Page 1 of 2
Wednesday February 9 [Pre-Oust]
Until they witnessed it in the making, many of the younger generations of this country had not realized how liberating and liberated liberation is. In the process of liberating their people from injustice, the people of Midan al-Tahrir unleashed a Pandora’s box of new ideas, sensations, realizations, possibilities, not all of them political. For those concerned with issues of place and space, city and architecture, Midan al-Tahrir -turned-post 25 January ‘Tahrir Land’- is a must-experience. The physical is eclipsed by the intangible. Permanence is folded up into waves of change. The cityscape is no longer, as some of us have been taught, and have taught, an open space framed by buildings, but a constantly morphing place shaped by people doing, hoping, building, destroying, and being. Its architectural icons (the Egyptian Museum, the Nile Hilton, the now-burned NDP headquarters, ‘Omar Makram Mosque and Statue) are in competition with the constantly changing monuments at Ground People (the makeshift medical clinic, the water distribution point, the big erhal sign, the entry checkpoints, the newspaper reading points). Its physical integrity is constantly being undermined (building burnt, paving uprooted,) but nothing goes to waste (symbol of oppression to monument of revolution; smooth surface underfoot to facilitate movement to weapon for the unarmed against the armed). Questions are now going through the minds of those who want to rationalize, understand, look ahead, see beyond the moment (though far from over, it is still to be savoured, its taste kept in one’s mouth as long as possible). One of them is whither Midan al-Tahrir? What will it be after the revolution succeeds (as it will) and partially fails (as revolutions are doomed to when life, as we know it takes over and history is no longer in the making, but in the writing, in the documenting, in the remembering). How will Midan al-Tahrir remember its moment of Tahrir? How will the fluidity of the movement that launched the country on this roller coaster of hope and fear through staying put in one place and refusing to leave Midan al-Tahrir (mosh hanemshi – howwa yemshi) be conveyed post-revolution? How does one convey in a monument to 25 January – if that is what we want Midan al-Tahrir to be after the revolution succeeds/fails – the urban and physical state of the revolution in the making when it was a state that stayed put and changed at the same time? And by change one does not only mean change to the country of Egypt but the constant mutations of Tahrir land (its population (how many people can Midan al-Tahrir hold anyways?), its social groupings (what was the percentage of Ikhwan Muslimin?), its landmarks (how can one convey, post 25 January, the poignancy of a mosque shoe-holder turned medicine cabinet?), its borders (and beyond – which ante-bubble around the Tahrir bubble is baltageyya free and thus an entry route today?), its streets (formed by walls of people not buildings). Maybe the problem is with the idea of monument because a monument is in memorial to the past and we hope that 25 January will not be a memory for a very long time. Maybe the idea would be to keep it alive, to re-enact it in new and wonderful ways, to feed its spirit, to allow its spirit to liberate our thought and ideas as to what a city, a square, a building, a street, a monument, space is, can, and wants to be.
Friday April 1 – Revolution Revival Friday [Post Oust]
This confused mix of ideas was written in the middle of the now famous 18 days between the birth of the revolution on the 25th of January and its climax with the departure of the former president on the 11th of February. Reading them still transports me into that devilishly bittersweet space, bringing with it whiffs of the kaleidoscope of sensations and emotions of Revo-Tahrir. It takes me to a Tahrir that has since been appropriated by cars, a Tahrir that demonstrators can barely reclaim on Fridays and only by exercising the power of the prayer carpet – even the army dare not touch the lines of prostrated believers performing Friday prayer.The words written above were part of an ongoing discussion with this magazine’s publisher about Magaz’s idea for a dialogue on Tahrir – on what will happen to it, how to keep the spirit of the revolution alive within it, how to put in motion the mechanism to commemorate it. Since then, this dialogue has started both on Facebook and outside, and from within it came forth a strong conservative voice that wants to keep Tahrir as it is – exactly as it is – and that argues that it is still needed for the revolution’s continued success, with an even stricter view that wishes to register Tahrir as a world monument, the implication being that Tahrir is now hallowed ground that cannot be touched.In the meantime, Tahrir itself continues to become, a la Kahn, what it wants to be. And in truth, this article is in danger of being obsolete by the time it goes to print, in fact as it is being written anything may happen. Cairo, always fast, has now become furious. Stadiums as battlegrounds (viz. the infamous Zamalek soccer game), buildings as burning effigies (the list is endless but the unrivalled favourite seems to be Ministry of Interior buildings), former theatre for political pomp as current theatre for popular carnivalesque celebrations (the day long ‘Abdin concert organized by another coalition, this one for culture, one day after Revive the Revolution Friday); the list is endless. And Tahrir? The latest fight for it is one that pits cars against revolutionaries. During the above-mentioned Friday I witnessed a battle that I wish to add to that of the Camel, the Ballot Box, and the Stadium, the Battle of the Car. Cairo’s residents are no strangers to battles over cars, within cars, with cars, but in this particular battle, cars were the means and the end of the continuous struggle over control of Midan al-Tahrir. Revolutionaries use cars to make the statement that Tahrir is theirs on Fridays – to mark their territory (cars parked to close streets), as a sign of subversion (cars parked where they obviously should not – 6 October Bridge for example), in addition to appropriating control of the Midan through taking responsibility for controlling and diverting traffic. Then comes the army with tow trucks to remove the cars and let traffic through. Then come the masses with their bodies to obstruct cars. Then comes a brilliant tactical move in the form of a motorcycle with a little girl on it strategically placed to block traffic. Then comes the graceful retreat of the army to the chorus of “the people and the army are one” (‘id wahda). This is but one of many battles still to come. And with conflict comes the continued need to understand, and more importantly, to document what is being understood; not what happened or is happening - Youtube, Facebook and TV are doing that ad nauseum - but the part of the revolution that, according to the famous song, cannot be televised. And this is what is of most value to architects and urbanists, because it is about texture not text as the philosopher Henri Lefebvre would say. This is the part where Tahrir switches from Distopia to Utopia to Heterotopia or is all at the same time. And the challenge is to figure out ways to understand this, to express it. Ways that are as fleeting, ephemeral, sublime chaotic and confusing as the present we live in.
Monday February 7 [Pre-Oust]
On the 11th Day of the Revolution, I watched a television broadcast airing from the Alexandrian version of Midan al-Tahrir. An old gentleman, who conveniently fit all the clichés of salt-of-the-earth Egyptian – sunburnt face picturesquely wrinkled, slight physique, beautifully sculpted bone structure with full Egyptian lips, salt and pepper hair – waxed poetically against the yet to be ousted president:Enta ‘ayez tohkom min?‘Ayez tohkom al-ard wa’l-bahr?‘Ayez tohkom al-tuub wa’l-hagar?Al-sha’b ya akhi mosh ‘ayzinak! (Who do you want to rule?Do you want to rule land and sea?Do you want to rule stone and brick?The people, my brother, do not want you!) This piece of inadvertent lyricism could very easily be the foundation of a whole range of articles (Heidegger’s fourfold of earth, sky, mortals, divinities comes to mind but that may be a specific quirk with the particular workings of my mind). For the purpose of bringing this meandering piece of writing to some kind of end, what I would like to refer to here is how ruling stone and brick is nothing if “the people do not want you”. This is because stone and brick are what they are because of what people make of them – how they use them, change them and give them meaning. Tahrir is what it is because of the many things it was and continues to be through fulfilling a need. Our need now is to continue to bend it to our will through morphing it physically in an enactment of the current political struggle while documenting and understanding past and present processes of morphosis. We may also play a game of informed guesswork where we try and envision how these processes will be commemorated in the future. An urban endeavour this complicated can only support physical transformation on one level – and that level can only be organically determined by the people (and their cars). For the rest, our imagination, artistic creativity and intellectual rigour can create the most wonderful oeuvres and manifestations. These can be exhibited, enacted and displayed in Midan al-Tahrir in the forms of public art, gatherings, performances, and so forth, with the understanding that these will be temporary artistic moments that come and go leaving the Midan untouched. These manifestations can do wonders in underlining popular ownership of Midan al-Tahrir in manners that are less politically charged – yet more contemplative - than the Tahrir demonstrations. But they must embrace the spirit of fluidity, morphosis and flux as well as respecting Tahrir’s main job nowadays as cradle of the revolution of the cradle of civilization.Saturday February 12 [Post-Oust]I will now end on a blasphemous tone – for which I beg in advance the forgiveness of all the well-intentioned youth of Egypt. The sight of the masked and gloved young people of Egypt cleaning Midan al-Tahrir on the morning after February 11 stayed with me for days like an annoying itch although I myself had gone down to Tahrir intending to help with the cleaning. I could not understand why it got on my nerves and continued to bring it up half-apologetically to see if I was the only voice of dissent in the sea of universal approval of the cleaning. Then it dawned upon me that it was an act of erasure – of re-instatement of the norm – of denial of the untidiness of the revolution – of fear of what one cannot fully control. Tahrir was, on February 12, the cleanest place in Cairo. It has been manically cleaned by demonstrators during the 18 days (in fact the first thing they did when they launched their shortlived siege of the presidential palace was sweep the area they cordoned off for the demo) only to be recleaned (claimed?) by the post-revolution. The cleanest place in Cairo was not cleansed of dust or dirt but was cleared of the revolution – of its messiness and creative chaos. We, as Cairenes who had grown used to authorities forestalling any popular attempt at urban appropriation, were afraid of the growing pains of Tahrir (both as urban square and as liberation movement). We later would find out that the messiness had only just begun, the eggs of the revolutionary omelet continue to be broken, but some continue to try to clean Midan al-Tahrir, to assume responsibility for it, to nip its process of growth from traffic circle to revolutionary hub in the bud. Others do not think about it, they simply accept its gift of space to turn into whatever place they need. It is now time for a third set of people to act as storytellers, bards, soothsayers and magicians to manifest Tahrir’s many sights and sounds. Final Words Friday March 18 - National Unity Friday (Post-Oust)Hell Freezes Over.Demonstrators using a police car as a desk to write signs on.Subverted Subversion (1).Shouts of street vendors higher than political chants.Walk like an Egyptian (1).Moments of mutual aggression over political differences resolved through the unique blend of Egyptian warmth and pure decency.Buy EgyptianShefteshi (filigree) gold foil prayer carpets sold for 1 pound.Walk like an Egyptian (2).People presenting their thoughts and ideas, people agonising over the decision - to think and not to think, and people in a panic over the mere idea of thinking for themselves but attracted to the thought like a moth to the light.Subverted Subversion (2).Random list of items sold in Tahrir: kart al-harameyya (card of thieves) - kart al-shahid (card of martyrs) - kiwi - some sort of championship cups - artificial flowers – revo-pins, t-shirts, scarves, headdresses - belila (porridge) sold by a pseudo patriot shouting a confused mix of political cries and vending calls through a loudspeaker- only Egyptians can combine sublimity and decadence in one call.