He stands erect on top his new, shiny yellow tank, like a solid mass of khaki. Slung across his broad chest, resting in his hands is his military-issue rifle. His whole being tense and serious, yet from his watchful pose he turns slowly with a smile on his boyish face, happy to see the crowds of people around him and the persistent movement in the square.
The soldier with the innocent face is younger than me by years. The young and the middle-aged, the elderly and mothers all pass by in front of him unnoticed. He only has eyes for the pretty girls in the square. His face carries a childlike naiveté, his body is thick. Every time a pretty girl walks by wearing jeans and a short shirt under her thick jacket he licks his lips and swallows, his eyes unwittingly drawn to the feminine charms of a passing girl. For days I have observed his infatuations.
We all have become familiar faces to one another. I’ve never exchanged a word with the soldier, but we are like silent friends riding next to each other but exchanging only looks as we sit in the same row of a microbus rushing towards its next stop. That evening, from his position atop the tank, he points to me at random, gesturing and calling to me to come over, saying, “Hey, Captain! Yes, you, Captain!”
I smile and walk over to him happily. I have wanted to talk to him about the revolution and the regime that had to be overthrown. When I reach him he kneels down, his gun dangling from his hands and a mischievous smile on his face. He leans over, points at a passing girl, and whispers in my ear, timidly, gleefully, “How shameful! Can you believe it? The girls who spend the night in the square are sleeping with those pampered, foreigner wannabe kids.” He laughs with an innocent naiveté, his mouth stretched wide.
I consider my own general appearance. My jeans sit low on my hips, I have a duckbill beret on my head, and my face is clean shaven. I look like one of those pampered youth who dress and act like a westerner – I suppose I am. But I’ve never slept with a woman, not in the square, not anywhere. I am like a virgin who hasn’t yet entered the world, even though I am nearing 30.
I don’t say anything to my brother the soldier, not about the revolution, not about the downfall of the regime, and not about the women who “spend the night in the square.” I just pat him on the shoulder and smile at him, sympathizing with him over the shock that comes from learning the truth – the truth of what we’re in and what we’re doing, and a private truth that is personal to me. He has the face of an honest farmer who has just returned from watering his land to find himself in the midst of the clamor and complexities of Cairo, casting confused glances at the girls, powerless in his situation. His eyes always have this perplexed look about them when he watches the young women passing by in front of us. I look at him closely and smile. If I had a little brother from the countryside who knew nothing of this sprawling, built-up city, he would look like this.
I am about to walk away when he asks, “Do you have a cigarette?” I pass him a Cleopatra, saying as I hold it out, “Cleopatra: the pride of Egyptian manufacturing.” I then ask him about himself and his home. He says he is from the village Za’luk, under the purview of the town of Abu ‘Iyta, Feshna al-Nawahi Center, in the governate of such-and-such, and so on. He tells me the only time he left his village was for his military duties and that he is very happy in Cairo. Despite the drudgery of his service and the worry he feels for his mother and sisters at home in his distant village, he is happy with the demonstrations and the many countenances that occupy the square. I tease him, saying, “You’d better keep an eye out or some girl is going to make off with you.” Red creeps across his fresh, handsome face. I leave him.
Swallowed up by the crowds, I study my companions spread throughout the square, searching for her among those faces that shine under waving banners and those whose roundness is accentuated by their hijabs. My girl always wears a multicolored hijab and loves to wear jeans and a long pullover. She is a member of the April 6th Movement.
How did I come to love her, just like that?
This graceful, nimble girl is as beautiful as Huda Sultan, though her face shines with a childlike innocence and turns bright red with embarrassment whenever she addresses a crowd, walking, running, and marching like a soldier. When I, as a 30-year-old man, think about her she is alluring and enticing as a woman, and when I look at her it’s as though I am looking at a flower, a tree, a beautiful bird, and I realize my most serious faults, my slipups, and my immaturity.
Without my knowing it I had been drawn to her since I first saw her. She is not just a pretty girl; she is a woman who is more than this somehow, though she is only in her early 20s. A young, attractive woman, she draws a line of men and women behind her just by speaking to them, as they strain to hear her low, gentle voice. When she addresses a crowd the feminine part of her disappears and another woman emerges, one with a mind built like the pyramids and who could convince Socrates. The sway of her body, the look in her eyes, her feminine presence – all of this fades away and from her springs a beautiful mind and a spirit that seeks harmony, beauty, and overcoming the world’s injustices.
She was made famous by the video from the night of Jan. 24th that called for people to protest. I watched it that night on YouTube along with thousands of others. I watched and listened to her voice, smiling at her charming lisp. I was shocked by her daring and her courage. They were things I had yet to discover in myself.
I saw her many times in the square before I spoke to her. I followed her every step, and when I spoke to her for the first time I was convinced after just five minutes and told her that I wanted to become a member of her movement. She said to me sternly, “You mean our movement.” I said yes, and I became a member.
Where did this girl come from?
She grew up in the hell of our days past, like a flower in the brush of Halfa, a thick forest with snakes and serpents on the river’s shores. I grew up in the same forest, but I hadn’t been in its beauty. Thorns filled my soul and I did with myself whatever I liked, leaving humanity and the world behind. I was planning to go to the airport one day, board a plane and fly anywhere – north, south, east, west, it didn’t matter. What was important was that I would go and never return to this land. Many had done it before me, so why did I delay? I don’t know.
Everything that had been planned for me I abandoned, everything I had sketched for my future I changed and substituted with something else. I followed her like a guardian and a friend until ten days after that first meeting and my discovery of the courage and daring of someone who wouldn’t leave this square for anything except the grave. I followed her for ten days and then I told her I loved her.
My girl, the ringleader, sleeps beside her sisters-in-arms in Omar Makram Mosque. Tucked away in a corner she leans her back against the wall, draws her feet up under a thick blanket, and forgets for a few hours. She goes to bed late every night and wakes early to continue her frantic pace. She sleeps for just four hours, passing into oblivion from after midnight till just before dawn, then gets up like someone possessed, now even more resolved, ready to continue her fevered activities.
All day long she moves back and forth across the wide square crowded with hundreds of thousands of people. She speaks with the women and girls, reassuring mothers keeping guard over the square with their children that nothing bad will happen to them, and playing with the children as if she were one of them. She strengthens the resolve of the guards atop the embankment next to the Egyptian Museum, and she divides members of the movement into popular committees that oversee the entrances and exits to the square. She wanders through the field clinics to check on the injured and inspect medical supplies. She conducts movement meetings in the small coffee shop behind Ramadan’s spread of books and runs communications with sympathetic supporters, asking them to donate medicine and food to the square. She speaks with reporters and writers and urges them to support the revolution.
Many of us call out to her teasingly, “Hey, leader!”, and a pink blush covers her face as she waves her hand in our faces. There is an understanding between the two of us that we are in the midst of a real revolution, the whole nation is, and that we have to postpone the matter of my love for her at least until after ‘the hated one’ has departed.
Sometimes my girl’s features harden and her voice becomes coarse as she screams at the youth, urging them to defend the square with their souls, with the last drop of blood in their veins. In these moments my love becomes Isis who roused Osiris to protect Egypt, and in these moments I can’t bear to look at her. I see her as a stern, heart-hardened mother, fearlessly sending her children to war without worrying about the possibility that they may not return.
When Mustafa was martyred – and he was the first martyr among us – she collapsed completely. How many times her thin body shook, racked with her wailing and shouting. When she heard the news she exploded in screams like a woman from the Saʽid, wounded, falling to the ground and heaping dust on her face. How sad and lifeless she was as she knelt at Mustafa’s corpse and embraced his feet, cradling them to her chest. She sat motionless like this for a long time, unaware of what was happening around her. Then she stood up, slapped her cheeks, and began screaming like an old woman and a mother as she turned around the body now devoid of spirit and stained with so much blood.
Finally I did something. I walked up to her and put my arms around her. She fell from me and landed at Mustafa’s feet, her face covered with blood and eyes red.
I’ve been like a rock since I came here and loved you, my dear one. I am not who I used to be. I’m not the indifferent kid who plays at being western and who dreams of emigrating to anywhere. I’m staying here. For this reason I am able to endure, to hold back tears imprisoned in my eyes and stand unmovable as a mountain in front of the blood. Today or tomorrow I might be the lifeless body smeared with blood and stretched out in front of you onlookers. In fact, I tell you, I am one they are mourning, wailing and screaming to bid me farewell. My life, all of my affairs have now ended. I am like a dead man, a man who died when he came to the square and began to see and understand. My sense of self and my ego have disappeared and I fear nothing, just as I demand nothing. Nothing at all.
She peered into my face and when her eyes met mine and she saw what was in them, she fell silent and calmly adjusted her hijab. She got up off the ground with me, wiping away her copious tears with her palm, and said harshly, “God have mercy on him and on all of us until we free this nation.” She loved me in that moment, just as I had loved her for ten days.
My girl no longer shouts or cries whenever one of us dies as a martyr. She calmly moves to the next step with grace as she tries to inform the family of the news in the least painful way, makes arrangements for the funeral and various meetings, communicates with the press, and creates new slogans to chant in the square or write on cloth banners. After conveying the news of the death of one of us to the others, she returns to her usual and extensive daily program.
Every morning I go to see her and pour water over her hands so she can wash her face. She is beautiful when she wakes and she isn’t embarrassed to be seen when she first opens her eyes. Her face is always fresh and clear, so beautiful that washing it hardly adds anything to it. After she washes her face she pours the water for me so I can do the same, then she sets out on her daily schedule and I follow mine. If we don’t meet during the day, I come to her without fail every day before dawn outside of the mosque to pour water over her hands and have her pour water over mine.
We do this every day. It has become our daily ritual of passion that contains within it all the traces of our love. My girl grows bolder and more famous. She calls in to television programs from her position in the square and makes statements to the press. Most of her words are like good, fresh bread, like words coming from an innocent child who doesn’t want anything from the world except to better it. My girl isn’t afraid to put her head in the lion’s mouth or wrestle a bull to the ground. Whenever I hear her words my heart quivers in my chest and I am overwhelmed with joy like someone listening to the most beautiful singer in the cosmos, a pure music that captures my soul, a matchless music that is different from anything I have ever heard or known of western or eastern music. In this girl lies the beauty of creation through love and love alone.
When my love became a public figure nothing about her changed. She wore neither a new robe nor a false mask, and she did not overanalyze, nor did she scheme. She wasn’t tainted by corrupt politics, and she didn’t add anything extra to her words, ideas, or dreams. Fame had hurt her, stinging like a scorpion, but she loved me and will continue to love me.
One morning as I pour water over her hands my love says to me, “If I die, write on my tombstone that I didn’t fear anything, I didn’t hope for anything, I was free.” I ask her who had said or written this, and she replies that if I had ever studied anything outside of architectural engineering I would have come across this saying before. My girl loves novels that have a revolutionary spirit.
For 14 days we have witnessed death every hour in the square and on the television screens mounted throughout it. We know that hundreds our age, older, and younger have been killed in Suez, Alexandria, al-Mahalla, Aswan, and most of the governates of Egypt. We know that we have the lion’s share of luck, we who are occupying Midan Tahrir. Hundreds of us have died, but she and I carry on. We haven’t died, nor are we injured. Nothing has happened to us except that we have become a body stretched out on the ground, at its head a tombstone that reads: I fear nothing, I hope for nothing, I am free.
This is how our days in the square pass.
My dear soldier, she and I are not as you see us. It’s like I told you: we are here because we fear nothing, we hope for nothing. We are martyrs like Mustafa. We are free.
Excerpted from The Epic of Our Revolution (forthcoming).
- translated by Nancy Linthicum