The Full Circle

Circa 3rd Century B.C.

Armed with sticks as his only tools, curiosity as his propeller and experiment as his navigator, a man discovers an exciting truth–that the earth may not be what it appears to be–flat.  Quizzed by the appearance of a shadow in one geographical location, while none at a farther distance, this man of many parts conducted a simple experiment with sticks and not only realized the roundness of the earth, but even calculated its circumference with amazing accuracy.

I got introduced to Eratosthenes and his fascinating discovery through a book called Cosmos, authored by Carl Sagan. I was in high school then. As I read about this pivotal discovery in the realm of astrophysics, I felt drawn to the site of Eratosthenes’s experiment–Alexandria. But there was more to arouse my wonder. Cosmos informed me that both Eratosthenes and the city of his work held a magnificent amount of wealth within them. The man in question wasn’t just a scientist/astronomer as has been revealed; he was also a historian, geographer, philosopher, poet, theatre critic and mathematician.

Alexandria, “the greatest metropolis of the age,” boasted of the most eclectic milieu possible. Living with each other were “Macedonian and later Roman soldiers, Egyptian priests, Greek aristocrats, Phoenician sailors, Jewish merchants, visitors from India and sub-Saharan Africa – everyone, except the vast slave population…” Though bothered by the last bit–the exclusion of slaves–I would still love to visit such a city. Even more because of what comes next…

…the city’s library and its associated museum. Cosmos says, “The Alexandrian Library is where we humans first collected, seriously and systematically, the knowledge of the world.” However, the book also records with despair that, “Of that legendary library, the most that survives today is a dank and forgotten cellar of the Serapeum, the library annex, once a temple and later reconsecrated to knowledge. A few moldering shelves may be its only physical remains.”

Not the pyramids, not the mummys, it was Egypt’s second-largest city, its extraordinarily rich  past, and one man’s curiosity-driven discovery that made me long to visit that country.

Jan-Feb 2011 A.D.

Armed with no more than hands, feet and an intense will to live free, people all over Egypt come to an astonishing discovery–that they can reclaim their lives, their dignity and their country–if only they  don’t relent. Millions–toddlers; young men and old women;  wealthy and  destitute;  religious and non-believers–smashed through their caged lives to descend on the streets of Cairo, Suez. And Alexandria.

Bolstered by neighbouring Tunisia, where a people’s revolt had just ousted an oppressive dictator, Egypt’s people took to their own streets with the same intent–to overthrow the tyrannical autocrat who had reigned for three decades–longer than all the years some of the protesting youth had spent on earth. Sparked by a common interest to see the dictator gone, the protesters forgot the differences they apparently had–of religion, sex or social position. Within hours a frenzy of revolt seized the people and spilled forth, stunning the world.

The more I saw these fearless men, women and children on television news and on the internet, the more I felt pulled to their struggle, which defied not only adversity, but even logic. For the regime they were seeking to remove pulled every dirty trick out of its closet to repress, even silence the resistance. Tear gas, water canons, rubber bullets. And then actual bullets, armed thugs, Molotov cocktails, unlawful detentions, beatings, threats, torture deaths…

The protesters did not budge.

Not for a day or two, or a week. They did not budge for nearly two-thirds of a month. Eighteen days, to be precise. Not even when the wider world turned skeptical, not when their own people pointed to the plunging economy and the threatened tourism business. Indeed, it seemed to me that they were chanting to each other this part of The Great Dictator’s speech:

“Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you and enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel! Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts. You don’t hate, only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural!”

Everyday, ordinary Egyptians refused to be treated as cannon fodder, notwithstanding the precious, full-of-promise lives that bled and were buried. For eighteen days, humanity smiled and blossomed across that country–doctors set up roadside clinics, people shared food on the cold, hard asphalt that became their liberation square–and not just in Cairo’s Tahrir. For the first time in years, maybe in their entire lives, they sang. Of freedom.

I wished I could sing along. Right there, with them.

Not the mummys, Pharaohs, pyramids; Egypt’s people’s passion-driven heartwarming, blood-surging uprising  and its remarkable present make me long to visit that country.

Image courtesy: Gawker.com