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Egyptian writer recounts Tiananmen Square protests of 1989

By Kate Kim

On an early summer morning in Beijing, a mother carried the frail, wounded body of her nine-year-old son to the front of a university campus, desperate for help. Blood oozed out from several gunshot wounds in the boy’s back, staining his white shirt red. The mother kept fanning his body, trying to keep him alive and not knowing he was already beyond help. Sayed Gouda, an exchange student from Egypt, took out his camera and captured this heart-breaking moment.

The boy was the one of the victims of the crackdown on the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests in 1989. At around midnight on June 4, People’s Liberation Army troops equipped with assault rifles and tanks marched into Tiananmen Square, the heart of the protest, and cleared the protest site by force. During the course of the clearance, the army fired shots at unarmed protesters and the Beijing residents who tried to help them, causing heavy casualties.

Today, the Egyptian exchange student from 26 years ago is a published poet and novelist, proficient in Arabic, English and Chinese. He taught at the City University of Hong Kong and participated in many international poetry festivals and academic conferences around the world. Recently, he published a novel called Closed Gate in remembrance of Tiananmen.

Back in Egypt, Gouda majored in Chinese as he was drawn to the seemingly mysterious Chinese characters and Chinese language. With outstanding results, the 20-year-old Gouda received a scholarship to study for one year in the Beijing Languages Institute (now called the Beijing Language and Culture University) from 1988 to 1989, a time when foreigners were a rarity in China. He never imagined he would witness the course of the historic Tiananmen Square protests and the brutal crackdown on June 4, 1989.

In April 1989, when the protest first broke out, Gouda thought it appeared to be nothing more than an ordinary demonstration. “Everything was very peaceful and joyful. Everybody was happy to participate,” he says. As the movement progressed, hundreds and thousands of students from all over the country flooded to Beijing to support the movement.

Gouda realised that this was not simply a demonstration, but a revolution. He saw many young people with teary and bloodshot eyes, holding posters and shouting “where are you, Li Peng?” addressing the then Chinese premier. “I felt that at that certain moment, Chinese people were going to explode,” says Gouda.

The crackdown, when it came, was a shock to Gouda. He heard a commotion and saw other students running down from their dorms that morning, so he joined them. When he got downstairs he saw the body of the nine-year-old boy on a truck outside the campus, his mother weeping beside him. Only then did he realise that the army had entered Tiananmen Square and cleared it using violence.

Photo of the dead nine-year-old boy taken by Sayed Gouda
Photo of the dead nine-year-old boy taken by Sayed Gouda

The scene had a powerful impact on the 20-year-old Gouda. Even now, as he flips through the photo album of photos he took that spring and summer, he still recalls the agony of the innocents. “That’s the first time I saw face-to-face such a crime that leaves your senses numb, you can’t believe your eyes,” his voice quivers. “I was stunned. I was speechless. This is how [it is] to be living in a communist country. Your life has no value to them.”

Witnessing the cruelty of the regime shattered Gouda’s fantasy about communism. “When you read about communism, it’s a utopia. We are all equal, no one is better than others. This is very beautiful. But how it is practised and applied in real life, it turns into a nightmare,” he says.

In the aftermath of the crackdown, foreign embassies advised their nationals to leave as the situation in Beijing grew more tense and dangerous. “On June 6 and 7, any foreigner with a camera, if they see you with a camera, they would shoot right away,” says Gouda.

Gouda spent a few days in a safe house but ignored the instructions of the Egyptian embassy to stay there, choosing to return to the dormitory instead. “Somehow I felt there was something inside me driving me to go back,” he says. “On the way, I saw a lot of tanks. All the streets were empty. All the streets [there] were tanks and armed soldiers.” A few months later the situation in Beijing began to ease and Gouda returned to Egypt to finish his university studies.

When he was in China, he had written a poem named “Dumb Birds”, reflecting the situation he saw in China. It compares people in China to nightingales which yearn to sing but keep silent for fear of predators and enemies. “You have to keep quiet. If you talk, you’ll go behind bars. This is the story in China and in Egypt,” he says. The poem was included in his first collection of poems published in 1990 and later won him first prize in a poetry competition in his university in Egypt.

After a year of military service in Egypt, Gouda returned to Beijing. He disliked the corrupt Egyptian government and Beijing was the only place he knew outside of Egypt. He stayed there for three months before following a friend’s advice to move to Hong Kong in 1992 for greater work opportunities. He soon found a job in a company that needed an Arabic and Chinese speaking staff member and has been in Hong Kong ever since.

Life as a foreigner in Hong Kong was tough for Gouda in the beginning. During his first few years here, he struggled with loneliness and a lack of friends. Fortunately, he has become acquainted with local poets over the years and started to organise monthly literary salons with fellow poets. In 2010, he became a PhD candidate at the City University of Hong Kong and started teaching at the Department of Linguistics and Translation. Gradually, he began to call Hong Kong “home”. “Whenever I go overseas and I return to Hong Kong, I feel I’m coming home,” he says.

Sayed Gouda showing his poem “Dumb Birds”
Sayed Gouda showing his poem “Dumb Birds”

Despite settling in Hong Kong, Gouda has never forgotten the painful memories of 1989. Finally in 2014, 25 years after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, he published Closed Gate, a novel based on his own experiences during the Tiananmen Square protests. It tells of the emotional journey a Palestinian exchange student undergoes during the 1989 Democracy Movement and compares the suffering of the people in China to that of the Palestinians.

Shortly after the publication of Closed Gate, a five-month teaching job he had accepted at the Beijing Normal University was abruptly cancelled. The staff from the university simply informed him that his work visa had become a “serious problem” without any further explanation. Gouda speculates the underlying cause of the cancellation is the sensitive nature of his novel. But he has no regrets about publishing it. “I will just say what I have to say. And then just write what I just have to write,” he says firmly.

To Gouda, it is a natural right to speak up against injustice and oppression, and he has written many poems about unspeakable suffering and oppression under dictatorship. “Once one gets mature, one understands much more about life,” he says. “You start to see the sufferings of the people and the sufferings of life. Life is not just a love story.”

Having lived in Hong Kong for more than 22 years now, Gouda feels that Hong Kong is no longer the city he knew. The Mainland’s political influence and control is growing and there has been a big inflow of rich people from the Mainland. Gouda is worried Hong Kong people will one day be forced to leave their city due to the exorbitant cost of living. “In the end, Hong Kong gradually will turn into another Chinese city like Shenzhen,” he sighs.

The way the central and Hong Kong governments responded to the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement serves to confirm Gouda’s fear that the Mainland is exerting greater control over Hong Kong.

And there is the ghost of Tiananmen. Scenes of young people joining assemblies and occupying the streets remind him of what he saw in Beijing 26 years ago – it is as if he could feel the atmosphere in Tiananmen Square once again. What truly frightens him is seeing the Hong Kong police turning violent against citizens, and the possibility that history could repeat itself. These changes make him consider whether he should stay.

Sayed Gouda speaks at an international poetry festival in Beijing in 2014 Photo courtesy of Sayed Gouda
Sayed Gouda speaks at an international poetry festival in Beijing in 2014
Photo courtesy of Sayed Gouda

Although the Occupy Movement did not end in bloodshed like the Tiananmen protests did 26 years ago, Gouda believes Hong Kong people face the same difficult situation. “They are dealing with the same enemy, same opponent, same person, same government, different name but the same mentality,” he says.

Gouda is currently working on his third novel which features the Occupy Movement in Hong Kong. Even though there were consequences after he published his previous novel, he will never give up the right to speak out against injustice. Likewise, he urges Hong Kong people to keep holding onto hope and to stay united. “Hong Kong people have to go on, fight for their own future. It’s their future,” he says.

Edited by John Cheng

*An earlier version of this story, and the print edition incorrectly says Sayed Gouda taught in the Department of Chinese and History of City University instead of the Department of Linguistics and Translation, where he in fact taught. We apologise for this mistake.