Monday, 21 February 2011

Letter from Cairo 21st February 2011

City of Nantes renames it's Place de La Liberation, Tahrir Square!

Life is full of strange happenings and coincidences.  Apparently, the city of Nantes in France has changed the name of one of its biggest squares from 'Place de la Liberation' to 'Place Tahrir' maintaining its original name in small letters underneath.  What is particularly interesting for me is that my husband was there in 1994 at the 'Festival des Allumees' where he accompanied the Egyptian singer 'Hakim', who had been picked, amongst other singers, to represent Egypt's world of music.  My husband owned, at that time, the most prestigious music production company in Egypt and Hakim was one of his star singers.  For six years, from 1990 to 1995, Nantes chose a different city to be represented in their festival and that particular year they chose Cairo.  The festival included Egyptian music, food and art and took place in different venues in Nantes over a period of six days from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.  The festival was attended by thousands of French citizens as well as North Africans and Egyptians living in France.  It was an enormous success and one cannot help but wonder if this was the beginning of an empathy for Egypt and that, as a result of the popularity of the festival, they have taken up our cause.

Meanwhile, I must share a few anecdotes with my readers.

I hate to say this but there was something to be said for having contacts and 'knowing the right' people here and I will explain why.  The Mogamma in Tahrir Square, which is the National Government Administrative Complex, is a maze of many small rooms and many large rooms with windows, behind which sit a lot of aggressive very poorly paid civil servants who deal with nationality certificates, resident's visas, residents' permits, passports, renewal of passports and so on. It is a massive, sprawling building with thousands of employees, most of whom have very little to do.  When you have any papers which need sorting out you go to wherever they send you and try, very hard, to wait patiently and eventually someone will scribble a signature of some sort on your piece of paper.  You are then sent elsewhere to another room on another floor where someone will stamps it with a rubber; you will then be sent somewhere else where someone else will add a postage stamp; they in turn will ask you to photocopy such and such a document.  You do this and return to where you came from, or are sent elsewhere, and will be asked to photocopy another of your documents (this is in fact the main thme of one of Hakim's songs - 'Henak aloulna hena', 'Over there they told us to come here').  By this time, you may start losing a little patience and you either obey or explode in frustration asking why you were not told to photocopy both documents at the same time.  If you behave like a quiet little mouse, you may but only may, complete your day triumphantly with paper in hand, duly signed and sealed.  However, if perchance you lose your temper you will probably have to start all over again and almost certainly on another day because you will already have wasted a whole morning there.  This was our experience for our first decade or so in Cairo. Eventually, my husband, through contacts, befriended someone (no names) who was the head of the Mogamma and other governmental organisations.  Life became easy; every time we as a family needed to renew any papers, we would sit in the plush office of said gentleman, drinking black sweet coffee, while his lackeys did all the running around for us.  Unfortunately, this gentleman disappeared with the old regime and last week my husband had to visit the Mogamma to finish my Egyptian citizenship and went through the rigmarole of past years.  His temper was sorely frayed by the time he returned home.

On a brighter, post-Mubarak note, an Egyptian friend of mine who is a young Muslim girl was invited by a Christian colleague from the American University in Cairo to attend a revolution celebration at a church near Tahrir Square.  When she spoke to me I could see that she was totally uplifted and she said "I want to share this experience with you as it portrays the unity taking place in our new free Egypt."  Apparently the service celebrated the youth movement who had participated in the demonstrations as well as some of the supporting media.  The diocese had also invited the families of the martyrs of the revolution to attend the service.  My young friend recounted that although she lives nearby, this was the first time in her life that she had entered the church and upon arrival she encountered an ambience of unity, peace and love and said that the atmosphere was electric.  She added "I joined the masses as they began singing their lovely songs of worship to which I was totally able to relate, even as a Muslim."  She related that the priest asked those who had attended the anti government demonstrations in Tahrir Square to stand up, which they did, and that there was great applause for them. She then told me that further on into the service, speeches were made by leading Christian figures, followed by speeches from members of the 25th January Youth Movement.  Most of these young men were Muslims and the fact that they were attending a Christian service and speaking out in this holy place, and being applauded by the congregation, was revolutionary in itself.  They told the stories that I have mentioned in a previous letter of how, during the days of violence, the Christians had protected the Muslims while they prayed in the square and vice versa. To my friend's surprise, a young member of the Muslim Brotherhood was present at the service.  She was very pleasantly surprised that not only was he invited to attend the service, but that he was greatly accepted by the Christian congregation and was applauded after giving an amazing speech about how the past and recent problems between both religions had been incited by Mubarak's regime. He added that Egypt needed to stop using phrases like 'Wehda Wataney' meaning 'National Unity' which is a phrase that has been used to describe the possibility of a unity between Muslims and Christians here, and use only the word 'EGYPTIANS' as a symbol of unity.  Her final words to me were "I cried, and like many other days in Liberation Square, I felt unity, happiness and freedom!"

However, we need here to look back on a darker side of this revolution and listen to a story told to me by a 15 year old Egyptian girl who comes from an upper middle class family and who lives in a villa with extensive grounds in the desert in a sparsely populated area on the Alexandria road, between the Wadi Natroun Prison and the Fayoum prison.  On Saturday 28th February 2011 at 9.30 a.m she woke to the sound of gunshots.  She looked out of her window to see her father firing at some men, who she later learnt were escaped armed prisons, who were also being fired at by the military from the opposite side of the road.  She heard their cries of pain and watched as they fell to the ground.  She later discovered that her father had not wanted to shoot at these men but that, after calling the armed forces for help, they had told him that he must shoot to protect his family as the prisoners were armed and dangerous.  When the military arrived, more and more prisoners had surrounded the walls of the house and the army gave one warning shot before shooting any man who did not obey orders.  Eventually when the situation had calmed down the family fled to their downtown appartment. The young girl in question told me that the worst thing was hearing the gunshots and the cries of the dying men as, initially, she did not know who and what was involved.  After the prisoners who had not been shot were caught, they confessed to the military that the police officers had released them and given them weapons, under instructions from the Ministry of the Interior.  This young girl, verging on adulthood, told me "After that experience I couldn't sleep for days. Before that point in time I had no feelings for Hosny Mubarak or his regime as they were not affecting me directly but after hearing the confessions of the prisoners my feelings turned to intense hatred."  While she told me her story, she was in a state of excited and suppressed agitation.  I can only hope that she will be strong enough to put aside such a horrendous experience.

Rumours are now escalating that tomorrow, Tuesday 22nd February, there will be massive demonstrations to overthrow every single member of the old regime and those who have recently been appointed.  This is unusual as apart from the first demonstration which took place on 25th January, most of the large demonstrations have taken place on Fridays.



  1. Though I am repeating myself THANKS for sharing these 'little' anecdotes, very illustrative for me, completely ignorant of Egypt, their people and their feelings, thoughts, inspirations...

    They also give me some hopes for the future, really, the three of them even if two of them may not seem so...

  2. very well written write the next one soon :DDD