Bridgton native a witness to history in Egypt

CITIZEN JOURNALIST — Melinda lost her camera during the chaos of the revolution, but sent these photos of the crowds in Cairo’s Tahir Square, just before the climatic announcement of Mubarek’s resignation.

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

CAIRO, EGYPT — When Bridgton native Melinda Holmes arrived in Cairo, Egypt to do refugee resettlement work last November, the 28-year-old may have

IS THERE A GREATER BEAUTY? — Bridgton native Melinda Holmes has come to love Egypt and its people, having just witnessed their successful revolution to oust a 30-year dictator and overthrow the government. “I would not want to be anywhere else on our planet during these times,” she writes on Feb. 9, which she described as “another day expressing the beauty of humanity in the center of Cairo, the center of Egypt, the center of the world. Long live Egypt!”

thought she’d find the soul of the country hidden in the ancient past, somewhere amidst the pyramids dotting the desert sands.

Days after moving into her apartment three blocks from Tahrir Square, the protests started — thrusting her instead into the epicenter of a revolution. She watched in spellbound awe as the Egyptian people claimed their universal right to freedom in a square that Holmes has dubbed “the largest waiting room on Earth.”

The experience has changed her life, said her mother, Lucia Terry, owner of Perennial Point of View. Melinda went to Egypt to win points toward getting into grad school at Georgetown University, working as a legal case worker for Somali refugees for St. Andrew’s Refugee Services. Now the anthropology and geology graduate of USM’s Hunter College who was home-schooled by her mother has witnessed with her own eyes what freedom really is — the kind of freedom she’s taken for granted all of her life in America.

‘Everything’s changed’

“Everything’s changed,” said Terry. “I’m always so proud of her, but for her to be in the midst of this kind of history is really exciting and life-changing.”

In eloquent and poetic prose, Holmes has recorded the past two weeks of her life on her blog, www.strassekunst.blogspot.com.

“I am struck again with how lucky I am,” she writes on Feb. 9. “To have ever come to Egypt in the first place, purely by chance while I was wandering during my first sojourn abroad post-university, to have fallen in love with the country and its people, to have maintained friendships here that kept my relationship with Egypt alive, and to have decided only three months ago to come here, now. I would not want to be anywhere else on our planet during these times. Long live Egypt!”

During the protests, she worked to organize food distribution to the refugees, who became increasingly vulnerable because of the unrest and closure of most non-government offices and organizations. She helped picked up trash in the square, and occasionally got caught by tear gas from the Egyptian police forces.

‘Most beautiful apple I have ever seen’

She went beyond witnessing; she got directly involved. She wrote this on Feb. 8:

“On one day early on in Tahrir I was frustrated with my inability to DO anything to help . . . I am not Egyptian so I resist yelling the chants because it’s not my place. I saw some young people had organized to begin collecting trash and so I got a trash bag from them and joined.

“My friends and I moved through the crowd looking for trash on the ground. The response was overwhelming, people were looking for something to throw away, they were moved to see this white blond girl collecting their trash. Their smiles could have broken their faces. There was one man who wanted to take over for me, ‘This is our job they said, it is our country we should clean it up,’ but I insisted and they relented seeing my true desire to DO something.
“A man came up to me, falling over himself to give me an apple, he dropped it and embarrassed he picked it up rubbing the dirt off of it with his shirt sleeves . . . it was the most perfect red delicious, the most beautiful apple I have ever seen, an apple of love between human beings, an apple representing the mutual respect that can exist if we can only stop our fear. I accepted it, reassuring him, ‘mish mushkela,’ no problem, ‘Shukran,’ and putting my hand over my heart in profound gratitude for this precious moment.”

Like millions of others, Holmes turned to online social media as a way to stay informed and involved in the protest effort. She wrote this on Jan. 27:

“I have developed a small band of friends and colleagues with a common disposition toward the events of these days. Our nature is to seek out the action, not merely as gawking bystanders but because we feel we need to contribute in any way we can to the cause; for us this means gathering and disseminating as much information as possible, as quickly as possible. Tonight, three days since the call for revolution was issued, we walked the streets of Cairo, searching for demonstrations and monitoring the situations that are locked down.”

A long distance race

Later in the two-week protest, Holmes recalled “the giddy expectation of victory smiles” as the crowd awaited the departure speech by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that never came.

“As the realization dawned that he would stick like molasses in his chair, few burst out only to be hushed, and one by one the shoes rose over the heads of the crowd, soles pointed at the origin of his voice, a gesture that is one of the greatest insults Egyptian culture has to offer,” Holmes wrote. “With disbelief and anger, exhaustion and determination, the protesters went back to business as usual with cries of 'Irhal' rising into the night. The elation of the evening was premature, this is a long distance race, one that many more may not finish.”

Holmes recalled walking by members of the Egyptian police force as tensions near the square began to mount.

“Drinking tea, smoking cigarettes, and chatting with passersby, (the police) are an unassuming yet foreboding presence,” Holmes wrote on Jan. 27. “The blocks surrounding the square resembled a shadow of themselves: every other store closed, sidewalks nearly empty of pedestrians, no street vendors save the permanent newsstands.
“Arriving home eager to read the press and check for updates online I found no Internet connection, checking connections, quitting, reopening, restarting, rebooting the router, only to confirm that the sneaking suspicion was a disturbing reality: the Internet had been completely shut down.

“We are consulting demonstration guides, learning how to combat tear gas and making contingency plans. The police have vanished from the streets and the night is eerily quiet. I am writing this not knowing when or how I will be able to communicate it to the outside world. The strange feeling of normalcy that I had maintained to this point has vacated my being.”

The feeling of being watched

Holmes said she wasn’t scared for her life during the protests, but at times admits to real apprehensions:

“Movement on the streets is becoming easy again and shops are mostly reopened, the attitude of most towards us foreigners who remain is curiosity and welcome,” she wrote on Feb. 7. “Yet there have been mounting reports of suspicion, detention, and abuse of foreigners, including non-journalists. The situation inside Tahrir is safe unless you are actively aiding the protesters (food, blankets) and are spotted by the plethora of intelligence operatives there. However, I am still uneasy about approaching Tahrir from my neighborhood as there are informants for various groups among the neighbors and this has resulted in problems for other foreigners and Egyptians alike. Armed plain-clothes police with uniformed police have been visiting foreigners in their homes (Euro-American) to ask why they are still here and even examine their computers.

“I went to the square today after staying away for two days for my own protection and that of those around me. Again I reiterate, it is not about the safety of being there in the demonstrations but of being associated with them when one is on the outside. Returning to the demonstration was like putting salve on a wound. The square resembles a mini-city. They have organized everything, in the organic way that Egyptians do best. The festive atmosphere has been added to by Mad Hatter hats in red, white and black, popcorn vendors, elaborate displays of protest signs, and shrines to those who have been so unfortunately lost.
“We seem now to be in limbo, waiting to see in which direction the state apparatus moves regarding security measures. One worry is that they are using this time while ninety percent are out of the country to crackdown on those who ‘suspiciously’ remain here, to keep us afraid and inside our homes or get us to leave. The curfew, which has become effectively moot for Egyptians, is still being randomly enforced for foreigners and used as a reason for detention. With intelligence and informants for various parties infiltrating every building and present on every street, it is hard to know from what angle the next threat may come.”

The ‘new’ normal

In an interview Monday on Fox 23, the Portland-based Fox TV affiliate, Holmes said dance parties were still going strong in the streets, but that the Egyptian people are getting back to their daily routines, “What I would call the new normal,” she said, even though everything has changed.

“There’s sort of a combined relief and apprehension about what’s going to happen next,” Holmes said. The people aren’t naïve enough to think that what they’ve accomplished, as historic as it is, is anything more than a beginning of change, she added.

“I fundamentally believe that if things don’t go as they want over the next six months, that they will go out and demonstrate again, against whoever is getting in the way of that process,” Holmes said.

With any luck — and in her mind, she’s had plenty — Holmes will be there to witness that next chapter.

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