For 15 years I traveled across the Middle East, retracing the Bible through the desert, for a series of books and television shows, including "Walking the Bible" and "Abraham." Then I stopped. As my wife said, "You've had your time as a war correspondent."
But the Middle East has a way of not letting you go. As 2011 dawned, I watched with awe as wave after wave of hope-starved young people -- from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Syria -- took to the streets to reclaim their lives. They marched in the face of dictators. They withstood the rain of bullets. They prayed in the face of tanks.
Time and again, commentators told us these uprisings represented something new. #Jan25 was this generation's "Give me liberty or give me death!" This was, in the iconic words of Wael Ghonim, "Revolution 2.0." But was it, really? Sure all these new-fangled elements were present, but as someone steeped in the ancient world, I also heard a different cry coming from the protestors. I heard the prayers of a suffering people calling out to a higher authority to help overthrow an oppressor. I heard the echo of the oldest stories ever told. In Tahrir Square, the protestors even carried banners comparing Hosni Mubarak to the pharaoh.
Who are these young people? I wondered. What beliefs do they have? And what do they mean for us? I decided to head back to the region to find out. To help answer these questions, I marched with the protestors in Tahrir Square; I confronted the head of the Muslim Brotherhood; I witnessed Muslims and Christians coming together to rebuild churches burned by extremists.
In this exclusive excerpt of my new book, "Generation Freedom: The Middle East Uprisings and the Remaking of the Modern World," a 21-year-old law school student and bass guitarist named Noor Aymin Nour, the son of high-profile dissidents, and one of the hunks of Tahrir Square, recounts what happened to him after he was beaten, arrested and thrown into a police vehicle on the opening night of the revolution, Jan. 25, 2011.
Inside the paddy wagon, Aymin Nour and the 43 others captive were increasingly desperate. At one point, the vehicle actually lunged to a stop, the door opened, and an armed police officer appeared. He called out for Noor Aymin Nour to get out. As the son of a prominent dissident, he was considered a dangerous person to detain. But he refused to abandon his fellow passengers. "Either I leave with everyone else, or I stay with everyone else," Aymin Nour said. "It would be cowardice to do anything else. That's just the way I raised."
The police gave up, and the wagon continued its grim passage. "At that point, I actually began singing," Aymin Nour said. "People just gave me the look of, 'What are you doing?' I told them. "It's one of two things. Either they are going to let us out in the middle of the desert to go home, so we're celebrating in advance. Or they're taking us to the Central Security Forces headquarters, and we're never going to celebrate, smile, or laugh again, so we might as well smile and laugh now."
Aymin Nour, though, had a plan. He used a secret cell phone he stashed in his jacket to telephone his mother. He described the vehicle they were in, and where they had been seized. With a decade of political activism behind her, Gamila Ismail knew just what to do. She telephoned her ex-husband (former presidential candidate Aymin Nour), notified her other son, and the three hopped in three separate cars and began chasing down the security vehicle that contained her son.
At one point, Ismail thought she had identified the proper vehicle and was following it through the streets. Aymin Nour asked everyone in the wagon to quiet down and asked his mother to honk her horn so they could tell whether it was the right vehicle. It was.
But Gamila Ismail knew something her son and his fellow captives did not. They were seconds away from Central Security headquarters by now. As the wagon approached the gate, Ismail sped her car in front of the paddy wagon, swerved sideways, and blocked the entrance. As soon as she leapt from the vehicle, Aymin Nour's brother and father swarmed toward the back door of the paddy-wagon and began attacking it with crow bars. The truck began to rock alarmingly from side to side, while someone began banging the metal exterior, sending out huge metallic clangs.
When at last the door opened, a police officer had managed to push aside Aymin Nour's father and brother and pulled his gun, but the captives surged forward, sending him flying. One by one the protestors fled their sweaty cell. "I insisted on being the last person out," said Aymin Nour, "because I knew there were a lot of sick and injured people. Obviously my coming out last of 44 people was very nerve-wracking for my parents. They were thinking. 'We just spent hours chasing the wrong truck and our son wasn't inside!'"
Once he did step into freedom, there was no celebration. His three family members quickly grabbed him and threw him inside one of the family cars, along with the man who had taken the rubber bullet in his eye. They sped back to Cairo, took the victim in the hospital, and locked Aymin Nour into hiding at the home of a family friend. For the next two days he remained a fugitive. But when word began to spread that Friday, January 28 had been identified as another rally, this one a "Day of Rage," he knew he had to join.
"Did you think the protests would succeed at that point?" I asked him.
"It felt like an unprecedented moment," he said. "We didn't know whether or not it would turn into a revolution. But we knew that after the 25th of January, nothing in Egypt would ever be the same."
Adapted from "Generation Freedom: The Middle East Uprisings and the Remaking of the Modern World," by Bruce Feiler. For more information, please visit BruceFeiler.com or view the trailer.
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