Immortalize them, ya baladna, immortalize them.
Immortalize them as they did you, lest you thrive and prosper.
Thus goes a haunting tune of “The People of the Canal”, sung to me as a testament to the “semsemeyya that remembers those whom history forgets”.
The semsemeyya, a musical instrument from the canal region, remembers the heroic acts of a people who resisted imperialism in 1956 and 1967. Their memory is a constant reminder of what they died for: dignity and self-determination. Their martyrdom creates a legacy that stretches across decades, making the residents of the canal cities – Port Said, Suez and Ismailiyya – into a resistant people. These residents know their power is in their people-hood. As such, they were some of the first to rise during the 2011 revolution.
My first real understanding of the notion of martyrdom was in a hospital in Alexandria on 29 January, 2011. Attempting to survey the number of protesters who had fallen the night before during the “Friday of Rage”, I stood amidst the families of the dead and the morgue administrator at the university hospital. He refused to disclose any names or numbers. In a moment of heightened rage, the administrator dared families to enter the morgue and declared that anyone with questions had to find answers themselves. In a single motion, the families did just that. They entered a room where 14 bodies lay, placed at various angles due to limited space. A young man stepped forth and yanked the white sheets off one body after another, giving each anonymous corpse a name, age and life.
The first was 21-year-old Mostafa Shaaban. His face was still fresh with bruises and injuries. His young features and dark hair reminded me of my brother. As more blankets came off, I saw in each of their faces someone familiar. I felt the crushing anguish of standing before the bodies of loved ones that once throbbed with life and conviction, and a proud sense of dignity.
The room was brimming with grief as more families poured in. At the climax of this collective angst, an old woman, clad in black and her eyes glassy and wide, hobbled into the room and made her way to her son. She pulled his blanket off gently and patted his cheeks as if to wake him up. Then she turned around and pulled me closer.
“Look at him, isn’t he beautiful? Get up habibi, get up and show her how beautiful you are.” She turned to me again. “And wait till you hear his voice…get up habibi, let her hear your voice.” I whispered to her that her son had died a martyr and his blood would not go in vain. She stared back at me in shock and mouthed the words “shahid” over and over, until someone gently lead her out of the room and she broke into wails.
“Why did I say it?” I asked myself. Martyrs sacrifice their lives for a cause and until we succeed there was not yet a definite cause (by 29 January the fate of the revolution was far from clear). At that moment, a young man who was identifying his friends yelled through his own tears: “This uprising started as one of angry youth, but everyone in Alexandria has lost someone today. All of their families will come out in anger; a whole people will revolt. For Alexandria will never forget!” Slogans were chanted immediately and people poured into the streets. Through the deaths of these people a worthy struggle was born and there was no turning back.
But do we still remember our martyrs?
Ahmed Salman, 17, left his house in Hawamdeyya on 28 January to buy stationary for his second private lesson that day. On his way, he and his friend Ali came across a demonstration. At first they followed along timidly. Then, despite the gunfire, they decided to join. Minutes later, Ahmed was shot in the liver. On his way to the hospital, he was dead.
Mohammed Metwally, a shoe-seller in the Boulaq district in Cairo joined the battle on Qasr al-Nil bridge on the same day. After watching the protests with his friends on TV earlier that day, they decided they could not let “evil” prevail. Metwally was shot in the head. His brother raced to the nearby Qasr al-Aini hospital that night. When he arrived, he was given his brother’s wet clothes.
“I had seen the security forces spray them with water cannons as they prayed on the bridge. He must have died while praying,” he said. “Mohammed’s blood will wash this country of injustice and oppression; it will not go in vain.”
Salman’s parents did not waste time in reporting their son’s murder to the police. At the station they were asked to reconsider mentioning the officer’s name. “If you do, they’ll tell you he was on vacation and you’ll loose everything. Address your charges to Habib al-Adly instead,” they were instructed. And so they did.
The families of martyrs from Imbaba, Matariyya, Kerdasa, Dar al-Salam, Boulaq, Shubra, Maadi as well as governorates outside of Cairo have now formed a support group to seek justice for their loved ones. Every family has stories of being offered money, apartments, and cars in return for their silence. Many have also faced threats from members of the police who are striving to restore their power in these neighborhoods.
But the bigger problem is the Egyptian public that is already forgetting the sacrifices these brave people have made.
At a gathering of martyrs’ families earlier this month, people contemplated the best way to get their voices out to a wider audience. They considered dramatic acts, like blocking the ring-road or other vital streets. They also discussed what kind of justice they seek, retributive or restorative? Is their struggle for the trial of an officer? Or a minister who orchestrated the violence? Or a president who authorized it? Or a whole system that encouraged it? The families raise questions many of us have already forgotten.
How did our martyrs sink so low in priority that such desperate measure are being contemplated to remind us they exist?
In remembering those who gave their lives for this revolution, we remember the revolution itself. Remembrance is more than just sympathy with the families – it’s a responsibility. It helps carry forward our hope for justice, whether it’s the trial of a perpetrator or the restructuring of an entire system.
In forgetting, we fail the revolution and risk loosing ourselves as a people. We lapse into a state where the police once again rule without any accountability and where some lives matter more than others. People died because they believed something in their society was changing. Hope was so imminent that they risked not seeing the future. Our martyrs left us with that hope and it’s up to us to realize it.
The violence we see today in Tahrir represents a people fighting for justice in a system that has thus far failed. Many of us sit back and watch, arguing over the whether they deserve of our sympathies or not. Those who have doubts should speak to the families of the martyrs, hear their stories and listen to their desire to continue what their loved ones have died for.
Their dream is our responsibility. Their legacy is one that shuns torture, injustice and unaccountable government. We all deserve no less. The families of Alexandria, Imbaba, Kerdasa, Suez, and Hawamdeyya will never forget that – and nor should we.
Alia Mossallam is a PhD student at the London School of Economics and Political Science.