Tahrir Square, batata and a wedding
Fridays in Egypt aren’t what they used to be. In Fridays past, you typically would sleep in and as the noon hour approached you’d walk to the neighborhood Mosque where you would meet friends and pray gamaa (as a group). After noon prayers, my friends and I would go to the Maadi Club, play a little soccer, have tea, and then we would agree to do it all over again the next Friday. What fun.
But, one thing seems to have been added to the Friday agenda. You still sleep until noon, you still go to the Mosque and the Club, but now you have to go to Tahrir Square and join the latest “millioneya,” the million man/woman march which seems to be an event on most Fridays. Every millioneya gets a name and on
Friday December 23rd it was called “The Day of Redemption.”
After prayers this Friday, I asked my friends, like I would normally do, whether the Club was on or off. They looked at me with astonishment and said, “You’re kidding right, we’re all going to the millioneya of course.” I figured the Club was out.
With curiosity, I asked which millioneya they were attending. After all, two were scheduled, one in Tahrir square against the military and one in Abassia endorsing the military. My best friend looked at me with astonishment and said “Tahrir of course, that’s where we’re going and you are too.” Me? No, no, no. I have never been that political, and being a bit claustrophobic, Tahrir was not the place for me.
But, none of them would have it. My cynicism in asking the question Tahrir or Abassia had consequences. All had taken offence, not just because people had died in the last round of demonstrations, but a female demonstrator had her top pulled off and her hair scarf removed, and that simply was not on. They said it was unacceptable for me to be part of the silent majority. Being part of the silent majority in Egypt now labels you as being a member of the “couch party.” You sit on the couch and you watch the latest millioneya on television, and the only political views you have are communicated to who ever happens to be sitting next to you, or to your dog. But, willingly or unwillingly, I was going to Tahrir square, my friends insisted.
On the way there, I figured getting to Tahrir in Cairo’s notorious traffic was going to be a real pain. I figured this would take hours and as it turned out from our district in Maadi we were on the outskirts of Tahrir in less than 20 minutes. Millioneya what I thought to myself, they’d be lucky to have a few hundred people here. But, as we got closer to Tahrir, parking was at a premium. So, we triple parked like everyone else just around the corner from the square. I figured getting out was going to be next to impossible only to realize that several street children had taken on the task of parking attendants. One of these kids who looked no more than nine years old said to my friend who was driving, “Basha are you leaving the keys so I can park it for you?” and to my astonishment, my friend said “Yes.” I asked curiously with all the car thefts I had been reading about “Aren’t you scared he’ll steal it?” and the response was “He’d be doing me a favor.” All good then, we could always take a cab home.
As we walked to the square, I realized there was a lot to buy. You could buy t-shirts printed in English for one. I particularly liked the red t-shirt that read “My new birthday is January 25th” and another that said “100 Percent Egyptian.” I bought a few of the “100 percent Egyptian” t-shirts to give to friends, only to later realize that most of them weren’t actually Egyptians. Oh well, it’s the thought that counts.
I also bought an Egyptian flag to wave for only 20 pounds. Nothing more nationalistic than that right?
My friend bought a Libyan flag for 15 pounds, and he spent the afternoon waving that, either as a gesture of Arab solidarity, or he was 5 pounds short. The closer we got to the square; it became apparent that this really was going to be a millioneya. People were pouring in from everywhere. With a million people coming to the square, the flag guy and the t-shirt guy were making out like bandits. But, so was the batata guy. Batata is a kind of sweet potato that when hot is a real treat.
There was a line for the batata and as I was about to stand to get mine, my friend, a Doctor by trade said “I wouldn’t if I were you, weren’t all the demonstrators in front of Parliament poisoned with Howawishi (Egyptian sloppy joes)?” He always was a party pooper, and I ate the batata not only in spite, but for all the risks people took in the square, eating the sweet potato became a matter of principle. Howawishi, if offered, however, was definitely out of the question.
After a while, it got really crowded. I was expecting speeches, moving speeches, but there were none. A few guys tried, but there were so many of us, with no sound system, they gave up pretty quickly. Throughout the afternoon, my friends would say look over there isn’t that El Baradei, but it was always a false alarm.
What was constant in Tahrir, though, was chanting. Someone would start a chant and we would all follow in chorus. One notable chant, “We replaced Hosni with Hussien (the Field Marshal running the military), and all we did was change a few letters (in a name).” In Arabic, it sounds better because it rhymes. I tried to come up with something catchy myself, but I quickly realized one line rhymes for a million people to chant was never going to be a serious profession for me.
After about three hours of milioneya, one of my friends said to the group, “Club?” OK, we all agreed. We had done our part. We went, bought flags and t-shirts, took pictures, chanted with the crowd, and at least the courageous among us dared to eat the batata.
Driving back, it became clear that the revolution seemed to be continuing in Tahrir square and nowhere else, at least in Cairo. The whole experience had drained us of the energy to go to the Club. We agreed, God willing, we would meet again at next Friday’s prayers. I was dropped at my sister’s house, stayed for dinner, and told my milioneya story over and over again. I did this on the couch mostly, which is the party that I decided suited me the most.
As it got late, sitting on the couch, drinking tea with my sister and her husband, I heard the sound of gun fire not too far from our house, something unheard of only a year ago. My sister immediately showed signs of concern with her children asleep in the adjoining rooms. Her husband immediately quelled her fears and said, “That’s nothing, there’s a hairdresser a couple of blocks away. It’s probably the bride coming out all dressed up and her family is shooting their pistols in the air to celebrate.” My sister, a PhD and all, said, “A little late for a wedding, no?” But, with some reassurance, she said goodnight and went to sleep next to her youngest daughter. Alone, with her husband, he looked at me and said, “You know I love your sister and all, and don’t take this the wrong way, she really is an air head for believing the hairdresser story.” Yup, that was pretty farfetched. These sure are not the Fridays I remember.