About an hour before Friday prayers began, while walking through Cairo’s crowded Tahrir Square, a man named Mahdy grabbed the sleeve of my shirt and said, “Hey, where you from?” He had a beard (that’s him in the center), a strong, confident voice, and when I said “America” he said, “Oh, which state, I used to live in Texas, in Dallas.” Come to find out, Mahdy had even spent three days in Tennessee. “A nice state,” he said.
Like many other people I had met in Tahrir over the previous ten days, Mahdy quickly left me dumbfounded by his passion, articulateness, and courage. Cairo was in the midst of historic upheaval and Tahrir Square was the epicenter. Mahdy was one of hundreds of thousands who at some point had stood in this square since January 25, demanding change in Egypt.
He told me many things in the 15 minutes we were together, a righteous anger burning in his eyes, and at times I imagined I was listening to Patrick Henry at the Virginia Convention. Here’s a sample of what he said:
We are eating ful and tamaya; Mubarak and his people are eating shrimp!”
“I’m not one of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they are my brothers.”
“Fear is dead. Nobody is going to back down even if they die.”
“I wasn’t in the square yesterday…my health isn’t good and I needed to rest. But I definitely was coming today. I came prepared to die if I must.”
“In the U.S. I’ve been questioned by the FBI but they treated me with respect – I even get emails from them sometimes asking me how I am doing. Here the police never treat you with respect. Sometimes when I arrive in the US the immigration official stamps my [American] passport and says, 'Welcome Home.' In Egypt they look at my beard and pull me aside for questioning. And they're not even sensible questions!”
“My wife is American and my children have U.S. passports. Whenever they go out I make them take their passports. That way if the police stop them they won’t abuse them. But from now on, in this new Egypt, my children will leave their passports at home.”
As he spoke, another Egyptian in the crowd, a stranger, wiped the sweat from Mahdy’s brow. Sometimes Mahdy paused our conversation to translate what he was saying to those around us. The crowd nodded their approval or, in the case of his joke comparing U.S. and Egyptian FBIs, laughed. There was fire in Hamdy's voice. Like so many others in Tahrir he had a vision for his country and his children, a vision for which I am certain he would have given his life this day if indeed it had been required.
But several hours later, in an announcement that sent a deafening roar through Tahrir and all of downtown Cairo, we learned that Mubarak had resigned. Mahdy would return home to his wife and children, a proud Egyptian.