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WRITERS IN THE REVOLTION: Shereen Abouelnaga Beholding a Rainbow

Abouelnaga tells her story of tear gas canisters in Qasr El-Aini street and old dreams coming true

Shereen Abouelnaga, Tuesday 22 Mar 2011
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Is it possible to write in the past tense about the present moment? One can trace the font of the Revolution, a tracing that triggers narration and documentation; however, at some point you are bound to stumble in a lacuna. It is always easy to talk about a point of arrival; yet it is difficult to talk about a point of departure. Whether it was the incessant stories of physical torture or the continuous oppressive measures taken against the mere sign of protest, one cannot decide. It seems there is no point in trying to identify a point of departure; there are several points of departure to the Revolution.

What we need to remember, to register, to document, to narrate, to tell and to underscore is the spirit of the times. It is a spirit that defied and challenged all attempts at belittling the Facebook community, or rather degrading them. I am not trying to say that the Revolution took place upon the call posted on Facebook for a collective protest. To say that the youths motivated the Revolution is to deny and discredit huge efforts that were carried out in the political and public field since the 1980s. The efforts gained momentum, the protesting “movement” snowballed, and the spirit took a different juncture in the way it revealed and expressed itself.

The “new look” took to the streets on 25 January and did not cool off until Mubarak stepped down on 11 February. Had you told me that you desire this on the eve of September 2005 when Mubarak announced that he is staying for another period of presidency I would have been stunned. Well, we did it. The verb “did” refers to a dream that came true by storming the streets on the 25th and occupying Tahrir Square from the 28th. I cannot remember the number of tear gas bombs that were thrown at us on the 28th, within minutes of the march in Qasr El-Aini Street.

After the Friday Prayers, we – a group of nine women – decided to “join” the Friday of Anger. We started off from Qasr El-Aini Street and we ended up there; we were simply besieged by militias and bombs. Since all communication means were cut off that day we thought, innocently, that we were receiving special treatment; yet, it turned out that equality prevailed that day. Everywhere there were tear gas bombs with an additional bonus of live bullets, and the rubber ones if you are lucky. Have you tried a tear gas canister before? I don’t recommend it at all. Although vinegar and onions might help you will never forget the suffocating feeling. By now it has become common for Egyptians, and I keep two of them as a souvenir with their “made in USA” stamp.

My day ended on a terrifying note. I was still standing in the middle of the street trying to handle a crisis: some of my friends, one whom couldn’t find her daughter, an activist, wanted to go back home whereas I and another friend wanted to stay. Anyway, while standing there and talking to strangers my eyes spotted a scene that was available only in science fiction: a young man carried by a group of protesters and his brain protruding on one side. That was it, I spent the whole night with the piercing sound of bullets as a background. Next day the sound of helicopters in the skies of Cairo became so familiar I soon stopped noticing it.

29 January: opposite the ministry of interior people were being shot. I could not believe we were watching live ammunition being fired in Tahrir Square. One has to wonder how many people died on that day.

It went on and on till 4 February and only stopped when we were attacked, much to our shock, with camels and horses. One artist posed a smart question: who decided to face the revolution of laptops with a pre-Islamic (Jahili) volume of poetry? Not only that, thugs had a key role to play; and, am not ashamed of admitting that that was terrifying. Interestingly enough, it turned out that we can handle and endure bullets, physical tortures, threats by the State Security, what we could not decipher was the thugs part. They simply look like everybody except that their eyes roll amid emptiness and they point at you with a kitchen knife. For me, that was the ugliest part, you fall in a limbo, where you cannot say whether this person is holding a knife to protect you or to massacre you. Have they – whoever they are – done that to us? These were the times when I felt that I should fade away, melt and cease to be.

Next to the thugs episode, comes that of the rumours. It was extremely saddening to watch people believe whatever nasty rumour was thrown to (perhaps at) them. For a whole week we chewed rumours and savoured the bitterness of the worst that might come true. While thugs were threatening our safety, rumours were attacking our souls and occupying our nightmares. In spite of all that, which comes close to a frightening thriller, we took to the street daily, or rather to the iconic Square: Tahrir.

We kept chanting “leave”, and by the 18th day he did. The moment resembled the emergence of a rainbow. Had we realized the fragility of the regime earlier we could have started chanting years ago; yet, we needed fresh blood to fill old bottles. In 1802, one poet said “we receive but what we give”.

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