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Sunday, December 4, 2011


On Sunday November 20th the protests in Tahrir Square were heating up, heated up. This piece covers the events of the day.

Of course I knew that there was a protest the previous day, five hundred injured two dead the news said, of course I knew the metro [subway train stop] that I was exiting at was right below Tahrir square, of course I knew that when there are riots the police use tear-gas to establish control but when I exited the train and saw the guards with face masks strapped to their faces and people walking around with a clear liquid I thought, “wow they're cleaning the metro, nice. And the liquid they're using has a lemony scent, but it's a little strong.” I was soon disabused of all my na├»ve notions.

The closer I got to the entrance the stronger the smell became until I realised it was tear-gas. Closer to the entrance I could see people being handed cotton wool and serviettes dabbed with vinegar [this is what I had assumed was cleaning fluid.] but this being my first protest I walked on. I came to the exit and walked up it and the protest opened up its arms to hug me. I have never been hit by real tear-gas, remnants have struck me before but this time it was the tear-gas of an Egyptian protest, the saturation limit of the air is very nearly reached. Mists of the gas dance around like atoms. In no time at all I was on my knees, when tear-gas hits you your eyes contract and you convulse, I crumpled to the floor coughing so frightfully that a young man helped me up handed me vinegar and mimed to me that I should dab my face with it. After this I walked on a little and someone else sprayed yoghurt on my eyes and finally I could see.

The first thing that you notice is the dirt. The road, usually light grey was darkened by dirt and ash, smudged by smoke and smog. It looked like the site of a war. On the ground there were plastic cups and papers as far as the eye could see. Dotted around Tahrir square were the people with the vinegar, volunteers who walked around and sprayed out vinegar, yoghurt, even Coca-Cola as well as cotton wool and serviettes. When the cotton wool is soaked through with vinegar you use it to breathe through your nose and when you are done you throw it on the floor. In normal times Egypt has no dustbins, 24 hours into a strike that turned violent it's impossible to pretend to care about the environment. Everywhere you walk there is a vinegar tissue, everywhere you look another person spits on the floor or blows mucous out of their noses. There are roundabouts in the square in the middle of which little swamps were pooling. It never rains in Egypt, there's no drainage below that particular square the swamp was entirely protester made, tea and water thrown into the grass and so much of it that it couldn’t seep into the ground.

Next thing is the crushing number of people, Cairo is a densely populated city at the sparsest of times but when there's a protest going on there's a crush of humanity, men and women, sitting and milling around, singing and shouting, living life like anyone would. There are also merchants there, vendors selling tea and maize and koshari [Egyptian local meal.] One of them had a portable gas canister which he used to boil the water that made the tea and it looked like easily the most dangerous thing to have in a place where uncontrolled fires were more than a distinct possibility. Off to the left there was a bright light, another feature of protests, it shone down even ten am, demanding attention like a petulant last born, it took me some time to figure out that this was the eye of the world, the one that broadcast live to al Jazeera and through whose lens everyone else saw what was happening in the square. Sitting looking around I also saw a family, a girl of about 5 with her parents and her little sister or brother, gas masks strapped on them looking like little adults ready to shout down the military council.

You can hear the general bubble of thousands of conversations being carried on simultaneously; it's that warm soft envelope of words becoming formless as they collide with too many other words and chatter is all that's heard in the air. There were people at the railings beating out a song on the metal. The clang rang out again and again, telling people to take heart, rhythmically giving the protest a heartbeat, a centre of attention. A sound. In tandem with this there was a man in purple who was held aloft on the shoulders of his fellows, they ferried him back and forth and in return he motivated them, he chanted and they repeated, he sang out and they listened and sang the same song back to him giving another voice to the thousands. He went around and around the square bringing life here and then taking it there.

The main area of confrontation was not in the square itself but in a side street called Mohamed Mahmud. The police were based on the other end of the street which was really far away and from there they fired teargas canister after tear-gas canister. Those canisters move much faster than I had imagined, they fly through the air marking their elliptical path with a trail of smoke. They make a resounding boom when they leave the rockets they are fired from. Boom and then the smoke. The smoke and then the pain, this firing was done rhythmically too as if training the protesters reaching into their Pavlovian response so that they would know to be afraid when they heard that boom. Down the street there was a building with a balcony up which a lot of young boys had climbed, they were in their prepubescent years, children eager for adventure and lacking in supervision.

Here the tear-gas was thick. It stung in spite of the vinegar and every five hundred metres a vinegar refill was necessary. Then the boom rang out and the smoke came raining down and the line broke. In old armies the generals would always seed ranks of the craven with some of the brave because when a line breaks its contagious, when you are standing matching toward an enemy and you see people running back fear etched in their faces your first instinct is to turn around and run too. So I did, as fast as I could until I ran into a man standing with his arms outstretched shouting something in Arabic, a pillar of calm in a sea of chaos. He quietened me, made me turn around and wonder why I was running and when I looked there were other such pillars, smoke billowing around them hurting their eyes more than I could imagine and still they stood the courage of the few buoying the rest. I stood as long as I could and then made my way to the square proper and breathed in the clean air. And in no time at all a transition had happened, the running and the fear and the adrenaline, of those escaping, the courage and the pain and the calmness of those standing with their hands outstretched was immediately replaced with the sounds of the square, normal life and the beat of the railing and the chanting of the protesters everything sans the feeling of being in a battle.

At prayer time a group of protesters started getting down on their knees to make a supplication to God. They went down in the middle of the street and everything quietened down. The bubble of chatter slowly ebbed away and the singing was put on pause for a minute, a ring was made around the fervent faithful to protect them from accidental bumping. Banners were being waved around ACAB~ All Cops Are Bastards said one. People posed for photographs, one of the most popular was with a man who had snagged a tear-gas canister, he showed his prize to the people around and they lined up patiently taking out their phones and snapping a memento. It was cold, that's strange since most people don't associate Egypt with the cold but the winter season had blown in and the clouds hid the face of the sun. On such a day you couldn't really be sure if it was the clouds or the teargas to blame. People walked around talking and chatting and laughing, protesting and singing and chanting, recovering from forays to the front, taking care of the wounded, making some money selling tea. All the normal human things. They had been touched by an ideological torch which was why they were here but once in a while the fires dimmed to let the practicalities of everyday life shine through.

 At around this time things became a little more serious. Circulating with the vinegar there were now eye drops. Improvised ambulances ran from the front-line to Tahrir square where tents were being used as hospitals. The ambulances were tuk tuks and motorbikes, tiny vehicles so that the protesters could make space for them quickly when they needed to pass. There were more people with vinegar and cotton wool, nurses circulating to give impromptu first aid keeping their eyes open for anyone who was overcome by the gas and spraying some liquid in their eyes, yoghurt in the worst cases. When someone fainted they would be sandwiched in the back of a motorcycle so that they would not fall off and hooting hooting hooting the motorbike would cut through the crowd of people. I had decided to make my way as far in as I could. It was a battle, the closer you got to the front-line the more pain you had to blink away. Things were getting worse I saw my first bleeder, a man on a bike swaying senselessly while being rushed to aid, another with cuts near his ears that we had to make space for and for the first time I saw a stone in a protester’s hand. Maybe this was because I was so close. Every so often the boom would come, a cloud of tear-gas would mushroom and a horde of faces some frightened and some strangely gleeful maybe the conflict of the hormones running through their bodies gave a strange effect to their minds. Every time this happened some would put up their hands and try to calm them.

Nearer the front there was a one legged man a crutch holding up his body and in his other hand some stones, he looked strong and determined, he wasn't one of the breakers. Even closer there was a man standing on a brick vertically turned so that he was much taller than everyone around him. He was holding out the peace sign and looking solemnly at all who had made their way this far, five rubber bullets ringed his fingers. People need a symbol. These two were not young men, they had lines on their face and these were not lines made only from worry, furrows that defined speak of pain, furrows that dignified talk of humiliation furrows that deep tell of sorrow and most of all they scream determination. It looked like the spirit of the protest lived in these two men, one overcoming his disability, standing on one leg proud and strong, one standing immobile with not an etch of fear in his face. And you needed to see them to go any further, getting close the tension grew and grew, a heartbreak that keeps repeating itself, a sadness that only grow with time. Your eyes now burn, the vinegar is useless. Mucous is streaming down your nose and all you have in your hands is a cloth made wet with vinegar, useless as a handkerchief. You have to screw up your eyes to keep walking, you have to steel your nerves and iron up your spirit.

Finally I got to the front-line; the front-line was a barrier of some hundred metres between the protesters and the police. The police were all dressed in black and looked calm and foreboding. It was a stark contrast to the chaos I had left behind, a swirl of people gripped by fear, running away in horror every time a gas canister was fired at them. They had uniforms and were arranged in one line. The space between was filled with bricks, dozens of them maybe even a hundred. Some darted forward and grabbed a brick throwing it to the police and in return they got tear-gas. A brick flew at the protesters and I was scared and then self preservation took over, I couldn't stand any more I was coughing and sputtering, spit forming and flowing down my mouth, mucous flowing to take its place tasting oddly good since it was mixed with vinegar and I started walking back  coughing the whole way, my eyes closed to all that was happening reaching blindly for the end of the really long tunnel I had found myself in, vying for vinegar, mining for milk I stumbled this way for the hundreds of metres back to the square only stopping for medical aid and then continuing finally getting back to the square.

I plopped myself down and had some food, some water and a much needed rest. All of a sudden I saw a man whirling what I thought was a belt around and around. There was a space between him and those following him but they still followed, he changed direction and passed by close to me and I felt there was a leader, I followed from a distance scared of getting too close to something I couldn't understand then the momentum of the crowd grew and grew and soon I too was running after this man not knowing why. A bigger crowd grew between him and me and soon there was violence, I had no idea why but I could see fists flying near the hospital and a man came out to block anyone from entering the tent. I heard later that the man we were following, the one I had assumed a leader of people actually had a knife on him.

It was getting late and I went back in for what I thought would be my last look. I fought my way to near the front and saw the man standing still on his stone, holding out the same sign of the martyr even after all these hours. My eyes stung again and I heard that familiar boom. I saw the familiar cloud and felt the familiar rush of people, people running away from the gas and a man there was so passionate he started shouting at them. I couldn't understand his Arabic but I could feel his sentiments, stand and be strong my brothers, please, please.  He pleaded, his eyes brimmed with emotion and very nearly leaked tears not because of the gas but because we were gas. I walked back to Tahrir to find my way home and there I heard the boom again except this time the number of people standing up and holding up their arms was greater than the number of people who rushed away. A song was being sung a freedom song, carried from ear to ear they shouted and chanted it, it was moving and stirring. Led by a man on the shoulder of his friend, a friend who was also contributing to the protest working beneath the scenes as it were walking around and making sure not to let his fear take over his duty.

Then I went home. I should have stayed there. In a state of agitated excitement I told my roommates about my day perhaps lending more excitement than I should have because their immediate response was “let's go back.” on the way I told them about the protest, gave them hints, feeling like an old pro. We were soon back at the mouth of the road with the battle. We stood for twenty minutes and saw three more of the fear fuelled runs away from the tear-gas as well as the bravery laden stops of them. Then a Molotov cocktail flew and that's when we should have left. In a minute or two people began running back and they were running so insistently that we all had to go along. When we got back to the square we looked over to the right and facing us down was the military police in full riot gear. The batons look scary, the shields are huge, the discipline intimidating. They beat out a tune on their shields a baton beat over and over slow and mesmerizing, scary and foreboding. I saw them and my mind flashed to what happens when a protester anywhere in the world is caught in the web of police, a beating you would never forget. I don’t have my passport, I couldn't speak Arabic well enough to plead for my life and for some reason we were at the edge of the crowd. Instinct took over, adrenaline helped it out and we ran, running, running, running. Looking back every so often to see the somehow scarier uniform of soldiers, not black but green fatigues and again the scary discipline that the protest only has when viewed from far away.

The next day I was back. Not to join the protest but to get my visa renewed at El Moggama which is quite close to Tahrir. It seems because of the events of the previous day things had become more violent. At this point teargas was being fired right into Tahrir square, the protesters had bricks and stones, projectile weapons to fight back with. The mood was more urgent, more earnest. The people with their hands up were more obvious and teargas shrouded everyone in the street. Supplies of cotton wool may have been running low since now vinegar was just sprayed into open palms and yoghurt into open eyes. The confrontations were more frequent and of greater intensity but I didn't go in. Fear still took and shook me so I saw as I waited and then left quietly.

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