Occupation Map

Occupation Map

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Palestinian singer Reem Kelani's message from Egypt

I woke up on the morning of Friday 11th of February, feeling depressed and hopeful at the same time.

Yesterday, I had been talking to Fergus Nicoll from BBC World Service about the demonstrators wanting to reclaim for the Egyptian masses Sayyid Darwish’s ’Biladi, Biladi’, which has been the official Egyptian national anthem since 1979. They resented the fact that a great anthem such as this had been exploited by the regime. Sayyid Darwish wrote the song against the background of the 1919 Egyptian Revolt against the British, and it was in this vein that the demonstrators had been singing it aloud.

As I did the daily hand washing, I listened, incredulous, to the State radio. I kept thinking that if this were any other Arab country not at ’peace’ with Israel, the US government would have been up in arms and would have rushed to condemn the Egyptian regime loudly for its behaviour towards the demonstrators.

I took the metro to Muhammad Naguib in downtown Cairo and then walked to the Square. As I got closer, I saw more and more people making their way to the Square. Along the way, I passed popcorn and sweet potato sellers and teenagers selling Egyptian flags, fuzzy wigs and armbands in the colours of the national flag. It felt like a huge village fete, with parents pulling along smartly dressed children as though they were accompanying them to a traditional ’mawlid’, the traditional celebrations of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth. Some women carried their toddlers on one shoulder, each tiny leg on either side of their shoulders.

I had heard that the wonderful Evelyn Ashamallah was suffering from blood pressure problems. We had been with her the night before, and the three of us stood still as we watched Mubarak’s obstinate, defiant and apology-free speech. Evelyn jumped off her sofa in disbelief, physically shocked by Mubarak’s stand. I felt guilty that we hadn’t stayed the night with her; she was beside herself with shock and concern for the young people in the Square.

The Square was so crowded that I struggled to meet any of my friends. Moreover, the local mobile network was so overloaded that it was almost impossible to co-ordinate with each other.

Amid the mayhem, I bumped into Saber Mekkawi from ’Nadi al-Nuba al-Aam’, the Nubian club in Egypt. I grabbed hold of his jacket, so that we didn’t lose each other. He took me to a funeral procession that was taking place in another part of the Square to honour the four Nubian Egyptians who had been killed over the past fortnight. The funeral was sombre and well organised, and the attendees, mostly Nubian Egyptians, lined up in a circle and sang wedding songs to honour the dead. It was resilience in its purest form, demonstrating love of life and respect for the dead.

All of a sudden, a massive ’sound wave’ rippled across the crowds. People were screaming, shouting, yelling, laughing ecstatically, crying and kneeling on the ground. I was overwhelmed, and for a split second, I couldn’t make sense of it. Swept up by the moment, I mislaid my mobile phone, on which I had recorded so many images of the momentous past two weeks.
Realising I had lost my phone, I started walking aimlessly, wondering what was going on. People were hugging each other and crying in disbelief. At a First Aid point, some people were being treated for shock; others fainted in front of me.

My Nubian friend was lost in the middle of the Nubian singing and dancing that turned into a true celebration, with women ululating in the Egyptian and Nubian styles. I ululated along, and I realised that Mubarak was president no more.

I was frustrated that at the very moment we’d all been waiting for, I couldn’t find my husband or my friends to hug and congratulate.

Chris arrived later, having had to walk most of the 2 miles from our place of stay because all the roads and bridges were jammed with cars, motorbikes and people. He found me, eventually, surrounded by young men of the Youth Committee who had taken on the task of bringing order to Tahrir Square since the demonstrations began. They had foregone their personal celebrations to help me find my phone. I was crying, out of joy and out of frustration at the probable loss of so many remarkable images.

I cried too out of resentment for the fact that Mubarak had denied his people the night before of the news that they all wanted. There was a sense that he had cheated his people even at the final moment of his presidency.

Our walk back to Dukki late on Friday night was especially slow, as almost everyone we passed wanted to show us how happy they were. All I could do was to ululate the Egyptian way, and for many in the street this made sense to them. Simple words seemed somehow inadequate to describe the enormity of the moment.

A young Egyptian stopped me and asked if I was Palestinian. He then pulled out a Palestinian flag and waved it along with the Egyptian one. He insisted on giving it to me as a gift, but I felt that he should keep it on a night like this: better to have a free Egyptian holding my imprisoned Palestinian flag aloft.

If we thought we would go straight in the door, when we got back, Ali the concierge next door who moonlights as a cabbie, decided otherwise. He ’ordered’ us to get in to his cab and gave us a free tour of the impromptu and chaotic street celebrations. From the Ja’afrah community in Aswan, Ali kept demanding that I ululate by saying "Zaghrati!" every time we passed someone.

By the time we finally staggered in to bed, I had no voice, but I was full of hope.


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