Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupying London, Anarchy and Making it all up as we go along

Just back from the London stock exchange occupation, and it was a much more refreshing experience than i had anticipated it to be. My initial motivation for going was protesting army brutality in Egypt on Sunday. Armed with 'whose afraid of the arab revolutions?!' ; 'Who's behind funding murderous military ' and a very secret and internal 'egypt is not london and london isn't egypt' , i hoped to create an egyptian corner. Thankfully no one was really interested and friends i met before felt it wiser to connect all causes together, so we went with the first two slogans as well as others such like 'we the 99% from Cairo to London'.

What was refreshing however is that it almost felt like home. The random conversations struck up with different people you have nothing in common with, and suddenly so much more. Discussions of all we feared, and the anxiety of not knowing alternatives.

A man came to ask 'Is this an anti-capitalist demonstration' and a woman next to me felt she needed to be honest and that she hadn't decided she was anti capitalist yet. "I would be..." she explained, "but i wouldn't know what to do without all...well...these 'things'..." and she pulled out random items from her bag "i want choice". Another person went on critiquing the alternative 'communism'. And the argument between prospects and policies associated with all 'ism's brought forth ensued.

Then there was the next most popular question of 'should we really be bringing something apart without having a clear alternative?? shouldn't we structure a comprehensive alternative first'. This is when i explained that these were the very questions that held us back from a revolution for decades.

I loved how the fears are universal. People are exhilarated by the possibility of a possibility of an alternative; but the lapse of the current world is just so unthinkable, that an alternative is unimaginable.

But that's mainly because we're stuck in so many dichotomies? Does it need to be this or that? Can't we think up a whole other socio-political-economic system that works for us. Start with things we lack the most. How can a system of government(nance) be more accountable to its people - what ideologies/or simple ideas can grant or garauntee social justice..

We always find ourselves stuck in this fear of not having a fool-proof and comprehensive system to propose instead of the existing one. When the existing one has taken years, if not decades to put together. Not to mention that it is at that point in the cycle of coming together where it is disintegrating.

In a 'process' work-group, we were trying to discuss and debate different ways of decision making. Very much like the first few days of the June sit in in tahrir, there was a huge debate as to whether the known mechanisms, systems of representation, voting and consensus should be used; or if we should opt for that which is the more radical and experimental. The alternative that we don't know yet. Experience shows that experimenting with alternative means of management and decision making, takes much much more time. And much learning as we go along. Whereas falling on ways we 'already know' is much more effecient. But if we can't experiment, and go out on a limb a little in spaces that are already radical and 'outside the system' like these, then were can we?

We have to remember, i feel, that these spaces are not only spaces where we stand (or sit) to get a certain message across to the government; they are also (and more importantly, i feel) spaces where we meet with people we'd never usually meet. People we have nothing in common with, but much in common with on that particular point in time and space where we met. It's where we can discuss the similarity of our discussions, be blatantly honest about our fears, and experiment with our relationships with each other and the bigger society. It's where we learn about all those of us the world is made up with. I sat 'retelling' all the tales that Fox and BBC had already volunteered about the "latest deadly sectarian clashes between muslims and christians in egypt". I also got much insight about the situation in iran, and what the truth behind the crumbling of the NHS may be. Lots of really interesting ideas about the question fo the importance of decision making in teh first place arose in the 'process work-group'. Do we really need to deliberate and make decisions all teh time? Must we be presented with a dichotomy? To do this or not to do it? Or can we decide in layers. Start with a very thin and simple proposal and pass it around and see how it grows.

Julian Assange came in, lightly, humbly and cheered by the world, he came in through the crowd and to the top of St Paul's stairs. He gave a little speech and warned that (and i improvise as i can't remember exact words) "We are being held hostage to the rule of law - we should be less concerned with obeying the rule of law, and more concerned with making laws that govern us all , equally' . Us and them i suppose. But we are beign held hostage to many things. All of them our fears.

Our fear of no longer having access to running shoes and a wide array of chocolates and medicines, our fear of bearded men in short galabeyyas and their say in our lives; our fear of militias; our fear of making less money; and our fear of a temporary period of instability. But much like each of our personal lives, i feel it's those moments of societal instabilities that make us who we are. They stop our lives, shake us, our beliefs adn understanding of things; and suddenly everything is temporarily not as it ever was, and for some brief moment it can be anything, anything at all.

But the key is to take it one step at a time; for to construct it all straight away could only mean falling back on all we already know too well , or risking that. What comes to mind to me, is the popular committees taht arose at the start of the revolution to protect public property, organized to manage traffic and help calm people when the army came out and was overwhelmed and useless; and eventually developed into forms of community governance. Keeping security up, creating a group to monitor prices in markets and make sure they stay reasonable; starting campaigns to pressure municipalities to collect garbage etc. They grow in credibility, in numbers of people and governors will have no choice but to become accountable to them. One day they may replace the idea of a governer's governance and present the idea of an elected municipality, accountable to its community.

We're all afraid of disorder, but a little anarchy may mean we get a chance to explore the possibilities and try to organize in a different way. A chance at a stronger more sustainable sense of 'order'. I think , ironically, we have it in us, inherently. Revolutions are all about faith. Faith in the possibilities of an alternative future, and faith in ourselves as a people. Only then will we not be held hostage to law, order, and the other that surround us on a day like today.

We shouldn't expect ourselves to be ready with alternatives - that would be ruining everything. But we can definitely make it up as we go along, liberating our imaginations and building our alternative worlds, one step at a time. The most challenging revolution is the internal one, and the most euphoric moment is when we surprise ourselves.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Ruminations from one revolution to another

Since i've come to London - perhaps it is the distance, i have lots of dreams, nightmares, daydreams, flashbacks and many other instances, where i'm catapulted back to the more intense days of the revolution, and most often, or more particularly on the 28th.

I guess it's most probably because there wasn't ever the luxury to reflect or ruminate in Cairo, partly because there was constantly 'no time' , and partially also because everyone has been through what is equally and if not definitely more difficult, talk about an instance often turns into a competition of instances, and so reflecting on anything that is not the present or the future, feels at times dishonorable.

I've tried to avoid this trip 'away' for a long time, bas felt weighed down with the guilt of all the stories i've collected, the workers who built the dam, the Nubians displaced by it, the resistance of Porstaid of 1956, and people who resisted (and continue to resist) in suez from 1967 - 1973. Theirs are also stories that were silenced in a military-state written history; somehow in the question for 'national independence' one straight, creased out story had to be told, and the creases and folds and contradictions of a glorious state, and the stories of a people's resistance that did not always feel honorable fell out. There are also the everyday stories we now know well, of the fears and suspiciouns, the moments of weakness, the inability to unify against a common enemy that i felt people needed to get off their chest... My relationship with the generation of the 50s, definately changed drastically in the interviews from before the revolution to after.

Before the revolution i was a grandaughter. There was a strong sense of responsibility towards me - a girl coming 'all the way out here' we llewa7daha! in pursuit of el 3lem el akhruh taweel... that is no to mention that there was this general air of disapointment towards a generation not interested in how the highdam that provides their lives with light and internet was built, and the 'true story' behind why and how the English left and who chased them out.

After the revolution i became a comrade of sorts :) I came to represent a generation that was 'not so bad afterall' poets of the 50s and 60s wrote poems of apology towards the generation born in the 70s-90s. Part in apology part in encouragement , that the revolution must continue, and part also in warning, for we are a mutahawereen generation after all :) I felt the significance of the poems were not only about an ehda2 (i am late to post them but will do so soon), bas also that Kamel Eid who wrote those poems to encoruage the resistance in the 50s and 60s, will have also acknowledged our own resistance in 2000s. So it's not only about comraderie, bas this decision taht history should be a continous stretch.

My quest becomes not to write a history of 'us who are forgotten by it' , but to continue el masaar - 'write so they know how we did it'. hehe

Tab3an all this comes with the natural guilt that i may not necessary write what everyone expects me too. That is besides the fact that the Arabic translation of this dissertation is expected well before i even expect to finish the PhD!

All said, i cannot claim or conjure enough humility to be any less than honored to be doing these interivews. Post-revolution interviews have also warranted alot of trust i may not have been granted before. LIke giving me a peek into their diaries.

The diaries tell so much of the ordinary. Like, how 'scary' something was. How the sudden rain pours on the 5th of November, 1956 put out a fire started by British paratroupers that was anticipated to envelop Portsaid. I was told, secretly in a whistper, by many how this was actually a miracle. "You needn't write it down.. i know it's silly, but i went up to the roof stood in teh rain, and feel to my knees and prayed.. my father in law was a priest and he led us in prayer... all around you you could hear prayers from all the different religions and voices that made portsaid.. but miracles have no place in history..."

I heard the story of the miracle, and the weeping, by two others only, and both told me i could delete it off the recording. I've always relished the insignificant details people tell me in interviews (like when they fell in love, when they got drunk and lost in Russia when they were sent for training, when their loved ones died, or moments when they were terrified and did something dishonorable when arrested). I felt/feel those 'irrelevant' moments, were those who catapulted me into their lives, into the period, and lately, also helped me familiarize with them. In Madam Gizelle's diary entry, she took me through the details of the Cairo fire on the 26th of January 1952. When she talked about it in more detail after reading the entry, i found myself debating the fire and discussing it like it was teh fires on the 28ht of january 2011. I actually got carried away until she had to correct a geographic detail htat made me realize she and i were discussing events 59 years apart - almost to the day :) It was eerie. More so kaman as Madam Gizelle was 28 years old on the 26th of January 1952 - almost exactly as old as i was on the 28th of January 2011. And all the more because she went to an english school and our memories threaded in and out of different languages. We spoke in arabic when recounting el hetafaat and certain details and in english when lost in ideas, memories and reflections.

All this tab3an makes me regret deeply not working harder on keeping a diary during events. Something i think we all should. I tried a few times in January - but holding a pen/pencil could never be so difficult. There was never anytime, and when i did, my hands hurt like it was the winter cramping my muscles.. though it felt like something more. I inscribed short sentences on whatever pieces of paper i could find. The few words i wrote in very crooked handwriting said very little, but exhausted me emotionally to write. As if in writing i would be admitting that which i cannot afford to write about.

On the 25th - any writing was optimistic - something was starting, had started, and we would be in it and with it till the end , regardless of what that end would be; our very own, or anyone else's. From the 28th onwards , and particularly on that day it was uncertainty. So my diary entries read exactly that : "Uncertainty, i don't know what's going to happen. trying very hard" or "the army. the army's in the streets", or " i really don't know".

An untitled diary entry in mid february read " Death makes all things personal".

On the 28th of January i went to Alexandria. On the 25th of January as night fell and it seemed the media and journalists pulled out, and as our phones stopped working, 'we' knew something was going to happen. The decision to spend the night had been blown through us, a conviction whispered iwth all our hearts and sealed with the the 3 boys trudging around and through the square chanting "El gada3 gada3 , wel gabaan gabaan, we7na ya gada3 7anbaat fel midaaan". We collected money, we bought fool and kusharey and distributed them, people distirbuted tissues, there was juice, there was water. And soon, there were blankets.

As danger became more and more imminent, the mobilization started. Human chains had to be formed around the midan. For Yahia and i the decision to spend the night came easy, casually. I don't think we even discussed it - the night was a happy continuum, especially once our eyes and lungs had adjustd to tear-gas and we all knew the effect of shouting 'ethbat' when a ripple of panic came through teh crowds, or the shooting got a little crazy. But there was constantly a tormenting question of how far one would go. This is always difficult if you're two and want to stick together - but it's also very difficult on the personal level. And this tormented me throughout the revolution.

Would i join the frontlines? Did it feel fair to have others fight on my behalf, what use am i sitting in the middle , protected? As they 'mobilized us' towards the edges, i felt very uncomfortable, i did not bode well in confrontations, i did not want to be put in a position where i had to be aggressive, and usually when faced with aggression i'm hit with an almost child-like sensitivity - why does he want to hurt me so much? I've done NOTHING to this man. my fight is not with him...

My first confrontation with state security batons was in the fall of 1998, my next most memorable event was in 2005, and in 2011, except for karr and farr, i avoided being in direct confrontations all i could. I keep being told by random people that my skin will thicken after being beaten a few times, but i find that doesn't happen. I just don't like it - i never ever remember the beating, frankly i don't remember ever being touched, though i remember , particularly in 1998 seeing the baton rise and fall. What i do remember with most clarity is the look in the eyes of the green-eyed CSF soldier whose baton connected us in 1998, and the men that kept trying to grab at us through the human shield that formed suddenly around us girls in May 25, 2005. There was such an angry look in all their eyes, always something like "what i'm gong to do to you now, you'll never forget..."

I would still avoid that to save my life. It still haunts and embarasses me as cowardice. But the trauma of escaping stray bullets, is much easier to deal with than the trauma of seeing someone intentionally fire at me. I struggle to deal with that.

Thankfully my dilemna did not last long on 25th, as the heavy shooting started, and we were chased throughout downtown Cairo with heavy teargas and CSF soldiers appearing at every corner. Our day ended in Midan el falaki, after a significant tour of the streets surrounding it, though a number of our friends continued the chase throughout Cairo.

I'll never forget when the gas cleared a little and people re-grouped and we started chanting "Al shaab yurid esqaat al nidham", it was the strongest most powerful chant ever. Our voices were in powerful unison and blared through the still quiet of the night downtown; they ricocheted off the buildings in the narrower streets, and the lights came on one at a time in the buildings surrounding us, in no particular order... people stepped out into balconies with their hair in handkerchiefs, in their striped pijammas, rubbing at their sleep drenched eyes...

It was like a metaphor to the city awakening to the sound of a revolution :)

Something was beginning, and it was rippling throughout the country as one mind, heart and soul lit up after the other. The night was the last of good sleep before the struggle began for us all, and it extended far far beyond tahrir.