Eltahawy takes pride that though she became an activist, a frequent TV talking head opining about the Arab Spring, she has remained a writer. Indeed, she was recently signed by the distinguished publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux to write a book about her experiences and the plight of women in the Mideast, including her opposition to female genital mutilation. (Her working title is Headscarves and Hymens.)
“When they attacked me at the end of 2011,” she tells me, “I couldn’t write because both my arms were in casts. I could only tweet and use a touchpad with one finger. I understood then that my body was as much a medium as my words. Because I would appear on television with the casts on and I would talk about what happened to me and that was just as powerful as the words that I wrote.”
I asked her to describe the assaults that had led to that point, and it was a frightening and sinister episode in the modern battle between social media protest and old-school police state tactics.
“This happened,” Mona tells me, “during protests on a street called Mohamed Mahmoud. On November 18, 2011 [nine months after Mubarak’s resignation], the army and the police very violently broke up a peaceful protest in Tahrir [Square].”
The demonstrators were marching against the military junta then ruling Egypt.
“I was traveling at the time in Morocco to give a lecture, and then I was supposed to go to the European Parliament to give a talk there about women in revolution—but with what was happening in Egypt, I couldn’t. I needed to be in Cairo to be a part of this, but also to honor the courage of the men and women on that street fighting to defend Tahrir. I was reading about stories of boys as young as 12 going to the streets, and writing their mothers’ phone numbers on their arms with Sharpies, so that if they ended up in the morgue, people would know who to call.
“I was in Tahrir Square about 24 hours,” she continues, “when I went to meet a friend. He said, ‘Do you want to go to Mohamed Mahmoud [street]?’ and I said, ‘Yes, this is why I came.’ All I remember is lots of tear gas, lots of sirens, and we kept pushing and pushing until we got to the front line. I stood on a rock to take pictures of the security, because the front line was mobbed by this kind of metal grating and then an empty space—a no man’s land—and the security people were on the other side, the police and the soldiers. So I stood on the rock and was taking pictures with my smartphone, and they began to shoot at us. I don’t know if it was live ammunition or if it was pellets, buckshot. So we all ducked.”
At this point, as often happens in espionage dramas, a kindly stranger appears to offer a helping hand.
“There was this man who said, ‘I’ll help you if you want to stand on the rock. I’ll hold your hand.’ They started shooting again so he told me and my friend, ‘Let’s go hide in this store.’