How can we talk about the ongoing revolution without bringing up my home during two weeks? From the day after Angry Friday and up until Mubarak’s resignation, my address changed from conservative, backwards Mohandeseen, to progressive and bohemian Tahrir square.
Moving to Tahrir square
On the morning of the 30th I got a call from my dear friend Waleed Fateem, and he proposed to take his camping tent and go stay the night in Tahrir square to demonstrate. At the time it sounded a bit crazy, which is why I thought it was a brilliant idea. We packed our stuff and headed over, and while there were people from the day before who had crashed arbitrarily by the bushes, there weren’t any tents set up. In fact, we had so much room, that it was difficult to choose a location because it felt awkward.
We picked a random spot and had the entire square stare at us because it seemed like a bit of a posh thing to do (the tent, while not fancy, is more expensive than what any of the protesters of Tahrir at the time could afford).
I can proudly boast that for 13 days I lived in Tahrir square. I slept there every single night, and only left my fort every other day for a couple of hours to shower, charge phones, etc. and head back.
In 2008 I spent a few months in Paris (not quite like Tahrir square, but you’ll see the similarity in a moment) and I can vividly remember when I considered the city to be my home, a few weeks after arrival. It is like when a military personnel is converted into a solider – a specific moment that makes you realize that everything has changed and that you’re no longer looking from the outside, you are now from within. In Tahrir, the day after Wael Ghonim appeared on TV for a live interview upon being released from a political prison, millions showed up in downtown (many of which were not the type who were regulars, but were moved by the interview and came out as a result). As I was struggling to make my way back to the Bansyon through the overwhelming crowd, I found myself saying out loud, “I hate tourists!”
That was the moment.
I was no longer crashing in a camping tent with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, I was living a new life, albeit temporarily, where my mission was to remain as is until an 82 year-old maniac got the message that was displayed and illustrated in all languages. I was living in a new neighborhood full of people complaining of old problems. A lively atmosphere looking to topple a dieing regime. At a time when many were losing friends, I gained all of those who surrounded me.
Daily life at the Bansyon
For the first couple of days, almost all shops downtown were closed, people were too worried about going back to life normally. Thus, for a matter of a few hours, we had a shortage of nutrition. I say a few hours because before Waleed and I had enough time to realize that we’re deprived of some of the luxuries that we took for granted at our homes, friends and family queued up to make it over to the Bansyon and supply us with ‘basic necessities’ that would feed a small town. In fact, food was coming in so fast, with relatively little being passed around the square later, that there was little space inside the Bansyon to sleep comfortably. It was normal to wake up halfway through the night and find two boxes of dates underneath my knees, and a bag of snacks and chocolates pressuring my legs.
It was a matter of days before there were vendors offering koshary, all sorts of sandwiches, sweet potatoes and pop corn all within a minute’s walk from Bansyon el Horreya (although on busy days, it took up to 25 minutes to walk over – Cairo traffic is one of those things that will never change).
My sleeping habits were rather arbitrary, especially during a couple of nights when we all had to be awake and on alert. Add on to that the bitter cold that struck at around dawn, and you’d end up with a trio of siestas looking to connect but failing. I usually slept by 11pm or midnight (until the second week, there was very limited late-night entertainment at the square). This meant that I would be up from 3-5 in the morning, and then back to sleep till about 9am. An inevitable 2-hour siesta made it through somehow, depending on the circumstances.
Let us not forget that the main stage (where there was a projector on a big white piece of cloth hung up by the building with Hardee’s on its corner) didn’t stop all night long. If it wasn’t someone giving a speech, sharing an opinion, yelling at us thinking it’s in anyway effective – the activities were endless. And if there were times that the MC team decided not to let people speak, the patriotic revolutionary songs were jacked up and the party was rollin’. Did I mention that while we started with one stage, we ended up with about six? I could hear three of them from the Bansyon.
Even though I’m not a breakfast person, I started off my mornings with a bite into the food stocked in the Bansyon. By 11 I would get my first set of visitors, and the general atmosphere remained calm. It’s by the early afternoon that the festive mood replaces the more relaxing one, and you find yourself competing for some personal space. Before long I’d be fixing the Bansyon el Horreya residents and the regulars sandwiches of all kinds. The box to the right of the Bansyon never ran out of water, juice or soda pop. And despite the Tahrir residents’ frequent visit to the drinks’ box, the rate of refill was superior to that of consumption.
As the entire complex of Tahrir square became inhabited by residents of all shapes and colors, the early settlers developed their infrastructure. What originally started as a camping tent with a couple of blankets progressed into a full-fledged Bansyon. We had extra blankets, a ‘lobby’ right in front of the Bansyon where guests sat and ate, a large trash bag on either side, a box with all sorts of drinks and plastic bags’ worth of food supplies. We even expanded the guest area and annexed a tent close to ours and called it ‘El Horreya Qofi Shob’.
By the final two days, I reached an agreement with my neighbors and their neighbors to extend me a cord and I had electricity installed at the Bansyon’s lobby. Guests could charge their cell phones and laptops, however using a tea kettle was prohibited under the terms and conditions provided by my neighbors’ neighbors who stole the connection from one of the main light posts on the edge of the square. Apparently a kettle’s consumption is too big for the power cables to handle. But not to worry, there was a tea stand on every corner.
The sign read ‘Bansyon el Horreya’ in Arabic, until some random guy with a red marker decided to write the English translation and chose to add ‘Freedom Motel’. I was ready to break his back, claim he was a thug who attacked me and hand him over to the army, but the positive ambiance made me forgive and forget. I tried to make it clear to everyone that there’s only one way to pronounce it, but a couple of days after my sign was raided but that random dude, I had the idea of writing the title in Spanish. I added ‘La Pension de la Libertad’ and then the slogan ‘No Pasaran’.
The slogan was my friend Oscar’s idea, and originates from the times of the Spanish civil war in the late 30s when the Fascists were fighting the Leftists and hunting down all of the intellectuals and artists throughout the entire country. Madrid, being a hub for many Bohemians at the time, found itself in the middle of many right-wing cities that housed fascist militants. As a slogan of inspiration, many put up signs on their doors that read ‘they will not pass’ to indicate intent on holding their grounds and fighting to the end. Regardless of the fact that Madrid, and all of Spain, fell to the fascists and become under the dictatorship of Franco for almost 40 years, the message is still uplifting and very relevant to the situation where we were defending Tahrir from Mubarak’s fascists.
Within two days of setting up our tent, Bansyon el Horreya 2, 3 and 4 popped up. Shortly after there was ‘Montaga3 el Horreya’ (Horreya complex) and then Bansyon el Horreya (Women). Near the end, my new friend and Bansyon regular Sherif el Alfy went on to open his own business and set up Bansyon el Horreya 5.
Moving back to Mohandeseen
The night of the resignation we threw a party and went wild with the neighbors. Waleed, after sustaining an injury and spending about a week visiting during the day but sleeping at home, came back to spend the last couple of nights at the Bansyon again. The day after we had decided we were packing and going home. By then my sister Nevine Shalaby, her husband Robin Hiesinger, and my brother Amr Shalaby all flew into Cairo and visited the square.
After spending the day as a family together at the square and sharing our stories, we took down the Bansyon, packed our stuff, and headed back ‘home’. We were victorious in that battle, but there were still many others to fight. However, Tahrir square would no longer be the venue.
I went back to an apartment in my residential neighborhood in Mohandeseen. No more late-night chills. No more neighbors to stimulate thoughts. No more religious prayers and speeches at 3am. No more packaged food. No more threats, no more scares. I was back home with my family, and while the revolution continued, that chapter of the Bansyon came to an end, and it was time to move on.
Much like the revolution it is part of, Bansyon el Horreya might end, but Bansyon el Horreya will always live on.