An American view of change
From shoulder shrugs and defensive humour to smiles and laughter: Sarah Blakemore shares her experience of the Egyptian revolution
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US senators Joseph Lieberman, centre right, and John McCain, centre left, talk to gathering Egyptians at Tahrir Square
" Inshallah ", the cashier at the grocery store says in an apathetic voice when I ask him if the Branston pickle will arrive soon. It's October 2009, and I've been in Egypt for three days, but already I am accustomed to this sort of attitude. Nothing will happen unless God wills it to be so. I see it in the shoulder shrugs, the half smiles and the defensive humour. The word suggests a nod to Allah, but the tone of voice is defeat.
A little over a year later, on 25 January, when I watched the news I was amazed by what I saw... but still sceptical. "It won't last," I told myself. The police and the army will shut this down, and everything will return to the way it was before the demonstrations. Several days later, by the time the looting started, I was a bit scared but it reaffirmed what I had thought -- these demonstrations will lead to chaos. There will be no leadership. Everyone will simply look out for themselves, take what they can get and not think of the future.
My surprise was genuine when, in response to the looting, extensive neighbourhood patrol groups were set up. Everyone was involved. Carrying makeshift weapons, men sat in groups drinking tea and keeping a vigil over the streets. My friend convinced me to take a walk outside after curfew. He promised that it was safe. After a little convincing, I followed him out my door.
The instant I stepped outside, I could feel it. Everything had changed. As I walked through the streets, I was greeted by the men who kept watch over my house and my street. They were talking with each other, laughing and smiling. As I neared my house again, I did not want to go back inside. I wanted to stay outside in the electric energy of the revolution. The feeling could be explained in one word: joy. Egyptians were feeling collective joy.
There was joy everywhere in people's faces and in their hearts. It was contagious, spreading through Egypt like a miracle virus.
On 20 February 2011, novelist Alaa El-Aswani held a book signing for his new release, On the State of Egypt. He humbly admitted that when he first heard that people were gathering on 25 January, he thought it would only be a group of 300 people surrounded by 10,000 police. As he said this, I laughed nervously with the crowd -- because this was what I too had expected. I had cynically predicted apathy and submission.
The revolution took me by surprise. I did not expect the Egyptian people to rise up and demand change, despite my having often berated this culture for not doing more to help itself.
Before the revolution, Egyptian people treated me with kindness and generosity. When I was first in Egypt, I stood at the edge of the Corniche near Wekala market trying to cross the street. I hesitantly put my foot down and stepped forward only to jump back again at the sight of oncoming traffic. Crossing the street in Egypt is a highly developed skill that takes time and practice to develop. An Egyptian woman saw me, firmly took my hand and led me across the street. My face was glowing with relief by the time we reached the other side.
Another time I was lost and couldn't find anyone that spoke English. A man came up to me and asked if I was okay. Having been warned that speaking with a man who approaches you on the street was socially inappropriate, I nervously answered him that I was lost. He walked me all the way to my destination, told me that he hoped I enjoyed Egypt and then politely disappeared into the crowd.
The examples of kindness are endless. This is not to say that I have not had my fair share of frustrations -- dishonest taxi drivers or shopkeepers who try to grossly overcharge me -- but overall I have been shown a great deal of goodwill.
My daily life in Egypt has not changed much. I still enjoy the same lifestyle that I did before the revolution. There are minor differences that I notice: the police and the army are much more visible, and the police have lost their arrogance. Not one of them has called out to me on the street as I've walked by. I have to carry my passport in case someone wants to see it, but usually I am not asked unless I am near an embassy or other official building.
Everywhere I go, I see people smiling. The joy is overwhelming despite the fact that this revolution is not without its casualties. Tourism, a large part of Egypt's economy, has all but collapsed. Horses are starving at the Pyramids, as are the families dependent on their income, but still many of those people smile, knowing they are free. They have hope that their circumstances will improve. Even the people begging on the streets seem happier.
I am still greeted with warmth by most Egyptians. They still try to help me and are concerned that I enjoy their country, but they are no longer deferential. Before the revolution, people did not take pride in Egypt. In a society that is very concerned with class, expats, especially white expats, were often viewed as being at the top of the social hierarchy. As a result, Egyptians in service-oriented jobs were particularly deferential to me. Since the revolution these same people continue to be polite, but they have lost any undertone of submission. They look me in the eye, they smile and they exude pride in themselves and their work.
The apathy I was confronted with in October 2009 no longer exists. The word inshallah has not changed its meaning, but it is said with hope instead of defeat. Egypt's hope for the future is contagious, even to those of us who are not Egyptian. I have a new hope that I will see my Egyptian friends prosper with their newfound freedom. I hope that they enjoy free speech and economic prosperity. The difference is that now, instead of wishing for these things for Egyptians, I have hope they will be able to achieve these things for themselves.