In Revolution, Everything is Personal
There were chants, chants… and chants, scattered around each corner of Tahrir. The revolution was in check while politics were playing out behind closed doors. It was June 2012, in the few days between the first round of the presidential elections and the following run-offs between the top two. Tahrir was almost full, but rather with a lost soul; the Muslim brotherhoods were chanting for their candidate, who won the first round; the Salafis seemed lost, but still on the side of the Brothers; and revolutionaries had a fleeting sense of a leadership, carrying Hamdeen Sabahi on their shoulders around Tahrir. Sabahi had come in third in the first round, ahead of the other revolutionary candidates. It only took a few days for Sabahi to fade off the radar.
Tahrir flowed with revolutionaries’ thirst for leadership and the Brotherhood’s thirst for the plastic crown offered by the military.
While walking down Tahrir in a big protest at that time, a youngster with a familiar face came up to me and shook my hand. He gave me the Ultras handshake, so I figured I must have known him, but he noticed confusion lingering on my face.
“Don’t you remember? We're both friends of Osama,” he said.
“Ah, yeah, I remember. What’s with the bandage? You hurt your head?” I asked him.
There was bitterness in his voice: “Last night, I was chanting against the Muslim Brotherhood and they all gathered around and beat me up.”
“They haven’t changed, have they? Damn bad blood, huh?” I said.
“Well, the guys and I are bringing some flares tomorrow night. They’ll see who we are then,” he replied.
It took me a minute, but I started to recall hanging out with him. It must have been that last time I bumped into Osama in Tahrir, just over three months ago. He was there with him and we sang and danced, the three of us, to some Ultras song on the big speakers in Tahrir.
Osama was with the other Ultras boys that night, protecting the stage. The Ultras had prevented Salafis from taking over the stage and the surrounding area, and they offered it up for the use of all the revolutionary forces.
* * * *
I can’t remember that night hanging with Osama and the youngster back in May 2012 without thinking of what came only days later: the Al-Abbasiya clashes with the military. On one of their bloodiest days, I had spent the night in, writing. I was in a confused place about the clashes.
The circumstances were confusing, and the crowds in Tahrir were dominated by Salafis, who had only appeared once or twice before over the past year-and-a-half. When they did turn up, it was mainly to show some muscle by taking over the square on a big Friday protest. They have never been the regular troops on the front line of the clashes. During Abbasiya, they showed up and surrounded the ministry of defense, talking about breaking into it all the sudden.
Abbasiya, with its narrow streets and almost no easy exits, was a certain death trap. We’d already had an experience there almost one year prior, when a march on the ministry was cornered for a whole day, marchers unable to find a way out. Even the mosque was blocked then, and the Sheikh had to get on the microphone, screaming hysterically, in tears, for God to save Egyptian blood. Many were injured, and one guy was killed as a rain of stones descended upon his head.
It'd been a year, and the Salafis seemed strangely unconcerned about the dangers of the area, not sharing our wariness. On one of the nights of those Salafi-led clashes at Abbasiya, though, I knew instictively that Osama and the Ultras boys would be down there anyway. They never miss a fight.
Scrolling now through Facebook newsfeeds, I came across a picture posted by Ramy Essam. It was a picture of Osama on that Friday, right before the clashes, on the stage in Tahrir, singing and dancing to Ramy’s live music, shoulder to shoulder with Ramy. The other small picture attached on the lower right side of the page was of Osama’s head, lying on a white metal trolley with a bloody hallow around it. That’s how I learned of Osama’s death.
* * * *
Now, in Tahrir, I looked back at the youngster’s face and told him I was thinking of writing about Osama. I admitted that I only knew Osama through Tahrir, so I never knew his last name or where he lived, nor what he studied or did for living.
As I talked, I saw the youngster’s eyes cloud over, traveling to another place. He took his time to reply.
“Well, Osama lived in Helwan, where I live. We used to take the subway together every night back from Tahrir,” he said. “I think he worked as a tourist guide.” The youngster trailed off.
He brought me, then, to the corner in Tahrir where they used to hang out, he and Osama. When we got there, he pointed out Osama’s parents and sister, sitting near the very same corner. They were hiding behind a big metal traffic barrier.
I greeted Osama’s sister. She had Osama’s eyes and such a smile! Looking at her smiling that way, I felt ashamed of the tears in my eyes. Osama’s father, in his poor galabeya, and his mother, in her poor khemar, looked like a pair of people with nothing in the world but their kids.
“I had just bought him a motorbike. And I kept the kid from riding the bike till I could register it,” said Osama’s father, in plain agony. “I didn’t want him to get harassed by cops. He’s passed away, but I continued the registration process. Two weeks ago, it was complete – the bike was registered. Now I have it parked on our balcony. I keep looking at it day and night, and I just don’t know. I just don’t know.”
* * * *
I kept listening to Osama’s father, looking at him, and memories just kept babbling up in my head.
I remembered one of the nights in Tahrir in March. My friend, who goes by the name El Magic, took a thin, shiny, elegant bullet out of his pocket and started rolling it towards his eyes “Check it out! It must have dropped off a soldier on one of the recent clashes,” El Magic said. He told me he had found that forgotten bullet down by the walls of the Egyptian museum. He kept starring at the bullet, for a full minute, then wondered aloud: “So, this is it? This small, silly thing? This is what killed my friend Mahmoud?”
I gazed the bullet’s copper shine from the corner of my eye but found no answer, so I kept my mouth shut. I looked into the horizon of Tahrir in silence. Back then, I didn’t imagine that months later I’d find myself with the same empty sense of wonder: “So, this is it? This is what killed Osama?”
What is life for then? And what is revolution for? Even in revolution, we, at some point, come up against an end, and never really become complete. No matter how persistent one is, or how much he has become one with the revolution, one can just become a character whose role ends mid-story. And without him, the story continues on.
If revolution doesn’t get us to transcend time, then what’s the difference?
* * * *
Osama’s biggest thrill, his and his Ultras friends, was to revel in their stories – stories fueled by myth and exaggeration. Among themselves, they’d never exchange stories about their lives, families or studies. They’d only talk of the revolution; that’s where they could share the only self they had, and the square the only home in which they could rebel against their (typically) old-regime-head fathers (workers in most cases).
Amor EletrebiAugust 21, 2012; These are all words, ending into thin air... The same as he ended He ended where we'd begun a brand new day Passing by the crawls munching on remains of our forgetfulness... Of our dead from the night before Revolution, revolution! You fold your smile away... You might scowl a little... Cry short... But then you fold your day away And come up the day after chanting, "revolution continues!" Say it! You're a half of everything anyway.... And you only become whole in martyrdom Is it really martyrdom? Believe it, that's much better. And also keep repeating it... "revolution continues!" For the number of times you repeat saying it... Is the number of breathes you'd take in and out... Before you reach your whole ness