Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Dignity of a Homeland 8"

We entered the grand mosque as the Imam started the long Taraweeh prayers. It was my first time in the mosque, and I was bewildered by the massive spaces within the mosque and the elegant designs on every inch of each wall, and the roof towering the endless blue carpet. But the atmosphere wasn't really spiritual as I sat alongside one of the columns; stares were shared by many, and audible chatter syncing with the Imam's beautiful recital of verses of the Quraan. It was nervy. A thick aura filling the air within. My shorts were quite an obvious indication that I was not there to pray, but for a completely different reason, and I felt the looks close down on me with each turn of the neck and each skeptical stare, or maybe nobody really cared. I don't know. 

Taraweeh ended, and people started to walk out. The whispers continued, and the usual relaxation after a sequence of prayers wasn't there. It was tensed. The orange shirt here and there comforted me, kind of, but I knew better than to wear such a shirt. A few familiar faces, former MPs, young activists, all of whom suddenly had the urge to pray tonight's Taraweeh prayers at the grand mosque. Groups formed as people receded to the outer spaces, anticipation clearly plastered on their eyes. Our signal to move out was the turning off of the lights. The grand mosque wasn't going to accommodate anybody, politically affiliated or religious, especially tonight. 

The outer courtyard, matching the interior grandeur of the mosque, now hosted the political crowd of the night. No more feigned spiritualties, no more readymade excuses; whoever is here, is here to protest and be part of the march. Police cars were around, but the jubilant presence of the people drowned any sense fear or reluctance. People were joyful, talking to each other freely, meeting one another after long whiles of absence. It was like a huge Dewania, where all understood why the other is here and mutual appreciation apparent on all. Salem and I talked, trying to look and sound as normal as possible. It was our first rally, and excitement mixed with minute proportions of fear were in our systems. Whenever we saw a familiar face, we talked about them, sharing Twitter experiences and thoughts about the personality. Smiles here and there. We laughed at a guy carrying a bag of 7Up cans, clearly not for drinking purposes, and others already covering their faces with surgical masks, looking quite absurd amongst the easygoing crowd. My attention was caught by a trio of females; a mother (or grandmother) presumably and her two young daughters blending in into the crowd, all in orange scarves. A confidence boost surged through me, if those girls were going to march with us in that rally, then why wouldn’t I march as well? This coincided with my brother’s constant texts asking me to return back to the car and leave the place. “It’s a trap,” he wrote, “nobody can enter from the outside premises. Everything is blocked off by the police. The people inside the perimeter are only a couple hundred. They’re going to crack hard on you guys.” I knew better than to dismiss his warnings as white lies. He has attended many previous rallies, and was exposed to the infamous tear gas, and he wanted to attend this one as well but couldn’t because the police cordoned off the square that we’re standing in right now.

“I’m not leaving. Things are okay. A lot of people are around, and there is no sign of an imminent crackdown. Don’t worry, and I’ll constantly update you.” I voice-noted in reply.

After the end of the impromptu press conference done by former members of parliament in front of the mosque, another familiar voice flared from a police car’s speakers on the other side of the courtyard. The famed Major-General Abdulfattah Al-Ali blurted out random warnings to the crowd, as nobody really cared to what he said. The now moving crowd drowned his voice, as they started their own chants demanding the release of Msallam Al-Barrak, and judicial reforms. “Ignore him,” one of the protesters distinctly shouted, stating the obvious.

The crowds now mobilized on the street, and began their rally at 10:05. The jubilance of the atmosphere stunned me and engulfed me with joy. There wasn’t any anger or despair, but a pure sense of happiness and solidarity. The fact that people were together unified by patriotic chants, casted away any sense of fear. My own reluctance to join in the chants was stricken off when, as soon as we reached the intersection between the mosque and the Kuwaiti Stock Exchange, banners of the Civil Democratic Movement emerged from the left, carried by a considerable number of activists. It was a scene out of a movie. This was a moment to grasp, and I joined in, clapping and shouting, “THE PEOPLE WANT MSALLAM AL-BARRAK!”

That moment lasted for a minute, at most.

Following the grand entrance of CDM, sound grenades were flung into the middle of the crowd, followed by tear-gas bombs. Stunning. The crowd dispersed quickly, ignoring the calls to stay put and keep unified form. The speeding entourage of the Special Forces was as grand as the crowd itself, consisting of large black and blue tanks and trucks. The action movie scene was complete now, and I needed to adjust to reality. Running was the first thing entering my mind, but I didn’t want to get lost. Again, this was my first time. I clasped Salem’s hand and held on as we ran to the Northeastern direction, towards the car park and Qased Khair. I regretted wearing Crocs.

We reached the huge car park/garden, heart pumping, recollecting our breath. The smoke was yet to reach our new location, as many others started to arrive at our place as well. I estimate that we were a hundred or so, in the big square. I was disoriented, astonished and out of breath, and I believe Salem was sharing those same qualities, but we were calm, trying to grasp the situation and find a way out of this. I kept voice-noting my brother via Whatsapp, updating him. “They hit us, but everything is well. We’re next to Qased Khair’s parking. There isn’t anything, don’t worry.”

We tried to escape through one of the corners that leads to the demonstrations but that was covered by the Special Forces anticipating us. We tried to run for the seaside, adjacent to the Seif Palace, but the Special Forces were there as well, already knowing our choices. All four corners were sealed, and that’s when we realized that we were trapped. It was humid, and the constant jogging from one area to the other took its toll on me. Some were trying to access Qased Khair for water but the coffee shop had its lights off and its door locked with the unknowing surprised costumers shayyeshing in total darkness. Although I did smell some teargas, but I wasn’t affected by it, assuming that people overreacted when exposed to it. There was a bucket of water outside of the café, and people were flushing their faces with it.

Then Salem, suddenly, left my side and introduced himself to Khaled and Saad, two notable opposition figures. His sly introduction made me smile as Salem’s family name was an apparent giveaway to his political views (many of his cousins were political detainees at one point). I followed suit and shook my hand with the two, kind of assured that they were people who knew what they’re doing, in such circumstances. We tagged along as they tried to organize the crowd and keep all in one place, preventing the random arrests that happen to individuals by undercover forces.

I then saw a relatively old woman, obviously lost and tired by the gas bombs. She wanted to leave, exclaiming, “Finish, I don’t want this! Why won’t they let us leave? I want to go home.” It became clear that the Special Forces weren’t in the business to disperse the crowds only. Their aim was collective punishment and random arrests. They wanted to inflict as much damage as possible, without letting anyone leave easily. There was no way out with such an articulate siege on our place particularly. The woman tried to enter Qased Khair, which didn’t yield whatsoever. The employees were flustered themselves. A couple, a man in a dishdasha and a woman, who probably were not part of the march, were heading towards the forces, with their hands up. We asked the woman to join them, and she did, welcomed by the couple. The man shouted, “FAMILY, FAMILY.” We observed, sensing the acknowledgement of the Special Forces, and anticipating their arrival to the awaiting troops. Nope. Three of the Special Forces aimed their guns and professionally sent, to our extreme horror; three gas bombs, which skid swiftly on the floor. One of the grenades, according to my later understanding, hit the foot of the old lady.

The bombs sent us into one of the old buildings bordering the square. This time I realized the genuine effect of the teargas as I struggled for breath and the smoke literally covered my face, skin and clothes, multiplied by the humidity. The gas infiltrated the building we entered and coughs were all I could here from the people. All were struggling. Our group then ascended to the mezzanine floor, which had inner balconies overlooking the ground floor. I didn’t understand why they were going upstairs. The smoke followed us, and naturally floated up with us. We were enclosed, surrounded and gassed.

We relaxed momentarily, giving me time to notice that we were in a building filled with closed offices and small firms. I, once again, updated my brother, providing him with whatever information I had, and an approximate location of where we were, and whom I was with (it turned out I was completely wrong with the location). Salem kept checking up on me and Saad and Khaled tried to communicate with the outside world and reassured us. A bottle of warm water circulated us with little water inside. Our urge to drown it all up was evident yet nobody dared to finish, gulping a little and passing it over. We were silent for a while, until I saw a blue and black uniform stealthily entering the building from the right, followed by another and another. It was a scene out of Call of Duty; their shields fully covering their faces and their professional entry making our building seem like a hub of terrorists. I, for the first time, was terrified. Khaled then escorted us into a corner in the floor we were in. It was a narrow room, 4x1 probably, bordered by plastic bags filled with clothes, and a green bicycle hanging on one of the walls. All of us fitted in, standing of course. We were fifteen. The guys were advising us to silence our phones and keep complete and utter silence. I was at the far end of the room. The only thing separating us from the rest of the floor was an opaque yellow sliding door, which was closed as soon as we were all inside. It was tight and sticky, and I can dare to say that air was scarce. Tear gas was yet to diminish, and hence my eyes continued to sting. We now had time to stare at each other as we listened for the various shouts coming from the lower floor, presumably of arrests and standoffs. We listened for sounds coming closer, or footsteps ascending the staircases of the building. I informed my brother of my imminent arrest and current situation, as well as my apologies for not adhering to his earlier requests. The fast pumping of my heart never ceded, and I couldn’t figure out the reason. The silence allowed for the faintest of sounds to be heard, and hence we heard a lot of footsteps and the occasional shouts. The sounds were getting closer. They were on our floor.

Salem deleted his Twitter. Others were drafting “I have been arrested” tweets whilst others kept hearing out for more clues. Khaled and Saad, calmly, mouthed and mimed instructions of surrender without resistance whatsoever. One of the guys with us was seemingly stressed at that prospect. Salem shared a smile of indignation towards me, leaving no room for words. The footsteps closed in, and Saad looked outside, anticipating the orders of the Special Forces. It was coming. We were to be arrested, now.

And then the officer simply turned around and walked to the other side of the corridor. Screams were now close by. A couple of guys were, apparently, caught in one of the bathrooms on our floor. We kept silent. Fifteen minutes then went by with nothing of note, but arduous sweat and nerve-wrecking anticipation, and the lack of air. One of the temporary tenants of the small room was an old guy called Jaber. His phone rang, regardless of any inclination to silence it. He replied with utter confidence and no sense of fear, to our astound amazement. What the fuck was he doing? He’s going to get us caught. After the phone call, he apologized, saying that he was talking to his son, and he didn’t want to seem weak or afraid to him. Many of us tensely smiled. Another fifteen minutes went by, with nothing out of the ordinary, but we still kept still. I found a piece of cardboard in one of the bags and began fanning the guys around me. They appreciated the small gesture and offered to fan me in return. It was more relaxed now. After more moments of silence, Saad carefully slid open the door, to allow air to breeze in onto us. It was a relief. One of the guys walked out and checked the floor for any police presence. There wasn’t any, but the building, according to Twitter, was still surrounded. The room now had more space, and I sat down, drenched in my sweat. It was also a chance to chat and converse about politics, our situation, and what Twitter is saying. We heard of the rally going into the old market, and the Special Forces throwing in gas grenades towards the people there as well. There were also rumors of another rally about to start in Subah Al-Nasser. The old man, Jaber, talked a bit about his past, astonishing us once again by recounting that he was a member of the police force, yet he retired years ago. The irony sure is evident. Those moments also gave me a chance to take some pictures as well as a memorable selfie with the smiling elder. But it was yet a safe place to be. An officer can simply enter and arrest us all.

After about an hour since our entrance into the room, some of the guys were asking about the possibility of leaving the room, to the warning and sensible refusals of both Saad and Khaled, the impromptu strategic and tactical leaders of our small group, unit, I’m tempted to say. Khaled was already making his phone calls to arrange a car that would pick us up from our location to another safe place. An Egyptian guard noticed us and approached us. We were quite skeptical. Saad asked him to check the building’s surroundings for any forces, and he agreed. He was also offered 10 KD, which he refused. We feared he would go and notify the forces, but in ten minutes he returned with assurances that we could leave safely, except not in a group, but individually, which was met by the group’s refusal. It’s very easy to be caught alone, without anybody knowing. One of the conversations Khaled had caught my ear. Apparently a car was brought to our location, but it wouldn’t fit all of us. Khaled adamantly refused leaving us all behind, something I find very hard to forget. Another fifteen minutes passed by, and the way out was planned and sorted. The owner of Qased Khair was a personal acquaintance of Khaled, and he suggested that we’d enter his place and act like unknowing costumers. Minutes later, the owner emerged, surprised by our hiding place and escorting us out of the building and into his coffee shop. Our dismayed appearance made for a very peculiar scene as we entered the café. The costumers astonished. In a single file we went in. There were a couple of Special Forces personnel viewing us, knowing all too well the reason behind our presence, but couldn’t do anything as, officially, we were costumers of Qased Khair.

We sat in a round table, ordered water and tea and acted absolutely normal. I don’t think we looked normal. I assured my brother, but looking back at the whole thing made me ever so grateful. Salem and I were almost laughing, and our scene was quite funny. Political protestors, almost arrested a few minutes ago, are enjoying a cup of tea like nothing is going on, like the drenched shirt on me was a normal thing.

To the political detainees, to the political activists, to the injured, I write and dedicate. This is nothing compared to other tales of oppression and use of excessive force, but it’s a means to remember and document.Most of what is written is a first-hand account of the events, but some are of what I heard as to the things that I didn’t see.I wrote a conformed piece of the events but it was unfortunately lost. So please excuse the lack of needed prowess in this piece, as it is my second time writing it.Finally, I’d like to thank Salem, my brother, Khaled and Saad as well as the others who shared my experience in this rally, and I apologize if I misrepresented any.

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