Too Close for Comfort
It was the most absurd thing to do. In fact, it was the very thing that we were told not to do, but we wanted to get reports from the ground rather than just from the latest reporter on the BBC.
There had been swarms of frustrated men, women and even children that had passed by our windows throughout the day and night. The roads were free of the usual honking of car horns, and all we heard were the occasional chants by straggling protesters on their way to Tahrir Square.
Air is what we needed, being cooped up indoors against one’s will has huge psychological consequences; coupled with the violation of a right to services paid for – namely, mobile phone and internet services – it makes for very angry people.
The night was cool, a gentle breeze was being picked off the Nile and ushered our way. We didn’t want to venture very far – just downstairs sat along the Corniche where protesters frequently passed. Of course, as we left our building to cross the road, the group of young men stationed on the corner did a lot of elbow-nudging and head nodding to get one another’s attention that two foreign women were out on the streets. We clearly did not look like we were going out to protest, N. was in her Bedouin skirt and Moroccan hat and I was wrapped in a cardigan, donning trainers and oversized cargo pants. We looked like we were popping out of the flat for milk, except there were no shops open for us to do so even if we wanted to.
It was 12.30am, which may seem rather late to most people in the world, yet Egyptians are still usually bustling up and down our stretch of the Corniche, with the petrol station buzzing with the activity of petrol-filling and windscreen washing. However, this was not a normal night under normal circumstances. It was eerily deserted and, dare I say it: quiet.
Where we sat gave us the view of weary protesters making their way home. I noticed that there were no black or white taxis transporting people to their chosen destinations, a formidably unusual sight. This led freedom-seekers to travel home on foot, despite the ridiculous distance their homes may be.
We were approached by a guy, whom neither of us paid attention to. He didn’t seem at all bothered that we’d ignored him, and he simply sat close-by, rolling up the right leg of his jeans above his knee. I kept tabs on him by watching him from the corner of my eye, and it was as he continued to roll his jeans leg up that I noticed a crimson circular lump just below his right knee. He’d been wounded.
I turned to face him to get a better look at what he was doing. There was hardly any light under the seated area we were in, and I watched as he attempted to inspect his wound. He muttered something I didn’t understand; I could only respond with, “eh?”
He stood up and limped over to the side we were sitting, showing us his leg. I asked how it happened, his blank expression and blinking of his eyes made it clear that he could not understand a word of English, so in broken Arabic and much arm gesturing he told us how his wound came about.
He was shot by officers. He had no weapons on him. He wanted freedom for his country. He didn’t do anything bad. He was a good guy. Yet he was shot in the leg anyhow. “They’re bad,” he told us, “bad, bad people,” I felt my heart being squeezed between all the pent-up emotion from that day, but refused to cry or shout or scream. Not there.
“Mayya,” he requested hoarsely as he mimed drinking from a bottle.
“Hadir,” and we trotted back up to our flat on the third floor to get our wounded friend some water. We wanted to give him some food as well; we decided against it since it would’ve taken a while to heat up, so we settled on a small selection of bananas, oranges and apples along with two bottles of water.
In retrospect, I should’ve taken my entire box of water down. There were many protesters who sought water as they passed by where we sat, and although we felt like Florence and Nightingale helping knackered protesters, we wanted to do so much more. We could’ve set up a little station in the seated area. We should have. We didn’t.
A group of 4 young men made a stop for some rest. Their attire was ridden with dirt. Not the usual ‘I live in Cairo, so I have an excuse for these dusty shoes’ kind of dirt, but ‘I’ve been out on the battlefield all day’ sort. They were well-dressed young guys, the ones I would have bumped into during a trip to City Stars. That night, their shoes were blackened, shirts crumpled and hair dirt-ladled and ruffled one time too many. One would’ve thought they’d been out travelling for several days with nothing but the clothes on their backs – this was not the case. They’d only been out for about 12 hours; as unkempt and dishevelled as they were, the hardships borne that day was heavily marked on their faces.
We sat in silence for several minutes, our wounded friend, shared his stash of fruit and water with them, which they gladly received. They chewed slowly, and it was while watching them that N. told them we live just across the road and if they wanted anything else.
It was obvious that under different circumstances, they would’ve had more patience with our weak Arabic skills, and may have even corrected us, nonetheless, it wasn’t a normal night and one of the guys sighed, “We speak perfect English. We’re students at the American University of Cairo.” Oh.
Despite his fatigue, he was as polite as he could be. I didn’t blame him for not responding in Arabic, he was deadbeat; he wanted nothing more than to be at home. We all knew that. Yet he remained patient with my barrage of questions about what they had seen, heard and experienced in Tahrir Square.
I have never seen sadness and venom swim in someone’s eyes before that night. His eyes glazed over for a few seconds; I can only imagine the flashbacks of the day fly past his large, dark brown eyes. “They shot these at us,” he muttered, holding the remains of a tear gas canister. His companion, who had two empty canisters placed on his fingers, rubbed them together as he held up his stash.
My jaw dropped, I didn’t realise when I whispered, “No.” Hearing it on the news and seeing it on the TV was a total different ball-game to seeing the canisters in their cold, steely flesh.
We were told of the brutality of the guards, who seemed to flare the situation to unnecessary heights. I could do nothing but shake my head in sympathy and mumble a pathetic, “Maalaysh.” I told them that we were proud of them for what they were trying to achieve and their bravery considering the harshness they were confronted with. They shrugged it off, evidently unfazed by our words. They did it for Egypt, not for praise. We bid them farewell as they resumed their journey on foot, to their homes two hours away.
Another group of worn travellers approached as that group moved on, and we took the opportunity to head off back to our flat. It was all too much for one day. The Day of Rage, as that Friday was named, was one of the most humbling days of my life. All my palpitating heart could muster was the whisper of safety for all my Egyptian brethren.
Stay safe, my friends, stay safe.
– The Londoner