Friday, November 30, 2012

Advent in Tahrir Square

Stay tuned for OnFire's Advent 2012 series beginning this weekend where we will explore the meaning of Advent through the justice work young people (or, in the case of this post, the young at heart!) are doing around the world. This Advent "preview" is cross-posted from Global Lens, a blog by Paul Jeffrey, a photojournalist for the mission agency of The United Methodist Church. Check out his blog to see more of his reflections and stunning photography!

by Paul Jeffrey

It is Advent in Tahrir Square, where people are waiting. They’re not sure for what, but such is the nature of Advent, to wait for freedom and deliverance amid uncertainty. The people gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square are both afraid and hopeful at the same time. That's Advent in a land where Arab Spring has turned into Arab Fall.

Although western churches begin celebrating Advent on Sunday,December 2, the waiting period has already begin in the Orthodox churches, including for the Copts, as Christians here are called. They have begun fasting, though that seems to mean they just give up meat. When I sat down to lunch Wednesday in a small village in northern Egypt,the Copt family hosting me apologized for their "fasting foods"–a rich variety of salads, tahini, lentil soup, falafel, and eggplant. Fasting for them means giving up meat, though fish is OK. Frankly, I'd fast more often if that’s how we defined the word.

My Coptic friends here were concerned for my safety during the protests in and around Tahrir Square, and they’d warned me to stay in my hotel and shoot the protests from the balcony, which overlooks the square. I went anyway, and I got beat up by the Egyptian police. When one friend heard what happened, she stared at me with a mixture of concern and a very clear I-told-you-so look. I promised her I wouldn't go out again that night and would watch from the hotel balcony. Then a few hours later, she called me from the square to invite me down. I couldn't hear her very well, with all the chanting and noise. A quarter million people had shown up for a massive demonstration against the dictatorial measures announced by President Mohamed Morsi on November 22. She said I should come join her and her friends. I knew I'd never find them, so I declined. The next day, she talked about it with a sparkle in her eyes. "There were so many people that there was no oxygen to breathe," she said, pantomiming suffocating. "It was wonderful!"

Advent: waiting that takes your breath away.

Not all the protesters are as nonviolent and polite as the thousands who are maintaining a vigil in a collection of tents in the center of Tahrir Square. Hundreds of mostly young men have been engaged in a continuous battle with police (also, not coincidentally, mostly young men) in the streets around the square, including the street right under my balcony. The youth, who did include some young women, express their anger about the president’s anti-democratic measures by taunting and throwing rocks at the police, who shoot tear gas at the protesters, who in turn throw the tear gas back at the police. It's a testosterone-fueled drama which, quite frankly, has strongly compelling visual elements. Translation: I wanted to photograph it. I could shoot the scene from my balcony, but the aerial view of human drama is seldom very compelling.

So I got closer. And, wouldn't you know it, the first time I went out to photograph the showdown I got "injured." It was on the north side of Tahrir Square, and three times the tear gas got the better of me, so I'd retreat a bit and the protesters’ medics would grab me and rinse out my eyes with whatever solution they use to take the sting away. No worries. But then a tear gas canister landed right in front of a guy who was right in front of me, and it startled him and he jumped backward, right into me. He collided with my lens, which shoved the attached camera into my forehead, cutting me and drawing quite a bit of blood. (Fortunately my Nikons are tougher than me.) The medics quickly grabbed me, thinking they had a serious case to work on, and a foreigner to boot, but it was just one of those little cuts that bleeds a lot. They graciously cleaned me up, and I was back in action. As some more tear gas was incoming, one of the medics pointed at a smoking canister bouncing by and said, "Made in USA." Then he innocently asked me, "Where you from?" America. Malesh. "I'm from America. I'm sorry," I said in pigeon Arabic. I wished him good luck. He hugged me. I went back to taking pictures.

Some images from the day include a man throwing back a smoking tear gas canister, another man snuffing one out in the mud, a woman raising her arms in defiance toward the police, and a man throwing a rock.
The next day was Tuesday, when a massive march was planned for the afternoon. Most schools and businesses shut down so people could stay at home, or participate, whichever they chose. I had some interviews later in the day but went out early in the morning to see what I could find. The same drama was unfolding. I tried to shoot from behind police lines but an official told me to go away, that no photos were allowed. So I walked around to the protesters' side and started shooting.
Let me say, before you dismiss me as completely foolish, that in situations like this I always keep security in mind. I tend to be conservative and am always thinking of how I'm going to exit the encounter should things turn dodgy. So I stayed close to one side street which I figured I could run down if I needed to escape. But then something interesting happened. Some older men, and a few women, were standing between the police and the young protesters, trying to get the later to quit throwing stones, and the former to hold their fire. They were moderately successful, and the two opposing lines came closer together.
People starting talking to each other, and I watched as one police officer and one protester embraced. It was an emotional moment, and many people cheered. Everyone, for a moment, was simply Egyptian, and the divisions disappeared. And then the kumbaya moment ended as a new barrage of rocks arrived from youth in the back, and the police lost their cool and charged, firing tear gas and swinging batons. I turned to run for my escape route, but got knocked over in the melee. When I got up, there were rocks falling all around me, and I ran toward the side of the street holding my arms over my head in case a rock had my name on it. But that diversion put me directly in the path of three running police, who when they saw me raised their batons to hit me. I motioned at the rocks and pleaded for them to help me (always assume the best of people, my mother always taught me), and after a moment’s indecision one of them said something to the others, and then two of them raised their plexiglass shields to keep the rocks from hitting me and we moved down the street together toward safety. Yet just as I thought I might get out if it alive, some other police, who’d run after the protesters firing tear gas, turned to see these three escorting me, and they yelled "camera!" and ran toward us, pushing the other three out of the way and hitting me with their batons. The three "good cops" tried to stop them, but to no avail. I doubled over from a particularly sharp blow to my right side. They then drug me back to the police line, where several other police joined in hitting and kicking me. Frankly, at this point I've gone beyond my initial fear that they would seize the Compact Flash cards from my cameras, and am starting to contemplate more existential questions. Finally one cop grabbed me and pulled me away from the others. I think it was the cop who I'd photographed hugging the demonstrator, but I'm not sure. It all happened kind of fast, and I was trying to protect my vital organs and cameras from grave harm. He pushed me forward down the street, and I didn’t turn back. I stumbled around the corner and down my "escape street," even though it was full of tear gas, soon to be grabbed by some demonstrators who ran out to rush me to safety. They sat me down, washed my eyes out, stuck some cotton soaked with something under my nose, and kept apologizing for the police. Two of them escorted me back to the hotel, all the while saying they were sorry.

I was left with a unpleasant collection of bruises, and some kidney issues which are now OK. I'm also feeling, I have to admit, like I'm getting too old for this. But it’s clear that it could have been worse. At least two Egyptian photographers were also beaten by the police that day; one of them was hospitalized. Egyptian journalists face tremendous challenges in trying to cover what’s happening here. The truth is a dangerous thing, and telling the truth, in whatever way, obviously entails certain risks.
Egypt's Christians face even more serious challenges, yet they don't shrink from them. They never had an easy time under Mubarek, but the rise to power of conservative Islamists has emboldened those who would do them harm. Churches and Christian businesses and homes have been attacked in recent months, and church members killed. While these attacks probably don’t reflect any official policy of violence toward Christians, and there are numerous examples of Muslims protecting Christians from violence, it's nonetheless clear that some extremists have taken advantage of political instability to promote an agenda of intolerance. Thousands of Christians have left Egypt in recent months.
But those who remain–they’re roughly ten percent of the population–aren’t shrinking away from their faith. I witnessed that in a couple of rural villages I visited, where Christians and Muslims get along fine, both free to live out their faith. In Sakra, for example, I walked around with Father Joil Sobhe, the Coptic Orthodox priest, as he visited the faithful.
In Cairo, I interviewed Coptic Orthodox Bishop Youannes, who has a great black beard. At the end of our talk I compared our beards and asked for any advice on how to make mine more, ahh, distinguished. He told me to have more faith. OK.

Youannes also explained the demographics of religion here, saying that Christians had “very good” relations with moderate Muslims who, with Christians, make up half the population. That’s what I witnessed in the villages. With the Muslim Brotherhood, which he said represented about 30 percent of the population, Christians had “good” relations, and could coexist just fine albeit with disagreements. But the 20 percent or less of the population from Salafist and other fundamentalist groups want little to do with the Christians, he said, and some even think they should be kicked out of Egypt. So there's no dialogue between them and Christians.

While they're rightly concerned about their security and status here, to characterize Egypt's Copts as fearful would be overstating things. "Yes, the future is vague. But from the point of view of our faith we are enthusiastic. God is almighty and our protector, and we are a blessed nation," Youannes told me. "Being a minority gives us more faith, makes us closer to God, makes us seek God's help and support even more."

Copts, by the way, are quick to remember that they weren't always a minority, that indeed they were here before the Muslims. Yet political convenience triumphed when they welcomed the Muslims to Egypt in order to rid the country of the Byzantines. And some Muslims rightly point out that Christian-Muslim relations here are better in general than the relationships between Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians, many of whom refuse to acknowledge, let alone talk with each other. So we should be careful about easy reductionism. It's complicated.

Another example of this complicated scene is that the Copts could actually benefit in some ways from Morsi’s power grab, in that one of the things he did was reduce the power of the judiciary, much of which is still a holdover from the Mubarek regime. It’s extremely corrupt, and Christians have often gotten a raw deal in the courts whenever their relationship with Muslims was part of any legal matter. If Morsi can help craft a more transparent and fair court system, he’ll be doing all Egyptians a favor. Whether that results from his new power grab remains to be seen. Indeed, it’s not clear how long his extraordinary powers will last. Although no time limit was announced at the beginning, some of Morsi’s people are talking about the exceptional powers ending within weeks, once a draft of the constitution is approved. Obviously, for the people who keep Tahrir Square filled with protest songs day and night, even that is not acceptable, in part because the proposed new constitution takes Egypt even further away from its secular past.

Yet such is the nature of revolutions, what Ambrose Bierce characterized as the "abrupt change in the form of misgovernment." They are complicated, messy things. Ours in the United States was no exception, and some of the critical issues of the day were not resolved for decades or more. So that it is taking Egypt a while to find its way is not surprising, although it’s ironic that a country with such an iconic role in the history of civilization is still struggling with what it means to be a democracy.

And that uncertainty is at the heart of waiting. Have a happy Advent, my friends.

Before coming here, I was in Jordan and Lebanon to report on how churches are responding to the Syrian refugee crisis. Instead of going home from here, as originally planned, I’m instead flying to Southeast Asia for two weeks to look at some issues in the Philippines and Cambodia. I confess this blog has been a bit quiet of late, for which I apologize. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say. I’ve just been too busy to find the time to write. I hope to remedy that after I return home, where several major projects of writing and photo-editing await. Stay tuned.


To read more about Paul Jeffrey, visit his website or see his longer bio here. 

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