I knew that if there were any demonstrations while I was in Egypt, I was going. Absolutely, 100%. So when my friend Sarah, a journalist, got the call to cover a march to the Maspero Building, I was excited. A week and a half prior, 27 people were killed and about 300 were injured. We started at Tahrir Square, a place where I spent a lot of time in 2009, and a place that became the epicenter of the Egyptian Revolution. I photographed some demonstrators and signs, and Sarah conducted a few brief interviews. She annotated the entire thing for me, translating a speech here, or pointing out the photo of a martyred blogger there.
We came upon a Salafist demonstration. I was surprised by how many families I saw, and the carnivalesque atmosphere. People were selling food and painting faces. I was embarrassed to admit it, and maybe it was just all the years of training from Western media, but when I saw so many people jumping up and down chanting “Allah u Akhbar” it made me nervous. And the more Sarah told me about the Salafists, the more comfortable I became with that reaction.
Vendors are everywhere in Tahrir, hawking food and protest regalia. For a few pounds, this guy will paint your face with the Egyptian flag.
At Sarah’s direction, we (Sarah, myself and her brand new intern Hayden) walked toward the Maspero building. What was happening at Tahrir was interesting for me to see, but was not newsworthy. Sheff says there are protests and demonstrations every Friday, and that they’re overusing Tahrir. It took a lot of waiting for Maspero to heat up, but it did. Music, chanting, and watchful law enforcement. In Sarah’s attempts to get interviews, we suddenly found ourselves between the Egyptian version of swat (2-3 large vans) and the protestors. It’s weird the way a crowd takes on a life of its own, and moves in fits and starts. I was glad our position made Sarah nervous because it made me nervous too. She was very protective the entire day, holding my hand in crowds and shepherding me around. I kept getting lost in my lens and not noticing the crowd movements around me.
Joey and Manar called and we decided to meet up for dinner, somewhere downtown. Joey reported through the Lebanese civil war in 2006, and had war reporter training in DC. He started Bikya Masr, which makes him Sarah’s boss. Manar is an Egyptian and also writes for Bikya. She reminds both Sarah and I of our beloved Alex Chapman, with their calming demeanor and purposeful nature. We waited in Tahrir for them, and I snapped a few more pictures. Suddenly Sarah yelled, “do you have your camera?” and we were all running, but only a short distance. I didn’t even know what I was getting; I just kept clicking the shutter. An ambulance went past, and apparently the coffin of Essam Atta, but I didn’t see it. By the time we met up with Joey and Manar, Joey had texted again because he heard someone was shot. Sarah and Hayden asked around, but everyone just kept explaining how Atta died (he was tortured to death by the Egyptian military using water hoses.)
The scene outside the Maspero building in Cairo, just before the Egyptian equivalent of SWAT showed up.
After that everything went quickly, but with big lulls in between. At some point I came to know that someone had been killed, but not right in Tahrir. He had argued with a cop, and the cop had just shot him. He was 19. The coffin came back around and with it came crowds and chanting. We were at high ground, on the edge of the grass in the middle of the square (which is really a circle), but we were still surrounded on all sides by over a thousand people. After going around the square with the coffin again, the crowd headed off, but no one understood their aim. We eventually set off on foot, and realized they were going toward the American Embassy. Just the night before I had been to the Halloween party there, drinking Western alcohol and watching adults make fools of themselves. As we followed behind, Joey kept checking to make sure we had escape routes and were at a safe distance.
We were crossing another, smaller square when we heard gunfire.
I think it was just one shot, but I read after that there were multiple. My heart went double-time and I moved away while looking in the direction of the noise, without thinking. All five of us were, although Joey and Manar seemed entirely in control of the situation. The weirdest thing is that we were the only ones doing this. When we realized we were far from the gunfire, it had ceased, and no one was moving toward us, we stopped to watch Egyptians run toward the sound of a gun at top speed. I think it takes a lot for a person to run toward the sound of a gun at top speed. I have a feeling they know by now that if they don’t go investigate something for themselves, they will likely be lied to about what happened.
It turns out the Egyptian military shot into the air, probably blanks. We got closer and watched protestors try to climb over the barricades to get onto the street where the US Embassy resides. Did I mention we oddly ran into several members of the Egyptian army the evening before, marching in formation down the (closed-off, barricaded) street of the US Embassy? Strange days.
I was thoroughly nervous and uncomfortable at this point, which is when Sarah started telling me Joey’s credentials and asking if I was alright. Manar spoke a lot with an older woman, and filled us in on what was going on. Apparently, this portion of the demonstration was in solidarity with Occupy Oakland, which is in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. For those who don’t know, the police in Oakland took violent action against protesters a few days before this, arresting some and using batons and tear gas to break up the peaceful camp. Joey seemed to also be a bottomless pit of knowledge. He shared such gems as, “don’t rub your eyes if there’s tear gas; use coke,” and, “it was just like this with Maspero, but then out of nowhere the army killed a couple dozen people.” Smart guy, but not the best for quieting nerves.
Eventually, it became clear that nothing more would happen that night. We went to an internet cafe so the reporters could upload and post. I felt all jangled and jumped about a mile when the men behind me cheered the soccer game on tv. I couldn’t believe that just a few streets over, children were laughing and playing with toys. Someone had been shot, a 19-year-old was killed, and Cairo didn’t even blink an eye.
Manar went back to listen to Atta’s mother speak, but we couldn’t find her. We went to find where the man (boy, really) had been shot, but we deemed it a long walk for no payout. Just before we turned around, though, we saw young men running as fast as they could back toward the square, dragging the metal barricades with them. They opened up the square to cars, making the hundreds of people gathered there vulnerable. We were all a bit stunned by that move, and kept looking back over our shoulders, waiting for screams or scattering.
In the end, we went home, feet aching. I was keyed up, but for Sarah, Joey and Manar it was another day at the office. For Hayden, it was the first of what will be many days at a rather unusual office. The three journalists went to work spreading truth, and I drank tea and checked facebook. Later, we put on Halloween costumes and drank beer and partied by the pyramids like nothing ever happened. I updated my status, like that was the most important thing I could do with what I saw–turn it into and experience on a list, a fun fact, bragging rights.
It was strange being with journalists. They were much more calm and controlled than I was. They didn’t raise their voices or pick up signs, and they didn’t allow anyone to paint flags on them. I was with Sarah, so out of respect for her I followed suit. To some extent, I had this weird thought that my camera would protect me, that being a journalist would protect me. I know that’s not true, but it felt like a pretty good get out of jail free card, the way my little blue book used to make me feel. I also know that I’m not a journalist, not even close. I put myself at the center of every story. I apply motivation when I don’t necessarily know it to be true. I am not in any truly dangerous situations. I don’t write on any kind of deadline, and these days I don’t write at all. I don’t even particularly write about anything that matters. Watching Sarah work made me feel small and incompetent. She compartmentalizes her thoughts and opinions, she is thorough and efficient. Her Arabic has improved greatly, and the articles she writes get the facts out to a population of Americans who would otherwise not read the truth.
Essam Atta’s coffin passes through Tahrir Square in Cairo.
Through it all, I saw so many little acts of civic duty. People directed traffic or helped one another cross the street. They protected each other, like the man who stood in front of an open manhole so no one would fall in. That’s what he did, he just stood there while we all rushed past, nervous and following the growing, quickening crowd. Any of us could have easily fallen in and snapped an ankle at the very least. People helped each other up onto structures and walls for better vantage points, and so many Egyptians beckoned for me to take their photos.
I’m glad I went to Tahrir. I’m glad it all became real to me, instead of a liberal pet project, one that is so easy to support from a safe room, thousands of miles away. Feeling the terror of just the noise of one single gunshot, and then feeling the insignificance of that compared to those who have witnessed murder in the street, those who have heard hundreds of gunshots with live ammunition, those who were at the Maspero building and those who suffer in the prisons. It’s so easy to say that there are things worth dying for, that we should stand up for democracy and freedom no matter what. But to see a minuscule fraction of what “no matter what,” can really mean magnified for me the true courage of Egyptians and freedom fighters all over the world.