Writing into a revolution

Off the Beat

I watched my family’s home turn into chaos on a television screen as I sat almost 8,000 miles away in California. Swarms of protesters were marching through the streets of Cairo to demand an end to then-president Hosni Mubarak’s rule. I was shocked and didn’t know what to make of what was happening.

Seeing the Arab Spring unfold reminded me of the stories my family members told me about being forced out of their homeland. My parents are both Coptic Christian — a religious minority in Egypt — and escaped Egypt at a young age because of political corruption and religious persecution.

I grew up hearing these stories from my parents but never experienced them myself. Watching the revolution on the news made the dangerous conflicts that my parents had always talked about seem more real than they had ever been before.

Within minutes of realizing the severity of the news in Egypt, I frantically called my grandparents to see if they were OK. I felt helpless as I heard my grandma and aunt crying hysterically to me. The sounds of people rioting and yelling and cars beeping in the background made me terrified for my family’s safety.

I had no idea if my family members would be safe and turned back to the BBC broadcast for answers. The journalist optimistically called the riots a big revolution that would bring freedom and equality to Egypt. But even as a 12-year-old, I didn’t believe the fairy tale he was painting. All I could think of was a future of political instability and violence for my family.

I was horrified as I listened to the journalist describe the events in such a detached way. It was impossible for me to distance myself from the events. I couldn’t consider the political weight of the revolution when I feared for my family’s well-being. For once, I felt a personal connection to what was happening in the news.

After that day, I invested a lot of my time into staying politically informed. I watched Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN almost daily. I researched the Arab Spring online and spoke to my grandparents about what they were experiencing firsthand. Proactively learning about Egypt made me feel empowered.

I felt compelled to stay engaged; I couldn’t afford to ignore what was happening. Living so far away from my grandparents and aunt made me feel powerless and disconnected. The news was one of the only avenues that connected me to what they were going through.

But as I continued to watch the news, I became a more critical viewer. I hated the emotionally detached reporting style of the revolution and other political events in non-Western countries. I wanted to show people what was happening in Egypt from the perspectives of other Egyptians like myself. I didn’t see myself in these reporters, and I wondered if non-Egyptian reporters could accurately tell my family’s story.

As much as the news coverage was flawed, Egypt’s presence in the news changed the way the people around me saw Egypt. A few weeks after the first riot in Egypt, my social studies teacher brought up the revolution in class. That was the first time I heard Egypt being discussed in an educational setting as a modern society.

History books reinforced the notion that Egypt was an “ancient mythological civilization.” My teachers had taught me about the pharaohs, hieroglyphs and pyramids, but we had never discussed Egypt in a way that humanized Egyptians today.

So I was excited when kids started asking about the revolution and what the term “Arab Spring” meant. I felt like my classmates were finally seeing the modern Egypt I knew rather than an ancient place. Having an in-class opportunity to share the research I had conducted and the experiences of my family was life-changing to me.

I knew then that I needed to have a career where I could discuss and investigate these issues and share my ideas with other people ––journalism was a natural fit. I could give my community a voice, and I could change the Western narratives on Egypt that are constantly being perpetuated.

Coming to UC Berkeley, I was finally able to start my journalistic career. I joined The Daily Californian at a time when conflict was rising in the Middle East — the refugee crisis in Syria, the violence in Palestine and most recently, a potential Arab Spring in Sudan. I worry about the people who have to deal with the aftermath of these revolutions. Most of all, I wonder if Middle Eastern and North African people will ever have input into their own stories.

But being surrounded by fellow college journalists who come from a variety of perspectives, identities and backgrounds gives me hope. Every time I work with them, I am reminded that I have the power to revise the narratives that have been written for me and add new ones. And that, to me, is a revolution in and of itself.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.