‘Smelling the Breeze’ – In, and of, Tahrir

Yesterday was the ancient Egyptian holiday of Shem al-Naseem, translated ‘smelling the breeze’, which is a national observance the day after Orthodox Easter. It is the custom for all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian, to eat raw, salty fish, and go out and about, enjoying the pleasant spring weather. We decided to join the festivities, choosing Tahrir Square as our location of picnic.

We headed out early by Egyptian standards, hoping to avoid anticipated throngs of breeze-smellers, mostly sure they were not scheduled to be joined by demonstrators. On our way down in the metro we saw evidence of the popular campaign to remove the mark of Mubarak from public display, extended in this example also to his predecessor:

Tahrir Square is located at the metro station named ‘Sadat’, which in this graffiti artist’s conception is to be renamed ‘Martyrs’. Mubarak station, meanwhile, is poignantly rechristened ‘Blood of the Martyrs’. Nasser station escaped his erasure.

Our arrival at the square coincided with the end of a military band performance, followed by the dispersal of gifts. By the time we arrived the scene was somewhat chaotic, and a later report stated the effort fell flat, and that people tried to abscond with extra gifts. Still, there were several military personnel lingering around the central grassy circle, shaking hands and taking pictures with passers-by. In the background of the photo below is also seen the Egyptian Museum to the right, site of the fierce Battle of the Camel, and to the right is the burned out remains of the headquarters of the now disbanded National Democratic Party:

We were correct that the holiday would pass without demonstrations. The biggest crowd seemed to be a gathered remnant from the military musical performance, gathered around two banners. The first extols the current military and interim government leadership, while the second, to the right, provides a long list of former government figures ‘for sale’, in reference to ongoing corruption investigations against them:

As we noted in a previous post, there were many examples of revolutionary graffiti. Here is a sampling:

(translation: Live the Revolution)

(translation: I love my country. The blue writing seems to list the names of those who died in the uprising.)

(translation: Lift your head high, you are an Egyptian!)

(translation: Oh God, protector of he who reforms. Smaller print in blue: God, make this country safe.)

(translation: Martyrs Square)

Walking around the square it was clear there was a new normalcy, rather than a return to normalcy. While some iconic restaurants had been restored and reopened following the looting of the revolution:

Others remained boarded up:

Meanwhile there were new business ventures of all varieties:

Including a mobile face painter:

After our tour of the square we settled down for our picnic, but Emma was still troubled by the attention her Egyptian-ness received:

Hannah, meanwhile, was less affected, and simply enjoyed her Oreos:

Our Shem al-Naseem celebration continued that afternoon, as we were invited to join with a family we know from the Coptic Church. Though details would be good to verify, I learned that eating fish served as a reminder of Jesus’ post-Easter meal with his disciples, mentioned in Luke 24:42, verifying the reality of his physical resurrection. That the fish is raw and salty is in continuance with the Pharaohnic practice, before modern refrigeration. The fish is actually from a catch three months old, for if they heavily salted the more recent supply, they would all get sick.

Fortunately, for foreigners, those with high blood pressure, and others of broader taste, the spread also included selections leftover from the Easter meal the day before. Many, however, chose to eat nothing but the fish. Go figure.

As I spoke with those there, one person in particular showed me photos he had taken from the revolution, many of which were of phenomenal quality depicting both the violence and the celebration. He did so not as a paid photographer, but as an involved citizen, wishing to know the reality of what was happening in his country. What he saw, at least in his interpretation, contradicted the standard narrative.

During the aforementioned Battle of the Camel, news outlets depicted the demonstrators as recipients of violence against a sizeable, but clearly outnumbered group of pro-Mubarak ‘thugs’. His pictures, however, showed thousands of Mubarak supporters, consisting of what appeared to be ordinary people, without weapons. Across the way, aside the Egyptian Museum, stood a small crowd of demonstrators, many with rocks or cement chunks in their hands. He stated that the violence was initiated by the demonstrators, some of whom then went up to the roofs and threw stones down on the pro-Mubarak crowd. Official implications had pro-government forces on the roofs, hurling stones on the demonstrators. Indeed, some of his pictures were of individual protestors, wearing makeshift helmets of plastic, towels, and even bread.

In another photo he captured a tank, with graffiti etched upon, reading, ‘Down with Mubarak’. The image was from the first days in which the army occupied the square, and was welcomed exuberantly by the crowds. This gentleman enters the slogan as evidence that the army was not neutral, but was with the protestors from the beginning. Early worries were that the army, while not killing protestors, was still biased toward the government, as they stood idly by when the ‘thugs’ attacked. Yet as this individual alters the narrative of violence, he also believes that had the army been neutral, they would not have allowed government equipment to be turned into the canvas of the revolution.

This person states that he is neither with one side or the other, seeing both as suspect, even though there were good people involved in the demonstrations. He finds that their early successes were subsequently hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood and others, who have conducted secret deals with the military. Further evidence of this alliance is found in the number of sectarian incidents which have taken place since the revolution, in which the military has not prosecuted Muslim offenders, but continues the Mubarak era practice of ‘reconciliation sessions’.

Aspects of this testimony were disputed by others there, especially the point about the rooftop attacks. Most, however, did not contradict the concern about the intentions of the military. As I proffered other explanations, stating that a confluence of interests does not necessarily imply an alliance, and furthermore, the co-religious sentiment from the Alexandria bombing onward still carries over and offers hope of a better future, I was gently rebuked. I have been here less than two years; we Christians, however, have been here during fourteen centuries of Islam. My hope is not echoed.

Testimony has been gathered from the confessions of pro-Mubarak thugs, which I have written about before. Yet it is true that a number of the initial pro-Mubarak demonstrations did consist of ordinary people. It is also true that members of the Muslim Brotherhood were credited with the primary defense of Tahrir Square. Their ‘expertise’ had been forged in numbers of confrontations with the government, while the majority of common protestors had never seen violence. As for the military, they have stated they will not allow sectarian tensions to divide the people. Their role, as is obvious, is vital in determining the coming political realities. Their makeup is generally stated as secular, and equally obvious is their reliance on and training by the United States military. Will they then lean Islamist? Democratic Islamic transformation in Turkey has not jeopardized their US-NATO alliance, and the Muslim Brotherhood has pointed to Turkey as a model for the coming Egyptian state. Claims and counterclaims abound. Where does reality lie?

It is good to be back in Egypt. While news can be followed from anywhere, contact with people is essential for comprehension. The tea leaves multiply with alternate testimonies; smelling them correctly, amidst the breezes of Egypt, is the task at hand.

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