Egyptians race to save fleeting mementos of their revolution

McClatchy NewspapersMay 9, 2011 

CAIRO — The day after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned, 26-year-old Maya Gowaily noticed cleaning crews in downtown Cairo enthusiastically painting over revolution-themed graffiti in an effort to beautify Egypt for a fresh start.

Gowaily, an artist and costume designer, was aghast. The workers unwittingly destroyed what Gowaily considered irreplaceable artifacts of the 18-day uprising that forced Mubarak from power. To her, the spray-painted images told the story of protesters' setbacks and ultimate victory in Tahrir Square.

"I started realizing that this is not going to remain, that it's part of our revolution, part of our history, and we must save it," Gowaily recalled this month. "We are witnessing a historic moment and, in two or three years, these images will be priceless to us."

Gowaily immediately formed a Facebook group, Revolution Graffiti, and set out to photograph and catalog the protest work. So far, she and others have recorded 600 entries, joining other young Egyptians in the race to preserve the vanishing memorabilia of their generation's revolution.

Documenting any seemingly spontaneous uprising would present challenges, but Egypt's street revolt is particularly difficult. Not only did the rebellion unfold at warp speed, but it also was organized and narrated in real time by Facebook and Twitter updates that, like graffiti, are fleeting and hard to archive en masse. Even more traditional memorabilia, such as protests signs and printed leaflets, is being lost or destroyed as the military tries to restore order.

Now, a scramble is on to gather and save items from the revolution to chronicle as accurately as possible those dizzying days — for an eventual museum, Egyptian activists hope, but also for international scholars who are eager to study the grassroots movement that took the world by surprise.

"The battle of camels, the Molotov cocktails, when the Muslim Brotherhood joined, the signs, the tear gas, the stone-throwing. There are so many details and it was such a rich visual experience that it must be saved for history," said Mohamed Abla, an acclaimed Egyptian artist who's petitioning the Ministry of Culture to turn the charred remains of the former ruling party's headquarters into a museum of the revolution.

The revolt began on Jan. 25 and culminated in the forced Mubarak's resignation on Feb. 11. In the months since, a dozen or so Internet-based groups have sprung up with the goal of collecting and preserving all manner of revolution-related ephemera: the bloodied clothing of dead protesters, the Facebook pages that helped organize demonstrations, artwork produced during the uprising, and the once-ubiquitous signs and banners that have now disappeared from sight.

"We spent time, money and effort making these banners and taking them down to the square every day," said Shimaa Hamdy, 23, whose activist group, Youth Movement for Justice and Freedom, has dozens of protest signs stored in a locked room for safekeeping. "We love them. They're our physical memory of the square."

Several archival projects, such as "I am Jan25," — a reference to the Twitter "hashtag" that users of the micro-blogging service used to designate their Egypt comments — call for Egyptians to submit the hours of raw audio and video footage stored on their cellphones or cameras. Most of that video is still unseen by the public, because uploading to the Web was virtually impossible when the regime cut the Internet in the early days of the uprising.

An artist-run initiative called "Sound of the Arab Spring" is soliciting audio snippets to allow future listeners to hear for themselves what it sounded like to be in the midst of hundreds of thousands of people chanting for the fall of their government.

And a former video journalist for the New York Times is working on a crowd-sourced documentary that also will incorporate amateur footage. Egyptians can submit their videos via Twitter, using the hashtag that bears the name of the project: "18 Days in Egypt."

Twitter's search only works for a limited time, so unless tweets are archived, future searches of, say, Jan25 would turn up none of the tweets posted during the 18 days of the revolt. Facebook statuses are similarly difficult to preserve.

An enterprising alternative publishing house, OR Books, on Thursday released "Tweets from Tahrir," a narrative of the Egyptian revolution told through the Twitter feeds of several activists.

"History has never before been written in this fashion," boasts an introduction on the publisher's website. "The tweet limit of 140 characters evidently concentrated the feelings of those using Twitter. Raw emotion bursts from their messages, whether frantic alarm at attacks from pro-government thugs or delirious happiness at the fall of the dictator."

Academics also are joining the calls to save revolution-era items.

The American University in Cairo has launched an ambitious archival project called, "University on the Square: Documenting Egypt's 21st Century Revolution," that's focused on gathering memories and mementoes from the hundreds of students, faculty and staff members who participated.

Last week, students dropped by booths on campus to offer oral histories or share their journals and souvenirs. "Sticks and other makeshift weapons used to defend your home," are the kinds of offbeat items sought, according to the project's website.

Separately, a group of American students studying Arabic in Cairo began picking up the hundreds of discarded leaflets that were distributed in the square and used them as the basis for "Tahrir Documents," a website that translates and publishes all sorts of printed material from the uprising.

So far, about 100 documents — from Muslim Brotherhood missives to the Egyptian Communist Party's statements — are available online in English and their original Arabic.

"Many are just manifestos of things people wanted that they wrote down, printed out and distributed to people in the square," said Levi Thompson, 26, of Virginia, who's involved in the project. "Some are as simple as, 'I will report people for going the wrong way on a one-way street in the new Egypt.'"

For some protesters, however, the preservation moves have come too late.

Fouad Mokhtar, 31, a married sales manager with a 1-year-old daughter, belonged to no political or activist group when he decided to join the throngs at the square. His emotions stirred by the bloodshed he witnessed, Mokhtar recruited two friends to chip in on a $600 gigantic banner emblazoned with the names of slain protesters.

When Mokhtar picked up the banner from the printing shop, it was so big "it gave me goose bumps," he recalled. Women on nearby balconies trilled and clapped their approval when they saw that Mokhtar's "martyrs' tribute" was destined for the square.

The banner lasted two days, long enough for a popular Arabic newspaper to feature it on the front page as it was hoisted in the air above a thousands-strong crowd. It also popped up in the live shots of satellite TV channels such as al Jazeera and al Arabiya.

And then the banner was gone, "probably used as a rug somewhere," Mokhtar said wistfully.

His only hope of ever seeing it again, he said, is if someone has recognized its historic value and is keeping it safe until curators issue public calls for museum-quality memorabilia.

The only souvenir Mokhtar has from his part in the revolution is a photo on his iPhone.

"There can be no replica. The fingerprints, the handprints, the sweat that's on it, that was the soul of the piece," he said. "I want it to be hung somewhere where people can see it. I don't want anyone to forget the martyrs."

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