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A Stranger In Egypt: Missed Revolutions And A Spring On Ice

A demonstration this week in Cairo to mark the 5th anniversary of the Jan. 25 uprising
A demonstration this week in Cairo to mark the 5th anniversary of the Jan. 25 uprising
Yara Sallam*


CAIRO — Every year, on Jan. 25, I have the same thought: I don't have any memories to share. Every time I'm with friends who nostalgically remember moments of happiness and triumph, I stay silent, because I have no memories to share.

During the 18 days of the revolution, I was in Gambia, watching it on television. Many people living abroad rushed back to Egypt to be present and not miss the revolution. I don't know why I didn't return like they did, perhaps mostly for personal reasons. I convinced myself it was good I didn't go back then, as I might have been injured or killed. I told myself everything happens for a reason, and it doesn't matter if I don't understand it now.

When I was done with my work abroad, I returned to Egypt in March 2011. Back then, a friend wrote me saying: "You missed the revolution."

It took me a few months to understand what had happened. Often I felt like a stranger amid my family and friends, who shared a certain condition that is not accessible to someone who didn't live it. Then there were days I understood why I felt like a stranger. Days where I felt the world needed to end now: The first time I sniffed tear gas, the first time I ran away from soldiers. Those were all foreign moments for me. There is probably something born back then, that united me to those present around me, and no one will understand it but us, even if we don't know each other.

The street and the gas and the running away were our shared space. It was enough to get to know each other and create intimate relationships. The first time I saw a tank while I was trying to go to Maspero in October 2011; the first time I entered the cathedral during the funeral of the Maspero martyrs; the first time I felt the world needed to end when my flat mate and I were running in the midst of tear gas in Mohamed Mahmoud street in November 2011; the first time I felt I was that small when I was attending the interrogation of one of those who was arrested in Mohamed Mahmoud; the first time I saw torture survivors when I was attending the interrogations of those arrested in the Cabinet sit-in in December 2011: There were countless first times.

When guilt recedes

After I returned, I continued to feel guilty that I didn't go back during the 18 days. I felt that I had missed the revolution. Regardless of the protests and marches I took part in later, I continued to feel a void for having missed the challenge of hitting the streets collectively for the first time. Every time I took to the streets, I felt I could do it because of the bravery of those who took part in the 18 days.

My guilt receded a bit after I was arrested. I felt I was paying an old debt. I never could have taken part in every march and every protest. I always knew that participation has a cost and that cost flits somewhere between arrest, injury and death. And I always believed that evading that cost is not something one can rely on.

Until today, I see the main lesson to be learned from the revolution is a consciousness of our right to be in the street — a right that both we and those against us have enjoyed in equal measure. That's why I decided that any protest in solidarity of prisoners of conscience was worth the risk. I felt that if our right to be present in the street is taken away from us, there is nothing left.

Now the moment is different. Many things have changed since the last time I went to a protest. All my time in Qanater prison I was told things had changed outside. I came out of prison after 15 months of separation from all the changes unfolding in Egypt, even if some news reached us via outside visitors.

I came out of prison to find places I love closed, streets changed and people dealing with events differently. I came out of prison feeling like a stranger, with only my comrades from prison able to understand me, as we shared the news of the Jan. 25 anniversary last year on the radio.

In prison we had different visions, but we shared a belief in the revolution. Each one of us believed in different ways of acting, but we never differed on the importance of the revolution in our lives and its marking of milestone moments for us. The revolution changed things in us and changed the way we see ourselves. It weaved relations that couldn't have been the same otherwise. For all the moments that were first times, the revolution continues, despite the impasse we are in today.

The revolution is continuing because there are still many things that have to be done, albeit differently. Maybe the priorities and the tools we have used in the last five years are not relevant now. Maybe we should accept the heaviness of the moment we are living in, where our ambitions stop at "not wanting to be kidnapped" or "not wanting our house to be raided." But the heaviness of this moment won't make me forget what I've lived in the last five years. I won't forget my feelings toward the revolution and I don't want to forget the price that has been paid by many — a price that I don't have the right to overlook.

The revolution is continuing no matter how much they fight us. The revolution is continuing because we deserve a better life, where we live happily, with dignity and freedom, and we deserve to learn how to make our country better.

*Yara Sallam is a prominent Egyptian feminist, lawyer and human rights defender. She was released from prison in September after serving more than a year for participating in a peaceful protest in Cairo.

Translated from Arabic by Lina Attalah

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A Refuge From China's Rat Race: The Young People Flocking To Buddhist Monasteries

Unemployment, stress in the workplace, economic difficulties: more and more young Chinese graduates are flocking to monasteries to find "another school of life."

Photograph of a girl praying at a temple during Chinese Lunar New Year. She is burning incense.

Feb 20, 2015 - Huaibei, China - Chinese worshippers pray at a temple during the Lunar New Yeat

Frédéric Schaeffer

JIAXING — It's already dawn at Xianghai Temple when Lin, 26, goes to the Hall of 10,000 Buddhas for the 5:30 a.m. prayer.

Still half-asleep, the young woman joins the monks in chanting mantras and reciting sacred texts for an hour. Kneeling, she bows three times to Vairocana, also known as the Great Sun Buddha, who dominates the 42-meter-high hall representing the cosmos.

Before grabbing a vegetarian breakfast in the adjacent refectory, monks and devotees chant around the hall to the sound of drums and gongs.

"I resigned last October from the e-commerce company where I had been working for the past two years in Nanjing, and joined the temple in January, where I am now a volunteer in residence," explains the young woman, soberly dressed in black pants and a cream linen jacket.

Located in the city of Jiaxing, over a hundred kilometers from Shanghai, in eastern China, the Xianghai temple is home to some 20 permanent volunteers.

Unlike Lin, most of them only stay for a couple days or a few weeks. But for Lin, who spends most of her free time studying Buddhist texts in the temple library, the change in her life has been radical. "I used to do the same job every day, sometimes until very late at night, writing all kinds of reports for my boss. I was exhausted physically and mentally. I felt my life had no meaning," she says.

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