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‘We didn’t have the words former President in our dictionary’
Tête à tête

Ahmad Al Qadi smiles a shadow of a smile when I tell him the joke that did the rounds when thousands of Egyptians gathered at Cairo’s Tahrir Square, demanding the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. American President Barack Obama, went the joke, called up his Egyptian counterpart when the revolt refused to die down and said, “Hosni, my friend, I think it’s time you said goodbye to the people.” Mubarak was surprised: “Why, where are they going,” he asked.

The professor of Urdu in Cairo hasn’t yet got used to joking about a President who, it seemed even two months ago, could never be dislodged. “You know,” he says, gingerly taking a sip from a glass of nimboo pani, “we didn’t have the words ‘former President’ in our dictionary. For us, Presidents came — and stayed till they died or were killed.”

Till Hosni Mubarak, that is. One day in February, after an 18-day siege around Tahrir Square brought the city and governance to a standstill, Mubarak announced he was stepping down. The President, who’d held on to power for 30 long years had surrendered; the movement, a sequel to the Jasmine Revolution that forced Tunisia’s top brass to flee after a spell of widespread unrest, had succeeded.

“It was just amazing. We never thought that this would ever be possible. For 30 years, the people had been so terribly suppressed that we could never imagine it would ever end. When Mubarak left Cairo, there was such happiness. You could see it on our faces,” says Ahmed Mohammed Ahmad Abdel Rehman, as the head of the Urdu department at Al Azhar University is formally known. “I can’t tell you how happy the people were — I just don’t have the words for it.”

For the 50-year-old translator and lover of poetry, that’s saying something. Al Qadi, who was in Delhi earlier this month for a poets’ congregation, gropes for words as he talks about the siege.

“I went to Tahrir only at the end. As professors — and government employees — we couldn’t join the protest. We would have been arrested and sacked at once,” he says. “But Tahrir was the home of the people — they spent 18 days there without moving.”

Tahrir, which means liberation, was almost like a carnival through the days of protests. Over a million people were believed to have gathered there, reciting poetry, singing songs and patrolling the streets. People roasted popcorn and ate dates and couscous, and women cooked in huge cauldrons for the protestors. The Egyptians, a blogger observed, knew how to revolt.

“We saw images that we hadn’t seen before — women in veils and women in fashionable western clothes sitting together; Christians holding their prayers along with Muslims, and a Christian pouring the water for a Muslim’s ablutions,” he says. “This is what Tahrir did — it brought the people together with just one aim in mind: to throw out the Mubarak regime.”

Al Qadi pauses for a moment. We are sitting in a cafι in central Delhi. It’s a city that he knows well, having studied at the University of Delhi from 1987 to 1994, moving on to complete his doctorate after his Masters degree in Urdu. His ancestors, including his father, were Qazis or religious judges, from Sohaj in upper Egypt. But even as a youngster, he wanted to study languages.

“As a school kid I was fond of languages. When I joined university, one of my teachers told me about the new Urdu department that was coming up,” he says. He started learning the language, and soon won a scholarship for higher studies in Pakistan or India. “I chose India, because India is a free country. I am possibly the first Arab to formally learn Urdu,” he says with quiet pride.

He remembers his teacher telling him that he should choose Urdu because he was from upper Egypt. Urdu, he explains, is a flexible language, and the upper Egyptians are known to be flexible. “They are also a very hard working people.” And Urdu, with its 50-odd letters compared to the 28 in Arabic, needed perseverance and hard work.

“There are many letters that are difficult for Arabs to pronounce. There is no difference, for instance, between parking and barking,” he says, suddenly sounding like the academic that he is, in his dapper grey suit and maroon tie, and with his glinting horn-rimmed glasses.

When he talks of languages, the professor is fluent in his thoughts and words. When he goes back to the days of dread in Egypt, he lowers his voice.

“You know, if Mubarak was there, I would never have been able to sit and talk about all this. If I wanted to come to India as a visitor, I would have to take the permission of the national security. They penetrated every aspect of our lives — in appointing positions, in our movements. We were controlled by the police. They would arrest people without any reason,” he says.

People talked about Mubarak’s corrupt regime — some reports have it that he’s the richest man on earth, wealthier than even the Sultan of Brunei — but always in hushed whispers. The antics of his sons, the cruel ways of the security forces, rising unemployment, the middle class’s slow slide back into poverty — everything was discussed, he says, but within the four walls of every home.

“Now people are removing his name — or that of his family — from everywhere; from schools, streets, everywhere. If the young find a station named after the family, they immediately go and cross it. They want to demolish everything that reminds them of Mubarak.”

But the movement, he stresses, was a peaceful one. “It is incredible that we brought about the change without any bloodshed,” he says, pointing out that the protestors at Tahrir would raise their hands and the Egyptian flag, chanting all the while Salmiya, Salmiya — peace, peace. “Some have likened it to Gandhi’s struggle, the way he overthrew the British by peaceful means.”

But then India has always been close to the Egyptian’s heart. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, he points out, were contemporaries, sharing a vision of the world. “But then our people say, look where India has reached, and look where we are.”

In the midst of the unrest, Hindi films have continued to comfort the people of Egypt. “That’s because Hindi films give them an escape from their harsh lives. And the films are always close to the Egyptian people’s heart because they deal with problems that we face too — poverty, social injustice, unemployment,” he says.

Al Qadi has seen and appreciated My Name is Khan — and marvels that “such films where Islam is defended” are being produced in India. Shah Rukh Khan (he pronounces the name with the guttural Urdu emphasis on the letter ‘h’), along with Amitabh Bachchan, is much admired.

“When an Egyptian meets an Indian, he says: Hello India, Hello Amitabh Bachchan. And now he says: Hello Shah Rukh. You’ll find young Egyptian girls humming Hindi film songs even though they do not understand the words. They wear the clothes that the heroines wear.”

Bollywood, he believes, will continue to charm Egyptians. For, like many of his compatriots, he is hopeful about the future. “The fear of instability is still there, but we are not worried because we are sure of ourselves. Everything will work out. After any revolution, there is some sacrifice. So we are ready for our sacrifice.”

Look at all that has happened already, he says. The national security has been dissolved. The powers of the President and term in office have been limited. Corrupt people are being tried — “this is the outcome of the revolution”.

The professor doesn’t endorse Western fears that a door has been opened to hardliners. Egypt, he maintains, cannot be like Iran or Yemen. “The Egyptians are moderate people. We are the centre of moderate Islam. We will not allow extremists to come to power.”

He cites the example of Islamists who raised religious slogans at Tahrir Square, holding up banners that said “Islam is the solution.” The young protesters “threw them out”, he says. “They said, we don’t want any sectarian strife here. If you want to say you are for Egypt, you are with us,” he adds. Instead of religious banners, there were slogans for the country — along with music and poetry.

At the Urdu poets’ meet in the capital, organised by the Delhi-based Jashn-e-Bahar Trust, the Urdu lover read out a poem written by Egyptian poet Farooq Gawaida that he’d translated from Arabic into Urdu. “He’s a great poet who wrote beautifully about the days in Tahrir Square. He spoke of the security forces’ atrocities and of the people’s resistance in the poem he recited there,” he explains.

He ends with a few lines from a poem that echoed the angst of Egypt. “The Nile is there/And I am still thirsty.”

For Ahmad Al Qadi, the Nile is now in spate.

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