My mother recounted the story so many times throughout my life that the image took shape word by word inside my head. It is the picture of a young girl, seven or eight years old, wrapped up in a flag by her father and held aloft at a political demonstration.
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It was March 1919. The Great War had ended at the end of the preceding year. The sense of relief felt across Europe at the cessation of hostilities between Britain and its allies and Germany was matched by the sense of hope and expectation that Egypt would soon be liberated from the British Occupation that had endured since 1882.
Egyptian nationalists had long been pressing for independence from Britain. In the wake of World War One, emboldened by US President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration that all peoples were entitled to self-determination, they told the British High Commissioner Reginald Wingate that they expected the British Protectorate and martial law to be abolished and expressed their desire to travel to the Paris Peace Conference to press for Egypt’s independence. On the same day in November 1918, the Egyptian nationalists, headed by Saad Zaghlul formed the Wafd al Misri (known as Wafd) or Egyptian Delegation, to represent the nation and the right of Egyptians to determine their own future. Later in November, Zaghlul applied for travel permits to allow the delegation to go to London to make representations to the British Government on behalf of the Egyptian people. Their request was denied and on 8th March Zaghlul and three other members of the Wafd were arrested. The following day they were deported to Malta, sparking off demonstrations in Cairo, Alexandria and other towns as well as strikes by transport workers, judges and lawyers.
Enveloped in the red, white and black tricoleur of the Egyptian national flag, the young girl (my grandmother) and her father (my great-grandfather) were amongst thousands of Egyptians of different classes, ages and denominations who flooded into towns and cities across Egypt to protest against the British Occupation. This was a genuinely popular uprising and even had its own flag, with a crescent and cross to show both Muslims and Copts supported the revolution (thawra), a symbol which the Wafd continued to use. This flag re-emerged almost a century later in the 25th January Revolution in 2011.
Watching the events unfold on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and elsewhere in Egypt in the last week of January and the first weeks of February, the image that had imprinted itself on my mind’s eye of my grandmother draped in the Egyptian national flag by my great-grandfather (a journalist) took tangible form. Egyptians of different backgrounds, religions and ages, wrapped themselves up in the national flag, hoisted flags from tanks, unfurled and waved flags of different sizes in a poignant expression of national unity and desire for self-determination in the face of a native regime that treated its populace as brutally as any occupying power.
Had the images of resistance against British rule a century earlier imprinted themselves on our collective consciousness as Egyptians? Were we invoking memories from the past and mobilising them in the cause of a present resistance? I may never know whether an actual physical photograph exists of my grandmother’s and great grandfather’s participation in the 1919 Revolution but the image of Egyptian resistance persists as a memory passed from one generation to the next, impervious to the vagaries of loss or disappearance.
Published in Photoworks Issue 16, 2011
Commissioned by Photoworks.