In the midst of the madness of the night of February 2nd, where thousands of protesters ran through the crowded street of Mohamed Mahmoud amidst the insufferable tear gas fumes filling the air and ominous sounds of gunshots echoing in the night, artist Ammar Abo Bakr quietly painted a mural on the wall of the American University in Cairo.
Aided by his friends Mohamed Khaled and Alaa Awad, the artist diligently and meticulously painted a mural of some of the martyrs of Port Said, who had died the night before during the terrible massacre after a football match between Al Ahly and Al Masry teams. The unfathomable death toll of over 75 young Ahly football fans had shaken the country. The fans, known as the Ultras Ahlawy, had lost friends as young as fourteen, sparking outrage and anger all over Egypt.
The streets of Downtown Cairo were tense and ominous, faces wrapped in scarves and gas masks as they taunted the Central Security Forces blocking all side streets to the Ministry of Interior and lobbing tear gas at them, chanting ‘Hokooma Weskha! Yawlad El Weskha!’ Dirty government, you sons of dogs. The Ultras Ahlawy said they wanted vengeance for their dead brothers, not from the Al Masry fans, but from the State security forces who had at the very least failed to secure the stadium and at worst, had shut all the gates to prevent the fans from escaping armed attackers, resulting in the horrendous loss of life.
Ammar is from Luxor, and has regularly traveled to Cairo to take part in the demonstrations and paint on the walls in 2011. He was here during the Cabinet sit-in and the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes where protesters lost their eyes. His tribute to the martyrs and the fighters of the revolution have been profound and essential, not just for the families who’ve lost their children; but for our society’s collective consciousness.
For three consecutive nights on Mohamed Mahmoud, Ammar and his friends worked tirelessly, ignoring jeers by passersby and taking breaks to engage in heated debates with Islamists or to head to the frontline to throw rocks, only to return and resume painting. They are demonstrating artists, or artistic demonstrators.
One moment that I was privileged to observe was on Thursday night, where four young men –barely in their twenties – stopped in front of the mural Ammar was painting of the 19-year-old martyr Mohamed Mostafa, and stood completely transfixed. Then they began to cry.
I asked them what was wrong, and they said ‘He’s our friend; we just came from his burial now.’ And they stared at the mural. Ammar approached them, explained that he wanted to commemorate each and every one of their friends who’d died, and that he’d found their photos on Facebook.
‘If you know any others who died, if you have any photos, please give them to me,’ he pleaded. And they nodded.
It’s one thing to see a massive crowd heaving with incontrollable fury and chants of vengeance, it’s another to see young men completely taken aback and touched by the sight of a beautiful graffiti.
Over the past few days, the media has been quick to pigeon-hole these Ultras Ahlawy as angry, vengeful, aggressive young men who are willing to wreak havoc on the country in vengeance for their friends’ death. At the same time, graffiti is easily typecast as angry protest stencils using profanities and attacks on SCAF, the police and other enemies of the revolution.
What I saw was four young grieving men, touched by the fact that a complete stranger took the time to remember their friend. With over 2000 people dead since 2011, it’s so easy to forget the names and faces and think of them as numbers, shrugging our shoulders and saying ‘Oh only four people died today; that’s not bad.’
The graffiti by Ammar and his friends -made during a breathing battlefield – is a reminder of the valuable lives we’ve lost; the faces that now serve as reminders of the justice that needs to be served to our community. This graffiti did what the members of the Egyptian parliament and all the politicians failed to do; it put faces to the numbers, and gave them some dignity in their deaths.