Freedom: A Story by Egyptian Writer Hamdy El-Gazzar
Today, January 25, marks the one-year anniversary of the first protests in Tahrir Square–protests that marked the start of the Egyptian revolution and became part of what is now known around the world as the Arab Spring.
To commemorate this historic date Sampsonia Way asked Egyptian writer, playwright, and columnist Hamdy El-Gazzar to contribute a story from his current project, Our Revolution: Stories to Fit in the Palm of Your Hand.
The stories in Our Revolution focus on the characters who lead, participated in, were injured, or died during the first month of the Egyptian revolution. All of the stories are based on real characters, events, and places.
The following story, entitled “Freedom,” is based on the four-line testimony of Wafaa Fathi Khalefa, who told a reporter about the man that gave his life to save her on a march across Qasr al-Nil Bridge.
Hamdy El-Gazzar’s “Freedom” is presented in its entirety, and is a Sampsonia Way exclusive.
See the highlights from Sampsonia Way’s 2011 coverage of the Egyptian Revolution.
Translated from the Arabic by Nancy Linthicum
For Wafaa Fathi Khalifa
Here in this peaceful, deep sleep, I lie on the ground. I’ve finally come to recognize this earth as that of my homeland. I smile as I lie here in a bright darkness and think about what happened during that brief episode. Buried beneath the earth, I smile shyly like a young teen head over heels in love.
When it happened I didn’t have time to think. There was nothing that distinguished what I thought and wanted to do from my rash, impulsive actions. In a matter of seconds my heart and mind had reached a decision that my body executed quickly. Maybe that’s all it was. I wasn’t afraid, and it didn’t occur to me not to act.
Nothing could have stopped my momentum. I pushed my way to her and shoved her with my left hand as I jumped in front of her. I grabbed her by the waist and pushed her behind me so that her body was hidden by my own. I turned myself into a suit of armor. And that’s when it happened.
I don’t regret what I did, nor am I showing off. I’m not here to boast, and I’m not lying when I say that if I could return to the world of the living and do it all over again, I would.
What’s done is done-–no regrets. I only remember what transpired. A light took form in front of me in the darkness. My heart skipped a beat, and I felt a rush of something like divine ecstasy.
I smile happily now, for this young woman was exceptional, matchless, a kind of paragon in the last world, in your world. She was as sweet as a sip of cold water after a long thirst-–lips cracked, saliva so dry it’s like sandpaper in the throat. She was captivating and beautiful, like something from heaven.
From the back she appeared tall and slender, like a ballerina. Her dress was lily-white and her jet-black hair fell in long waves over her shoulders and back, like night embracing day. All of her movements-–her arms, her hands, her body-–were delicate and light. Her hands were wrapped tightly around a long flag-pole that she was waving in the air. The flag fluttered like a bird and swelled like an ocean wave in time to the movement of her reeling body and her resonant cries. In a clear, lively voice that welled up inside of her, she shouted: “Freedom! Freedom!”
I walked behind her like a slave fettered to a waking dream or like someone in a trance. She drew me to her as if she were a giant magnet. From behind I could see only the side of her face–-she was smiling. I don’t remember if she ever turned her head on that long neck of hers and looked behind her. If so, then she probably would have noticed me, and I would have caught a glimpse of her face. Afterward, in the brief moments when our eyes met, I saw how beautiful her face was and how it still had the glow of a smiling little girl. Her brown, smooth skin was flushed. Anger couldn’t mask her sweetness.
I remember the tone of her voice. It was a voice that belonged to someone who had suffered a long period of drought and bondage and that longed for liberation. She kept repeating the same word: Freedom. This one word summed up everything–-everything we lived and everything we suffered. Upon hearing her voice, sadness overpowered me. She was talking about me, shouting what I felt and what I too longed to shout. I began to repeat her with everything I had. I strained my vocal chords and shouted: “Freedom! Freedom!”
We were on Qasr al-Nil Bridge along with tens of thousands of other people. We were all trying to cross the Nile to reach Tahrir Square. The riot police in their black uniforms tried to stop us any way they could, including by force. We were in the middle of a fierce battle. She and I found ourselves sheltered by the crowd of hundreds that surrounded us, as we crawled towards Tahrir. Those on the edges were hit the hardest, and many of us fell, wounded and dead.
I don’t know how it happened, but suddenly we found ourselves face to face with a line of soldiers stand-ing shoulder to shoulder. They obstructed the sidewalk and blocked the flow of people in front of us on the bridge. At the head of the line was a solidly built officer with an ugly face who towered above us, angry and scowling. She was a couple of paces in front of me. The officer glared at her maliciously for several minutes, and then pulled his pistol from the leather holster that shone on his waist. He brandished it in the faces of all who had gathered, including her.
His stare was frightening, like a beast of prey or the grim reaper. But she didn’t see him-–she didn’t look at him once. It was as if he were blank space-–something that didn’t even have an odor. She kept shouting and she didn’t take a single step backwards. Instead she shouted boldly, “Freedom! Freedom!” She screamed it in the face of anyone who blocked our way. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before.
I caught sight of his eyes, and in them I saw that he’d already decided he was going to kill her. His thick index finger was reaching forward to press the trigger. I ran and jumped in front of her. With my left arm I shoved her behind me with everything I had-–fortunately I was bigger than she was. Our eyes met for a split second. In them I saw deep beauty, light and strong determination.
She was behind me now and was still shouting for freedom when she reached out and touched me and then threw her arms around me. From under my arm she lifted her head towards mine. In that moment her eyes said many things, but time moved too fast for me to understand them all. My body became like a sheet of iron, and I took two steps forward. I shouted at the world, at the solider, and at the officer: “Free-dom! Freedom!”
The officer became incensed and curled back his lips. His face and eyes shone with rage and hatred. It was as if he were telling me, “You can’t escape–-you’re mine.”
His lips drew tight and his body became rigid. He tightened his grip on his weapon authoritatively. From just a meter away he pointed the gun at my head –-directly at my forehead. He squeezed the trigger and released the bullet, a bright flash and some smoke.
My vision clouded as the bullet ripped open a hole in my head. I collapsed instantly and fell backwards onto her chest.
The last thing I remember feeling was her hands clasping me around my waist and her body propping me up. I remember hearing her long sigh and her enthusiastic shout. The last thing I saw was the vast blue sky and the sun shining as though it were sunrise. I smiled, and then I left.
No, I don’t regret anything.