Laura El-Tantawy on the lasting meaning of Tahrir Square

The following is an excerpt of a conversation between Laura El-Tantawy and Scott Anderson which took place in December 2020.
A close-up of an older Egyptian woman's face, tears rolling down her cheek.

Faces of a Revolution #7: Safeya's Tears – Cairo, Egypt. From the series In the Shadow of the Pyramids (2005-14). Taken on a Canon EOS 400D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 850D) at 250mm, 1/500 sec, f/7.1 and ISO200. © Laura El-Tantawy

"I grew up in Egypt in a very close family household. We lived in an apartment building, my grandparents lived in the same building, my aunt as well, so this was a very close-knit family unit. When I was 18, I went to the US to study and that's how my journey away from Egypt started. And now there's this extra identity of being British, because I've now lived in England for 13 years.

"I definitely still connect more with my roots as an Egyptian, but there's always been a bit of something that I feel I have to justify for myself, that maybe you lose some of that when you live far away for so long. I've felt that when I go out on the streets here to photograph. A lot of times people ask me, 'Where are you from?' Then starts this conversation: 'I'm from here'. They're like, 'Oh, there's no way you're from here. Maybe you're from Tunis or Lebanon, but you're not Egyptian.' I think when you leave a country and live somewhere else, the way you carry yourself changes. I always dress the way you'd see an Egyptian dress, when I speak Arabic I think it's normal Egyptian, but I think they are picking up on these subtle changes. 'No, you're not Egyptian.'"

The Cairo skyline silhouetted against the setting sun, which has turned the sky bright orange.

Sunset Through my Childhood Window, Cairo, Egypt. From the series In the Shadow of the Pyramids (2005-14). Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) at 28mm, 1/30 sec, f22 and ISO200. © Laura El-Tantawy

Tahrir Square: a turning point

"When the Tahrir Square protests started in 2011, I was in Italy attending a photography workshop. Should I go? Should I not go? My mom was really freaking out on the phone: 'There's snipers on rooftops. They're shooting people. They're targeting photographers, you shouldn't come'. I decided I should. I was really scared of coming back, but I also felt this was the moment to be in this country, to tell its story.

"I think before the revolution Egyptians really felt defeated. They felt like this country wasn't theirs, that they have to fend for themselves and are just trying to survive. Once Tahrir Square happened, it was a moment where people regained their sense of confidence. 'We can now reclaim this country as ours and it's happening in Tahrir Square'. And people's body language completely changed. There was a sense of empowerment, a sense of dignity and respect that I think Egyptians felt was beaten out of them through the years."

A sandstorm hovers over Cairo, Egypt, casting a layer of dust across the capital.

From the series In the Shadow of the Pyramids (2005-14). Taken on a Canon EOS 30D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 90D) at 28mm, 1/250 sec, f/10 and ISO200. © Laura El-Tantawy

A man standing on a statue waving the Egyptian flag during a night-time protest in Cairo.

The People Toppled the Regime – Cairo, Egypt. From the series In the Shadow of the Pyramids (2005-14). Taken on a Canon EOS 400D at 33mm, 0.4 sec, f/4.5 and ISO800. © Laura El-Tantawy

Regaining a sense of identity

"The mood in Tahrir was different every day. There were days when people were celebrating. There were little groups of people around the square singing nationalistic songs, some writing signs, some just chatting and getting to know each other. It was a moment where you saw the brotherhood of all these people – farmers, workers from the country, Christians, people who had no particular faith of any kind – all talking to each other. It was definitely a first seeing this in Egypt. I felt safe as a woman, I felt safe as a photographer, and I felt safe as an Egyptian.

"It was a really beautiful moment. I mentioned about having to justify my Egyptian-ness. I didn't feel that in Tahrir because everybody there was trying to regain their sense of identity. I felt like we were all together on the same page. I was taking pictures, but I also wanted to take part, because this was a moment for my generation of Egyptians. I felt that particularly on the day [former president Hosni] Mubarak stepped down. It was a day when I really wanted to be celebrating. I wanted to be part of it for my own personal memory – you know, not entirely having a sense of direction for what I was saying photographically, maybe just creating images for my own archive, trying to identify my identity, but also seeing how the landscape of the country was changing. I felt like, okay, now I'm really documenting something important."

Finding a balance

"It was difficult to create a balance between being there as a journalist and [thinking], 'I'm an Egyptian, I really want to be part of what's happening right now'. For me, I always felt like, inside, there was something I was looking for, and I didn't really know what that was. I never knew if I was looking for maybe a home, a place to live or… I never really knew what it was. I think in Tahrir Square, there was a collective longing to belong.

"At the time of Tahrir, there was a sense of overwhelming agreement: 'The situation is not good, this government doesn't represent us, we need to do something about it.' Now what you have is a sense of polarisation. You have disagreements within families and this creates very heated debates and a very difficult dynamic. People are just really, really tired of talking about politics."

A blurred shot of female protestors waving flags in Tahrir Square, Cairo.

Women of Tahrir – Cairo, Egypt. From the series In the Shadow of the Pyramids (2005-14). Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) at 105mm, 0.4 sec, f/4 and ISO1600. © Laura El-Tantawy

Looking to the future

"I think for people who believed in the revolution and were really crushed by what happened, the narrative is you have to carry on. You have to maintain some sense of positivity, that some things have changed. Maybe not everything, but a few things have changed and are changing. Also for me as a photographer, I'm beginning to think that, especially in a year like this, with Covid-19, maybe people need a spark of hope. I feel that way about Tahrir Square. Back then we believed that this was a really important thing for us as Egyptians, and I think it would be good to have that bit of hope now. It's not denial. I think it's just trying to hold on to the fact that something happened – and maybe in five or ten years from now, we'll get what we really wanted. I think what I'm hoping to achieve with this next book is just to keep that story alive. I think it is really important that this historical moment continues to live on, that it stays in the national and the international memory and consciousness."

• Read the full transcript here:

Scott Anderson <i>Scott Anderson is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, and has covered conflicts around the world for over 30 years. <br>His 2016 special report on the Arab Spring revolts with photographer Paolo Pellegrin, Fractured Lands, was the longest sole-author article in the history of <br>the New York Times Magazine. His most recent book is The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War.</i>

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