If you are lucky enough to be treated to a large, luscious bouquet of fragrant roses this Valentine's Day, pause for a moment, softly bury your nose deep into their luxuriously velvet petals, and draw in a long, slow, deliberate breath. What scent captures you? Clover? Nasturtium? Linseed?
What you may be smelling is is the fiery damask دمسق of Africa.
Scented with a history of English gardens, French courtyards & Chinese mountain sides, many people do not realize roses actually originated in North Africa. In fact, one of the most important (and most fragrant) roses in history, the Autumn Damask, is Egyptian. It thrilled the Romans when they first discovered it about 50 B.C. because it bloomed twice a year; a trait previously unknown to the Western world.
As I write this, the world is heady with the scent of youthful revolution. I've been studying roses for weeks now in preparation for this post, which was originally intended to be a piece about the Kenyan rose market along with my recipe for Valentine's sweet biscuits.
Instead, I am struck by the similarities between a fight for democracy and the hybridization of a rose. A long and arduous process, the creation of a new hybrid rose begins with a single chosen seed. It must be thoughtfully planted, carefully germinated, and painstakingly grafted upon the rooted cutting of an established rose. It is a poignant process, as the mature root will not grow any blooms of its own. Its sole purpose now is to provide the nourishment in order for the new breed of rose to take proper root. It is a process that requires 3-5 years of "budding & cutting" before the new "superior" rose is finally considered authentic.
Like so many others, I've spent the past 18-days in Tahir Square. No, not physically, but certainly virtually, (which hardly compares, I know) bringing me closer to the front lines of any revolution than has occurred in my lifetime. Proud of my newfound role as a "fingertip protestor", I accepted my orders via Twitter with great pride, as I consumed every piece of news about what was happening in the Square, always at the ready to help my new friends in Cairo in any way possible. I wondered aloud, "are any of us outside of Egypt making a difference?"
I decided that, while we might not be on the front lines with the freedom-fighters, we were certainly joining their fight through the freedoms we already enjoy; connectivity & commentary. As Marc Gopin of George Mason University wrote, "Indeed their revolution is perhaps the first that was self-consciously created by a young internet force that actively pleaded for the rest of us to Twitter and blog and Facebook."
And then it dawned on me.
Egypt's youth had beautifully
grafted themselves to us via a
greenhouse of social networking.
Revolutions do not succeed at the hands of a mere group. They burst open, like a rose, releasing the distinctive notes to attract large numbers of people to work in unison. Egypt's protest succeeded through a n intoxicating fragrance of freedom; peaceful resistance combined with the relentless passion of youth. It was a specimen we immediately wanted more of. The Egyptians showed us "a better version of ourselves", and so we were happy to become their root stock and nourish the social airwaves to help launch a new breed of North African rose.
Many years ago, Alice Morse Earle (a feminist writer from Brooklyn) wrote about the nature of a young rose's fragrance. I've woven her quote together with an observation by Dr. W. E. Lammerts, a rose scientist, who in 1951 first noted that older varieties of roses were either weakly scented, or had no scent at all. I feel as though we could easily substitute the word freedom for "fragrance" and democracy for "rose":
"The fragrance of a young rose is beyond any other
scent, it is irresistible, enthralling; you cannot leave it.
I have never doubted that a rose has some compelling
quality not shared by other flowers." Watch someone
walk by a rose in full bloom. First, there will be an
exclamation over its beauty, but inevitably, their head
will bend in expectation of the scent itself.
They will not be able to resist it.
Pro-democracy protesters in Tahir Square [Getty Images] via Al Jazeera
Like a rose post-bloom, the protests have begun to fade a bit. People are heading home, to tend to the business of everyday life again. But as Egypt's root stock, we cannot just go dormant. We are bound, as Gopin writes, by our "solidarity in building shared values of human rights, civil society, a culture of debate, economic rights and people-centred development". We've created a new hybrid of revolution, together, and we're now reliant upon each other in order to realize its full potential.
If a root stock is allowed to go dormant, it draws its liquid and nutrients away from the outer stems and back into the roots, so it can preserve & protect its energy. While this saves the mature plant, it will certainly cause the grafted seedling to die. Without continued nourishment, its delicate foliage will crack and leak. It's own metabolic processes will slow to the minimum level required for survival, since photosynthesis can not occur without leaves. If this happens, the new breed will never survive.
But if steady nourishment continues to be sent to the new plant by the root stock, it will continue to bloom into the stronger, more beautiful breed that was imagined. A modern day hybrid that draws its core characteristics from its predecessors and yet is far more suited to gardens of these times. An incredibly fragrant & optimistic Spring Freedom rose worthy of its lineage to the Autumn Damask; the rose Egypt first enchanted the world with in 50 B.C.
Happy Valentine's Day.