Since long, I have been wanting to write this letter. I was hesitant, thinking about it, yes, quite often, but never starting it for real.
Tonight, on a grey January night, lying in my bed after taking a long bath, almost falling asleep already, I decided to start writing despite the late hour and a lack of sleep.
Maybe it's because the second anniversary of January 25th is getting closer. Maybe it's because this night still belongs to the peculiar time period when one year slowly turns into the next, when time follows different rules, the winter period to remember things, to meet friends, to tidy up the flat. Time for reflection. At least it feels like this here, in Berlin. Maybe it's also because I was in Egypt exactly a year ago, for some weeks, last winter.
I have often thought about our encounter in April 2011, but the thought has occurred more regularly during the past weeks. Especially when I was in Cairo in December, when the constitution was being pushed through like a battering ram. Like a battering ram that would actually be useful to break down the new walls in Downtown. I kept thinking of you then, without getting in touch, having my own things to do in Cairo, and thinking you had yours, of course, with a growing family and a political life, not to mention a professional life.
It is a certain night I am referring to when I say that I wanted to write you since long. This night is still present to me as if it happened only a few weeks ago. I rarely remember things in such a detailed way. The moment which has stayed with me ever since, which is very dear to me, happened in a car, your car, during a nightly drive through Cairo, after a friends gathering in Moqattam. Your friends, my friend's friends, me being a stranger among you, someone who had come to Cairo longing to understand something about what was going on. About your making history.
I enjoyed being a stranger among you, someone who was allowed in, allowed to join. I enjoyed listening to the lively discussions among you, parts of which were translated for me, in between drinks, and I was eager to also understand the newly arisen frictions between you, friends who hadn't met in several months, not being able to spare time from work and politics.
You'd talk politics, of course. Who had which position concerning this or that incident, or development, or future expectation. There were new parties, memberships, alliances, ideas and criticisms. Decisions you had to make, you were allowed to make. To me, your invaluable experiences, your actions, shined. Despite all. They glowed despite you already knowing that it was half a military coup and that there was no "one hand". Despite the dead and the injured.
It was your party. Your voices speaking the language that I was just learning, and of which my vocabulary had grown to be a bizarre mix of how-are-you-welcome-my-name-is, and then revolution-politics-socialist-party-demonstration-activist-down-with...
It was late. The fajr muezzin had called for prayer already, or they all had, as the usual cacophony of voices spanned its sonic cloth all over the city. The city which one may as well call a universe. Even more so then, there was a call for prayer, so it was late at night or early in the morning. And in any case I was wondering whether it had to do with this nightly call that you suggested to leave. It was late, for sure, but it can't have been a coincidence, the call for prayer and our hitting the road. Just like the church bells' chiming permeates my body regularly, and usually unconsciously, forming my relation to time, you must be deeply affected by this sound. I am sure that the inner clock responds to this call, that you know it is late, very late, and that it's time to go. Not to pray, maybe, but to go, in general. To move. Before the sun really rises.
You and your husband offered to bring me back to the hotel like you had offered to pick me up, much earlier. So, we were driving through the night, or you were, your husband was. We were talking, with the radio softly playing some music. Driving through the yellowish illuminated city, you told me about your Iranian colleagues in the USA who would not comment on the revolution in Egypt, and when you asked them why they were silent, they'd just tell you that they already knew all this from back then, from back there. They needn't add anything else.
But you insisted it was your revolution. That they ought to comment in some way. That Egypt wasn't Iran. That these were different times.
At some point you turned around to me, we were in a soft mood. You told me that I might remember this night, later, and for a long time. That I would think back at this friends gathering as being the happy night before it all turned ugly. That the friends may actually be scattered around the globe soon. Or worse. That you didn't know.
I had just thought the same, my thoughts had not been as clear as yours, but I was sensing a melancholy, realizing how glad I was to be a witness to such a party, to such a time, and that this was a special night. To be remembered. And I have indeed remembered this night ever since.
My answer then, in the car, was that you'd always find an open door at my place, in Berlin.
The streets were empty, really empty, as the curfew was still in force. Getting closer to Downtown, you had to criss-cross the streets to drop me off without being stopped by a road barrier. I got out on the hotel's street, which later would see two walls cutting it off Tahrir square and other pivotal spots.
I remember I worried about you, still having to get to the other side of the Nile. You said they couldn't do much, but that one would anyway prefer not to be caught not respecting the curfew. Activists were again being arrested regularly. Or rather arbitrarily. Or maybe systematically. Who'd know?
I have not forgotten this short conversation in the car, that revealed so much of the fear, the pride, the courage. That made me a contemporary witness. That granted me responsibility as well.
Today, now that the Islamists have gained so much ground, I keep thinking of this night more often, wondering whether it was time, now, to renew my offer to open up my flat for you. It feels ridiculous, though, or too demotivating. Maybe silly. It's not time yet. You knew what you were doing. You knew the risks. You all still do. There is no alternative.
It has to do with us, too, your revolution. With me, my wanting to understand, my being naive, my being helpless, trying to be courageous. My wanting to connect myself to your stories, shifting position. It has also changed me, my notion of what to consider as normalcy.
What would I actually like to tell you? Not more than I have just done. Echoing across lands.
P.S. It's March 12th. The other day, you sent a message, suggesting to publish this letter. I have decided to do so.
Julia Tieke works as a freelance writer and radio drama editor based in Berlin and regularly travels to Egypt. She runs the blog „Cairo by Microphone“ (cairobymicrophone.wordpress.com) and has co-curated the "Alexandria Streets Project" (www.alexandria-streets-project.net), which comprises a sonic map of Alexandria and a series of radio workshops and events.