come without a fight, he says. I cannot muster a response, so I nod my head, lost amidst my thoughts and observations.
“Do you want to see?” Unsure of exactly what my new friends are proposing, I agree. Something sparks in his eye, and the two hastily gather the necessary and intimate items of a street revolutionary: cigarettes, bandana/face cover, and a gasmask. We walk down a street where rolls of squashed barbed wire lay in defeat, and broken chunks of concrete amass in piles near disheveled police barricades, now reclaimed with street art, stencils and graffiti. We go arm in arm, towards the Kasr al Nil bridge, where the revolution took a turn two years ago, and where police and protesters have now established an ongoing front. The energy rises as we move through this eerie space between the bridge and Tahrir- one of main arteries for both protesters flooding the square, and police trying to push them back. It has a sort of quietness to it that somehow lets you know danger is near. It is raw with ominousness energy, and people step quickly, like they are hurrying towards or away from something unseen.
“Do you know what this is for?” Mahmoud says, putting a heavy canvas glove on his right hand. I told him it’s for picking up gas canisters to throw back at the police. “Yes,” he says, with a cracked smile. Were we really about to go do this? Or rather, was I about to go do this, and risk the very real possibility of being arrested, gassed, or beaten by Egypt’s vicious and corrupt police force?
We turn the corner at the bridge, and about 300 feet down the road you can see the beginnings of the clashes that will undoubtedly escalate as the night goes on. “There! There it is!” We descend the gentle slope of the street, and walk into the crowd of young football shirts and black face masks. As we get closer, is see the dark mass of police, dressed in full riot gear, block the end of the street. “There!” A space of about fourty feet exists between the protester and the police, a no man’s land, a deadly space created when two groups engage in face to face combat (for reference please see World War I.) It is the ultimate liminal space, one of ordeal and transformation, with death or victory being the only true outcome. Protestors begin to rush into the empty space with arms wide, hurling rocks or taunting the police with gestures and shouts, viewing it as a sort of theater for resistance. The police view it as a kill zone.
“It’s easy! It’s easy!” Mahmoud says, casually offering the fully primed gas mask he has been kind enough to bring for me. I refuse to wear it, certain that it will signal a desire to engage at a much closer distance than I want, both to Mahmoud, and to the police. At this moment I wonder about the sanity of my impromptu guides, trying to gauge how much basic self-preservation factors into their thinking. We lock arms, and he leads me, smiling, into the fray.
Amidst the mass of protesters, I can see the faceless wall of riot police less than half a block away. There energy is extremely high, and on edge, with protesters escalating their chanting and some running into the no-man’s-land, waving their arms in provocation. I see a young protester being dragged out of the crowd, unconscious from inhaling the gas.
This is a tenuous stalemate, and despite the momentary lull in full conflict, I know things can turn at any moment. A sudden rush of protesters and the police immediately will react, their brutality having now increased to the point of lethal force. They don’t shoot the gas canisters near you. They shoot them at you. And if you are too close for their liking they’ll beat the living shit out of you, to the point of hospitalization or even death. Pretty standard. My being the only blonde, blue-eyed foreigner there was something I chose to ignore. I couldn’t afford to be preoccupied with this obvious fact, for being in an environment like this demands all of your awareness.
I am overwhelmed, and transfixed by the energy, the sounds of whistles and horns blown by the mass adding to the atmosphere of confusion and intensity. My mind wanders. Then- POP! POP! POP! Instantly I join the hundreds of bodies running, without a thought adrenaline immediately flooding my blood. My heart pounds as the firing of tear gas grenades disperses the mob of people, and instilling fear in the crowd. Everyone runs, though I see mostly youths, fleeing with a mixture of fear and glee that confounds me. My two guides manage to catch up to me. I had no qualms about running, leaving them to survive on their own.
“It’s a game!” Mahmoud tells me, trying to calm me down with a crazed smile that does just the opposite. The crowd runs, with a genuine desire of survival it seems, only to come right back to the frontline, in range of the gas. People blow plastic trumpets like at a football match, and wave flags. The mobile food vendors re-establish their stations, relocating maybe thirty feet. A man in a black face-mask casually buys a cup of tea and some bread, with a line of riot police and tear gas half a block away.
More people descend into the mass, carrying bottles of vinegar to help combat the effects of the gas. I find a high point, providing both safe elevation from the mob, and a view of the scene. To Mahmoud, the gas is no problem. “I like it. You smell it, and then it is over. It makes me… umph. It gives me strength.” “You like the gas?!” I ask him. “Yes! It makes me crazy!” “Good crazy?” “Good crazy.”
“Come! Come! You must see! It’s easy!” But at this point I feel like I have risked enough, having absolutely no desire to rejoin the mass of protesters, and running from the inevitable second round of tear gas soon to come. If it were not for me, these two would most likely be at the front of the line. This is nothing new for them. I realize at this moment familiarity that Mahmoud and his friend have with looking death in the face, the very real possibility of going out one night to face the police, and not returning. I realize that not only do they accept this as a part of their life, but they smile at it. They live for the rush of it all. What else did they have to live for?
We return to the bridge, now flooded with people coming to protest in the square, as 5 o’clock nears. The number of people have increased exponentially, with groups chanting angrily against president Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. “They are saying, ‘Morsi is a bitch. A big bitch!” We return to Tahrir proper, unbelievably a welcome respite from the din we had just emerged from.
Mahmoud shows me the memorial that has been constructed at the center of the square, a space filled with writings and pictures of the young martyrs, those who died in the revolution two years ago, and continue to die up until now. Some pictures show people with half their faces missing, blown apart by police weaponry. There are portraits of young boys with innocent smiles, and intellectual-looking university students, passionate for change. Even pious, bearded Sheikhs, famous spiritual leaders who advocated for peaceful change were lost in the revolution, their smiling faces now immortalized in political street art and social campaigns.
These are not figures on a nightly news report, devoid of a face, name or story. These every day people- mostly youth- who lost their lives because they believed a better Egypt, if not a better world, was worth fighting for. A woman solemnly posts a piece of writing on the plastic makeshift wall. Mahmoud formally greets her, warmly exchanging words, with the unsaid understanding that they both are in this fight together. She looks at me and smiles.
I left Mahmoud, my 21 year-old friend, with 100 Egyptian pounds- about $15, telling him to share it with his friends. I wondered what would be his fate, if he would be safe in the night’s clashes, bearing witness to more incidents of brutality and fear tactics. I wondered if he could one day be the nameless body-turned number, a faceless figure reported in the international news. I wondered if he would ever take down his tent and end this vague and violent struggle, fueled by a passion to live in an Egypt free of corruption and religious imposition. I wondered if today would be his last day alive.
I wont go back to check on him tomorrow in his soggy tent, talking to his friends in my broken Arabic to ascertain his fate. It hardly matters if I go back tomorrow, or next week, or next year, because I know that he is going to be there, smoking and eating oranges, in Tahrir.