WRITINGS: National Geographic: Portraits of Strength

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Somewhere between fear and sorrow there are often tears. I have seen pools of them. Normally I put my camera down. It feels like I am imposing on a deeply private and intimate moment. Safeya Sayed Shedeed is an Egyptian mother whose son was killed by police on January 28, 2011, a day locals dubbed the “Friday of Rage.” It was three days after the start of the protests that eventually unseated former strongman Hosni Mubarak. Safeya was sitting against the summer’s scorching asphalt, dressed in black from head to toe, as is customary in Egypt when one is in mourning. Sometimes the black is never replaced by another color, a sign the heart is still in deep sorrow even though the soul is trying to recover. “I want to avenge my son,” she told me. “Who will get my son’s rights back?” Safeya was among a group of women who lost loved ones during the violent protests. 

Photographing the turmoil in Egypt was a profound experience for me as an Egyptian. I saw grown men weep like children and elderly women scream at the top of their lungs like warriors. I also met women like Safeya whose tears have seeped deep into the ground. I go back to this photograph often. I wonder about her expression, which always struck me as somewhere between peace and sadness. I ask myself how she can muster the strength. I met other mothers whose sons were killed in the revolution. One of them told me she often goes out on the street looking for her son among his friends. Another told me she catches herself having conversations with her son while she’s in the kitchen cooking or sitting in the living room. I wonder if Safeya goes through this too. Does she still wear black? I wonder how the future of Egypt will look back at hundreds, if not thousands, of people like Safeya whose lives changed forever in the course of the struggle to achieve dignity and respect for all. 

Laura El-Tantawy / March 6, 2015