On January 25 last year, activist and former political detainee Sanaa Seif undertook a ritual walk from her home to Tahrir Square. “Despite police violence, I was able to stick to my routine and walked from Mostafa Mahmoud [Square] to Tahrir,” Sanaa wrote on Facebook. “This year, like every year, I will have walked the same route alone, but surely thousands will walk it again.”
A few news articles were written about her walk, one headline reading: “Sanaa Seif in a protest ‘by herself’ from Mostafa Mahmoud to Tahrir.” This walk, for her and many others, has become increasingly dangerous since the 2013 law prohibiting protest without prior permission. Luckily for individual walkers, a protest necessitates numbers high enough to visibly appear as a group.
To better understand the significance of Seif’s walk and why it relates to me, I look at a map of Cairo and ask myself: What does her walk remind me of? Does any part of me remember that walk as my own? To answer, I will take three detours.
There was a moment in the near past when you walked through your neighborhood in a huge group of people. Supported by them, supporting them, changing with them, challenging them, even booing at their chants. By the time a couple of years had passed, you knew a lot more about the neighboring neighborhoods than when you started. You knew a lot more about where you stood, literally and metaphorically.
Walking in a group was an act of taking control over your city — your steps, the turns you took, the kiosks were a part of your ritual. Shared by many, it was stored in your muscle memory. These were moments where you felt the streets open up to you. You called out to city dwellers to come join you as you moved away from the margins into the heart of the city.
Streets where you would never otherwise walk became part of your non-commute. Sometimes you stayed behind and sometimes you found your pace too fast for the rest of the collective, each claiming and reclaiming parts of themselves and how they imagine their present.
For various reasons — many known, some incomprehensible to you — your walk has disappeared into the valley of the river, along with many other skeletons.
Scientists, sociologists, experts in many fields, theorists of the future and historians came up with possible scenarios that could unfold as a result of your walk. Many failed at, or evaded addressing, the meaning of the walk itself. To your disappointment, many of their unfavorable scenarios unfolded into your reality, now unrecognizable to its past. As these scenarios unfolded, you found yourself being pulled away from the center and into the margins again, this time with the memory of having once been at the center. You ask yourself: What remains of that walk? What do I do with what remains of that walk?
By the time people occupied the square, the city’s one percent had already cleared out of the Tahrir area. The American University in Cairo, its elite educational institution, had moved out of the heart of the city and into New Cairo, a district promising imported pre-grown green grass patches, ugly villas and supermalls with outdoor areas inaccessible to all but the one percent and those serving them. Slowly but surely, big corporate offices and multinational businesses followed and so did Cairo’s upper-middle class, in an order I am not entirely sure of.
In what seemed to be an urban plan to follow Ahmed Khaled Tawfiq’s novel Utopia (2008) — where the elite live in gated communities, sheltered from “others,” the impoverished majority, whom they use as slaves and hunt for sport — those of Cairo’s upper and upper-middle classes who still remained in the country chose to isolate themselves in walled-off communities clustered around one another in New Cairo, requiring cars to go from one place to the other. Ironically, friends told me their parents had moved to Rehab City because they wanted to take walks amid the greenery. More ironically, a few years later, Syrian refugee families enjoying picnics on that greenery became a primary concern of Rehab City inhabitants.
The direct relationship between geography and political ideology in Egypt has always made itself apparent to Cairenes, despite efforts to conceal it. Huge amounts were spent on cement barricades to hide impoverished neighborhoods as drivers pass them on bridges (6 of October Bridge, for example, or Moneeb Bridge from the ring road). The pre-2011 Cabinet, appropriately nicknamed the “Businessmen Government,” was the seed that sprouted bridges named after Talaat Mostafa and other real-estate developers.
Shayed Osoorak (Build Your Castles), the Sheikh Imam song that re-surfaced as a popular anthem during the revolution, clearly points to the history of this relationship. It uses geographical metaphors to call attention to failing leadership and government corruption in the 1970s, manifested in Egypt’s decreasing public spaces and increasing segregation, both political and economic. An example is Qanater Prison, built in place of a park and now serving as home to many of the January 25 revolution’s political detainees, including at one point Seif herself.
In the song, protesters walk “a route from which there is no return,” from downtown neighborhoods to Tahrir Square in January 1973 and January 1977. In 2011 onwards, as the walkers’ bodies moved collectively from the city’s margins in an attempt to occupy the center, the bet was on Tahrir Square, a preplanned meeting point but also a historical space of oppression and hope in collective memory (see Sherif Arafa’s 1992 film Terrorism and Kebab). That is, of course, until the walkers hit a wall.
Cairo does have a long history with walls. Old Cairo had walls around it, to protect its vital organs from the enemy, not to cage residents in. Cairo’s most modern walls, also gated, are designed to prohibit mobility within the city. While the first concrete walls installed in downtown in reaction to attacks on government buildings during 2011 did not have gates, those re-built to last feature at least one. These politically vital establishments open to uniforms and ranks at all times, and at certain times to the masses (such as that on Qasr al-Ainy Street), often leaving pedestrians to creatively make their way around them. After the military seized power in 2013, many military establishments acquired the same cement barricades, which have a pseudo-brutalist aesthetic similar to the new military-contracted bridges and roads.
Walls, barricades and an ever-shrinking walk-able public space in the heart of Cairo are this government’s way of making sure that no group, no matter how big, can ever find their way into the center again.
In many cultures, walking is considered a meditative act. Walking meditation focuses one’s attention on the breath and what the body senses while walking. Butoh, a type of Japanese dance theater, uses slow motion walking exercises that follow the Zen concept of emptying the mind-body of noise.
Lately, walking has also been at the front and center of urban practices aiming to renegotiate city dwellers’ relationships with their environment. Now-defunct social revolutionary organization Situationist International called for creative walking to explore urban landscapes in order to counter bubbled life, a method of reclaiming and re-considering cities as homes to their inhabitants and not just commute routes from one closed space to another.
The creative decisions a Cairo walker has to make to walk from point A to point B are many, from walking on the road because there isn’t enough space on sidewalks to, if one is female, avoiding coffee shops full of men and ambulating groups who may want to sexually harass the walker by comment or touch.
The female walker in the streets of Cairo is on high alert at all times. She is constantly pushed to the margins by patriarchal power-asserting rhetoric urging her to stay in the realm of the private as someone’s precious property. This hostility toward the female body that attempts to occupy a space in the public realm was apparent during the protests at the end of 2011. Structured, possibly police-instigated, sexual harassment and assault in spaces of protest attempted to alienate female protesters; to move the female body back into the margins of the private.
Sexual harassment only really started being regarded by many sectors of society as a social problem during that time, especially as several horrific incidents were captured on television. Many more people started using the word harassment “taharosh,” as opposed to the softer “moaaksa” (flirting or fooling around).
Suffering from serious lower back-problems, I sought out physiotherapists and somatic learning practitioners for help. My physiotherapist had a strong theory on the relationship between public gender-based violence and lower-back problems, which, she explained, a lot of Egyptian women suffer from. The swinging hip movement necessary to relax and strengthen such muscles are regarded by the male gaze on the street as an invitation for sexual harassment, and as women try to avoid it (having long been victim-blamed for sexual harassment) they use less powerful, less central muscles, leaving torsos weaker. To my surprise, she advised such women to take up belly dancing.
Having been told time and again during moments that held the possibility of change in 2011 and the years to follow that women’s issues were not a top priority in the list of the revolution’s demands, the female body continued to face the dangers of marginalization, a fact that one artist turned into a joke.
Other factors also call for walkers’ attention at all times: construction, cars parked on the sidewalk, the lack of a sidewalk altogether or some private establishment illogically blocking the way.
During these routine protest walks that started in 2011, physical and mental barriers surrendered to the power of numbers. Whole streets of cars stopped as thousands detoured from Salah Salem onto the inner streets of Abasseya. Streets without sidewalks turned into sidewalks because of protests. A world of dreams and hopes of a less bleak future became possible through the repetitive act of putting one foot in front of the other.
Without having to pay attention to where to walk, or how to walk, a hopeful meditative state enabled conversations with strangers about our futures. Within our muscle memory as well as in our city, we walked “a route from which there is no return.” Today the collective walkers, now individuals, separately ask ourselves: What remains of that walk? Where do the traces left in each of our bodies lead? Maybe they remain stored in our muscle memory, even if they escape our memory itself.
Sanaa Seif does not just walk her ritual route from home to Tahrir on behalf of all of our ritual walks. By walking, she is reviving a past ritual into a present moment. She resists the urge to stagnate by asking what remains of that generative walk. She pushes the power seized by other political forces to the margin, to reclaim an inner space where our hopes and dreams for ourselves and our urban ecology seemed so close and within reach.
This article was commissioned and edited by Lara El Gibaly.