The X Page: A Storytelling Workshop

A Spring's Hope

by Reem Elkady


I breathe in and breathe out as I close my eyes, the crush of the crowd washing over me. I can feel the familiar skin pricks, fists tense as my throat closes up and my breathing gets shallower and shallower. Yes, this is a crowd and yes, I should be running for the hills. Far away from any form of people congregating in a confined area.

But not tonight. I straighten my back, square my shoulders and pick up the pace, following my husband, my hand in his, deeper into the throng of bodies. We have to navigate closed-off and packed streets to get to the downtown square. A sense of calm washes over me as I glance at the majestic seated lions guarding the exit of the Nile Palace Bridge. Tonight, it seems like they are looking on with pride, telling us to be brave and go forth.

I look at Adam’s back. His little curly-haired head is turning from side to side, wide-eyed and silent, the yellow glaze of the street lights reflecting off his glasses. His five-year-old sense of wonder is endearing. Sitting on Shady’s shoulders, he must have an amazing view of the crowd, or does his autism make the sea of floating heads something intangible? He’s uncharacteristically engaged and present and it makes me grateful for small blessings. So I start counting; the cold, crisp air that fills my nostrils and carries the overwhelming smells of smog, roasting corn and the vague whiff of night jasmine far away. The short, sunny days and long February nights that make dealing with the sticky, sweaty bodies a welcome relief. The hazy orange light that engulfs a city that never sleeps makes me thankful for the glow that paints the packed streets with an air of celebration instead of foreboding.  And if I’m counting blessings, the biggest one is that I don’t need to be on my usual extreme guard around all these men.

And they are mainly men. We pass the occasional woman here and there; a sister, a friend, or cousin—never alone—with an entourage of family or friends to protect her.
The streets of Cairo, as usual, are predominantly composed of the male of the Egyptian species. And, they are unfriendly streets towards women. I can’t remember a time when catcalling, harassment, and unwanted physical advances were a given for any woman that dared to walk Cairo streets, whether alone or not—it was something that they
drilled into all of us from a young age. Instead of criminalizing the boys and men for their behavior, teaching them to respect women, it is we who carry the burden of always being on our guard, and wary of the harm that could befall us. But like all the other blessings and surprises of this night, I don’t have to worry about any of it for now. Tonight, I want to be part of this crowd and this crowd wants me to be part of it; woman, immigrant, atypical Egyptian that I am. And for the first time in what seems like forever I feel like I am one with a crowd.

I look to my right to check on my best friend, Maha, and her husband. Her six year old son is hopping excitedly on his father, Amr’s shoulders as we weave through the crowd
around the United Arab Nations Building. Hamza has a huge smile on his face, wonder in his eyes and a continuous babble that goes on and on about the thrill and awe of being there. I am grateful for his joy and envious for the fact that I never experienced that same sense of oneness or belonging in this country—or any country.

We reach the makeshift checkpoints set up by volunteer protesters. We stand patiently waiting as they ask the questions: Why are you here? Are you carrying any concealed weapons? Can we please look through your bag? Then they notice our two  young boys sitting on their fathers’ shoulders, and they wave us through with a smile.

As we emerge from the shadow of the stoic, post-modern government complex, Tahrir Square in all its glory, hits us. People fill every corner of the street, gardens, sidewalks
and pavements as far as our eyes could see. It’s the zenith of night, but nothing is dark. Light from street lamps and building spotlights along with the haze of a city of 80 million
envelops us in an orange and warm embrace. Ahead is the statue of the stony horse-backed general, some revolutionary soldier from a forgotten time, silently witnessing something familiar but oh-so-foreign to him.

From the edge of the crowd, we hear laughter, loud conversations, and faint cheers coming from a makeshift stage set at the end of Tahir Road. A small group of protestors takes turns talking to the people. I’m too far away to hear the words but the most important chant carries over the breeze; ‘Bread, Freedom and Social Justice!’

Suddenly, people start shifting and bending. As I look all around me, everyone is bent over, focused on their feet as they slip off one shoe. I look back at the stage where the group stands, each of the speakers has one shoe raised high in the air. They start chanting ‘Erhal’ and the crowd is chanting back ‘Erhal’. One word— Leave—repeated
over and over. Tens of thousands gathered with one goal in mind: bringing about a peaceful and just change!

I have goosebumps again, not because I’m trapped in a crowd, but because I am lucky to be alive at this moment in time, to be present. To be physically here to witness a momentous point in history when the will of the people prevails and all of the wrongs are made right.

I set my backpack down and check on Adam. He is still awake, but just barely. Resolved to absorb it all, he crosses his hands on top of Shady’s head and rests his cheek on them. I look over at Hamza on his father’s shoulders. Unfazed by the lights, sounds and chanting, he’s fast asleep. Amr’s shoulders ache and my husband offers to carry Hamza for a while. As they gently bring Hamza down off his father’s shoulders, the men around us notice the sleeping child in their arms and the equally drowsy boy in mine and a
whisper starts encircling us. The crowd parts, revealing the pavement, and jackets, scarves and blankets start flowing in as people offer anything they have that is soft. Two men insist on taking the weight of the children from us. They were complete strangers, but the camaraderie and shared goals connected us in that moment, and they are
strangers no more. They sat down by the borrowed clothing on the pavement, and we passed our sleeping children to them as they gently laid them down on the makeshift beds, heads on their laps. The rest of the group circle them, protecting Hamza and Adam as they sleep.

Me, Shady, Maha and Amr stand there for a few moments, overcome with a wash of emotion, love, and purpose before we collect ourselves and start chanting ‘Leave’. And for tonight, we are whole. We are all Egyptian, and we all belong.