It was my first time to walk through Tahrir after three months away from Egypt, and I don’t quite know why I was so bewildered and shell-shocked. Perhaps it was the heaviness of the atmosphere in the square, the squalid tents and crowds of resilient protesters holding onto the last threads of dying hope.
Perhaps it was the fact that the Mogamaa building was open and didn’t stink of urine anymore, or perhaps it was the graffiti of dead people’s faces on each and every wall. New names, old faces, the same old vows of vindication and justice. And so many young people; 15-year-olds, school children.
It’s hard to explain how nothing has changed yet everything has; how the space I once found home in is now an alien square to me. The people we’ve lost, medics, children, football fans, mothers and men of God, they’re now too many to remember. And it’s almost two years to January 25.
The Mohamed Mahmoud wall remains the most powerful tribute to the revolution, with Ammar Abo Bakr’s new message ‘If the picture needs to be made clearer, Sir, reality is more brutal, and as for the state’s response [to the martyrs]: saying it’s God’s Will means there will be no compensation to the families’.
The faces of Khaled Said, Esam Atta and two others are painted in their grotesque last shapes, bleak images of police brutality beyond imagination. Ammar added ‘And here are fifty kids like Anas’. Anas was the youngest victim of the Port Said clashes. The number fifty is probably a reference to the victims of the Assiut train crash of last month, whose faces and names have been drowned out and forgotten in our distraction with the referendum.
This mural carries the faces of smiling martyrs: Ramy Ramzy, Essam Atta, Ahmed Sorour, Sally Zahran, Ahmed Saleh, Asmaa, Hossam Radwan, Khaled Omar…. the names are endless. And it’s heartbreaking. It’s equally heartbreaking to see that someone placed a photo of his son Mostafa Helmy El Said, martyred in December 2011, with dried flowers around his frame, next to Sheikh Emad Effat. Mostafa was a student at El Azhar, Sheikh Emad was a teacher.
Then of course there was this Koranic verse that some newspapers panicked about and reported as salafi graffiti – had they taken the time to do minimal research, they’d have recognised the font, the colour and the statement as that of Ammar Abo Bakr’s, who first painted koranic verses on the AUC Greek campus wall and Mansour Street. The verse loosely translates to a reference of those who once they take power, destroy the earth and ignore the heed to obey God and claim to have God in their hearts but they are bound for hell.
It was shocking to see the Lycee school in such destitute remains, with the trees chopped down to their roots and the walls full of soot and shrapnel, to see the graffiti of so many smiling faces pleading to be remembered and vindicated, and to know that I can do nothing nor help in any way to vindicate them.
It’s impossible to walk past these walls and not feel survivor’s guilt of some sort; especially on Mansour Street, where I stood last year amidst the tear gas and watched a man tumble into barbed wire as he escaped flying bullets. Mohamed Mahmoud and Tahrir have always been museums of memories to many of us over the past two years, especially through the graffiti and the beautiful plaques now placed on the street entrance honoring the dead.
But today, the street feels like a museum of ghosts, not only of the dead, but of the fighting, the fighting spirit and the resilient hope for change, and in some sense, of me, an Egyptian who felt part of something massive and life changing and is now left with faces on a wall.
Too many young people have lost their lives, it is as the graffiti artist Hosny put it ‘They are killing the future’. The fact that a boy as young as fifteen was killed in a protest is unfathomable, just like the fact that fifty school kids died in a completely avoidable train crash, or the fact that the students of El Lycee had to watch their school being turned into a war zone, from which people were shot at, beaten and tear-gassed. The amount of death, trauma and destruction hanging over the neighbourhood is enough to remind any vaguely naive Egyptian of the heavy price that has been paid, with little progress. Graffiti contributes by reflecting the brutal reality of loss, by honoring the dead, by chastising and ridiculing authority, but there was very little hope or perseverance in any of the paintings I saw.
I don’t know at what point I started crying while taking these photographs, maybe it was the plea under Ahmed Saleh’s face ‘Remember Me’, but a kid walked by and laughed at me, and called to his friends that el khawageya is crying. I wanted to tell him ‘my brothers died on this street’ even though I’ve never met them.