Seven years ago, we entered as individuals into communities of revolt. We joined one body that extended over streets and squares of dissent.
With each anniversary, the revolution is celebrated as that of all Egyptians. But this year, we have chosen to go back to the individuals, the initial makers of a grand moment in history. Through their stories we spend some time reflecting, looking into how losses and disappearances from that moment in our past continue to shape their lives today.
The home of retired tour guide Magdy Hosni looks like a time capsule from January 2011. Stickers with revolutionary slogans greet you at the door as you walk into a room filled with books and a collection of banners from different protests throughout the last seven years.
The living room has become Magdy’s narrow world, as he has ventured outside the house less and less often in recent years. The most important object in it is a screen. Sometimes he connects it to the computer and spends hours posting on Facebook and engaging in discussions, and other times, he connects it to the television and follows the news with fervor.
The walls are covered with mementos that represent the stages of his life that he holds dearest: doodles drawn by his daughter Shorouk in her childhood, a group picture in which he poses on the ground, leaning on his elbow in a traditional Egyptian garment, in front of a group of tourists on a cruise in Aswan. The object he cherishes the most is a poster produced by the Woman and Memory Forum celebrating his mother, Jane Boktor, a leading communist activist in the 1950s and 1960s, who was detained for four years during the Gamal Abdel Nasser era when Magdy was four.
Magdy also keeps a big red chair that looks like a throne, which was used in protests against former president Mohamed Morsi before his ousting in 2013. He now uses it to elevate his feet, on doctors’ orders, after suffering five strokes. The strokes were a result of birdshot which became lodged in Magdy’s legs when he was shot on January 25, 2011, affecting his circulation.
Despite his mood swings, Magdy, who is in his 60s, maintains a child-like spirit, that he makes sure to bring to the fore when dealing with people, tucking away his darker moods. He greets me at the door with a multi-step handshake that he used to teach his tourist groups, and often answers my questions with funny quotes from old Arabic movies that have carved out a place in Egyptian speech.
He appears languid at the beginning of some of my visits, the wrinkles around his eyes becoming more prominent. He tells me that he’s in a midst of a cloud of depression that has stayed with him for days. He jokes and offers a weak smile, but his faint voice gives him away. As he gets carried away recounting stories of his more dynamic days, especially his work as a tour guide and his political activism as a student in the 1970s, he’s gradually reinvigorated with enthusiasm. By the end of the hour, he seems 10 years younger.
His whole life, Magdy has been preoccupied with a pressing urge to make a difference and to carry a cause. Writing on Facebook has become his only outlet to fulfill this need. The 2011 revolution was the last in several waves of political hope that Magdy and his generation have lived through, and its disappointments were devastating. He never recovered from the injuries that the revolution inflicted on him — psychological and physical — and so he remains imprisoned in a cage of nostalgia inside his home.
Magdy is quick to tears, sometimes crying abruptly. At first I thought this was a symptom of his frail mental state. However, I soon noticed that his emotional outbursts are not random, but are triggered by the deep wounds left by each of the disappointments he has been through. Many of these disappointments are political but have hit him on a very personal level.
I explain to Magdy on my first visit that the reason that I’m interested in writing about him is that, while most people who participated in the 2011 revolution have attempted to return to a state of normalcy, with the revolution a lingering thought in their subconscious, he seems to belong to a minority that keeps the revolution in the forefront of their mind, as if they were still in Tahrir Square. He nods in agreement, with tears streaming down his face.
For Magdy and others who have witnessed ebb and flow of political movements since the 1970s, the 2011 revolution was not their first experience of squares filled to their fullest and short-lived triumphs. They have accumulated memories of such brief moments of hope and victory, rendering their experience with the current political decline all the more bitter.
Magdy describes his life with his comrades from the leftist student movement in the 70s as a utopia, a prolonged version of the 18 days of the Tahrir sit-in in 2011. He enrolled in engineering at Ain Shams University in 1971, just in time to join the country’s largest student activist movement. Sparked by Egypt’s defeat by Israel in 1967, the movement demanded a war to reclaim the occupied Sinai peninsula.
He started college as a reclusive introvert. However, one day in December 1971 marked a turning point in his life. Magdy visited Cairo University, which was the headquarters of the leftist student movement at the time, and was blown away by the dynamic atmosphere and the political banners plastered all over the walls.
“I felt like I had found my place, and like this was what I wanted. Like this was me,” he says.
Political activism took up most of Magdy’s time during his college years, which is why he completed his five-year engineering program in eight.
His eyes glitter as he recalls this phase of his life. “I was totally dedicated to the movement, abandoning all else. I would only go to university to put up banners, which the dean would promptly tear down, or to engage in discussions. Otherwise, I was in hiding, watching a movie at a cultural center or out with the group. It was another life. Something completely different, people with the same ideas and ideals living together in their own utopia, in their own bubble.”
Magdy was visiting Cairo University on January 19, 1972 when students stormed the Abdel Nasser Hall and announced a sit-in, which then expanded to other universities and before spilling into the streets. Magdy remembers the scene with the same youthful awe, recalling in particular the ability of student leader Ahmed Rozza to influence and organize the crowds, and keep the movement from descending into chaos.
This was the second major student movement — the first took place in 1968-1969 — and it was triggered by a speech by President Anwar Sadat where he justified failing to fulfill his promise to make 1971 the “decisive year” in the conflict with Israel. Sadat pointed to the “fogginess” of the international political scene brought about by the break out of war between India and Pakistan as justification.
“The Indian-Pakistani fog” became the students’ sarcastic slogan as they initiated a sit-in on January 17, which was broken up when security forces raided the Cairo University campus and arrested students in the early hours of January 24. During these years, each security crackdown carried the student movement further. Students and other supporters headed to Tahrir Square to demand the release of their detained classmates and initiated another sit-in that continued until January 26.
Magdy replies with indignation when I ask him how the students were able to get away with their protest movement and how they got around security. “We didn’t need anyone’s permission,” he says. “We had the power. We were kings of the world. There was conflict, but it was good conflict. Our ideas were clear, and we knew who our enemies were. Things were not as blurry as they are now.”
Magdy was at the heart of the student movement when it erupted again in January 1973. An arrest campaign targeting student leaders on December 29 mobilized protests on university campuses which soon spilled into the streets, culminating in large demonstrations on January 3. The thought of how easy it was to mobilize at the time brings Magdy a lot of gratification.
“The students were on our side,” he says. “We would go to university at 10 am and decide to call for a meeting. An hour and a half later, the Palestine Hall, the largest in Ain Shams University, would be filled with 2,000 students. Two hours later, 2,000 students would march around the university and finally take to the streets, having grown to 5,000 – 6,000 people. We were in complete control.”
In addition to the release of their classmates, the students fielded social demands like mandating a minimum wage. They were joined by other sectors in protests that swelled beyond the campus gates. On February 11, 1973, a large protest originated at Cairo University and then descended upon Giza Square, expanding into the neighboring streets under the protection of residents who threw rocks at security forces. Chants echoed throughout the square and its surrounding alleys until 10 pm.
Magdy wasn’t able to attend any of this. Instead, he spent two months moving from one house to another around Egypt. He was joined by other students who were fleeing arrest warrants, and aided by political leaders who arranged for the students’ transportation and accommodation.
“On one occasion we spent the night in Meet Oqba, in a house that consisted of nothing but a door and a large bed in the midst of a beautiful family. The middleman who arranged for us to go there was a military officer. The next day, I found myself in the house of [prominent poet] Sayed Hegab,” he recounts.
Magdy was also taken to the house of leading activist Shahenda Maklad in Alexandria. From there, he and a classmate were brought to the house of a worker in the low-income Max neighborhood, and then to the house of one of Maklad’s relatives in Wadi al-Natroun. There, Magdy and the other students were provided with old pajamas that they wore in the fields every day as they performed agricultural work so as not to draw attention to themselves.
The 1973 October War saw a truce between the regime and the students, as the latter’s most pressing demand to go to war with Israel and retrieve Egyptian land was being fulfilled. Magdy, like a lot of students, joined the popular resistance movement, which was initiated by civilians who wanted to fight alongside the Armed Forces. A military officer trained groups of volunteers in Karate and the use of weaponry on the university campus and at a desert location.
On October 24, as the fighting continued after several failed ceasefires, the officer finally told the students what they had been yearning to hear: Say goodbye to your families and come join the war. Magdy went without thinking twice. Four days later, the war ended before the students ever got to the frontlines, but Magdy still cries when he remembers how willing they were to sacrifice their lives and the brutality that they and other political dissidents have faced at the hands of various regimes since.
“Those were the best years of my life, but it pains me to remember what we were doing and what was being done to us. What are these governments doing to people? And why? People can be devoted, and they know that. But the governments still have no problem torturing and killing them. There are monsters. Some people are monsters.”
The third time that Magdy’s name was placed on a wanted list targeting students, he ran out of luck and ended up spending a month in jail. That was in January 1975, as a slew of student protests accompanied a workers strike against Sadat’s infitah policies, which ushered in economic liberalization.
After its demand for war with Israel was met, the leftist movement shifted its attention to criticism of rapprochement with the United States and the widespread privatization that they feared would affect local industries. Magdy remembers enthusiastically when demonstrations spread beyond the university campus and into the Sadr neighborhood, an informal area where residents who had not seen much in the way of street action stood by and watched the marches tear past them.
Once again, security forces went to the homes of politically active students and arrested whoever they could find, issuing arrest warrants for the rest. Those on the run continued to attend classes and participate in university protests, where they had little protection from security forces aside from the large crowds of people who would escort them to and from campus. Sometimes, Magdy would leave university on a motorcycle, riding behind the son of his school’s dean.
He was caught when, one day, he couldn’t find any classmates to escort him off campus as he was leaving in the evening. He decided to make a run for it. A police officer chased him through the alleys of Abbasseya screaming, “Thief! Thief!” until someone apprehended him.
The officer twisted Magdy’s arms behind his back, snatched away his glasses and pushed him all the way to Wayly Police Station. Magdy was placed in a cell alongside a group of other detained students in Qanater Prison. He recounts those days as if he had been on vacation. “It was a beautiful life,” he says. “We would sit and have discussions and play football.”
Others who experienced detention under the brutal crackdowns of Nasser and Sadat had different experiences, with some being subjected to systematic torture practices and others were disappeared indefinitely. The romanticism with which Magdy recalls his imprisonment in the 1970s doesn’t extend to the Egypt of today. He has settled decidedly on one solution if the police ever come after him: “It is kill or be killed. I will not let them catch me. I will not be at their mercy,” he says.
Magdy and his classmates were released after one month, as the student movement quietened down.
On January 18, 1977, Magdy left his house and made his way to university. On the bus, he heard that Sadat had raised all prices overnight. By the time he got to campus, he says he found the streets “overflowing with people.” He went to his mother’s house with two other activists to write a statement to be released in the name of the student movement, but they were unsure as to their next move.
Magdy laughs as he recounts the predicament, “It was like on January 25. The people had taken to the streets, but we didn’t know what to do. They were several steps ahead of us. We hadn’t planned or done anything. We had wanted people to revolt, and they did. Now what?”
Magdy and the others banded together to write a statement supporting the demands fielded by the people protesting. In what had become a standard reaction to any hint of unrest, the state issued arrest warrants for politically active students, so later that day, the students fled once again. A few days later, Magdy was arrested en route to university. The car of the officer who arrested him broke down, so Magdy ended up riding handcuffed on a public bus with the officer from Tahrir Square to the State Security Investigations Services’ office in downtown Cairo.
By the time they arrived, the other detained students had already been referred to trial on charges that included conspiring with North Korea, a charge often leveled against political opposition at the time. They released Magdy, but not before he waited for the head of the State Security Investigation Services unit dedicated to combating communist activity, who wanted to meet him. Magdy still vividly remembers his observations of the officers who accompanied him as he waited. His observations highlight their human and ordinary nature, which stood in contrast to the impression made by the brutal actions of their division, an impression of robotic monstrosity.
“Three senior state security officers were just sitting on their desks, bored out of their minds, with nothing to do, just like any ordinary employee. Not at all how you would imagine a state security officer. They were just bored public employees waiting for their boss.”
After his graduation in 1979, which coincided with a decline in political activity, Magdy began to develop a passion for pharaonic history and his career as a tour guide. His dogged pursuit of meaning and passion throughout his life came at a price. He initially worked in his field of study, auto-mechanics, finding employment in international companies. He then moved on to large petroleum companies and in less than two years was managing sites. This was the sum total of Magdy’s brief stint in the lucrative industry, as he quickly grew bored of the nature of the job and resentful of his controlling foreign managers.
It was at this point he then moved on to the profession that he inherited from his mother: tour guiding. He passed the requisite exam and became a licensed tour guide in 1984. However, this still wasn’t enough for him. Magdy took a long trip to Upper Egypt, from Minya to Luxor, with another newly licensed tour guide. They visited each historical monument, book in hand, to revise each and every detail.
When US tourism dropped after the Palestine Liberation Front killed a Jewish US citizen in 1985 on board the Achille Lauro liner en route from Alexandria to Israel, Magdy learned French to expand his employment prospects. He learned the basics through structured courses, and then opted to further develop his skills in the language, which he speaks fluently today, through practice. Magdy headed to a hostel in Luxor where he made a proposition to French backpackers: He would give them free tours, and in turn, they would help him practice his French. He stayed there for months.
Magdy shows the barest trace of bitterness as he concedes that his decisions, which have always privileged principle and passion over more practical concerns, have affected his children. In favoring passion over practicality, he often placed the family in financial troubles and fueled tensions between them. He believes that his 28-year-old, real estate agent son’s preoccupation with safeguarding his financial stability is a reaction to the difficulties brought about by Magdy’s decisions.
“He saw that when his father left the petroleum business, his children paid the price,” Magdy recalls. “When tourism faltered, I couldn’t afford to continue paying tuition for the Canadian degree that he was studying for, which would have offered him a better future. When I left the house he bore a responsibility that shouldn’t have been his, and now he wants financial security.”
Magdy fell in love at university and married shortly after his graduation. However, due to differences in personality and beliefs it was a rocky union that ended in separation in 2003. His children’s presence in his life today is sparse: ideological differences have forged a rift between him and his son. His daughter, who was his companion throughout the revolution, has also grown distant from him despite their likenesses.
After a lengthy hiatus following his graduation from university, Magdy’s interest in politics was revived for the first time in 2010 when he saw young people standing, arms linked, forming human chains along the Nile Corniche and demanding justice for police torture victim Khaled Said. He started filming the protests and posting the videos on Facebook. On January 25, 2011, Magdy followed the news closely from his house, waiting to see whether the calls for protests would materialize. Once he heard news of marches successfully breaking through the security forces’ human barriers and entering Tahrir Square, Magdy rushed to join the demonstrations. He spent the rest of the day in the square, flitting between euphoria and disbelief, and bumping into his old student movement comrades whom he hadn’t seen in decades.
Magdy was injured as he escaped the heavy teargas that rained down on the square to disperse the crowds shortly after midnight. He and Shorouk, his daughter, ran towards Bostan Street when an armored police vehicle made a sudden u-turn, showering protesters with pellets that struck Magdy and his daughter in their legs. They were carried away and ended up in a side street with other protesters, where police conscripts assaulted the group. Shorouk’s injury was minor, but Magdy found his pants soaked in blood. He used his scarf to try to cover the bloodstains, fearing arrest. Together, they navigated side streets until they reached their house in a state of exhaustion.
It was not until a few days later, on January 29, when his legs swelled up and his children took him to the hospital, that Magdy realized that dozens of pellets were lodged in his legs. The doctor advised against removing the pellets for fear of hitting nerves. On February 3, one day after the milestone clashes between deposed President Hosni Mubarak supporters and protesters known as the Battle of the Camel, Magdy had his first stroke.
He was prescribed regular injections to help with blood flow. He was still able to visit the square a few times on crutches.
Magdy associates his mental health troubles with the traumas that he was subjected to throughout his life. He doesn’t deny that the revolution, with all its woes, was a starting point for the deterioration of his mental health.
“I sustained trauma from the gas, the violence, the people getting killed and my injury. But it was a dynamic time. There was so much being accomplished and so much satisfaction. It was only when things quietened down that it all started to hit me.”
Magdy stayed on medication to regulate his circulation, but the strokes kept on coming. A second occurred in May 2011, after which the chronic fatigue he suffered throughout his life escalated. A third came in 2012, and a fourth in 2013, after which his ability to work was severely diminished. Magdy suffered his fifth stroke in 2016.
The scars the revolution left on Magdy’s life are multi-faceted. In addition to crushing disappointment and physical injury, the industry in which he worked was one of the hardest hit by the economic turmoil that followed 2011. Before the revolution, Magdy was in an ideal place in his career; he was doing what he loves and he was in high demand, especially after learning two languages. He has endless stories from his days on Cairo-Aswan cruises, and the friendships he built with tourists.
He concluded one of his stories with a half laugh. “After all of this, here I am. Housebound,” he says.
Work came to a near halt at the companies that Magdy had contracts with. He turned to his social circle, but that only got him a few, sporadic days of work.
He designed a tour of the locations of the revolution’s major events, and started periodically sending emails to the network of over 5,000 people he had cultivated over the years, offering his services. However, since his health has continued to deteriorate he has been unable to work since 2013, aside from the few days when he feels a burst of energy.
Even out of practice, Magdy retains a lot of devotion to the profession he settled into in the mid 1980s. He always says, “There’s nothing like our profession.”
In the midst of his severe depression, none of my suggestions of what to do seem to appeal to him. I suggest going to the movies. He says the violence and loud noises increase his stress.
“How about we sit in the club?” I ask.
“I find people there act weird and it upsets me even more,” he replies.
“Take a walk?” I suggest.
This doesn’t interest him either. “Too noisy.” However, his eyes light up when he thinks about guiding a tour. “If I got to go work on a Nile cruise now, for example, that would immediately snatch me out of my depression.”
He still wears the t-shirts that he made during his days as a tour guide. His name is printed in English and hieroglyphics on one of the shirts, which he used to wear on the first day of tours to introduce himself to the group. Another shirt, which he calls “the pyramids day t-shirt,” has a picture of the three pyramids of Giza. He also has a t-shirt printed with the hieroglyphic alphabet, which he uses to decipher writing on monuments.
Despite the losses he experienced, you won’t find Magdy cursing the revolution like many in the tourism industry. He still thinks of the revolution and the two years that followed as a time full of hope, and when the sound of reform was heaven-sent. “This was our life’s dream and we had finally reached it.”
Magdy’s relationship with nostalgia is complicated. He seems to come alive with stories from his past, but in a moment he is crushed under the weight of a disappointment or yearning for the strong political movement with wide support that, while once a reality, has become a far-fetched fantasy. He says he runs away from nostalgia, because it pains him. However, his house in downtown Cairo, which originally belonged to his father, tells another story. It is filled with pieces of the past. When I first met Magdy, piles of books filled his living room. They had belonged to his mother, and were moved to his house after her death in 2016.
Sorting the books by subject in order to donate them to the right place was a mission that Magdy threw himself into for several weeks. His inherited library is huge, with books ranging from literature to educational books and a large collection on Egyptology and pharaonic history, a passion he shares with his mother, who also shared his profession as a tour guide.
He also inherited his mother’s urge to have an influence. In addition to her leading role in the communist movement in the 1960s and her work in tourism, Boktor also worked as a journalist and published several books, including one recounting her experience in jail after she was arrested in Nasser’s crackdown on communists. She also studied cinema in the 1970s and produced several movies on Egyptian civilization. Magdy tells me, “She used to say: ‘If a day goes by without producing something, it’s as if I haven’t lived it’.”
Boktor’s unconventional choices reverberated throughout Magdy’s life. A member of a conservative Coptic family, she married a Muslim man and kept his religious identity a secret from most of her relatives. As a result, Magdy learned to avoid telltale expressions specific to each branch of his family’s religious identity in the presence of the other.
He says that due to his name, which is intentionally without religious connotations, he has experienced religious discrimination from both Muslims and Copts.
As he classifies the books and places them in different piles according to subject, Magdy stumbles across his mother’s old notebooks, filled with snippets about her different passions. He finds in one notebook a hieroglyphic-hieratic alphabet, which he remembers was what she used to occupy herself with after she broke her back in her last years, and was bedbound. He also found her hand-written memoirs on her time in jail.
Magdy remembers brief scenes from his rare visits to see his mother in prison, when the family managed to find ways around the official prohibition of visits to communist detainees.
On one occasion, when she was detained in Qasr al-Aini Hospital following one of several hunger strikes, she was able to get access to the adjacent Qasr al-Aini Medical School swimming pool. She asked her family to come with their swimsuits, granting her son a few hours of relative normalcy in her company.
In her memoirs, she recounts the way that her eight-year-old son welcomed her after four years in detention.
Magdy remembers this day as well. He was playing in Alexandria, where he was spending his summer vacation with relatives when he heard that his mother was out. He ran barefoot, still in his swimsuit, to where she was. But he doesn’t remember the moment he was reunited with her. He thinks it’s probably because of the shock of seeing her after four years of absence. To this day, he breaks down crying when he sees a scene depicting a reunion after a prolonged absence in a movie. The presence of Magdy’s mother remained intermittent in the lives of him and his brother due to her separation from their father. The two boys split their time between their parents’ and grandparents’ homes during their mother’s incarceration.
He didn’t know what to do with some of the contents of her library, such as the excerpts from a beauty magazine on facial masks and food recipes. My suggestion to throw them in the trash if they’re not useful to anyone was swiftly rejected with the explanation: “But they’re hers!”
Organizing the books wasn’t a burden for Magdy. It was more of a lifeline, a way to keep busy and work toward a goal, which elevates his spirits temporarily. One time, he spent 36 straight hours arranging books. Usually after these spurts of energy, he falls into an almost lethargic state for around 10 days, sleeping for 18 hours stretches which are punctuated by a few waking moments.
I invited him to come to a play with me one time, in the Falaky Theater near his house, and was surprised when he agreed. I hadn’t seen him outside the house until then. He arrived in a chipper mood, but his hyperactivity soon revealed a repressed anxiety. Shortly after the start of the play, the shouting of one of the characters triggered Magdy’s anxiety and he left the theater and waited outside for the remainder of the performance. His mood had transformed when I saw him after the play. He said that he couldn’t understand what was being said, that young audience members could understand but he couldn’t.
Chronic anxiety has been with Magdy as long as he can remember. His abdominal muscles are constantly contracted and his nervous system is hypersensitive to loud noises and other stimulants. Dealing with his mental health has been an ongoing mission in Magdy’s life, throughout which he has knocked on every available door. A psychologist that he saw for a while had explained to him that his subconscious is always sensing danger, making him consciously anxious and unable to relax, mentally or physically.
Magdy dove headfirst into different methods of alternative healing. He tried hypnotherapy, the art of living philosophy, Shiatsu massages and a macrobiotic diet. He studied homeopathy for years, maintaining a theoretical conviction of its effectiveness, although he cannot understand why it has not helped him.
Staying busy remained his only temporary remedy. “When I’m working, I’m unstoppable. When there’s no work, I drop immediately.”
Magdy’s use of Facebook is frenzied, verging on hysterical. He posts several times a day, whether it is political commentary, information on history and Egyptian monuments or personal reflections. Sometimes he shares his posts on the pages of others with more followers, and he often follows up his post with comments containing more information or related news. The limited interaction with his posts is a source of daily frustration. Sometimes, posting on Facebook is the one sacred ritual that Magdy manages to complete on days where he is otherwise bound to his bed in a bout of depression.
After he became unable to work in 2013, suicidal thoughts took a hold of him. For a year and a half, he kept his resolve to end his life and he was contemplating the best way to do it. He wanted a method that wasn’t too violent but that was still guaranteed to do the job. He was also trying to conceive of a way that would make the discovery of his death the least traumatic for his children and his mother.
He never went through with it, stopping himself each time for fear that he would fail and be left with a disability, or because the birthday of one of his children was coming up, or perhaps because a part of him was still holding on to life and looking for a reason to postpone.
But the suicidal thoughts return, especially at times when the temporary distractions subside.
He confided to me after a few meetings that our sessions had considerably improved his mood. Maybe he found in me the audience that he fails to reach through Facebook. Maybe it helped him to remember his more fulfilling and dynamic days. Maybe the company was what he needed.
One day, after we finished our interviews, I visited Magdy and found him in the worst state I’d ever seen. He told me that his life was coming to an end. He was overcome by disappointment with people who volunteered to contribute money to the allowance he tries to collect for struggling families each month, but then started to avoid his calls. The words that he writes on Facebook, which almost no one reads. I suggested that he put all that aside and do something to lift up his mood. He inquired, genuinely at loss for answers: “Like what?” I asked him to find something to hold on to. He asked: “Why?”
“People live for something, not just to be alive. What is the point of life now? We’re unable to do anything. I’m here and not really here. I have no role.”