Too Much Tear Gas on Mansour Street, Near Ministry of Interior: Cairo, Egypt Feb 3rd 2012

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After the Port Said soccer game tragedy, hundreds of anti SCAF protestors–including both Ahly and Zamalek Ultras–gather in front of the Ministry of Defense to demand the removal of the Egyptian military regime. The incidents at the game were considered a clear move by the military: to punish the involvement of soccer fan groups (Ultras) in protesting against SCAF. It was also clear to everyone that, even if the incident wasn’t arranged by SCAF forces, that SCAF did nothing to stop the incident from continuing and getting worse, either.

I went down with my live stream group to gather some footage of the clashes and rioting. We found that the walls that had previously barricaded the roads leading to Ministry of Interior were now scattered blocks of cement–allowing a short line of exit and entrance to Mohamed Mahmoud street. There were people standing and sitting on the blocks; and many photographing the injured coming out. That is, being carried on motorcycles since the barricades did not really allow any ambulances to enter the area. The transport line of injured and possibly dead people exiting was endless. People were pleading with some protestors, including myself, not to enter, saying that we don’t need any more martyrs. Around 1,000 people had been killed since the revolution started and not one military or government official has been prosecuted yet.

Strangely, when I went beyond the barricades and down all the way to the Ministry of Interior, down to the crossings of Mohamed Mahmound and Mansour street, the scene was a very different one. There was anger of course. But many people were cheering and smiling. Some had nervous smiles–yet still stressing that we have to continue to stay positive.

We would gather in the crossings, yelling anti-SCAF slogans and shielding our heads from any tear gas canisters that might be thrown, until SCAF forces would do exactly that. Then what do we do? we RUN!!! Because we were also being shot at with shotgun shells. What amazes me still is that as soon as the gas would start to disappear, everyone was already on their way back; cheering and smiling and carrying flags. Many people were making jokes. Sometimes there would be false alarms and we would run anyway. There were many children there (without goggles or safety masks) who would grab my hands and others when the tear gas would blind our eyes, leading us to safety or to the volunteer doctors. There were both men and women doctors and nurses; and they never seemed to flinch. Some were standing all the way on the front lines, and as soon a person got injured these ones would run to their aid. Any one in need of more serious medical help would be placed on the volunteer motorcycles to be brought back to a makeshift hospital close to the conflict, or placed in an ambulance to be rushed to a city hospital. There were many of those motorcyclists; and it seemed like one of those completely spontaneous creative solutions to a problem they were dealing with.

This was my first experience in such clashes, photographing and reporting, and I must say I found a few things both very inspiring and very strange. I noticed that on the ground there was no fear. I’m not sure whether it was due to the high spirits or the community I was surrounded by, but I soon realized that fear was the inability to help, and in that situation I felt that I was able to help. When you see an injured person in a photograph or on television, you tend to feel an awful lot of sympathy for that person, and that creates a feeling of defeat and fear towards the fate and future of our fellow beings. However, when actually participating in the action, it was very simple to me. If you see some one injured, you try to carry them–or call people to help. You hear bullets being shot, you hide–not out of fear but out of necessity.

There was an overwhelming amount of tear gas around us and sometimes what seemed like a couple of dozens of canisters being shot at us at the same time. My gas mask usually worked, but when the clouds of smoke engulfed me there was no air to breathe. The lack of oxygen would make me dizzy, and, because I couldn’t see well with the goggles I bought, I preferred to go without them. This meant many moments of my vision blacking out and using other senses to escape. Yet no one was alone there. As soon as I was blinded many would ask if I wanted help getting back to the safe areas.

It was completely clear and proven to me that there were many infiltrators possibly SCAF members who blended in with the crowds or paid the citizens. Earlier that morning there had been people on the roofs of surrounding building, throwing rocks at us. This was before clashes got bad that night. But, the most frightening moment was one of the times we were running on the side street–to escape some military forces who were coming after us. At that point we encountered a group of civilian dressed people making a wall with their bodies, guiding us to what they said was an alley way and escape route. That alley way was a dead-end we realized. If those people were protestors then they would have also gotten beaten and arrested when the military forces arrived. It made no sense. Why would they send us into the alley? Because of my skepticism, I was one of the last to enter that dead-end–leaving me in front, with those suspect “protestors” blocking the way back out from the alley. I asked one man to let me go out, because I had changed my mind and would run elsewhere. He refused.

Right at that moment, I hear the people behind me screaming: “It’s a trap!! It’s a dead-end!” Now, I’m definitely not a big guy, and don’t consider my self one of the strongest, but something took me over at that moment. It was a desperation to survive that night. I found myself somehow, using all my force, successfully pushing three guys onto the ground. After that, everyone followed and it was a flood of people pushing and escaping that dead-end. As I was running one of the guys who had been blocking the rest of us had caught up and was trying to steal my phone while I live-streamed. His hand slipped–he didn’t get a good grasp–but the rest of the group grabbed him anyway and pushed him against a wall. They didn’t hurt him but asked him if he was crazy to be trying to steal a phone while running for his life. The man seemed startled and didn’t respond. And we all continued to run.

In my next edit of photos–photos of my last day in Cairo–I will share an experience of great solidarity. There was a particular group of children running around, joking, asking me to take their pictures while they are being shot at. Those unmasked children saved me several times, including once when I was stuck stepping over barbed wire and being stampeded over by protestors running from shotgun shells.

I will be posting some more photographs of this day’s daytime. soon.

Photos by Zack Helwa

Words by Zack Helwa

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MLKj Day, Riverside Church, NYC

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A selection of experiences. Here are some things I wrote in my notebook on #J15 MLKj. I know I missed a lot, but everyone who spoke and sang was important.

On the steps of St. John the Divine; three hundred in the freezing cold. That is my estimate. Three hundred hopping and huffing against the wind. I swear it’s colder uptown than in the village. Night presses down on us. At the appointed time, three hundred begin west, towards Broadway. And in the shelter of 111th street–protected from the corridor of wind that howls up avenues–we begin to sing. “This little light of mine.. I’m gonna let it shine..” I like singing. The lyrics are converted: “Don’t let the mayor throw you out, I’m gonna let it shine,”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f80oo097MnQ

March up Broadway, north! It is such a novelty march in the street. I wonder if these guys have a permit. We have candles in little cups, and they keep blowing out. I have really good matches. I help.

Arriving at Riverside Church–stretching white and highlighted by lights, reaching into the darkness, standing stolid on the bank of the river–no one knows what the plan is and we hope they will let us in. They do. I fight a panicked feeling in the slow press of people.

Inside: milling around, shouting hello to friends–warmth. The cathedral is impressive. The architecture; up, up! Brick and stone,how do they keep all this space so warm? The altar is illuminated with stage lights, and there is a big projection screen hung from the heights, showing images of Martin Luther King Jr. The lights dim theatrically, and a hush falls over us. A corps of photographers click and flash stage left. Sound bytes of his speeches crackle and reverberate.

Lights up and surprise! Women in white cotton dresses enter from the back, drumming and dancing; people stand and clap. The drumming women dance to the front, trilling and shouting. And when they finish, a young lady steps up to the mic. “Peace, family”, she says. She sings an original. She sings with short stops. She leaves space between her words for listeners to hear themselves, their own questions, their own cries of joy and anguish.

Later, speakers rouse us. Three hundred respond so visibly, so audibly. We are not passive. We let you know if we like your words or not. One man is boo-ed. There is applause, but also twinkle fingers. Hands and arms shoot up and down like whack-a-mole. Like young plants growing and dying in fast forward. My eyes focus out and the altar is a white glare. My eyes focus out and my body focuses in–right up to the altar.

Patti Smith does not receive any introductory words, nor does anyone wait for her to speak before cheering and clapping. Her poem is very beautiful.

An African man, Salieu Suso, plays a stringed instrument with a giant gourd, as big as he is. It’s called a kora. I cannot see his finger movements, they are so fast and far away. There are journeys and journeys in the sound, playful and yearning. Echoes vibrate strangely in the aisles along the nave; it sounds like a woman murmuring and whimpering with the stringed instrument. Then comes the musician’s own voice, calling out to something across a great distance.

Occupy the Hood representatives make shout-outs. Malik Rhasaan reminds us all that outside these walls, only a few blocks away, there are people sleeping in that cold. There are people who don’t have enough to eat. A man, woman and child get on the stage/altar. Members of the music group Global Block and a toddler. They rap “I got love for my country with their fists in the air!” And immediately fists are in the air. The toddler wobbles and dances and asks for high-fives.

We break into chant “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street!” The speakers repeat the word: “economic” over and over. The speakers say over and over: “get money out of politics.” But one man makes the excellent point: politics is the economy concentrated.

Then three red robes against off-white stone. The Tibetan Buddhist monks present a prayer for world peace. It is throat singing. Deep and gritty and awkward. The strangeness is pretty to me. It makes many uncomfortable. Do not laugh during the prayer for world peace, please.

An eloquent Muslim woman is next. Daisy Khan articulates our world pain. Her love is intelligent and fierce. She lights a candle with a tall Japanese man, a Buddhist monk as well. They light a candle together for solidarity, for oneness and light.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oaXwHPGhXg8&feature=related

The Reverend T.K. Nakagaki can not stop giggling and bowing as he speaks. I want to put him in my pocket and take him home. Only one moment of silence, it is all he asks of us. And he hits a bell. Pure tones resound and gold flashes in my eyes. Nakagaki says that we must rest; we must not think.

Yoko Ono sent us a holiday greeting card. It is read aloud, briefly.

Then chaos breaks out, occupy style. A man to my left screams “mic check!” We obey. We repeat his pontifications. The emcee is patient,also respecting this ritual, almost sacred act of utilizing the human mic.  But when the anonymous man finishes, a woman up front near the altar begins. And then another. Given the forum, how can people resist? Members of the audience stand, forming triangles with their fingers (point of process) rolling their arms (we get the point) and, gasp! one young man even makes and X with his forearms (block). Scandalous. Some are getting upset.

Three young women are on the stage. The Mahina Movement. Excuse me, but it’s time for us to sing. One of them says into a microphone “mic check.” We respond “mic check!” She repeats “mic check.” We respond “mic check!” A mic into a mic and repeated back to her from our mouths. She has our attention.

Their voices are beautiful. They sing “Sugarland.” Spectators forget the barriers, the ceremony, and towards the end of the song many are dancing in front of the altar. It reminds me of the drum corps at Zuccotti.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J20MHLpi-oc

It’s over, and I’m hungry. We are dismissed by the St. Christopher’s Gospel Choir. We mill and laugh and say hello to friends. And then out into the freezing cold again, and a nap on the train.

Words by Kathleen Purcell

Photographs by Zack Helwa

Video stolen from nikiparrox and CitizenRadio, on youtube.

Interview with Egyptian resident and Friend Amr Aboulnasr

    • so let me just ask you what has happened this past weekend and how is it different then a few weeks ago before the first round of elections?

    • there is a sense that things are worst this time around. Some incidents seemed under reported last month that now seem to be resurfacing. How bad is it really?

  • December 19

    Amr Aboulnasr

    • i don’t really know what you see or read out there out there

    • but

    • if by bad u mean how violent it is, then it’s not as bas as last month

    • in november

    • in clashes with the police, 10s lost their eyes to rubber bullets and khartoosh

    • 45 People died, and 800 injured!!

    • that’s like a death toll in some military operation!

  • December 19

    Zack Helwa

    • what about live ammunition?

    • was there real bullets used back in nov as well?

  • December 19

    Amr Aboulnasr

    • yes

    • my brothers girl friend is a doctor, and she worked in the field hospital for a bit

    • and she has seen people shot by real bullets

  • December 19

    Zack Helwa

    • now has the media there been reporting such incidents? I hear the military has been doing a pretty strong push in confiscating videos and arresting journalists. including what happened to Mona al Attawy last month.

      Amr Aboulnasr

        • well, i havent heard of incidents of harassing journalists

        • but u can very easily sense how the media tv channels are controlled

      • December 19

        Zack Helwa

        • you believe the stories reported are one-sided?

      • December 19

        Amr Aboulnasr

        • yes

        • for me it’s very clear that the protesters did not set that building/library on fire

        • and that’s it’s a dirty game played well

        • to make the protesters seem as just violent people who burn down buildings to lose any sympathy they get from the masses at home

        • and turn against them

        • and sadly that s whats happening

      • Zack Helwa

        December 19

        Zack Helwa

        • there were books being burnt?

          Amr had to leave the text interview we had and promised to be back to continue. I am currently still trying to get an interview with my journalist correspondent Deena Magdy hopefully also coordinating my trip to egypt in the end of January.. will keep you posted on this story.

          Also the U.S has been sending 1.3 billion dollars a year to the egyptian military and using your tax money should have the ability to stop this. we also have a corporation in Pennsylvania by the name Complete Systems that’s the main provider of tear gas being used daily on peaceful protestors in egypt.

Occupy Wall Street back in the streets!

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Or at least, the people are marching down the sidewalks of Broadway toward Zuccotti Park. Two marches conjoin on the way, filling both sidewalks, and how wonderful it is to meet them – as if no one knew they were coming. Everyone stops whatever they’re doing in stores to stand in the windows or come outside and see. As we walk past stores the marchers say “out of the stores! Into the street!” And as we pass banks, “banks got bailed out/ we got sold out!”

People several stories above the street come to their windows and all exchange looks and I can’t help but grin… or as a Buddhist monk might say, it grins me. Here we are, marching on one of the biggest malls in the world. Broadway. Soho. Police march along side in the street, with a sense of pleasant excitement as they walk. A policewoman standing to the side smiles – it is the familiarity. Two policemen have their arms around each other, communing. Whenever I see a passerby who looks confused, who isn’t sure if this is a threat or something of which they are part, I meet their eyes and share this expression of unguarded joy and they smile back, or their baby smiles and gets lighter in their arms and they are pleased.

Those police that stand waiting avoid my eyes studiously or look at my body, not my face. But when the marchers enter the park, and the drummers, who were standing outside, are forced to move along, a policeman that follows them as if he too is marching wears a smile. The drummers drum well.

The NYPD is prepared – the park is surrounded by a barricade with two openings, and the barricades are linked together with the same plastic hog-ties used to arrest demonstrators like a family holding hands around the Thanksgiving table for a blessing. There is almost 1 police person for every demonstrator, and when we leave, the police are holding a meeting across the street. We join them to get a little talk and laugh, but we don’t know what the plan is for the rest of the night – that is, what they have planned for the people in the park. 7 or 8 orange crowd control nets lean rolled, waiting, as the General Assembly begins.

Earlier I watched the sunset in its reflection off of the condominium built beside Cooper Union. I thought of taking a picture of it to send to a train hopper I know to say, here I am, gazing on a fancy office building from within another silver space ship – nothing is black and white. The sun went down and dimly I heard, from 9 floors up, “WHO’S STREETS? OUR STREETS!” What feels like a long time ago, after the Day of Action, I kept hearing the echo of that chant, and would sometimes go to the window to see if there was a march, but it was only my eardrums. This time, I went from window to window, and then I saw it coming, a body of bodies, along the side of the Foundation Building on the Bowery. Inside the building students and alumni have set up a show about tuition.

Even though I disagree with the chants like “who’s country? Our country!” because I don’t accept the premise that the country, the land beneath the pavement, is an owned-thing, it is the rhythm of voices and the energy of the return to that awareness, that deep knowledge of presentness that has always been, even in our most silenced, most invisible times, now embodied – that gets to me.

I heard the union march earlier was gigantic, and the ongoing demonstration outside the Egyptian consulate about the current undemocratic elections in Egypt fascinating, but our other correspondents will offer more about those events of the day.

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Words by Annabel Roberts-McMichael
Photographed by Zack Helwa