Over our fall break, my friend Kathy selflessly took on my duty shifts so I could go away for a few days. I spent a glorious time sneaking off to Cairo and getting reacquainted with one of my favorite cities in the world. Of course, when I say I “snuck off” I mean all my coworkers and students knew where I was and friends at home and in Cairo knew of my whereabouts. What I was really sneaking away from was the stress of NUin and the worries of everyone related to me, all of whom were in the dark until I was safely in a cafe in Cairo.
As soon as I was in the cab I felt a relaxed sense of calm, even though the ride was long and jerky. I knew he was scamming me and complementing my feeble Arabic for a tip, but it still felt nice to flex those muscles. I had spoken in Arabic on the plane but the Greek flights attendants looked at me like I was crazy until I addressed them in their own language or mine. The entire trip was marked by an unloosening of the spine, and unclenching of the fingers and toes, a relaxation of my mind. I didn’t look over my shoulder for students or staff, I didn’t have to think before every word I spoke and every feeling I experienced. I didn’t pause before hugging or dancing or kissing. I slept when I wanted to, drank when I wanted to, and dressed how I wanted to.
I loved seeing the overwhelming pride in all things Egypt. Trees that had once been naked or painted white were painted for the flag. Most public surfaces were covered in graffiti calling for freedom, celebrating the people, and calling for religious tolerance with the symbol of the cross and crescent.
Something that was missing this time was the firearms. In 2009, men in white uniforms (or black, depending on their purpose) were on every single street corner in Zamalek, in 2s or 3s. There’s a slow, eroding unnerving that happens to a person when they see so many men with guns as part of their everyday landscape. It was nice to see Cairo unmarred by so many guns. But make no mistake, word on the street is that for the first time, regular Cairenes are starting to carry guns to protect themselves. And the lack of law enforcement on the street corners doesn’t mean that there are no soldiers or that they aren’t dangerous—we saw them marching in formation toward the US Embassy, and their handiwork is all over Tahrir in the form of injured, abused and sexually assaulted citizens. The whole trip was beautiful and made me feel simultaneously light and so much more like myself. Something about Sarah and Cairo makes me feel like my course has been righted, like I’m not wasting my time, like I’m home. When it comes down to it, Sarah is one of the people who is home for me, and everyone in her life opened themselves up to make me feel home with them, too. I can’t express how thankful I am that I was able to have conversations about politics and play with kittens and drink wine and eat reese’s pieces and snuggle in a giant bed with four other people. Cairo was like one long exhalation, like one big hug you’ve been waiting so long to have.
When I was in Tahrir Square and a gun went off, I remember being afraid of the cops. I instantly knew that the gun was not from a civilian, and it crossed my mind that the scariest thing in the world may just be the feeling of living in a place where you can’t trust the people whose job it is to protect you. Certainly the scariest thing about that day, for me, was knowing that if I were in trouble, no one in uniform was going to help me or anyone else.
A few images stick out in my mind from the videos I’ve been watching, and one of them even made me cry. A professor holds out her wrists for a zip-tie arrest, and instead a cop grabs her by the hair and drags her to the ground. After, a young woman hides in the bushes and every cop who passes her jabs her at least once with a baton, but several due it more than that. When a young man tries to stop them, he is put in a headlock, and goes limp, but is then hit repeatedly with a baton. While he is incapacitated.
One of the more disturbing clips is of a cop intentionally pepper spraying students who are sitting crouched on the ground, their arms linked and faces blocked. He even does it with a flourish, presumably for the crowd of students watching. They have no weapons, they aren’t even standing up or in any way in an offensive position. They are just sitting there, and they take it. The cops use this moment of physical pain to try to drag students apart by their clothing and limbs. When they do separate them, the cops lean on them with what appears to be their full weight, knees in their back and yelling at them to get on their stomachs, even when they already are. One cop even l;laughs and smiles as students are lead away. If a person has no weapons, is on their stomach and can’t use their arms or legs, what danger do they present?
Later in that same video, cops slowly back away from protestors. They are in full-on riot gear, with their pellet guns drawn (which, as we all know, are horribly named and can in fact be deadly). How can they possibly think that they are the ones in danger here? They are wearing thousands of dollars in protective gear, armed with weapon, some of which they have already used (pepper spray and batons). Their opponents are shouting, “You can go,” and, “We will give you your moment of peace, we will not follow you.” Their opponents are armed only with their voices and their cell phones, cameras and ipads, trying to capture this for the world.
I dislike the way crowd control weapons have been named. And yes, they are weapons. The LRAD has been more aptly referred to as a sound cannon, for the way its frequencies are aimed at crowds they then debilitate. A pellet gun sounds like a fun toy you could perhaps buy at a dollar store, not the object that killed a college student in Boston in 2004. Pepper spray sounds innocuous and fun, and we see it as a joke so often in movies and television that it seems like a mild inconvenience and an entertaining story afterwards.
I don’t want to live in a country where we must fear the people who enforce our laws. I want law enforcement professionals to live in fear of breaking the laws that define their roles and existence. Aren’t we supposed to be better than countries like Egypt? Isn’t that what we keep telling ourselves all through our economic crisis, and as we sing that we’re proud to be American, where at least we know we’re free?
In the final video, at least seven cops can be seen hitting students repeatedly with batons. The students are unarmed and have their arms linked together. The students are peacefully protesting on their own campus. The Berkeley cops keep hitting them, and even after they stop, two in the corner of the video keep beating the same woman who was stuck in the bushes before.
I don’t care what the students were protesting. I don’t care what they said to the cops. I don’t even really care what their orders were, or what you think about politics in general or the Occupy movement. Patriotism means being proud of your country, and making sure your country stays a place you can be proud of. Our tax dollars pay for police brutality, while students, union members, academics and parents are subject to this kind of behavior we look down upon around the world. I’m not proud right now, are you?
I knew that if there were any demonstrations while I was in Egypt, I was going. Absolutely, 100%. So when
Sarah got the call to cover a march to the Maspero Building, where 27 people were killed and about 300 were injured just a week and a half ago, I was excited. We started at Tahrir Square, somewhere I went a lot back in 2009, and a place that became the epicenter of the Egyptian Revolution. I photographed some demonstrators and signs, and Sarah conducted a few brief interviews. She annotated the entire thing for me. translating a speech here, or pointing out the photo of a martyred blogger there.
We came upon a Salafist demonstration. I was surprised by how many families I saw, and the carnival-esque atmosphere. People were selling food and painting faces. I was embarrassed to admit it, and maybe it was just all the years of training from Western media, but when I saw so many people jumping up and down chanting “Allah u Akhbar” it made me nervous. And the more Sarah told me about the Salafists, the more comfortable I became with that reaction.
At Sarah’s direction, we (Sarah, myself and her brand new intern Hayden) walked toward the Maspero building. What was happening at Tahrir was interesting for me to see, but was not newsworthy. Sheff says there are protests and demonstrations every friday, and that they’re overusing Tahrir. It took a lot of waiting for Maspero to heat up, but it did. Music, chanting, and watchful law enforcement. In Sarah’s attempts to get interviews, we suddenly found ourselves between the Egyptian version of swat (2-3 large vans) and the protestors. It’s weird the way a crowd takes on a life of it’s own, and moves in fits and starts. I was glad our position made Sarah nervous, because it made me nervous too. She was very protective the entire day, holding my hand in crowds and shepherding me around. I kept getting lost in my lens and not noticing the crowd movements around me.
Joey and Manarcalled and we decided to meet up for dinner, somewhere downtown. Joey reported through
the Lebanese civil war in 2006, and had war reporter training in DC. He started Bikya Masr, which makes him Sarah’s boss. Manar is an Egyptian and also writes for Bikya. She reminds both Sarah and I of our beloved Alex Chapman, with their calming demeanor and purposeful nature. We waited in Tahrir for them, and I snapped a few more pictures. Suddenly Sarah yelled, “do you have your camera?” and we were all running, but only a short distance. I didn’t even know what I was getting; I just kept clicking the shutter. An ambulance went past, and apparently the coffin of Essam Atta, but I didn’t see it. By the time we met up with Joey and Manar, Joey had texted again because he heard someone was shot. Sarah and Hayden asked around but everyone just kept explaining how Atta died (he was tortured to death by the Egyptian military using water hoses.)
After that everything went quickly, but with big lulls in between. At some point I came to know that someone had been killed, but not right in Tahrir. He had argued with a cop, and the cop had just shot him. He was 19. The coffin came back around and with it came crowds and chanting. We were at high ground, on the edge of the grass in the middle of the square (which is really a circle), but we were still surrounded on all sides by over a thousand people. After going around the square with the coffin again, the crowd headed off, but no one understood their aim. We eventually set off on foot, and realized they were going toward the American Embassy. Just the night before I had been to the Halloween party there, drinking Western alcohol and watching adults make fools of themselves. As we followed behind, Joey kept checking to make sure we had escape routes, and were at a safe distance.
We were crossing another, smaller square when we heard gunfire.
I think it was just one shot, but I read after that there were multiple. My heart went double-time and I moved away while looking in the direction of the noise, without thinking. All five of us were, although Joey and Manar seemed entirely in control of the situation. The weirdest thing is that we were the only ones doing this. When we realized we were far from the gunfire, it had ceased, and no one was moving toward us, we stopped to watch Egyptians run toward the sound of a gun at top speed. I think it takes a lot for a person to run toward the sound of a gun at top speed. I have a feeling they know by now that if they don’t go investigate something for themselves, they will likely be lied to about what happened.
It turns out the Egyptian military shot into the air, probably blanks. We got closer, and watched protestors try
to climb over the barricades to get onto the street where the US Embassy resides. Did I mention we oddly ran into several members of the Egyptian army the evening before, marching in formation down the (closed-off, barricaded) street of the US Embassy? Strange days.
I was thoroughly nervous and uncomfortable at this point, which is when Sarah started telling me Joey’s credentials and asking if I was alright. Manar spoke a lot with an older woman, and filled us in on what was going on. Apparently, this portion of the demonstration was in solidarity with Occupy Oakland, which is in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. For those who don’t know, the police in Oakland took violent action against protesters a few days before this, arresting some and using batons and tear gas to break up the peaceful camp. Joey seemed to also be a bottomless pit of knowledge. He shared such gems as, “don’t rub your eyes if there’s teargas; use coke,” and, “it was just like this with Maspero, but then out of nowhere the army killed a couple dozen people.” Smart guy, but not the best for quieting nerves.
Eventually it became clear that nothing more would happen that night. We went to an internet cafe so the reporters could upload and post. I felt all jangled, and jumped about a mile when the men behind me cheered the soccer game on tv. I couldn’t believe that just a few streets over, children were laughing and playing with toys. Someone had been shot, a 19 year old was killed, and Cairo didn’t even blink an eye.
Manar went back to listen to Atta’s mother speak, but we couldn’t find her. We went to find where the man (boy, really) had been shot, but we deemed it a long walk for no pay out. Just before we turned around, though, we saw young men running as fast as they could back toward the square, dragging the metal barricades with them. They opened up the square to cars, making the hundreds of people gathered there vulnerable. We were all a bit stunned by that move, and kept looking back over our shoulders, waiting for screams or scattering.
In the end, we went home, feet aching. I was keyed up, but for Sarah, Joey and Manar it was another day at the office. For Hayden, it was the first of what will be many days at a rather unusual office. The three journalists went to work spreading truth, and I drank tea and checked facebook. Later, we put on Halloween costumes and drank beer and partied by the pyramids like nothing ever happened. I updated my status, like that was the most important thing I could do with what I saw–turn it into and experience on a list, a fun fact, bragging rights.
It was strange being with journalists. They were much more calm and controlled than I was. They didn’t raise their voices or pick up signs, and they didn’t allow anyone to paint flags on them. I was with Sarah, so out of respect for her I followed suit. To some extent, I had this weird thought that my camera would protect me, that being a journalist would protect me. I know that’s not true, but it felt like a pretty good get out of jail free card, the way my little blue book used to make me feel. I also know that I’m not a journalist, not even close. I put myself at the center of every story. I apply motivation when I don’t necessarily know it to be true. I am not in any truly dangerous situations. I don’t write on any kind of deadline, and these days I don’t write at all. I don’t even particularly write about anything that matters. Watching Sarah work made me feel small and incompetent. She compartmentalizes her thoughts and opinions, she is thorough and efficient. Her Arabic has improved greatly, and the articles she writes get the facts out to a population of Americans who would otherwise not read the truth.
Through it all, I saw so many little acts of civic duty. People directed traffic, or helped us and others to cross the street. They protected each other, like the man who stood in front of an open man-hole so no one would fall in. That’s what he did, he just stood there while we all rushed past, nervous and following the growing, quickening crowd. Any one of us could have easily fallen in and snapped an ankle at the very least. People helped each other up onto structures and walls for better vantage points, and so many Egyptians beckoned for me to take their photos.
I’m glad I went to Tahrir. I’m glad it all became real to me, instead of a liberal pet project, one that is so easy to support from a safe room thousands of miles away. Feeling the terror of just the noise of one single gunshot, and then feeling the insignificance of that compared to those who have witnessed murder in the street, those who have heard hundreds of gunshots with live ammunition, those who were at the Maspero building and those who suffer in the prisons. It’s so easy to say that there are things worth dying for, that we should stand up for democracy and freedom no matter what. But to see a minuscule fraction of what “no matter what,” can really mean magnified for me the true courage of Egyptians and freedom fighters all over the world.