All photos by David Degner

'The City Always Wins' Goes Inside the Front Lines of the Egyptian Revolution

Read an excerpt from Omar Robert Hamilton’s gripping novel about the Tahrir Square uprising.

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Jun 22 2017, 4:35pm

All photos by David Degner

This story appears in the May issue of VICE magazine UK. Click HERE to subscribe.

November 19, 2011, 6:09 PM.

Mariam opens her backpack and quickly moves through the apartment: phone charger, water, two packs of cigarettes, two lighters, small notepad, antiseptic spray, pen, painkillers, toothbrush, spare underwear, socks, T-shirt, ID. Money, phone, keys in pockets.

She pulls out her phone and writes a tweet:

Everybody: Go to Tahrir now. Tell everyone. The police attacked the "injured of the revolution" protest. Huge numbers are out.

"Ready?" Khalil asks.

"Yes," she replies. "Let's go."

In four seconds she can pull the kufiyyeh up around her face, tie it around the back of her head, can become a boy. She practices once, in the bedroom mirror. He watches her hands, so deft in the knot.

He pulls her close to him and they stop for a moment before stepping out into it. It's finally happening again. The streets are full. She kisses him, moves herself against him; the clamor of the riot rises up from the streets below.

"Don't do anything stupid," she says. "Or brave."

"It's not me I'm worried about."

She pushes against him for a last moment and he is in their first night together and the echo of bullets ricocheting through the air and the blood rushing as his hands pulled her body against him—but the front door's open, it's time to go.

Photo by David Degner

There are no cars on the street. The elegant boulevards of Downtown are all but deserted. What few people there are hurry toward Tahrir. In the square a police truck is on fire. Khalil and Mariam hurry through the crowd, toward the reverb of shotguns down Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Throughout the square the same words ring out, again and again:

Down, down with military rule!

Mariam cannot help but smile to herself.

Down, down with military rule!

It's finally happening again.

Burning tires light the long and narrow dark of Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Silhouettes slip between the flames. The police form a dark line of men ahead. At the front, the conscripts. Behind them the officers wait darkly, their trucks and shotguns ready. Behind them both lies the Ministry of the Interior, still standing despite all those who gave their lives in January trying to take it. Motorcycle ambulances race the injured away from the front line. She squeezes Khalil's hand and is gone. He pulls his phone out and sets it to record through the binaural microphones in his headphones. He stands to one side for a moment, watching the shape and rhythm of the battle.

A hundred people make up the front line at any one time, informal ranks of stone throwers and shit talkers hurling everything they have at the cops. Behind them a middle section stretches down the street, the immediate backup, people taking a break from the rocks or gearing up the nerve for those final few steps into the firing line, people pushing up for a better view, the fire starters and gas catchers hurling the smoking canisters back where they came from. Behind them, where Mohamed Mahmoud Street flows out into Tahrir, are the spectators, the chanters, the drummers, doctors, quarriers, and hawkers.

A rock crashes into the tree above Khalil and cracks into his head, another grazes his shoulder and another bounces off the tarmac onto his shins, and he picks one up and hurls it back at the police. He can't see where it lands. He pulls his hood up and slips into the crowd, into a unitary anonymity, and with each rock he slings out into the no-man's-land he feels a growing potency as more and more bodies press up to the front. Each shot rings like a ripple through the crowd, each person who falls hurried quickly away to the doctors, each rock in the air an invisible fate, an invigorating fatalism.

Photo by David Degner

A siren sounds and a panic of blue light flashes through the darkness. A shotgun sounds. Two APCs charge forward, showering buckshot, and a gas canister lands at his feet and the poison takes hold in seconds and cramps at his stomach and burns his eyes and he runs in the stampede back to Tahrir, holding his breath until he's doubled over, dry retching, waiting for his stomach to unclench itself. Through the salty mucus filling his eyes he sees a boy in a hood, feels him rubbing his back, and it's only when the breaths come again that he sees it's Mariam.

"You OK?" she says.

"I'm good." She takes her bag off her back and pulls out half an onion, holds it under his nose.
"Does that work?" he asks.

"Try it."

He breathes it in.

"Isn't this an old Palestinian trick?" she asks.

In the crowd behind her at least three people are splashing Pepsi into their eyes, desperate to soothe the burning.

"I was doing the Pepsi thing before," Khalil says. "This is better."

A man with a large cardboard box on his head weaves through the crowd: "Gas masks! Ten pounds! Get your gas masks!"

"You're good?" she says.

"Yes."

"I've got to find my mother," Mariam says, then squeezes his hand and is gone.

8:47 PM

"What'd you need?" Mariam asks as she slips under the rope separating the field hospital from the street. She'd spotted her mother from afar, her gray hair tied back tight, the headlamp, the rapid movements.

"Betadine, cotton wool, gauze," her mother says without looking up from her patient's buckshot back.

Mariam knows her way around the supplies and quickly places each item carefully next to her mother.

"Dress it?" Mariam says.

"Yes."

They work quickly together. Mariam loves watching her mother work. When she was young Mariam had a vision of herself as an emergency room doctor, quick and clear in command, calm under pressure, compassionate with her patients, an example to her colleagues and immaculate in scrubs.

"You OK?" her mother asks.

"Fine."

"And Khalil?"

"Everyone's fine."

"Good... You'll be all right, son," Nadia says to the teenage boy, gritting his teeth against the hot metal in his body. "There's nothing serious, thank God. We'll clean you up and you'll be just fine."

"Thank you," the boy mutters through clenched teeth.

Mariam's phone buzzes:

Have the supplies, where should we meet?

Ten minutes later she meets the old friend of her parents' by the Borsa. He smiles as he sees her, opens the trunk of his car.

"Pretty much everything on the list," he says.

"Great," she says, counting the boxes quickly.

"Thanks."

"I'll be back with more tomorrow. Be careful."

Photo by David Degner

They can't get the car to the field clinic but she can't carry all the boxes alone. Four teenage boys sit smoking in a street café. "Hey," Mariam says. The boys look up at her. "Yeah, you guys," she says. "Come help me carry this stuff to the revolution."

They jump to attention, grab two boxes each, and follow behind her, through the crowd to the field hospital.

Her phone vibrates—

Rosa: Any injured take them to Qasr al-Aini Hospital and call me. Some doctors there we can trust.

Every 30 seconds a new motorcycle ambulance arrives carrying another young body riddled with bleeding buckshot.

"Excuse me, miss," a deep, formal voice says from above her.

"Yes," Mariam says, without looking up.

"Would you please wear this?"

She snaps her eyes up. Wear this? What the fuck does this asshole have the nerve to try? Wear this? If there's a fucking cap or headscarf in his hand, I'm going to—

He's holding out a white helmet.

"Please," he says. "We bought helmets for the doctors. You have to stay safe. We need you."

Photo by David Degner

11:49 PM

"It's a fucking generational war." Malik shouts over the echoing reverb of shotguns and the clattering rain of a thousand rocks. "It's all-out fucking war and if we don't do something we're gonna be down on our fucking knees until we're fucking dead! 'Cause they're not gonna let go of shit until they're all dead! Here! Have some fucking elections, you wankers. There you go. Shut up now, aye? We've got no choice but to rip it from them, the old. It's not about right or left anymore—they're all the same. It's about young versus old. They'd send us all off to war to die if they could, the bastards. Everyone under 40, off you go. Take your debt and your stupid student loans and your useless fucking university degrees and fuck off! It's a war, man. Young against old. Whole fucking world over."

Khalil keeps his eye on the mouth of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, for sirens, panic, for Mariam's kufiyyeh.

2:31 AM

A young man lies semiconscious on the ground, leg elevated, trousers sodden with blood. Mariam's mother is before him, tying the wound tight.

"Femoral artery," Nadia says as Mariam kneels next to her.

"I can take it," Mariam says.

"It's OK."

"Mama—you have a lot of patients. I've got this."

Nadia pauses, and Mariam takes over the tourniquet. Femoral means he's lost a lot of blood.

"Just try and be calm," Nadia says softly to the boy. "You're brave, son. You're really brave. This is one of my best nurses." She strokes his forehead and turns quietly to the next case. Mariam pulls the improvised lever out of the bandage, ties it. The tourniquet can stop the bleeding but without an ambulance he'll lose the leg.

The boy looks up at Mariam as she finishes the knot. "You'll be fine," Mariam says. "The ambulance is coming."

"Where will it take me?" he says.

"To the hospital."

"But the hospitals are Mubarak's."

"Not all of them."

A motorcycle's tires screech to a halt. Hey! someone shouts. We need help here! Two doctors carry in a new casualty, wheels burn, the bike speeds back to the front.

"Come with me to the hospital," the boy says.

"I can't."

"It's a good hospital? It's with the revolution?"

"Yes. We need to stop the bleeding. They have better equipment."

"You'll visit me? To check they've done it right?"

She looks at his face for the first time and is struck by how pretty he is, his high cheekbones and delicate nose.

"I'll try and find you in the morning."

"Thank you."

Photo by David Degner

7:39 AM

In the dawn there is a waiting. A comedown. The dark possibility of the night is over and the real world has survived it and is growing in strength all around her as shops open and the first buses roar past, and soon all that'll be left is a clinical need for a shower to wash off the night's chemical accelerants. The rising sun seeps a dull gray into the streets, slowly lighting the long and ruined road between the few remaining revolutionists and the police. Khalil and Mariam sit side by side on a car parked in Bab al-Louq, smoking and watching, legs touching. A gas canister chokes out its last few breaths. The police, in full body armor, stand at one end of the street, all Wild Bunch shotguns resting on their hips. The revolutionists, cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, wait with rocks in their hands, the stretch of road between them too long to make the throw.

The City Always Wins, by Omar Robert Hamilton, is out now in the US, published by McD, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The UK edition will be published on August 3, by Faber & Faber.