A deathly waltz

In memory of the martyrs of Mohamed Mahmoud, November 19-24, 2011.

I never did have a good throwing arm. My attempts are short and weak, veering off course, making the would-be catcher run after the embarrassing projectile while shooting me looks of contempt. So I never threw a Molotov or rock or tear gas canister back at the police or military, or whoever we happened to be fighting that day (usually both in some form or another). Part of me was grateful that I felt so unable to fight back. It was a good excuse to save myself from the full-scale danger, blood and carnage of the frontlines.

So I remained behind, in support. Around me, almost every social-economic class in Egypt: suited men walking calmly towards the front clutching rocks broken from pavements previously laid down by the government they were now being hurled at; a grey-haired man in a long galabeyya, punching the air with his fists as he screamed insults; a woman in a niqab and gas mask picking up a rock from a pile laid for communal use; Al-Azhar sheikhs in their conspicuous red and white hats; smartly-dressed university-aged girls with and without hijabs; students, teachers, waiters, children, grocers, coffee-shop workers. The people want… These are the people.

The constant banging of stones on metal, our drums of war; “yasqut yasqut hukm el askar,” our battle cry. In between the chants, a steady cacophony of conversation blended into a loud murmuring. I picked up snatches: “Don’t move back, the air is with us” … “Come, we will go inside together.”

In my left hand, an open box of tissues. In my right, a bottle of white vinegar. The crowd stampeding towards me after an intensive volley of gas grabbed tissues from the box in my hand, holding them out or wiping at their streaming eyes and noses. Protesters heading to the front held out whatever they were planning on putting over their faces. A constant stream of sleeves, tissues, surgical masks and scarves were thrust under my nose onto which I poured a dash of vinegar. Not too much or it’s overpowering and makes it painful to breathe in (though still not as painful as the gas), too little and it’s ineffective. I received a number of exasperated looks after I had given a particularly over-enthusiastic pour … which usually came after supplication of: “A bit more … a tiny bit more … a tiny bit …” *glug*. Some of the more inexperienced protesters started raising whatever vinegar-drizzled material they had to their already red, swollen eyes. “No, no, smell it, smell it,” I shouted at them over the racket. Those who didn’t hear me or decided that even in these extreme circumstances (or in fact, especially in these extreme circumstances) women were not to be trusted, pressed it to their eyes and screamed.

I felt someone bump my shoulder and shot an instinctive threatening look to warn against any groping thoughts he might have. He was walking backwards towards the frontlines, leading the cries of a reinvigorated throng that was following him from the square. Black scarf tied tightly around his nose and mouth in an effort to combat the gas, furrowed brow, long beautiful black lashes blinking against the sun. His eyes flickered to mine and I saw his rage. His rage that would be the making and the undoing of us. He knew the truth about what humans could become. As our eyes met, his brow dropped. His anger dissipated. His mouth continued to shout the words but his heart forgot them. 

I wanted him to escape into me; to lead him out of this death and chaos and wrap him in the calm strength of my body while I put my nose against his cheek, breathing in the horror, kissing away the rage, quieting the smell of his friends’ blood; his thirst for revenge. I wanted to protect him from the madness of the streets. From the madness within us both.

The chanting throngs marched on. Pushing him forwards. Backwards. Towards police lines. He remembered where he was. What he was fighting for. He turned back to his comrades, preparing them for battle. Just before he disappeared into the crowd, he looked at me one last time. His eyes told me not to worry. That he would be back for me. Then he was swallowed up.

As I poured, smiled and offered, my eyes continuously flitted upwards towards the front to look out for the small black tear gas canisters as they shot upwards and then back down into our masses, trailing long plumes of white smoke that made their trajectory much easier to track. We began to edge away from where we calculated the canister would fall. This movement quickly turned into a stampede to cries of “izbat! ‘izbat!”  from those much braver than we as we swarmed back towards the safety of the square, trying to avoid being hit by the canister itself as well as the most concentrated clouds of gas that spewed out as it landed. The silver cans of poison scudded along the floor and were kicked away or picked up by a usually-and-hopefully-gloved individual, then hurled back at police lines to the whoops and applause of the crowd.

Because of the narrowness of the street and the height of the buildings on both sides, the gas lingered. As it dissipated, it became invisible. I only knew a fresh batch had reached me by the sudden, sharp stinging in my eyes and nostrils. Both would begin to water as I started moving backwards, always facing front to administer relief to the people running towards me, away from the gas. This meant a lot of jogging backwards which led to a lot of bumping into and being helped by strangers just in time to stop me falling over a rock or person. Every time someone steadied me or called for me to be careful, I looked into their face, hoping to find his turbulent, tender eyes looking down at me. It was never him.

I searched for him in the constantly moving throngs. As my eyes darted back and forth, I caught glimpses of bloodied bodies being carried and driven back from the front on motorbikes, which had become our unofficial ambulances. I watched as a group of street kids made their way towards the front lines with only flimsy surgical masks as protection, the smallest of them around six years old in shorts and t-shirt smeared with the black filth of Cairo’s streets. He was pulling back against the pushes and jibes of the older ones but neither his mind nor body were strong enough to resist. He went with them — the arm of one slung around his shoulder. I saw him later as a man ran past me carrying the child’s lifeless body in his arms, his head lolling with the thuds of the man’s feet.

We moved as one with our foe. Almost uniform. Almost dancing. Almost choreographed. Two steps forward, one back. Two more back, one forward. An unending deathly waltz. Each step cost us dearly. In lives and eyes and minds. And each payment was never enough.

Then I saw him. Slumped on a motorbike speeding towards me, leaning against the driver with a wild-eyed protester holding him up from behind, shouting at the crowds to clear out of the way. A bolt of electricity shot through my heart as she began to pound against my chest. His eyes were half-closed, lashes heavy with blood from a wound on his head. My hands worked automatically. My eyes refused to leave him. I willed him to look at me. “See me. See me,” I murmured through my scarf. As the motorbike raced past me, his eyes found me. Locked me. Told me he was sorry. I could see him trying to hold me but his energy failed him. His eyelids closed as the motorbike passed through the crowds and he disappeared once more.

I went back to the out-stretched hands in front of me but everything was blurry. Tears began to roll down my face, stinging the remnants of gas that lingered on my skin. I don’t know how much longer I stayed there. From then on, the crowds, the chants, the racing back and forth, seemed like some surreal dream. My mind’s eye was on him. Constantly turning over where he could be. Would they have taken him to one of the field hospitals in the square or a main hospital? Is he alive? Is anyone with him? Is he conscious? Is he thinking of me as I am of him?

Finally my vinegar and tissue supplies ran out. It was getting dark. I knew I didn’t have time to go and buy more and get back before the sun went down. The battles would continue without me. It wasn’t safe for girls in the square at night. I was at once relieved and guilt-ridden.

I now had maybe half an hour before darkness fell to find him. If I really pushed through all the crowds, I could probably make it to most of the field hospitals. Whether or not they would let me in, whether or not I would find him in one … alive … what I would say if I did, I didn’t know. I just knew I had to try.

As darkness began to fall, our numbers dwindled. I walked easily back in the direction of the square. Coming to the end of the street where the clashes were happening, the crowd thickened with spectators standing on gates, traffic islands, and lamp-posts to get a better view of the carnage … and to know if the police and army were about to get too close for comfort. I planned to turn right into the square and then walk in a straight line to the Safir pharmacy where I knew there was a field hospital. I sized up the pavement in quick, flitting glances not wanting to look lost. Pale, shivering protesters slumped against barricaded shop fronts and each other. Bloodied fronts, bandaged heads and hands, 1000-yard stares in their eyes.

A huge scaffold had been erected for people to speak/sing/give prayer from. A man was yelling an impassioned speech into a microphone to which the crowd of thousands responded in chorus: “AAAAAMEEEEN.” I looked at the square; at the mass of men who faced the podium. To avoid the crush and probable gropes, I would have to skirt the edge of the podium crowd, going far into the centre of the square and then back around the other side of them. It would take too long. I opted for the pavement.

I slid myself into the slipstream of an old man who was pushing his way through the crowd coming from the other direction. As a woman on her own, and without tissues or vinegar to show my purpose, I began to attract an increasing numbers of stares. There were not many women in the square and of those very few who came alone. I kept my eyes down, picking my way through the legs and rubbish spread out on the ground and avoiding eye contact — so often taken as a sign of sexual interest.

I kept as close to my guide’s back as was possible without touching when we got stuck. The flow against us was much stronger. A tall man in his twenties stared at me as he passed, sizing me up as a predator does his prey. I looked to my right and saw a large door. One of the shop fronts was wide open. What was usually the offices of a travel agent had been turned into what looked like an emergency room. A field hospital! I thanked the powers that be that I had chosen the pavement. I would have missed this one.

I walked inside. There were people everywhere. The vast minority of them in white coats and rubber gloves. At the sides of the room, protesters who were fainting from the effects of the gas were being helped by at least four or five of their comrades: some holding them in an upright position, some trying to force inhalers into their mouths, some speaking words of comfort, some fanning them with bits of cardboard. More serious injuries were being treated on what were once office tables, around which were crowds of two or three people deep. From my vantage point all I could see of the tables was many backs and black-haired heads. Raised voices from all around called for medical supplies, help, hospitals, God. Others wandered around aimlessly in stunned silence.

I started moving towards the cluster to my right. I peered over the shoulders of people snapping photos and videos on their phones. A man of about 30 was on his back. Deep, round wounds dotted his chest. The two doctors with him were trying to prise out the birdshot with large tweezers while he cried out in pain. A young woman in a hijab held his hand tightly as she wept. The doctor asked her what his name was. “I don’t know,” she said. A white ring on her wedding finger read “thawra.”

I backed away, took a deep breath and approached the next huddle. A young boy not more than ten years old lay in the centre, his mouth bloody, an IV drip in his arm, the bag held up by a war-weary protester. A doctor cut off his shirt, revealing a large, deep wound above his heart. “Your name, your name, quickly?” asked the doctor. The boy moaned wordlessly. “Your name, your name?”

“Islam. Islam ibn el hamez. From Ghamra,” he said in a voice too high for this. With rubber gloves, the doctor began feeling inside his chest for the shotgun pellet or live bullet. “No, no, enough,” he pleaded as he passed out. “Yes. Enough,” I murmured.

I made my way towards two offices at the back of the room, looking more and more desperately at the beaten and bloody faces. Hoping to see him. Hoping not to find him. Wondering how much more I could stand. A man with long hair and a beard screamed in pain as his dislocated shoulder was put back into place; many others lay prostrate on the ground, faces set in pain as men and women in rubber gloves felt around the holes in their bodies for the pellets and then squeezed or tweezed them out.

I reached the door of one of the offices and looked inside. Flashes of white coats were visible through the crush of onlookers. I walked in and skirted the wall, weaving my head back and forth, back and forth, trying to catch a glimpse. One of the doctors turned to tell the people behind him to move back. When they did as he asked, I stepped forward and slipped through them, reaching the side of the table. My heart leapt and dove at the face in front of me. It was him.

A huge laceration on the right side of his head was bleeding profusely. One of the doctors was trying to stem it with a wad of tissues. A dark, thick red pool had already formed under his head and was flowing onto the floor. As the doctor pulled the drenched tissues away, asking for more, I caught a glimpse of something pink, pushing its way out.

I looked down at his strong, slender body, his arms laying empty at his side. I interlocked his smooth, limp hand with mine, lifted it to my lips and found the strength to raise my eyes to his face once more. His right eye was swollen shut; the right side of his face tinged red with his own dried blood while the left was pale; drained of it. He was conscious. His left eye half-opened, closed, half-opened. Every couple of seconds, he pushed out a noise as if he were trying to speak but had forgotten how to form words. The doctor holding the tissues turned to me:

“He needs to go to hospital. He needs serious surgery. Now. We can’t do anything here.”

“Ok, so take him to the hospital!” I cried, unable to contain my hopeful despair.

“Yes, we’ll try but I don’t think we’ll make it in time. I’ll search for a stretcher or some thing to carry him on.” He was so calm. Why was he so calm??!  “Yusuf, try and get an IV in. Miss, hold this,” he said, shifting his eyes to the wad of tissues.

I moved up towards the head of the table, pulling our entwined fingers over his heart. I could feel its rebellious beat. With my other hand, I replaced the doctor’s, pushing the sodden tissues against the part of him that was trying to escape.

The crowd around me were wailing, ordering, raging, calling on God. I moved my face over his, trying to protect him from their anger and chaos. I took my hand from his, held his cheek and looked into his half-closed eye. “It’s ok. It’s ok. I’m with you,” I whispered. He found my eyes and let out a long moan. I kissed the place between his nose and his cheek. The blood was pouring through the tissues in my other hand. I pulled my head up. “MORE TISSUES! I NEED MORE TISSUES!” I shouted, knowing they were pointless. As I looked up to scream, I saw Yusuf trying to get an IV in. “He needs blood!” I said. “We don’t have blood. This is all we have.” Someone handed me a fresh clump of tissues and I put it uselessly to his head. I looked back into the eye of this stranger that I knew and saw him leaving. “No. No. No. Stay with me. Stay with me. I’m yours, you’re mine. We found each other. Don’t leave us.” His eye began to close and his whole body started to shake as he gathered the last of his strength to his lips: “Never.” I leaned down, brushing his ear with my lips: “You will be with me always. We will fight. We will win. I promise.” I breathed deeply, drawing in his blood, sweat and remnants of aftershave he had put on that morning.

Yusuf stopped trying to find a vein and put his fingers to his neck. I knew before he told me:

“He’s gone. LA ILAHA ILLA ALLAH!” 

“LA ILAHA ILLA ALLAH,” shouted the crowd around me as they surrounded him, lifting his body into the air. “LA ILAHA ILLA ALLAH … LA ILAHA ILLA ALLAH,” they cried as they carried him out of the door.

I stood silently in shock, staring after him, the smell of him still with me. I watched as they took him out into the square and disappeared. I left the room and walked slowly to the exit. Dazed.

I began to cry silent tears, wiping them away with my scarf, which was saturated in gas. It made my cheeks sting and my eyes water even more. I kept my head down in an attempt to hide my feebleness. As I approached the exit, the noise of the square got louder. I slowed further, not ready to face the hope outside. I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Are you ok?” A female voice. I turned around. A short woman of about fifty, dark green hijab resting against her round cheeks looked up at me. “No.” I cried, unable to stop the horror pouring out of me. The blood, the courage, the exhausted humans pushing themselves to their physical and emotional limits and beyond for something so basic. Something I took so much for granted. To live in a just society. To be treated as human. To have a chance at life. At change. “No.” I sobbed as she put her arms around me.

Jasmine Bose 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism