Into the Trenches

That Black Wednesday [Notes from the 18 days of Tahrir]

Tahrir looked like a battlefield. Men on horseback and camels with whips and swords, later labeled by media and activists as “state-sponsored thugs,” charged at an unarmed crowd. It was as brutal as it was “medieval,” and its aggressiveness was in direct proportion to its surreality — at least for those who were caught up in the violent fighting that ensued that afternoon.

Egypt's Battle of the Camel
Egypt’s Battle of the Camel

The events of February 2, what protesters came to call Black Wednesday, came less than 24 hours after then-President Hosni Mubarak’s emotionally charged speech in which he conceded to some of the Tahrir demands. Just before midnight on February 1, Mubarak, in an almost imploring tone, called upon Egyptians to remember his “accomplishments” and the fact that he was a celebrated war veteran, and promised reforms in addition to not running another term. He would stay in his post until the autumn elections, however, to oversee the reforms.

Many sympathized and a rift opened in public opinion on whether or not protesters should stay in the square.

That Tuesday night, rather ominous signs of the split could be felt in the square. People listened to Mubarak’s speech before midnight and a certain uneasiness followed. Numbers dwindled. Some left the square convinced that they should come back, while others were plagued with a sense of uncertainty about whether to be patient for another six months. To sit in Tahrir or not to sit was the question —the confusion there was echoed in households across Egypt.

Ayman Mohyideen, Al Jazeera English’s Cairo bureau chief and lead correspondent, said that he had noticed a “different attitude” on the square as he was leaving on Tuesday night, following the president’s speech. “Just the atmosphere. The rumors started to circulate that pro-Mubarak supporters were going to come to Liberation Square,” he said. “Even the military took a different posture. They became a little bit on the defense. You [could] feel it in the air.”

That night, Egypt Today spoke to people who said they were tipped off by relatives in the police force that the scene would get violent and that “thugs” would start heading to Tahrir after midnight. Mohyideen himself left the square after hearing from protesters and fellow journalists that there were “troublemakers” out looking for him by name; the next day, after the violence broke out, people came to his hotel, chanting against Al Jazeera.

As Mohyideen and his TV crew were walking out of the square from the eastern exit, near the Egyptian Museum, they saw “like a hundred people on motorcycles, pro-Mubarak supporters with sticks, coming down and circling around, in a mob style atmosphere, chanting ‘He won’t leave.’”

“They were all young men, all on motorcycles, with flags, with pictures of Mubarak and sticks,” Mohyideen says. “It became very suspicious. It was a kind of coordinated and orchestrated mob reaction, which I’ve seen in elections. It had all the hallmarks of some kind of concentrated effort by these people.”

Similar mobs were seen in neighborhoods near Tahrir, marching toward the square. Nour Ayman, a protester in his early twenties, says that the sight was concerning, but not realizing how events would unfold he put his faith in the army, which remained neutral for the most part.

“I thought to myself, the army wouldn’t let anything bad happen to the [pro-democracy] protesters. They would never allow a confrontation,” says Ayman, who was on the front line near barricades by the Egyptian Museum. That view changed when he “saw the guy who threw the first blow at protesters.”

As Ayman remembers it, a mixed group of citizens — women and men, from upper and lower socioeconomic classes — were approaching and rowdily protesting in support of Mubarak, when suddenly a man from the back of the crowd started throwing “random objects” at the pro-democracy demonstrators. “Batons, sticks, pieces of plastic, things that are not lethal flew at us,” Ayman says. “Those who looked like they’re from the educated middle-class among the pro-Mubarak crowd left the scene and those who looked more aggressive, more like thugs, stayed.”

The chain of events progressed fast and random scuffles turned into violent face-offs that resulted in bloodshed. Flocks of “pro-Mubarak supporters” started seeping into the square from all directions. “We were surrounded, exits were cordoned off,” Ayman says, “and we had no choice but to defend ourselves.”

Ayman, though, says he refused to even throw one stone at his opponents, his own people. “These were not executive forces loyal to the regime. These were fellow Egyptians, armed, trying to kill us. It’s easier to declare a war against uniformed policemen, but not civilians like yourself. In retrospect, it was naive of me, but I didn’t even feel like lashing back to defend myself.”

Buildings in Tahrir were closed off to non-residents and the protesters — who were unarmed according to reports from journalists and others in the square — were hemmed in.

Ayman denies that Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Tahrir demonstrators were responsible for any violence, as some media reported. He was there, he says, so he saw it all.
“They were just like us, surprised but ready to defend their ground to the death. Some were calling out that the ‘road to heaven and martyrdom is the frontline’ when the violence was at its peak, and people were falling to the ground, dead or injured. But that’s natural,” he says. “When all else fails you, you seek faith in God. I’m not particularly religious, but I was affected in a similar way. When death seems so close, there’s nothing but religion to turn to.”

In a voice tinged with a touch of bitterness, Ayman remembers how “it was all catastrophic in its unfairness. Tahrir was defenseless.”

But if anything, according to eyewitnesses and journalists covering the events of that Wednesday, the ‘Battle for Tahrir’ brought about a shift in perspective. Many who were willing to be patient while Mubarak finished the last six months of his term lost any trust they might have had in the regime after seeing TV footage of friends and fellow Egyptians being pelted with stones, stabbed and whipped, and after hearing the claims that the pro-Mubarak attackers were paid and organized by regime supporters.

On television, Tahrir protesters displayed ID cards they claimed were confiscated from captured attackers, saying these proved the thugs were policemen in plain clothes.
The new government has been receiving complaints and requests to probe into the incident. On February 22, it appointed a fact-finding committee to investigate the events of Black Wednesday and other incidents of violence throughout the revolution.
Social aid efforts intensified and people seemed more eager than ever to help those sitting on the square. This reporter personally observed an increase in blankets, medical aid and food sent to the square over the following days.

“But of course at the time, we didn’t know if we had any legitimacy,” Ayman recalls, and we were hurt by our friends who thought we should have left the square a night earlier.”

After Al Jazeera’s Mohyideen left the square, the TV news channel dispatched correspondent Shereen Tadros to the scene. Like Mohyideen, she was surprised by the demeanor of the pro-Mubarak crowd.

“There was something about them, like they were entranced,” Tadros recalls. “It didn’t look sporadic. People were prodding each other [to urge each other] to shout.”

When Tadros arrived early Wednesday morning, the scene was already tense. Pro-Mubarak demonstrators “who looked aggressive and angry” chanted and waved signs that read “He won’t leave. You should leave,” at the edges of Tahrir, while pro-democracy demonstrators stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a human barrier across the streets feeding into the square. A few hours later, in the early afternoon, rocks were flying across the square from all directions. She says the mood shifted as panic took over and as people dispersed into side streets trying to escape: “I could see people fall into a disgusting stampede.”

Tadros was forced to seek shelter in a family’s apartment on one of those side streets, after the scene got too bloody and the phone networks too congested for her to call in live reports to the news channel.

On that side street, she shared the horror felt by the area’s residents, as she watched the “thugs” loitering near doors, instigating violence, regrouping and building defenses.

Tadros says that before the family took her in, she herself had a threatening brush with pro-Mubarak protesters who seemed ready for a fight after one recognized her as an Al Jazeera journalist.

She spent the night wide-awake on her hosts’ balcony. After midnight, supporters of Mubarak started to come to the door. Tadros recalls that they would ask her hosts to use their balcony “to defend ourselves and throw Molotov cocktails.” They were “very organized and highly aggressive,” and they spent the night “strategizing. They knew what they were doing.”

When the sun rose, there were still clashes on the square, sounds of which Tadros had been listening to as she gave phone reports to her employers all through the night. With a haunted look, she says that “there was no way anyone could have slept through this.” She could hear the “shrieks and screaming” from where she was posted. “I was literally listening to people dying. Honestly, it was heartbreaking.”

I wrote this for Egypt Today magazine in March 2011, it was originally published there.

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Books That Inspire, Into the Trenches

Dark As Watchmaker

This blog post, a couple of years old, is a tribute to Alan Moore’s genius story-telling technique in the graphic novel, The Watchmen, and its contemplation of  fate, lost time, perception, and the question of who makes the world.

It’s all written in the present tense, mainly because time, past, present and future, run parallel to each other as they do in one of the character’s head, Dr Manhattan’s, so ‘tense’ becomes obsolete. What was is still is and still will be.

The post was previously password-protected but now I’m ready to publish it.

——————————–
dr

The cell phone is in my hand.

It’s ringing, he’s calling me, I’m in Beirut, it’s a cold evening in early February 2010.

In twelve seconds time, I answer the phone. I already picked up twelve seconds into the future. Ten seconds now.

The phone is in my hand.

I rediscovered this memory a night earlier, eyes landing on my phone as it lay quietly on the desk, while I was sitting in bed, having trouble sleeping, staring at a glaring laptop screen, sixteen hours ago.

It’s still there, sixteen hours into the past, on the desk, in my room. I’m still there looking at it.

The phone is in my hand. His name, followed by the word “Sweetheart”, appears on the screen, it’s ringing. Seven seconds now.

It’s 14 June 2010, I’m in Cairo. It’s February 2010, I’m in Beirut. Four seconds. Three. I’m tired of looking at his name as the phone rings. I press the “Yes” button to take the call. The memory fades.

I’m now looking at his photograph, the one taken in Siwa, beneath the stars. The stars are so far away, and their light takes so long to reach us. All we ever see of stars are their old photographs.

I’m two hundred and twenty-seven million kilometers from the sun. Its light is already ten minutes old. It will not reach Pluto for another two hours. Two hours into my future, I’m watching a movie with friends, thinking about my lost dreams and tomorrow’s work deadline. Twelve seconds into my past, I’m looking at his photograph, taken beneath the stars.

My father didn’t repair watches. No one in my family did. If anyone had done, we would perhaps appreciate precision, found in clockwork, in the sky. In the year 2000, I sit in the American University in Cairo’s library, fascinated by a psychology book I’m reading. I’m 19 years old.

It is 2010. I’m in my house. I’m 29 years old.

His photograph is in my hand, he sits beneath the stars. He liked watching the stars admiring their complex trajectories, through space, through time.

As if he was trying to give a name to the force that set them in motion

It’s the fall of 2000, it’s cold in the library, and I’m holding a book, “Theories of Personality”, a classmate stops to say hello. A conversation ensues, and he sits down. He complains about English class, then asks for help in brainstorming for his next essay. I offer help but we end up talking, not about his essay, but religion, martial arts, horseback riding, my dream of flying planes on my own and his philosophy of life. I note his dark skin, his ripped arms bronze and glowing, his eyes dark brown. Two months after that encounter, I start falling in love with him. Two months before I fall in love, it starts raining in downtown, on the American University in Cairo, I can see the raindrops through the library glass as I talk to him. Ten years ago.

One hundred and fifteen minutes into the future, the sun starts setting and it’s still scorching hot. In 2010 I’m at Guildhall in London throwing my cap in the air, celebrating my graduation. Anna’s father flashes his camera to capture the moment. In 2000, I’m at the American University in Cairo, in the library.

The rain is falling.

dr3

I’m 28 years old. It’s October 2009. I sit with him talking, about religion, atheism, God, the desert, dentists, Lord of the Rings, Communism, British comedies and the joys of living in Europe. My head is crowded with things to say. The conversation flows like a river, fascinating me one drop at a time. There’s a sudden sensation of Deja Vu: I’ve had this conversation before … except that I was innocent back then, and there was rain pouring on the glass windows of the library, in downtown AUC. The illusion vanishes, almost before it has registered.

It’s February 2010, we buy a Fairouz CD and as we reach for the CD player our fingers touch. It’s January 2010, and I’m sleeping as he’s driving around with his car around Maadi. He didn’t want to wake me up, he says I looked so peaceful as I slept. He says he was happy watching me sleep.

It’s March 2010, he’s holding my hands tightly, consoling me, after an argument, our tenderness in direct proportion to its violence. It’s late January 2010, we’re in the desert, he’s climbing a mountain, higher and higher up and I couldn’t follow; I was too afraid. I wish I did. It’s June 2010, I’m tearful as I write him an email saying it’s over, that even our friendship cannot be saved. I’m thinking perhaps I will find no one as good, or perhaps I’ll die of heartbreak.

Two years later I genuinely wonder why he ever caught my attention in the first place. And why the love was gone.

It’s December 2010, I’m swearing I’m not the same person he loved and lost a few years back. I’m promising him, “I’m a different person now. I’ve changed. And I will never cut you off again.” It’s May 2010, a Saturday, my phone is ringing and I’m not answering his calls.

It’s February 2010, he’s telling me of big plans that may make him travel for months and I worry because life will be hard without him. Again. It’s March 2010, and I’m sobbing on the phone as I tell him I’m lonely even when he’s around, that he doesn’t know how to make me happy. It’s January 2010, and I joked that if he leaves, “I’ll just cry my eyes out continuously for a couple of months, then die of depression a few years later.”

He laughs. And as he does, I can hear him shouting at me in April 2010, pressing his foot on the accelerator as he drove, threatening, “you want to go home and end it now? Fine. I’ll take you home. And it’s over” as I weep. In February 2010, I confess to him that I love him.

Again

It’s 2000, and it’s the first time we tell each other we have feelings, confess that we’re more than just friends. Our fingers interlock. Three years later he marries another woman, and smiles beautifully for the wedding pictures as he holds her hands. In 2000, he told me we will live on his farm together, forever. In 2003, I kissed his forehead, during his wedding party, smiled big and told him, “Don’t worry. I have moved on too.” Forget me, I said then walked away.

In 2006, I still hadn’t moved on. 2007. 2008. 2009.

Ten.

It’s 14 June 2010.

My fingers are frozen.

His photograph, in Siwa, taken beneath the stars, is in my hands.

And I was gone. Gone back to my lonely world. Gone to the desert. Gone to a place without clocks, without seasons, without hour glasses, to trap the shifting golden sands. Below me, in the sand, the secret shape of my creation is concealed, buried in the sand’s future. My mind rises into thin air.

A world grows up around me. Am I shaping it, or do its predetermined contours guide my hand?

In 2000, love was blossoming in my heart for the first time, the rain was falling on downtown carelessly … In 2010, I’m looking at his photograph, in Siwa, taken beneath the stars, wishing we could be friends again.

Or that we’d never met.

dr2

Without me, things would have been different. If I hadn’t told him about my psychology book “Theories of Personality” and asked him to elaborate more on his dream of setting up a farm, if I hadn’t randomly asked him if he wanted to borrow my filmmaking books on Twitter 10 years later.

Am I to blame then? Or him? Or the Psychology Book, “Theories of Personality”? Or Twitter for brining us together?

Which of us is responsible?

Who makes the world?

Perhaps the world is not made. Perhaps nothing is made. Perhaps it simply is, has been, will always be there. I’m sitting at my computer, typing, as a glass of milk rests on the desk nearby.

The light of two hours past will just be reaching Pluto

If they have strong telescopes there, they can see me. The photograph, taken beneath the stars, in Siwa, in my hand.

It’s February 2010, I’m standing in a hotel room in Beirut, answering the phone, but I let it ring for too long, he has hung up, I have no credit to call him back. I want to hear his voice. But it’s too late, always has been, always will be too late.

Above the Gilf El Kebir, jewels in a makerless mechanism, the first stars are starting to fall.

——————————–

Listening to: No Cars Go, Maxence Cyrin,
and parts of the The Fountain soundtrack
and Society, Eddie Vedder
and Une Chanson pour tout dire, Eli et Pappilon
and Time after Time, Eva Cassidy
Mood:  indifferent, a little nostalgic, calm 

**Note: This is inspired by the graphic novel The Watchmen, and takes many of its words from Chapter IV titled Watchmaker, where Dr Manhattan meditates on time, and memory. Some of those lines are copied word by word from the book. Some are made up or altered to fit my story. It’s a tribute to Alain Moore’s genius story-telling techniques and to Watchmen’s contemplation of fate, lost time, and the question of “who makes the world?” And what makes things as they are. It is all written in the present tense, mainly because time, past, present and future, run parallel to each other in Dr Manhattan’s head, so tense is obsolete. What was is still is and still will be. Moore jumps between years in the telling, and in my case, I’m jumping back and forth between months and years, so I go from February to March, back to January again, jumping next to May, on and so forth. I hope it’s not confusing to the reader (and perhaps it should be confusing … as time is, as memories are). Hope you enjoyed it! Beware of one thing though, Dr Manhattan writes this as he sits on Mars, not Earth, so the time calculations of how many hours it takes for light of sun to reach us, and all that, reflects his position in space not mine.

tumblr_mmrhgusc531sqoiy9o1_500

Into the Trenches

Religion

When the word ‘religion’ is mentioned, because of some conditioning and what it has come to be defined as, I can’t help but think ‘restrictions.’ My body even reacts to the word; I instantly feel closed up, claustrophobic, I could feel it in my chest; breathing becomes shorter and my jaws tense.

Group of people dancing in nightclub, laughing, close-upFor me, the word kills possibilities, like free travel, wearing what I feel makes me beautiful, enjoying some things, doing what at heart feels right, connecting with others from all walks of life (Women, and *men*. Yup, I don’t like the “religious” idea of avoiding intimate relations with men, save the husband, or having to wait until I get married to have heart-to-heart conversations with a man, share dreams with or travel and spend great time together. In fact, most of the men I met recently and whose company I enjoyed tremendously, who I opened up to, and shared parts of myself with, I know I’d never marry or fall in love with. It’s about connecting. “Islam” as we know it, makes me feel these small pleasures, these connections, can be taken away in the name of “haram” or “self-preservation” or whatever).

The word ‘judgement’ also comes to mind. To be religious, in my experience, was to be judged too, by none other than those people who are/were supposed to be pious and God-fearing. In the name of “‘Amr bel ma’rouf” or “nasee7a” or “taqweem” or even duty. All the same.

And suddenly instead of being a moral code, or a moral compass, perhaps a quest to finding peace and the creator of this world, religion becomes a behavioral checklist of what is deemed right or wrong, more often than not from the perspective of those who practice it. And you can’t do a bigger disservice to religion; self-appointed preachers are probably the number one reason people feel alienated in some religious communities. But hey, it seems I’ve been barking up this very same old tree for quite a while now.

The word ‘religion’ now feels like the antithesis not just of freedom, but of spiritual well-being, living life through the heart, to the fullest; feeling, throwing yourself into the world, and making moments count. The worst about those restrictions associated with religion, especially “Islam” (or more likely the thing that it has morphed into these days in this part of the world) is that they’re distracting at best, and at their worst, they drive one away from experiencing life––the path–– with courage and with every fiber of one’s being. It brings fear, and it turns one away from the very thing one feels one must pursue.

And this is why many have recently broke ranks with religion, not just because of hostile sermons, the wrong examples and bad publicity, but because in their core, these people decided they want to experience life, without people reminding them at every corner of ‘harams‘ and ‘inappropriateness’ that seem to go against what their souls are hungry for.

And that’s also why you find many religious people who are not happy; or who pretend to be happy (or force themselves to be happy, and feel guilty when they can’t, or deny their troubles and live in cocoons, or insist they’re happy in an attempt to make the world believe it so they could believe, or worse defend the very thing that makes them unhappy out of fear, guilt, or habit).

Happiness is a spontaneous, simple feeling that can’t be forced; peace is not a feeling that one can talk him or herself into. When I see my cats, for instance, I feel happy. No one has to talk me into “having to feel happy” since pets “should make me happy.” It’s instant; it’s a feeling comfortable with itself, gentle sometimes, and overwhelming in others. And when it comes, it’s never associated with a need to make others think or do certain things. It’s like being in love. In fact, it is being in love. When you’re in love, every person and everything is beautiful.

If religious people in this part of the world “were in love,” this kind of love, they wouldn’t fight and bicker with others, feel superior by virtue of belonging to this or that faith, they wouldn’t find the need to change anyone; love is sufficient. You feel it, and then you start seeing the world differently.

That’s why it was always easy for mystics and prophets, and the enlightened, to be at ease with people (not rejoicing in their praise, and not taking insult when they hurt them); they were in love. You have no time for pettiness when you’re in love.

Trust me, when your soul wants something, is aching for something, there’s nothing that could be done ––including sermons, ‘nice conversations’ or immersion in holy books–– that can shut that up. Back in the day, when I used to feel that ache, some friends used to dismiss this as ‘waswasa‘; ‘the shaytan who wants you to stray from the path.’ That or
(النفس الأمارة بالسوء). I was asked to intensify the rituals; read Quran more regularly, they said, ponder, or do this or that. And in fact it is pondering that finally showed me that the ‘shaytan‘ (not the fantastical creature, but something very twisted inside me, a mixture of disillusionment, good intentions badly placed, conditioning and guilt) that was the thing keeping me on that path, the one my soul knew it was not for me. I also realized that my ‘nafs‘ was the victim there, not the aggressor.  I realized that the light I was looking for was not in ritual, or in books, but it’s inside, perhaps covered by all that.

You can’t shut up the voice of the soul, and you don’t want to, it’s all truth.

I’m not trying to make any arguments here. In fact, I don’t know what I’m doing except sharing what the word ‘religion’ has come to mean for me. “Religion,” as we know it, has become something that makes my soul cringe. But now, I don’t believe it’s my soul I should blame.

In fact, perhaps “religion” owes my soul an apology.

x-meditate
source: lamajigmeessays.blogspot.com
Into the Trenches, Les élus

Reflections on a Revolution …

As I write this, a truce between policemen and protesters has just ended by the Ministry of Interior (MOI). Football ultras, seeking vindication and perhaps vengeance for their 75 friends who needlessly lost their lives a few days back, and their opposite numbers are probably engaged in a grueling night battle where stones, molotov cocktails and tear gas canisters are being pelted. And more physical and proverbial walls are being erected.

It’s Monday now, half an hour after midnight. It was a Wednesday when football ultras were ambushed and slaughtered in Portsaid. A black Wednesday. Another dark day added to the long list.

Black seems to be the color of New Egypt.

An hour earlier tonight, a friend of mine, Zakariya Mohyeldin, started reflecting on another, perhaps bloodier “Black Wednesday” a year earlier, where state-sponsored thugs had attacked unarmed protesters in Tahrir on camel- and horse-back.

My friends would testify to how notorious I am with sharing some of their views. While talking, it’s not abnormal for me to take out my blackberry and start quoting them in tweets. With Ziko, as I and his friends call him, I took it to another level. His reflections were raw, random … It always touches me how people’s memories are selective, and why they choose to say certain things. So I took out my laptop and started typing away. Refreshingly, he didn’t stop me.

When he was done, I asked, “But why are you telling me all this? Why did you feel the need to say that?” He shrugged his shoulders (Ziko doesn’t use many facial expressions, like most men. So I couldn’t read his sentiment), he said, “When I was walking in the square the other day, I saw angry people. But do we share the same anger? I don’t think so. I don’t feel I belong to them, I don’t feel like I support them. Does this make me ‘felool?’ I don’t know. I don’t remember that these were those people I saw during the 18 days, on The Camel Battle day. Maybe I’m wrong. May be they were.”

Zakariya, or Ziko, comes from a family of armymen — sort of. His grandfather, his namesake, was the first head of the General Intelligence Directorate, which he founded, had been reportedly involved in reshaping the state security apparatus, he was a Nasser adviser and he was a Free Army Officer, one of the most prominent and celebrated . His grandson is on the other hand no stranger to anti-military protests. Ironically, Ziko took to the streets to bring down the state security apparatus his own grandfather once helped refine. On his Twitter feed, you’ll find a lot of condemnation of the “3askar.”

But let me halt my editoralizing, this post is about what he said before that last statement, so here’s how it goes:

“The people that I’ve met that day [on Camel’s Battle / Black Wednesday] I may never meet again. Maybe some of them are now in Mohammed Mahmoud, may be not. But these people were the most courageous I’ve ever met. They were not thugs. Even those who were thugs among them were not thugs, if you know what I mean.

I remember how they looked at me when I left the square that day. I was drained. I felt I could either kill someone for real or that I would be killed myself, if I had stayed any longer. [Those I left behind] looked at me, their eyes pleading. “Don’t leave us,” is what I felt they said. That look. They were desperate. I can’t forget it. It wasn’t that they were taking the moral highground or blaming me because I was leaving. Unlike the people now in Mohammed Mahmoud. Maybe.

Everybody fought but no one was expected to. It wasn’t a duty. ‘If you want to help us, come help us. If you can’t, it’s fine.’

The goal was to defend ourselves against a brutal, planned and horrendous attack.

These people [our attackers] were the scum of the Earth, because they had no values or morals at all. They were there to kill us, just because they were told to kill us. They’ll probably kill us. Then go smoke a cigarrette later as if nothing happened.

Those fighting them back [in Tahrir] was such a strange group of people. Their economic background. I don’t know whether they were ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood], or ultras … they were just people. Very normal and very good.

Mind you that day wasn’t very positive. But it was … we were the people who went down [to the square]. There was a sense of comarderie and friendship that was undescribable. This Salafi guy came up to me on the day and asked me if I prayed the “thuhr” prayer. I said, “what if I’m christian?” He responded, “go pray, even if you are.” Some people came and asked him to leave, and they stood by me. I don’t know [why I’m telling this story]. These images keep coming to my head. I wanna write about them.

When I left the midan, I was in such an emotional state. I was ashamed. I broke down. It was worse than January 28 for me. I remember that day the phone calls of people asking me not to go to the square. Or telling me they won’t.

The people who were calling me on that day, amid the fighting, were saying things like, “what do you guys want? Didnt you get what you want?” School mates I haven’t talked to in years. My father’s friends. All pleading. But even if I’d wanted to leave, it wasn’t possible. We were in the middle of a battle. You can’t leave a raging battle. To some I used to say, “there are girls here in the square. I’m not leaving while a girl stays.”

On that day, I could have stayed at home in the morning. But when I saw the pro-Mubarak people marching on the square earlier in the day, I decided I wanted to go. Ten minutes after I went down, the clashes started. I was armed with an anti-Mubarak placard, that’s all.

I’m still trying to make sense of that day. Who was there. Who wasn’t. Part of the ikhwan were there, but by the way, part had left in the morning. And returned. I don’t understand why that happened. Was that part of a plan? I mean I’m sure some of those who fought [with us in the Camel Battle] were ikhwan. Or maybe they were normal people.

I asked Ibrahim El Houdaiby [a former brotherhood member, and the grandson of a former Supreme Guide] about the ikhwan. He said, “it’s either they’re not here [in great numbers] or they’re here but not organized.”

There was a friend who would hold me back whenever I got carried away and took part in the violence. “This is not your job,” he would say. “This is not why you’re here.”

For those who fell or got injured from the thugs’ side [our attackers], I felt no sympathy. For moments there, I felt i didn’t care if they were killed. May be it was wrong to feel so. But it felt legitimate to feel that way. We wanted to stay there. And we didn’t want to be killed. It was simple as that. Even if we were killing them, we were still better than them. I don’t know how many died that day.

That said, most of us protected them.

When I was leaving the “midan,” from near the AUC building near Sheikh Reehan street, a army officer decided to search me. I don’t know why he did it. I asked him, why didn’t they move to defend people. He told me, what are we supposed to do? We cant do anything. I argued with him. But it was futile. He stopped talking to me, and continued the search without even looking me in the eyes.

It was very vague. I left after curfew, and as I negotiated my route back home through blocked roads, I was thinking how I understood nothing; who’s doing what, and who’s on our side. In one checkpoint, I saw two guys shirtless in the cold and blindfolded, their hands tied behind their back. It looked like they were beaten hard. I didn’t understand who they are, or why they were beaten. Were they decent? Were they thugs? I never knew.

But it looked ugly.

I continued walking.

I met another solider, in another checkpoint, who asked me, “what has brought you here? it’s dangerous.” I retorted shouting: “You’re a soldier and you’re asking me that?” A higher-ranking officer, an army man, came up to me, pushing me away, screaming at me, “don’t you dare shout at an army soldier.” My friend pulled me away.

I walked on.

Another checkpoint. I was searched again. An officer told me jokingly, “I heard there are women with tight bodices in the square.” He looked at my friend who had long hair, and said, “And you? You probably want a president with long hair like yours.” I told the army soldier, “Look at me, talk to me,” and I told him who my grandfather was. “Of course, he was a respectful man,” he said finally. I tried to explain the situation to him. I told him about fraudulent elections. I told him that my relative was even part of it. And that it was forged. The soldier looked like he was thinking, that he considered it. Or may be he thought I was lying.”

Zakariya stopped talking. Abruptly, just like he started.

As I sat beside him putting all this into shape, in this blog post, Ziko joked, “you drained me.” It was just memories, just words. But I understood what he meant.

Memories carry such a heavy load, when they’re unresolved.

Happy with the fragments I collected, I proceeded to publish, asking him if he still wanted to write about it. “You can, you know, write your own version,” I suggested.

“Well, may be I will,” he said. “But may be by the time I try to put them on paper, the will will vanish. I still don’t know what I want to say.”

“Hmm. What should we call this blogpost?” I asked, sipping on my latte.

“Well, I was gonna call it ‘the angriest day of my life’,” he said. “But I feel this is your piece, more than it is mine, though it has my words.”

Over and out.

Into the Trenches, Les élus

Ask me questions …

… I find it a good exercise, and I think it could help me recognize areas of thought I haven’t explored before. Plunging into uncharted territory and all that. If the question is too challenging though, there’s a good chance I may ignore it (my small brain can work out only so much). And if it’s too personal or rude, I may show claws.

But don’t let that hold you back, really, I mean ask me anything here.

*wide grin* —>> meant to give you a false sense of safety.

Warning: It’s sort of an experiment, so if it gets tiring, I may decide to disappear

Listening to: Where is my mind, Maxence Cyrin
Mood: Happy-Go-Lucky (surprisingly so)

Into the Trenches, Les élus

I wrote this for him

I was sitting at this concert at Darb 1718 watching ‘El Dor El Awal’ whisk people away with their tunes to a far away world, when I remembered him.

His name was Khaled Mohamed Sai’d and he was beaten to death by two police officers. The reasons why are not important and, at least to me, irrelevant.

I had read the news this morning, and saw the pictures, they have shaken and disturbed me. But here I was on the same night, lying on the grass, listening to good music, laughing with my friends, playing with my hair and clapping and cheering for the band, as if no great injustice has befallen an innocent man. And it’s natural, I never knew him. And I won’t pretend that the news had affected me or stayed on my mind beyond a mere two or three hours after reading about it. Next week, I’ll probably forget him completely and the week after perhaps the name won’t even ring a bell — and mind you I’m a journalist so it’s not like my work doesn’t involve following up on these cases. However, there’s a big chance everything will be forgotten anyway and so it follows that his story might not be “sexy” enough (in journo lingo) to follow up on in a week or two.

But for a moment, I thought: What if I really cared? What if we all did?

What if the band, instead of playing, had come to the microphone to announce that Khaled had died brutally and so they will withhold their music until justice has been brought to his family, and to us?

What if we had decided to strike, not to go to work, not to buy or sell, or visit friends or watch TV or go to the movies until an investigation is held into his murder?

What if tomorrow no one showed up for Friday prayers and sheikhs gave angry sermons against our rulers to empty mosques in protest of this inhumane killing?

What if we all decided to wear black in mourning?

What if we brought everything to a standstill until we’re told why a young man’s bones were broken, face battered until every last breath left him and why on Earth is his assaulter running free?

But of course we wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t. Who does that anyway? And if we did that for every injustice that has befallen man, maybe life would have stopped … or maybe it would have been perfect. But we won’t know really.

And perhaps if I didn’t work in news, I’d forget about him tomorrow.

Heartbreaking, isn’t it?

Into the Trenches, Les élus

There’s probably no God. Or is there?

It’s quite acceptable in some countries for sellers hawking goods to approach you on the street, and in others it’s laughable when people come up to you, as if out of no where, asking if you’d like to know about Jesus or the miracle of the Quran. And it’s annoying when they come and knock on your door … But lately in London, as it seems, a movement of what I choose to call a “religion” have upped the ante and decided it’s okay for them to scream their message at me and others in big font every time I leave the house. “There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life!” is a new campaign manifested in hundreds of posters plastered across British buses and tubes.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m in no way offended. I don’t care. People’s beliefs are their own.

But why shove it down my throat mate?

What always distinguished many atheists in my head, including the man behind this ad campaign Richard Dawkins (of The God Delusion fame), is that they did not comprise a movement, and don’t usually interact like an organised religion — but the recent ad campaign had made re-think what now could be a misconception. But if it proves anything, it proves that men tend to unite religiously over their beliefs. And it doesn’t matter if it’s around God or the lack of him, but they almost always evolve into a movement … and perhaps in a while a religion with a hierarchy and a “holy book” and all. It looks like even some atheists cannot escape the clutch of organised religion, as ironic as this is. And they too could be made to feel insecure … so insecure perhaps that they have to hold up ads to propagate their beliefs, and thus become no different that some outspoken adherents to religions centered around gods, astronomical deities and supernatural entities.

Back to the ad. My initial reaction to it was amusement. Britons and their humor, I said to myself. But then every time I saw the ad, a different feeling of discomfort with the underlying concept would rear its head. Minoring in psychology back in school, I remembered that one of the deterrents of suicide and also one of the support systems against mental malaise like depression and the likes of it was a strong belief system … in addition to other things of course, including family. So in a way, more religious people were less likely to commit suicide for instance or to get clinically depressed. So in a way, and in some cases, a belief in God (or gods) stimulate a person’s mental defenses, and even biological (people’s beliefs in many things, from God to alternative medicines, have cured them from a host of diseases). Therefore denouncing a spiritual or a religious state-of-mind is not always a solution for people, is not always a source of comfort and peace and will not always open the doors to a worry-less life as the ad claims. In a whole lot of cases, it can do the opposite.

A different discomfort today. Again, I was on the tube, reading The Secret History of the World, a book filled with ideas and crackpot pseudoscience but also inspiration and food for thought (it’s a mixed bag, really!) only to notice one of those ads — again. This time the main slogan was accompanied by a quote from Douglas Adams that goes, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” Well, for me it’s not. Coming from the author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the phrase -to me- seemed like it was manipulated (by being taken out of context) to be used as a blatant statement against imagination and meditation. Taking the garden, the world, at face value and seeing only what the eye sees -the physical- is nothing short of lame. God bless Antoine de St. Exupery and his little prince. Sometimes, people need to know how nature works, how beyond the flowers and trees, there is a flawless system that makes this all work in order to appreciate the beauty of the garden even more (science!). For others, fairies are an important part of the equation (fantasy!). The hidden and the esoteric. For someone like me, who reads Harry Potter and secretly believes Hogwarts exists somewhere in a parallel universe but who also reads The New Scientist religiously, it’s sometimes both — depending on the mood.

None of us has seen God, despite some witnessing his presence in their lives. So it doesn’t matter if the atheists believe he exists or not. And I don’t think we’re settling the God argument anytime soon. So why not act like adults and stop rubbing each others’ beliefs in each others’ faces, tastelessly and needlessly. To me the atheist ads are as uncreative and perhaps as naive as the people who come up to me and ask me if I wanna hear about Krishna. Give me something to stimulate my thought and I will heartily respond. But don’t give me a phrase that even if I support I can refute in different ways every time I go to work.

Man, now I remember what the ads remind me of!
Images are coming into my head as I write this.

Egypt’s underground.
Da’wa!
The Muslim Brotherhood.
Of course!
“Islam is the Solution.”

Who thought that Richard Dawkins and Hassan al-Banna would have anything in common? God does work in mysterious ways.

Into the Trenches, Les élus

What we hold dear …

“But it’s too easy to take sides in the Middle East conflict. Few other parts of the world inspire such passion or leave such little room for doubt. For many, choosing sides is just an afterthought to their birthright: If you’re an Arab, go join the Free Palestine demonstrations; and if you’re Jewish, go join the Save Israel marches.

Don’t forget, you can always throw God into the mix. Lay claim to your holy sites and you’ll have religiously sanctioned wrath to fuel your rage.” – Mona El-Tahawy.

I remember recalling this bit of Mona El-Tahawy’s recent piece while I was taking a tour of some 16th century artwork in London’s Royal National Gallery a few days ago. Heavily exhibiting Christian themes, several of the masterpieces naturally featured Jerusalem.

Jerusalem – just a passing mention or vision of the city was like a cue for my mind to dwell, yet again, on the Gaza carnage – dragging on for 20 days now- and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in general, the loss of land and the humiliation of a people.

The trail of thoughts took me back to the horrors of the Holocaust, and I quickly questioned whether it provided enough justification for what is happening now. But I couldn’t even stay there for long. I could never stomach the reason why an oppressed or victimized group of people would almost always go on to inflict pain and misery on others, perhaps in the same way they were affected. I remembered studying something of the sort in school, in a psychology class, but the details escaped me. I concluded that it’s a vicious cycle, and didn’t elaborate on it in my head. Another thought left undeveloped.

And releasing it, I jumped to another: why is what’s happening in Palestine all so important – more important, more significant than other (war) crimes happening across the world? My mind has brought me full circle to Mona and another of her articles which bore the same question.

Perhaps because it was ongoing for 60 years? Or perhaps because the Israeli government has stripped the Palestinians of even the privilege of being pitied and has painted even their children as potential terrorists and their elderly as barbaric and inhuman. Perhaps, because it was so close to home and unfair and ugly and all too familiar. The reasons why -which formed the core of my disagreement with Mona about how this is not just another tragedy- went on. Because it is a just cause that the Palestinians are fighting and like Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto -a comparison that British MP George Galloway struck in a recent protest- they only had either choice: to die on their knees or to live forever.

Perhaps because it was the Holy Land they’re fighting over. Stop. Now, this was interesting. When I came to that, I looked back at the artwork, marvelled at how men could rise, fall and die bitterly for what they consider sacred … I instantly remembered Orlando Bloom in Ridley Scott’s flawed Kingdom of Heaven portraying a Crusader knight vowing to burn every church, mosque and synagogue before surrendering Jerusalem to Salaheddin so that people would stop fighting over them. I wondered if this would really be the solution; to just burn everything to the ground, so that the dust of the Holy Land, becomes that, dust — and not a cause to live and die for. But we all know, this is not going to happen. And it shouldn’t. And despite myself, I felt a longing for Jerusalem, to walk through its cobbled roads, to smell its air and finally pray in al-Aqsa — which I can’t help but feel eternal love for even though I’ve only seen it in pictures. I guess it’s another dream that I inherited and not developed, but refuse to let go of. It’s mysterious really how certain things can transcend their own natures and become powerful and moving symbols of identity, piety, resilience and courage. It reassures me on some level to find this love and respect inside of me for such symbols. But on another, and to be honest, it scares me.