Postcards of Solidarity Hang in Tahrir Square!
As we watched the protests in Egypt on al-Jazeera from our apartment in Istanbul, we felt a compelling desire to participate in some way. Lingering in a living room heavy with shisha smoke, chewing lokum and hasty cig koftes, we followed the events as they unfolded: Mubarak’s vacillations, the thugs on camels and horses charging into Tahrir Square, the ensuing battle. Throughout it, the anti-ideological determination of many of the Egyptians, like many Tunisians before them, inspired us. Their struggle, unburdened by an overt political agenda, aimed towards the elements of human desire: freedom from persecution, the ability to build lives outside of the confines of a corrupt and ineffective state, equality within the public sphere, dignity.
I was politically active in America, but felt extremely wary of exporting my goals, values and strategies for political, social and economic change to places I wasn’t from or intimately connected to. And no Egyptian organizations asked for direct, on-the-ground international support, as did the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in Israel and Palestine: participating directly in the process in Egypt would entail showing up uninvited to a place whose rules we didn’t know.
So how, then, to show people in Egypt that we—and many, many more outside Egypt—support their struggle, without playing a participatory role? We wanted something visual, and something that communicated messages in an international scope. Something physical, and less ephemeral than online notices of solidarity. And we needed something we could carry which would survive the five-week overland route we were taking to get to Cairo.
As we discussed how to do this, another protest erupted in our own home-state, Wisconsin, over Governor Scott Walker’s plan—wrapped in budget-reduction language—to strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights. Thousands of Wisconsinites occupied the capital building in Madison, farmers staged tractor protests, and people from across the world donated pizzas to keep the demonstrators fed. And then this photo popped up:
It seemed remarkable that, in the midst of their own revolution, one individual would take the time to send a message of solidarity back to our home state. But it wasn’t remarkable at all: though few historical parallels can be drawn between Cairo and Madison, it doesn’t detract from a desire to support others who struggle against power. We were just unused to this degree of international interconnectedness.
Then we came up with an idea which suited our needs:
They are small, easy and cheap to send, and can be arranged in a way to create a suitable physical display on a site we couldn’t see beforehand. Mort importantly, they allow us to present many different voices from many different places. What is a better symbol of genuine international connectedness, imbued with the intimacy of real handwriting, than a postcard?
So we wrote up a request from friends and strangers to send us postcards, which we would bring to Cairo and display at Tahrir Square, the centerpoint of the protests. We posted it online and spread the word. We gave postcards to our friends in Istanbul and then to people we met along our overland route to Cairo. When we finally arrived in Cairo on April 28th, long after the initial protests had ended, we had collected nearly one hundred postcards in multiple languages. Most postcards were from friends and family, but a few kind strangers sent postcards as well.
It was in Cairo that we met Mariam Ismail through a mutual friend, and she quickly became the leg the project needed to stand on. Having never been to Cairo before, we planned to simply hang up the postcards and walk away, hoping the message would be brought to a few individuals. Mariam, who participated daily in the Tahrir Square demonstrations, gave the project the life and connectedness it needed. Without her it simply would not have succeeded.
Having missed the revolution itself, we couldn’t have arrived a more auspicious time than the beginning of May. May first is May Day, the international working-people’s day which in most places is just an excuse to get out into the streets. By late April Tahrir Square was still a popular place to go for public discourse but no longer abuzz with activity. Kelly and I walked though site frequently and discussed the revolution in detail with young people and families. Only the homeless stayed over night, though: Egyptians had taken down their encampments, with the stated threat of returning should the newly entrusted military intermediaries not transition to democracy. The police and military clamped down on the great roundabout tearing down placards in morning. May Day, when thousands would gather in Tahrir Square for speeches, festivities and music and the police would be occupied, would be the window for displaying our project.
We decided to string them up in an aesthetic reminiscent of Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags. Our hotel, just outside Tahrir Square, was kind enough to allow us to assemble the postcards in the hallway. They hung across a lanyard running forty meters, about 130 feet, in one continuous length, so it was something of a spectacle for Mariam, Kelly and I to carry the piece across the busy roundabout and to the grouping of trees just south of the main circle.
Once the piece was tied up, groups of people began reading looking at the cards. Throughout the course of the day we interacted with dozens of individuals from the region and further afield. Many spoke English—my Arabic being limited—and for those who didn’t, Mariam was on hand to translate and clarify. Hundreds and hundreds saw the cards and examined their messages, and brought their friends by to discuss them. The response was overwhelmingly positive. We shook many hands and exchanged countless shukrans (“thank you” in Arabic) and camera phone photographs. News organizations came by to interview Kelly, myself and Mariam; one crew filmed with the postcards as their backdrop. Most interactions were accompanied with hopeful and discerning discussions about Egypt’s current trajectory. The amount of public discourse and vibrancy was tremendous.
The largest barrier we faced in connecting people to the piece was language. Most of the postcards were written in English, and others were written in German, Polish, French, Mandarin Chinese and Turkish. Here Mariam was extremely valuable in conveying the messages so that, even when the postcards couldn’t be read, the intention came through.
At one point, someone contacted Mariam about displaying the piece in a social center after May Day. With that, the postcards got a second lease on life. Mariam became their custodian. We took the project down in the evening when a rowdy, impromptu anti-Qaddafi rally sprung up nearby, knowing the postcards would shortly be visiting art galleries and social centers around Cairo. Since May Day, they’ve been hung in the Cairo Opera house and Sawy’s Cultural Wheel. Their next stop is the Tahrir Square metro station, which tens of thousands of Egyptians pass through daily and then off to Cairo University.
Most photographs coming soon!