This piece is rather experimental, and does not follow a traditional story line or plot, is fragmented and choppy, jumping ahead and behind in chronology. It is more like a collection of thoughts and narratives, including real journal entries, that I have attempted to weave together in a semi-coherent way, in an attempt to make sense of all the various contradictory and complex emotions and ideas that have plagued me for the past three years.
It’s hard to feel grounded. Though my feet are now planted on this sacred ground upon which lives and souls were broken and lost and reborn and vindicated. Now repaved and replanted, a square once reclaimed…but there is that uneasy feeling that beneath the new grass and yet another memorial lies the true Tahrir, spattered in blood and bullet casings.
It was a year and a half ago, summer 2013, mid-July. A layer of melancholy settled over everything like the films of dust and grime that have colored the city brown over the centuries, and made the air dense and thick with muddled hopes, failed expectations, frightening and uncertain prospects. I don’t think any of us knew what to expect. We had watched from afar as the country that coursed through our veins and that we’d been taught to call home (though our tongues still struggled to trace the contours of its vernacular) stumbled rapidly through cycles of betrayal and deceit, each delivering a more exacting and devastating blow than the last. As much as you could live tragedy through television screens, we did, always left with more questions than could possibly be answered. Always waiting for fragments, shards, a fleeting image maybe or 140-character announcement to fill in the white space, assemble an explanation, however disfigured and picassoesque.
My brief sojourns in my parents’ homeland were always fraught with a flurry of emotion – at first, childlike exuberance and wonder, an exaggerated pride, longing attempts at belonging; later, still pride, now more nuanced and understated, but entwined with a deep melancholy, the kind that is only borne out of a love so vital to your existence, so dire that desperation overrides logic, outweighs sanity and self-preservation. Now, two years after the start of the revolution, 18 days give or take a lifetime of transformation, it was exactly this impassioned despair, this despondent devotion that I recognized in the faces around me.
We landed in Alexandria on June 15, 2013. The buzz around June 30th was only a slight stirring in the United States, or perhaps I just wasn’t listening, having just gotten through an exhausting first year of grad school and in need of some serious recovery. In Egypt, it was cacophonous. As Yasmin El-Rifae writes about this period, “the air was hot with hysterical nationalism.”
A city once permanently stuck in slow motion now seemed to be in overdrive, people and opinions moving faster than my mind could process them. The capacity for critical thinking had in some ways been suspended, in others heightened, but always overshadowed by the feverish elation of uniting to resist a common enemy. In this case, the first democratically elected leadership in the country’s history.
Disillusionment, exhaustion, and discontent with ineffectual policies and perceived incompetence were manifested in the form of demonstrations and sit-ins, and ultimately a petition drive that was to take back the reigns, reclaiming the revolution in the name of “the people,” we were told. It seems Egypt and Egyptians had reached their tipping point, fed up with being told to “istahmel” – a word that often makes me think of the limitations of the English language, or perhaps the un-translatability of the experience itself, one that so accurately defines the Egyptian experience. It means“put up with it,” but even more. Stick it out, endure, tolerate. A resigned acceptance of a situation that one is powerless to change. Istahmel. Through bureaucratic processes that take months and even years, istahmel. When injustice is your status quo, and corruption is practically codified law, istahmel. When your college degree barely qualifies you to drive a cab, istahmel.
I’ll never forget that cab driver. The one who swore to us that it was his daily protests that liberated Masr. The raw passion, unwavering conviction underscored by the tragic desperation in his voice, pleading with us not to question what had just happened. Asdik in e7na fashalna ya3ni?! “Do you mean to say that we failed?!” A question that continues to haunt and reverberate, four years on. Who the “we” refers to, and what comprises failure, is still up for debate, depending on who you talk to. Which revolution? Whose revolution? Who is the victim? Who’s playing the victim? Who is the savior? What really happened? Does it even matter? You will hear twelve different opinions in the course of three days, and they will all be right. Because now, opinion is fact. The right to have an opinion here has become so sacred that it has been elevated to the status of objective knowledge. For so long Egyptians were non-citizens, their opinions so impotent and inconsequential that even bothering to have one became a tedious and unnecessary undertaking. Now, opinions are sacred. Sometimes, sacred enough to die for.
Journal entry. June 2013. This place has an inexplicable resilience. These people, my people, do not break. Never dare to suggest that they might. It is so personal this time, wounds run too deep, and they cannot stomach the thought of more failure…This is so real, so uncompromisingly urgent. These people are fighting for life. Do not tell them that they’ve failed. Do not disregard them, patronize them, erase their narrative from their own story. Do not insult their intelligence, or impose your notions of freedom, justice, and dignity, for they understand these better than anyone. Do not belittle their grievances, their sorrows, their reasons for demanding the life they deserve, or assume that you know better what they need. No. Do not give us these false binaries that leave us with a choice between bad and worse. No. We demand better. We deserve better. We know better.
So now what? On July 11th, 2013, I wrote
Confusion, chaos, false information, conspiracies, half-truths reign supreme. The people don’t want to believe in another stolen revolution, in more disappointment.
Today, many seem to be numb to the disappointment, and indifferent (if not outright disdainful) toward the notion of revolution, an idea that has been gradually fading into the distance, no longer televised, its once fierce promise now a series of tragic, repressed memories. The comfortable still frequent their immaculate country clubs and beach resorts, as shoddy buildings collapse on top of the disenfranchised and neglected. Istahmel. Through the windows of swanky restaurants bustling with customers’ English-and-French-peppered conversations, street children can be seen rummaging for discarded sustenance, occasionally peering in at the original that has not yet been deemed “trash.” Istahmel. When there is no electricity, no literacy, no decent healthcare, no minimum wage, no social justice, no accountability. Istahmel.
This week marks the fourth anniversary of that iconic day in January, and with a protest of 50 already swiftly dispersed, it looks like the Egyptian people will have no choice but to continue to istahmel.