Days 8-15: Love Born in Blood
Date: 2nd-8th February 2011
Location: Downtown Cairo
Site: Tahrir Square
The violence has escalated considerably, now. People are dying by the dozen every day — word is that Alexandria has turned into a warzone. I spent last night under an old Soviet tank for protection, being serenaded into a practically comatose slumber by the sweet, gentle lullaby of explosions, riot and gunfire. During my time in the medical camps, I have seen the majority of my clothing stained with what must be all the different blood types. Although, in truth, I have seen a number of things that I never thought I would.
I have seen brain stumble awkwardly out of skull with a sort of perverse indignity. I have seen bone splintered all to hell yet barely still intact, like that tree branch from your childhood that won’t ever seem to break, no matter how many times you’ve stomped on it. I have seen and smelled that it is true — many really do shit themselves when they think they’re about to die. I have seen a man try not to cry with nails embedded in his face, and fail when I pulled them out. I have pretty much seen it all.
What would eventually come to be referred to as “The Incident of the Camel”, aptly so named for the organized charge on the Rebel camps in Tahrir Square by Mubarak supporters, who were mounted on the heinous, bloody beasts. And so, armed with an inventive arsenal of makeshift weaponry, along with an equally so uninventive one of cultural stereotypes, they join secret police in a full scale assault on the protesters
It’s early, well…not really. It’s early evening, actually, but the truth is that I’ve been running on little to no sleep for the last week, and my newfound home away from home under the T-80 is succeeding in providing me with what I can safely say is the most ironically peaceful rest I have ever enjoyed. I am abruptly awakened and summoned to the front lines. This does not suit me, being awakened, but I consent.
Still groggy, I light myself a cigarette [a.k. frequently a. breakfast], and stumble with a drunken sort of clumsiness towards the shit [term for what/wherever the action is], until I get to the crux [term for what/wherever seems to be the most important part of the shit], where I find myself standing behind a woman joined in protest by her daughter, who is sitting atop her shoulders.
The girl is adorable, and her Arabic almost as infantile as mine, but not quite. She looks over at me with pure mirth — clearly not grasping the gravity of the situation, but excited to be a part of it all, nonetheless — so I wave and make a silly face. She smiles from ear to sweet little ear, and then, the gunshot rings.
It’s a strange thing, witnessing the death of a stranger….stranger still when it happens for the first time. I don’t know where the shot came from, but I know where it went, into the mother’s neck. I don’t know how it missed the girl, but I know that she all but fell into my arms, as her mother did to the ground.
I pick her up, holding her close to my chest, and carry her away from the gunfire. We get to the medical camps. She is silent, catatonic; her face sickly painted with the deep red of her blood. I’m trying desperately to wipe it off when they bring in the victim on a stretcher, but the call is already made; she’s D.O.A. The little girl looks over at the lifeless corpse, then back dead into my eyes, not knowing to cry.
The tank served as shelter to us both last night. Ever since the shooting, she hasn’t let go of me, nor spoken a word. The violence has, thankfully, died down a bit since yesterday. The other doctors are trying to find out who her family is, to no avail. She hardly looks at them, and still has yet to eat, drink or even mourn.
The little angel speaks! Only to me, though. Her name is Yara, and she is all of four years old. She does not know any of her kin with noted exception of the dearly departed, whose name I insensitively request — at which point she shuts down, again. This is stupid of me. I don’t know much else about her, other than that she likes to draw. Initially, the best I can provide her with are some old newspapers and a charcoal pencil. After some searching, though, I rangle up a few jenky markers and some gauze for her to doodle on. She looks at me, speechless, and her eyes give way to the faint hint of a smile.
Right, so, it’s been less than three days since our cruelly fated introduction, and Yara and I have become completely inseparable. Hell, she won’t even go to the bathroom without me. My heart damn near exploded this morning, when I made her laugh by hitting my head on the steel underbelly of our tank. She’s got the most intoxicating laugh, that girl. It’s the sound of unbridled joy. She giggles, and I’m slain. I forfeit all petty adult inhibition, and make face after stupid face. The entirety of my day is spent catering to her every whim, in an attempt to help lift the weight of it all, if only for a moment or two.
Yara revealed to me that she is from no other than my family’s hometown of Fayoum, earlier. With the help of a handful of the other doctors and rebel leaders, I look into it further. Which is exceedingly difficult for me to do, I might add, as she gets annoyed whenever I don’t pay attention to her. After several hours of irksome searching, the closest thing Egypt has to Child Protective Services comes up with an address and a phone number for her uncle. I’m worried, selfishly, perhaps. Because we’ve grown so goddamn attached to each other, I’m hesitant to let her go, and not just because I want to keep her. There’s no way I can properly care for or support this girl, but I’m not sure this uncle can, either. She’s just too close to my heart now for me to trust hers with anybody else.
Well, shit….I guess this is happening much quicker than I thought it would. Yara’s uncle is coming to pick her up tomorrow, and I’m not sure how to tell her. She’s never met the guy, apparently, and could very well freak out the second that a total stranger comes to take her away from the only thing she’s come to know since her mother’s passing. But they did a background check on him, and he came up clean. Given that he is her closest of kin, I don’t really have any say in the matter, so I’m just going to have to roll with it. We’ll have to see how she feels, though.
Today’s the day. Last night afforded me very little comfort under the T-80. She spent it sleeping soundly on my shoulder — needless to say, we haven’t told her. After we get up and eat some breakfast (travel-sized Frosted Flakes, her favorite), I am heartbroken to see how happy she is. I mean, it’s unlikely she’ll ever really get over the trauma, but you’d never guess that it all happened only a week ago. She’s made a lot of progress in her communication, even started talking to other people. We’re in the middle of drawing a particularly gruesome looking policeman, when word arrives that so has her uncle.
The man is there waiting and smiling; he looks the prototypical Egyptian. As we approach him, I can’t help but loathe him secretly and just a little. You see, she’s not just another girl to me. This sacred little angel is the closest thing I’ve had to a daughter in my young life. I am bound to her in a way that I will never really be able to express, because I am responsible for her, and she draws breath by that.
The sound of a crying child is known to be among the most disturbing of any on this Earth. After today, I know why. In typical Yara fashion, she isn’t dramatic or showy about it, but totally composed. The sensation of her leaving my arms devastates me, as does the sight of her tears, too. Most painful of all, though, is the look of betrayal and abandonment in her eyes when they take her away. It will haunt me until the day that I die.
And like that, she’s gone.
So, get this. I’m attending a boat party on the Nile and end up meeting a fellow rebel in arms. We strike up a conversation and, after about three or four Johnnie Walker Blacks, start swapping war stories. As it turns out, he spent the majority of the Revolution in Alexandria. I respect him sincerely for his commitment to the cause. It’s hard to find people who are as willing to wade into the thick of the shit.
Six whiskeys in, and things starts to get emotional (he’s the “I love you, man” type). It’s not long before we’re deep into alcohol induced bromance. He commends my dedication to Egypt in spite of being an American by birth — consequently deciding to share with me a very personal story. The story is about his little cousin, whose mother was shot and killed on the Day of the Camel, and who was saved and cared for by one of the doctors in the camps.
I damn near shit myself. There is simply no way. But, as it turns out, this man is the son of the very man who replaced me as father to Yara. I tell him who I am; he bursts into tears and throws his arm around me, calling me an angel and wishing me blessings of Allah. This sort of praise makes me very uncomfortable — I am not good at receiving it — so I just sort of stand there awkwardly, with this weeping man slung over me.
It takes him a while to collect himself, but eventually he calms down enough to invite me to dinner at his family’s house; I politely decline. “No no, you don’t understand….she’s living with us now. You have to come see her”. I am stunned, overwhelmed, and totally ill-equipped to handle this sort of emotion. He insists, and anybody who knows one will tell you that it’s very hard to resist the advances of an insistent Egyptian.
I’m in the car on the way to Fayoum to have dinner with this family, and my heart has settled nicely into its new home in the middle of my throat. This drive is agony, and my friend, for all his good intentions, is only exacerbating my anxiety with his attempts to calm me down. I have absolutely no idea how this will go. Is she going to remember me? Would that bring back the trauma? Will her family like me? Will she?
The rickety elevator we’re taking up to the apartment is not soothing my nerves, and my heart is now virtually bursting in my throat. We get to her floor, and walk towards the door. After ringing the bell, we are greeted by the uncle himself, who immediately kisses me on both cheeks and welcomes me into his home (I love this about Arab culture). We walk into the living room, where his wife starts crying, and greets me in a similar fashion. They call for her — I’m perilously close to vomiting — and in she walks.
No time wasted with shyness. Yara runs up to me and jumps into my arms; I stop holding back the tears. Being Egyptian, her family cuts our reunion short and herds us to the dinner table, where they proceed to stuff me with food. I sit next to Yara, who has grown some, but still kicks her legs adorably the whole time. She keeps looking up at me and giving me that smile I used to work so hard for every minute of every day back in the camps.
After I am literally full to the point of discomfort, we adjourn to the living room for a smoke and a cup of tea. Yara’s family is collectively showering me with blessings which, again, I am hysterically graceless in the reception of. Her and I are sitting in the same armchair, when she starts to fall asleep next to me, and lays her head in my lap. The uncle tells her to get ready for bed, and she refuses — I laugh at this total disobedience, remembering it well — instead going over to him and whispering something in his hear. He nods, and she runs to her room.
Yara comes back a few minutes later, with a devious grin on her face and hands behind her back. The room is quiet as she walks up to me and reaches out her tiny hand. In it, is a beaded bracelet that she made herself, painted with the red, white and black of the Egyptian flag. The tears, once again, roll down my face as she kisses me on the cheek, then goes off to bed.
That was the last time I saw my little angel, but I bear her scars, her bracelet, and her love to this day.