WRITERS IN THE REVOLUTION: Hala Halim sees Egypt blossoming

Hala Halim , Monday 28 Feb 2011

From New York to Tahrir to Alexandria, a joyous journey of rediscovering a collectivity

Hala Halim
Hala Halim in Tahrir Sq during the revolution

My first inkling that what was taking place had already radically transformed the country was on arrival from the US, on 29 January, when the cab driving me from Cairo Airport was entering Alexandria alongside a line of army tanks. As the cab drove by Alexandria University campus in Chatby down to the Corniche, I caught a glimpse of what was to become a common sight in the following days: young men serving as traffic wardens, in the wake of the police’s withdrawal the previous day, except that remarkably in this instance, they were ushering civilian cars to the side to make way for the army tanks. I ached to take a picture, but an instinct acquired during my days in journalism prompted me to ask the driver if this would get him into trouble; take as many pictures as you like, he turned to me, no one will touch me: all this is a thing of the past.

The Egypt I saw in the days that followed, first in Alexandria then in Cairo, was a country in a state of blossoming. The attenuation of the state security apparatus was the least part of it; rather, it was about joy in rediscovering a collectivity and in collective action. Young and middle-aged; working class and middle class; Muslim, Christian and secularist – everyone spoke to everyone else. Not only at the demonstrations but on the trams and in the streets and shops people drifted in and out of conversations I was having with others as I did into ones they were having. New acquaintances, known only by their first names, were recorded in my mobile as “Noha Demonstration” and “Mohamed Tahrir.”

Most breathtaking of all were the twenty-somethings I met. The many checkpoints set up by neighborhood volunteers meant ample time to chat in a cab I shared on the way back from a demonstration in El-Shohada Square, in front of Alexandria’s main railway station, with Radwa, who had a BA in English literature. She mentioned in passing that she had left the demonstration early the day before and, with a group of women friends, rented a pick-up truck, donned gloves, and removed trash bags until they were exhausted.

Was she part of the popular committees offering services in recent days? No, it is just that she felt that it was the more urgent thing to do right then.

Radwa spoke of how there will be much work of “rehabilitation” to be done post-revolution – this was late January, and she was already thinking ahead, apparently never doubting victory – work of increasing people’s awareness of their civic rights, since “we are only as strong as the weakest link in our society.”

The following day, also in Shohada Square, I met Mostafa, an English literature undergraduate whose placard, in English, read, “Democratic, Liberal, Secular State.” By late afternoon that day, Mostafa looked totally knackered: he had spent the night on the square, he explained, and had stayed up watching over a woman demonstrator as she slept because a man – a government infiltrator, he was sure – was trying to harass her. The Egyptian value of shahama (chivalry; gallantry) was one of the central ethics among the youth of the revolution, as I myself experienced over a week later when, in Tahrir on Thursday, 10 February, we were all waiting with bated breath for Mubarak’s speech in which he was expected to abdicate but did not. As restlessness grew and with little space in which to stand, a young man behind me asked if he could watch over me, kept his hand on my shoulder, and somehow managed to carve out space for me until I had reached a distant pavement; it was not before he had asked whether there was anything else he could do for me that he walked away.

The “Friday of Departure,” as 4 February was designated, coming two days after the “Battle of the Camel” in Tahrir Square, drew massive participation. Anxieties in Alexandria about the regime’s last-ditch measures were reflected in Saad Zaghloul Square where a man with a marker pen was calling to everyone to have their flags inscribed with anti-regime slogans as the official media was representing our demonstrations as pro-Mubarak ones. Mostafa and I were joined by Dalia, an Arabic literature graduate who described herself as an eternal student, having gone on, among other things, to study Hausa, and Hagar, a specialist in Ottoman archives whose every word bespoke a staunchly secularist stance. At one point, a veiled woman turned to me amid the chanting and enumerated, blow by blow, all the reasons why Mubarak had to go – “… unemployment is because of him; deviance among young men is because of him; spinsterhood is because of him…”

As we passed through Mazarita, an elderly man in house clothes stepped out on his balcony and threw his arms wide open as if to embrace the entire demonstration. Turning a street corner headed towards Soter tram station, our eyes were drawn to the rooftop of a tall building where a man had let the pigeons he breeds out of their coop and stood waving two huge flags while the pigeons circled the sky.

As it happened, two placards seen at that demonstration harked back to the very beginning of the 1952 “Revolution,” suggesting, indeed, a revision of that term.

In the square just outside Sidi Gaber railway station where the demonstration wound up, a young man had propped up against an army tank a framed front page of the long-defunct newspaper Al-Masri’s issue announcing the abdication of King Farouk. The event of that abdication was invoked in a placard seen earlier that read, in Arabic, “Farouk said no to spilling the blood of Egyptians / While the traitor brought Egypt nothing but afflictions.”
In the immediate, of course, these were gestures of rubbing Mubarak’s nose into his undignified refusal to abdicate as opposed to the dignity of Egypt’s last king. More broadly, they were gestures of conjoining of “the end” with the “beginning,” a folding over of the sixty-year legacy of the officers’ rule.

The most salient appeal to pre-1952 iconography, however, was in the arching back to the 1919 Revolution. The crescent and the cross with which that abdication placard was sealed, hallmark iconography of 1919, summoned in the small hours of 1 January this year right after the bombing of the Two Saints’ Church in Alexandria, were to become ubiquitous in the revolution that broke out on the 25th of the month.

The translations into action of that emblem of national unity – again, begun weeks before when Muslims went to churches on the 6th of January for Coptic Christmas eve mass to serve as human shields and express solidarity – were spectacular after 25 January. The Muslim-Christian simultaneous prayers for the martyrs; the Christians forming a cordon with their bodies around Muslims at prayer and vice versa – to these I add a spontaneous scene witnessed in Tahrir within an hour after Mubarak’s ouster: a Coptic priest whom several young men rushed to hug. A bearded young man embraced him, saying, “Since the revolution started, there was not a single attack on a church.” The priest replied, “Intou shaab masr” (“You are the [true] people of Egypt”).

For some years now, I have been writing about syncretism in Egypt as a religiously-inflected form of cosmopolitanism in response to increasingly conservative constructions of the nation.

In novels by Edwar al-Kharrat and Bahaa Taher, to take but two examples, I detected an appeal to inter-faith relations that parts company with traditional Western versions of cosmopolitanism understood as a secular worldliness. Instead, these two novelists acknowledge the imperative of upholding pluralism in a conservative context by reinscribing it in the religious terms of tolerance.

These terms – the inter-faith exchange of culinary gifts on religious feast days; the syncretic intertwining of rituals from different religions – are drawn directly from an actually existing folk culture, not least as associated with the moulids (festivals for saints and religious figures).

But it had always seemed to me that a gap existed between the literary representations – which, after all, remain elite in their reach, unless a novel is turned into a television series – and the ancient, much-frayed reservoir of syncretic folk practices that are not primarily enacted with the national crisis in mind. The magnificence of the 25 January Revolution is precisely there, in that it was a non-elite assumption of agency in the articulation of inter-faith solidarity that firmly counters a sectarianism wrought by complicities yet to be fully unpacked in order to lay claim to egalitarianism and citizenship, so severely compromised in the past few decades.

I heartily agree with Ezzat El-Kamhawy who, in a previous column in this series, designated this “the Egyptian revolution of laughter.” A recent New York Times article (by Sharon Otterman and J. David Goodman; 25 February, 2011) described the feel of Tahrir in the days after the ouster as that of a “carnival”; this has its appeal, but I would see it more as a politicized moulid. The extended inter-faith sharing of time, of food, of space for prayer rituals, hallmarks of the traditional moulid, were all present here with the salient difference that the goal was of fulfilling aspirations of democracy and national unity in images now etched both locally and globally.

How these aspirations articulated with such acumen will be codified in future revisions of the constitution, particularly in the hoped-for annulment of article two which states that the sharia is the source of legislation, remains to be seen.
Amid the scene of unprecedented joy and national pride in Tahrir on 12 February, the day after Mubarak’s ouster, one man stood in solemn silence, holding up the picture of his martyred son. Did he ever see justice for the martyrdom of his son done? Word has it that there are lawsuits and investigations, and also threats to those who have pressed charges. Further down the square, one of the demonstrators, gloved and wielding a broom as part of the wide-scale movement of purging the country, literally and metaphorically, was listening patiently to a woman who was saying that she has been watching all these events from home and was afraid for her son, a little boy she had with her. All we ask for, the young man answered, is that our families give us moral support; in years to come, what we did will become clearer. Every person who was martyred, he continued, had died “so that your son does not walk by the wall” – cringingly hewing to safety, that is – “but walks in the middle of the street.”

Hala Halim, a writer and literary translator, is an assistant professor of Comparative Literature and Middle Eastern Studies at New York University.


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