Mohammed Hanif- Watching other people’s revolutions

The revolution in Egypt has sent ripples through the Arab world – Mohammed Hanif was in Ramallah when Cairo exploded…

RAMALLAH: As Juma prayers ended in Al Aqsa mosque last Friday and namazis turned their faces leftwards to say their salam, a number of green flags suddenly shot up amongst the congregation.

A young man with a Nike backpack ran through the rows of worshippers shouting slogans in Arabic and flinging reams of pamphlets in the air. I caught one and tried to read it. I understood exactly three words. Shabab (youth), misr (Egypt), and sor (revolution).

I tried to ask a middle-aged man standing next to me what was going on. He folded his prayer mat and muttered every Palestinian`s favourite line when bored by curious visitors asking them the obvious questions. “It’s a problem,” he said, ignoring the pamphlet in my hand, and walked off to join the protest.

Within minutes the mosque compound was resounding with slogans against Hosni Mubarak. Young men with children on their shoulders demanded revolution. Old men carrying folding chairs because they couldn’t sit on the ground to offer their prayers joined in and raised their fists in approval. A thousand teenagers took out their mobile phones and started filming. A boy barely out of his teens recited a stirring poem and everyone joined him; the chants grew so loud that the voice of Al Aqsa’s khateeb, who was still offering his dua on the loudspeaker, was drowned out.

Forty-five minutes later the protest ended as abruptly as it had begun; flags were folded, hands shaken and the crowd melted away.

A posse of Israeli boy soldiers, who had watched the protest from a distance, lowered their guns, got into a single file and marched away. It seemed, despite their young years, they had seen it all before.

Outside the mosque compound, in the ancient and narrow streets of old Jerusalem, everyone was glued to their TV sets. Al Jazeera`s live broadcast from Cairo seemed to have replaced real life in the city.

Shopkeepers of old Jerusalem who can sell you a Quran, a cross, a rosary and a belly dancer’s belt from their tiny shacks in a dozen languages ignored the tourists and stared at their television screens.

Trying to get my own Cairo update, I watched with concern as a barber shaved his customer while both watched Al Jazeera. A tour guide taking an American couple on Jesus Christ`s last walk on Via Dolorosa abandoned them for a bit and went into a shop to find out if Mubarak had left the country or not.

In Ramallah, the working capital of the very dysfunctional Palestinian Authority, I saw similar scenes. Cafe Lavie, one of the swish joints in town, was hosting a Spanish night. As the young kids danced the night away and middle-aged businessmen ogled them, they had one thing in common: they all insisted that Al Jazeera stay on so that they could watch the cool Cairo protesters flashing their `V` signs.

In Palestine Coffee Shop, an establishment so old and so set in its ways that it serves only coffee and nothing else, a place where old Arab men start playing cards at eight in the morning and are found taking naps before midday, customers wanted Al Jazeera on full volume.

Nobody becomes an expert on anything, let alone a political movement, by hanging out in mosques and coffee shops. I asked university students in Berziet and Nablus about why Palestinians were so interested in what was going on in Cairo. Their favourite word about the Cairo situation was `exhilarating`. They were all interested in what would happen next. They had all stayed up late to watch Mubarak speak, who, like all aging dictators, had indulged in a bit of self-pity.

Could something like this happen here, in Palestine? It was the obvious tourist question. But they were generous, as they had been asking the same question of each other.

I got two kinds of answers.

“Don’t you know what happened here last week, here in Ramallah?” a bright kid asked me. I knew what had happened. A couple of days before Cairo’s Jan 25, Al Jazeera had broken kashaful mastoor. Even an outsider like me knew what that meant; the PA papers, or ‘our WikiLeaks’, as the Ramallah smart set call it.

According to Al Jazeera, Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority had tried to sell everything that Palestinians, Muslims and Christians, had fought for more than 60 years. They had offered the largest Jerusalem in history to the Israelis, the right to return for refugees was reduced to an empty gesture and they had practically looked the other way when Israel assaulted Gaza. And apparently they had found no buyers on the Israeli side for this shady bargain.

Protests were predicted. The beneficiaries of PA`s corrupt regime had asked each other: can it happen here?

The next day there was a protest. But not against the PA’s pathetic attempt at a historic sell-out. It was against the Al Jazeera office in Ramallah. The authority bussed in people, or PA thugs as the students told me, and let them loose.

“So the answer to your question is no, thank you. Nothing like Cairo will happen here,” I was told.

The other kind of answer, and one followed by a question, was more disturbing. A bright student in Nablus pointed to the hills around the city, occupied by Jewish settlers. “Much worse has happened here and probably much worse will happen.”

Somebody else reminded me that those settlers up in the mountains have swimming pools in their homes and even middle-class Ramallah residents might have to go without a shower for a whole week, in the summer.

Others told me more believable stories: a tank breaking through your home`s front door, an F16 almost grazing the roof of your house, a father forced to strip down to his underwear in front of his children by an Israeli boy soldier.

“Can something like Cairo happen in Pakistan?” a student asked me. I tried to joke about the fact that our dictators don’t seem to have the kind of staying power that Middle Eastern dictators do.

“We get rid of ours after a decade and then put out adverts for a new one,” I said. “Egyptians are fighting for democracy, and we already have it. Kind of.”

An earnest student reminded me of the twin blasts in Pakistan last week and asked in a student’s earnest voice. “So who exactly is killing who?”

“It’s a problem,” I said, trying to fake a Palestinian accent. “A big problem.”

Mohammed Hanif, is the author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes published by Random House India . This  was originally published in Dawn.

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