I woke up thinking about Shaimaa el Sabbagh today. It’s not the first time, but it’s now been almost a year since she was killed, around the corner from my house, while carrying flowers in memory of those who died protesting in January 2011. I woke up writing about her death the next day. She is wired into my thinking about January 25 as an event and an anniversary, forever.
We speak, still, sometimes, about wanting justice for those killed, those hurt. We say it like that, in both English and in Arabic: justice for them. I suspect what we really mean is that we want justice for us. So that we might believe that we did something, so that we might not be so helpless in our position, as the ones left behind. So that we might believe that the same violence will not happen again, or not to us, or at least not so easily.
Prosecutors have had to give up on putting the witnesses to her murder in jail, although they tried hard. A police officer has been charged with fatally shooting her. We will have to wait to see if the sentence will be overturned on appeal, as has happened with convictions of police officers many times before.
A spokesman for the Medical Forensics Authority said, two months after the murder, that Shaimaa had died because she was “too thin,” as if somehow the use of birdshot against peaceful protesters were not to blame. Although he was dismissed for those comments, he was appointed head of Medical Forensics in this new year. A promotion.
A few weeks or months after Shaimaa’s death I found myself in someone’s crowded kitchen, peeling tangerines, still wearing my coat. I didn’t know many of the people around. A guy about my age wearing a black jacket sitting in the corner opposite me came to hold the attention of the room, not because he was trying to, but because of the comedy of the story he was telling, about being in a movie theatre when the power cut out. Conversation turned and suddenly it was all about prosecutors and police officers and in a chemical instant I recognized him as the man in the photos, the protester holding Shaimaa, who is wounded but standing, standing and dying against his body. He walked through the streets, carrying her, looking for help.
The photographer behind that important image was 23 years old. He said he went out not expecting violence at the vigil, and that once he had the photo, “the most important thing in that moment was Shaimaa herself.”
I didn’t know Shaimaa, and I can’t guess very much about how she would want to be remembered. There are many images of her, all over the internet: the poetess, the mother, the protester. I like this one, via Mada, although I don’t know when it was taken.
**Update: The ever-helpful scholar Amro Ali points out that this image is from a video shot around January 28th, 2011, near Alexandria’s Mahatet el Raml. Shaimaa is singing “Raise your voice with a song.”