Sunday, December 18, 2011

Yusuf the flight attendant turned revolutionary

With a small radio in his left hand and a paper shopping bag with a helmet and some newspapers, Yusuf heads to Midan Al-Tahrir, or Liberation Square. It is early Sunday morning, about 6:30am and the streets are still empty. Yusuf, an elderly gentleman who sports a grey coat and a light sweater over his shirt, black pants and black loafers, has been a regular visitor to Liberation Square since January.

“I used to have money. Lots of it. I used to drive a Benz. Then a BMW 520i.” He speaks excellent English, having practiced it for years as a flight attendant in Saudi Arabia.

One day, President Mubarak destroyed his company. “I lost everything. Then, I became poor. Do you know why I am single? I never married or had children because I had no money,” he recounts his story. Deep wrinkles run across his forehead in waves.

Yusuf’s hair is a mane of silver. Bags hang from his eyes. He has a light salt and pepper mustache on his top lip. I interrogate him in Arabic; he responds in English.
Yusuf now works part time for a small company selling pharmaceutical equipment. When he was looking for work, most managers would say, “old man, you’re just too old! Why don’t you just work in a cafeteria somewhere?!”

Without prompting, Yusuf’s anger swells up against the previous regime. “Mubarak—that dog destroyed everything! He and his fellow dogs destroyed this country,” decries Yusuf.

As we converse on the street near Liberation Square, another gentleman with a yellow helmet and a large gauze bandage underneath his jaw passes by. Some of the protesters resemble construction workers these days with their blue or yellow helmets, which protect them against shooting soldiers and against machete-wielding thugs. He was injured two days ago.

I say “sorry” to him. He replies, “Alhamdulillah! Praise be to Allah I’m still alive.”

Wanting to hear more of his story, I invite Yusuf to breakfast. He says there are a few places nearby. When we walk to a café, they are still preparing for the morning customers, so we head to a second place. We find a food stand and order an Egyptian classic: ful (boiled beans) and one hard-boiled egg cut and mixed with the beans with a bit of salt and oil. Two other customers stand next to us.

Hatem, the ful vendor says that before the recent violence, he stayed busy daily; however, now he has few to no customers. ”Everyone is scared to come to downtown. So, they stay away,” he laments.

After the meal, I pay Hatem and leave 3 LE for tip.

Yusuf and I walk back towards the square. He gives me his phone number and asks me to contact his colleague later. “I’m usually by the KFC after 8pm, so you can find me around there.” I tell him that he is a book and I have only seen his front and back cover, but he has yet to reveal the content. He kisses me three times on my cheeks and tells me that he is sure of only one thing: God. He is not 50% or 80% or 90%. He is 100% sure of his faith in Allah, who provided him dinner last night and breakfast this morning.

Yusuf’s paper bag splits open, spilling his blue helmet out on the sidewalk. I pick it up and return it to him. I will look for him by the KFC later.

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