The Egypt you teach me at school

I have never been involved in politics, I had made up my mind on the whole thing a long time ago: we are a nation that has known nothing but the rule of absolute pharaohs, be they called Cheops or Mubarak, a succession of rulers with absolute powers over a population of vassals who are resigned to their fate of being suppressed, humiliated, tortured, starved, impoverished , robbed of all their  riches, reduced to silence by a ruthless secret police flowing heedlessly through the tiniest veins of society, and  blindfolded by a formidable propaganda apparatus corrupt to the core that denied all evidence of favoritism, bribery, nepotism and every form and shape of corruption in the book and its annexes, evidence  so luminous it gives eye sores if you stare at it. For all intents and purposes, we were living in a monarchy, as Mubarak set the scenario for his son to inherit the throne.  End of a pathetic story.

To make things worse, it seemed like the only viable organized opposition to the system was the Muslim Brotherhood, brandishing the slogan “Islam is the Solution”, foreboding yet another regime of pharaohs ruling in the name of God and hence infallible and untouchable, under whose reign dissenters would be a bunch of infidels and heathens.  As it appeared that they were horrifyingly gathering momentum everywhere and in all walks of life, as the niqab started taking ground, as the sight of children wearing the veil became more and more common, I thought to myself, “Here comes the catastrophic climax of a sad pathetic story”.

I would walk in the streets and notice I was the only unveiled woman around, and as I kept walking and looking around, the gaze of passers- by undressed me; I felt exposed, violated, so I would accelerate my pace, fleeing this scrutiny and fixing my gaze straight ahead like a mother rushing to save her drowning child, oblivious to all around her. With time this panicking gait became a habit, without even looking around or verifying the intrusive looks, I would dart the moment I set foot outside. I realize now that I did not exist then, that I had been robbed of me for as long as I could remember in my 30 years of existence.  It was as though the hegemony of that politico/religious amalgam had abstracted my sense of being an individual who actually existed, let alone a citizen who counted and had a say in what was happening in her society.  I used to crave to be invisible walking down the streets, shielding my sense of identity as a human being, a woman, from my compatriots. This sentiment bordered on paranoia as the craving to disappear imperceptibly became second nature to me in an unconscious, inadvertent fashion, one that hardly abandoned me even when I was alone in my cocoon.

Politics; it used to be that I couldn’t care less, my bitterness and cynicism had no bounds, when  I  observed my father who actually found  Mubarak  cute, funny even, and watched  him admiringly in the company of my brother. It scared the hell out of me to think that educated people of my own blood could be fooled by the system.  It scared me to have their blood running in my veins, to think that such a position could be lurking somewhere in my blood. When the demonstrations began on the 25th of January, I thought how naïvely optimistic those organizers were, in a couple of hours their most outspoken activists would be set as an example and so rounded and arrested by the formidable corps of police and state security to be tortured and taught the lesson of servitude by methodically trained personnel who exported their know-how in the most effective techniques of torture to the West.  It was no secret that the State-Security apparatus was a state within a state consecrated to protecting the existing regime. It had infamous renown all over the world for producing manuals of academic merit to accompany the art of outsourcing torture and  extraordinary rendition treaties.  At least we have some know- how to export, lest anyone should say we are a retarded nation with nothing to offer to the developed civilized world.

Yet on the 26th my friends told me there was an even bigger crowd assembled at Tahrir Square.   I became curious so I started following the news and decided to go check out what was happening on the 28th, the Friday of Rage. My mother joined me enthusiastically. This was no ordinary demonstration; thousands and thousands were cramped at Tahrir Square representing all walks of life, gender, age, religion, political affiliation and class. Liberty was the foremost demand whichever way you looked or turned your ear. Ironically, as I became more and more squeezed into the heart of the crowd, I felt I could breathe better, and before I knew it I was screaming “Down with the regime!” At this instant, I felt I existed. I felt safe. I felt respected.  I felt I was a citizen in solidarity with my co-citizens. I was not harassed. I did not feel intruded upon. I did not wish to disappear. Being blond, people thought I was a foreigner, until I started speaking, then all confusion disappeared.  Astounded, I was proudly claiming my identity as an Egyptian. In the tightly knit crowd, guys excused themselves profusely if they happened to brush my shoulder. When I was told that demonstrators  were keeping vigil at Tahrir night and day,  I knew I could sleep in the square at night  secure that those guys, my co-demonstrators , would make sure no one touched a wisp of my hair.  While the slogan “Islam is the Solution” was conspicuously nowhere to be found, calls for a secular state were everywhere. Elation and solidarity were imbibed by the gathering; incisive, witty, humorous calls for the fall of the regime coined an unrelenting rage, targeting all its maladies and symbols.  People of all walks of life were talking to people they didn’t know in the most spontaneous and complicit revolutionary spirit.  Resounding in the air were the zealous patriotic songs of the 50’s and 60’s, which were landmarks for my parents’ generation under  Nasser (Abdelhalim, Shadya ,om kolsoum), and  the lyrics of Shaykh Imam that were censored and circulated underground  during Sadat’s era. Those songs used to sound hollow, provoke my cynical resentful smile , a bitter thought about the rampant obscurantism  in every nook and cranny of the regime’s  propaganda  machine, but now here I was singing along,  sobbing  and  with all my might singing out, “Hold your head up high, you are an Egyptian”.  Wading my way through  waves  of exhilarated bodies ebbing and flowing  beyond the scope of my vision,  my foggy eyes fell  upon a  haggard sickly old man –whose face  spilled wrinkles of poverty and starvation–  sitting cross- legged under  a haggard tent brandishing  a haggard banner that said in haggard letters :  “Freedom or death ;  My grave is at Tahrir”. Not far from him, a yellow banner held by a young girl said: “I want the Egypt you teach me at school”.  As I am reaching out for her, I hear gunshots, clouds of tear gas fill the air, the last thing I remember was the word “peaceful” ringing vociferously in my ears, vinegar suffusing my nostrils. I had lost sight of the little girl.


Maha El Marraghi is a freelance translator specializing in fiction (English and French to Arabic). She has taught Arabic language and literature for years between Canada and the U.S.A. Back in Cairo, she started teaching English writing at Al Ahram Canadian University and writing short stories. She is also a performance artist and contemporary dance choreographer and has recently directed a piece entitled Galatea’s Twilight.