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  • Revolution has a rhythm. Following a massacre, there is a milioniya. Following a milioniya, there are Friday prayers. And following Friday prayers, there is resistance. A year has passed since the Egyptian revolution. Disillusioned revolutionaries refuse to call it a revolution these days. They prefer uprising or for the more pessimistic, a coup d’état. The military junta replaced Mubarak and for all practical purposes, nothing has changed. The regime no doubt is still firmly in place, but for me, the revolution has changed something inside of me. I stubbornly hold onto the label because I know that I’m not the only one who has changed. There is a spirit of resistance that I’ve witnessed not only inside my closest friends, but complete strangers. It fuels a revolution that is far from complete, but manages to exist.

    This story is dedicated to my friend Ebony. A very belated birthday gift. We were acquaintances before the revolution, but now we are sisters. Ever since we pushed our way along Qasr al Nil bridge on January 28 2011, there has been a connection. Her fearlessness that day inspired me to cross a bridge, both physically and metaphorically, that felt impossible. I was so moved by what happened that I have written about it, recanted the story countless times, and even commemorated the 28th of each month. On the one year anniversary, I insisted we go back to Qasr al Nil for ‘Asr prayer. Traffic was blocked and after prayers ended, the silence was deafening. Only a handful of people were left on the bridge. It was a stark contrast to a year ago with crowds of people catching tear gas canisters to throw off the bridge while dodging rubber bullets. I imagine some friends have dismissed my obsessive memorializing as sappy sentimentalism. But, I continuously think back to that day when searching for inspiration or perspective.

    I had been away from Cairo for six months and was trying to make sense of the city I had left behind. I wasn’t there for the battles along Mohamed Mahmoud or the Maspero last fall. I absorbed what happened through Ebony’s stories and the viral videos activist friends had posted on YouTube. I timed my return to Cairo on the eve of the one year anniversary of the revolution. As predicted, there was a milioniya on January 25, but with a twist. Rather than a celebration, protesters wore masks of martyrs, black and white paper cutouts tied with string, resurrecting their spirits. Protesters strategically transformed a celebration into a funeral procession. Around midnight, we went back to Tahrir to see the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud whitewashed. Ebony was disappointed because there had been these beautiful, larger than life, images of martyrs on that wall. These were the young martyrs killed last November. I could make out their outlines beneath the layer of paint that formed the foundation for yet another layer of graffiti. Another chapter of the revolution marked on the wall. There would be another massacre the following week, and new murals to replace the old ones. Revolution has a rhythm.

    We walked to the intersection where Mohamed Mahmoud meets the edge of Tahrir toward Qasr al Aini street. Now silent and deserted, Qasr al Aini used to be filled with traffic and horns blaring. At the end of the street, I felt myself overwhelmed with sadness looking at the charred remains of L'Institut d’Egypte, a Napoleonic relic from the 18th century. The building housed over 200,000 volumes, almost all of which unable to be saved. To the left of the building was a wall. The military built walls to blockade roads leading from Tahrir to the Ministry of Interior. We walked to the other walls. A small kid climbed the concrete wall making it halfway up. He squealed when I took his photograph. I wielded a bulky camera and I think he assumed I was a reporter. Thanks to my dark skin, people assume I'm from the south of Egypt and can partially blend in if I don't open my mouth. He insisted I delete the photo because he didn’t want his mother to see him on Facebook.

    The night after the one year anniversary, we found our way to Maspero, the headquarters of state television. I still remember the YouTube scenes of army tanks trampling over people last fall. It's hard to reconcile the images from the revolution's early days when people gave roses to soldiers and took the obligatory posing-next-to-a-tank photo. The night we arrived, there were only a handful of protesters. One of them was wearing an Anonymous mask. An interesting reminder of how #Occupy Wall Street, inspired in part by the Egyptian revolution, had now bounced back to Egypt with #Occupy Maspero.

    There was a self-proclaimed citizen journalist on crutches who approached Ebony with an almost accusatory “where are you from?” in an effort to make us feel out of place. Based on her heavily accented American English and frustrated tone, it seemed like she might have been the one grappling with an identity crisis.

    An acquaintance I met earlier that night was making a documentary short called “zahma” on traffic congestion in Cairo. She began filming the hysterics of a crowd trying to block a car that was pushing its way to break up the demonstration. One man sat defiantly in front of the car with his head resting against the headlights while his comrades hassled the driver. When the driver finally pushed the gas in reverse, the tiny critical mass of protesters began to cheer. Throughout the night, cars, motorcycles, and random people periodically popped up to break up the demonstrations. I began to discover that these detractors are often external agitators specifically brought into the mix to make trouble.

    Tracing Tahrir to the Maspero or the other way became my routine for a few weeks. When numbers were small, I would feel an uneasiness in the pit of my stomach. When they would swell in size and tents would pop up, I would exhale and relax. With bigger numbers, out came the popcorn vendors, makeshift kiosks, and false sense of security that allowed me to let my guard down for a bit. Bigger crowds meant consumers. Within seconds, supply reacted to demand. Before my nose could cringe to the smell of tear gas, dozens of vendors were already selling surgical masks on side streets. It reminded me of rainy days in New York when umbrellas would magically appear at every street corner. Thanks to the Maspero guy wearing a black and white Anonymous mask, a business-savvy vendor even stocked up on goblin-shaped Halloween masks to make sure Egyptian hipster Twitterati had their needs covered. For the more experienced revolutionaries, they kept their backpacks well stocked with the essentials: bandages for rubber bullets, extra masks for tear gas, and a small camera to document. I was ill-prepared everyday wielding a bulky camera, a bright turquoise windbreaker, and impractical shoes that kept falling off whenever there was a need to run.

    On the anniversary of the Battle of the Camel, 79 people died at a soccer stadium in Port Said. Just as Mubarak hired thugs on camels and horses to be unleashed theatrically across Tahrir, the military facilitated a massacre if not proactively, then at least by strategic inaction. Many of the soccer fans who died that night were also those fighting at the frontlines of Mohamed Mahmoud in November. The next day, there were clashes all over Egypt and in Cairo. With no access to the Internet and a phone battery about to die, I sent one last text to Ebony that I'd be waiting for her at the Hardee's in Tahrir. She texted back warning me that from her hyperactive Twitter feed, there may be large crowds. Literally seconds after I got her text, a flood of people came pouring into the square. I had never seen anything like it. Ahly and Zamalek fans, fierce rivals on the soccer field, stitched their teams flags together to show unity. I saw Egyptian flags, Ikhwan flags, and solid red flags, a visual reminder of the rivers of blood flowing from the night before. The protesters entered Tahrir Square from different directions and all started to flow into Mohamed Mahmoud, a street that has now become a symbolic artery of resistance. The sun started to set and my instincts were telling me to leave, but I found myself following behind the crowds. People formed human chains along the side streets so that there would be safe passage for the motorbikes carrying people passed out from teargas over their backs.

    I watched the wall erected by the military last November come tumbling down. People used random found objects, sturdy tree branches, and other rocks to start chipping away. At one point, a large metal traffic divider was creatively repurposed as a lever. Six men using the force of all of their weight managed to push out one of the middle blocks. I thought of the ingenuity of their ancestors thousands of years ago building pyramids out of stone without mortar. This pathetic little wall was nothing when put into historical perspective. Crowds cheered and I could see flares normally used at soccer matches fill the sky with puffs of red smoke. I was awestruck. I asked a stranger who had just come down from the wall if he could take a picture across the other side. He happily agreed and one of his friends turned to me and asked if I felt safe giving my camera away like that. I told her that the thought hadn't even occurred to me, which she in turn smiled and said she was glad I felt that way. Only after she asked the question, I realized that I wouldn't have done this any other context, but in Tahrir I felt safe among strangers.

    The following Friday, I went to Tahrir for jumma prayer. I was feeling emotional from the highs and lows and needed a cathartic release. Thousands showed up. I was surprised, and heartened, to see a small row of women praying in front of the men. It reminded me that these subtle battles for gender equity, often unnoticed, tend to be more productive than self-proclaimed pundits ranting about Muslim women lacking agency to largely Western audiences. The wailing after the khutba (sermon) reminded me of Muharram rituals commemorating the martyrdom of Iman Husain. After prayer, placards rose up and you could see images of martyrs peppered throughout the crowd. The images of these martyrs showcased primarily clean-cut, visibly middle class youth. The most prolific was that of an AUC student with rectangle-framed glasses and a rose-colored cardigan. There were also images of a young Christian and an Azhar cleric who died last November. All of this made me think about the politics around martyrdom, who becomes worthy of commemoration, and how these martyrdom stories are used after their death.

    After the khutba, I decided to walk along Tahrir's side streets. I resisted the temptation to smoke sheesha which for me, like drinking, seems somehow wrong to consume alone. I walked back to Mohamed Mahmoud and saw artists painting the walls. These artists were totally unfazed by the ambulances whizzing past them and the pungent smell of tear gas in the air. One artist was on a ladder painting the faces of martyrs over six feet high. Another was depicting temple scenes from Upper Egypt of women marching in unison with determined glances toward what would later become, a staircase to heaven. In broken Arabic, I asked if I could paint. The muralist, who would later become a friend, nervously handed me a paintbrush and tub of black paint. I eased his nerves proclaiming I was a “fanana”- artist in Arabic- but I don't think he cared. He seemed both entertained and puzzled by my abrupt intervention. I was too short to reach the women's faces so the eyes I painted are conspicuously lacking smudge-proof mascara.

    A few hours later, I reconnected with Ebony at our spot, the Hardees in Tahrir. She came prepared with her to-go protester pack. She scornfully looked at my impractical (but cute) slippers that had been falling off in previous days. We put on our gas masks and made our way down Mohamed Mahmoud. The wall from the previous day now had a wide tunnel we could easily pass through to get to the other side. People were tearing down tree branches to make fires in the middle of the street. The smoke from the fires mitigated the potency of the tear gas. Ebony warned me not to run when crowds started to run. These are typically false alarms. So we all just sat on the sidelines watching. We saw another crowd of people start to run and could hear the tear gas canisters exploding nearby, so we ran with the crowds this time.

    We formed a human chain to stay together. I grabbed onto both shoulder straps of my friend Hazem's backpack. I could feel someone tugging behind me and assumed it was my friend Alice. When I felt a hand grab my behind, I knew that was not Alice. I turned around and found a man trying to pull me away. He had a dark zabiba on his forehead and it made me wonder if he was Ikhwan or maybe impersonating one. Or in all likelihood, he was just a perverted opportunist seeking a cheap thrill and I was reading too much into his zabiba. I motioned to the crowd around me that this guy was not with me and they collectively pushed him away. Although terrified by the thought of being pulled away from my group, I also felt protected by the presence of complete strangers, many of whom were men. This story complicates Mona el Tahawy's “Arab/ Muslim men hate women”narrative because seconds after being groped, another group of people, mainly men, stepped up to pull the guy away from me. These stories never seem to make it into mainstream media coverage because they don't quite fit the hapless victim-evil perpetrator binary.

    After finding refuge from the crowds around the corner, we all huddled doing our best not to inhale the air around us, now fully saturated in tear gas. My two-dollar, made-in-China gas mask didn't quite function when put to the test, so I wrapped my face in a keffiyah which was only marginally more helpful. As soon as I started to feel myself passing out, I began to pray. First, the Fatiha (the opening verse of the Quran) and then Kulualahuahad. As I murmured these prayers to myself, three tear gas canisters exploded a few feet away from us. They seem to have fallen from above. If there were indeed snipers above us, we must have appeared like cockroaches to them. First spraying us with us toxic gas to immobilize us before they took their best shot. Seeing the tear gas canisters explode at such close range and not being able to breathe made me feel hopeless and defeated. I heard Ebony's voice, “You are not passing out.” By then, I had already collapsed and could barely open my eyes from the sting of the gas. Ebony carried me across the street. I only knew later that she had lost a shoe and was walking barefoot on broken glass while she lifted me off the ground. If she hadn't have been there, I would not have made it.

    After reaching the other side of the street, the “caretakers” (volunteers with supplies) began to spray vinegar in my eyes and gave me cotton balls to sniff. The vinegar only made the stinging worse. When I tried to push the vinegar-woman away from me, another person trying to be helpful shoved a straw up my mouth. As I ingested, I was relieved to find out it was orange juice and not another home remedy. That night was a close call. Our friend Hazem ended up smoking sheesha after we said our goodbyes and unsurprisingly, he went back to fight again that same night. We met up a few days later and he had a bandage covering the bridge of his nose and between his eyes. In the months since February, the military has continued its aggression and with every attack, there are more martyrs. These martyrs replenish the fuel needed to keep the revolution's engine in motion. Following a massacre, there is a milioniya. Following a milioniya, there are Friday prayers. And following Friday prayers, there is resistance. Revolution has a rhythm. And this revolution is far from over.
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