Mohammed Mahmoud Street links the downtown Cairo district of Abdine with Tahrir Square. During the Egyptian uprising 2011–2012, many of us who are parents of younger children and who got actively involved were navigating new territory; under what circumstances would we allow ourselves to ‘go down’ into the demonstrations? How much of what was going on would or should we share with our children? For my husband and me this balancing act was made all the more complicated by the fact that we lived in Abdine. We used to drive from one end of Mohammed Mahmoud Street to the other every morning to get to school. Unlike many of our friends, and activists whose work we followed who were more full-time revolutionaries than we would ever be, we could never just take a break from the revolution and go home. It was on our doorstep and we were, as a family, engaged in it full-time. Last week was the third anniversary of the first battle of Mohammed Mahmoud Street. In the three years since the battle, my work has turned increasingly towards the treatment, through the body, of psychological trauma. My experiences of trying to hold a safe space for my family while engaging with what was going on in Mohammad Mahmoud – and the many crises that followed that battle – are directly connected with this development in my professional life. Here, I remember those days, and see some of what I witnessed in a new light.
It was about a week before Egypt’s post-uprising parliamentary elections. I was driving my two children back towards Cairo, behind a friend with her family in their car, after a nice weekend together out of town. My phone rang and my 10-year-old son read her name out to me, feeding one earphone into my ear so that I could answer.
‘Hey, what’s up? Traffic ahead?’
‘Rebecca, I’m on Twitter. There’s fighting in Tahrir.’
‘Oh shit. Since when? How bad?’
‘It’s only just started coming up on my feed. But it’s escalating.’
‘Ok, can you keep me posted? If it doesn’t calm down it might be hard to get home.’
‘Of course you can’t go home, you’re coming to stay with us.’
‘Thanks a lot. We can decide for sure when we get to Zamalek. Is there any indication of how the roads are?’
Later it transpired that the children of mutual friends had been on a play-date in the elite island district of Zamalek, central but protected, and as their parents were now trapped, by the fighting, in their own house near Tahrir, these two children came to stay too. Neither of us two mums had much sleep that night. First we had to get six children to bed, their anxiety keeping pace with their excitement. Then we had to clear up the mess and peel ourselves away from our computer screens. Disturbing reports indicated the teargas was different this time; it appeared to be causing convulsions from which people had already died. Every few minutes Twitter flashed up with another appeal from one of the field hospitals that had materialized again downtown with lists of supplies and experts needed, each item registering its own place on the spectrum of trauma, a nuance in the evocation of ways to be damaged in body and mind: Betadine, Micogel, subcutaneous adrenaline shots, local anaesthetic, Ventolin, morphine, antibiotic shots and creams, eye-drops, burn gels, Valium, surgical gloves, torches, saline, suturing kits, splints, gauze, cotton wool, plaster; eye surgeons, trauma surgeons, orthopaedic surgeons; ANY medical doctors. Then, in the few hours left to us before dawn my friend and I had to negotiate an unfamiliar intimacy side by side in her bed that made sleep fitful and restricted.
The next morning at 6am, a child for every hour on the clock squeezed around the end of her kitchen counter, my chief preoccupation was ensure that each child got to school in clean underwear – easy for the girls from this all-girl household, but more difficult for the boys – as if to fall short on this small detail would be irrefutable evidence that I was no longer supplying my children with sufficient protection from the disruption of violence.
With the children all stowed safely at school, six lunchboxes conjured up by some sleight of hand from my friend’s kitchen after a weekend away, she and I prepared for Tahrir; jeans, trainers, scarf and a light jacket with deep pockets for a small amount of cash, a front door key, mobile, ID and a bottle of water. That much was a familiar routine for the Square. What was new was that when we went to our respective banks to draw out cash, and met at one of the pharmacies in Zamalek known to support the revolution, Zamalek, and indeed most of Egypt, appeared to be going about its daily business as if nothing was happening. People were dying in Tahrir, and Egypt was looking the other way.
Carrying a few thousand pounds-worth of medical supplies between us, we met others with supplies outside a coffee shop, and shared cabs up to and across Kasr el-Nil bridge. It was the first time I’d gone to Tahrir when it was overtly violent. I reassured my husband, on his way to Cairo from being away, that it was quite safe and I was going in a group, but I was afraid.
I need not have worried. It was indeed a particularly brutal clearing of the sit-in in Tahrir that had sparked the first clashes on the 19th November 2011 –since Mubarak’s resignation on February 11th, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had met peaceable sit-ins and demonstrations with increasing violence, most notably the Maspero massacre. But while a forced clearing of the Square had lit the fuse, the battle was now raging in and around Mohammed Mahmoud Street. If holding the square was essential enough to the symbolism of the revolution for SCAF to have it cleared using extreme brutality in broad daylight, the fight was now no longer in the Square. Tahrir felt almost empty with only a couple of thousand people there, except that my eye was drawn to a dirty pall hanging over its South-East corner. There a denser gathering could be made out through the greyness. Teargas shots thumped, the sharper sounds of gunfire rattled, but the actual fighting was out of sight. Our group dissipated as each delivered their supplies to the various field hospitals.
Soon I was alone, near the central roundabout, trying to make sense of the scene. It wasn’t yet clear to me why razing the Tahrir encampment should have developed into a battle in Mohammed Mahmoud, except that this street led towards, though not directly to, the Ministry of the Interior. If it was symbols we were talking about then an attack on the MOI was perhaps an obvious response, for the MOI had always been the government’s instrument of repression, humiliation and brutality. And the people whose daily lives were most routinely tormented by its Amn al-Markazi, or Central Security Forces, were those I could see now screaming out of the crowd at the corner of Mohamed Mahmoud Street on the backs of motorbikes, a corridor cleared for them by two lines of people linking outstretched arms. Every motorbike carried three passengers, each of whom, almost invariably, belonged to the vast Egyptian population of young, disenfranchised men from the ashwiyat – informally built districts on the edges of the city – and a large number of whom were football Ultras, whose many years of taunting and outwitting the Amn al-Markazi at matches and fighting with rival clubs had taught them all the tactics necessary for resisting the police – and the joy, relief, even, to be had from doing so. On each motorbike there was a driver, a pillion passenger and a third figure cradled between them. This one in the middle was either stiff with pain or frighteningly limp, slumped forward against the driver or surrendered backward into the arms of the boy behind. Over and over again they passed, the motorbikes with this configuration of three, a steady stream of tenderness and intent, the trinity on each bike a poignant, modern, high-speed distortion of a thousand images of the holy family’s flight into Egypt: the innocence of the infant and the martyrdom of the redeemer condensed into the figure of the wounded youth; the awe and determination of the Virgin and Joseph in the bearing of the two rescuers. Given the almost wholesale substitution of cheap Chinese motorbikes for the Egyptian donkey in recent years, even the motorbike complied neatly with this picture.
One after another, seemingly without end, the wounded were carried to the field hospital in Omar Makram mosque, or to one of the ambulances waiting beside it. And then the motorbike boys, having deposited their precious cargo, would turn straight round and disappear back down that corridor through the crowd, back into the clouds of teargas to the front line for another casualty.
The image of these three figures on every bike has a powerful hold on me to this day. Last year, at this same time, as the army and police set up a monument in Tahrir to commemorate the martyrs they killed in Mohammed Mahmoud in an act of manipulation that bordered on the surreal, I was outside a brasserie near the Gare du Nord in Paris, watching from the pavement as fire engines arrived to deal with a blaze shooting from the roof of an old residential building on the corner of the street. As the engine raced past me I caught sight of a young fireman in the back shrugging himself into his protective gear. A wave of grief washed over me momentarily and I knew at once where it came from. The motorbike boys of Mohammed Mahmoud touched so many of our archetypes: martyr, redeemer, innocent child, yes, but also young fighter, rebel, prophet, tragic hero, rescuer, victim, mourning Madonna, gentle, protective father. In doing so they captured both the starkest and the more transcendent realities of our uprising; its idealism, tenderness, heroism, humanity and commitment, but also its violence, discord, darkness and betrayal.
As the violence was not affecting the rest of downtown, my husband and I moved with our children back home to Abdine. But while we felt the importance of keeping the children’s routines as normal as possible, we had the sense that, once again, ours were being put on hold as the contours of our own lives became a little sharper. My days were now a schizophrenic mixture of tense Tahrir mornings grey with teargas and smoke, and serene, golden afternoons with the children in the Gezira Sporting Club, the miraculous Egyptian autumn light and the heightened emotional state we were in making everything seem more precious and ephemeral. On one morning in Tahrir, I met a friend who is a professor at Cairo University sitting on the edge of the roundabout marking student papers. ‘What can I do?’ she said, shrugging, but keeping a wrist on the pages to prevent them from flying away in the breeze, ‘If I stay in my office I feel guilty because I’m not here, if I stay here I feel guilty because I’m not doing my marking. So I’ve brought my marking to the Square!’
By night, Tahrir resembled the back-up camp of a medieval battlefield. The central roundabout was packed with tents and people. A large field hospital stood at the centre around which people prepared food, consumed it, collected garbage, brought in the wounded, rested from the fighting, prepared to go back in. Somewhere in all of this I would occasionally bump into a friend, some there like me simply to add to the numbers, a few to go in and fight.
It was confirmed that the tear gas was a different and stronger formula from that which had been used during the January uprising. The usual antidotes – vinegar, coke, onions – were not so effective. Gas masks were for sale all over downtown, most of them not much use. A young member of the Masry al-Hurr (Free Egyptian) Movement had worked on an antidote for this new gas and come up with a very specific ratio of water to bakers’ yeast that was more effective than anything else. There were now production lines of women with jerry cans, basins, buckets of water and empty water bottles, making it up in the Square 24 hours a day. On one of the nights at the Masry al-Hurr tent, a large man was carried in convulsing. He’d been hit in the head with a teargas canister and knocked to the ground unconscious. As his body had involuntarily taken a deep breath of recovery he’d inhaled nothing but tear gas. He’s a big guy and he survived, but something similar happened to a young female doctor working in the field hospital near Hardees on the corner of Mohammed Mahmoud and Tahrir when the Amn al-Markazi made a direct attack on the hospital, and it killed her. Her body was taken away in an ambulance, but it never reached the morgue and was never seen again. It began to be apparent that even some of the wounded were not reaching hospital. People were simply disappearing. A group of Cairo homeopaths took all the symptoms of tear gas poisoning that people were manifesting to identify a remedy whose symptoms most resembled the teargas poisoning. The remedy with the closest matching symptoms was Potassium Cyanide. When one of the canisters was sent off to a lab to be analysed, the results returned with significant levels of cyanide in them. Made in the USA and the Great Britain.
Three mornings into the battle of Mohammed Mahmoud we were at home, gathered by the front door at 7.25, the children putting on their shoes and swinging their backpacks onto their shoulders. I opened the door and a gust of dirty, cold air blew into us from the stairwell. Our eyes started to water and our noses and throats to prickle. We shuffled backwards, herd-like into the house and shut the door, lunch boxes, tennis racquets and satchels bashing against knees, and crotch-level elbows jabbing as small hands rubbed small eyes. After three days of 24-hour gassing, it had finally made it the 700 metres to our house.
‘Ow, mama, what’s that?’
‘It’s teargas.’ I said, ‘Just take little breaths.’
Our son ran to his room and got the gas-mask his dad had bought him to play with. I tied a scarf around our 5-year-old daughter’s mouth and nose, and we tried again, making our way down into the street while I checked Twitter to be sure that we wouldn’t bump into anything horrible on our (new) route to school. My husband drove us through downtown, the windows tightly shut, all of us quiet for once. After the children had got out at school, our son’s head reappeared inside the car.
‘Will you be picking us up Mum?’
‘Not Hanan [our babysitter], you promise.’
‘Where will we go after that?’
‘You’ve got tennis today, you know that.’
‘No, I mean after that. Will we be going home?’
‘I don’t know my love. If we had a choice, what would you prefer?’
‘I think I’d want to go home.’
‘Even if there was still teargas?’
‘Yes… I’m not sure.’
‘Ok, off you go now. Baba and I will talk about it and we’ll see what we’re going to do.’
The more I went to Tahrir that week, the less frightening, the more normal it felt to go up to the entrance of Mohamed Mahmoud street. I stood in the crowd chanting next to Ultras from rival teams, united for once, improvised gas masks dangling from their necks, their faces splattered with the dried up yeast solution, eyes exhausted or euphoric, but always blood-shot ; or I was squeezed between a couple of large ladies in gallabiyas taking a break from mixing the antidote. An ardent young women took turns with a man I recognized from the eighteen days to lead an increasingly sophisticated repertoire of chants for hours on end with no prompt, and to bully the more passive among us into joining in. Further away from the fighting, a group of music students from Helwan University sat in a circle singing the patriotic song Ya Biladi in harmony as more and more people joined in, many of them in tears. I recoiled in fear at the sight of someone who’d had too much gas convulsing on the ground in the arms of a would-be saviour, or laughed, inspired by a worn out street vendor dressed in rags holding a stick-and-string structure of teargas canisters, cartridge shells and bullets dangling around him – a crazy walking mobile, a Mohammad Mahmoud art installation. The grey pall in the air grew only thicker as the days went on, and sometimes, standing out in that toxic cloud, there bobbed a pink tower of candy floss, individual portions tied, in puffed out plastic bags like balloons, to a tall stick. The candy-floss seller was a poet. He’d recite as many of his poems as you, or the circumstances had time for.
There were moments when I’d feel overwhelmed with all the things seen and felt in the square that week. After the teargas reached Abdine, we went back to our initial refuge and then found a longer-term solution at another friend’s apartment in Zamalek that was between tenants. I spent the rest of the morning moving out of Abdine and into the new place so that we’d be installed by the time the children came out of school. It was the day a friend on Twitter described Egypt as one big Madhatter’s Teaparty. Parliamentary elections were now only days away and, it seemed, each group was being a parody of itself: the revolutionaries were split between those calling for elections to be postponed and others for a boycott; the Muslim Brothers were capitalizing on the chaos with their particular brand of focus, continuing with their canvassing and ignoring the deaths – a betrayal that made us realize once and for all they would never be allies but only cynical opportunists; then there was the perennial Baradaie question – where the hell was he? Criticism of him as overly-intellectual and irresolute began to seem prescient; SCAF and its supporters were simply acting as if nothing was going on and denying the use of live ammunition in the battle, despite hard evidence to the contrary, because as long as you don’t acknowledge anything officially, officially it hasn’t happened.
A week earlier we had arranged to have a dinner at home in Abdine for some friends, most of whom were now camping in the square. With the guests on our doorstep and likely to be tired and hungry, it seemed crazy to cancel it just because we weren’t living there. So we had our own Madhatter’s dinner party. Some people we’d expected didn’t arrive and others we hadn’t expected showed up. We sat and feasted, some of us conversed, others checked Twitter and reported, others answered emergency calls. One guest, a lawyer, told of the children who’d been arrested in the last five days and how hard it was to get them out of the police stations and back to their families. Often the families didn’t know their children had gone to Tahrir in the first place, and the children didn’t know their addresses or even what their family names were. Ahmad, was just Ahmed, and his father’s name Abu Ahmed. These kids could get themselves home but not describe to someone else how to find it. The police stations wouldn’t release minors except into the hands of an adult family member. Our dinner guest described finally tracking down one father, a taxi driver, and how he and his now-released son combed the narrow alleyways of Basheteel, one of the ashweyat, on foot, searching for the family of 12 year-old Ahmed, his son’s fellow detainee. Miraculously, using a few key landmarks, they found Abu Ahmed and brought him to collect his child. Dinner over, we got up and left the house and the dinner table just as it was, turning off the lights as we went. We all walked together back down the road to rejoin the increasingly souq-like atmosphere in the Square.
When we returned to our borrowed apartment that night, well after midnight, our son was lying awake waiting for us, waiting to ask where the weapons used against protestors in Mohammad Mahmoud had come from? Why did people make them? I sat down on his bed, took a deep breath and explained how people made weapons like any other commodity, in order to make money. He couldn’t believe it. ‘But how would they still sell bullets and poisonous gas to the Egyptian government if they knew it would use them to kill Egyptians?’ he protested. I looked at him with no ready answer and saw that he was already crying, he had understood even as he was asking the question.
The fighting lasted for the best part of a week, and about fifty people were killed, many, many more injured. The disproportionate number of eye injuries and blindings indicated that there had been a policy of shooting at people’s heads. A charismatic and eloquent dentist called Ahmed Harrara who’d lost an eye on 28th January, was fully blinded in Mohamed Mahmoud. But as an educated, politically informed activist he was in the minority. Most of the fighters and most of the casualties were the working class boys settling a collective existential score with the police who had never done anything but bully them at best, and torture and kill them at worst. Many showed up to fight with signs or badges saying ‘martyr in waiting’. When people are routinely abused and made to feel that they are disposable, that their existence is of no significance, martyrdom becomes a real option. It is the chance to be something, the chance to prove worth. These young men are the people who will ensure that, in this part of the world, the fight for karama, for dignity, goes on; through their sheer numbers, through the absolute nothing in this world that they have to lose, and through the numbing abuse in their lives that creates from the chance to fight a chance to feel.
During that week no ground was gained on either side. The army started to build a cement-block wall at the end of Mohammed Mahmoud Street, and with the fighters now cut off from their Tahrir lifeline, the battle began to fizzle out. We stayed put in our borrowed apartment, and for just a week, the logistics of life felt easy. School, grocery shopping, friends, after school activities; everything was within walking distance along leafy, shaded streets. I had more hours in my day because I wasn’t sitting in traffic jams, and more space in my head because I felt we were safe. On the night before election day, I went to the sit-in outside parliament. The focused atmosphere there made Tahrir feel like Disneyland with all its vendors and curious onlookers. There were new chants – one guy telling the whole sorry story of SCAF’s betrayal in the Egyptian Arabic version of rhyming couplets, which ended with the ominous line: ‘Al marra gayya mish selmiya. Talabtu Suriya, negiblak Libiya.’ – ‘Next time it won’t be peaceful. You’ve asked for Syria, we’ll give you Libya.’ (which dates it!). The fabled innocence of the 18 days was gone for good. Election day passed reasonably peacefully and the boycotters ended up being made to look like a bunch of petulant kids. Any relevance that Tahrir still had was fast draining away for the country with the shortest memory in the history of mankind. Everything in my own life had been on standby for ten days, and now I was having to turn round and pick up the pieces of my domestic routine, with nothing gained but fifty more Egyptians killed in the street, many more blinded and maimed for life, and a handful more grey hairs on my head. Where was Baradaei and his much touted revolutionary council? It was like waiting for Godot. It seemed that all the machinery of dictatorship had to do was to bide its time, and the people’s desire for peace and quiet would conquer all enemies for it. I wanted to curl up and forget the whole thing, go to sleep for a month and wake up to find myself back in an ordinary life. I also wanted to go home to Abdine.
On the evening of 19th November 2014, from our new, temporary home on the other side of Kasr el Nil Bridge, I noted that there was fighting in Mohammad Mahmoud Street, with teargas, rock-throwing and arrests. I felt guilty relief that, for the moment, my son and daughter could not hear this most recent skirmish and wonder if it was guns or fireworks, would not breathe in the teargas, did not have to know it was even happening. I was also amazed at both the futility and inevitability of demonstrating on this anniversary. A tweet that evening from @estermeerman summed up for me the place we have reached for now: ‘Tear gas, police and protesters running around, people getting arrested, but the chef at Kazaz didn’t even stop cutting the shoarma.’