Whenever I remember 2 pm on 25 January 2011, I feel that I have changed forever. At that time I was preparing to leave Tahrir Square after having toured it for two hours in search of protesters. There were only policemen and Central Security officers talking to their leaders on their radios.
“All under control, sir. Just a few chants and hardly any protesters there,” they said.
Passers-by would stand for minutes behind the iron barricades before leaving in frustration. I thought to myself, “nothing will happen, just like every time.”
Minutes passed in silence as desperation gradually aborted my attempt to protest. I do not know why I decided to take to Tahrir that day. Indeed, the call for protests received considerable support on social networking websites, but I was never one to be impressed by figures on the internet. I always resisted their dazzle. All of this has changed now.
But why did I leave at 10 am that morning and why did I not take my car; just in case something happened, I might have thought?
I still remember the excruciating year of 2010. The amount of boredom, bleakness and frustration it brought was suffocating. The explosion at the Two Saints Church on the cusp of 2011 caused all the tears that had welled in my eyes over the past sad year to burst free.
In 2010, the flabby old man would come back to Egypt after a successful surgery in Germany, hop into his sneakers and slap on some rejuvenating makeup to conceal a worn out heart and mind. Priests, also well beyond their shelf lives, would receive him with cold hugs and robotic smiles. It was the image of an ailing state.
The breaths of the dead were contaminating the air. He did not know how he was going to transfer power to his son. What remained was an ugly type of journalism, and the so-called “National” Democratic Party, which made too much fuss and no productivity.
In 2010, I was restrained by their senility; my apathy only a repulsion from images of their dyed pitch-black hair. I was hibernating in full sun.
Media outlets were scared of the sway of the indiscriminate old men in their autumn years. The weakness of the loud-mouthed opposition, meanwhile, had shattered all hope in their long legacy of “struggle.” Their struggle belongs to the 1960s, with its heated yet empty mottoes. The opposition wanted a new frame for the same old picture.
What kind of woman was I that year? I was a wife, mother and artist, one of thousands who abandoned medicine in the belief that medicine squashes talents. Deep down, I believed I had embarked on an adventure, that I had jumped out of a moving train onto unknown land. I trained myself to come to terms with feelings of frustration and to accept slow progress in the new world. Being a wife and mother was also a new job, as novel to me as the practice of art and the study of sociology. Several “feminine” tasks were thrust in the face of a young woman with so many contradictions. They changed my life in five years. Looking back, I can feel the change was dramatic.
In 2010, I was fulfilling all those feminine and social roles. My little child was growing up beautifully; my marital life was on track, my marriage sometimes normal, bumpy or satisfactory. My sociological studies wavered between absurdity, boredom, futility and necessity. Art was sad. That excruciating stability, which seemed like some kind of misery to the authentic female within, enshrouded the year 2010. I did not know where the boundaries of that female were, or where her roles ended and where she had to step back to preserve something that distinguished her from all those roles she played.
This tiring search went on under a seemingly tranquil surface. But never did I realize what was going on inside me until the revolution broke out.
At 2 pm, while I was heading out of Abdel Moneim Riyad Square, a flood of people came my way, as though it was doomsday. Along with them came augury, happiness, crowds, roars, change, sunlight, earth, science, songs, home, sadness and tears. I walked with them and ever since I was never myself again.
I would fall, only to find someone to help me back to my feet. I would find myself at a security cordon, only to be led away. It was as if we were all looking for common salvation. Never has it been so gratifying to merge into a crowd as such. Together they chanted the most beautiful three words ever: "Bread, freedom and social justice."
Who created this beautiful universe? I never experienced a similar feeling. My soul was hovering happily as though it was getting to learn about the world anew. There are faces that I knew but saw as altogether new from behind the curtain of my tears. We hugged like we had all been traveling for a long time. Many people shared the same inexplicable feeling.
Is it worth reading the same scene with the eyes of a woman? I will try to recall everything.
Talking about the woman I was in Tahrir brings back a deluge of emotions that leaves one in melancholic pain. ِAnything I say in this space will fail to describe the tranquility I felt in Tahrir over the 18 days of protests. Frankly, I never envisaged for one second that this utopia would disappear at the end. I was under the naïve impression that it was a reality that would last forever.
At this point, I never imagined that one year after the revolution all we would be discussing are the freedoms that Suzanne Mubarak granted to Egyptian women. I could not think that the same country would see a number of its churches burned or demolished. Nor did I think that it would stand helpless as Coptic protesters were run over by army vehicles, and would look — even if bitterly — in the face of its protesters who lost their eyes without feeling the tinge of humiliation.
I don’t want to believe that many of those who chanted for the ouster of Mubarak would also chant for abolishing women’s right to divorce through khul’ laws and amending family laws that empowered women and call for preventing men and women from mixing at workplaces.
It is true I made acquaintance there, but that did not eliminate our value systems or the class classifications that monitor our ways of thinking. I am now trying to recall what a man who chatted with us on the corruption of the regime and the future of the revolution was thinking as girls walked past, wearing “revealing” clothes and puffing on cigarettes. Does he still believe in what he dedicated his life to for the 18 days?
We will always proudly remember images of unique social coherence in Tahrir and how people rose above their differences at that historical moment. We will remember how love and mercy spread so readily when trans-cultural channels of communication found ground.
The girls in Tahrir were ”worth a hundred men,” like we say in Egypt. Nobody came to the conclusion that the spiritual strength that Egypt’s women were drawing on was actually the result of years of suppression that made them into champions. Did the women pour to the streets in defense of their freedom? Yes. They went out to that space where they could sit quietly, stretch out their legs, comfortable in the thought that no man passing-by could threaten their peace, believing he had all the right to do so.
Everyone in Tahrir enjoyed some private space that was not encroached on by others or even by hunger, and the need of making a livelihood. They found joy in abandoning that ongoing struggle for livelihood to contemplate their humanity and to rearrange their priorities.
I am now asking where those people have gone? Are they back caught in their struggle to make ends meet? Have “cultural” difference once again managed to segregate them?
Do they remember how they their souls were floating lightly when they felt the streets were theirs? Do they still keep their calm when they remember the long lines and huge crowds in million-man protests? Do they still remember the January sun that gave them warmth in the midst of winter? Do they still remember how their initial feelings of estrangement wore off as others smiled in their faces?
These memories demonstrate that change is possible and culture can be parlayed into another way to love, have mercy and smile in the faces of others. I will always try not to lose trust in everything connected to men, because men are capable of being merciful. I insist on believing that tolerance is possible.
The kind of woman I was for 18 days demands an end to having to choose between forfeiting all rights and employing deceitful schemes to acquire women’s rights. Both choices are bitter. Woman should live and demand what others do, head up high, for like everyone else they were there when everyone chanted for freedom.
Fayrouz Karawya is an independent artist, writer and researcher.
Translated by Dina Zafer