By Aida Nasr
“I used to be afraid. Then I became Egyptian,” read a sign a man seen holding in Tahrir Square.
“It completely took my breath away. What a powerful sign,” says Karima Khalil. “It was something very new to us, to take pride in our nationality as Egyptians.” It was Khalil’s first time in Tahrir during Egypt’s Jan. 25 Revolution and the first of many photos she took of people holding protest signs.
“The signs were deserving of focus, because they were so articulate and so eloquent,” says Khalil. And that thought evolved into the best-selling photo book, “Messages from Tahrir: Signs from Egypt’s Revolution,” edited by Khalil and published by the American University in Cairo Press.
The book features photos by 36 photographers, including Khalil, mostly non-professionals who were in Tahrir to protest. The photographers are a varied group, consisting of bloggers, activists, high school students and a few professional photographers. Khalil herself is a medical doctor.
The book succeeds in capturing the unique moment in history when all Egyptians descended on Tahrir armed with nothing but handmade signs, creativity and their own determination that former president Hosni Mubarak would leave.
The book records the diverse, heartfelt messages to the former president. A baby holding a balloon that reads, “I won’t go. He goes.” A woman’s sign, “The people want to bring you down.” A young man holding a piece of paper that announces, “I’ve brought my bags and I’m waiting in the square.”
Khalil spent up to 16 hours a day in Tahrir during the revolution as a protester and photographer. “The overriding emotions that I saw in the square were anger and really steely determination,” she says. “People were very angry about the way Egypt had been treating its citizens for 30 years, but it was expressed in a very peaceful way. People were determined to keep it peaceful and just to make their voices heard.”
She became fascinated with the protest signs, the creativity of the conveyed messages and the used materials. People wrote on everything from shoes to their own foreheads, cardboard, wood and cloth. They spelled words on the ground with rocks and dates.
“I felt the signs were very articulate, very eloquent, they opened the door to an incredible richness of expression, richness of feeling and creativity,” says Khalil. The signs often drew on Egyptian popular culture: songs, poetry and proverbs, for example. And they often commented on the latest news.
One man’s sign read, “More lentils, more chili/ Where’s the Kentucky, you son of a liar?” commenting on the rumors that protestors were bribed with Kentucky Fried Chicken to protest in the square.
“The square itself was very reactive to what was going on. It was leading events but also reacting to events,” says Khalil, who notes that relevant signs would appear within hours of a new announcement or speech.
At home after a long day in Tahrir, she would look over her own pictures and ones by other photographers on Facebook and Flickr. One photo she found was the catalyst for making the book: a man with an eye-patch and a piece of paper taped to his forehead that read, “My eye won’t be lost in vain.”
“I was incredibly moved when I saw that picture. This man has lost his eye and he’s still standing in the square, determined,” says Khalil. It’s one of the greatest sacrifices you can make. I thought, this has to be saved. You can’t have people standing there making these sacrifices, holding up these messages and not have people aware of what they wanted and what they went through. This has to be remembered.”
It took three months poring over 7,000 pictures for Khalil to select the 150 images that make up the book. She was careful to select photos that reflect the different messages, the miscellany of people, materials used, and emotions felt. “Determination, grief, steadfastness and the wonderful humor that gave the protests their very Egyptian color,” Khalil adds.
And what made the experience uniquely Egyptian? “Tahrir was like all the good things about Egypt all at once in one place, the good humor of Egyptians, the patience, the determination, the overwhelming generosity, the creativity [and] intense spirit of cooperation and solidarity and camaraderie in a very Egyptian way,” Khalil says.
“People tell me that the book makes them cry,” Khalil says. “That’s a sign that it succeeded to some extent in transmitting what the experience of being in Tahrir was like.”
And the creativity we saw in the signs was just the beginning.
“When you lift a lid that was so tightly screwed on, it results in an explosion of creativity. We’ve seen that since February, creativity in approaching problems in new ways: community initiatives, spreading democracy and creating art.”
“Everybody’s become an active citizen in one way or another and that’s unleashing all kinds of creative potentials,” says Khalil.
Messages from Tahrir: Signs from Egypt’s Revolution, edited by Karima Khalil and published by the AUC Press. All royalties from the book are donated to El Nadim Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, www.alnadeem.org/en
Photo by: Mariam Soliman.
Photo by: Omnia Ibrahim.