Did we ‘couvre’ the ‘feu’?

Curfew is a concept that is very alien to a country half of which plays dominos in coffee houses till 3:00 a.m. and the other half wakes up to the dawn call for prayers and half of each half sits in front of the TV till the first and second reruns of the day’s movies are aired.

In Egypt, people start going out at the time when any European city is getting ready to sleep. If you decide you’re too lazy to move, whole fleets of home delivery motorcycles venture into the bustling streets of Cairo to make your cravings a reality till the first hours of the morning. If you go to any of the Nile promenades any time after midnight, you are almost certain it is midday in a flea market or rush hour in downtown Karachi.

Egypt is where there is little difference between a highway and a shopping mall and where no neighborhood is unsafe and nobody warns you of carrying cash or walking alone after dark. I only recall that the word "curfew" is only used in reference to the time parents tell their daughters to come home and I don’t think that more than 10 percent of the population had any idea that the word meant anything else. They probably thought "curfew" was synonymous to "my dad makes my life hell" or "my mom takes pleasure in torturing me."

On January 28, also known as the Friday of Fury, sunset was approaching and inhaling the entire stock of the country’s tear gas had made worn us out and the sound of live bullets had made us realize what we’re really up against. We decided to take a break and protestors living nearby decided to go home and watch the news to know what they were saying about the bunch of saboteurs who were out to ruin the country. I went to buy a snack from a convenience store and got back at the same time when our field reporters had returned and when I suddenly heard the word "curfew" a hundred times in one minute. "The police are out, the army is in, and a curfew is imposed as of right now," everyone said. "Curfew? What does that mean?"

Well, I was one of those who asked this question, not because I didn’t know what a curfew meant, but because I couldn’t envision how it could possibly be applied to Egypt, let alone Egypt during a revolution. I remember that I couldn’t go back home that day—I live far from downtown Cairo—because there were no cabs or buses or anything to take me back and that was an ultimate sign that something had gone terribly wrong. I had to spend the night at a friend’s house and while I was thinking of where the country was going after that day that was bound to change the face history, I was also trying to figure out what do people do in a curfew.

"Nothing," said my friend at whose house I spent the night. "You just stay at home."

"You can’t be serious," I scoffed.

I guess that was the only day the so-called curfew was really implemented, possibly because this new word to the vocabulary of Egyptians seemed like something you need to obey especially for those who know that in other countries you get shot if you break the curfew.

The next day, I looked around and searched for the curfew then realized that like anything else, Egyptians have to have their own touch. Curfew time was when the fun started for all Egyptian youths who formed those neighborhood watch committees in order to protect their houses and neighborhoods after the police was withdrawn from every single street in the country.

The moment the curfew started—at one point it was as early as 3:00 p.m.—makeshift checkpoints were erected at the entrance and exit of every street. They asked pedestrians for their IDs and searched cars while asking for news updates from all those curfew-breakers and who were mostly coming back from Tahrir Square.

"So how was it today?"

"Any hope the man might go?" they would inquire.

This done, they made sure you really lived where you said you did by asking you a few questions about the neighborhood and if your answers are correct, you get to pass. When some car owners started complaining that they were delayed because they had the trunk, the salon, and the glove compartment searched at every single checkpoint—there was one every couple of meters—the neighborhood watchers started inventing codes and they told you for how many checkpoints it was valid so that you would spare yourself part of the hassle.

You might also be required to give a specific sign that exempts you from the coming two or three searches like making a left signal, raising your windshield wipers, or turning on the salon light. To make sure they are capable of carrying out their new mission, the after-curfew rangers carried anything that can be used as a weapon. This ranged from kitchen knives and baseball bats to broom sticks and tennis balls. Barriers of all types were stationed across the street to make sure a car doesn’t speed up before undergoing the required procedures and that included tree trunks, bed planks, and dining tables. After several days passed and the self-proclaimed gendarmes started showing signs of fatigue, the questions underwent a slight change. "Do you still have energy to fights, guys?" "Why don’t you end the whole thing so we can all go home and get some sleep?" Then, they realized that was not going to happen, so they started taking TV sets from their living rooms to the street so they can get some entertainment when there was nothing to inspect and no one to interrogate. Some also started organizing football tournaments.

Amid the danger we felt as we awaited the moment we would be exterminated and the tension that permeated every part of Egypt as the future kept getting more and more obscure by the minute, I looked forward to meeting our new "protectors"—genuine ones who replaced a security apparatus that was only there to guard the regime— every night I headed home from Tahrir Square. I looked forward to the question they asked each time they stopped me to search the car: "Why are you out at the time of the curfew?" I would smile and shrug my shoulders. I knew they knew why, so there was nothing really to say. They would smile back, hand me my ID and driver’s license then say, "Stay safe."

When the regime was toppled and normalcy was partially restored, curfew hours went down and checkpoints were dismantled. For several days, I drove around with my documents at hand and ready to answer any questions about where I am going and in which building I live and I felt sad as I realized those boys must have gone back to their classes or offices or simply to make up for all the sleep they had missed when they were "on duty." I am sure they felt the same as they got deprived of that part they were for the first time in their lives allowed to play. I bet they were not only grateful to the revolution that rid them of a despotic regime, but also for the curfew that made them feel in charge of the safety of their compatriots who were out there fighting for their freedom. I missed them and missed the time I felt that exceptionally sheltered despite of having every reason be frightened to death.

Just in case you didn’t know, the word "curfew" comes from "couvre-feu," French for "cover the fire," in reference to the time when lamps and candles were put off when curfew time came. I wonder if our kind of curfew did not ignite that fire instead. At a time when you were not supposed to see a soul, I saw all Egypt, and at a time when you could have been shot or taken to jail for roaming the streets when you were supposed to, I felt safer than when I cowered under the blankets in my own bed. This curfew reignited the long dormant ashes and breathed life into the spark that was extinguished by decades of oppression, despair, and lack of purpose. Our curfew was an "allume-feu."

On June 15, the curfew was officially lifted, but I wonder if this is also the fate of everything it inspired. If we lit the fire at the time it was supposed to be doused, I hope we are not going to start dousing it at the time when we are supposed to go on lighting it. As I spend my first curfew-free night, I thought what my former guardians might be doing at the moment and whether like me they are remembering the days when they found themselves entrusted with the whole country and in charge of shielding its citizens at home and in the streets. I hope they are recalling those days, too, and realizing that the curfew—our own version of it—is not over even if now we are allowed to stay out all night.

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