The day was February 11, 2011. About an hour before Friday prayers began, while walking through Cairo’s crowded Tahrir Square, a man named Mahdy grabbed the sleeve of my shirt and said, “Hey, where you from?” He had a beard (that’s him in the center of the photo), a thundering voice, and when I said “America” he said, “Oh, which state? I used to live in Texas, in Dallas.” Come to find out, Mahdy had even spent three days in Tennessee. “A nice state,” he said.
Like other people I had met during the previous days in Tahrir Square, Mahdy left me dumbfounded by his passion, articulateness, and courage. Cairo was in the midst of historic upheaval and Tahrir Square was the epicenter. Mahdy was one of hundreds of thousands of men and women who, since January 25, had brought their bodies and hopes into this square, demanding change in Egypt.
He told me many things during the 15 minutes we were together, a righteous anger burning in his eyes, and at times I imagined I was listening to Patrick Henry at the Virginia Convention in 1775 (“Give me liberty, or give me death!”). Here’s a sample of what Mahdy said:
- “We are eating ful and tamaya; Mubarak and his people are eating shrimp!”
- “I’m not one of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they are my brothers.”
- “Fear is dead. Nobody is going to back down even if they die.”
- “I wasn’t in the square yesterday. My health is not good and I needed to rest. But I definitely was coming today. I came prepared to die if I must!”
- “In the U.S. I’ve been questioned by the FBI but they treated me with respect – I even get emails from them sometimes asking how I am doing. Here the police never treat you with respect. Sometimes when I arrive in the U.S., the immigration official stamps my [American] passport and says, ‘Welcome home.’ In Egypt they look at my beard and pull me aside for questioning. And they’re not even sensible questions!”
- “My wife is American and my children have U.S. passports. Whenever they go out I make them take their passports. That way if the police stop them they won’t abuse them. But from now on, in this new Egypt, my children will leave their passports at home.”
As he spoke, another Egyptian in the crowd, a stranger, wiped the sweat from Mahdy’s brow. Sometimes Mahdy paused our conversation in English so that he could translate what he was saying to those around us. The crowd nodded their approval or, in the case of his joke comparing U.S. and Egyptian FBIs, laughed. Here’s the joke:
The FBIs of America, England, and Egypt have a contest to see who can find the lion in the jungle first. The Americans use their satellites and people to look for the lion and discover it in ten minutes. So do the British. Three days later the Egyptian FBI hasn’t come back from the jungle. People go to find them and are shocked to see they are circled around a monkey hanging upside down from a tree. It’s bound with rope and the Egyptians are beating it. “Where is the lion!,” they keep screaming.
There was fire in Hamdy’s voice. Like others in Tahrir Square, he had a vision for his country and his children, a vision for which I am certain he would have given his life this day if indeed it had been required.
But several hours later, in an announcement that sent a deafening roar through Tahrir and all of downtown Cairo, we learned that Mubarak had resigned. Mahdy would return home to his wife and children, a proud Egyptian.