Wael Ghoneim/Love letter to Egypt

I moved to Egypt in 2003, intent on recapturing the magic of a year I spent in Alexandria during a study year abroad. The study year abroad, and the decision to learn Arabic was itself guided by memories of the year I spent living in Egypt as a kid; the hours at the swimming pool with my cousins, the smell of wet dust when the sprinklers were turned on at dusk – almost always outside, never alone.

Most people were supportive of the decision because they thought it wouldn’t last long. Also I was moving from Croydon, which made the decision far more understandable.

As one year turned into 2, and then 3 and then 8 I found myself assailed more and more frequently with questions about why the hell I would choose to live in Egypt when I have a European passport.

People were particularly flummoxed by my quest to get the Egyptian nationality in 2004 when a law was passed giving Egyptian women married to non-Egyptians (other than Palestinians) the right to confer nationality on their children. I was thrilled when I got my first green passport. Possibly the only Egyptian in history to experience such feelings, if a sample of my network is anything to go by. In addition to it being worthless, having the Egyptian nationality makes you more vulnerable they told me. It undermines the protection offered by my British passport, they said.

It got exhausting having to defend myself, again and again, particularly in response to the favourite argument of “you don’t fully understand Egypt, you don’t see its bad side, you haven’t lived here long enough, you’re not properly Egyptian and aren’t fucked over by the country like we are”.

Everyone’s Egypt is different. My experience hasn’t all been perfect. My work has exposed me to the very ugliest aspects of Mubarak’s Egypt, and everyday life is frequently a series of needless and nonsensical battles. There is much darkness here. Live here long enough and it becomes unavoidable.

But I have stayed, and the thought of leaving always made me depressed. A friend (a doctor from Assiut who himself emigrated to the US, partly in despair at his future prospects in Egypt and strongly advised me to also get out) once challenged me to write a list of good things in Egypt. I tried, but they all seemed too personal, and stupid, or impossible to put in words. How do you describe indefatigable joy? How do you capture and convey spirit, spirit even in the cruelest sadness?

I’ve written on this blog about Egypt for five years now and I much of it is descriptions of injustice and tragedy, but I hope some of it has been the love letter to Egypt I meant it to be.

Tonight I watched Wael Ghoneim in a heart-breaking interview about his role in the uprising and the 12 days he spent in state security detention, and I felt vindicated. To be more accurate, I felt vindicated mid-afternoon on January 25th when thousands of us broke through security cordons and flooded into Tahrir Square and everything changed forever. And then again on Friday 28th when protestors fought and beat security bodies prepared to open fire on them while they were praying. And again last Wednesday, when protestors defended Tahrir Square from attacks by government-sponsored thugs for hours.

And I feel vindicated every time I enter Tahrir Square and find all the good in Egypt concentrated in one place. The day before yesterday I was standing on the wall which runs the perimeter of Tahrir’s grassy island watching men sing and dance. It was a tight squeeze and I was standing dead close to a middle-aged lady clapping and singing. She tapped me on the shoulder, I thought she wanted to say something to me so I leant over. She kissed me on the cheek and went back to watching.

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38 Responses to Wael Ghoneim/Love letter to Egypt

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Wael Ghoneim/Love letter to Egypt | Inanities -- Topsy.com

  2. Taha says:

    Truly beautiful post. Much love..


  3. ali says:

    It`s our Egypt and we will get it back. I just wanna say sorry my dear country we didn`t make it earlier.

  4. Blanche Dubois says:

    That was beautiful! And if it helps any, I understand. I get what you are trying to say. Many, many years ago, I too left my home for the US. It was my life’s dream. All I ever wanted to do. And in the US, I have found nothing but heartache, misery, injustice, hatred, racism, hypocrisy. I have never had a day’s peace or a day’s happiness in this hostile land with these strangely inhospitable people. I have had to dehumanize myself in order to survive and to endure the pain and the rejection of not belonging. Seeing the Egyptian people on Tahrir Square, feeling the love, the peace, the solidarity and the courage across the thousands of miles made me realize what a special place Egypt is. I have laughed with you. I have sang with you. And I have cried with you. It’s not about what you have but who you have. Egyptians are beautiful people and that is all that matters.

    Peace and love.

    • Anonymous says:

      My family immigrated to Canada 14 years ago, and while we have escaped many humiliations in Egypt, my children have a better education, my husband and I have better jobs than we could ever get in Egypt (although of course, Allahu A3lam), we have friends, pay taxes, get refunds, get our garbage collected, don’t pay bribes for everyday bureaucratic matters, and so on and so on, I have never felt at home and neither have my children. The racism and Islamophobia in Canada are more subtle, because they are a polite people on the whole. Don’t misunderstand me, I am grateful to Allah that we came here; after all we did achieve much for our children and ourself. But you know what, it’s the intangible quality that you talk about that makes Egypt Egypt and Egyptians Egyptians. Not just the family and friends, but the smells (yeah, I know, I know!), the spirit, the style, and most importantly, the humour. In the toughest of challenges that Egyptians have taken upon themselves in the last decades – the glorious youth uprising – the sense of humour is there in full force. I saw a sign that says in translation: Get out – my arm is getting tired (I am assuming from carrying the sign for so long), or the other that said Mubarak’s name backwards and below it said, “Maybe he’ll understand it backwards.”

      I also heard about and saw the Egyptian qualities that had become memories for the older generations: generous, protective of each other (gid3an), loving and kindly (hinayyeneen), and so on and so on. I have never ever been ashamed of being Egyptian and truly disliked those who visit Egypt and come back grumbling and complaining about the heat, crowds, corruption, blah blah blah. Unless they immigrated 50 years ago, I tell them to zip it! But I have to admit I have never been outwardly proud. Now, OH MY GOD, I am so very very very proud to be an Egyptian. I’ll tell anybody who will listen and go on and on. I used to go on and on about Egypt because everyone is so fascinated with our history, but I used to go on and on with sorrow and pity about days long gone.

      Now, thanks to the sacrifices, courage, ingenuity, and many other wonderful qualities of those beautiful young men and women of Egypt and all Egyptians who supported and still support them, I’m walking around actually telling people that I’m Egyptian. May Allah bless them and protect them and give them the support and strength they need along with all Egyptians to see this revolution to its completion and ultimate goals of freedom and dignity for all Egyptians and severe punishment for those who have turned it into what it had become before the January 25th uprising.

      • Anonymous says:

        Oops, sorry folks, I’m rather new at all this (thanks to the Tahrir Youth). I guess my message was being checked for appropriateness, but I thought I pressed the wrong button, so I sent another one. I don’t regret saying the same thing twice though!

      • Wasilah says:

        Amen to that!! Very beautiful expressed and its nice to know that the world can see the truth. I just can’t imagine the ignorance of a DICTATOR!! Does he not know one day he will be judged? Instead of helping his people he makes them suffer more. One Day HE will pay the price! God sees and knows everything.

  5. Through many years of visiting Egypt and living there for short periods, I’ve seen enough and spent enough time with Egyptians to experience the frustrations, the inefficiencies, the dirt, the smog, the noise in Cairo, and to see the changes in very recent years in the Cairenes themselves. But my heart swells with great pride as I watch the Egyptians today not just stand up against a brutal regime, but come to symbolize freedom everywhere.

    I first visited Egypt for the antiquities but it has always been the warmth of the Egyptian people that drew me back. I feel embraced there like no where else.

    To paraphrase JFK, today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ana masri!”

  6. Newgyptian says:

    You pretty much captured it all for me – why I moved back; why I inexplicably stayed for so long; why I now feel vindicated even though I’m having to experience it from afar. Thank you.

  7. Londoneya says:

    I feel the same about Egypt…being a Londoner all my life and deciding to move to Egypt six months ago much to everyone’s amazement, they know expect me to leave Egypt because it has turned into chaos…but I can’t leave, no matter how uncomfortable they make living here, I want to give something back to Egypt after the love it has taught me, the love I have for her.

    I have been meaning to get an Egyptian passport out myself but again, everyone seems to be telling me it’s not a great idea, that I’ll be more vulnerable…but they don’t see it how I see it, how proud I’d feel to finally have something that states I’m Egyptian…It’s a complicated love-affair we have with Egypt…but it’ll be worth it in the end.

  8. I.S.M. says:

    kudos.. and filled with pride that you could see the diamond in the ruff .. it’ll be ours again soon : ) keep smiling…

  9. connie ma says:

    I am a Canadian with Chinese heritage. I worried for the good people in the Tahrir Square since Feb 2. God bless Egypt. Tahrir Square is not 89 Tienanmen Square.

  10. zhao says:

    thanks for your words and pictures. (just a side note: your blog loads very slow because all your photos are huge, and you would certainly get many more visitors if you sized them down for the web)

    oh and here is a song for the revolution: http://soundcloud.com/djzhao/dj-zhao-immortal-egypt


  11. Jan says:

    It all makes sense and we love you for it

  12. Catcoota says:

    Couldn’t agree more Sarah. Years ago someone said to me ‘Egypt is often frustrating (and I could add a lot of other negative words too) but never boring’. I spend a lot of time complaining about Egypt and whenever I get a chance to travel I’m always glad to get out. But I’m always strangely glad to get back too. And at last there is hope I’ll be coming back to a better place for all of us.

  13. Anisa says:

    Thank you Sarah, for such a super heart felt post!

  14. Nastya says:

    Dear Blanche, is it your own unhappy experience in living in America or Americans are really so inhospitable?

    I’m just thinking of moving to another country maybe in a few years, preferably in Australia if I don’t succeed in building my family/career here, in St-Petersburg, Russia.

    But maybe it’ll be the biggest mistake if I do so?.. Maybe we should stay and die in our homelands ’cause only here we can feel ourselves equal to any other person in the country and not the second sort person or “different” as somewhere else in the other country…

    That’s the question. And Sarah’s and your posts made me think of it again…

  15. Nigel Hartnup says:

    Sarah, I’ve been looking at your photographs and reading your stuff on fb from the beginning of this crisis and I have to say you write very well and you take excellent pictures. I spent thirteen years in Kuwait and got to love Egyptians – a few are really special to me. Keep up the good work.

  16. AbdulRahman Fathy says:

    Thank you Sarah And wellcome to the new Egypt

  17. Tennessee says:

    Sarah: a middle aged lady, a dancing singing crowd, a kiss on the cheek. Sounds like Egypt sent you a love letter in return, sealed with a kiss.

    Blanche, honey: streetcars, desires, streets with names of the muses, streetcars named Desire (used to be) and oh yeah, before I forget….the kindness(es) of strangers. A body can’t depend on the tender gesture, the gentle act, the accidental gift, but a body can know/see/receive their presence, and respond to their once in a while goodness.

  18. Masreyya says:

    I immigrated with my husband and children to Canada many years ago. We had grown tired of the slow sapping of our dignity, the inability to find jobs that use our strengths, the fear for our children’s future with the unbelievably lousy education they were getting, etc. Now, we both work in extremely satisfying jobs, our children are educated, open minded and inquisitive people, we pay taxes, get refunds, get our garbage collected, have good friends and everythings we have hoped for, Alhamdulellah, but do not feel any sense of belonging. We worked hard to prove ourselves and have been rewarded (something unfathomable for many Egyptians lately) – but with a catch: racism and Islamophobia in Canada are more subtle cause Canadians are a polite people. But I am not and will never, never, ever feel that I’m home anywhere but in Egypt. And neither will my children; we just never will. What do I miss: smells (yeah, I know), spirit, history, character, sense of belonging that I have there and very importantly, Egyptian humour! In the midst of the huge challenge we Egyptians are facing, we can still laugh. I saw two hilarious signs: one had Mubarak written backwards with “maybe he’ll understand it backwards” and another that said, Leave, my arm is getting tired (I’m assuming from carrying the sign for so long).

    I have always been proud of being Egyptian and always talk about Egypt, but in the way older people talk about “days of yore”. I tell any friend who visits Egypt and comes back moaning and groaning about heat, traffic, pollution, corruption, etc that unless they’ve been out of the country for 50 years, to zip it! Right now, I tell anyone who will listen that I am Egyptian and talk about what has been happening incessantly.

    Why? Because of the sacrifices, courage, ingenuity, and steadfastness of our youth and the people they have inspired. What a bunch of heroes. May God reward them for all they are doing and give them the strength to go on so that the blood of those who died and were injured is avenged in the way they would have wanted. As for those who spilled the blood and did what they did to Egypt……We all know what we want to happen.
    Sorry I’m going on and on….

  19. adam says:

    Simply lovely …

  20. Mahdi says:

    you made a grown-ass man cry :’)

  21. Somaia Mohamed says:

    Thank you Wael for your sincerity and leadership. You and everyone in the square made us all proud to be Egyptians and will be role models for all young Egyptians for generations to come. I have been living in the US and would like very much to help in any way. How can I help?

  22. Dominican for egypt says:

    Us Dominicanos are with the people of Egypt.

    Stay strong. United as as people no one will beat you.


  23. Anonymous says:

    Shit!! Shit!! Shit!!

  24. Egyptian says:

    I , like many of the posters, left Egypt long time ago. I was 20 years old, I had so many dreams . I went to the US, and after some very tough times at the beginning things started getting better and kept getting better all the time. I will admit, I love the US in so many ways as much as I love Egypt. I lived in a clean place, I experienced maybe 1 or 2 cases of racism but for the most part, I find americans to be generous, fun loving, hard working people. all that, and I still decided to leave, to go back to Egypt and there were many reasons which were personal, but there is something inside me which I could not describe to my non-egyptian wife, or to my egyptian friends that made me want to go back. I had never been back since I left and I was shocked with all the changes. I had a very difficult time adjusting and I could not understand how ordinary egyptians could manage to live in these conditions, day in and day out and not explode. I left again but I decided to stay closer, so I went to western northern European country. Lo and behold, the explosion happened just a month after I left. I went back to check on family and see friends and see my fellow egyptians and celeberate their victory. I also went to offer help in any way I can. I held back so many tears, tears when I saw the flags, tears when I heard the songs, tears when I saw the happiness in the average egyptian face. I held back tears when I heard the tyranny of the fallen regime and how they took away so many innocent young lives.
    I took my aging father to Tahrir Square, the man had suffered so much for so many years, and there in ground zero, in the midst of all our fellow egyptians my father was waving his flag, shouting “Tahyah Masr”, he was like a little kid, I have never seen him happier in my life. To me , that moment was worth every mile I cut, every penny I spent, every dollar I sacrificed to be closer to my family and my country. I saw my father’s innocence and joy and I felt I was so privileged.

    By the way, I too fought hard and long to get egyptian passports for my children. People said the same bull about what is the value in that. I bet you everyone wish they had some egyptian blood in them now :)

  25. hassane kreidieh says:

    God bless you wael…you really inspired a lot of people in our arab world and i am one of them,i was following your news all through the revolution days and after…. i love egypt and i simply adore this conutry….god bless you again and wish you all the best bro !

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