Virtual Palestinians: From Sabra and Chatila to Arab Spring

On the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, it is worth rereading Jean Genet’s song to the beauty of revolutionaries

“Martyrs’ Square”, Beirut, 2005. photo: Youssef Rakha
.

For me, the word “Palestinians,” whether in a headline, in the body of an article, on a handout, immediately calls to mind fedayeen in a specific spot—Jordan—and at an easily determined date: October, November, December 1970, January, February, March, April 1971. It was then and there that I discovered the Palestinian Revolution…

***

When I went to Sabra and Chatila in April 2005, I had already read Jean Genet’s “Four Hours in Chatila”—and loved it. It is a rambling meditation on death and revolution, written within a day of the killing of the entire Palestinian and Shia population of the two refugee camps within greater Beirut—ostensibly in retaliation for the killing of the pro-Israeli Kataeb leader Bachir Gemayel after he was elected president. Kataeb militiamen did the work for the Israeli army on 16-18 September 1982.
“Goyim kill goyim,” Prime Minister Menachem Begin told the Knesset, “and they come to hang the Jews.”
In the end neither Jews nor Maronites were hanged. With the PLO already in Tunis, what transpired was the termination of the Palestinian (Arab) Revolution so conceived—the apex of the counterrevolution led by Israel’s allies, and the end of the glorious legend of the fedayeen.
For reasons that had more to do with where I was in my life than sympathy with the Palestinian cause, when I went to Sabra and Chatila, I broke down in tears. It happened at the end of my walk through the site, at once so inside and outside Beirut that, spending time there, you feel as if you’ve travelled in time. It happened when I got to the tiny cemetery where the remains of some victims of the massacre are buried. There was no obvious context for crying in public, and it must’ve looked ridiculous.
But I was in Beirut for the first time to witness the Cedar Revolution: the young, apolitical uprising against the hegemony of the Syrian regime and its sectarian practices in Lebanon, directed at the army and mukhabarat whose personnel had enjoyed arbitrary power over the Lebanese for as long as anyone could remember. After Iraq’s disastrous liberation from Saddam, this was the first ever evidence of an Arab Spring—and, thinking about being “a virtual Palestinian”, as I had been called in Beirut, my tears anticipated another moment almost six years later, here in Cairo.

***

A photograph doesn’t show the flies nor the thick white smell of death. Neither does it show how you must jump over bodies as you walk along from one corpse to the next. If you look closely at a corpse, an odd phenomenon occurs: the absence of life in this body corresponds to the total absence of the body, or rather to its continuous backing away. You feel that even by coming closer you can never touch it. That happens when you look at it carefully. But should you make a move in its direction, get down next to it, move an arm or a finger, suddenly it is very much there and almost friendly. Love and death. These two words are quickly associated when one of them is written down. I had to go to Chatila to understand the obscenity of love and the obscenity of death. In both cases the body has nothing more to hide: positions, contortions, gestures, signs, even silences belong to one world and to the other…
In the middle, near them, all these tortured victims, my mind can’t get rid of this “invisible vision”: what was the torturer like? Who was he? I see him and I don’t see him. He’s as large as life and the only shape he will ever have is the one formed by the stances, positions, and grotesque gestures of the dead fermenting in the sun under clouds of flies. If the American Marines, the French paratroopers, and the Italian bersagliere who made up an intervention force in Lebanon left so quickly (the Italians, who arrived by ship two days late, fled in Hercules airplanes!) one day or thirty-six hours before their official departure date, as if they were running away, and on the day before Bashir Gemayel’s assassination, are the Palestinians really wrong in wondering if Americans, French and Italians had not been warned to clear out pronto so as not to appear mixed up in the bombing of the Kataeb headquarters?

***

I’m pretty sure that circle of sparse vegetation where people are buried is in Sabra, not Chatila. But Sabra and Chatila are so interwoven in my memory it really hardly matters.
The walls and the unpaved ground were white, and white was the dust staining what asphalt there was. As I sobbed uncontrollably before the unmarked graves, what my tears anticipated—unbeknown to me, of course—was the night of 25 January 2011. That evening on my way home from the offices of Al Ahram, having laughed at the concept of revolution-as-Facebook-event, I decided to walk through Tahrir to see if the demonstrations planned for Police Day were any different from endless—useless—protests I had seen since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Then, arriving there, I realised something was happening. The sight and especially the sound of unbelievable numbers of young Egyptians willingly offering up their bodies—not for abstract notions like “resistance” or Islam, not against any greater or lesser devil, but for the right to live like human beings in their own country—made me weep. “It is not Islamist,” I wrote feverishly in my Facebook status later that night. “It is not limited in numbers. And I saw it with my own eyes in Maidan Al-Tahrir.”
After Cedar, it had taken five and a half years for Jasmine to break out in Tunis, driving what would sometimes be called the Lotus Revolution here. Events were not to start for real until 28 January—two days after, hearing the national anthem in a meaningful context for the first time in my life, I sang tunelessly along, tearfully ecstatic. But already, through phone and other communications after midnight, I realised the killing had started. “I want to go out,” I remember telling a Canada-based friend over Facebook chat in the small hours, “but I’m scared.”
At that same moment a younger, renegade-Muslim-Brother friend was running through the streets of Shubra, tattered, soiled and in tears, pursued by armoured vehicles whose siren almost two years later still gives him the shivers. Another, even younger Catholic friend had fielded a load of Central Security pellets at close range; some barely missed his eyes, and he couldn’t get up unassisted; after receiving first aid in the nearest government hospital, he was sneaked through a backdoor to avoid arrest by State Security. During the day, a young woman friend had fainted from an overdose of tear gas and barely escaped being run over. Hundreds were in custody without charge; a good few were beaten up or detained for hours in police cars; some had been haplessly killed, too…
But, on the morning of 26 January, it was as if nothing had happened. The front page of the daily Al Ahram (already notorious for the “expressive” wire picture in which Mubarak was Photoshopped from the back to the front of a group of heads of state) did no so much as mention unprecedented numbers of demonstrators protesting police brutality and corruption in Tahrir. A minor demonstration in Lebanon of all places was highlighted instead. Downtown, I noticed, people went about their business.
What pained me was not “the beautiful young” dead or injured “for nothing”; “nothing” was a condition of their beauty, after all, and perhaps there weren’t enough casualties yet (though in this context what do numbers mean?) What pained me was that a turn of events that promised to yield a voluntary communal purge of society, a sort of post-religion repentance, seemed to come to nothing the next day. It hadn’t, of course; but later when it did come to something that thing very quickly became political, which meant that power would pass into the hands of religion mongers leaving society intact, with all the evil inside it.
By the time Mubarak stepped down on 11 February—not that this is technically true—there was hardly a young or a secular person in Tahrir. There was to be much more death from then on.

***

The statement that there is a beauty peculiar to revolutionaries raises many problems. Everyone knows, everyone suspects, that young children or adolescents living in old and harsh surroundings have a beauty of face, body, movement and gaze similar to that of the fedayeen. Perhaps this may be explained in the following way: breaking with the ancient ways, a new freedom pushes through the dead skin, and fathers and grandfathers will have a hard time extinguishing the gleam in the eyes, the throbbing in the temples, the joy of blood flowing through the veins. In the spring of 1971, in the Palestinian bases, that beauty subtly pervaded a forest made alive by the freedom of the fedayeen. In the camps a different, more muted beauty prevailed because of the presence of women and children. The camps received a sort of light from the combat bases, and as for the women, it would take a long and complex discussion to explain their radiance. Even more than the men, more than the fedayeen in combat, the Palestinian women seemed strong enough to sustain the resistance and accept the changes that came along with a revolution. They had already disobeyed the customs: they looked the men straight in the eye, they refused to wear a veil, their hair was visible, sometimes completely uncovered, their voices steady. The briefest and most prosaic of their tasks was but a small step in the self-assured journey towards a new, and therefore unknown, order, but which gave them a hint of a cleansing liberation for themselves, and a glowing pride for the men…
Here in the ruins of Chatila there is nothing left. A few silent old women hastily hiding behind a door where a white cloth is nailed. As for the very young fedayeen, I will meet some in Damascus. You can select a particular community other than that of your birth, whereas you are born into a people; this selection is based on an irrational affinity, which is not to say that justice has no role, but this justice and the entire defense of this community take place because of an emotional – perhaps intuitive, sensual – attraction; I am French, but I defend the Palestinians wholeheartedly and automatically. They are in the right because I love them. But would I love them if injustice had not turned them into a wandering people?

***

Genet just didn’t know about political Islam, did he? He didn’t appreciate the effects on collective consciousness of nearly a century of social-cultural-sexual—forget political—repression, of systematic misinformation, humiliation and discouragement of initiative, of words denoting things other than what they say even in life-and-death circumstances, actions failing to yield consensual meaning, courage going unnoticed and festering “tradition” prioritised over such birthrights as sense, sensibility and sensation.
It was all through Friday 28 January, from noon to midnight, that I drew my own connections between youth, death and the—revolutionary—identity of the tortured. However partially or peripherally, I had that identity too; and I was no longer scared. Without the leisure of Genet’s macabre stroll, without the mythical underpinnings of the Arab Revolution or the feeling that I was a Frenchman among Palestinians with no more reason to be there than the fact that I “loved” them, I perceived how the human body responds to being run over by a speeding vehicle, the colour of what comes out of the head when it is gashed open against a solid surface, the smell of sweat on a dead young body mobbed by loud mourners and the sound of fear. There was water-hosing, live ammunition, slaughter and many things besides.
People trembling before the murder of others on the side of the road, adolescents taking metal fences apart to use as weaponry, valiant, bare-chested battles with tear gas canisters and the increasingly expert hurling of stones and Molotov cocktails: it was a bonanza of desperation, a grafting onto the scene of “revolution” of all the violence and madness prompted by living for decades under inhuman conditions; fear and loathing in the Maidan.
That day there was plenty of opportunity for political identification with Palestinians—Qasr Al-Aini Street looked and felt like the site of an Intifada against a repressive power less competent or self-respecting and so even more brutishly undiscriminating than the Israeli army—but it wasn’t the sight of stone-throwing children facing armed men in uniform that evoked Palestine.
It wasn’t being Arab, or to the left of a counterrevolutionary, pro-Israeli status quo. As would later be confirmed on finding out about Hamas’s atrocious response to Arab Spring demonstrations in Gaza, it was my social (human or cultural) connection with Palestinians that Friday 28 January made me aware of in a new way. And that was practically beyond tears.
As the Lebanese already knew, the position of the secular Arab as a Palestinian—state- or citizenship-less, disinherited, disgraced, betrayed and blamed for being who they are—is even more pronounced under resistance-mongering regimes like the Assads’ than elsewhere. All Arabs have their little Israels to torture them through their respective Kataeb in full view of the international community; even the Islamist banner—“Death to the infidels,” in which the latter word replaces the conventional Arab nationalist “traitors”—does not prevent that.

***

Many died in Chatila, and my friendship, my affection for their rotting corpses was also immense, because I had known them. Blackened, swollen, decayed by the sun and by death, they were still fedayeen. They were still fedayeen. Around two o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday three soldiers from the Lebanese army drove me, at gunpoint, to a jeep where an officer was dozing. I asked him: “Do you speak French?” — “English.” The voice was dry, maybe because I had awakened it with a start. He looked at my passport, and said to me, in French: “Have you just been there?” He pointed to Chatila. “Yes.” — “And did you see?” — “Yes.” — “Are you going to write about it?” — “Yes.” He gave me back my passport. He signaled me to leave. The three rifles were lowered. I had spent four hours in Chatila. About forty bodies remained in my memory. All of them, and I mean all, had been tortured, probably against a backdrop of drunkenness, song, laughter, the smell of gunpowder and already of decaying flesh. I was probably alone, I mean the only European (with a few old Palestinian women still clinging to a torn white cloth; with a few young unarmed fedayeen), but if these five or six human beings had not been there and I had discovered this butchered city, black and swollen Palestinians lying there, I would have gone crazy. Or did I? That city lying in smithereens which I saw or thought I saw, which I walked through, felt, and whose death stench I wore, had all that taken place?

***

I know Sabra and Chatila was about racism, imperialism and the ugly side of humanity. I know it had to do with the accepted construction of the Palestinian cause and (confirmed by it) the perennial suspicion that minority (as in non-Muslim) Arab communities are potential traitors to the greater nation even when that nation pretends to be other than the Umma (a pretence now backfiring throughout the region in the worst possible ways). What I have learned from the Arab Spring is that Sabra and Chatila may also have been about something else, something like a mirror image of what Genet saw in the fedayeen. Like the sectarian aftermath of the Arab Spring, like the failure of the so called international community to reign in all the little Israels whose existence Nazism’s progeny justifies, like the failure of Arab societies to make use of the sacrifices of the young and the beautiful, Sabra and Chatila was about Arab self-hatred. It was about the ugliness peculiar to revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries in times of grand narratives that, in the absence of societies to support them, are bound to end badly. In the most oblique way imaginable, Sabra and Chatila is about the ugliness of the fedayeen.

Genet’s text (in italics) quoted as is in Daniel R. Dupecher and Martha Perrigaud’s translation

.

THE NUDE AND THE MARTYR

wpid-100e22001-2011-11-25-17-49.jpg

Some time in February, the literary (and intellectual) Generation of the Nineties started coming up in intellectual conversations about the Arab Spring. Some people theorised that, by stressing individual freedom and breaking with their overtly politicised forerunners, apolitical agents of subversion under Mubarak had involuntarily paved the way for precisely the kind of uprising said forerunners had spent whole lives prophesying and pushing for, to no avail.

Politicised intellectuals of past generations had always believed in grand narratives. That is why their collective message (anti-imperialist or socialist), evidently no less divorced from the People than that of the younger rebels and aesthetes who didn’t give two damns about the liberation of Jerusalem or the dictatorship of the proletariat, remained repressive and didactic; while allowing themselves to be co-opted and neutralised, they struggled or pretended to struggle in vain.

The Generation of the Nineties remained silent about social transformation as such, but they stressed daily life and the physical side of existence, including their own bodies, which they insisted on experimenting with — if only verbally, for the sake of a personal deliverance deemed infinitely more sublime than the sloganeering and safe, part-time activism to which the Seventies had descended. Then, stunning everyone, came the Facebook Generation.

And while it is true that protests since 25 Jan have had ideological underpinnings — the belief in human rights, for example, it is also true that their success has depended on the rallying of politically untested forces through the internet to day-to-day causes — the institutionalised criminal practises of an oversize and corrupt security force under police-state conditions, which affect everyone. By November, something else had permeated those same conversations, suddenly:

The photo of a barely adult girl, undressed except for shoes and stockings. Impassive face, classic nude posture, artsy black-and-white presentation. The title of the blog on which it was published: Diary of a Revolutionary [Woman].

It was seen as more or less unprecedented, an epoch-making Gesture, an Event to document and debate. When the picture appeared, the second wave of protests had only just begun in Maidan Tahrir, specifically along the Shari Mohammad Mahmoud frontier; it was as if, while the internet-mediated Crowd offered up nameless davids to the Goliath of Unfreedom, the Individual used the same medium to hand over her post-Nineties soul for the same Cause (it doesn’t matter how absurd or ignorant Alia Mahdi might turn out to be, she is the conscious subject of her revolutionary nudity). While some received bullets in the eye or suffocated on a markedly more effective variety of American-made tear gas, others muttered prayers before the digital icon of Alia Mahdi.

Despite its visual idiom (despite online Arab fora advertising it like a pornographic object of the kind they routinely promote as sinful and therefore desirable by default, obscenely equating the nude with the erotic with the scandalous, and despite otherwise truly insolent responses on Facebook), the image holds little allure. Change the context and it could be a parody of some vaguely pedophiliac Vintage Erotica, barely worth a second, amused glance.

Had Alia Mahdi appeared nude on an adult dating or porn site, had she sent the picture privately to a million people, had she shown shame or reluctance, no one would have tut-tutted or smiled, neither intellectuals nor horny prudes of the cyber realm. Here and now, Alia Mahdi as her picture is an icon for our times, inviolable:

A simulacrum of the Self on the altar of Freedom.

And freedom, perhaps the truest catchword of the Arab Spring, is the term that the model and de-facto author of the picture, like Generation of the Nineties writers before her, chooses to hold up to the world; she believes that exposing herself on the internet is part of a Revolution ongoing since 25 Jan and a new uprising against Egypt’s ruling generals. But this is a world that would rather deny Alia Mahdi’s existence even as it knows that she is there: paradoxically, it includes the Tahrir Sit-In, where protesters mobbed and beat up the young woman when she showed up.

Already, even at the heart of the Revolution, the pit has been dug, the errant body marked, the prurient stones picked off the ground — and the revolutionaries themselves, the potential Martyrs offering up their bodies, are happy to be part of that sacrifice. All that remains for the ritual is the public killing of Alia Mahdi, which judging by what they have had to say would gratify and vindicate not only Islamists who legally and otherwise demand her head but also older and wiser intellectuals who, never having considered taking off their clothes in public, have embraced her as a victim. The feminists’ latest bonanza of hypocrisy…

The Revolution accepts oblations of the mutilated and the maimed, it eats up the body of the Martyr, promising nothing — neither collective nor individual freedom, while the Nude is expelled from the Maidan. The last secular activists of the Seventies stand side by side with their political heirs — scheming theocrats not unlike frequenters of the aforementioned fora where Alia Mahdi is advertised as porn, but it is in the act of sacrifice itself, in the death of the body as an object and its transformation into the subject of its destiny, that there is any hope for religion in Egypt. The Martyr and the Nude are applied religion; whatever else may be said about the generals, the activists and Tahrir, political Islam and the Coptic Orthodox Church are not.

9/9

wpid-5408669296_3062c4ed10-2011-09-8-17-08.jpg

Messages from Tahrir: Signs from Egypt’s Revolution, ed. Karima Khalil, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2011
Tomorrow is the Third Revolution. No way of putting it could be more ridiculous, but there is hope yet. As this book shows, the inventiveness of Egyptians and their ability to play with the truth are such that nothing much can be predicted with any accuracy. Another 28 Jan could be in the making as I write this — almost too late for the print press, always too early to say. What that would actually bring about judging by what we have seen so far is of course anyone’s guess. But contrary to the prevailing discourse, the situation is far from resolved; “external forces” against whose intervention we are still being warned, whether capitalist and American-led or Dark Ages-oriented and cowardly or both, are all too happy with thug-, police- and Islamist-supported military control. The middle-class shamelessness which perhaps rightly perceives “stability” — Mubarak’s catchword to be in its interest, is more comfortable with dictatorship, which eliminates moral responsibility, than the gamut of rights and duties entailed by citizenship. Yet accusations of being foreign agents levelled at young men and women willing to give their lives for that gamut, often by people whose very existence depends on foreign forces, are predicated not on such relatively simple truths but on the identity politics-bolstered lie that there exist powers with the magical ability to brainwash millions of unaffiliated Arabs, forcing them to demand what they might not actually want. It is a lie that sits well with both Arab nationalist and theocratic fascism.
Still, anticipating renewed large-scale protests (as planned) on 9/9, thinking of the limits of popular will in effecting change in the absence of either unified political leadership or willingness to engage in conflict, it is something else that the signs and images showcased so glitzily here bring to mind — a sort of poststructural space for the intersection between Image and Tweet on the one hand, and the tweet-image and mass protest on the other — the way in which that space, however attractive in itself, can be divorced from local, consensual, day-to-day reality. Much has been made of both the importance and the impotence of the “white revolutions” of 1989 since the fall of the Soviet Union, the way in which they handed over weak and institutionally dysfunctional societies to the demons of global capital, giving way to ethnic and religious (civil) wars. The truth may be that they simply, savagely uncovered political reality, telling people who they are, letting them think about who they want to be. But neither Tweet nor Image were available to “the Eastern Bloc” in the way they have been available to the Arab Spring. And it is the effect of their availability on said truth that makes it interesting to peruse this coffee-table insurrection. A Levantine-looking young man, his head wrapped in a pretty scarf, has a sign attached to the front of his street-chic sweatshirt. “Egyptian and Proud,” it says in Arabic and English. As the frontispiece of what remains, willy nilly, a global capital-oriented celebration of events not yet followed through, the image is far too cool for comfort.
Of course, to judge the book by its cover would be silly; and Messages from Tahrir does afford a fairly comprehensive — and very realistic panorama of the 18 days that, life- and reality-changing as they were — beautiful, courageous, admirable, enlightening, have as yet changed neither life nor reality, contrary to what the book says, AND COULD NOT POSSIBLY HAVE. It is well to talk about a wonderful transformation, but it must be understood by now that most of us will not live to see its fruit — and glossy picture books will not make it ripen any faster. The slogans featured here are of course nonetheless compelling, by turns moving, ingenious, humbling, comic; combined with their manner of presentation — “No Talking Until He Leaves” taped to the mouth, “Out” on a red card raised by a man dressed like a football referee, “We Will Not Be Made Dunces [literally: Party Hats] Of” inscribed on a party hat on the head — they demonstrate resourcefulness and determination. They affirm values of freedom, peace, non-sectarianism, but they tend to converge on the fairly restrictive prospect of an aging puppet dictator stepping down, postponing questions about what he actually stands for and, understandably enough under the circumstances, ignoring the much more complicated but also much more relevant question of how like him Egyptianness has become — nothing really to be proud of.
Even the most meaningful among the actual bite-size messages are simplified and/or generalised statements of intent designed by and for the informal media, and like the protests on the whole, narcissistically gazing at themselves from the moment they come into being, driven less by a self-sustaining vision than by responses to the crimes of the powers that be, and inevitably commodified in the process. That is all of course fine. The question is to what extent such messages have actually helped to generate responsible revolutionary consciousness that could take this further — peacefully or not. After initially refusing to support the patently legitimate demands of the protesters, then dithering for the longest time, then endorsing the absolute authority of the military establishment, Obama’s congratulatory use of the word silmiyyah or “peaceful” in a public address did not prevent the US from exporting tear (and reportedly nerve) gas to Egypt as early as two months after Mubarak stepped down. Until tomorrow morning at least, the message from Tahrir is the sight of black-clad Central Security lining the edge of the principal, circular traffic island and massive riot and military police deployments all around. Tomorrow is the Third Revolution, and another 28 Jan could be in the making as I write this, but I do not personally believe more people should die until there are convincing signs that the Arab Spring is about transforming local, consensual, day-to-day reality, not about symbolic gestures followed by the equally reprehensible lie of self congratulation.
wpid-9789774165122-2011-09-8-17-08.jpg
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

Link

wpid-untitled-3-2011-08-9-09-52.jpg

Late February. “Some day soon,” I wrote, referring to festive demonstrations in Tahrir Square after Mubarak finally stepped down, “people taking to the streets spontaneously to celebrate (a thousands- or hundreds of thousands-strong, heterogeneous group of people exercising the right to use their own public space without being subjected to tear gas bought with their own money) will be the norm in Egypt.”
5 August. On the way to Bab al Louq, my taxi passes a throng of Central Security officers at the site of “the Revolution”, their unassuming black caps spattered with the bright red berets of Military Police. Facing the stalling cars, soldiers line the edge of the main traffic island, the kernel of the by now dreaded Sit-In. Like well-fed orks from two different clans of Arda — army conscripts, all — both Central Security in black and Military Police in desert camouflage are shielded, armed and ready to strike. In and around the sickly myrtle trucks parked everywhere — those evilmobiles forever associated with the violent appropriation of public space, now bolstered up by army deployments — there are many, many more of them: why this desperation to deprive the young, the socially and politically conscious and the ethically inclined of using public space they are entitled to by birth?
***
Craning his neck dramatically the way taxi drivers do, to look at nothing in particular, my driver suddenly remarks, “Something’s up” — no kidding! Later that night, I will find out about the needlessly vicious disbanding of an open-air iftar outside Omar Makram Mosque; earlier in the day a symbolic funerary march in honour of the Martyr of Abbassiya was likewise violently blocked from entering the square: and a good portion of the public have wholeheartedly supported the use of force: “Hit hard with ‘the electric’ to scare the enemy,” one participant in the iftar testified to hearing Military Police personnel bark urgently at each other as they charged.
As it is, I am thinking, the business of collective self-expression is left to that all-male adolescent mob leisurely crammed, for lack of anything better to do on a Ramadan evening, behind the rails of the pavement, shrieking and running idiotically while they fawn over the soldiers from afar. Individual rights are not an issue, not even for the revolutionaries of a few months ago themselves.
Grunting an expression of sympathy to the driver, I listen to him vent his impatience: “They should calm down, for God’s sake. The army took Mubarak to court to please them — what more do they want? Can’t they let the country get on?” He is referring to protesters; it strikes me that it is they, not the menacing usurpers now literally overrunning Revolution, that bother him. “Who would have dreamed of seeing Mubarak and his sons behind bars,” he says, echoing a huge majority of Egyptians. “The army has been good, they should let justice take its course.”
***
I too have seen justice, I am thinking: the Historical Moment everyone is so excited about. I have seen the grotesque spectacle of an octogenarian, seemingly drugged, brought into a court room lying down (no doubt only to be acquitted in due course). It was a patently unnecessary pose, as it seemed to me, which served to strip Mubarak of what rags of dignity he might still have on. With the faux patriarch were his two prodigal sons, once scourges of the economy and democratic process simply by virtue of being the strongman’s progeny. In this Society the head of state is idolized regardless of his credentials, and his sons have absolute impunity: Society gives it to them voluntarily, as it voluntarily cleans religion not only out of spiritual but also out of moral substance, marginalises or casts out its best human assets, turns political opposition and intellectual activity — culture, into CV-building exercises, morally and materially liquidates difference, and relinquishes people’s basic birthrights.
They are standing at attention in white prison garments invented solely for cronies of the official mafia, the two prodigal sons, surrounded by some of the top brigands in the torture-reliant extortion gang known as the Ministry of Interior. Between a distinctly unimposing judge bumbling his Arabic grammar and Mubarak’s singularly eloquent lawyer, scores of more or less ridiculous ambulance chasers jockey for a few minutes of rhetoric. One of the two sons holds a Quran. Looking impassive as ever, his hair freshly dyed, Mubarak desultorily picks his nose.
For this, while no one is allowed to loiter in Tahrir Square, the martyrs died.
***
I too have seen the patriarch and the prodigal sons, the brigands and those who protect them, and I have seen the so called revolutionaries shedding tears of joy over the Historical Moment. But it is the iftar, ending with electroshock batons and “the enemy” running on the asphalt, that I keep thinking about. I think about the iftar and the significance of the trial, the capacity of even the most highly educated and politically conscious people to say that they are grateful to have lived to see it happen, adding — in the same breath — that events reflect a vendetta between Mubarak and powerful figures in the army (not, it is to be surmised, the will of either the revolution or the people). The motherland, then, remains unchanged:
Emotional response is one thing, political analysis another. Moral responsibility is lost somewhere in between.
I think about the iftar and I think about those who died, how we will always have their blood on our hands — the Optimists especially — and how the grotesque spectacle of the unnecessarily prostate octogenarian is the lie by which we convince ourselves that we have avenged their deaths; vengeance, of course, being the object, not the rights they died standing up for.

wpid-screen-capture-2011-08-9-09-52.png

25, 28

Youssef Rakha gives testimony of the first two days

I am asked to write about the recent events in Egypt, and my account will be personal whatever else it is. I saw people die, I saw their killers, I saw commentators – some of them close acquaintances or colleagues – lie about it through their teeth. Inevitably, it will be a tiny portion of what I believe will be the main epic of the Egyptian people for decades to come.

As a journalist I have worked for the most powerful pro-government press establishment in Egypt for nearly 12 years. The position has provided a level of social protection against abuses constantly witnessed on the streets; it has acted as a financial and political buffer, replacing citizenship in a society where citizenship grants few if any rights.By restricting my contribution to cultural and intellectual topics and working in English, at the same time, I have managed to avoid direct involvement in the wholesale distortion, misinformation and sheer incompetence that has made up so much of what went for balance and objectivity on the pages of publications printed by this institution, especially since a new team of chief editors were summarily appointed by the Shura Council in the summer of 2005.

Like many Egyptians, until I saw thousands upon thousands of demonstrators gathered in Maidan at-Tahrir on 25 January – saw that they were neither Islamists nor negligible – and totally identified with them – I was largely sceptical about Egypt having much capacity for true dissent. It is something of a media cliche by now to point out that the opposition was already half oppressed, half co-opted, powerless against the airtight alliance of cannibalistic capitalism and corrupt governance. Even the “banned” Muslim Brothers, of whom I am no supporter, were criminally ousted from parliament during the last elections and had since considered taking to the streets in protest.

Then again, no one suspected that the People’s Assembly was ever a representative body anyway (the same is true of the Press Syndicate, membership of which requires an official position at a government-approved institution by law, and provides little beyond installment plans for the purchase of cars and apartments or reduced-price vacations). Among writers – and in the last six years I have been as much a writer in Arabic as a journalist in English – there remained a sense of relief that (since the people failed repeatedly to show revolutionary oomph) the government, if it did nothing else, could at least keep “the Islamist threat” at bay. As much as western regimes, the traditional intelligentsia was for the longest time duped by fear of theocracy; and to this day protesters and their supporters are emphatically rejecting Khamenei’s blessings.

NDP thugs were known to exist long before they attempted to disband protesters on donkey- and camel-back last Wednesday (2 Feb) – the night on which allegedly sincere and peaceful supporters of Mubarak managed somehow to bombard protesters with tear gas (as well as stones and Molotov cocktails), while snipers stationed on the roofs of the highest buildings waited for the cover of darkness to commit murder  in cold blood – but few outside the Muslim Brotherhood felt they had enough of a stake in the electoral process to object to the thugs’ presence. People knew they had the protection of the police, and no one dreamed they could ever be deployed against peaceful protesters on such a scale – partly because no one dreamed there would ever be peaceful protesters on such a scale. Since 25 January other threats have been held up to Tahrir as well: the threat of chaos, the criminal threat, the constitutional-emptiness threat, the foreign-agenda threat. BS! I have not lost touch with the protests since 25 January and I am grateful that I have lived to witness them.

Egypt’s security apparatus is among the largest and best funded institutions of terror in the world today. It has practised torture, extortion and murder systematically for as long as anyone remembers; and I am grateful that I have lived to see it defeated, humiliated and exposed – and to have contributed, however little, to that glory.

***

Tuesday, 25 Jan. Maidan, the Egyptian word for “square” or “circle” – as opposed to the Syrian-Lebanese word saha, for example – originally means arena or battle front; and during the last week of January many of those to whom Maidan at-Tahrir becomes a home or a second home, partly inspired by the lyrics to a well-known song from the 1970s by the oppositional composer-singer Sheikh Imam Eissa, will start referring to the principal hub of modern Cairo simply as the Maidan: “The brave man is brave, the coward is cowardly/Come on, brave man, let us go into the arena.” In the space of a fortnight the spot at which thousands of younger Egyptians have gathered, contrary to all expectations, will have turned irrevocably into a place of memory, a historical site. Passing the square or hearing about it, people start to wonder whether “this is real”; they are already joining in. Faces and voices are incredulous, but it is true: for once at a political event the number of demonstrators is actually greater than the number of Central Security troops restricting their movement and ready to subdue them by force; for once a political event is taking place in the open, in a central space, lasting all day and well into the night. Of course, by Saturday 29 Jan, Tahrir will have turned into a maidan in every sense possible.

Central Security is a branch of the military placed at the disposal of the Ministry of Interior for purposes roughly equivalent to those of the riot police. Best known for their unthinking violence, they tend to be army conscripts from working-class provincial backgrounds (less legally, army conscripts in the form of  guards are also routinely employed in the service of police officer’s families, buying groceries for the madam and using the state-owned police vans popularly known as el box to transport the children to school); directed by loyal commanders, Central Security do what they are told; and along with legal complications regarding the right to peaceful protest, emergency law (which in practise allows any member of the police to arrest and indefinitely detain any member of the public), and possible intervention from the notorious (plainclothes, highly skilled and practically autonomous) State Security, they have been a sufficient disincentive up to this point. Yet none of it stops people, thousands and tens of thousands, from flocking to Tahrir now – all of it in response to a seemingly stray Internet call for solidarity and anger?

The initial demonstration was announced on the popular Facebook Page called “We Are All Khalid Said” (a reference to one young man who died in the process of being brutalised by a low-rank policeman on the streets of Alexandria, without charge, on 6 June 2010). It was started by a young man “of good family”, to translate the classist Egyptian expression ibn nass, well-off and internationally connected, a product of the global economy and the kind of sheltered upbringing that produces conscientious and well-meaning geeks. Born in 1980, Wael Ghoneim is Google’s Middle East  marketing manager. (On Sunday he will be kidnapped by State Security and held, blindfolded, in secret confinement until the next Monday, when he made a powerful appearance on Egyptian satellite television.) For months the Page worked loosely in liaison with four online movements – April 6, Youth for Justice and Freedom, Hshd and the Popular Front for Freedom – as well as the El Baradei Campaign, the Muslim Brothers (who will keep an admirably low profile despite playing a very significant role in the survival of the Tahrir community) and the Democratic Front Party.

The demonstration was planned, with truly poetic irony, to coincide with Police Day, a national holiday commemorating a major act of heroism by Egyptian police troops besieged by British forces in Ismailia on the eve of the coup d’etat-turned-revolution of 1952. I am among the majority who think 25 January will come to nothing, but by evening I too have trouble holding back tears. There are clear signs of life in the long dead body of my true constituency – political participation by sheer force of right – and it is not driven by any (inevitably suspect) political programme. It is sincere, it is civilised, it is tidy, it is – and this too has mattered to me throughout – cool.

That evening I leave Tahrir around 11.30 pm. People are singing, bearing signs, lying in circles on the asphalt. They are predominantly young and secular. Even Central Security guards, with smiles on their faces, are humming the most popular slogan, adopted from the revolution in Tunisia: ash-sha’b yureed isqaat an-nidham (the people want to bring down the regime). A group of protesters surround one young man in what appears to be a standoff; they prevail on him to remove stones from his pockets. “Whoever throws a stone belongs with them,” I hear one of them say, referring to the security forces stationed at one entryway near by, “not us.”

Outside Tahrir the traffic proceeds normally; there is a sense of danger and excitement, the area surrounding the square is sealed off, but traffic proceeds more or less normally. I have barely arrived home when I find out that, desperate to disband protesters intent on spending the night in Tahrir, Central Security has attacked the demonstrators with tear gas, rubber and live pellets, canes and armoured trucks. A friend of mine ends up with 63 pellets lodged in his body; at least five friends of mine – two of them award-winning writers – are mercilessly beaten; in the next two days there will be numerous, more or less brief arrests, notably outside the Supreme Court near the Press and Lawyers syndicates. By 1 am the Maidan is more or less empty, and despite continuing demonstrations in the area and news of extremely violent confrontations in Suez – led by Alexandria and Cairo, the entire country is rising up – things appear to have quietened somewhat for the next two days. They are not over.

***

Tuesday 1 Feb, when a million people under protection of the army establish the virtually independent City of Tahrir – a fully functional and demographically varied community whose population at the time of writing has not dropped below 30,000 for a minute since Saturday 29 Jan – is still a long way off. At the time of writing pro-Mubarak demonstrations, announced repeatedly since then, have fizzled out to nothing after it transpired that they were invariably penetrated by criminal elements and police, directed not by popular will but by official and business interests. In times of need a decades-old dictatorship relies on the poverty, dependency and ignorance it has spent so much on cultivating – but lies can only go so far once the barrier of fear is broken. Already on Tuesday people who have been to the Maidan believe they are inhaling cleaner air, to the point where some of them are wondering whether it is because the numbers of vehicles in the area have significantly dropped.

***

Friday, 28 Jan. Of the many different fumes potent enough to induce a significant state change that I have experienced in my own body, I now have an additional one to give me flashbacks: tear gas. For someone who has never tried it, where a sufficient amount is inhaled, the effect is fiercely disorienting. Stinging sensations all over the face are accompanied by a temporary inability to breathe, and eyes – already clouding over – seem to reflect the death throes of the victim. Soda on the eyes and onion or vinegar soaked fabric on the nose: from that day I can count at least 30 young men crying out, standing or lying prone on their backs, wondering whether they were about to die. Solidarity among the demonstrators was instant and absolute; among the most touching remarks I heard exchanged in the entryways of residential buildings was, “Don’t panic, just don’t panic. It only lasts five minutes.”

It was on Friday 28 January, with both internet connections and mobile phone lines completely cut off all across the country, that I set out to the site of the oldest mosque in Egypt in Misr Al-Qadima, Jami’ ‘Amr, where one of many demonstrations planned for this, Angry Friday (I would personally call it Liberation Friday, but that is not the point), was to set off after the weekly group prayers. There were four of us on the Metro, all writers. Before we arrived at Mar Girgis, the two women put on headscarves and separated from my friend and me. At the entrance we asked a young man where the women’s section was. “I don’t know,” he said, with a strange look in his eyes. “This is my first time here.”

That look, the desperate determination it expressed, the all but suicidal readiness to effect change it communicated silently across classes, cultural backgrounds, even political orientations, will no doubt remain among the most defining experiences of my life.

For close on half an hour we endured a Friday sermon in which we were prevailed on to avoid sedition and, where our just demands were not met on earth, wait for the reward in the hereafter. The ameen that follows each request at the end was all but inaudible when the imam mentioned the name of Mubarak. It was not clear whether calls for protest would be met in sufficient numbers here of all places, particularly in the absence of the ability to confirm them. I am secular, not a practising Muslim, but I performed my prayers devoutly and did all I could to reach out to God. No sooner had the prayers ended than the cheering sound of hundreds chanting in unison emerged from the deepest point in the mosque, with people elsewhere rushing to join the fast forming block of people that would exit the premises as one: Islamists, human rights activists, conscientious geeks. By the time we reached the main street we had lost our female companions, and Central Security were already firing peremptory tear gas. My friend and I ended up in isolation from intellectuals and activists; until we departed Misr Al-Qadima, we were among everyday working-class people for the most part, chanting the slogans adopted all across Egypt, avoiding Central Security violence and occasionally attempting to stay violent responses to it, sharing carbonated beverages with which we splashed our eyes to reduce the effect of the tear gas, sharing water, scarves, what food there was, and cigarettes, as well as helping the injured off the ground calling on the demonstrators not to scatter.

In Misr Al-Qadima I saw uneducated 15-year-old girls brave enough to face Central Security head on, shouting “Down with Mubarak”; I saw a mechanic nudge his friend: “Are you from South Africa, man? Why aren’t you joining in!” I saw elderly women patting the backs of demonstrators and muttering, “God grant you victory.” Then my friend and I, having stopped at a cafe where Al Jazeera was broadcasting reassuring news from all over the city, set out towards downtown. It was 2 pm.

The idea was to walk, through Ain Al-Seerah and Majra Al-‘Uyoun, to Qasr Al-‘Aini Street and whence to Tahrir, where we realised the main battle had already started and where State Security were deploying fire hoses in addition to everything else. Little did we know that the very simple business of traversing this thoroughfare on foot would take up the rest of the day and night. I will cite only two moments from that period of the day: the arrival at the Majra Al-‘Uyoun end of Qasr Al-‘Aini – where we converged with thousands arriving from Maadi – and the point at which, sitting next to me on the steps of one residential building, his face soaked, one little boy who could not have been older than five or six from the near-by neighbourhood of Sayed Zainab said, “I want to go home.” Replaced by others, people would take refuge in the side streets and the buildings, but they always came back out.

Hours and hours. Slogans, attempts to win over Central Security, squabbles with the neighbours. The sight of thousands of unarmed young men taking over the streets together, their heads raised, chanting to the balconies as they passed Enzell, enzell (“Come down, come down!”) and of people throwing apples and bottles of mineral water to them, of other young men taking of their pyjamas and rushing inside to join them: I will die proud of having been part of that sight.

By evening, while still firing pellets and tear gas, Central Security will have fled; some of them returned individually to hunt down stone-throwing protesters on the streets of Garden City one by one, their guns loaded with live ammunition. Violence had broken out after a white car with diplomatic plates ran down some 12 people while it drove past at 120 km per hour, reportedly killing four. Thankfully, before I took refuge in a friend’s house in Garden City, I managed to phone my mother to tell her I was alive and well; I did not tell her that people were being shot point blank while President Mubarak gave his first, vastly disappointing speech, speaking of “the safety and the security of Egypt’s youth”, the very people who were being killed in order for him to stay in power.

Later, not so much later, we will find out about the inexplicable and absolute disappearance of the police; most of us will take it as a sign of our victory in a battle we joined without arms. Friends were hosed down while praying on Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, beaten to death, run down by armoured cars. But in the end the Maidan had been completely occupied by the people – for the first time since 1952 there is a truly public space in Cairo, a space with a voice and a will. Equally importantly, the police were humiliatingly defeated. I believe I will always remember the cowardice and brutality of State Security, the hysteria and determination of my fellow Egyptians.

As a writer, as a journalist, Friday 28 January has given me back my public voice. It has confirmed to me the existence of a homeland and a people of which I am part. All I ask of the security apparatus at this point is that, if they are going to bomb us with tear-gas, they should at least use tear-gas that is not older than the expiry date inscribed on the cannisters.

 

Wednesday, 10 February, 2011

Enhanced by Zemanta