Egypt and I go way back — forty-one years, to be exact. That is a bare blink of an eye for a country that is over 5000 years old, but for me, forty-one years is a long time. I first set foot in Tahrir Square in January, 1970. I was twenty-three years old, the same age as many of the young demonstrators who swarmed central Cairo in January, 2011, to reclaim their futures from corrupt and oppressive rulers. The Tahrir Square I knew was not a place of peaceful encampments and chants of freedom, but a traffic-clogged vortex of car horns and exhaust fumes.
I had just married my college boyfriend Larry and followed him to teach and study at the American University in Cairo. I thought myself sophisticated — I had bummed around Europe in my teens and studied in Greece for my junior year abroad — but I was not prepared for Cairo. Some mornings Larry and I walked from our apartment in Zamalek to the AUC campus on the far side of Tahrir Square. I can still remember the flood of relief I felt as we rushed through the gates of the school and sank into chairs in the back garden, where bougainvillea dripped from the balconies and kindly assistants served us mint tea or Turkish coffee. Tahrir was a scary place — vast streets pouring in from seven directions, no cross-walks for pedestrians, ancient buses tilted permanently to the right from the overload of passengers hanging on the doors, and pent-up taxi drivers honking and cursing and driving like fiends.
I wonder now why we ever walked to school, since it required us to cross through the heart of chaotic Tahrir! Maybe we were lured by our charming neighborhood with the peanut vendor wishing us a morning full of light and flowers, and the portrait painter, Samir, greeting Larry as “my darling” as he kissed him on the cheek. Maybe it was the immense and sculptural Banyan Tree on the corner, graceful and exotic, in spite of its urine stench. Maybe it was the walk across the Nile, that river of Biblical lore, where we could look out at the island of Roda in whose bullrushes Baby Moses is said to have been found. Or maybe it was the pull of the Egyptian people themselves, welcoming and warm, humorous and endearing as they spilled into the streets to chat and drink tea and exchange the latest jokes.
Flash forward to January 25, 2011, when the streets of Tahrir teem not with traffic but with pedestrians. Demonstrators carry signs that read “Mubarak leave!” in both English and Arabic, for broadcast over Al Jazeera and YouTube. Such brash confrontation has been unthinkable for decades under the despots that have dominated Egyptian life. A day or two into the uprising, Mubarak’s state police crack down on the marchers with tear gas and truncheons, beating them until they retreat behind make-shift barricades and hurl bits of rock and broken pavement in self-defense. Armed men in uniform literally pound on peaceful protesters in the middle of Tahrir Square with the world watching.
Friends from my AUC days begin to email that the revolution will probably fail. The Middle East has delivered disappointments before. Why would this be any different? I watch TV almost obsessively as, day after remarkable day, the brutality seems only to stir the determination of protesters from Alexandria to Aswan, and Egyptians pour into the streets in ever greater numbers. They link arms in Tahrir Square to protect their museum. They set up sound stages to rally the crowds and medical units to treat the wounded. They turn chaos into a freedom encampment right in the center of the square. “Tahrir” is Arabic for “liberation”, as Anderson Cooper reminds us again and again. Maybe, just maybe, the name will now hold real meaning.