A Tale Of Two Squares: A Pre-Revolution Tahrir
In light of all that is happening in Cairo at the moment and the election of President Mohamed Morsi in what is hopefully a true democratic leap for Egypt, I thought it was fitting that I write about a place I knew before revolution exploded on the streets of a city aching with a desperate heartbeat for change.
Two years ago, my family sat on our Continental mileage accounts looking at where we could do a unique cultural immersion trip for Spring Break. When Cairo cleared up as a viable destination, our intrepid souls booked the tickets without a blink. This would be another crucial and adventurous step in our goal to conquer each of the Ancient Civilizations, a dream that possessed me ever since I took my sixth grade world history class.
Cairo was unforgettable, to say the least.
In the largest city in the Middle East, it can take 40 minutes to travel a mile in the severe traffic that congests the narrow, populated streets. On your feet, you simply cannot stop moving amongst the whirlwind of almost seven million Cairo locals who have mastered the haste required for basic survival in their city. The City of A Thousand Minarets is a fitting name indeed, so expansive that according to those who’ve been born and raised in Cairo, a lifetime navigating the metropolis isn’t enough to fully experience its scope.
So when I visited Tahrir Square, I felt like I was in another Cairo. Broad spaces, pristinely maintained grounds, a delicate Sphinx exuding serenity, and the warm enthusiasm of the paints on the walls of the Egyptian Museum. Tahrir inhabited a wholly different world than the city I had roamed in preceding days. As much as I enjoyed and appreciated the ceaseless energy of Cairo street life, sitting in Tahrir was a much-needed escape from the thrilling yet tiring rhythm of the city.
On that trip, Tahrir Square came to represent structure and relative tranquility in a city that otherwise embodied the shameless pulse of disorder (one that, in retrospect, so precisely incarnated the tremors of an Egypt ready to be flung into the heat of rebellion).
Tahrir was peace and order amidst a city throbbing with the spirit of an overwhelming but beautiful chaos.
And less than a year later in the very strange timeline that is our world and the way it works, I was sitting at home and CNN flashed with images of an entirely unnoticeable place. They called it Tahrir Square. But it wasn’t the place I had visited. Swarms of protestors in crowds significantly larger than I had seen in the most populated streets of Cairo occupied the place that I could only remember as an exhibit of unruffled composition. There was peace, at first. And then bloody violence. Tahrir became the site of arguably one of the most significant modern social uprisings that lit the first flames that would ultimately set the rest of the Middle East on fire.
It’s almost impossible to juxtapose these two Tahrir Squares in my mind. One is a serene departure from the harmless turmoil of the city, and the other is a tumultuous revolution fighting for the preservation of human rights. Seemingly antonymous on every level, and yet so intricately intertwined. The place that embodied physical peace within the greater city wilderness had become the place that decided that peace meant something a lot more. Even if guarding it meant upheaval first.
Perhaps soon, when President Morsi and Egypt begin working towards the construction of that functioning democracy, Tahrir will once again begin to resemble the place I remember it as.
It is all very confusing and intriguing at the same time. But what I take away is that any notion of “static” is foreign in the constantly surprising continuum of human politics and desires. What a place means isn’t bound to any locked grid of time or ideologies. The connotations of its presence transform, eternally. Just like Tahrir.