venerdì 15 aprile 2011

Curfew nighs: il mio ultimo articolo su Al Ahram

At one point during the 18 nights of the Egyptian Revolution the curfew was extended to three pm. Looking out of the downtown building where I live, thanks to a surreal lack of cars on the streets of Cairo, I could breathe pure air filled with tension and aspiration, notwithstanding the irrationality of both revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries.
Mustafa came to visit us from his neighborhood, not far from souk el etnen, between Abdeen and Sayeda Zeinab. He looked scared: "I'm exhausted! I spent the whole night protecting my home from the baltagiyya's attacks. After the police disappeared, we created self-defense groups whose members are honest people from my district. I cover night shifts". The young boy continued: "We often find former police officers and criminals, escaped from prisons. They are responsible for indiscriminate looting." It wasn't the first time I heard such a story. Bahaa, who lives in Faysal, had called me the previous night. I was shocked when he told me: "We are being attacked by bad guys. They brandish clubs, chains and swords". I realised that the country was out of control. Two days before, on my way back from Nasr city, I was stopped by several young people. They asked me who I was and where I was going. Saleh, the taxi driver, tried to reassure me: "They just want to protect their neighborhood". Nevertheless, I was not convinced. Their angry faces were combative and rough. You couldn't trust anybody during those days. A 30 year-old regime will not vanish overnight.
The curfew started at six pm and ended at eight am; daily life became uncanny. I lived with four Italian friends. After the "Friday of Anger" we had enough time to make provisions for food, but almost all shops were closed. People had assaulted the shelves of supermarkets. It was impossible to get money from the banks. People bustled about taking what little they could for absolute necessities, while deliveries of meat and other fresh food were blocked. A taxi driver took us on the 6 October bridge. I glanced at the skyline: the NDP building smouldering on the Corniche. "I like Mubarak," the man told me. "But above all I love the army. My father, my brother and my uncle are soldiers. I trust them".
Facebook, then the whole internet were shut down for almost a week. Our friends' phone calls became the only source of information we could rely on. Even mobiles and landlines were out of service for a whole day. Isolated, we spent our nights at home watching old movies. We enjoyed an incomplete and unexpected saga of movies starring Giammaria Volonté, the famous Italian actor of the 1970s), from Operación Ogro to Il caso Mattei. This virtual trip out of Cairo's Revolution reminded me of two of Bernando Bertolucci's movies: The Dreamers and Prima della Rivoluzione (Before the Revolution). In the first movie, three friends, united by a controversial relationship, spent their days at home in Paris, while the harsh clashes between students and police of 1968 are taking place just outside. In Before the Revolution, three friends share hopes for a new but utopian world of freedom.
The night hours gave us time for phone calls. We received information about unstable security conditions in poor neighborhoods and looting in rich ones. Sleep was often interrupted by screams from the street. In the middle of the night, we heard gunshots and the wails of stray dogs, punctuated by the displacement of hurdles and cement. In those days, the usual cries of robavecchia, carts carrying fuul in metal jars and the smell of bread coming up from the stairs completely disappeared. The prayers' tones were low: the volume of the five calls to prayer coming daily from the mosques was reduced. Even men carrying gas cylinders, clinking on them to indicate their presence, failed to show up. The small shops of electricians, carpenters and mechanics pulled down their shutters.
We spent the few daytime hours in Tahrir. In the blink of an eye, the square's mood spread all over the city. When Tahrir was peaceful life went on as usual, but if there were fights between demonstrators and armed bands, the reaction of the crowds reached even the outskirts of Cairo. When the battles between revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries burst out, poor people, satisfied with few pounds in return, joined the baltagiyya coming into the square from Giza, Boulaq and Zeitun. People camped out in the middle of the square. The army parked its tanks at the interjections with Mohammed Mahmoud, Talaat Harb, Qasr El Nile and Champollion streets and alongside the Egyptian Museum. Ordinary people handed flowers and roses to the soldiers, who bashfully accepted them.
In a small and ramshackle cafeteria on Falaki Street, a waiter brought me two glasses of tea. There was a spoon in the first glass but no spoon in the other one. I asked why. Instead of answering, he grabbed another spoon and stuck it into the second glass: "Mubarak will be next!". It was the first of a series of bizarre encounters. "Today the people in the square are not the same people who were there during the last few days". Eman started looking at me. "At the beginning I met young students, intellectuals, Muslim brothers and influential people of in civil society. Now there are men and women belonging to every social class. And criminals too!". It seemed that more and more Egyptians wanted to join the 25 January movement. Some of the new people went to Tahrir just because they were curious, others were pushed by anger over low salaries, a few passed by just because they felt that "the square belonged to the people".
Later on, a boy came and asked me: "Is this freedom?". Excited and incredulous, he was looking at Tahrir. Young boys and girls were listening to "Not your prisoner", a rap of the Arab Nights. It reminded me of the 2009 "Iranian Green Movement", when Sarsim Mohacan and Shahin Najafi's rap inspired revolts. "I was arrested in the square on Friday," Mohammed revealed. "I was walking near Qasr Al Aini when the police stopped me harshly. When we arrived at the police station, they didn't find anything on me. After one day, they let me go" -- but he was shaken. Our last weird encounter was with Marco. He is a Sicilian who has been living in Egypt for 10 years. "Tahrir has been conquered by the Egyptian people," he said. "It's wonderful to spend hours with the millions who occupy the square: families, young people and artists who play the songs of Sheikh Imam and Sayed Derwish".
During the curfew nights, we speculated about every noise coming from the stairs and the streets around us. We couldn't help but looking out of the windows. The neighborhood was wrapped twice in a strange silence: Mubarak was supposed to give a speech on TV. The former president announced that he didn't intend to run in the September presidential elections and asked the demonstrators to be patient. Mubarak's speech triggered a controversial reaction among our Egyptian friends. They believed that he had made a wise decision. But the following day, during the well known "Camel Battle", the mood changed again suddenly. As usual, when we entered the square, the Muslim Brothers searched us carefully. But some men on carts and camel-drivers made it clear that they wanted us out of the square.
After 11 February 11, the curfew became from midnight to six am. But it's too late: Egyptian night life changed definitively. Nobody was on the street after midnight and Cairo's thousands of cafeterias are almost empty. Although there are ups and downs, Egyptians are now concerned about political discussions on the transition to democracy and they have left behind the exciting nights of the Revolution.

Al Ahram
aprile 2011
Giuseppe Acconcia

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