Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Faces of Tahrir Square

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Faces of Tahrir Square

Article excerpt

Last spring's protests were only the beginning of a much longer struggle.

EGYPTIANS ARE FAMOUS TALKERS. WHEN I lived in Cairo in 2008 and 2009, I whiled away entire days at the grubby street-side cafés, practicing my Egyptian slang and getting my ass handed to me in game after game of dominoes with old men who were happy to talk my ear off about almost anything - Israel, Islam, George W. Bush, 9/11 conspiracies, how their dialect of Arabic was the only one worth learning - while they sipped endless cups of tea and coriander-spiced coffee.

Egyptians are also famous jokers, a cultural attribute that took on a special importance under the thirty-year drag of the Mubarak regime. There was so little to be proud of, and so much injustice, that making a joke of it all may have been a mass psychological survival tactic. "Egyptians have no self-respect under Mubarak," I remember one man confiding to me. "They parade through the streets when the national team ties with Holland. They don't even know what it means to win anymore."

All of this talking and joking happened under a cloud of cigarette and shisha smoke, to the rhythmic gurgling of waterpipes and a chorus of coughs and cackles, because Egyptians are also epic smokers. Cairo is a terrible place to even think about quitting, because nothing lubricates the wheels of conversation better than tobacco. Not with all of the Marlboros in the world, however, could I have walked into a café and gotten a Cairene to share his private feelings about President Mubarak. The president was the one topic capable of corking even the most loquacious among them. No one talked specifics about Mubarak or his regime, especially not to foreigners. The best you might have gotten was another joke, like the one about Mubarak and the turtle. It's too involved to repeat, but I'll tell you that it ends with Mubarak asking his friend how long he expects his pet turtle to live. When the friend responds, "I don't know, maybe a hundred years," Mubarak laughs and says, "We'll see."

IN AND AROUND CAIRO, PEOPLE WERE AFRAID. LOOSE lips made people disappear. The word on the street was that one out of every four adult Egyptian males fed information to the mufehabarat, the state police who cultivated a level of paranoia among Egyptians that would seem irrational if it weren't for the fact that just about everyone knew of someone who'd run afoul of the regime. The State Security Investigations Agency was the official branch of the Ministry of Interior responsible for waging Mubarak's quiet war against dissident intellectuals, Islamists? and political figures, all enabled by a perpetual State of Emergency. No one knew how many mukhabarat were really out there - a hundred thousand seemed like a safe bet - but the numbers didn't matter, because it was the perception of total state control that would cause an invisible vise to tighten around Cairenes' necks at the mention of the president's name. It was the perception that Mubarak's men were watching and listening to everything, everywhere, that kept people in line.

For all their jokes, the Egyptians I met when I lived in Cairo often seemed burned out, like they had been awake days on end and had reached a point of exhaustion where even sleep had become impossible. That's why, when I came back to Cairo to witness the revolution in Tahrir Square, it wasn't the tanks on the airport road, the streets emptied of the normal throngs, or the unfamiliar threat of violence that made me feel like I'd slipped into a parallel universe; it was the willingness of Egyptians to finally talk to me. Suddenly, everyone from taxi drivers to shopkeepers to bounvaabs (doormen, who mostly came from rural Upper Egypt and were widely believed to be the mukhabarat's main conduit) had something to say about the regime.

Tahrir was a collective unburdening on an enormous scale. If people weren't shouting slogans, they were sitting in circles, talking excitedly about democracy and constitutional reform. …

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