Christina Patterson: Lessons in life, and love, and fear, from a revolution

The Saturday Column
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The Independent Online

We live in history all the time, of course, but most of us have never seen history like this.

It already feels like many months since a young Tunisian graduate who couldn't get a job, or scrape a living, or even sell a few vegetables, because no one would give him a permit for a stall, set himself on fire and sparked a revolution. It is, in fact, only two: two months and nine days. In that time, the world, or some of the world, has changed.

We can't know what went through Mohamed Bouazizi's head as he doused himself in petrol, lit a match and watched the flames lick over his skin, and through his flesh, and bones, and sinews, or if there was a moment when he wanted to turn the clock back. We can only know that when he took that can of petrol, and grabbed that match, he couldn't see the point in staying alive. He couldn't know – couldn't even have begun to imagine – that less than a month later, the government that was making his life impossible would have gone, and a month after that, the government of Egypt. He couldn't know that other young men, in Tunisia, and Algeria, and Mauritania, and Egypt, would have also turned the fire in their hearts into fire in their flesh, and that hundreds of thousands of others would take to the streets, and stay there.

Bouazizi was the first man to die in a protest that became a revolution that still has no name. It's impossible to know how many have followed. But the others, or at least the ones who didn't douse themselves in petrol, didn't die because they wanted to become martyrs. They didn't want to die, and they didn't want to fight, and they didn't, until it was a choice of one life or another, want anyone else to die. What they wanted was something that we in the West take as much for granted as the water in our taps: the right to choose their leaders.

Even in weeks, and from the vantage point of a western TV or laptop, the revolutions have blurred into each other. Here are people, dark-haired and dark-eyed, waving placards and shouting. The men are in jeans and anoraks. The women are in headscarves. The shops look the same. The streets look the same. The squares look the same. One day it's Tunis. The next it's Algiers. Then it's Sana'a, or Benghazi, or Cairo. But certain details stand out: the water stalls, and tea stands, and tents in Tahrir Square and, later, the makeshift hospitals; the "centre for artists", and the seminars on constitutional monarchy, in Pearl Square; the children whose faces have been painted in the colours of their country's flag.

These are people who are happy to protest with poetry, and political speeches, and painting. These are people so well-mannered that when their revolution is over, they're happy to mend the broken paving stones, and sweep the streets. But these are people who are also ready to die for their freedom.

It has been hard enough to hear about people you've never met, sometimes in countries you've never been to, who have lost their fear, and stood their ground, and paid for it. It's been hard to hear stories of how they walked down a street, and were bludgeoned to death by a government-sponsored thug, or had their face beaten to a pulp by a so-called policeman, or their brains blown to pieces by a mercenary.

It's been hard to watch footage of young men weeping over the bodies of their friends, and nurses, sickened by the human carnage they're meant to care for, stamping on pictures of their leaders, and doctors surrounded by broken bodies they can't mend. It's been hard to hear from people who know that if they leave their home, and cross a street, to stand in a square, just stand in a square, they may well never come back.

I don't know how you pick up the pieces of your life when someone you love doesn't come back, or how you live with the knowledge that they may have died in vain. I don't know how you get up every morning, knowing that you have no power to change or shape the rules, and laws, you have to live by. Or how you work, if you're lucky enough to work, knowing that whatever you pay in tax will be spent on luxuries for your leaders.

But I do know this. I know that at a time when the idea of any kind of sacrifice seems hopelessly outmoded, and when the word "martyr" is used of stupid young men who dream of virgins and glory, and are prepared to slaughter innocent people for both, these men and women, who shrugged off their fear, and chose to face whatever would follow, have made me proud to share the air they breathe.

If I believed in prayer, I would pray for their just cause. Since I don't, I can only offer a poem. I didn't write it (I can't write poems) and the poet who did doesn't want to be named:

"Sometimes things don't go, after all,/ from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel/ faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,// Sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.// A people sometimes will step back from war,/ elect an honest man, decide they care/ enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor./ Some men become what they were born for.// Sometimes our best efforts do not go/ amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to./ The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow/ that seemed hard frozen; may it happen for you."

Mum a la mode can leave a bad taste

It's one thing, I suppose, to barbecue your wife and serve her up as a tasty treat for your children. Since the body, or the meat, or whatever you call a body that becomes meat, had already been buried, and then dug up, and was, by the time it sizzled on charcoal, already quite old, it's quite likely that this brand of nouvelle cuisine, pioneered by a Frenchman who's accused of killing the wife he fed his children, may not trigger a trend.

But it's quite another to serve breast milk ice cream. From yesterday, people who are a bit bored with raspberry ripple, or chocolate chip, can ring the changes with a scoop or two of frozen milk expressed by live, lactating women. The frozen breast milk, mixed with Madagascan vanilla pods and lemon zest, presumably in order to disguise the disgusting taste, is being served at a café in Covent Garden at £14 a pop.

The café is fairly unlikely to prove that when it comes to delicious puddings for grown-ups, breast is best. But the news that the breast milk has been supplied by 15 "mums" who answered an ad on a website – one whose "top tips" are supplied by women calling themselves "LoopyLooHoolaHoops" and "howlingcow" – can only confirm a few prejudices. The website is one that British prime ministers fear much more than a Gaddafi or a Mubarak. It is, of course, Mumsnet, and I have yet to hear anything that relates to it that doesn't turn me into a howlingcow.

Carry on up the Coalition

There's always a certain pleasure in seeing people who are very, very sure of themselves suffer a tiny flicker of self-doubt. It's particularly gratifying, then, to see a bunch of young men who've been rolling their eyes at the incompetence of their predecessors discover that running a country isn't quite the doddle they thought. The result has been some top-notch entertainment. Forests were a hoot, free schools a long-running farce.

But this week, the joke wore rather thin. Cameron's carry-on in Cairo was certainly funny, but also a bit embarrassing. Hague's commissioning of a sub-Aeroflot charter plane that couldn't make it to Torremolinos, let alone Tripoli, was a reminder that British amateurism is slightly less attractive when it comes to things like saving lives than things like cricket. Clegg's difficulty in remembering that a deputy was someone who sometimes had to deputise made you wonder if 30-grand-a-year school fees didn't include a dictionary, and Cameron's message to Gaddafi... Well, I ask you. "What on earth do you think you're doing?" he said he'd like to say to the mass-murdering dictator. "Stop it!"