Return to The Square

Tahrir 1

A few weeks ago I saw a film at the Toronto International Film Festival called The Square, a new documentary by Jehane Noujaim. It’s about the Egyptian Revolution as experienced by those who occupied Tahrir Square. The footage takes you from the start of the revolution up to the very recent events that happened after the downfall of Mohamed Morsi — the President elect who was deposed by the Egyptian military in July 2013. I could not believe how recent the footage in the film was. It seemed like news items I saw a week or two prior was edited into this beautiful, moving, and at times heart-stopping documentary. The film is, in a word, extraordinary.

I’ve been following the Egyptian Revolution on and off since it started back on January 25th, 2011. I still remember sitting in my Arabic lesson in Dokki on January 24th struggling to make my tongue work with the alphabet. Some co-workers had told me earlier that I should stay home the next day because there would be some protests happening on National Police Day. I had wanted to hang out downtown since it was a public holiday. I remember asking my teacher Ahmed if he thought there’d be trouble and if I should stay home. He smiled and told me it was just rumours, and that there’s always whispers of agitation but nothing really happens. A few people might try to step up, but those few usually get put back down. He told me to practice the alphabets over the week and that we’d pick up our conversation the following Monday. The next day all hell broke loose.

I never made it to Tahrir Square during Revolution Part 1. I was on the other side of the Nile in Giza when it all happened. The days were strangely quiet. The sun shone bright as ever with not a cloud in the sky aside from the plumes of black smoke rising in the distance. Twilight falls and I’m locked down, windows covered, eyes glued to CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera. Then, tired of the news and unable to reach friends downtown, I’d lie awake listening to the gunshots announce the night.

We were evacuated February 2nd the infamous Day of the Camels. We’d eventually return after Mubarak resigned, and I’d make it to Tahrir, “The place of pilgrimage” a friend would tell me.

 

Tahrir 2

As I sat watching The Square, I was reminded of how powerful a place can be. The truth of physically occupying a space together, especially one as iconic as Tahrir, can be overwhelming and you can’t help but be moved by it. But, as the film manages to capture, so beautifully and brutally, the truth of being together in a place can change. Tahrir, a beacon of hope, a promise of solidarity, and shelter from the shadows of the streets can be corrupted. It can be perverted and violated. There’s a scene in the film when Ahmed Hassan, the young revolutionary, decides to walk in the middle of the street of downtown Cairo, exhausted and I think a bit heartbroken.

That scene underscored the power of Tahrir, because if the sanctity of the Square can be broken, then what the hell is the point of walking on the sidewalk? Space would no longer have, or need to have, meaning. The pacing of the film was perfect. The story carries you along as you meet each individual united by Tahrir. It manages to capture the rage, the pain, the sorrows and the hope that keeps the revolution going. In the end, although Tahrir can be taken and physically transformed, it’s the spirit of Tahrir that keeps people standing tall. I loved this film. And I’m so happy it won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF.

If you’ve read this far then please, go see this movie…and invite me because I’d definitely see it a few more times.

 

Laneway Festival Detroit – One for the Ages

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This past weekend we busted ass down to the inaugural Laneway Festival Detroit. Since this was the first time the festival was staged in North America we thought that there’d inevitably be the annoying hiccups and operational problems associated with planning and executing events of this scale. We were oh-so-wrong and the festival was oh-so-good. Everything went off without a hitch. The weather was amazing and the festival staff friendly and quick with the light-hearted banter that Americans seem to master so well. Phosphorescent was tight. Solange was sweet. Run the Jewels bumpin’. Sigur Ros epic.

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Laneway left us wanting more and we’ll definitely be back again next year for another taste of Indian summer sun in Auburn Hills. Copious amounts of beer. Corndogs and other junk. Friendly Michiganders (shouts to Dave, Mike, Steve I & Steve II). And above all – glorious glorious music.

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Dubai the Weird

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Well, it’s been a month since my last post. I had intended to write regularly while I was in Dubai having arrived on August 12th from Bombay, but work, sun and the searing heat got the better of me.

I was on assignment in the UAE for about 3 weeks where my days consisted of attending site visits, the odd client meetings, doing research and putzing around my hotel room trying to resist the urge to just go for a swim. Eventually, time lost all sense of proportion, measured largely by the hours between room service meals. There would be days when the only conversations I’d had was with the Filipino, Indian or Pakistani staff that make up the bulk of the service industry. Space too starts to feel out of joint – understood as the distance between the chair and the bed, or the bed and the pool, or the air-conditioned hotel entrance to the similarly air-conditioned Al Fahidi Metro station.

I’d heard a lot about Dubai from friends who had visited. More often than not the reviews were unflattering. Those who love Dubai often speak of the luxurious standard of living and the high level of service that expats can expect. Those who dislike Dubai decry above all the highly visible social stratification and inequities that exists side by side with the glitz and glam of the world’s tallest building and the most insane shopping malls I’ve ever seen.

The story of the UAE, a country so young yet progressing at such a blinding pace, is a bit of a marvel. The speed of development fueled in large part by oil revenues has resulted in a place that is, simply put, weird.

4/5ths of the population are foreigners. It’s a Muslim country, but with a strangely permissive feel. For some it shines with the brightness of possibilities. For others it’s nothing more or less than the realities of foot on pavement, sweat on brow and the physical labour spent to realize someone else’s dream. The extreme wealth in contrast with poverty served with a smile left me feeling empty. As impressive as the views are from the Burj Khalifa, what I’ll remember most is the conversations I had with some of the workers I met. I’ll remember their questions about Canada and whether things are better here.

There were moments when, under the heat of the Arabian sun, sitting in my crappy rental car, I felt completely at ease with my dislocation because the place just doesn’t feel real. For most, it’s just a place of transition, a pit stop on the way to something else. Dubai is like a mirage and even now, as I write this back home in Toronto, my experiences of the emirate seem a distant memory. In a few more days it will be as if the trip never happened. It will feel like Dubai doesn’t exist.