Shahenda Maklad: The Lifelong Trip to Tahrir
By: Radwan Adam
Published Thursday, February 2, 2012
In 1965, international revolutionary figure Ernesto “Che” Guevara, accompanied by late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, made a stop in Kamshish, a small village in the Governorate of Menoufiya, north of Cairo. There, with a wide grin and twinkling eyes, he saluted the young woman, who dared to rebel against feudalism, and her peasant friends.
She shook his hand and the presidential convoy was soon on its way. Yet, this encounter left an image that cannot be erased from the mind of fierce militant Shahenda Maklad.
Maklad keeps a large picture of Guevara next to one of her husband, Communist activist Salah Hussain who died in 1966, just one year before Guevara.
“They are both the same for me, they both fought against exploitation and slavery,” she says as tears welled up in her eyes.
She cries for the husband whom she fought next to in the armed resistance against feudal lords. She tries to escape this painful feeling, but pictures of her old companion fill every corner of her house. She sips some water, but soon more tears stream down her face. This time, they are tears of joy. The January 25 Egyptian revolution has filled her heart with joy.
Maklad’s heart still beats to the rhythm of militancy and freedom. She is now 74 years old, but despite her old age and feeble body, her memory is as sharp as ever.
Maklad descended from a bourgeois family. As a child, she had an early taste of adventure with her father, Abdul-Hamid Shawki Maklad, a senior police officer and intellectual.
“He was a great oud player. If his father, the mayor, had not forced him to join police academy, he would have played the oud in Umm Kulthum’s band,” she says.
Maklad was the eldest daughter in her family and had four younger brothers. She was very close to her father, even more so than to her “kind, yet unadventurous,” mother.
At an early age she had to confront the contradictions of class in Egyptian society. Despite his class background, her father would frequently have discussions about socialism with her, giving her an early grasp of the root of those contradictions.
It wasn’t until years later that Maklad understood why her father used to “refuse to order breaking up popular demonstrations after our defeat in the Palestine war in 1948.”
Maklad’s father – who sent a telegram to Nasser saying “if you do not release the peasants of Kamshish, who were detained for revolting against feudalism, then detain me with them” – always urged his daughter to defend her opinion until her dying breath.
He supported her and empowered her to separate from her officer husband, whom she didn’t love. He did this so she would be able to marry Salah Hussain, who had just returned at that time to Kamshish.
Prior to his return to the village, Hussain was arrested for organizing the peasants’ movement, in addition to students. He had been training them to take up arms to face the Feki family.
The Feki family owned the village and the peasants who lived in it. The family ruled with terror and oppression, treating peasants in a disdainful and demeaning manner. The family prevented peasants from continuing their education or even from looking any one of the family members in the eye.
Hence, it is not surprising that the armed peasant struggle Hussain led in 1953 was the fiercest battle against feudalism. He was arrested and imprisoned for a year, as the Nasser regime was a reformist and not a radical one when it came to reclaiming lands from the Feki family.
“The land was not redistributed to peasants until five years after the armed struggle, in which dozens were killed...nevertheless, that was not the end of the battle with feudalism in the village,” declares Maklad.
On 30 April 1966, Maklad collapsed in her home in Alexandria, when she received the news that her husband had been assassinated by the Feki family in Kamshish.
The then mother of three (one of which was a new-born) pulled herself together and went down to Kamshish. She carried the casket of her husband, the martyr of the revolutionary peasants’ movement.
There, the funeral turned into a popular demonstration. Maklad shouted at the top of her lungs, “Salah is a martyr, and a martyr never dies.”
The color black soon dominated her wardrobe, as she was in a constant state of mourning. The stream of bad news seemed endless, the last of which was the death of her son Wassim in Russia, soon followed by that of her brother and cousin.
“After the death of Wassim, I thought I was finished and that it was the end of me. But the January revolution brought me back to life once more,” she says.
In her early youth, Maklad joined the armed movement with her Marxist partner. After his death, she decided to follow in his footsteps and continue in the path of struggle and militancy. She soon became a national and international icon.
“Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Nasser visited me to give me their condolences. We greeted them with chants calling for ‘freedom and the fall of feudalism,’” says Maklad.
Maklad was imprisoned twice in her life. The first time was in 1971 when she was sent to Alexandria at the height of the armed conflict with feudalism, which was in its last throes.
Maklad was imprisoned again in 2 January 1981 on charges of belonging to the Egyptian Communist Party. Then, poet Ahmad Fouad Negm, who he himself was jailed multiple times for his controversial poetry, dedicated a poem to Maklad titled “The Nile.”
Feudalism resurfaced again in the era of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Maklad never stopped struggling against it.
On 23 December 2011, she led a women’s march that comprised of over one million Egyptian women to Tahrir Square, in order to restore the honor of young Egyptian women who were subjected to humiliating virginity tests by the soldiers of the Egyptian army.
When asked about her position on the Islamists’ victory in the recent parliamentary elections, she said she doesn’t accord any weight to it.
“Their victory was merely a matter of seizing the right moment in history. They exploited people’s poverty and their distorted awareness. The people will eventually awaken from this state of confusion. It is good for the people to try Islamist rule now, because they are drained,” she says.
“The people are leftists. Egypt is leftist. Egypt will return to them and they will return to her, once they recover. Tahrir Square will forever be our weapon and the people’s general assembly,” she concludes.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.