Unbreakable in Cairo

International activists hold a Palestinian flag at the pyramids in Cairo. (Dana Elborno)

Though I have lived most of my life in and around Chicago, it has never been my complete home. My sisters and I were born as first-generation Palestinian-Americans coming from Kuwait and for this reason our lives in Chicago always felt temporary — we were only supposed to stay until the Gulf War was over, we finished school, the occupation ended, the siege was broken, etc. The only accepted rhetoric about our presence in America was and continues to be, “This is not our home, we are from Gaza.” The semantics of a Gazan home are lovely, but the only sense of Gaza I have is as fleeting as gusts of dust that blow off of old pictures. These faded images of a time and place that no longer exist leave us with nostalgia for memories we never even lived. It is the most porous of identities and I feel the gaps palpably.

For this reason — and maybe more so, for our political agenda — my older sister and I signed up for the Gaza Freedom March. Aside from the family history that draws us to Gaza, we are unwavering in our belief that the siege must end and the humanity of Palestinians in Gaza has been grossly disregarded throughout this whole catastrophe that began more than 60 years ago, and especially during Israel’s assault on Gaza last winter. The Gaza Freedom March gave us an outlet to voice these beliefs and mobilize with a global community of like-minded activists — almost 1,400 of them from over 40 countries.

When we made our way to Cairo, the march that was planned to take place side by side with Palestinians in Gaza quickly turned into a round of protests against the Egyptian government after they canceled our permits to travel to and enter the besieged territory. Our personal narrative quickly became overpowered by the political situation between Egypt, Israel, the Arab World and the “West.” We protested for four days straight. In contexts like these, all of us fighting for the freeing of Palestine are Palestinians. There was a beautiful strength in our numbers and diversity. We were empowered and united, fighting to go to Gaza together.

Then Suzanne Mubarak, wife of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, so “graciously” offered to send only 100 of us to Gaza to deliver our small amounts of humanitarian aid. The GFM organizers only had a couple of hours to respond and eventually agreed under these pressing conditions. That night, we stayed up late in the Lotus Hotel with organizers, passionately debating whether the decision made was the right one, and if we were to accept it, who should go. By the time we left the Lotus, the GFM steering committee in Gaza wanted 100 to come and join their march. They believed international presence was crucial to keeping the march an effort of civil society and ultimately protecting the 50,000 Gazans who had mobilized to fill the streets and march towards the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing. So, in spite of all the controversy, a list of 100 persons was made to fill the seats on the two buses and priority was given to internationals of Palestinian descent who have never seen Gaza, people just like me and my sister.

Six hours later, it was Thursday morning and we showed up to the bus loading zone in downtown Cairo. The GFM’s steering committee in Cairo announced that organizers in Gaza reversed their decision late in the night; they no longer supported the deal reached with the Egyptian government. Hedy Epstein, a Holocaust survivor on hunger strike to protest the Egyptian government’s refusal to let us travel to Gaza, chose not to board the bus and gave a beautiful, emotional and painful speech explaining her decision. Not even the organizers in Cairo endorsed these buses anymore, but they left it up to us to decide whether or not we would board them. Immediately, internal tensions escalated and there seemed to be no right decision; we found ourselves in the belly of a directionless beast and our personal momentum to go home for the first time was directly conflicting with the political priorities for Gaza.

Accepting these buses and boarding them was in effect changing our political goal to a weak humanitarian goal. The Gaza Freedom March was supposed to stand as a testament of a global voice yelling, “Enough is enough, break the siege.” These buses turned us into a small delegation of people carrying humanitarian aid into a land under siege. That is simply not who we are. Or even worse, these buses had turned us into a disconnected group of people with individual reasons for going to Gaza. Again, this is not at all who we were. Of course I am not saying that I was not ambivalent about wanting to go as an individual; all I have ever wanted to do is go to Gaza and walk into the pictures of our home that hang on walls and sit on mantles in our house in Chicago. But as a part of a political group, neither my sister nor I could board that bus with a clear conscience.

It was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made, but in the end I was sure: it was either all of us go or none of us. If only 100 went, the news story would have changed from 1,400 protest against the siege in Gaza to Egypt allows 100 activists into Gaza. I did not want to be used as a pawn by the Egyptian government to save their face in the Arab world, nor did I want to weaken the political message of the Gaza Freedom March. The work we were doing in Cairo had been effective and I wanted to continue being a part of it. Our protests were on the front page of every Egyptian newspaper and our efforts were actively discussed on late-night talk shows in the Middle East. Suddenly everyone had something to say about these foreigners in Egypt protesting for Gaza. Political pundits were asking all over Egypt’s airwaves, “Why do foreigners care more about the plight of Palestinians than the Arab World?” and “Why isn’t Egypt opening the borders?”

The next day I woke up in Cairo, feeling even more empowered. All of the confusion had really put us in a position to define who we were, what our goals were, what we wanted and the risks we were willing to take to get it. We pulled up to the next protest in front of the Egyptian National Museum at 10am, entrenched in this renewed clarity, and uniquely hopeful. As I crossed the street to get to the mass of protesters and police, I saw the police building their barricade around protesters who were trying to stage a symbolic march to Gaza. A woman about 60 years old was resisting the police who were forcibly trying to barricade her. I saw Egyptian police forces drag and beat her in the street and at the time, my reflex was to photograph the abuse. While pressing up against the commotion and shooting countless pictures, I made eye contact with one of the officers. Immediately, four men jumped on me and held me down. One of the officers covered my eyes with his hands, while other officers beat me and and pried my camera out of the cage I was creating around it with my body. They told me they were going to shatter my camera in the street and I started a desperate plea with the officers to return it to me and let me leave. As I tried to get up, my hair was pulled and I was back on the ground. The officers eventually returned my camera after taking my memory card and threw me on to a pile of protesters inside the barricades.

That was the worst of it. Soon things calmed down and everyone was sitting. We fell back into our default chants, “Free Gaza! Free Gaza!”

Though chanting, I felt broken — we didn’t get to Gaza, the siege continues and we had been publicly abused. Furthermore, the media focused on the 85 persons who went to Gaza, though they had disassociated themselves from Gaza Freedom March, and our efforts in Cairo became old news. I couldn’t help but wonder, “What’s it all worth?” Ultimately though, I realize that this is exactly how politics of activism can break a political activist and I won’t let that happen. On a personal level, I fervently hope that someday the strangers on the streets of Gaza City will look familiar and my relatives in Gaza will no longer appear only in photographs — but that isn’t the priority. My priorities are political. The humanity of Palestinians in Gaza must be validated and this will never happen while Gaza is under siege. At this point, my sisters and I are in the third generation of activists to march, stand, sit and protest for Palestine. The persistence of Palestine as a humanitarian crisis can be wildly disheartening, but the persistence of the resistance movement is equally — if not more so — heartening. That’s what it’s all worth. The spirit of the resistance movement has not yet been broken, despite everything that has let us down or disappointed us. We are a people united for Palestine and we embrace this struggle. It is at times emotionally exhausting, but we aren’t broken and we will break the siege of Gaza.

Dana Elborno is a 20-year-old journalism student in Chicago.