11022011: Egypt’s magic palindrome

Egyptian relationship blogger Marwa Rakha writes this morning:

I woke up today at 6:30am with a peaceful smile on my face. I reached under the covers and greeted my unborn baby; he kicked back and went to sleep. My cats jumped on the bed with me and seemed happier than usual. A few minutes later, I got out of bed and opened the terrace windows; I wanted to watch the first sunrise on the first day of our freedom.

History is made, on a palindromic day which is the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. (Some are darkly muttering that it is also the anniversary of the fall of the Shah, and look what happened then.) Hamdy, Stoke Newington’s famous “Porn Free” newsagent, gave me my change with a smile. To my “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” he replied, “It’s a beautiful day in Egypt!”

Who knows what will happen next? But this isn’t the time for that. In 18 days, a Middle Eastern government was routed by the people. (Editing in: as I write this, thousands have taken to the streets in Yemen.) I’m sure many other countries are looking on in exactly the way, say, England watched the revolutions in America and France. Can you  imagine something like this happening in Saudi Arabia?

Hamdy says, “This is history, nothing like this ever in the history of the world, not ever, not like this.”

He said, “It’s a white revolution! A bloodless revolution.”

“Three hundred people were killed,” I say. “Three hundred!”

Hamdy shrugs and throws  his hands out, and I think of the French revolution again. I’m thinking of the mothers of those 300, who will mainly have been young. But (and) they will be heroes.

In fact, they are heroes. We’re humbled – right? My response to this, and yours too, right, is the gap between that amazing determination and utter bravery, and us? I was proud but I also didn’t really even want my kids in that kettle. We were outraged because they missed their dinner! Of course, we have not yet had thirty years of what Egypt has had. But still.

Here’s a video that captures the cost and the need for bravery. There’s been a lot of talk about the women of Egypt – there was a very moving photo album doing the rounds on Facebook the other week – and this girl looks both small, and rather fierce. I don’t think you’d want to mess with her.

I wrote about Egypt once before – well, a few times, but only on one story, about a cartoonist called Magdy El Shafee, who was arrested for writing a graphic novel called Metro, and his publisher, Mohamed Al Sharkawy, who had been arrested the year before. I wrote from the perspective of a fellow creative artist, and – writing it up for the Guardian – found myself, in all my well-meant ignorance, being edited by their Middle Eastern editor Brian Whitaker… Slightly daunting! Not having to rely on Google Translate, for a start, must be such a boon for him. But what the experience gave me, aside from my couple of fledgling contacts, my sliver of direct human interest, was a keen sense of how little we know compared to what we think we know. Mohamed Al Sharkawy, the firebrand publisher, no mimsy tweed-wearer, had been tortured in prison the year before and had broken a taboo to go around talking about it – rather than bearing some kind of very natural shame or embarrassment, he went public to put the shame back on them.

Magdy writes on Facebook today (I think; I’m relying on Google translate!), “Freedom and a civil society means the street is sacred.”

The day Magdy was arrested, my friend and her two kids were on holiday in Cairo, possibly eating ice creams and walking right past the publishers’ offices, thinking they were just in a blissful sunny tourist place… they weren’t thinking of even a need for streets to be sacred. That in itself, for me, was a reason to write. Because her son is also a keen budding creative artist. There is a natural kinship that transcends national boundaries, but those on the Egyptian side were having to operate in a climate of fear and caution, where we take openness completely for granted (as look at the halls of Baroque, festooned with the knickerbockers of radicals and bohemians).

No, it’s full respect for the unbelievable achievement of these people. Sleeping out in the square, filthy and bandaged, for two weeks. We should be humbled; and who knows, we may well come to owe them something ourselves. Whatever happens next, this is their moment.

Pictures of Egyptians martyrs who were killed during the protests are shown in Tahrir Square Photograph: Manoocher Deghati/AP

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