This story is dedicated to the people of Egypt, who dared to seize a dream…
“Paki! Did you hear?” shouted Masud, tumbling through the door, all elbows and ankles, “They are protesting in the streets!”
Father peaked up from his paper and glowered. “What are you talking about, foolish boy? And mind the dishes! You’ll break them!”
Ignoring him, Masud flopped into a chair and tore off a hunk of bread, which he promptly stuffed into his flushed cheeks.
Grinning broadly, he continued his news, spewing crumbs across the table as his excitement got the better of him.
“The people!” he exclaimed, “They have gathered at the square and are demanding the President resign!”
“There are hundreds!” he cried, “Perhaps even thousands! I’ve never seen so many people in one place!”
It had come to pass, it seemed. There had been rumors for weeks, but then there are always rumors of such things.
I moved to stand, only to stop at the sound of my father’s voice as he threw down his paper in a sudden, and rarely seen fury.
“And what is this to you?” he roared. “You who do nothing all day but play XBox? Where do you think you are going?”
“Calm down, father, ” I said soothingly, “I am only going to to the square for a quick look. I promise to not to get involved.”
“Involved?” he said sarcastically, “Involved in something you know nothing about? This is just another mob!”
“This is just another excuse for causing trouble!” he continued, “You kids don’t have any idea what is going on!”
“Nevertheless,” I said calmly, “I am going to SEE what is going on for myself. Don’t worry, father, I will be back shortly.”
“And I am going with him!” shouted Masud, bolting from his chair excitedly, “I want to see this, too!”
Father’s hand shot up to swat Masud in the head, but, true to his name, the boy dodged the blow and was out the door in a flash.
I gave father a reassuring look as I moved to the door, and repeated my promise to return shortly.
He waved his hand dismissively, “Go then! See if I care! But be careful out there! These people are playing with fire.”
He was right, of course, but then the whole country had been playing with fire for some time now.
The people had no jobs, and little hope for the future. Politicians talked about an economy, but never seemed to produce one.
At least… not for the people that most needed it.
I followed Masud as he fairly skipped through the streets, listening as the sound of the crowds grew ever louder.
I had been given no idea what to expect, and the sight that greeted me was overwhelming.
There were people everywhere. Mothers, fathers, children, teenagers, students, workers, and the poor.
Sunni, Shi’a, Sufi, Christians, Copts and even a handful of Bahá’í mingled freely, chanting slogans and holding signs aloft.
The atmosphere was tense, yet strangely joyous, as if some hidden switch had been thrown to douse the sickly light of prejudice.
I spotted my classmate Safiya chanting along with a group of her friends next to one of the barricades.
When she caught my eye, she ran up to embrace me and I could feel the heat of her passion exude from her body.
“Paki!” she beamed, gesturing around her, “Isn’t this wonderful? Look at this! Look at how the people have come together!”
She was radiant.
She took me tightly by the hand and introduced Masud and myself to her friends, and filled me on the details of the protest.
The event had started small, but as the people grew comfortable with one another, friends were called and asked to join in.
The government had yet to respond, so the atmosphere was one of shared, yet friendly frustration.
People feeding off one another’s misery and outrage, and directing it towards a familiar, yet hopelessly distant foe.
As I listened to the stories, I found myself caught up in the tide of outrage, carried on the current of my companions’ zeal.
Before too long, the police arrived and immediately cordoned off the square; surrounding us.
The mood immediately changed.
What had been shared frustration became shared fear as the raw power of our foe was revealed.
Segments of the crowd fractured into sharply divided groups, some calling for calm, others an uptick in agression.
As the rows of uniforms grew ever deeper, the chants shifted from condemnation to an almost pleading call for unity.
Women sought to turn the police to our side, reminding them of their homes, families and children.
Reminding them we were one nation, one people – brothers and sisters.
Their pleas brought a few smiles from the more sympathetic souls, but the lines stood firm, awaiting an order from above.
Fearful, I tried to convince Safiya to move to the back of the crowd, away from the lines of heavily armed guards.
Her face had gone nearly white with fear, and her fingers trembled in mine as I tried to pull her through the crowds.
Masud was no help at all. Shouting obscenities at the police as we fell back through the crowd, he only hindered our progress.
He was alight with rage, vibrating in anticipation of some release that only he could conceive.
Heroism perhaps, but of a kind ignorant of consequence; fearless, yet foolish and rash.
One of the leaders of the protest had been given a megaphone, and as he urged the people to press forward, tensions grew.
As his words echoed, the police launched their first wave, blasting water cannons into the crowds.
Police aggression was met almost immediately by civilian retaliation. The game, it seemed, was on.
I finally managed to get Safiya and Masud to a safe enclave at the rear of the square where we could watch the events unfold.
It was a small cafe, with a TV in the corner surrounded by a host of deeply attentive patrons.
The American news was on, and a story on the protest was about to begin.
This was a moment, I thought. If the Americans were watching, there would be hope. But only if the coverage was just.
Safiya was the first to cry.
Instead of reporting on the protests, the Americans were speculating on which Islamic extremists started the “riots.”
I felt sick to my stomach as Masud began raging at the machine, cursing the Americans’ inability to see beyond a childish fear.
Safiya’s shoulder shook beneath my arms as the horror of American ignorance sank into her bones.
“Why?” she whispered, “Why do they think we’re all terrorists?”
I couldn’t answer, but I could get her out of there before things got worse. The crowds outside had grown more violent.
I told Masud to stay at the cafe while I took Safiya back to our flat some distance from the square.
The police and protesters were now fully engaged, and beatings were being meted out equally.
I steered Safiya around the chaos and into the side streets towards home, all the while whispering words of comfort.
When we reached the flat, Father was waiting at the door with a strained look on his face.
“Where have you been?” he cried, “I’ve been watching the news! The army is on its way! You could have been shot!”
I nodded my head to our guest, “Father, this is Safiya,” I said, “I brought her here for safety. Will you help me, please?”
He blinked at her as if she were a jinn that had suddenly appeared on his doorstep. “Wha..” he stammered, “Who is this?”
“This is Safiya,” I repeated, “She lives behind the lines on the other side of the city. There is no way for her to get home.”
He paused for a second, then snapped back into the world, taking Safiya by the arm and easing her into a chair.
His anger abated, he set about making a pot of tea as he filled me in on the things he’d heard.
The state television was saying almost nothing about the riot, showing only a serene picture of the now night skyline.
The government had declared a curfew, but little was said as to why. The neighbors had brought news of the fighting.
I told him of the protesters, and the American newscast, and for a second thought he would explode yet again.
But a quick glance at Safiya changed his mind, and he merely frowned instead. “Where is your friend, Masud?” he asked.
I told him how I had left Masud at the cafe, and respectfully asked permission to go back to retrieve him.
His eyes widened at my tone and request, and for another moment, I could see him wrestling with his anger.
“You should leave that silly boy to get his brains beat in,” he said, “Maybe then he’ll learn some common sense.”
“Maybe so,” I said, “But I can’t leave him out there tonight. It’s too dangerous, and he is my friend.”
He glanced again at Safiya’s pleading eyes. “Very well,” he sighed, “But put on an extra coat to protect from the stones.”
“Stay in the shadows,” he continued, “Close the walls, but not against them in case they start shooting and there are ricochets.”
“Right now it is little more than a street fight, but believe me, it is going to get much worse as the night moves on.”
I nodded in silence, then went to fetch an extra jumper from the closet. I chose the thickest one I could find.
I hugged them both, and went back out into the night to find my best friend.
What I walked into can only be described as a hell on earth.
Tires had been set afire in the street. Flaming barricades that stopped neither protester or police.
In some areas, cars were burning in front of chanting crowds challenging the police to attack.
The police seemed intimidated by the force of the protesters response, and were reforming lines behind tanks and trucks.
As I made my way through the crowds, I saw numerous injuries borne by companions who, like I, had simply been curious.
Arms and legs peppered by rubber pellets, skulls split by canes and sticks, eyes blinded by tear gas.
As I witnessed these atrocities, my own anger intensified. “Our own people!” I thought, “They do this to our own people!”
All anyone ever wanted was change. The chance to find a better life rather than wallow in the mess we had made.
We had given the world what it wanted. We chose peace where others chose strife. And for what?
So that the powerful could get richer? So that the mighty could treat us as slaves to this thing called globalization?
Why must we suffer so that others may prosper?
I entered the square to see a full-fledged riot in progress.
A burning tank sat melting into the asphalt as the battles raged in the distance.
I found Masud outside the cafe, talking excitedly to a small group of men bearing staves.
They had been patrolling the neighborhood, demanding all strangers identify themselves on pain of fierce injury.
They had apparently won a pitched battle with some government sponsored thugs, successfully repelling the invaders.
Masud’s eyes gleamed as he listened to their tale; enraptured by their bravery and heroism.
I pulled him away from the group and told him it was time to come home. That Father and Safiya were waiting and were worried.
But he didn’t want to come.
He argued with me, begging me to join him in the fight for our freedom and future.
“For the first time in my life,” he said, “I KNOW what it is I need to do! I HAVE to fight for this! WE have to win!”
“No,” I said, “WE don’t have to win anything. We won’t WIN anything!”
He looked at me with something akin to pity, then said, softly, “Yes, we will.”
“Take a look around you, Paki,” he continued, “Look at the people around you. This is not some street fight.”
“This is a fight for the very soul of our country. If we do not make a stand here, then what reason do we have left to live?”
“But what happens when it’s all over?” I asked, “Win or lose, what happens NEXT?”
He clapped his hand on my shoulder and smiled broadly, “That,” he said, “we decide for ourselves.”
“Come now,” he said, pulling me alongside him, “I’ll walk you to a safe road out of the square.”
We were almost to the avenues when a roar went up from the opposite end of the square.
The police were launching another charge, only this time they were armed with lethal weapons!
Shots rang out across the square and Masud and I ran scrambling for cover.
You could hear the bullets ping off the surface of the street, slinging bits of stone like razor sharp shrapnel.
As we passed behind a burning van, two of Masud’s newly found patrol friends came running up beside us.
“This is not good,” said the taller of the two drily.
“Who gives a shit,” said the other, pulling up a piece of pavement, “They’ve got rubber, we’ve got rocks.”
Masud knelt down and began picking up pieces of asphalt as well. “You go, Paki!” he yelled, “I’ll be along shortly!”
I started to argue, but he was already off. About ten steps away, he turned and flashed a victory sign.
And then… he just… fell. Suddenly empty.
And the shot echoed against the walls of the square; against my screams of anguish.
My friend. My goofy, excitable, lucky little friend.
Another shot rang out and Masud’s companions came sprinting towards me. The tall one grabbed me and shouted at me to run.
And I did. May God have mercy on my soul.
I left my best friend since childhood, lying broken on a filthy street, in a broken country in a heartless world.
I ran home, screaming and crying the entire way. My shattered soul shrieking in agony.
The next morning Father returned to the square to look for Masud’s body. I couldn’t bear to go.
The place was in ruins, littered with castaway stones and the husks of burnt out cars.
Mourners crouched next to the dead, and the wails of the grieving brought fresh tears to hardened eyes.
As the afternoon progressed, more protesters returned to the scene of the crime to look upon what had happened.
As their numbers swelled, the world watched with open eyes as a nation named its demons.
As darkness fell, I returned to the sight of my awakening.
And I faced the demons down.
~~ THE END