Talat Harb Street on the Day of Anger - Friday, January 28, 2011
My name is Melinda Holmes, I am a U.S. citizen living in Cairo and I am choosing to stay here through the revolution. I came to Egypt three months ago to learn Arabic while in the application process for graduate school. I am working in an NGO that provides legal aid for refugees seeking resettlement. I had previously travelled in Egypt and I choose to come here to study because I love this country and its people. These are the same reasons I am choosing to stay, these and the feeling that I have a responsibility not only to the vulnerable communities we serve through my organization but also to my country, to be a cultural ambassador at a time when our government is failing miserably.
I live in downtown Cairo in an area called Bab el Louk. My building is on the corner of Falaki and Mohamed Mahmoud streets, an area which saw arguably the most intense fighting between the state security forces and protesters who were trying to reach the Ministry of Interior building. Friday night I returned home with my head full of tear gas only to be trapped on my roof for more than 6 hours as police and protesters pushed back and forth up and down Mohamed Mahmoud street. Vehicles were lit on fire and tear gas and rubber bullets flew. The police had no supplies and so I watched form my roof as they tore apart one, then a second an finally the last kiosk on our street, out of desperation for food and water. I also watched as they caught demonstrators, witnessing the blatantly inhumane treatment that is the status quo for the Egyptian police. However I was also lucky to witness the most amazing feat of leadership I have ever seen, one that stays with me until now despite these dramatic days and forms the basis for my opinion of the Egyptian army and my understanding of this conflict.
Two soldiers approached several hours into the fighting from behind the police line, they were aloof, surveying the scene with a removed, seemingly objective demeanor. Then they walked away into the night. Not more than an hour later, after renewed fighting during which the factions had concentrated their ranks, the protesters began to advance from the dim light of Tahrir square led by five soldiers. The police fired tear gas and shot in the air, some demonstrators began to throw rocks, the soldiers didn’t flinch. These five men made clear for me in an instant the reason for the love they receive from the Egyptian people. They alone, with out tanks or artillery, held back the mass of demonstrators, no less than a hundred and forced the police to cease firing upon them. Together with the protesters they pushed the police into a side street reestablishing the barrier there and ordering them to go home. I went down to the street after with my friends to bring them food and water, only then realizing that they were hardly more than 18 years old yet held the respect that short of age only a highly functional institution can create.
My experiences during the days since have corroborated this impression. In their absence the following night my building was overrun, protesters threw rocks from our roof inviting live gunfire from police and I spent my night with all the furniture piled against the door, my Iraqi flatmate screaming at me to get away from the windows. Until the army took over the protection of the Ministry of the Interior the violent swirl around my building persisted so that now heavy machine gun fire and burning cars have become somehow normal to me. I witnessed the behavior of the police for four days before they fled, it was enough to know the fear and disgust that every Egyptian holds for them. I have known the army’s presence now for six days and despite its slow reaction to the attacks from pro-Mubarak supporters my belief in the Egyptian army holds strong. A soldier’s presence has come to equal safety and tanks rolling through the streets are a sight for sore eyes.
I was sitting with my comrades in a cafe in El Bursa – the pedestrian area of downtown normally bursting with people in lawn chairs smoking shisha and drinking tea – when President Mubarak spoke Tuesday night. There was a soldier there taking a break, the people falling over themselves to offer him hospitality and then leaving him in peace with his teas and sandwich. He sat passively with out concern his eyes red with fatigue. Watching the rapt faces of these people when the address began, I panned the crowd looking into eyes of every color that for once weren’t looking back at me. There was cheering at his declaration not to run next year and then as the words continued and took on a familiar and farcical tone there was jeering, laughter and finally the whole place erupted in chants moving back toward Tahrir, barely waiting for the speech to be over. The elation of near success was clear. If the atmosphere was positive and festive during that day then at night it was a party. Remembering this now is hard as our hearts have fallen so far in the two days since.
By midday yesterday the pro-Mubarak protests were swelling. Internet had returned, curfew was relaxed, the government was doing everything it could to make it seems like everything was over, so why were we so sad? Not because Mubarak could stay for another 9 months, but because weaving our way through the throngs of “pro-government protesters” suddenly showing up in the streets equipped with all the paraphernalia of protest that took the activists in Tahrir days to develop organically, it felt like the effort had lost some of its soul. The men who surrounded our car as it plodded through the crowd wore blood thirsty looks on their faces and were already beginning to go after other Egyptians. By the time our taxi found its way to our Tahrir street where we live, discharging us with the food salvaged from fleeing foreigners that we will try to distribute to the refugees, our hearts were in the soles of our feet.
Soon reports began to stream in about the identities, affiliations, and motivations of this “pro-Mubarak” camp and we regained some hope, exhausted from the roller coaster of emotion. Due to mounting reports about attacks on reporters and arrests of foreigners we were unable to go out today. We postponed our plans to visit the Somali refugee community in Ardiwila, which with no army presence in the neighborhood is even more vulnerable than usual and facing threats of eviction, cutting off of cooking gas, and even occasionally being turned away from food shops. We don’t yet know when we will be able to reach them.
I will go now. My Egyptian friend and colleague, Osama, has just returned to our friend Amir’s flat, which is serving as our revolution headquarters, from bringing tea to the solider outside. He has brought with him cold medicine for me, as I am fighting something I probably got from sharing water with a hundred thousand demonstrators in Tahrir Square. The soldier had taken over the checkpoint from the locals as their nerves are shot and they are beginning to harass everyone who passes mercilessly. The soldier, who likes to be called “Fayoumi” (meaning someone who comes from Fayoum), said he was tired of the people there and so he escorted my friend to a pharmacy. After two days of uncertainty and my first real apprehension about staying here in Cairo, I will sleep well tonight and dream about what tomorrow may bring.
Finally ventured out to try to gather things from my apartment 3 blocks away. The neighborhood watch is back and you can feel the heightened stress since the influx of Mubarak thugs who had controlled our street from last night through most of today. They are extremely suspicious of anyone they don’t know and as the situation has developed the watchmen have rotated. After much deliberation, returnign to the apartment to prove we live here he asked us about our work and not understanding the concept of refugee (“political immigrant” is the direct Arabic translation) he got freaked out and we ended up being taken to the military stationed down the road. The calm with which the soldiers approached the situation is unbelievable considering the recent developments and the fact that they are mostly around the age of 20. They asked the various neighborhood men who were all clamoring to talk over one another and explain themselves and our situation to leave us. They asked us questions and after they understood who we are they gave us an escort through the street back to our flat, smoothing our process through the checkpoints, several though we are talking about only a distance of two blocks. The whole experience has reassured me that they are still operating with same standard of excellence I have witnessed through out despite their recent inaction to control the attacks by government supported pro-Mubarak protesters.
I find in Egypt a challenge to self unlike I have found in any of the other cross-cultural experiences I have lived. My nature involves the bestowal of unconditional love upon all people simply for their humanity, unless given a reason to doubt their individual goodness. I believe people in general have the same ultimate desires in life: security, family, happiness; and that it is only the form of these basic desires that changes from person to person and society to society. I feel people across the world to be united through these common desires, through our common humanity. It is structures placed on top of this shared base that divide us and cause us to work at cross-purposes. For indeed viewed through the lense of our common humanity, and with these basic human desires in mind, there are no irresolvable disputes or differences.
I have a very chameleon-like nature. I adapt and blend in and become a part of what surrounds me. So why place myself in this setting where such a things is utterly impossible for me. Where stares, “compliments”, and commentary attach themselves to me like a bad smell. Where even if cover my hair my complexion and the color of my eyebrows and lashes bely what is underneath. The truth is I loathe the the demeanor of most Egyptian men with women on the street. It makes me angry like very little else in my life has been able to. I resist the urge on a daily basis to flip them off, to turn and scream at them, to scold and shout and make them recognize their lowliness and my dignity. This is an unparalleled test of my soul, my belief in nonviolence and my true acceptence of the flaws of my fellow human beings. But I hold back contenting myself, only partially, with a glare, a scowl, a look of disgust.
So again I ask, why do I subject myself to this? On a personal level it is a challenge which I feel in my soul I must conquer. My heart knew this to be the case before my mind, it is the only explaination for why I stayed here during my first visit and let myself establish roots here like a plants in the desert: deep thick cords that are capable of drawing sustence from the far reaches of the earth. The test to my person is to be in the center of attention, obvious, conspicuous, unyeilding. This forces me to exist in a part of myself which is reluctant to emerge. It requires me to be unapologetically content with myself, confident of my actions, and happy with who I am.
On a professional and academic level this experience has revealed to me that I am deeply committed to contributing to the understanding between this world I am living in: the Arab; and the one where I come from: that of the United States and Europe. A mission to reconcile these two realities, to merge them into a conceptual sphere where it is possible to comprehend the other from within our own perception, is undeniably a large goal and indeed the aspiration of our time. Perhaps it will require the creation of entire new paradigms to allow us to meet, with out fear and with respect for our common humanity.
I have witnessed such beauty and worth in the Arab people, the family, the culture and society, Islam. I yearn to bridge the gap that exists between our societies and share this beauty with those know only the world where they and I come from. To allow us to appreciate each other’s societies as different but rightful manifestations of humanity. To be able to see the value of the good in the other and to help remedy the faults. No doubt there exist strengths and weaknesses in each, human grace and human suffering, differently experienced but equally present. Can we not use our knowledge of and relationship with each other to better ourselves and heal our own wounds instead of opening more deeply the wounds of the other?
It is for these reasons that I am dedicated to working in the Arab world or with Arab communities in Europe and the United States. I see immigration as a opportunity for positive exchange and a possible force of mutual understanding, which is too often lost in fear and mistreatment. As it is our humanity which we ultimately have in common, human rights should be the foundation from which we can begin to reach toward each other. Instead their abuse is the source of cultural misunderstanding and dissolutionment, especially within the context of migration. Development is an inextricable part of this picture because of the demographic reality that immigrants usually comprise a large percentage of the disenfranchised and poor. It is in the treatment of these, the weakest among us, that individuals and society reveal their true colors.