Mixed sights, sounds and scents of a revolution in Cairo's liberation square
Posted February 10th, 2011
Tahrir Square, in Khedival downtown Cairo, has become the hub from which political demands for change, chants and revolutionary spirit wafted to the rest of Egypt and beyond. The square has been witnessing sights, sounds and smells some of which have never before been experienced by millions of Egyptians.
The square is a must-cross for a massive number of pedestrians, subway riders, bus and car passengers and other forms of transport like donkey carts. On January 25th, the start of it all, I caught myself standing smack in the middle of the intersection of the Kasr el Aini and Mohamed Mahmoud streets. I was not pushed or shoved and I did not have to sprint to cross the street as would have been the case on a normal day. And I had so much space around me. Space is a dear currency in a city like Cairo and, yet, right there on this square which has got to be one of the busiest on earth, I stood for a good 20 minutes in almost a daze.
I owned this patch. It was beautiful.
Tanks, armored personnel carriers and other military vehicles whose models I don’t know.
The army seems to have every vehicular thing out on the streets as policing a city like Cairo involved covering massive swathes. But the sight of these beige beasts close to my house, my university and other major intersections and landmarks has been unsettling. I have covered areas of conflict in the Middle East and, still, seeing them parked neatly alongside a pavement, or in defense formations with tank muzzles pointing towards a perceived danger area kept sending alert messages to my brain. Military vehicles in any urban setting stand out as very, very odd.
The clever visual aid.
Egyptians carried signs. I have rarely seen any Egyptian citizen carry placards in such a dedicated and passionate way for as long as I remember. A calligrapher set up shop in the square for anyone who wanted their sign to appear professionally written.
The quintessentially Egyptian sense of humor was reflected in these signs be they made of carton, plain A4 paper, cardboard or cloth, big or small, carried by hand across from the chest, waved, printed on the fronts and backs of T-shirts, or just glued onto a jacket.
“Please leave! My hand hurts,” read one placard addressing President Hosni Mubarak. “Please leave! I miss my wife,” read another.
There was a widely circulated photograph of a small sign tied to the neck of a kitten that nestled in the arms of its owner. The kitten also wanted Mubarak to leave.
Walking around the square, people proudly brandished their messages and posed to anyone who wanted to take a picture of them. As the days wore on, volunteers offered paper and marker pens for the taking.
I will never forget a theatre actor, in his early twenties, who stood completely still in the middle of the square with a municipality issue, blue street sign of “Midan el Tahrir” dangling from his neck by a string. He said he had found it in a dump behind the construction site in the square.
The roars of thousands of people chanting a unified call to oust Mubarak or asking for freedom and justice. Whatever the call, the sound sent sheer reverberations across the square.
The two military fighter jets that circled the square no less than seven times. I pause my thoughts every time I remember the crashing sound of these two. I keep reminding myself that I was in the Tahrir square, in Cairo, in Egypt and not in Iraq during the 2003 US invasion or some other war scenario.
A retired military general told a television station that the sonic waves these jets produced were frightening and that circling the square in such a “tight formation” was a tactical mistake that sent very confusing messages to those on the ground.
My initial worry was subsided when I noticed one of the jets playfully dip its wings twice as it exited the square on its final round. I knew they would not come back and they never did.
Wednesday leading to a bloody dawn. The pro and anti Mubarak chants collided in a swirl of noise hanging over the square and Ramsis street. At night, oh what a night it was. Molotov cocktails used by both of the clashing sides landed whichever way. I saw one land on the head of a man and he went up in flames like an old timber before some people wrapped him up to douse the fire. The sound of a rain of little thuds as projectiles smacked against heads, chests and the metal barrier which was ingeniously erected to protect those holed up in the square. The blue metal sheets were ripped from the underground garage construction site and carried over to the Abdel Moneim Riyad square side, a distance of about 100 meters. Not an easy fete.
At about 0400, single pops of pistols sounded soon to be followed by machine guns rattling the entire of the downtown area. I saw a man dressed in civilian clothes fire a full round of his automatic gun at nothing or no one in particular as he moved under the overpass.
Then the most thunderous sound of all. It sounded like a million axes were hacking away at a stone quarry. The pro-change demonstrators were picking the pavements clean of their stones to use as ammunition as they kept fending off attack after attack from the other side. Hundreds of hands used steel rods, also found at the nearby construction site, to bang on the make-shift barrier. The sound was frightening and perhaps this was the intention just as medieval warriors banged their swords on shields as a scare tactic.
Sharp whistles and shouts rose up in the night every time men, now suspected of being paid thugs, mounted a wave of attack. It was a code to alert the back lines to come and support those standing in the front.
The sting of urine in the entrance of a building close to the Pizza Hut on the square was so powerful it made my eyes water. This darkened passage was used for many days as a communal latrine by the men spending nights on whatever patch of grass they could find in the square.
This passage was also used to protect those who were injured in the melee on Wednesday and Thursday. The mosque further in from here was turned into the field hospital that treated hundreds of the wounded before ambulance cars took them to nearby hospitals.
This is such a weird product. It has a peppery smell, burns the skin upon contact and certainly affects vocal chords if exposed to it for a long time. A famous amateur video showed a Central Security officer repeatedly pop these canisters as if they were Christmas crackers.
There was such a dense white cloud over the square as a result and hundreds suffered from asphyxia. Those who remembered to bring scarves and goggles were spared some of the nastiness of this gas. The CS officers and soldiers were not prepared either as none wore masks. The officers inadvertently made their men suffer, too.
The architecturally offensive structure that is the headquarters of the National Democratic Party burnt for two days non stop before it was gutted. A chemical-like smell emanated from it for another two days. The smell was obtrusive and scary.
Vehicles, both civilian, police and military burnt on. This produced a confusing bouquet of smells since plastic, metal and rubber all emanate their own stench in the heat.
Finally, a soothing smell. A man lit a camp fire using a wooden beam in the make-shift kitchen to make tea. Sweet and natural.
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