A year ago, I was in Egypt doing research for my book on the stories behind national anthems. While there, I met Samia Jaheen – one of the main revolutionaries who filled Tahrir Square in 2011 to call for the resignation of the country’s then military ruler, Hosni Mubarak.
It was one of the most emotional interviews I did in all my research.
Since today’s the fifth anniversary of the start of those protests, I thought I’d put up the section of my book about Samia. Please read it to the end.
Samia Jaheen, bulgingly pregnant, is propped up on a sofa in her Cairo flat. She’s the daughter of Salah Jaheen, one of Egypt’s greatest ever songwriters, and she’s been chatting animatedly for the past half-hour about Egypt’s anthems past and present. But for the last few moments she’s drifted into melancholy, staring into the middle distance like I’m no longer there, as if she’s picturing somewhere else entirely. ‘Sorry,’ she says, ‘I can get lost thinking about it – remembering that there was a moment when we were just sitting in Tahrir, not afraid of what would happen, just singing, chanting. How happy everyone was. It feels like it was another lifetime.’
It’s 28 February 2015, the fourth anniversary of Egypt’s most recent revolution – the day the Arab Spring succeeded here, when protestors in Tahrir Square brought down Hosni Mubarak, the general who’d ruled the country since Anwar Sadat’s death in 1981. It was on that day that Egypt’s anthem ‘Bilady, Bilady’ was sung in celebration louder than ever before, including by Samia who was one of the most vocal figures there (there were dozens of ‘songs of the revolution’, but everyone agrees the anthem was in the top handful). But, as Samia says, that day now seems like very long ago. During the last four years, Egypt has experienced government under the Muslim Brotherhood, a military coup, the election of the man who ran that coup (Abdel Fattah al-Sisi), and then a severe crackdown on all opposition, including multiple death sentences (Samia, who now works as a human rights activist, says she’s been threatened with prison many times, her father’s name the only reason she hasn’t been locked up).
Cairo today doesn’t exactly feel like a place of celebration as it was back then. The huge teardrop-shaped Tahrir Square is now surrounded by coils of barbed wire, ready to be pulled across the roads if needed; tanks sit outside the Egyptian Museum on its northern side, ready to roll into action, almost daring tourists to try to take a photo of them; while newspapers are filled with warnings about extremists and the ‘foreign forces’ behind them (that explains why people think I’m a spy). You only have to be in this city for a few moments to realise everything the Arab Spring hoped to achieve has failed.
It’s because of that fact that Samia drops into a reverie whenever I ask her about Tahrir – even when I just ask if she sang ‘Bilady, Bilady’ while protesting there. ‘Of course we sang it then. Every day. Many times,’ she says. ‘And when we sang it, it actually meant something, for the first time I think. I used to sing it all the time in school and it never meant anything, but singing it then when people were sacrificing their lives for the country – getting killed by the police – it felt different.’
‘Didn’t you feel like you were singing the anthem of the very government you were protesting against?’ I ask.
‘Yes, of course,’ she says. ‘But we were singing it to re-own it – to say “This is our country; not yours.” We didn’t sing it the gentle way they sing it. We sang it like “BILADY, BILADY, BILADY”.’ She shouts every word at me. ‘We were taking it to a different place. Sometimes it felt like my heart was going to pop out of my chest when I heard everyone sing it, or my father’s songs. But that’s all another time now; that’s the sad part.’
I ask how she feels about the anthem today. ‘When it comes on the radio, we turn it off. Not just the anthem; all the songs we sang at Tahrir. We don’t want to listen to them. That’s how bad things have got.’ She takes a deep breath as if to steady herself. ‘This is not my country any more and this is not my anthem. Maybe you’ve caught me on a bad day, but I don’t feel romantic about it now. I’m too hurt to feel that way.’
Samia knows that the majority of people don’t feel as she does – about the country, or the anthem – even those who have every right to share her views. Earlier this morning, I’d got talking with the young owner of a washing machine shop, his gigantic beard and the deep prayer bruise on his forehead indicating he was a devout Muslim. He would have once been the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood’s target audience. ‘Things have changed since 2011,’ he said. ‘We’ – he pointed at his beard – ‘are looked on differently now. We’re not to be trusted. But whatever happens, I’ll love my country. I can’t stop doing so. You want me to give you reasons, like ‘one, two, three, four, five’? I can’t explain it like that. I’ll always love Sayed Darwish’s songs too,’ he added. ‘His music was about the normal people like me.’
I tell Samia about this man, but she just says that for her things have become ‘too personal’ to think like him. I ask how many of her friends were killed during the revolution. She stares off into the middle distance again. ‘These weren’t close friends,’ she says, ‘just people I got to know, that I respected.’ She takes another deep breath.
‘There’s Mena, Ahmed . . .’ a slight smile comes across her face as if she’s just recalled something funny one of them did, ‘. . . Karika, Ali . . .’ I look down and suddenly realise she’s counting each person off on her fingers. ‘… Sheik Emad – that’s his picture over there, they graffitied him on to one of the walls around the Square . . .’ I can’t look away from her hands. ‘. . . Mohammed, the son of a friend of mine . . .’
The list goes on.