Category Archives: Power to the People

Story of an On The Run

I do not personally wish to delve into rhetoric about the recent looting and riots in London, because as it stands, I’m an outsider looking in as I have not lived in London for a year, and don’t feel best placed to pass opinion.

However, I witnessed part of the Egyptian revolution and could not have been more proud to have seen a country that had been silenced for 30 years, awake from slumber, and I only hope that the politicians in the UK do so before the country spirals into more destruction. And speaking of destruction, I witnessed just that outside my window during the Egyptian revolution at a Mobil/ On the Run petrol station.

From the time I moved into my flat last year, this petrol station had always been buzzing with vehicles passing for either a refuel of petrol or people stocking up on food and drinks (and in a lot of cases, cigarettes as well!).

Bustling with pollution

They decided to close shop on the morning of Friday 28th January 2011 – they could sense the dangers of the protests were bigger than most people thought…

Day of Protests, Day of Closure

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Teachers of the Taste of Hunger

It was the 5th day of fasting; the sun had begun to dip behind the domes and minarets of Mohammed Ali mosque nested in the Citadel in Islamic Cairo, and my sister and I were on our way to an iftar.

Our destination was Mokattam – a small town planted at the summit of rocky mountains. To reach there one must take a taxi to snake up a sun-battered mountainside, on a steady incline.

It was at a stop at a traffic police manned intersection that I noticed a black, blacked-out 4×4 slowly pull up on the other side of the intersection. It was the ‘roadside shooting’ kind, although it was missing the heavy hip-hop bass and gleaming rims. So ordinarily it wouldn’t deserve a blog post, but it was the sight of a small group of poorly clad people rushing towards the passenger-side window that made me whip out my notebook.

An old man hobble-ran towards the group, one arm outstretched and the other awkwardly placed on his side to help him balance in his mini sprint. Some people were walking away from the car by the time he reached them, each with what looked like a white  polystyrene package in their hands.

Food.

Kind hearts seated in their luxurious ride were delivering food – by hand – to the poor so that they too could share in the joys of morsels caressing the back of their throats.

My eyes welled up. The charitable in Cairo are many during Ramadan and it brought back memories of the night when I gave bags of lentils, rice and beans to an old lady who sat on the side of the road at the end of Ramadan last year. Her joy still tugs at me as I wished I could have done more and given more to her. I couldn’t help but allow fat tears to roll down my cheeks when I turned away from her, just as I saw a thin streak of light on the cheeks of the desolate as they clutched their food parcels for the day.

My tears were bittersweet: a mixture of joy for their joy, and guilt towards my lack of gratitude for being sustained without hardship. Poverty is real here, and knocks you in your chest when you step out of your lovely furnished flat. It’s when we have to join the nation’s foodless that our eyes and hearts open a bit to the reality of hunger pangs and parched throats. We only taste a bit of it.

The poor are one of the greatest teachers for me here in Cairo, and I’m grateful to be taught the many lessons they have to offer, even if they are only remembered for a while.

– The Londoner

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.

 

Our wounded friend

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Fighting for What’s Right

The metro was full of people, all trying to get home as soon as they could before the metro stopped running that night. It usually runs until 1am, but that night it was imminent to stop running much, much earlier.

As we had made our way to the station there were people in a hurry to get home, men looking at us inconspicuously as we strolled to the metro station. We spotted a fruit and vegetable store and it became clear that we should take the opportunity to stock up since we didn’t know when we’d next have a chance not only to see such a wonderful variety as was on display, but to get back to Maadi to stock up on produce like fennel and wonderfully green broccoli.

I guess we’d been taking our time to make our selections, because a guy came over from the street and reprimanded the store owners for not hastening in closing their shop like everyone else were. We rounded up our goods and made out way to the station once again, passing by a waiter who worked in Cilantro who said something along the lines of, “Don’t you know that you’re supposed to be going home? What’re you two doing out?”

I gave a curt nod and we carried on our merry way, with the metro station teaming with passengers. The carriage we got on wasn’t particularly full. By full I mean there was hardly anyone standing up, a sure sign that the train was full, but at one particular station a crowd of people rushed on, some women covering their noses, others fanning the faces of babies and there was a great commotion of Arabic bustle. One woman started shouting that they should close the windows, and I understood she mentioned that there was tear gas outside. Tear gas?! Surely not already – we were all just trying to get home, for God’s sake!

Let me say that my blood has been simmering slowly all day… I’d crossed many paths of anger and I was getting pretty fed-up with how the situation was being handled by the security forces. Sure, I wasn’t in the throngs of danger, but we were nowhere near the action in Tahrir, and there I was on a metro where a woman was in tears as she fanned her baby’s face. What sort of madness was this? And being the emotionally fragile person that I sometimes am (don’t ever watch a moving movie with me… my eyes water – happiness, sadness, courage, bravery, the lot – they water! *ehem*) I was almost in tears with her, an element of my own probably selfish frustrations stirred amongst the emotions.

Thankfully, we reached home unscathed, unharmed and safe, but it wasn’t long after the curfew had been declared that we heard chants on the streets again. People were obviously unmoved by the order to ‘stay in your houses’ and a part of me felt robbed. ‘I want to be out too,’ my selfish side complained, but I satisfied myself with under-the-breath curses against you-know-who and power to the people chants. I threw a few waves outside the window too, although I am sure none of the men or women on the streets paid any attention.

Things soon died down, and I wondered whether people had gone to sleep. The petrol station right infront of our building had been shut all day, and while I was in the kitchen brewing myself some much-needed tea, N. started shouting.

“Oh my God! Oh my God!”
“What! What!” I shouted back.
“They’re looting On the Run! They’re looting On the Run!”
“NO!”

I threw on a scarf and flung open the window to what as sure as hell were some young boys running in and out of the petrol station below. This was all too much. I’d had my emotions kajoled all day and I was just about ready to knock someone out. Let it be known that I have never had a physical confrontation with anyone in all my 20-something years of life, but the sight of people stealing from their people in that manner made me want to smash someone’s face in.

“HARAM!” I screamed, “Haram alaykum! Haram alaykum!” Oh how I wish I knew how to string a good number of curses and cusses together in Arabic! One boy had the cheek to ask why. Oh, no he didn’t! My throat and lungs were reverberating from the effort of screaming out at them, other neighbours silently looked on. Yup, you guessed it – my anger was fuelled further.

“Mamno’ alaykum, mamno’! Intum harami!” The other neighbours finally awoken from the slumber of stupidity and rather than just screaming (as I was doing), they went a step further and I saw glass bottles, water bottles and all sorts of things being rained down on them from way above me. There were even gun shots, and it looked like other neighbours had finally awoke and came out with sticks to chase the wretched theives away.

I cannot tell you how overwhelmed I was with happiness. “Social justice,” I cried, “Community social bloody justice! This is what it’s all about. This is what community spirit is all about!”

While my view of Egyptians may have sank at the sight of onlookers doing nothing at first, I wanted to personally hug all the people who made a difference, those who threw things at them, those who came out, especially the old lady who came out in her pink night dress and unmatching blue scarf randomly tied onto her head. I felt as though a mini battle had been won, and the locals proceeded to secure the station and several stood guard all night.

Awesomeness at its best. Power to the people.

– The Londoner

Start of The Day of Rage

Friday is my weekend at work, and while I was aware that Egyptians would be taking to the streets after the Friday prayers (both Christians and Muslims), I was on a mission to fine-tune the lesson plans for my new group of young learners at work.

My new flat-mate – who is incidentally also a work colleague of mine – doesn’t have a Friday weekend, and I bid her to be safe as she left the house that morning, because no one knew how the events of the demonstrations would unravel.

I’d had BBC and CNN on as I scrawled notes of games that I would be playing with the kids, when I heard our rather annoying bird-tweet doorbell go off like a siren of some sort. As I made a dash for a hijab to enquire about who was at the door, N. burst through the door in a madness of panting that exuded from the depths of her lungs.

“What!” I demanded, “what’s going on?”
“It’s madness! It’s crazy! There are police everywhere… gas… gas.., they’re using gas. I… I… I smelt it. I got a whiff of the gas in… in… in the taxi!”

My eyes bulged immediately. “No flipping way!” I rushed back to the TV to get the latest updates as N. also updated me on the situation at work. There would be no classes for two days. A no-brainer and a bit of common sense exercised at last, especially considering we’d been working during the protests of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

We settled in front of BBC to get the latest updates, to see the horrific use of violence by the Egyptian police and our bloods began to boil further, especially since we were affected by the severity of the forms of communication we so longed to use.

About an hour later we heard some shouts. Not the ordinary, “Ya basha! Amla eh?” kinda shouting, but chanting shouts. Protesters in our part of town? I thought. Seriously? Then the logic of it clicked into place. We live along the Corniche, where people have been using as a route to get to the protests.

We made a dash for our cameras, ready to take some shots and record this momentous event in history. I felt slightly honoured to be able to witness aspects of the event, as the Egyptian people finally stopped complaining amongst themselves  and now made their grievances known to the world.

It was at this point that I craved to be able to understand and speak Arabic fluently. I wanted a slice of recognition of what they were chanting. I caught snippets like, “Wahid, itnayn, talata (something, something) Masrayya…” I was bashing my hand against the iron railing outside our front room windows due to frustration of my lack of complete comprehension.

The crowd was an amalgamation of generations, of levels of wealthiness, religiousness and gender. It was awe-inspiring, and I must confess that there were a few “Power to the People” shouts coming from our window out to the crowd. Other onlookers seemed rather unmoved, something I could not understand. I understood that some people didn’t go out (although I don’t quite know why), but to stand with arms crossed in a stance of defiance was totally alien to me. Did they not believe in what the protesters believe in? I may never know.

There was a round of about 4 large groups of protesters that passed by, each one louder, larger and eclectic. It was warming to see women in the crowd – the clearly religious (in terms of dress) and possible Christians (you can never be quite sure of these things). All the while we filmed, took shots and chanted a little ourselves, as the hair on the back of our necks stood upright from the sheer excitement of it all.

Once the crowd had died down and we’d eaten lunch we wondered what to do with ourselves. The Internet connection was dead and there wasn’t even a hint of a signal on our mobile phones. There was an electric charge in the air and the sky was so enticingly blue that it felt almost depressing to just sit at home in front of BBC replays all afternoon.

“Let’s go to Maadi,” I suggested, since Rehab, Alex and City Stars were almost impossible to reach.So we got ready and jumped on the metro to Maadi, only 5 stops away. There is an additional story to add to this – one that occurred during our journey, but I don’t want to shift the focus of this post onto me, so it’ll have to wait, I’m afraid.

Maadi was unperturbed by the events unravelling in the centre of Cairo. The streets were still clean, people were still sitting outside Cilantro, enjoying a Panini in Beanos and strolling along carelessly. It seemed like a different world entirely, and we were secretly glad that we had found a haven to be able to drink coffee, indulge in a naughty cake and doodle words onto paper in our notebooks, all in the comfort of Costa Coffee.

We encountered an interesting elderly Portuguese couple, but their story is for another time, because after the adhan (call to prayer) for the sunset prayer was called we heard raised voices and snippets of some sort of a curfew. I stopped writing and focused my hearing in on the muttering.

“Army are coming… have to go… really sorry… no one on the streets… I’m sorry.”

I turned to N. “Did you hear that? We have to go.”
She swung her head around to also listen in, and then an American lady confirmed to the Portuguese couple.
“Everyone has to leave. They’ve imposed a curfew and they want everyone in their houses.”

I shook my head a few too many times; unbelievable! In Maadi too? There is a large majority of foreigners who live here, why do we have to evacuate the streets here too?

Our waiter apologetically gave us our bill and we promptly threw in some cash – we were the last customers in the cafe. I asked one of the seniors what exactly was going on, and he confirmed – once again – that we should go home, and that the army would be out on the streets, arresting people who broke the curfew. I cheekily asked whether they would arrest us.

“We’re not Egyptian,” I retorted, “What would they do if we stayed out on the streets?”
“Well,” the manager began, “They would say, ‘Please go into your homes’.”
“Would they arrest us?” I asked daringly, I do like a little bit of excitement in my life, I must admit.
“No,” he responded, evidently unmoved by my excitement, “they would just ask they you go home.”

This was the beginning of a very eventful and interesting night…

– The Londoner