The unbearable lightness of being thin (or please stop talking about my weight)

thin

Fat – and how to mitigate it – is all around me at the moment.

Yesterday, a friend told me she’d had a gastric bypass operation – and thanks to complications including infected incisions, she’d lost a staggering 35 pounds in three weeks. She’d been feverish, horribly bloated, and spent hours in the emergency ward trying to heal her incisions. Friends told her she looked fantastic though.

I’ve just come off a Viber conversation with a good friend – someone I’ve enjoyed bantering with for years about our fluctuating waistlines and love of all things food. After losing a lot of weight thanks to a hideous bout of food poisoning in India earlier this year, he’s been determined to keep it off, so he’s currently weighing himself every day. Our conversation went something like this:

Me – Isn’t that a little obsessive?

Him – It works for me and it’s really helping to keep the weight off. I know you go to the gym and eat well but you never seem to lose any weight.

Me – (slightly crestfallen). Really? Do I look big?

Him – Well, I’m not going to lie. You don’t look trim.

He’s right. I don’t look trim at the moment. I have a body that’s generously padded at the best of times, and it can go from thin-ish and curvy, to buxom and out there, and to – god forbid – plump and matronly, or just plain fat – by the time you’ve eaten that cupcake. Over the years, I’ve been the butt – pun intended – of many a boob and butt joke, mostly affectionate banter from friends that I’ve had no problem going along with.

But I’ve also been the recipient of many intrusive comments – or what’s commonly known now as fat shaming – from everyone from my mother, who has always been obsessive about fat, to assorted Indian aunties and uncles. In Egypt, where I live now, I’ve had to listen to a number of random comments about my weight and body – both positive and negative – which have led me to conclude that (wealthy) third worlders are actually worse than first worlders where fat’s concerned. The ultimate status symbol in the developing world is a trim toned bod – the skinnier the better.

Being an unmarried woman provides more grist to the mill. I have been inspected by random Indian ‘aunties’– we use the term very loosely in the third world – in a manner not dissimilar to how a farmer, I imagine, would inspect a cow at a farm show. One of these aunties actually popped in to pick my mum up for lunch when I was back in England recently. Her exact words to me were: “Hi. You’ve put on weight. Ok, bye.”

The truth is, my weight does fluctuate – horribly. I wish it didn’t, and I wish the majority of my life wasn’t spent wishing I was 10 pounds– or more – lighter. I wish parts of me didn’t wobble and I didn’t spend far too much time in front of the mirror inspecting said parts, or asking the immortal question: Does my bum look big in this? (which is rhetorical, if you hadn’t figured that out already.) I wish I was one of those women who could eat whatever I wanted without gaining a pound and look good in a burlap sack, if that’s what I wanted.

If fat symbolises a kind of lazy wanton decadence and greedy self-indulgence, thin represents control, discipline and a willingness to conform. There are no fat heroines, and even fewer fat role models. There is a lushness and rebellious sensuality about a fat woman’s body, in fact, that seems to threaten the very foundations of our society. Fat women, in particular, seem to deserve to be shamed.

So, as we consume more than ever before as a society, we applaud weight loss and diets even more, to the point where perceptions of what’s acceptable have become horribly skewed. Thin isn’t about being healthy any more but about being a Size 0. Thigh gaps and clavicles have become fetishised. I’ve been at parties when dangerously skinny women – medically underweight and borderline anorexic – have walked past, to envious sighs of approval from some friends.

I can’t count the number of compliments or approving looks I get when I’ve lost weight, and the general sense of dread I feel when I’ve gained. The majority of conversations with my female friends touch on weight or diets, which I’m sadly as guilty of bringing up as anyone. Most women I know, even the very slim ones, believe they’re not thin enough or toned enough, even when there’s abundant evidence to the contrary.

The fact is that my thin periods haven’t necessarily made me any happier over the long term and they definitely haven’t meant I’ve been particularly healthy – at times the reverse, if anything. Some of the happiest, most rounded people I know – in every sense of the word – are overweight and they’re no less beautiful or confident for it. Their ability to be comfortable in their own skin in the face of overwhelming disapproval is something I both envy and applaud.

Because while I generally abhor political correctness, I can’t help feeling that fat-shaming is one of the last socially acceptable forms of bigotry. I’m not interested in thin shaming any more than I am fat-shaming and I understand the desire to be thin – I’ve lived that my whole life. But I wish we were kinder and a little more sensitive about how we went about it, both on ourselves and on others.

In my own life now, I strive constantly, and sometimes desperately, for balance, to battle all the negativity out there. I try not to take on board the comments I hear, whether positive or negative. I aim for strong rather than skinny – to eat well and to move my body as much as possible, since time and experience have shown that this works for me. If a friend wants me to celebrate their weight loss, I try also to point out that he or she looked great before.

It may be difficult to believe at times, but we are so much more than our bodies.

On breaking up and a bar named Freedom

horreya stella_fotor

 

It is a sign of growing up, I think, that when my relationship came to its predictable – but still quietly devastating – end last week, I didn’t turn to a vodka (or three) to wash away my broken-heart blues. Nor did I call on the army of hardy friends who used to commiserate with me in these things (partly because I now live in Cairo and said friends, such as I still have them, are inaccessible for reasons of sheer distance). Nor did I sit for hours in a slightly darkened room, chain-smoking cigarettes and listening to maudlin love songs (David Gray, anyone?) in some tragic parody of a lovesick teenager.

No. This time I chose to Keep Myself Busy in a bid for Germanic efficiency, rather than the Gallic grand gestures I used to favour. My logic is this: all the energy, time and mind-and-heart space I invested in the great love must be transferred elsewhere if I am to survive this. I’m not sure the logic-over-love scenario is one that works for everyone, but it’s applicable in my case, partly because our end – sad as it was – was always out there on the horizon, like those storm clouds that linger on a beautiful day. And as with all good dramas, we’d had several dress rehearsals along the way.

So I called every good friend I had and set up dates and activities that would keep me occupied for at least the next several days. I went shopping in City Stars with one and spent a glorious afternoon lunching and shopping (why does trying on a new pair of shoes seem to reach the parts of a female soul that other things can’t?). And I called another good friend for a more cultural evening Downtown – somewhere I rarely venture to these days from my cosy Zamalek bubble.

Thus it was that we spent a suitably intellectual – and very funny – evening catching up on life over mezze in one of Cairo’s oldest restaurants, venturing to the Townhouse Gallery afterwards for a spot of Culture, and finishing up in Horreya, or “Freedom” in Arabic – a Downtown institution and rare alcohol-serving ahwa that is the haunt of wannabe intellectuals, trendy expats and a surprising number of gay men – both foreign and, dare I say it, Egyptian.

It had become almost a rite-of-passage for me – this trip to Horreya – seeing as I’d lived in Cairo for more than a year and hadn’t yet ventured there. With dreams of domestic bliss and babies disintegrating faster than a cheap Downtown dress, and sad singledom furiously beckoning, a trip there seemed more important than ever. In other words, swapping faux Zamalek glamour for hard-core Downtown grunge – two harassed-looking waiters, grim fluorescent lighting that did nothing to hide the grimy ceilings and floors, ominously cracked mirrors, and a menu that seemed to consist entirely of Stellas – made infinite sense to me at this particular point in my life.

So we ventured in and found a table and had a Stella each and I tried surreptitiously to people-watch through the broken mirror opposite me. In places like this, obvious people-watching is not cool – a bit like getting your camera out at an exclusive dinner party. I was struck by the hideously bright lighting first, and then the men intently playing backgammon in a corner (in the non-alcoholic section, this being Egypt after all), and then the huge crowded table behind us, packed with people so disparate it was impossible not to wonder what could possibly have brought them all together.

It turned out that it was a very sociable gay Yemeni who was responsible for this. Determined to spread the party mood around, he insisted we be given a plate of food from his table. As he told us when he ambled across, he was celebrating, of all things, the acquisition of a British passport, which he’d gained by marrying an older Englishman three years ago.

I was surprised, given the Daily Mail-inspired Cretan maze of British immigration law, but happy for him. “Do you love him?” I asked, after he had told us for the third time about the three homes his husband had bought for him and the different countries he could now live in (with England being very low down on the list). His careful pause before the “yes” suggested that love – on his part, at least – may not have been the main motivation for this particular union.

Did Horreya live up to its hype? In many ways: yes. Would we have been invited into the celebrations of a gay Yemeni and his entourage in the generic coffee chains that I frequent in Zamalek? Never.

Here in the heart of downtown Cairo, all the contradictions of daily Egyptian life came together in one glorious tumble – like a washing machine in full spin. A gay man could celebrate his marriage and the fruits of it in a society where homosexuality does not exist, in a café that looked like a traditional Egyptian ahwa but served alcohol, and in a space where different nationalities and classes and age groups blended together happily, in a kind of Boho Benetton ad. But it is the curse of our post-modern age that I could never quite forget that I was in Horreya. A dive by any other name is surely still a dive.

And, no matter how much I may want to deny it, age catches up with you in the end. We stayed for a couple of hours or so, nursing our individual beers, enjoying our conversation and the food we had unexpectedly been given. I happened to catch sight of the time at around 10.30pm and asked whether my friend wanted to stay. Neither of us, it turned out, wanted another beer, and she was also in need of a toilet break. The toilets here are terrible, she said, so it might be easier to go home. I agreed, willingly. Our night had been eventful, funny and suitably satisfying and it led me on this occasion happily to my bed.

Once I was incapable of leaving a party early in case I missed a piece of the action. Is it wisdom or cynicism now that assures me there will always be a party going on somewhere and I will, in fact, miss very little I haven’t experienced already? It seems to me that, with age, a bite of the apple is now often as satisfactory – if not more so – than a whole one.

That’s got to be a good thing, somewhere down the line.

(Full disclosure – I wrote this piece around six years ago now, when my last relationship was coming to an end and as I was approaching my 40th birthday, but never got around to publishing it. I have not been back to Horreya since. )   

Cairo: Remembrance of Things Past

party 2

Another season in Cairo after an especially long sojourn back home and I am already missing old friends. I have returned after a fresh wave of departures – the yearly diaspora that is part of life for foreigners here. This round has been especially harsh; it feels like my circle has dissipated overnight. I thought I had taken precautions to maintain my friendships as my relationship with S deepened, but I hadn’t counted on the loss of impetus to make new ones.

The ghosts of old friends pervade the city. In that home on the corner, I once partied late into the night, as old Egyptian belly dance movies flickered on a wall behind us. On another occasion – it must have been winter – we huddled up on the balcony with our drinks over a makeshift fire, shooting the breeze til dawn and exhaustion crept in. When other friends lived there, I attended sunny barbecues in the walled-off garden – a rarity in this city of grey high-rises – eating mezze and grilled meats and watching piles of empties mount up in the corner.

In that flat just up the road, other friends held sophisticated soirees attended by a lively crowd of diplomats and journalists and activists, as the Nile sparkled beautifully in the distance. In this favourite restaurant – now sadly closed – I met many friends over the years, sometimes for big crowded brunches, at others for intimate one-on-ones over fluffy scrambled eggs and toast. We talked about our relationships, our jobs, the joys and challenges of babies, the choices we had made that had brought us to this place at this moment in time.

At that café overlooking the Nile, I brunched with other friends – long, lazy Lebanese breakfasts with Om Kolthoum providing the soundtrack, punctuated by the sounds of the river, cooled by industrial-sized fans. There were felucca rides too with varied friends – more motorboat than traditional felucca in this stretch of the river – but a chance still to escape the crowded streets. On one memorable occasion, I wandered here with a couple of friends for an early morning felucca after an all-night party, drinking in the silence as the sun crept up.

Just around the corner, in that flat with the huge terrace, were more amazing parties – tables laden with food and drink, a butler, sometimes a DJ – and a whole crowd of people who have now departed. Over the years, I have attended parties and gatherings in almost every street in this upscale neighbourhood and their memories linger in the air – Gatsbyesque reminders that the best always seems to be behind us. I am not sure if it is the city that has changed or me. I suspect we have both grown wearier over time.

In this crowded arts centre many years ago, I saw a stirring oud concert with my love at the time – the man who brought me back to this city after my first visit here. Down that busy main street, I sat with a dear friend for mint tea and shisha, discussing our demons and the difficulties of being students again in our 30s. Here too, I walked down to Tahrir with other friends during the revolution – such as it was – a few years later, sometimes fearful, sometimes in awe of my adopted city. I remember our journey down here towards the square in a big group on the night Mubarak fell.

I am the only one left now.

For such a big city, Cairo expat life can feel remarkably provincial – like being on a university campus, with just a few degrees separating you from everyone else in your narrow, privileged circle, and the same unspoken awareness that time is transitory and real life on pause. I remember the many parties I hosted myself – the revolution party, end-of-curfew party, pre- and post-Ramadan celebrations, birthdays, X’mas and New Year’s shindigs. The vast majority of those who attended – both Egyptian and foreign – have now left, their lives overtaken by new jobs, new destinations, husbands, wives or babies.

There are new people now. I met one the other day – a young American girl of 23 who has been here for a year, breathless in her love for her new life here. I was like that once, I think, but I am weighted down by memories now. Goodbyes are more painful when you are far from home – your friendships more intense, heightened by the knowledge that sooner, rather than later, you will part.

In time they will renew themselves – I have been here long enough to know that. For the moment though, I am in limbo, mired in the past, not quite willing to embrace the future.

It doesn’t matter if you bleed (A blogger’s manifesto)

writing

I am writing again, for the first time in more than a year.

Truth be told, I was a little overwhelmed by the success of the last piece, which was, ironically, about writers’ block and the need to overcome it. It didn’t go viral, but by the modest standards of this blog, it may as well have done. I was touched by the depth and breadth of the responses and determined to answer them all. For a while there, it seemed as if I’d finally broken the block, and something profound had occurred. Somewhere along the way though, that turned. I couldn’t face an empty page anymore.

I’m still not entirely sure why. Days turned into weeks and then into months and I wasn’t producing anything – in fact, I was more reluctant to write than ever before. Perhaps I worried subconsciously about the number of followers I’d gained and how I would follow the last piece, or perhaps my modest success had simply highlighted the futility of the whole thing (I am susceptible to existential malaise at the best of times). I realise that I am one of those people who are more frightened of success than failure. Go figure.

The truth – and one that I don’t think I touched on in that last piece – is that it also takes a certain amount of arrogance to expose your writing to the world, to believe what you’re saying is worth reading. That makes me uncomfortable. I questioned my deeper motives for blogging. My ultimate aim as a writer is to be authentic – to find my voice and remain true to that. Comments I’d happened to read from a number of successful bloggers worried me – that their blogs had become all-consuming and skewed their voices, to the point that they’d lost sight of who they were, as writers and as people.

But to echo my previous piece – to call myself a writer, I must write. To find my voice – an authentic voice – I must write even more. I’m still a perfectionist and I still don’t like a lot of my writing but the more I write, the easier it gets. I’ve subscribed to a few writers’ inspiration sites lately too and it’s reminded me again that the majority of us find it difficult, that first drafts often suck, and that perseverance is all. The alternative is to live in fear and live a life that feels forever unfulfilled.

As Hemingway put it: There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.

On coping with writer’s block (or the lies we tell ourselves along the way)

writing 2

 

I haven’t written in a very long time.

I joined a creative writing class a while ago to help me through my ‘writer’s block’ – can you call yourself a writer if you don’t write? – and I managed to produce a total of 500 words over the entire four-week course. A paltry amount by any standards, though the course itself was brilliant.

One of the suggestions from my fellow writers was to write about why I don’t write. I’ve been thinking a lot about the reasons I don’t write lately so this seemed as good a place to kick off my writing again as any. And also address why I call myself a writer in the first place – a hard sell in the writing void of the last few months.

In my professional life, I have been a public relations consultant, a journalist and now, an editor. Words play a big part in all of these professions, but using words professionally can also sound their death knell (which is why journalists and copywriters in England are often referred to as hacks, and why I struggled during the creative writing course to allow myself to indulge in the sheer poetry and playfulness of language).

Ultimately, I call myself a writer because it’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. My love of writing and books has imprinted itself on every aspect of my life, from a natural affinity and love for bookshops and libraries to the deep and immediate connection I feel with other writers, my tendency to navigate the world verbally rather than visually, and the nagging sense that I am failing in something vital when I don’t write. If you believe, as I do, that everyone has something to offer the world, then this is mine.

But my body of work as a writer at this point in time is pitiful – there’s no other word for it. I’ve journaled, of course – though not regularly enough – and my computer is littered with pieces I’ve started and never finished: scraps of reviews, features, blogs that never developed into anything, ideas for stories/blogs that never materialized.

I’ve joined and started my own writing groups, online and real world, and I’ve probably read every article on how to get writing or why we procrastinate you can imagine. I even dumped my trusty Samsung PC and invested in a gorgeous MacBook Air a couple of years ago so I could lug my computer to cafes more easily and write more. And I still haven’t mastered the art of writing consistently. Or writing at all.

 

This is what I’ve learned along the way:

 

1. Writing is hard

Ok – it’s not hard in the way that feeding your kids is when you’re broke, or doing backbreaking manual labour for a pittance, or dealing with a terminal disease, or bereavement, or any of the other terrible tragedies that befall us in life. But it’s hard because, if it’s going to be any good, at some point or another, you’ll be digging deep inside your own personal well for inspiration.

You’ll be foraging for scraps and ideas, and sometimes you’ll be venturing into the darkness – into shadowy places in the recesses of your mind or heart that you’ve kept locked away for a reason. It takes courage to do that – which is why, I think, so much great art springs from misery. When you’re already at the bottom, there’s nowhere else to go but up.

 

2. Writing is extra hard when you’re a perfectionist

Perfectionism is crippling and something that I believe is particularly crippling for the female of the species. I don’t want to stray into the reasons for that but I do remember being struck at my first newspaper by how much quicker my male colleagues produced copy. For me, it often feels more like giving birth – forgive the analogy – and the labour pains can be excruciating (I apologise in advance to the mums out there). Every word has to be just right and the structure and cadence have to be perfect too, which can make writing both tedious and exhausting – and very, very slow.

 

3. You’re baring your soul

Especially if you’re writing a personal blog but this applies all round, I think. I still remember the anxiety I felt when my first byline appeared as a journalist. Suddenly hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of people were going to be reading something that I wrote (and if I was lucky and reasonably good at what I did, hadn’t been butchered by a sub having a bad day).

The best analogy I can use is that I felt strangely naked. This was actually for a local newspaper and the best riposte – then and now – to anyone getting precious about their copy is the old British adage that “today’s news is tomorrow’s fish ‘n chips paper.” Though in our digital age, what you write is out there pretty much forever. That’s a helluva load to bear at times.

 

4. Writing is lonely

This might be the toughest one of all and the reason why so many of us freelance writers, in particular, put it off for as long as possible. The truth is, for many writers, the only thing that gets us moving is a deadline – usually one wielded by a terrifying editor, and/or one that your next check depends on.

Writing for any other reason is a tortuous (see point 1) and deeply lonely process that requires a commitment to sitting at your chosen writing spot by yourself for as long as it takes to produce something. And a blank page staring back at you is, quite frankly, a terrifying thing. This is when watching terrible reality TV/cleaning the house/doing the washing up/catching up on your emails or Facebook/ tidying your wardrobe or performing just about any other mundane chore you’ve been putting off for ages suddenly becomes very appealing.

Combine this with the points that I’ve listed above and it’s a miracle that anything’s produced at all.

 

5. Writers have the most creative excuses (or, no one rationalises like a writer)

During my times of block – which have been too many to recount – I’ve come up with increasingly desperate strategies to a) either increase my output or b) explain why I’m blocked in the first place. These have ranged from getting rid of my Samsung in favour of a lighter computer (all writers fantasize about increased portability and how it will stimulate their writing) to wanting to move to a desert island or, failing that, to move my desk/adjust my writing area (since the feng shui is clearly wrong or the sun’s shining in the wrong spot), to the necessity for writing companions (hence the numerous writing groups), to subscribing to various writing sites, to reading countless articles on the sources of other writers’ inspiration, in the hope that somehow the magic will rub off.

None of this works. It’s all obfuscation – or, to paraphrase both Nike and Bukowski – real writers just do it.

 

6. Writers’ egos are fragile      

Writers, by nature, are sensitive folk and particularly vulnerable to criticism and critique, especially if we’re putting ourselves out there on a regular basis. Of course, few people will actually critique you to your face – unless you’ve hit the big time and written a bestseller or gone viral – though again, the Internet’s changed up the game and brought your readership virtually to your desk now.

But I’d hazard a guess that many of us writers fear the judgment of our peers in particular. We are also our own worst critics, especially if you’re also an editor like me. I cast a critical eye on most things I read, including my own work – when I can bear to re-read it at all. The problem is that it’s all entirely subjective anyway which means there’s never going to be a proper consensus on whether something’s good or not. You’ve just got to grin and bear it.

 

7. Creativity and discipline are mutually exclusive

Now this isn’t strictly true or no great art would ever have been produced but I think you know what I mean. For all of the reasons listed above, and possibly a few others, our tendency is to look at the production of anything ‘artistic’ as a spontaneous process – a cathartic outpouring, if you like. As a culture, we’ve always romanticised the mad genius/tortured artist archetype, something that other artistic souls are particularly susceptible to (I can definitely attest to this). It takes growing up to realize that writing is a craft that requires dedication and practice, and a little discipline in the process will take you an awful long way.

 

Ultimately, the writer’s paradox is this – you battle your fragile ego and swallow the loneliness and misery and angst of the process because you want to reach out and connect, as EM Forster famously said. Because this is your way of making sense of the world and you’d like to – need to! – share it, in the hope that someone else out there feels the same way too. And because, in some small way, you’re repaying the countless writers, journalists and bloggers who enlivened your world for a moment, or made you think, or moved you to tears or joy or laughter, simply by choosing the right words.

Do I have any advice for any of you struggling with the block right now? This – the only thing I’ve consistently heard and the only thing that really makes sense: Stop making excuses and just do it. If you can inject some discipline into your writing practice, even better. Most of all, just write.

We’re writers – that’s what we do.

 

 

 

15 things I learnt from Facebook

 

facebook

 

As an expat and freelance editor and writer working mainly from home, battling procrastination on a daily basis, I’m on Facebook a lot. It’s the virtual equivalent of people watching in a favourite café – with the added benefit that you actually know the people and can interact with their lives. Which can be both a good and a bad thing, depending on my mood – and has also made me especially aware of the things I like and dislike about it. At the risk of sounding like someone who mostly inhabits a sad virtual world instead of the real one, these are some of the things I’ve learnt from Facebook:

 

1.If citizen journalism is taking over the world, citizen PR, which Facebook pioneered, comes a close second. It’s the perfect opportunity to present your best self to the world – edited highlights only.

2. Which should come with a disclaimer: it can be bad for your health. I can’t count the number of times I’ve depressed myself looking at the perfect, activity-filled lives of my friends – until I realize they’re probably thinking the same of my life.

3. You can never have too many ‘likes.’ A post without likes is rather like seeing someone standing all alone at a party. Liking someone else’s post is also a wonderfully simple way to show you care.

4. The number of friends you have means nothing. I have more than 700. Despite that, I can go a day or two without speaking to a real person. It’s like cable TV – you can have 500 channels and there’s still nothing you feel like watching.

5. There’s a virtual voyeur in all of us. It’s incredible how easy it is to find yourself perusing some random person’s profile in a ‘brief’ break from the job at hand.

6. It’s possible to learn stuff. Good stuff. Interesting/quirky/funny posts that I’d never have come across otherwise (unless I was on Twitter, in which case I’d be completely overwhelmed and vow never to venture online again).

7. It’s also possible to deepen your relationships. Some of my favourite Facebook friends are people I’ve met briefly but really got to appreciate online, when I discovered we shared similar values/senses of humour/political beliefs.

8. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true.

9. Pithy, inspirational quotes are over-rated. I appreciate the sentiment – I’m a sucker for a good Rumi quote myself – but the best ones have done the rounds too often.

10. Humour is definitely subjective.

11. People like good news. And they like to ‘like’ good news. I’ve come to the conclusion that affirming someone else’s good fortune makes us all feel like better human beings. Which also reaffirms my faith in human nature.

12. I get a buzz every time I see the red number – because I have no idea who’s trying to contact me or has just done or said something relevant, and it’s happening in real time. The potential for pleasant (and unpleasant) surprises is infinite.

13. The majority of people want to be nice. I’ve bared my soul on more than a few occasions and I’ve been genuinely touched by the responses I’ve received.

14. It’s addictive –  partly because it taps into our baser instincts:  the need for control, instant gratification, gossip. But it also satisfies a deeper human urge – the need to connect, to find commonality, to share.

15. There’s no such a thing as a typical Facebook user. My friends comprise all ages, nationalities, political beliefs, sexualities, religions and taste levels, which makes my newsfeed a pretty interesting place.

 

There’s an argument you hear a lot these days that the Internet has increased the quantity, but reduced the quality, of our communications with each other. I’m not sure I buy into that – I think it’s entirely possible to have both, and to deepen your relationships in simple and surprising ways.

Because the older I get, the more I realise how important it is to connect and stay connected to people, and Facebook’s helped me do that in a way that was impossible just five years ago. For that, I’m grateful.

A Tale of Two Revolutions: Tahrir Then and Now

 

We’re walking along the Corniche El Nil towards Tahrir – a journey I made several times before during what will soon be called Egypt’s ‘first’ revolution, two and a half years ago. I am with my Egyptian boyfriend and we are going to celebrate the ‘coup d’un peuple’ that has just unseated President Mohamed Morsi, after four days of massive protests. Or rather, I am there to accompany him as he celebrates; as a foreigner, this is neither my battle nor my victory, despite my love for this country.

The noise is deafening. Car horns honk frantically – the familiar five-note beat that provides the soundtrack to most celebrations here. Drumbeats echo in the distance. Fireworks explode randomly around us – occasionally I hear gunshots too. Every other person seems to have a vuvuzela and all of them seem to be going off in my ear. Teenagers hang out of car windows, waving flags and shouting anti-Morsi and pro-Egypt slogans. Every now and then, a motorbike revs up behind us on the pavement and we scramble for cover.

I made a similar journey when Mubarak fell, back in February 2011, with a motley group, mostly expats, all of us in love with Egypt and determined to show our solidarity with our Egyptian friends and colleagues.  Back then, the women among us weren’t afraid of being mob raped or violently assaulted. Tonight, it is about all I can think of.

Gang rapes and sexual assaults in Tahrir have come to the forefront again over this latest protest, thanks to a vigorous campaign by groups like Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Tahrir Bodyguard. They monitor the teeming square, and provide regular, depressing updates. Sixty-eight women have been the victims of such assaults over the last couple of days (that figure is much higher now). I hear of one case on Friday, two days before the main protests are due to begin – a young European girl, stripped naked by around 100 men, groped, fingered and probed until she bled, finally taken to hospital where she required stitches.

I am a woman who values my independence and my freedom but tonight I cling to Sherif’s hand like my life depends on it. I am sure the other women were also accompanied by friends, probably even male friends, before they found themselves separated in the melee and set upon like prey. Everywhere, there are groups of young men – these too-thin, slightly feral, lithe, boy-men that congregate in Tahrir, waving flags, blowing their vuvuzelas, occasionally ripping off their T-shirts and breaking into sensual, impromptu dances.

We walk past Maspero and around the Egyptian Museum, dodging motorcycles and errant flags, trying to carve a path amongst the crowds. I can feel eyes flickering over me and I sense how easily things can change – how mob celebrations can turn into mob carnage in an instant. In the midst of it all, I see a couple holding a baby who is – miraculously – sleeping peacefully through this din. Only in Egypt, I think. I see the crowds surging ahead of me as the square comes into view.

On TV, Tahrir’s power is transcendent. You see a vast homogenous crowd, seemingly moving together in harmony, occasionally lit up by flickering lasers and random fireworks, shrouded in Cairo’s iconic skyline. Up close, it’s a disparate, teeming mess – a cacophony of voices, fireworks, music, traffic – of people moving in different directions, hawkers selling popcorn, mahalabiya, tameya, cotton candy. At this time of night too, it is overwhelmingly young and male.

There’s a frantic edge to the celebrations that I don’t recall in 2011. Despite aberrations like the Battle of the Camel, Tahrir then had become a sacred space – the symbolic heartland of an impossible revolution. The majority of us moved around freely (until, ironically, the night that Mubarak fell, when Cairo’s pandemic of sexual harassment returned to the square). Amid those celebrations, there was wonder, a sense of incredulity and an exuberant, unfettered joy – as if we had all stumbled into the same dream by mistake. Anything and everything seemed possible.

In the two and a half years since, however, Tahrir has borne witness to terror:  bloody battles and tragic deaths magnified by teargas and thugs, horrific gang rapes and assaults, terrible army intransigence, and an exclusive, rather than inclusive, government, at a time when the country desperately needed unity.  From being the heartland of hope, it became a place of no hope, tinged with darkness, where the city’s poor and disenfranchised flocked, littered with rubbish, street hawkers and a million shattered dreams.

Some of that darkness haunts the square still and it is present tonight – the square is dirtier, the people inside poorer, the dancing more frantic. The mood is part blood-letting, part celebration and part sheer relief.  The lumbering, charisma-free (former) president, sheltering under his notions of shariya (legitimacy), has left a country in worse condition than before – plagued by inflation, a faltering currency, power cuts, fuel shortages, sectarian strife and rising crime rates. Egypt has learned that revolutions, glorious though they may be, are only the beginning and the concept of democracy is flawed and fallible. And while millions may agree on removing an unpopular leader, agreeing on what comes next is much, much harder.

The last two years laid bare the fault lines that thirty years of dictatorship tried desperately to conceal – a poorly educated populace with no jobs and fewer opportunities, endemic harassment, institutionalized sexism and sectarianism, entrenched economic and political divides, and a crippling lack of leaders with the experience and moral authority to unite the country and lead it into the future. In Egypt’s favour are its people: pragmatic, resilient – and unwilling to suffer fools gladly. Few countries get a second chance at a revolution. If  a fraction of the energy that drew millions to Tahrir the first time round can be properly harnessed this time, there may just be a light at the end of this tunnel. Once again, we watch, we wait and we hope.