I have a breaking news kind of update from a chat with Negma a few minutes ago. This below is our exact conversation on Skypechat (12:08 pm Eastern on Jan 27) The main story follows below this update.
Me: what is happening-did u see the piece on Huff?
N: Yes thank you tayyib...very good....thank you thank you...
Me: Now what?
N: Just got this text message...thousands of people are marching from Faisal street to downtown... come and join...
Me: u going?
N: Maybe not...have to save energy for tomorrow...mubarak might shut down the friday prayers...we have been collecting vinegar and masks for tomorow for their tear gas...no one knows what to believe anymore...we just need to get our asses out and just go and join everyone...al ahram online english said maybe gemal had run away...now we dont know...tomorrow we are all gathering here in zamalek and going to tahrir...my bbm is down..these fuckers are animals...
Me: Pls be careful promise?
N: ya...pls dont tell my parents...they will freak out...you know how they are...i just heard on al jazeera that baradei is coming back...lets see what he does...who knows...he has no power anyway...
Me: Pls be careful
N: Ya ya ;--) Listen we need help in tahrir...we need to try and set up a tent...with doctors...we have now collected lots of betadine and gauze and gloves and bandages...we need to be organized for these animals...btw fb is down again...i just checked...cant log in...pls post my videos I send you...
Me: Yes I promise I will put this up right now in my huffpo thingy
N: Good...I should go...ad I guess I shud be careful-they are moniitoring everything...you know phones that have a lot of international action for exmaple...ok I must go...talk soon...inshaallah....
Sitting at a Manhattan Starbucks, enjoying the free wireless and watching the snow fall softly outside, a definitely less-wired Cairo seems a million miles away. (This greatest of Arab cities has always been the city of my dreams and many passions and very much a frequent destination in this past decade.
(Full disclosure: I try and observe BDS every day of my life but in Manhattan its hard to walk a few blocks without running into something or someone with an Israeli connection. I also don't turn down *free* wireless and find it kind of subversive to blog about dissent in Israel's neighbor sitting at a space that allegedly supports Israeli apartheid)
I have barely slept for two nights. Gmail chats with friends, Facebook chats, occasional tweets, a few Skype calls and some phone conversations have built a fragmented picture of the dissent in this one city, which truly defines the Arab street.
Now on Skype, Mohammad is on.
Me: You OK? I heard it was bad last night.
M: No it was beautiful...for some time...all kinds of people, no factions, students..old people...and Mubarak's guys say that brotherhood instigated the rioters...ha! Rioters! these were all good and simple people...this is all bullshit...I did see a few beards...but that was a small percentage...
Me: What really happened at tahrir?
M: they used tear gas...even on other soldiers...who were also running with the protestors...all blinded...there is so much anger...why doesn't this Mubarak come out and say something...have some acknowledgement...change his fucking cabinet...fire a minister...something...
Me: and then what happened today?
M: it was scary today...these bastard police were so brutal...beating...arresting...and everyone so peaceful last night...where I was standing one guy even wanted to burn a poster of Mubarak...and the crowd stopped him saying it needs to be peaceful....nothing should be burnt...people were so amazing and peaceful...we were singing...and there were even guitars...and then these fuckers came with their tanks and tear gas and there was chaos...
Me: Do you think that the police will become sympathetic maybe...you know in Tunis some of them were...
M: I don't know...no one knows anything...these police are paid shit in Egypt...but they are completely brainwashed...and they are scary...in their cars they run people right over...an egyptian life today has no value...
Me: what about Facebook and Twitter and all that?
M: fb was down for 2 hours and then came back up...I think mubarak realized that it makes them look bad and makes them look scared to block the net...and Twitter we are not using so much in Cairo...
Mohammad is a writer. He works hard being an artist in Cairo. I lose the connection at that last sentence and there is just silence.
On my Facebook wall there is a new message:
Word JUST came out that Hosny Mubarak's (Pres) son fled Egypt today w/ his wife and daughter w/ over 100 pieces of luggage on his private jet. Not a good sign since he is speculated to be next in line for Presidency--or is it a good sign? No one from the Gov...t has stepped up at all in reply to what's going on...
Two new messages in my Facebook Inbox.
First, from Adham, a young journalist who worked with the more "independent minded" newspaper, Al Masry Al Youm (Even though Egypt has the most vibrant media in the region, criticizing Mubarak has traditionally been impossible.):
"Parvez...I am so sick of all this bullshit man...why are no Egyptians writing about this in your country (lol)...its like every one has an opinion now and knows what will happen next...who is this mike and who is this david and michael...all these white American guys man pretending they know how this fucking country works...have they even come here recently and even if they have do they leave the four seasons and the mariott to try and go to manshiet man...? And they are all now talking about this Baradei asshole? Where was he for the last thirty years trying to go and diffuse bombs all over the place right? I think man...that even the Ikhwan are better than all of them...I want the bloody brotherhood...maybe you should write something man...u spent so much time here...u know how this shit works here..."
Adham, in his late twenties, is fiery and independent-minded. He always says, "I want to be a writer when I grow up and maybe make some movies along the way, man." The Ikhwan he refers to are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, born and bred in Egypt, and today an opposition that Mubarak has alternatively tried to destroy and placate. Baradei is Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who now has soaring political ambition and is returning to Egypt, even though he remains an unknown quantity for most Egyptians and laughable to the few who know of him.
The next Facebook message is from a friend who comes from a prominent and respected old Cairene family, Negma. She has also included photos of the protests. I know that her parents would not approve of her joining the masses in Tahrir Square. I wonder if they know that she has been there.
"Parvez, it was the first time i've ever seen rich, poor, young, old, male and female Egyptians in one place at one time for the same purpose...EVER...it was truly an amazing 6 hour experience!!"
Cairo has been a very important part of my life for a decade now. It was in this other city that never sleeps that I dared to imagine using the much-contested term "jihad" right next to "love" in the title of my film on Islam and homosexuality. My journalist friends were reporting on Sayyed Imam Al Sharief, also known as Dr. Fadl--in many ways the primary ideologue of Jihadist thinking who had denounced Al-Qaeda from his cell in the notorious Tora Istikbal prison. This man, who had once been a close associate of Ayman al-Zawahiri, declared in 2007 that "We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that."
In fact his book, "Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the Modern World" was serialized in the very same newspaper that Adham worked for.
In Cairo, I also filmed a devout and timid lesbian couple uncertainly holding hands while on a boat in the Nile as it bobbed past the upscale Garden City neighborhood, which begins with the Four Seasons, a secured fort of a hotel out of reach for them and indeed the majority of Egyptians. I then filmed one of them on the balcony of an apartment overlooking this same Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo about how she wrote letters to a website controlled by the Muslim brotherhood, hoping for help to cure her same-sex desires.
In Cairo, I took shelter in the home of a kind Arab journalist and blogger, across the street from the Saudi consulate, when I knew I was too afraid to go to Mecca to film the Umrah of a gay South African Imam in my film. He introduced me to the hard-drinking expat journalist crowd that hangs out on the roof of the downtown Odeon Palace Bar just off Talat Ha'arb street, to smoke shisha and gossip about Arab politics.
In Cairo, I smuggled a handsome young man into my room at the Marriott, a hotel within walking distance from the floating nightclub on the Nile called the "Queen Boat," where 52 gay men were arrested in 2001 for "debauchery" and other assorted sins and then tortured and raped by Hosni Mubarak's police in prison.
In Cairo, I have attended a very lavish wedding and then further festivities at the Red Sea resort of Ain Sukhna, where the champagne was all from Paris and the sea was lit up as a backdrop to the all-night party with endless tables heaped with all manner of cuisine.
In Cairo, I have also quietly dared to walk around the streets of Manshiet Nasser, Cairo's largest slum of more than a million troubled inhabitants. On every single street corner, I was mistaken for being Arab, if I didn't open my mouth.
In Cairo, I have sipped endless halal cocktails at the Gezira club in the affluent Zamalek neighborhood, trying hard to prove my good Muslim credentials to an Imam traveling with me.
In Cairo, while walking in the Mohandaseen neighborhood, I have bought copies of the popular magazine called "Hijab Fashion," where the models betray the dress sense of the locals--tight, figure-hugging jeans and tops below carefully arranged hijabs for modesty.
As an Indian, poverty is not novel to me. The fact that Cairo--home to more than 19 million inhabitants in its urban entirety--has three of the world's largest slums and that 8 million people live in them is not a surprise either.
What is surprising about Egypt is the fact that it has no middle class, to speak of, at all. You are either filthy rich or filthy and poor in Cairo.
And now, for the last 48 hours, this city of so much of my love is under siege. The rule of a despot for three decades and the role of "American ally" are being challenged. Many are rushing to judgment with ideas of a Facebook revolution, since a great deal of the organizing for the protests happened through a Facebook page and there were some estimates that 90,000 people signed on. Conflicting reports about Facebook, Twitter and other forms of online community being shut down have come and gone. Videos have been posted of protestors in downtown Cairo braving tear gas and bullets.
Much is being made of comparisons to Tunisia's ongoing "Jasmine" revolution, perhaps the only successful (and ongoing) regime change through popular dissent in the post-colonial Arab world. The outcome of that revolution is still uncertain. And it is still very early to even call this Egyptian outpouring a "revolution" at all.
Western media rushed to incorrect conclusions in 2009 as Tehran twittered, but the majority of the tweets about the Iranian Mousavi came from outside of the country. Most Tehranis did not have easy access to Twitter, which in any case was not a well-known tool of organizing or even venting in that country. Iran has the world's largest blogosphere and most of its content is in Farsi. To tweet in Farsi is practically impossible.
Just like Egypt is not Iran, it is also not Tunisia. The Francophone elites of Tunis inhabit a smaller and very different nation. Iran is completely different from any Arab regime, being a theocracy born out of a revolution and in 2009 having a "wronged leader" (Mousavi) to rally around.
Egypt has always been the cradle of Islamic culture and civilization, and has given birth to some of the greatest writers, singers and poets in the Arabic language. It is also home to Al-Azhar University, the greatest center of Islamic learning in the world. Mubarak, a despot by most definitions has also claimed to be avowedly "secular." The contradictions continue: Egypt also has the most vibrant and influential film industry in the region and if there is an Arab Bollywood, it lives in Cairo. In fact, the Lebanese, who speak a different dialect, understand "Egyptian" because of the influence of that cinema.
Finally, Mubarak would have not ruled for so long if it were not for the support of successive US presidents. Even Barack Obama had to pay obeisance to Mubarak when he tried to "speak" to the Muslim world.
Western journalists and the online "Twitterati" would do well to not rush to any conclusions. Hosni Mubarak and his brutal police state have three decades of experience in suppressing any form of dissent. They are at their best when they are beating people up--many of them could even teach the feared Iranian Basij or the despised religious police in Saudi Arabia, the Muttawa, a thing or two.
My young "activist" friend who studies at the American University of Cairo, Sharief, comes online for another revealing conversation.
Me: I hope you are ok.
S: Hamdulillah I am fine
Me: Were you there?
S: Yes and it was amazing. I have never seen so many people downtown. I was crying..so happy...
Me: How much police?
S: A lot. A lot. They had the tanks out and then they used tear gas and that mixed with my tears of happiness
S: We were shouting- Ben Ali is calling you Mubarak...there is hotel for you in Jiddah...
Me: How amazing. What will happen now? How are you organizing?
S: I check Facebook and I don't know how to use this twitter thing but my friends told me about it...but mostly it is sms from friends and like that and then we all go...
Me: Will there be more?
S: Now I got sms saying that we want 1 million people to protest after prayer on Friday...I will go...they cant stop us anymore
Me: Really? Inshaallah u will stay safe habub
S: Inshallah..ya it will be ok...parvez u shud be here to see with your own eyes....
Me: I wish I cud come...but I cant...maybe I write about it, ok?
S: Yes plez tell your Americans that their puppy Mubarak will soon be gone
Me: ;-)) I promise I will tell Obama ;-)))
Me: Inshaallah u will have twitter and fb and all to spread the word
S4: no one can stop us now i hope...Inshallah twitter...
And then on those three dots, I lose him. I call. The phone does not connect. Neither does Skype. His Facebook wall has been silent for six hours now. I close my eyes and look at the snow outside. Inshaallah Twitter. That's what he said before he disappeared.
Follow Parvez Sharma on Twitter: www.twitter.com/parvezsharma