On Martyrs and Occupy Movements

My daughter lived just a block from Tahrir Square throughout the Arab Spring. She learned what it was to wear gas masks, take care of eyes that had been tear gassed, and continue daily life despite soldiers in full riot gear and tanks ready for action at the end of her street.

So when a friend asked her what she thought about the “Occupy” movement she paused before making her reply.

“It’s ok.”….”But you need a martyr”. 

He looked at her in shock.

While she doesn’t will anyone to die, I know what she meant. She meant you need a passion that hasn’t yet been identified, you need a common cause that moves people so deeply they are willing to die to see change, you need a tension that says “We feel this so deeply that we are willing to give all for this cause”.

A year after Occupy is there a passion and tension to the movement that demands action?

Protests began in Tunisia because a man set himself on fire after being systematically refused a permit to operate as a street vendor. It was corruption at the deepest level. Protests in Egypt began way before the 18 days in January, starting instead with the brutal beating and death of a young man in Alexandria, Khaled Said, who had a video that would expose police corruption. He was planning to make the video public when he was beaten in broad daylight outside of a coffee shop. He later died of those wounds. The nauseating wrong of this act was so evident it could not be ignored – so people rose up to protest his death and the environment that made his murder possible. In both cases, people could no longer be bystanders, they had to act.

So what do you do in a case where it’s “White Collar” corruption and crime? No one has died. No one has set themselves on fire. Instead the wrong is more insidious showing itself through its victims — a 26 year-old drowning in school debt, a 50-year old laid off 2 years ago who cannot get a job,  young families so busy trying to make ends meet that, as much as they may believe in the idea of an “Occupy” movement, they can’t take the risk of losing their livelihood. These are victims too be sure — victims served live on china platters at the table of corporate greed. But are they martyrs?

Indeed you don’t have to die to be a martyr. The definition also means “One who makes great sacrifices or suffers much in order to further a belief, cause, or principle”

But who is the Khaled Said of the Occupy Movement? 

Occupy Wall Street protesters have taken over ...

Do too many of us still have too much that is good to give it all in sacrifice for an unknown outcome? Or Is it that we no longer know how to come together for a cause in this country? Are we so fractured politically and geographically that what makes sense in one area, namely Zuccotti Park, seems foolish in another?

A year ago I wasn’t sure what I thought about the movement. Having grown up in Pakistan as well as spent so much time as an adult in the developing world, my perspective often runs counter-culture.  I may feel like I’m the 99% and the school loans from my children may look that way, but the reality is that when compared to most of the world, I have more than plenty. And so I’m still not sure what I think of the movement.

And I’m not willing to give my all for a cause that I’m not sure about.

What do you think? Have you been willing to “suffer much for a cause”? Why were you willing? And would you give all for the Occupy movement? 


Guest Post: You Know You Live Downtown Cairo When….

As a mom who is miles away from all but one of her children, I am acutely aware of my inability to protect them. There are also times when I realize how much I don’t know about their lives. This awareness reached a new level when I read a post that my daughter had written from February 6th on living in Cairo, specifically downtown Cairo. So today’s post is a guest post from that day by my daughter, Annie. It is a reminder to me that Egypt is fragile, and people live everyday within the fragility. It is a reminder to pray for Egypt and for those who live there, both Egyptians and others.

Started a meme in my head, “You know you live Downtown when…” It goes something like this. YOU KNOW YOU LIVE DOWNTOWN CAIRO WHEN:

  • You carry your gas mask with you, everywhere, just in case.
  • You carry loads of cash, in various pockets, all over your person, just in case.
  • Your getaway bag is packed and ready if need be, right next to the cat carrier, just in case.
  • You walk down your street, thank the young man who is at the ready to spray saline solution into your gas-afflicted eyes, and carry on your merry way.
  • You direct your guests first to the baking soda, with which to wash their burning face, then to the arak which is somehow the only alcohol you have insanely copious amounts of.
  • You begin to notice that your tolerance for this gas stuff is a lot higher than others’.
  • You’ve developed a significant prescription drug habit.
  • You begin to prefer walking alone; others’ skittishness during gas-induced stampedes impedes your own perfected ability to walk calmly and quickly in any given situation.
  • Your ear is trained to know which bangs warrant going onto the balcony, and which don’t. (Fireworks are worth it; the displays are always well-done, bless you football fans)
  • When the police are out, you don’t leave the building.
  • You check Twitter to make sure you can get home, even though you’re fully aware of how largely useless it is.
  • You resent your friends for not checking the news before they talk to you, you resent your family for not being more worried about you, you resent acquaintances for telling you to “be safe”.

* * *

Today, a G-Chat with Tony:

me: tony I am worried about reintegrating into a society where there aren’t bombs and gunshots always

Knowing you have to get out (sanity? I guess?) but knowing that you can’t. Knowing that, just like last January, just like October, November, next week will be different. Next week will be art shows and dinner at Greek Club and late-night screaming matches at Stella and dinner parties and brunch at the CFCC and buying your produce just like nothing ever happened.

The thing I learned is that humans are so simultaneously fragile and resilient.

Annie on her rooftop, downtown Cairo

Anniversary of Egypt’s “Uprising” – 18 Days of Change

A year ago today was the beginning of historic change in the country of Egypt. To mark the anniversary a holiday has been declared with celebrations planned throughout the country. As early as Tuesday tents were set up in Tahrir Square, the central square area that was the seat of last year’s historic events. Below is a summary of major events from last year’s 18 days of change.

Many in the west are unaware of the brutal beating and murder of a young Egyptian from the port city of Alexandria at the hands of a corrupt and brutal police force. The man’s name was Khaled Said and he was murdered because he had obtained information on police corruption in the city and was going to expose it. Khaled Said became a symbol of brutal oppression without a voice. Underground activists began to circulate information about his death through social media, specifically Facebook and a movement was born.

A “Day of Rage”, largely orchestrated through social media, was proclaimed on January 25th, 2011 and demonstrations took place throughout the country. What most people expected to be a one day event sparked further protests that refused to be silenced. Two days later Facebook and Twitter were blocked, inhibiting widespread organization through social networking. A day later and Egypt went silent to the world as all internet and mobile phone services were blocked. During this time I well remember trying to reach my daughter without success.  Sitting at his desk one day my husband received a phone call from an unknown number with the first digits of 202. He knew this was the area code for Washington DC, but it was also the country and city code for Cairo, Egypt. As he picked up the phone and said hello, the voice on the other end said “This is the State Department. I would like to speak to the mother or father of Annie Gardner” (pause) his heart stopped for a long second. “This is he”. “We’re calling to tell you that your daughter has contacted the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and that she is safe and sound!” He could have strangled them through the phone line until they begged for mercy. While the relief we felt to hear of her safety was great, the method could have been a bit less dramatic.

The initially peaceful demonstrations turned violent on January 28th as street battles erupted. Thugs allegedly hired by the government brought on a dimension of violence that resulted in death and injury to many.

Four days after the initial “Day of Rage” former President Mubarak reconfigured his cabinet and a vice-president was appointed for the first time in 30 years.

February 4th was termed “Friday of Departure” where hundreds of thousands come to Tahrir to take part in peaceful protests with repeated calls for the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. Protests were not just confined to Cairo but occurred throughout the country. On February 7th  Wael Ghoneim, an Egyptian Google employee and founder of the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said” was released after 12 days of interrogation. His appearance on television stimulated further action and cries for change. On February 11th, 18 days after the original “Day of Rage” Mubarak stepped down. The following day and night massive celebrations were held throughout Egypt. Entire families converged on Tahrir Square celebrating a new day for the country of Egypt while the world looked on amazed.  My daughter sent us the message “Tomorrow they’ll rebuild, but today they’re going to party” a perfect description for the time of celebration.

So what now, a year to the day later? Through conversations we had with people in Egypt during our recent trip we heard frustration that the army has too much power and control and the deeply hoped for change has not come. Economically there is huge frustration as younger people face massive unemployment. The first free election in recent history has taken place and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party took a majority of the seats of the lower parliament. There was expectation that a civilian government would be in place by this time and the fact that this is not the case is cause for anger and concern. There is an overall fatigue and feeling that one can still get arrested for speaking out in public against the ruling military.

And through all this we continue to see that Egyptians are a humble resilient people. The passion that has been shown and the fight for change at the high cost of imprisonment and harm is proof of a strength in character and evidence of a willingness to seek something that will last. And so today should be celebrated with a prayer that hope will continue to thrive and a belief that God will continue to work in Egypt and her people.

I urge you to watch this short video called “Ya Baladi”. It has English subtitles and is a moving look at an Egypt way beyond the media portrayal.

Tahrir Square at 3am, January 25, 2012 courtesy of "We are all Khaled Said"