I knew that I could not be there then, but that I was inextricably bound to her: I could, I would, always come back. There are things I didn’t account for. I didn’t realize how quickly the spaces would narrow and narrow, like air squeezed out of a windpipe.
On 19 September, five months after I’d left, I went back to Cairo for nine days. These are the notes from my visit.
19–27 September 2014
The queues at passport control were massive, longer than I’d seen in years. They called to mind the dingy Old Terminal of Cairo Airport and all my landings there as a child: the interminable queues, the hustlers clamouring for your bags, the chaos that took you in its embrace as soon as you arrived.
Three fights broke out in the queues. I remembered a moment in the heady days after the fall of Mubarak when photos and stories circulated on Facebook of a newly created ‘Egyptian Citizens’ line at Passport Control. How something so simple held so much promise about the place we had reclaimed, about the lives of value and dignity we would now lead in our own country. Tonight, the fights were about a special express queue opening up for Business Class passengers only.
At my parents’ house, on the living room wall, alongside photos of my sister and me at various stages in our lives, are empty frames. Large wooden picture frames, gold-rimmed and empty. I find out later that they are waiting for my father’s awards and accolades, which he wants taken out of storage and hung up all around him.
My father’s face is darker, a brown-grey leached of life, and he doesn’t get up from the sofa to return my hug. I put my arms around him, feeling his shoulder blades, his structure now bereft of body. I sit down beside him and my sister pulls a dining chair close and together we form a triangle. I can feel her watching my face.
The two clocks in the living room are showing different times, an hour apart. As though the lag is not just between where I was and where I am; there is also, it seems, a little gulf of time between where I am and where I am.
Over the past few months, the government has been ad-libbing the time.
They set the clocks back an hour to make the fasting days of Ramadan shorter, then forward again after Ramadan, back to what it had been after they had changed it some weeks earlier in some measure supposed to counter what appears to be a huge energy crisis in the country, the exact causes and extent of which are unclear. I had missed the worst: in the summer the power cuts in Cairo reached five or six per day, even in the most affluent neighbourhoods of the capital. How did people survive the stultifying heat of Cairo summer without electricity, without fans or air conditioning, for many people without even water?
My mother is sitting in what was once my room, in a new brown leather lazy boy recliner she has bought for herself. She is holding her iPhone in one hand and the other is on her laptop, for alternating fixes of Candy Crush and Twitter. As I withdrew more and more over the last two years from the increasingly grim and exhausting march of events, my mother – a journalist, always an avid devotee of the news – became more and more tapped into the activist commentary on Twitter.
‘How are the kids?’ I often teased. ‘What are they up to today?’ She’d laugh and fill me in on the latest jokes and one-liners that have been part of our revolution from the start. After every absurd twist, the jokes would begin to surface like a collective exhale lifting the sky back into place.
She shows me her latest project: a device hooked up to a small, old television screen. My mother, who walked through much of our childhood with a huge Samsung video camera balanced on one shoulder (the size of those carried by television crews nowadays), is now intent on digitizing those tapes before the images become unreachable.
How strange to walk off a plane and come face to face with yourself as a child. Here she is, darting impishly around, while her sister – older, taller, with braided hair and a serious back – plays the keyboard. She is trying to distract her and the camera’s attention. My mother, my sister and I, sitting in and around the lazy boy, are watching and laughing. Odd how differently I remember it: wasn’t I the shy, timid one and my sister the wild child? Now here are the two girls, singing a song they had learnt at school. She is stealing glances at her big sister for cues. Something about the sun: they open their arms wide to receive it. I ask my sister if she remembers this song at all. She shakes her head. Me neither.
In the corner of the room a large flat screen television is also on, but my mother tells me none of the people we used to watch is left.
It’s 3 a.m. and I’m not even tired – must be these preternaturally bright lights. Being in Cairo is like being in a neon-lit room twenty-four hours a day, for days on end. Something about its relentlessness — the people and noise and roaring lights — makes you feel constantly strung out.
In the city where I live now, I am usually in bed by eleven or midnight. This delicious falling over oneself with sleep, like the childhood sensation – I still remember it so well – of falling asleep in the car on the way home and being carried up, warm and heavy, when we arrive.
In all my years in Cairo, I so rarely experienced that wholeness of enveloping sleep. Only a lagging exhaustion, like a dog that never catches up with its tail.
And now here I am, only a few hours since I arrived and already the city is seeping in.
I am at the central Citizens’ Affairs Bureau in Abbassiya, where I’ve come to renew my national ID card. It expired in 2012 without me noticing. I’ve come with a friend of my father’s – he has a distant relative working here who can help ‘expedite’ the process – and his daughter, whom I haven’t seen since we were children. (Her ID has also expired, rather impressively, thirteen years ago.) She seems to have gone through the motions of becoming an Egyptian adult: she has two children and is working at some private university. She is also wearing the same air of hahm as everyone else – a word that sounds like a short exhale trapped in the chest, and means something like heavy and irresolvable burden.
A large poster greets us as we arrive, which proclaims, in heavy lettering across the top: THE POLICE MARTYRS OF THE 25 JANUARY REVOLUTION.
It is a perfect mimicry of the posters that were everywhere – sold on street corners, hung up from rear-view mirrors in taxis – in the euphoria following the fall of Mubarak. Those posters memorialized the faces and names of some of the 846 young people who died, and who were hailed, in a line from an old poem turned famous song of struggle, as el ward elli fattah fi ganayin Masr – the flowers that have bloomed in the gardens of Egypt. This was before the revolution fell out of public favour and its fallen were trampled on.
And now, here, at the Citizen’s Affairs Bureau, nearly four years later, we have before us an entirely different set of flowers. The layout of the poster is the same, the size of the pictures, the way the faces are arranged in lines with the names running underneath – except that every one is in police uniform. The colours are faded, like the poster was made in the 80s. Next to it is another poster declaring THE CODE OF CONDUCT OF THE POLICE FORCE.
In the old, shuddering lift, an attendant stands by a rusting panel of floor buttons. There are two number 5s and two number 1s, one of which is upside down. There is no 2, 3 or 4 – even though we need to get to the third floor. We are told cheerily by the attendant to press the second 1 – the upside-down one – which will take us to the fourth floor, and walk down a flight of stairs.
We wait for hours, shifting from one mind-numbing room to the next. At one point a woman in a niqab is sitting next to me. I play peekaboo with her little son, hoping foolishly to mend something, no matter how tiny, to exist outside the rifts that now sunder the country – if you’re not with us, you’re against Egypt; if you’re not with us, you’re with Them. Anyone who voices any criticism now, of the government or the military or the way things are, is pounced on as being Ikhwan, as wanting to rip the country apart. As though no other way can be conceived of now.
We emerge, eventually, into the sunshine. Our ID cards should be ready in some days or weeks. I joke that we should take a celebratory picture in front of the government building. My father’s friend says el mawdoo’ maba’aash hizaar – it’s no joke now. They’re arresting people left and right; they’d cart us off straight away.
As I head out in the early afternoon, my father calls out from the kitchen, ‘Are you heading out?’
‘Okay, there was a bombing today near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so take a different route.’
I am silent as I digest this. I remember the first bombing in Cairo, late last year. I remember the sadness and shock. Now it’s as commonplace as ‘take a different route.’
In the car, my sister is telling me about a campaign for the detainees – thousands now – many of whom have gone on hunger strike. It starts off like a joke: Marra wahid . . . ‘One day, a guy . . .’ – the Egyptian joke-trope equivalent of ‘So-and-so walked into a bar.’
One day, a guy is sitting in a coffee shop . . . and then he gets arrested.
One day, a guy is visiting his friend in hospital . . . and then he gets arrested.
One day, a guy is having dinner at home . . . and then he gets arrested.
She falls silent. For every joke that falls flat as its ludicrousness is revealed, there is a real face, a name, a story. I look out the window as we stall in traffic, and realize for the first time how I have been in a state of not-noticing since I arrived. In my last year in Cairo I paid attention with the desperation of someone drowning. As everything got heavier, murkier, more distorted, I tried to become more aware, to feel and sense more keenly – like a dream in which you have to keep moving through a landscape, looking for something important as your eyesight diminishes. I remember staring into people’s faces, at cracks and fallen objects on the pavement, and especially at the city’s few and stubborn trees, drinking in every last speck of green like someone making a vow at an altar, a vow to stay alive.
Yet since I arrived, I realize now, I haven’t been looking at anything much at all.
Cairo doesn’t feel the same, or different. It feels, for the moment – for perhaps the first time in my life – like a place; just another place. The words mish ma’niya beeha come to mind, an expression used when something is of no real concern to you. It translates literally, I think now, as I am not meant by it. No longer am I meant by it. As I realize this I feel a thrill at my own absence.
My sister heaves a sigh so heavy it snaps me back. She is saying now that so many of our generation will die young, because of everything we’ve experienced. My first reaction is to bat this away, argue history, that every generation has its challenges, that our parents’ generation –
She cuts in: ‘Not like this.’
I think of the violence, the distortions, the psychological war. I think of the highs and the plummets. Of how so many of the activists have themselves become polemical, even fanatical. I wonder if it is possible, in an atmosphere so extremely divisive, to maintain any semblance of balance. To fight for one’s principles in a way that is in keeping with those principles – that replenishes one’s well, rather than depleting it.
I think of the ongoing trauma. I think of the corruption that has permeated every fibre of our bodies and beings, right down to the toxic food, the contaminated water, the acrid air. I think of Erich Fried’s simple, simple lines: ‘If I want to live, I need to breathe / breathable air . . .’
It’s my first inkling of how much I have been trying to keep at bay over the past months, to pack away somewhere inside myself.
Later, at night, I think of the people we’ve lost. Not just those lost in the direct violence, but those who slipped away, suddenly, without explanation. Some were young. But people everywhere die all the time, some young, suddenly, without explanation . . . don’t they? I could name more than a handful. Is this a higher rate than usual?
I think of how, since the revolution, our collective ‘we’ has expanded. How so many people are close to us now, important, held dear, even if we have never met. How we collectively mourn ‘our’ losses, grieve ‘our’ dead, follow the news of ‘our’ detained.
For months, everyone around me has been talking about Yara.
One day, a girl was buying water . . . and then she got arrested.
A twenty-nine year old human rights defender.
I look at her picture, at her bright, forthright, unassuming smile. Her arrest plunged a lot of people into a dark place. I heard two different friends use the exact same words: ‘I don’t want anything any more. Just for them to let Yara go.’ I hear details of prison visits, of the cell she shares with Sanaa and the other girls, the ways they are trying to keep their spirits up. I look at her picture and try to remember if we have met. She is so close. One degree away, one finger-thread. Until when?
I don’t know what I am doing here. I don’t understand what it means to ‘visit’ Cairo. There’s nothing I want to eat or see or remember. I know I came to be with people – to be with my family, the couple of close friends who are left. It feels like I am here to go through something whose outlines are untraceable. And I just have to walk through for now.
We are sitting around at my grandmother’s place, the small apartment of many rooms where my father and his sisters and brothers grew up, and which, later, became the focal point of my visits to Cairo every summer as a child. There was always food on the table, endless rounds of tea and fruit and sweets, and people gathered in the rooms. While the grown-ups sat around chatting, we children – a whole gang of cousins in the same age range – would occupy one of the rooms and kick up a racket, drumming on plastic stools, dancing and singing and playing the songs of that summer. I was allowed to sleep over and there were so many beds in this flat which, despite its size, could somehow contain so many people, and as a child growing up elsewhere to Egyptian parents, this place – with its music and jostling, its jokes and togetherness – was my first Egypt.
Most of my boy cousins have since emigrated, and my girl cousins are now married with children. The big gatherings still happen occasionally, now with this new generation of little ones. But it all feels less spirited than the gatherings I remember from my childhood – less music, more obligation.
My grandmother is still here though, the cackling matriarch. It’s good to see her sitting there, in her armchair by the tiny corner balcony in the living room, a shawl on her legs – still a powerhouse at nearly ninety, even if she needs help to walk now.
Today there are only a few of us – my father and me, an aunt and her husband – and my grandmother’s house feels, for some reason, like the twilight zone. Bored, I stare into the television screen, which is playing a dubbed Indian soap opera, then at my uncle’s head, the shape of his eyes. I catch only snatches of the conversation – something about my uncle’s stolen car, then about Sisi’s visit to New York. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi . . . my eyes had run over those words earlier in an article my mother had printed out, and they gave me a jolt. I realized then that I hadn’t really swallowed the fact, hadn’t seen it in print before. I had left shortly before the ‘elections’, deactivated my Facebook account soon after, and stopped following the news – any news.
I look at my uncle again. Here was a man who was always throwing his head back and laughing. Now he seems sombre, weighed down. I remember how my mother and I confronted him in this room when he said, in the wake of the Port Said football massacre: ‘These scumbag kids had it coming.’ This is not an uncommon line of thought in Egypt. Whenever the state wanted to commit violence or justify it, all they had to do was cast aspersions on the character of the victims.
I remember sitting down with him later, looking searchingly into his face and saying, with the desperation of a small child, ‘Nothing can justify the killing of human beings.’ He said, ‘Throughout my years in the military, in every operation, we always anticipated 10 per cent losses as collateral damage.’ We looked at each other uncomprehendingly.
My father and I walk out of my grandmother’s house and into the streets of Dokki, the neighbourhood he grew up in. He walks fast, his head bent, footfalls hard and uneven. I watch as he chews libb seeds and spits out the shells, with a sharp and embittered force, right out onto the broken pavement.
This is a man who, for much of my life, would tuck my hand into the crook of his arm and take me walking. Walking meant seeing things and telling stories. He would point out a government building that he knew, a cat basking in a corner, the smell coming from a pile of oranges or ta’mia frying in oil, a fish at the market that he would pick up and squeeze – details that, to others, might seem random and pass unnoticed, but to his particular and playful sense of observation were always worth a mention. He might start telling a story about a local cinema house he and his brothers would frequent as teenagers, the sandwiches they bought afterwards, how many piastres they had left. He would involve strangers, too — everyone around him was like some sort of extended family that peopled his landscape. He would make one of his throwaway comments or ask someone if they were related to So-and-so — simply because they reminded him of this boyhood friend or that colleague — sometimes with a cheeky little grin that crinkled his eyes up into half-moons. People were often drawn in. He made fast friends on planes, in shops, at bus stops, even in elevators.
Over the past years I have watched him develop an anger, a sharp spite, that he would direct at the doorman, at delivery boys, at the staff of the local supermarket, at street sellers and taxi drivers – the figures that now populated the fringes of his life. He was dogged with a constant feeling of being wronged, cheated, short-changed: everyone was guilty or about to be, the corruption was everywhere.
I wonder how much this has to do with his body’s inability, now, to release its toxins, and how much it has to do with Cairo’s increasing poisons.
I come out of the lift and look around, suddenly bewildered. There is sawdust everywhere, cans of white paint, a door to the left flung open to an apartment now completely empty. ‘Is this . . .’ I ask a workman on the stairs, whirling around to look at the lift, to see if I got off on the wrong floor, ‘– the tenth floor?’
And as he replies, ‘Yes, tenth,’ I spot one thing that reorients me. On the stairs leading down to the apartment on the right there are still two stones. Two large, smooth, beautiful stones from a trail that used to lead right down to the door, as though into a Chinese garden. Now the door is a different one, an ugly reinforced steel. The door frame has been smashed to fit it, bits of brick are exposed and the door itself is still partly shrouded in plastic, even though it has been almost six months.
Hala opens the door, still smiling her big smile. This used to be my haven in Cairo, the place where I would come to shed the city. I spent many days here, cooking with Hala, meditating, talking over everything that was happening in our lives, in our country – trying to find perspective, to maintain some quietude in the midst of all the hysteria outside.
Hala’s apartment was robbed in broad daylight shortly before I left. She came back to find her laptop and hard drive gone, along with a suitcase of clothes and a couple bits of jewellery, some of which had dropped on the floor – a bungled amateur job.
The landlord’s response was to install new doors in the whole building. It reminded me of the state’s response to protests after 2011. They began to build big crude stone walls right in the middle of downtown streets – blocking the passage of people and cars, making the traffic even more awkward and congested than it already was – all supposedly in order to protect ‘vital buildings’. You would be walking around downtown when suddenly you would find yourself faced with a new wall.
Then the street artists began to paint the walls. One painted the rest of the road, following the exact lines of pavement and buildings and trees, all of which converged at a distant point in the horizon, as though the wall did not exist. Gestures like these – the deftness and defiance of our imagination versus their crude, cloddish acts – filled us with so much hope, then.
Hala was always a proponent of staying; I always felt the need to defend my leaving. Now even Hala’s neighbour had left, and no explanations were necessary.
Downstairs at my parents’ building, a new ugly gate has also been installed. The key is not working tonight, and neither is the buzzer. I wait for my mother to come down and let me in.
It takes me a moment to realize how unafraid I am. It’s 1 a.m. In my last year in Cairo I would have been on my guard, looking around to make sure no one was there as I took out my key.
Cairo used to be quite possibly the safest big city in the world. When the revolution began, one of the strategies of the media was to whip people into a frenzy of panic and fear, into a terror that asks for nothing but stability, for things to go back to the way they were. Crime was on the rise, but to what extent was this exaggerated and exploited? I always felt that the streets seemed darker, more shadowy and more threatening, when one was at home, staring into a screen.
With the spate of mob sexual attacks in Tahrir last July, something in me began to shift. I became more reluctant to go out, and when walking around – even if the streets were well lit and people were, as always, out and about – I became particularly paranoid about groups of men, assailed by images of what might happen.
And now, standing in an empty street at 1 a.m., I realize that I have been feeling none of this since I arrived. Have the streets become safer? I’ve heard a number of people say the opposite, that they don’t go out the way they used to. Is it just me not noticing again? Or does it have to do with this strange freedom I’ve been feeling this time, cut loose from Cairo and its torrents?
How much of fear, I wonder, is real, in the body, a primal sense of smell – and how much is in the mind and can be implanted, triggered, manipulated?
Hani says, ‘Ana mo’men tamaaman bi fikret el fashal.’
I realize that – as palpable as they have been for quite some time – I haven’t heard these words before. Like something flashing behind your eyes that you haven’t let yourself see. We’ve failed. We’ve been defeated.
I met Hani in Tahrir Square shortly after the fall of Mubarak. One of the first things I learned about Hani was that his parents had been deeply in love for the entirety of their twenty-something-year marriage.
As we got closer, this piece of information came to frame him for me. Hani had a stability about him, the likes of which I had never really encountered before. He was unfailingly optimistic, rooted in Egypt in a way I had never felt anywhere in the world. When the revolution began, however, it seemed possible, for a moment, that I was helping create a place I could belong to.
I realize now how often, in critical moments in our revolution, in my own bewilderment, I waited for Hani’s verdict. He who would never have considered leaving, or giving up. Hani the indefatigable optimist, and later, as we all grew up, the realist with a depth of vision. We’ve failed. We’ve been defeated.
Desperately, I cling on to a thought. How like Hani to phrase it that way. ‘Ana mo’men taman bi . . .’ ‘I am in complete conviction that . . .’ Even when declaring defeat.
What happens to Hani now, and to conviction?
When I get home, my father is getting ready to go out. He tells me to come along, in that old come, let’s go for a little excursion way of his. He is going to Giza, to a place he calls ‘the clinic’, where he performed a round of tests some months ago to find a kidney donor.
Organ donations are illegal in Egypt, but two top medical professionals in two of the most famous hospitals in Cairo – one of which is the university teaching hospital – persuaded him to go this route, and recommended this clinic. A clinic where you find someone who needs the money and pay them a large sum in exchange for their kidney.
My father was completely against the idea at first, but had now become convinced that it’s his only way.
I walk him downstairs, where my youngest uncle is waiting. He says, ‘ta’ali nefassahik, shimmi shwayyit hawa’ – come, let’s take you on a little trip, breathe a little air. To the black-market kidney clinic in Giza.
I want to go; I want to know it. But I am so tired.
Tonight I feel a sudden panic that I will not be here long enough, that I will not be with these people long enough. That I will not have been here. That I will have come and then I will have gone.
In the morning I spend a long time trying to change my ticket, to find a later date, even one day if nothing else. But it’s Eid season and everything is fully booked.
In the afternoon, walking through the living room, I catch a rerun of Sisi’s speech at the United Nations. He is saying, ‘Tahya Masr! Tahya Masr!’ Long live Egypt!
Outside the building some of his ‘supporters’ are gathered, composed mainly, it seems, of militantes – that word coined brilliantly last year, by Sarah Carr I believe, to describe the demographic of middle-aged, mostly well-to-do women who have become the soft-spoken general’s most fevered adherents (the French tante used commonly in Egypt to address any woman you know who’s around your mother’s age). They have come up with a fantastic branding slogan for their hero on his first visit to the US, and were now busy chanting it at the top of their lungs: ‘Sisi – yes! ISIS – no!’
In the evening I go to dinner at a Lebanese restaurant with my mother and a friend. My mother is talking about how Sisi took a whole entourage of ‘journalists’ and media personalities with him to New York. She calls them el-tabballeen, a fabulous expression meaning personal drummers. These are the figures now populating the airwaves, the bowers and scrapers, the same people who were blacklisted after the fall of Mubarak for trying to turn people against what was happening in Tahrir Square – and who were now back, like an infestation, the new commander’s mouthpiece.
Everyone else, it seems, is off the air. Yosri Fouda, whose political talk show became one of the strongest and most clear-headed voices of dissent in the last two years of the Mubarak era and throughout our revolution, is giving his final episode today.
I am proud of my mother for being so different from most people of her generation and social background. Alia Mosallam’s words ring in my head:
‘What we never gave much thought to is that sector of the population whose interests lie in stability and who would go very very far for a life of mediocrity. Never gave much thought that their disinterest in change could be such a driving factor for nothingness, that their influence and reign of the media could explode this emptiness into our lives.’
But as I sit there listening to my mother, I find myself growing very aware of the waiter coming over, and of the middle-aged Sisi-esque couple at the next table. I think of people being picked up at coffee shops for having certain kinds of conversations, of the way university students are being encouraged to report on one another, and of my own paranoia – probably only paranoia; most probably – while sitting the other day in the back of a taxi and noting things down in English.
When we get home, I notice that a colony of large ants has laid claim to my parents’ front room. My parents immediately wage war: they anoint that whole half of the house with a powerful insecticide whose chemical smell begins to hold my lungs as though in a fist. Suddenly I find myself caught in a huge and wounded rage that not only have they killed the ants they are now poisoning us too and opening the windows does nothing to dispel the fumes only lets in more of Cairo’s toxic air and we have to sleep here tonight and there is no escape.
I know there is something disproportionate about this rage – I haven’t felt anything like it in months – but I cannot bear to speak or even look at my parents.
My mother calls me to her room, as though extending an olive branch. I go sulkily and she shows me a YouTube video: a segment from a recent episode of a popular TV show. The episode is about the so-called New Suez Canal Project, inaugurated by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to a lot of fanfare, whereupon he urged the Egyptian public to participate in funding it. In the segment my mother is showing me, a miniature ‘bank’ has been set up in a primary school, complete with windows and tellers, to allow even the littlest ones to show their devotion to the new Egypt (and squeeze a bit more money out of their parents in the process). I don’t understand why my mother is showing me this propaganda video. And then I realize: it’s because my four year old cousin is starring in it.
My mother is delighted to see her beloved niece, but I am floored. I look at her little round cheeks, her hands holding a bill and going up to the window, her eyes wide, not quite understanding this game but going along with it.
It hits me then: this propaganda that’s being pounded into us daily now, meant to aid us all in the process of rapid unremembering – it’s not just aimed at us or at an older generation all too willing to forget, it’s also aimed at them.
Over the past years I grew more and more convinced – observing my younger cousins, the girls on the metro, the thirteen and fourteen year olds that began to lead the chants during demonstrations and became the heart-fire of the revolution – that the generations younger than us were even more outspoken, switched-on, and no-nonsense than we were. As things deteriorated, I held on to this thought.
But now, seeing this video, I wondered about the even younger generations, the ones who will grow up in the midst of this intensive whitewashing of history. Will they know anything about what we’ve been through? Will we be able to keep it alive in our, their, consciousness?
Or will they fall into line? Will the cycle loop back again?
Part of me cannot believe this. They will seek out the truth, they will find it in their own lives, in the injustices that have not changed and will not change until something gives. But what if?
Tonight, at midnight, the clocks change again.
I find myself in Tahrir.
The taxi is almost through the square before I realize it. I grab a pen. Later I try to read my scribble:
nothing of note in Tahrir
a dead memorial, some yellow construction-type tanks
A ‘dead’ memorial? Is that really what I wrote? I squint at the word, trying to figure out what else it might be. What could I have meant?
& that boy with the giant fish-eye watching us all from the corner of Mohammad Mahmoud
Walking along Talaat Harb, again almost incidentally, I realize that I am downtown, in the neighbourhood that became mine when I moved back to Cairo in May 2010 and which, half a year later, became the epicentre of our revolt. The area that I began to avoid almost completely in my last two years in Cairo as it became more and more manic, pounding with people and street sellers and memories – memories of violence, the walls shrouded in grafitti, memories of a momentary belonging, a momentary claim to our own country, our own fate.
It’s the neighbourhood where mob sexual attacks began and reached fever pitch in July 2013. A square that soured and became so repulsive to us.
Was that part of someone’s plan, to desecrate the places we held dear?
Now I’m walking down Talaat Harb and for the first time I notice how poor and faded people look, like the crumbling buildings all around them.
I’m heading to Zawya to meet Nicolien. Zawya is an art house cinema that opened in one of downtown’s old movie theatres this spring, one of the many scores of initiatives, cultural centres, and independent/alternative spaces that were born out of the revolution.
Nicolien moved to Cairo just last year. I was very curious about how someone who has a clean slate with the city would perceive and interact with it now. I watched as she rode her bicycle madly through the congested streets and found so much to enchant her. It has always been a place – still must be in some ways, though our eyes have blurred with loss – that, in its chaos and aliveness, lent itself well to dancing.
I ask her what she thinks of Cairo now, and the one word that comes to her mind is ‘Rough.’ We talk about the madness – how it seems to infiltrate everything, the strangeness of the conversations one has every day, the leaps of logic and conspiracy, how the vast majority of the general populace seems to be more than slightly off-kilter.
It seems that even Nicolien is preparing to move on. And, as we leave the theatre after the film, we’re told that Zawya is being forced to close down or find a different location.
Heading home, after surprisingly smooth traffic on the dreaded 6 October Bridge, the taxi can take one of five roads that lead to my parents’ house. He chooses Tayaran, and it’s night as we turn that corner, a corner that used to be rather innocuous, that used to house a medium-sized, green-lit mosque with a yard, and where, in July last year, tens of thousands of Morsi supporters gathered and began to camp out to protest his removal from power, and which, in August, became the site of a massacre. The sundering of a nation.
I watch as we turn that corner, I watch the taxi driver, I watch myself. I look at the mosque, which is closed and dark but otherwise bears no signs that I can see. I am surprised to see no security around, no tanks. On a parallel street, outside the Al-Azhar University campus, I see a tangle of old barbed wire tossed aside on the pavement, like a broken spider.
So many people have left. My sister tells me that Belal Fadl, the columnist and screenwriter, has left with his family to New York. I think of his films and their back-alley humour; I can’t imagine someone so Egyptian living elsewhere. I ask my mother. She says she doesn’t know where he is, but he’s writing things that can’t possibly be written from Egypt right now.
Earlier in the week, my father sought to involve me in a conversation with a taxi driver. It was good to see him still talking to strangers, but then I discovered my own reluctance.
For a long time the revolution was about this: everyone talking, all the time, with everyone else. There was a sense of being in it all together; a dynamism in the way every event, as it unfolded, was being discussed in the streets and on the metro, in schools and coffee shops and homes, in every corner of the city in a way that had never happened before in lived memory.
Taxi drivers always seemed like a good gauge of public opinion at any given moment, like some sort of vector, picking up and transmitting not only people, but also waves of opinion, from one part of the city to another.
I remember my surprise when I got into a taxi last year – after this country-wide conversation had begun to curdle into platitudes and accusations, into with-us-or-against-us – and he started to talk about Tahrir. It was late at night, somewhere close to the square, and he said he had been there throughout, and asked if I had been, too. I was still unwilling to get into a conversation, until he said, ‘My son died, you see.’
I was dumbstruck. My first thought was, ‘Mohammad Mahmoud?’ and I must have said it aloud, the name of the street and the battle that marked the second wave of our revolution.
He shook his head. ‘He died in a hospital, he was three years old, a routine test and he died, they did something wrong and killed him.’
So, it was the root of everything. Why we began. The corruption, the greed, the neglect.
I think I still had some stubborn vestiges of hope then; I must have said something to that effect. But earlier this week, in the taxi with my father, I realize I have no words left to give.
My father tries to rope me into the conversation when they start talking about Bassem Youssef, the comedian whose political satire show became one of the most-watched TV programmes in the Middle East, but which kept getting bumped from channel to channel until it was taken off the air altogether.
‘So why is Bassem not doing his show anymore?’ my father asks me, nudging me in.
I mumble something about no channel wanting him.
The taxi driver corrects me. ‘It’s not that no channel wants him. It’s that no channel can host him.’
I look up at him, surprised. He’s a young man, with the smooth, dark skin of a southerner. He goes on to talk favourably about Bassem Youssef, how he got away with saying things that no one else could. He adds: ‘But it’s the military now, no more fooling around.’
I always suspected this: that beneath the nationalist ditties and waving of flags and hailing of the new hero, there is an awareness, a collective decision being made.
I can’t stop thinking of Matt’s words before he left: ‘I know now how someone can say something they don’t believe, and really mean it.’
There are so many layers and it’s impossible to unravel them. On the one hand, there is the threat to the system itself, and along with that to the interests of a certain elite who did their damnedest to clamp down on the current of change and have, for the moment at least, succeeded. There is the insecurity, the instability, how the daily difficulties of life became worse for people who were already suffering. There is the media, the fear-mongering, the conspiracists and all the attempts to rewrite the 25 January uprising as an American-Zionist plot to destabilize the region.
And running beneath all this, I suspect, is something more abstract, more fundamental. Something about a society confronting itself. Because with more truth, I believe now, comes more fear.
Then there is the Stockholm syndrome. The need for a strongman. I remember riding in a taxi through protests at Al-Azhar University late last year, and seeing a boy chased, caught and beaten by the police. The taxi driver was cheering it all on, as though it was a boxing match. ‘Yeah, hit ‘im again, that’s the only way they’ll learn!’ It is not an uncommon view: ‘we’ Egyptians are hopeless, ‘we’ need a powerful patriarch to impose order, to keep us in check. That violence is necessary and even desirable against those who step out of line. With everything in the region deteriorating, there is also a strong sense that Sisi has come to Egypt’s rescue, has saved her from the brink.
Is this what a saved place feels like?
I leave in the evening. My father walks me downstairs, then asks if I mind going to the airport on my own. He’s never done this before: even when I insist on going alone, he’s always insisted, even more stubbornly, on coming along.
The tears come in the taxi, taking me by surprise. I think of all the times I’ve left Cairo. How, one month after 30 June 2013, the military takeover, and the dark July that followed, I got onto a plane, broken, and arrived into the embrace of friends. In the two months that followed, I tried to put myself back together. By the time I went back to Cairo, I had decided to leave. Not for good – like it or not, I could never leave ‘for good’ – but for a long while.
It’s winter when I return to Istanbul. Nine days ago, when I left, the weather was still T-shirt warm, evenings cooling into early fall, and now everyone is huddled in coats and boots.
How long have I been away?
I am tired when I return, a deep, bone tired. I realize after a while that my face has also changed, hardened into that Cairo expression again.
I am following the news more closely. Another university student killed in on-campus clashes with the police. The verdict comes through in the case of Yara, Sanaa Seif – who belongs to one of the most famous activist families in Egypt – and twenty-one others. They are sentenced to three years in prison for violating the protest law. The next day Alaa Abd el-Fattah, Sanaa’s brother, who had been released on bail (suddenly, to collective relief, just days before I arrived in Cairo) is thrown back in jail. The crackdown on human rights groups widens. An ultimatum has been issued that all civil society organizations must register under a repressive law that gives the government authority over their activities and financing, or face prosecution. Many are already under ‘investigation’; many have already closed for fear of imprisonment.
I log on and off Facebook. My sister posts a status that she was driving along Qasr al-Nil bridge when she saw a family of three, a middle-aged man and woman carrying a young boy, standing and grinning and waving Egyptian flags, in a celebratory mood. When she got closer she saw that they were carrying a sign that said, ‘Honk your horn if you want all the Muslim Brotherhood to be executed!’ All around her cars were honking.
My mother’s words in an email from my sister – ‘I want to leave. Wiam did well to leave’ – break my heart.
In October, a friend from Cairo comes to visit me in Istanbul. He has been travelling around for some time, trying to take a breather from Cairo, but since the ultimatum was issued and activist arrests intensified, he knows he is one of those targeted and is now in limbo, watching and waiting, unsure whether he will be able to return. On a ferry crossing the Bosphorus, I hear the word ‘asylum’ for the first time.
In December, an Egyptian court dismisses charges against Hosni Mubarak for his role in the killing of hundreds of protesters who rose up against him in January–February 2011. So it’s official: it has not happened, none of it ever happened. Like building the walls, like replacing the doors, like turning the clocks back and back.
The night of the verdict, there are angry protests around Tahrir. Two young men are killed.
In the gloom of the following day, my sister sends me a YouTube link. Ramy Essam, who rose to fame for singing bold, crowd-rallying songs in those first eighteen days of Tahrir Square – and who has somehow melted away in the intervening years – has just released a new song. It’s called Zaman el-’Ars. He translates it as ‘Age of the Pimp’, but that doesn’t quite cover it. ‘Ars is a very strong profanity in Egyptian Arabic, with connotations of arse-licker, hypocrite, someone who bends over backwards to ingratiate himself to whomever he needs to at any given moment, someone repulsively spineless and weak, with not a shred of character or integrity. He sets the song to a nationalist-ditty-cum-presidential-campaign-propaganda video that was a superhit this spring, which shows people from all over Egypt and all walks of life grinning and dancing, wearing the colours of the Egyptian flag and bearing signs that say ‘vote’, ‘participate’, ‘we have great hope in the future’. The lyrics are dark and sarcastic, mocking how we are all happy to dance to this tune, pretending our problems have disappeared in the flash of the commander’s eye, while our brothers are piled high like meat in the prisons — and he makes no bones about stating who is the biggest ‘ars of all.
It’s bold and crazy and incredible that he would say this point-blank and not fear for his life – I don’t know where he is, but he’s certainly not in Egypt anymore – and it cheers me up significantly.
Whenever it feels like there is nothing left, something like this appears and says: wait. We still have our spirit, our uncrushable humour, our awareness. But will we find something within us to subsist on – something less toxic, less self-devouring, than our anger and our loss?
For weeks after I return, every time I begin a new entry in my notebook, I find myself writing September and following it absently with 19, until I catch myself and realize: this was the day I was due to arrive in Cairo.
Photograph courtesy of Jonathan Rashad