Monday, February 7, 2011

The World Sublime in Tahrir Square

At Night, Protest Gives Way to Poetry

By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
February 6, 2011

CAIRO — It was a few minutes after midnight on Sunday, when an unaccustomed rain washed Cairo’s somnolent streets, as Ahmed Abdel-Moneim walked with friends across a bridge that was a passageway to a parallel capital in Tahrir Square, an idea as much as a place.

Egypt’s revolution is a contest of ultimatums — chaos and revolution, freedom and submission — but its arena of Tahrir Square becomes quieter at night, the cacophony of rebellion giving way to a stage of poetry, performance and politics.

Be it the canteen that prepares cheese sandwiches, the volunteers who ferry tea to guards at the barricades, the pharmacies that are overstocked with Betadine or the artists who bring their aesthetic to the asphalt, their Cairo begins as the city sleeps. The weary collapse in exhaustion, but no one else seems willing to surrender a moment that feels imbued with the idealism of defiance.

“Everyone here is awake,” Mr. Abdel-Moneim said as he passed an army checkpoint where a soldier urinated on his tank. “I might be weary, but when the morning comes, I can breathe freedom. What I’ve seen here is what I’ve never seen in my life.”

Or, as graffiti on a tank put it, “The revolution is in Tahrir, no sleeping in bed.”

On any day, the Arab world’s greatest city staggers, its 18 million people joined by a million more from the countryside. Staccato horns bring a cadence to a rush hour that lasts all day, overwhelmed only by the din of one of the world’s most crowded cities. The assault on the senses that the city represents has long given rise to a nostalgia, the glimpses of an older, more rarefied capital captured in black-and-white Egyptian movies.

Tahrir is that, longing and novelty.

As the night unfolded, vendors ambled through peaceful streets, past couples holding hands and men still wearing bandages from their fight with government supporters trying to overrun the square. “Tea for an Egyptian pound!” one cried. Volunteers handed out bread sticks. “My man, eat it!” shouted Ahmed Khater, to a gesture of polite reluctance. “Just take one. We came for you.”

Down the street, men took their seats on the wet pavement, to a performance of colloquial poetry by a man in a wheelchair, speeches by a brawler draped in an Egyptian flag and slogans led by Mohammed Mahmoud, a 16-year-old with a knack for words.

“God reigns over the crisis, and that guy has the mind of a shoe,” he cried of President Hosni Mubarak as he stood under a drizzle. (It rhymes in Arabic.) “Oh Mubarak, you coward, we’re the people in the square” went another. (It rhymes, too.)

A speech followed. “Finally the decision is in our hand,” it ended.

“After we get rid of him, we’ll clean the square, we’ll cherish the square,” said Azza Khalil, an oncologist who has worked around the clock at a pharmacy set up near a line of tanks. “It will be a symbol of making something new.”

She walked by box after box of bandages, lotions, disinfectant, inhalers, intravenous solution and even insulin — what she called “nearly a pharmacy” — provided by donations and organized by Dr. Khalil, who is a secular Muslim, as well as her veiled counterpart and a young Christian. Men healing from the clashes slept under lean-tos next to the tents the women used. In two days, Dr. Khalil had left for only a few hours.

“Some people go but come back quickly because it’s so ugly outside,” she said.

Protesters have called this “the Week of Steadfastness,” and there is plenty here. But there is a sense of siege, too, with a lurking fear that the optimism of the people here may eventually succumb to grimmer realities. Near fires offering more smoke than flame, men debated whether Mr. Mubarak would leave tomorrow or the day after. Neither is probably the answer, as the government begins to gain its footing in the face of a 13-day uprising.

“Who knows what life will be like after Tahrir,” said Mohammed Ali, one of the protesters. “I don’t know if we can win or not. They have power, but we’re not weak.”

At 3 a.m., words infused the square, in the form of songs from the 1960s and 1970s. “Oh Egypt, our numbers are still great, don’t be scared of others’ might” goes one song. Mohi Salah strummed the oud and sang another to the crowd. “If I die, mother, don’t cry,” his song went, “I’ll have died so that my country can live.”

Political debates raged, as a gaggle of hundreds deliberated, by microphone, whether Egyptian television should be banned from Tahrir and effigies should be taken down from traffic lights. (Both proposals were rejected, by a show of hands.)

Everywhere there was humor, for which Egyptians are famous. “Mubarak, please leave” went one man’s placard. “I’ve been married for 20 days, and I miss my wife.” Someone else joked that Mr. Mubarak immolated himself in protest over his people.

“Where can I find the Facebook youth?” a peasant from southern Egypt asked.

As dawn approached, youths typed away on computers, perusing Twitter and Web sites of Arabic satellite channels by way of Internet connections unlocked from apartments surrounding the square. Men waited for two hours in lines to the square’s sole bathroom in the Omar Makram mosque. Two tents were set up for lost and found. Other tents housed artists, one of whom declared that Tahrir was the Revolution of Light. There was something fitting in the description, an idea of the ephemeral and fleeting.

“God has cured my ailments here,” said Ali Seif, 52, a photographer who has been here since the uprising began, and who said he had diabetes and heart problems.

“That’s what freedom feels like,” said Ibrahim Hamid, standing next to him.

A little after 5 a.m., as the softest glow filtered across the sky, the call to prayer rang out. “Prayer is better than sleep,” the muezzin cried. Men and women awoke, joining their community, as the call intersected with a medley rising across a capital known as the City of a Thousand Minarets. For a moment, Tahrir was tied to Cairo again.

Mohamed Farouq stood at the entrance to the Kasr el-Nil Bridge, the passageway to Tahrir.

“You feel like this is the society you want to live in,” he said.

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