Day 4: A Perfect Circle
Date: 28th January, 2011
Location: Cairo, Egypt
Site: Masjid Ibn-Tulun
My hands are shaking as I’m writing this, palms sweating, too. My heart rate is jacked and I’m on the verge of tears. Actually, no, I just started crying. I’m not able to tell if it’s excitement, shock, or the sheer amount of adrenaline pumping through my veins right now….but I don’t know that I’ve ever lived more intensely than I am in this very moment. I have to jot this down before we get moving again. Fuck, before something blows up again. Alright, okay, here’s how it happened:
I’m standing outside Ibn-Tulun, the largest mosque in Egypt, on an absolutely gorgeous morning. It’s been three (wait, two?) no, three days since the riots broke out and I am exhausted. I haven’t showered since leaving campus, nor slept on anything that even comes close to resembling a bed. For the last 72 hours, I’ve been scavenging for food and water (with little to show for it) and I am starving. They [the leaders of the regime] shut down the internet and mobile phone towers the day before yesterday, so there’s no way of contacting anyone outside the country. I’ve got no cash, no credit, and nothing to spend either on, if I did. I’m surrounded by strangers whom I can only stumble through communicating with. I know nothing about anyone around me, anyone at all, but I am far from alone. This very torn notebook, a beat up motorcycle, and the clothes on my back are all that I have to my name — and they’re all that I need.
Half the day has yet to pass, and already the riots have claimed more than 40 lives across the nation. It is approaching noon on a Friday, and thus time for Jumu’ah (Friday Prayer). There are more rituals deemed inviolable in Islam than I care to recount, but this is one I know to be among the most sacred. Approximately 90% of the Egyptian population is Muslim. Such being the case, one would expect that in spite of the Revolution — with its bloodshed and civil unrest notwithstanding — the sanctity of this, most holy of Islamic rites, would be respected. In so doing, one would be disappointed (uprisings have a way of altering expectations).
In a shameless and reproachable attempt to quell the widespread violence (in metropolitan Cairo at least), Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s presiding dictator for 30 years, has ordered his secret police to move on Ibn-Tulun during Jumu’ah. (The brazen audacity of this act [i.e. assaulting a defenseless group of unarmed civilians when they are at their most vulnerable], serves as effective testament to the tyranny of Mubarak’s regime, and its total lack of regard for the needs [and basic wellbeing] of the Egyptian people). Call to Prayer sounds, and the sprawling capital rests, as millions of its inhabitants retire to worship (several thousand of them doing so at the site in question). Seeing the opportunity to capitalize on a moment of exposed weakness, the force moves on the unsuspecting masses, seeking to arrest (and most likely torture) the Rebel Army’s civilian core.
As I see the enemy approach, I am realizing the gravity of what is about to transpire, along with the casualties that the cause will suffer as a result. I stay transfixed, for what is way too long a time, before coming to and hearing the call-to-arms from our Christian leaders (bear in mind that the Revolution has been organized, planned, and executed by Egypt’s youth generation, the majority of those in command are no older than 25). They are shouting incomprehensibly (and even if this weren’t fucking bedlam, I still wouldn’t really be able to understand). I look around and see what will forever remain one of the most remarkably inspirational acts of human courage and strength to date.
Out of nowhere, I am beset by waves of my fellow soldiers. They crash into me — men, women, boys, girls. With faces painted red, white, and black my people are chanting and crying in dissent. Before I know it, I’m in the thick of the mob. Engulfed by it, I am one with it. The police are encroaching, some bearing riot shields and batons, others rifles or shotguns. We scream and shout, welcoming the chaos about to unfold. Then suddenly, systematically, organically, it seems, we join hands. We come together, surround the ancient Ibn-Tulun and bar its gates with our fury, our flesh, our blood and our bone. Here is where we will fight. Here, is where we will stand.
Somehow, too, I stand — as a very small part of a very perfect circle, and my mind freezes. It sort of, just…implodes. In the moment before whatever mayhem is to come, my thoughts wander. This is an extraordinary circle for its weirdness. It is held together by some few hundred Coptic (the Christian Church of Egypt) protesters, who’ve unified as one for a strange and beautiful cause. This seems odd, almost cultish, I know. A bunch of Jesus loving Arabs forming a massive circle around an iconic Muslim house of worship….sounds like an Old Testament anecdote about to go dismally awry. There is a method to this madness, though, I assure you. And it is [mad], in many a sense, but not the predictable. It is mad in the sense that it doesn’t make any [sense], because this circle’s formation is of an origin most bizarre and unprecedented. Weirdest of all is my inclusion to it. Not two months ago, I was just another American college student, going overseas to study and live with family. But now, I find myself an Egyptian rebel, a member of this perfect circle.
I am staring down a wall of guns, smoke, tear gas, and fire. But I am part of a stronger one. I help hold together this physical wall, whose very unimaginable existence is finally breaking down a metaphorical one. Because we (yes, we, I am a proud [albeit skeptical] member of the Coptic nation) are gathered in unison to protest and protect. We are protesting, among many others, the tyranny of intolerance. The age old conflict between Muslims and Christians has claimed lives uncounted, and broken hearts untold. It has plagued millions of most every region with its ruthless ignorance; and the people of Egypt, certainly, are no exception. So we are gathered here as countrymen to change, to grow, and to fight. Against intolerance we are gathered to protest, and in unison so too, do we protect.
They’re a stone’s throw away — stones are being thrown, guns fired, lives taken. My mind is still racing; I am not afraid. How could I be? I am shielded by what feels like something impenetrable. We are invincible, and our resolve will not waver. I snap back to reality, heart thumping but still unafraid. We are not afraid. Because on this momentous, unforgettable day, we are united. And we have done so not as foe, nor even as friend, the bond is far stronger. Today we are not Christians. We are not Muslims. We are brothers, sisters, kinsmen and blood. Today we are one, and we make our stand as such. Today we fight for Egyptians, as Egyptians. Today we are, I am, Egyptian. Today, I am alive.
Hold fast. Forward, march.