As tens of thousands of protesters take to the streets in Egypt and authorities respond with violence and by attempting to excise Egypt from the digital world, I offer this excerpt from the Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour’s most recent novel to be translated into English, Specters. As we’ve been hearing the recent reports of protests and their repression in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo (among many other places), I thought of Ashour’s work, which gives a sense of the history of popular protest in the same square.
On the morning of January 24, 1972 I will go to Cairo University and find it surrounded by security forces, and I won’t be able to go in to where a student sit-in has been staged in the large university hall. I will learn that the students were arrested at dawn and led off to prison.
In the evening, Mourid and I will go down to Tahrir Square: the students will be milling around the stone monument in the middle of the square, while other groups conduct discussions with passersby about economic and political conditions in the country, and explain the reasons for the sit-in. We head for the Izavich Café. There we find a number of our fellow writers and we hear talk of a national committee of writers and artists being formed. We sign our names on a petition sponsored by the committee that pledges solidarity with the students and their demands and condemns the arrests that took place that morning. We copy the petition, as do others of our colleagues. We divide up into small groups, each of which takes a copy of the petition, to gather the signatures of writers and artists. We carry out our mission and return to the square. The security forces, from a distance, are watching the students who are sitting and standing around the commemorative statue, shouting and chanting. We move on to the journalists’ guild, where a number of writers, artists, and journalists are assembling. We count the signatures: between nine o’clock and midnight, our activity has yielded 105 signatures. What are we going to do with the petition? Opinion favors sending it to the president of the republic, the prime minister, and the head of the parliament. Three delegates are chosen, and I am one of them. We leave the guild hall on foot and head toward the telegraph office in Adli Street. The employee on duty asks us the sender’s name, and we say, “This list—we want all 105 names to show.” He says it’s not possible, so we say, “The three of us, then—our names.” He refuses. I show him my card and the employee records the pertinent information on it, then takes the text of the telegram and the signatures that accompany it.We go back to the guild hall, and I leave with Mourid. On our way home we watch the students and the security forces. Before dawn, the forces advance on the students and clash with them; they arrest many of them, and pursue those who flee into the surrounding streets. In the morning, new students come to reinforce those who fled the night before; they demonstrate, and there are new confrontations with the police detachments.
There is more to the story, concerning my part in it and concerning the incident itself, but for now I move away from Tahrir Square, mere footsteps away from which I lived nine years without knowing the story of ’46. The story of ’72, though—that one I witnessed, and participated in, too. The workers’ protests in ’75 took place in the square, as well as the violent demonstrations of ’77, and in the middle of all these events, also in ’75, the funeral of Umm Kulthoum. A few meters from the heart of the square is the Mosque of Omar Makram. From the mosque, I will walk with the mourners time after time to say goodbye to friends and colleagues, and most likely my friends and colleagues will see me off from this very same place. The mourners will bid farewell to Umm Kulthoum from the Mosque of OmarMakram; I will hear about it and see it on the television screen while I am in the United States working on my doctorate. And from this mosque I will say goodbye to my lifelong friend, Latifa al-Zayyat. I take part in the ritual ablutions in the oppressive crypt of the Misr International Hospital. I go out with the body, and then we part company: she borne away in her coffin in the hearse, I in a car whose color I no longer remember.
Tomorrow: the story of ’46.
Thanks to the blog, the POMED Wire, of the Project for Middle East Democracy for the image of protesters in Tahrir Square this week.