I offer this view of responses to a visibly marked American in the midst of a majority-Arab crowd of protesters against America’s aggression in Iraq. Mainly thank you’s. Would a crowd of Americans treat an Iraqi with such respect these days?
I joined the demonstration at 1:30 p.m. on 20 March 2003, after the police had cordoned off the American Embassy and used water cannon on the protesters who had gathered sometime before noon. Groups of demonstrators were gathered in different sections of Tahrir Square, the hub of central Cairo, with plenty of security forces forming lines to keep them in controlled sectors. I carried my sign in the street as I went to join my fellow demonstrators. Many people gave me a thumbs-up or said, “Thank you” as I passed them. My sign, written in black, green, and red letters said, AMERICAN AGAINST THE WAR.
I found a place near oncoming traffic to display my sign, but the police kept changing the traffic patterns, so I adjusted to these flows. Some people guided me to stand with them and helped to hold my sign high. We proceeded inward up Tahrir Street, and then were compartmentalized between barricades. A slim bearded man in a simple white galabiyya (robe) and Palestinian scarf danced in a circle in the middle of the street calling slogans. An earnest man with a lovely lime green shirt explained that Egyptians love American people, but not the government’s policies: “If you look in Bush’s eyes, you see he looks like a monkey. And if you look in Blair’s eyes, you see he looks like a dog.” People watched from balconies, and my new companions narrated my virtues to people on the sidewalk. Some responded by saying, “You are Egyptian now!” At one point I proceeded alone to an intersection, displaying m! y sign. Many people slowed down to read it and showed approval.
The group were allowed to continue further inward, i.e. away from the Nile, and traffic was redirected to accommodate us. An outspoken journalist from Asharq al-Awsat newspaper proclaimed my legitimacy as a defense although nobody was arguing: “This is an American who has been volunteering to help people in Palestine, and came to Egypt to protest the war with us!” A little girl greeted me and helped to hold my sign. Nirmeen helped to hold my sign for a half-hour, and she looked simultaneously so sweet and so proud. At one point, she sat on her father’s shoulders and held the sign high above the crowd.
When we were stopped in a street, I saw water hit a car roof. On a balcony, an angry woman was ready to drop another plastic bag water-bomb on protesters, perhaps because of the noise outside her home. She desisted. I was brought to the center of the crowd, and eager hands again helped to display the sign, AMERICAN AGAINST THE WAR. Much applause. But one young woman said, “An American? I will strangle her!” and put her hand to my throat. The young man leading the chant called her off, but she continued. I admit I am not peaceful enough, so I challenged her, “Have you been to Palestine?” “No.” “Have you given any help to Palestinians?” “No.” Then she apologized. A block later, she apologized again and asked me to kiss her in friendship and forgiveness. Thus we became sisters. Egypt is a rainbow of colors as always, and hers was mauve, the sweater, scarf and sparkle-spangled lipstick.
We proceeded back to Tahrir Square where the police moved the barricades to allow us to join another group of demonstrators. A shout of solidarity went up as we merged. The main streets were dedicated to the demonstration. In Cairo, this means that a massive number of cars had to be redirected from this high-volume traffic route. It was a pleasure to be able to cross the streets without having to negotiate oncoming cars.
At one point, a young university student took to being my guard and guide in the crowds, and fulfilled this role until I left. During the eight hours I spent at the demonstration, only two people directed negative reactions toward me. This is compared to hundreds who cheered me. “American against war,” one scoffed and lightly hit my sign. In the middle of a crowd, an orange-clad young man carried on shoulders said, “No, no to the American.” A contingent drowned out his voice and brought me into a circle. “Welcome her, honor her! An American against the war!” The whole crowd clapped and shouted, “Allahu akbar/God is great!”
This scene was repeated more times than I bothered to count. I was invited to address the crowd with a megaphone on several occasions. Once, as a man was calling for people to march to the American Embassy, a number of people were insistent that the megaphone be passed to me. I said to let that man continue, but my impromptu press agents were determined that the American should speak. I said in substance: “Palestine’s liberation is America’s liberation. Iraq’s liberation is America’s liberation. Nobody voted for war or occupation. We have the same goal. Let’s work toward it together.” Again, much applause and cheering. Many people thanked me at that moment and later.
When my rally companion and I went for a bite to eat, people remembered me from my earlier appearance, and thanked me sincerely, adding a thumbs-up. In speaking with some of his colleagues, one became vehement in assessing US policy. I did not mind, and I told her they were valid points. I really didn’t mind at all, but her friends must have spoken with her, because she came back after a bit and apologized for what she had said before, and please to know she appreciates my stand. I feel very privileged that people distinguish between my government’s outrageous and unjustified attacks, and my existence as a fellow human. It sounds basic, but do my fellow American citizens do the same towards Iraqis, or Arabs, or Muslims?
People carried Iraqi flags, pictures of Nasser, signs in sincere English: “Down Blair” and “No war,” “Vive le France; down with Arab leaders.” One huge black banner in Arabic read: “Plant resistance in every country.” Anti-American sentiments were expressed in chants, as well as pro-Iraqi, pro-Palestinian, pro-Muslim. One woman pointed out that the attacks on Iraq are attacks on Christians also. Different pockets of people called different chants, overall providing vocal harmonies and syncopation. The security forces remained at the head of radial streets, but looked quite relaxed. My companion said, “Their sentiments are with us. If they weren’t working, they would join us.” It looked reasonable, in spite of the fact that some of them had clashed with demonstrators at the beginning.
Maghrib/sundown brought lines of men praying on the grass in the center of the square. The girls said people had done “tayammum,” abbreviated ablutions with sand when no water is available. My friend found this unreasonable since there was water nearby, and “tayammum” is reserved for desert conditions or other extremes. From the international to the local, the grass under our feet! After the prayer, a group gathered round and discussed religious and political issues with me. There was such an attitude of listening and mutual respect, and searching for moral and humane responses.
Meanwhile, journalists continued to take statements from me. Fellow demonstrators constantly brought my sign, AMERICAN AGAINST THE WAR and me forward to where the cameras were, including al-Jazeera television. I spoke to another videographer and afterwards they said, “Thank you. Now could you repeat all of that in English for us?” They were from NBC. Thank goodness, I can still muster a little English on demand!
Nightfall, and candles were passed around. A journalist reported that there were an estimated twenty thousand people demonstrating throughout Egypt, including the universities and mosques of Cairo, especially al-Azhar. He told me that the Tahrir Square group numbered two thousand, but I felt it was more. Vendors with trays of pastries wended their way through the crowds, and one just distributed his wares instead of selling them. Egyptian generosity is always at work. A woman negotiated the thinning crowd with glasses of hot tea, which I sipped gratefully. Musicians came by with drums, and joined a circle of people who began chanting to their beat. Another circle had Palestinian handiwork in the middle, and several women led song-chants. Candles illumined the proceedings and there was a festive air.
I thought of the skies of Baghdad illuminated by rockets.
When I left at about 9:00 p.m., Tahrir Square was still active with demonstrators against America’s attacks. The security forces returned my greetings as I headed to the internet cafe.
One man described Bush in the worst terms he could think of: “He is an adulterer. His mother is an adulteress and his father is an adulterer! He is a shoe!” This last is one of the worst insults you can hurl in Egypt – think of the various kinds of filth that can attach to shoes. One banner called for living normally without the Emergency Laws which make some demonstrations illegal. I believe this one was legal. At one of the moments of exuberance over an American opposing war, a man offered to carry me on his shoulders. I balked, so a woman carried me on her shoulders while the crowd cheered. I thought of how quickly mass opinion can shift from one extreme to another.
Dr. Annie C. Higgins specializes in Arabic and Islamic studies, and is currently doing research in Jenin.