Bears all its sons away.
–Isaac Watts, ‘O, God, Our Help in Ages Past’
When my father and I landed in Cairo on 21 March, 2011 – the day after the first truly democratic referendum in the history of modern Egypt – the city was under a midnight curfew. Cairo, the city where my father was born, the city he’d left in 1946, at the age of fourteen – and to which he hadn’t returned in sixty-five years.
My Egyptian friends had told me to take the curfew seriously. Police were searching cars, checking papers, and demanding bribes. The baltagiya – the armed thugs that Mubarak’s government used to intimidate its political rivals – were rumored to be out in the streets.
Our plane had landed at 8 p.m. Our luggage was lost, however, and by the time we filed the proper paperwork and secured our ground transportation, it was nearly eleven: dangerously close to curfew. Our driver surged out into the chaotic traffic, careening along the Al-Orouba Road and up onto the elevated Salah Salem. At one point, I scrambled for my seat belt – only to discover that it had been uninstalled. Our driver noticed my alarm and laughed.
‘No more Mubarak,’ he said with a broad smile, ‘no more seat belt.’
We veered past a donkey pulling a cart stacked high with white bulbs of garlic; its driver had the reins in one hand and a cell phone in the other. Over the next week, we would observe in the traffic-choked streets of the city many more donkey carts, bicycle rickshaws, a family of four on a single motorbike, and (astonishingly) a middle-aged, suit-wearing businessman – propelling his hand-operated wheelchair through the rush hour traffic on Corniche el Nil Boulevard.
We made it to our hotel thirty minutes before curfew. The recent protests had left an adjacent building in ruins, transforming an affluent arcade beside the Nile into a charred and windowless high-rise. To enter the hotel driveway, we had to pass through a gated security checkpoint. A bomb-sniffing dog padded its way around our vehicle. Bullets had shattered the glass of at least one of the hotel windows.
My father saw these things but didn’t comment on them. Not to me, anyway. Besides the bomb-sniffing dogs and bullet holes, the lobby also bore three enormous vases of white roses, and he called me over to marvel at them. ‘They’re so beautiful,’ he said. ‘Can it be natural, that smell? They’re so fragrant.’ Here he leaned in precipitously, threatening to topple into the bouquet. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it, have you?’
In the spring of 1941, when he was eight years old, my father cut his knee during recess. It was a small laceration, barely bigger than a postage stamp. At the time, he was in the third grade at La Collège de la Sainte-Famille, an all-male, French-language school run by Jesuit priests in the sleepy Cairene suburb of Heliopolis. A Melkite, Eastern-rite Catholic from a family of Catholics, Baptists, and Copts – my father felt slightly out of place at Sainte-Famille. Discipline at the school was strict. Students wore stiff-collared white shirts and navy blue short pants and leather suspenders; when the teachers asked them questions, they stood beside their desks to respond. So, late for class, my father was afraid to go to the infirmary and wash out his cut.
Within a week, it was infected. A voracious staph infection migrated through his skin and blood and into the lumen of his bones. By the time my grandparents summoned the family doctor, my father’s fever was over 103. His leg had swollen badly; it was bright red and it throbbed with every heartbeat. Less than a year later, a Yale physician would pioneer the treatment of staphylococcus with antibiotics – but at the time, there was no reliable cure in sight. The family doctor insisted that the leg be amputated at the knee. Otherwise, he said, my father would die.
My grandparents consulted an array of mustachioed specialists. Their edicts varied: eat two teaspoons of safflower stamen hourly; anoint the leg with oil of myrrh; boil three grams of barberry bark and drink it as a tea. There were a lot of prayers to the Virgin Mary. Finally, a pediatric surgeon at the Kasr Alainy Children’s Hospital in downtown Cairo had a novel and dramatic proposition: he would remove the infected bone entirely, by cutting the fibula out of my father’s left leg.
My father still remembers the rotten-egg smell of the ether, applied with a cloth and a wicker basket that enveloped his head. He remembers the recovery ward, where he played belote with French soldiers wounded on the battlefields of North Africa – and where the surgeons used maggots to eat away the infected flesh of his open wound. He must have feared that he wouldn’t recover. In the bed next to his, a young girl died of acute appendicitis. A seven-year-old Armenian boy, whose foot had been crushed by an elevator, endured dozens of operations to reconstruct his tiny bones, only to perish of malnutrition. Wild with grief, the Armenian father appeared in the hospital with a shotgun, eager to kill the doctors. My father remembers the man – running past the door of his hospital room, orderlies in pursuit. They tackled him, my father says, just before he could fire his weapon.
After six months in the hospital, my father was restored to health, minus one of his leg bones. And then, astonishingly, after a year of daily exercise, he was able to walk without a limp. For the remainder of his adolescence in Cairo, though, my father kept his fibula in a jar. In this tall glass container, with its green zinc screw top – the bone floated in a formaldehyde solution. It was suspended in time. And when my father left Egypt in 1946, sailing for New York City on the S.S. Vulcania, the bone stayed behind, stashed in a cabinet at the family’s apartment in Heliopolis. In the back of my mind, I always wondered: how could that bone have been left behind? And what had become of it, today?
On the second day of our trip the luggage still hadn’t arrived, so we showered and got back into our dirty clothes. The hotel had provided us with clean shirts, the Fairmont logo emblazoned on the front pocket in a gaudy, Edwardian font.
‘How do you feel?’ I asked my father at breakfast.
‘I’m worried I won’t recognize anything.’ He looked down at the floor. ‘I’m old,’ he said. I’d expected him to say that he was excited to see the city that had lived so long in his imagination – its markets and hospitals, its churches and mosques and monuments, its public squares, its streetcars, the algal ribbon of the Nile. ‘I don’t want to go through Tahrir Square,’ he said. ‘I lived through that before. It’s dangerous. It makes people lose track of who they are.’
‘I’m sure it will be fine,’ I said although, quite honestly, I had no idea if this was true.
We finished our breakfast of fatir, ful medames, and cups of thick, black coffee that could have stripped the chrome off a carburettor. Dad took out his case of pills and sorted them on the white tablecloth. He’d brought along an impressive range of medications: a packet of Cipro, medications for cholesterol and high blood pressure, a tiny vial of nitroglycerine in case of an attack of his angina pectoris. A tank of condensed oxygen sat in the room, ready to combat his chronic lung disease. He was a walking pharmacopoeia.
I thought of the gridlock visible from the window of the hotel. If he had a heart attack anywhere in Cairo, modern medicine would be useless – we’d be at the mercy of the traffic, sitting in the car, or the taxi, wherever we happened to be. Out on the streets, people were demonstrating for their most basic freedoms: the right to assembly, the right to free speech, freedom from torture, fair elections. Would the outcome be a secular state, a religious state, a state that balanced somewhere between these two poles? Nobody knew what would be fashioned in Egypt, by Egyptians. But if he wanted to dig up a buried past – to return to his birthplace for the first time in nearly seven decades – he would need to negotiate Egypt as it was in 2011.
How was it? That day, one thing was apparent: a nation that had long been repressed – that had not been able to express its will in decades – was roaring to life. We drove a dozen blocks in three hours, barely making it beyond the neighborhood surrounding the hotel. There were at least a half-dozen different protests clogging Cairo’s streets. There was the protest by police officers, demanding better wages. Then there was a smaller protest outside of the Ministry of Education, demanding an end to corrupt educators. And then there were dueling protests outside of the Arab League – one pro-Qadaffi, the other anti-Qadaffi. There was also a protest calling for an end to the Israeli shelling of Palestinian positions in the West Bank.
Sitting in the car, I scratched at the puckered embroidery of my hotel-issued shirt. Traffic wasn’t moving. We weren’t going anywhere that day. People crowded around our windows, jostling up against the vehicle and, when they parted, I saw thick black smoke billowing from the top of the Interior Ministry. From a distance of several blocks, the trail of smoke looked like some kind of disembodied hand – reaching out, from deep within the earth, to cup the city in its palm.
In January 2011, three days before the beginning of the Revolution, I had called Heba Morayef, Egypt and Libya Researcher for Human Rights Watch. ‘Police Day is on the 25th,’ she had said, ‘and the protests could be quite large.’
We’d been planning this trip to Cairo many months before; we’d already bought the tickets. But I was worried about the sectarian violence that was threatening Egypt’s stability. A New Year’s Day bombing during midnight mass at Two Saints Church in Alexandria had just killed twenty-three Coptic Christians. In 2010, violent crimes against Copts had been more numerous than at any time in the nation’s history.
‘The problem,’ Morayef had said, ‘is that the government has a security-minded approach. They’ll go in to calm things down, arrest twenty Christians and twenty Muslims, and push for a settlement. But the actual causes of the sectarian violence are not addressed.’ The government’s main goal, in her eyes, was safeguarding the country’s international image. ‘Tourism is a holy industry in Egypt,’ she had said.
And yet most people also believed that the government used (and in many cases, fomented) religious strife as a means of establishing control over the political arena. Look what will happen if we’re not around to help you, Mubarak’s regime seemed to say. Look at the way our society will disintegrate into violence. So protestors had purposefully structured the early days of the January 25 Revolution around images of religious unity. ‘The cross and the crescent together,’ had been a common chant in Tahrir Square.
For a number of reasons, however, this unity has not held. Religious violence has battered the Egyptian national imaginary – marring the entirety of 2011. ‘Sectarian crimes,’ said a recent position paper sponsored by Hossam Bahgat’s Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, ‘threaten a civil war and a return to organized terrorism.’
During that trip in March, my father and I were at the epicenter of a crisis that would threaten to rip the Egyptian nation apart – but our identity separated us from it, somewhat. In the early morning hours of our first night in the hotel, ensnared by jetlag, we sat together in his room – drinking bottles of Sakara, casting and recasting the images we’d witnessed that day.
‘You know what I kept thinking?’ he said.
His voice trailed off.
‘That we picked a funny time,’ I said, ‘to visit the family’s ancestral home?’
He shook his head, brushing off my sarcasm. ‘I haven’t seen anything like that,’ he said, ‘since the death of the king.’
Political institutions can be as fragile as the human bodies that run them. Trench mouth – otherwise known as Vincen’s angina, or ulcerated stomatitis, or necrotic gingivitis – responds well to modern antibiotics, particularly broad-spectrum antibiotics like amoxicillin or tetracycline. It’s a rare illness in the twenty-first century. But on 28 April, 1936, it triggered King Fuad’s fatal heart attack, catapulting Egypt into political upheaval.
Late 1935 had already been tumultuous in Egypt, with massive demonstrations rocking Cairo and Alexandria. Although England had granted the country nominal independence in 1922, thousands of British troops remained on Egyptian soil, and nationalists now clamored for full and immediate sovereignty. Mustafa el-Nahas, who had served as prime minister (and would later help to found the Arab League in 1944) adopted a confrontational tone in parliament: ‘Britain does not hesitate to encroach on Egypt’s rights,’ he said.
Into this chaos came Farouk, King Fuad’s eldest son. Ten days after his father’s death, he was crowned His Majesty Farouk I, King of Egypt and Sudan, Sovereign of Nubia, of Kordofan, and of Darfur. He was barely sixteen years old.
What was his first act as monarch? Radio transmitters had just been installed amid the lush mango trees and sandstone-walled gardens of Koubbeh Palace, and Farouk used this new technology to calm the nation. For the first time ever, a modern Egyptian ruler addressed his people via the mass media. ‘I have closely seen the love and inspiration you bestowed on me,’ he said, speaking in Arabic. ‘Thus, I see it is necessary to announce my determination to cooperate with you for the prosperity and welfare of our beloved motherland.’
This was the state of Egypt seventy-six years ago: widespread protests by young people, new technology harnessed to broaden the political sphere, a tumultuous transition of power. It was so much like today – and my father remembered it all. He would lie in his bed in the apartment on Sharah Abd El-Maneim on hot spring afternoons, listening to the demonstrations roll through the streets. ‘Yahya el-malik!’ the crowds would chant, raw-throated and single-voiced. ‘Long live the king!’ Or: ‘Yahya Nahas Basha!’ ‘Long live Nahas!’ He recalled, too, his own father, holding an unlit pipe in his hand and explaining the protests to his four-year-old child.
On the second day of our trip we finally made it to Heliopolis and to La Collège de la Sainte-Famille. Throughout our first two days on the ground, my father hadn’t stopped talking about cucumbers. Now, I discovered why. It was cucumber season; vendors were displaying stacks of them, everywhere. These stacks had triggered a shameful memory in my father’s mind, one that he had suppressed for decades: as a ten-year-old at La Collège de la Sainte-Famille, he had stolen some cucumbers from the nuns’ gardens.
So here we were. We had traveled halfway around the world to stand in the courtyard of this school. Here were the creamy, white-and-yellow French Colonial buildings that he remembered, and the straight-backed pews in the little chapel, where a Jesuit priest had lectured the students twice each week on the plangent demands of the soul. Here were the trenches that the school had dug at the edge of the athletic fields, which were supposed to protect the students in case of a sudden Luftwaffe air raid. My father remembered certain, ornate doorways. He remembered the roseate veins of a Jesuit’s nose, remembered his Arabic homework assignments, his friends’ faces, their songs – and in the midst of this, he couldn’t contain an overwhelming surge of guilt and regret.
‘There,’ he said, pointing across the fields. ‘That’s where the garden used to be.’ He sighed. ‘That’s where it happened.’ And he started to describe how tempting the cucumbers had been: plentiful and fragrant and juicy, sprouting from their vines in the loamy soil. ‘But you can’t write about that,’ he said.
‘I shouldn’t have done it,’ he said. ‘It was a terrible mistake.’
I thought, then, of the kid he was – thin-limbed and glasses-wearing and walking, for at least a few months after his hospitalization, on crutches. I wanted to say to him: In heaven, I promise that the nuns will forgive you.
We walked through the courtyard, led by Gamal Barsoum, head of the school’s alumni association. Barsoum was a formidable, barrel-chested man. He placed an alumni pin on my father’s lapel, and talked about what had happened over the past two months, as well as his hopes (and fears) for the future. ‘We have to be optimistic and ambitious,’ he said. ‘We must have solidarity. Une société plus juste. A more just society. That is what we want.’
Between classes, the boys lined up in chattering rows, wearing their little blue blazers and short pants. Teachers issued orders in French. It was just another Wednesday for these boys. While a few of them stared at us, most of them ignored us, attending to their other, more urgent, business. My father shook his head. ‘Any one of them could be me,’ he said.
In the streets of Cairo, evidence of the revolution was everywhere. Mylar banners celebrating its martyrs were posted in shop windows. Egyptian flags were ubiquitous. People had painted nearly every tree trunk with red-white-and-black stripes. But what struck me most was something that I found inside the school: a series of children’s drawings, tacked to a second-floor bulletin board. LA RÉVOLUTION 25 JANVIER 2011, the board read, and many of the images featured cheerful-looking tanks and smiling, flag-waving people.
But a few of the children’s drawings were different. One depicted two men dueling with swords and stabbing each other in the head. Another featured a car in flames, surrounded by the dark black night. And a third portrayed a dozen stick figures, all of them gathered in a big public square. They were protestors, and they seemed to be advancing into a barrage of bullets. They were covered by a red, inky cloud. Clearly, they were bleeding.
During the trip in March, my friend, Brian, took me to Diwan – a remarkable bookstore just across the 6th of October Bridge in Zemalek. The store has a café, and over the course of several hours, a steady stream of writers came in – including the great Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher and Muhammad Aladdin, who has written comic books, film scripts, and a highly regarded modernist work called The Gospel According to Adam. We sat there and drank tea. Aladdin bemoaned Diwan’s vigilantly enforced ban on smoking. Conversation veered from fear to anxiety and back to fear again. Aladdin and Taher worried that democracy wouldn’t necessarily mean social justice. They feared repressive laws, or widespread violence along religious lines, or violence targeting women. ‘Everyone has a “Plan B,”’ the consensus seemed to indicate. ‘A “Plan B” just in case.’
‘Switzerland is nice, I’ve heard,’ said the woman to my left, a prominent Cairene gynecologist. ‘Or maybe Australia?’
Over the next year, these fears would be realized, at least in part – as sectarian violence would indeed break out in the country. But on that night in March, at least, the city of Cairo was peaceful. Thinking about the conversation at Diwan, I walked back over the 6th of October Bridge. At the height of the demonstrations, snipers had used it as a vantage point from which to fire into the crowds in Tahrir Square. The bridge was massive – lane after lane of traffic spanning one of the widest points in the Nile. I stopped halfway across its span – standing in the middle of the structure that took twenty-seven years to build and that carried, by conservative estimates, roughly 40,000 vehicles an hour.
I turned my back to the cars and looked down at the river, peering out over the railing and down along the Nile. From this vantage point, the water looked murky and dark. Little flotillas of trash bobbed by, some of them snagging on the massive concrete stanchions. But not far from me there were a few galabiya-wearing old men, men who were smoking cigarettes and staring out over the river. They were fishing.
Three days later, we sought out La Basilique Notre-Dame d’Héliopolis – where my grandfather had once sung mass. We’d hoped to get inside but the church was closed. The government had shuttered it for its own protection, sealing its entrance behind an imposing, black, wrought-iron gate. But like many things in Egypt, this status was negotiable. Gamal Barsoum made a few phone calls and the caretaker arrived, keys in hand. Our duty was clear: bakshish, or informal gratuities, for everyone (including the police).
The caretaker led us into the dark, dusty narthex. I looked around, seeing variations on a theme from my own childhood: the stained-glass windows, the painted Stations of the Cross, the elaborately carved marble pillars, the stiff-backed mahogany pews. I remembered my Sunday school lessons: ‘The floor symbolizes the foundation of faith and the humility of the poor. The direction of the East represents the Heavenly Jerusalem, the direction from which the Messiah will return in glory.’
We walked up the stone spiral staircase to the balcony. A lectern stood off to one side, and I walked over to it. An Arabic-language hymnal sat there, unopened. It was spooky to imagine my grandfather’s voice – which I had heard only in its tremulous, scratchy incarnation – booming out through this space, young and vital and the centerpiece of someone’s holy celebration.
Beside the lectern there was a little stone railing. ‘Kneel down,’ my father said. ‘Hold out the camera. Take the picture like you’re leaning through the pillars.’ This I did, simulating the view he would have had as a boy. A moment later, he stared down at the image on the camera’s digital screen. ‘Well,’ he said, clearing his throat, ‘that was nice.’
Standing there in his dirty clothes, my father addressed a prayer of thanks to the soul of my grandfather, for bringing us there to the basilica. We turned and left the balcony, heading back down to the main level. As we were going back out through the iron gates, however – the caretaker stopped us.
‘Wait, wait,’ he said. ‘Baron. You must see Baron.’
He disappeared into deepest recesses of the sacristy – and then reappeared with a long metal pole. He knelt and grabbed the altar’s bright red carpet, pulling it aside, revealing a secret panel. The caretaker’s pole acted as a key; with a turn of his wrist, the floor opened wide.
‘The tomb,’ he said. ‘The tomb of Baron.’
We descended a staircase into a painstakingly preserved crypt. Here was the grave of Baron Edouard Empain, the man who had, near the end of his life, commissioned this basilica with his private funds. This Belgian engineer, entrepreneur, and amateur Egyptologist had also built a magnificent, highly ornamented palace, which had fallen into ruin over the last fifty years. When my father was thirteen, he had habitually skipped school to loiter in its gardens; he remembered them as verdant and lush, attended by an army of gardeners in bright white coats.
I looked down at the floor. A clutch of wilted flowers stood at the foot of the marble sarcophagus. Empain had come to Egypt in 1904, flush with cash from his construction, four years earlier, of the Paris Métro. He had intended to stay only a short while. But he fell in love with the city, and with a beautiful young Cairene socialite. So he settled there, and built a new community in the desert, about six miles from the center of Cairo, with numerous modern amenities: a golf course, a racetrack, and a grand hotel, which Mubarak later converted to his presidential palace. BARON EMPAIN, read a plaque on the wall. ENGINEER. PRESIDENT OF THE CAIRO ELECTRIC RAILWAYS AND HELIOPOLIS OASES COMPANY. And then, just a few feet away: FATHER OF HELIOPOLIS.
On our second-to-last day in Egypt, we tried to find the family home. I thought perhaps we might meet someone who would remember my father, someone who had been a child when he was a child, played with him in the streets, helped him climb fences and pilfer mangoes from the city’s mango trees. The novelist in me imagined a tearful reunion of long-lost boyhood friends, complete with old family snapshots and perhaps a secret handshake.
But as my father had feared, the neighborhood was no longer recognizable. The streets had all been renamed. We had to supplement our contemporary map with an old, hand-drawn city plan, one we had copied from the pages of a book. We drove in circles. The voices of the muezzin filled the air with their gauzy, plaintive call to prayer.
Finally, after several hours, we did find my father’s old street. On the corner there had been a little cafe, the Casablanca, where my grandfather had gone each morning to read the newspaper. It was now a gas station. And the houses – giant, shabby, regal, colonial mansions – had been subdivided over the ensuing years into five or six apartments apiece. I counted the numbers: 12, 14, 16, 18. And then we came around a bend in the road and saw it: the space where the house had once been.
‘It’s gone,’ my father said.
‘It’s a construction site,’ I said.
If my father’s fibula had somehow survived the decades, if it had been stashed in some basement cupboard and forgotten – well, it had now been bulldozed. Our family’s old home had been demolished within the last year to make way for an unfinished, steel-ribbed apartment complex. A skeletal structure rose before us. A laminated placard announced the intentions of the developers: a new generation of houses would be going up in the neighborhood. And this was fine, sure. Every city is a palimpsest; it layers its future on top of its past. But without my father standing there to remember – to decode the two maps and describe the way Heliopolis used to look – something significant would have been lost.
‘Did you really rollerskate on the balcony?’ I asked.
‘Of course. And your Uncle John fell and hit his head and got blood poisoning and nearly died.’
We took a photograph. It’s my favorite picture I have of my father. I’ve put it in a frame on my writing desk. In that image, his face is wistful. He stands beside the concrete tower that will take the place of his childhood home, and he seems to be saying: It’s gone, but now we’ve seen it, together. We’ve seen where it used to be. Now – now, I can offer this memory, to you.
In the seventeen months since our trip, Egypt has not left the news – it filters into our lives in a mediated way, through the preoccupations of the Western press, as a whole. My father has continued to call me every few days with the latest news from Cairo. He was worried by the late December raid of American-financed NGOs in Cairo; he was shocked by the massacre at a Port Said soccer match in early February.
Speaking from Oslo at the end of 2011, Heba Morayef also expressed concern for the progress of the revolution, which had – in her opinion – been derailed by the military. ‘The emergency law is still in place,’ she said. ‘In fact, it has been expanded. Now it includes a prohibition against intentional spreading of false information – which of course is free speech. And SCAF (The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) is suppressing protests. Unless you make it to Tahrir with 40,000 people there’s a good chance that your demonstration will be disrupted.’
But – the city had burrowed into my consciousness. I had an elemental longing for its chaotic traffic, for its hot night air and its teeming, hopeful streets. But when could I return? I eyed the calendar with concern – noting the elections that would last for most of 2011, and into summer 2012, and worrying about the social discord that was sure to accompany them. ‘There will be violence,’ Morayef had said. ‘We have to expect that there will be a certain level of violence, because Egyptian elections have always been violent. But really – the elections are the only hope, the only possible way out of this stalemate.’
Eventually, on the last day of the trip in March, our luggage arrived. But when the airline finally dropped them off, the bags no longer seemed necessary. Clean clothes? Books? Toiletries? We had been traveling for days and days without them.
At breakfast on that last morning, my father talked about what he would do when he got home. He had Rosetta Stone: Arabic, and he was planning on improving his language skills, which, after sixty-five years, were understandably a little rusty. ‘Maybe I’ll get a job as an interpreter for a travel agent,’ he said. ‘Inshallah,’ he added. ‘God willing.’
As he wrote down his name and address for the concierge – who’d promised to send him a CD containing the songs of Oum Kalthoum – I stood at the window, watching a speedboat tow a water skier in broad arcs across the surface of the Nile. Sunlit as always, the air that morning was unusually sharp and clear. In the distance, rising high above the city, I saw a half-dozen children’s kites.
‘There you are,’ I heard my father say. ‘That’s the address. And it’s Joseph Toutonghi.’ He paused. ‘Well, really,’ he corrected, ‘it’s Yusef.’
I walked over and watched him write his name in Arabic, his shaky pen moving from right to left, tracing and retracing the letters. He held the paper up to the light. He squinted at it, waved it in the air to make sure the ink was dry. He reexamined it, then, sounding the letters out loud with cautious precision. It was his name, after all. He wanted to make sure it was right.
Pauls Toutonghi’s second novel, Evel Knievel Days, is published by Crown.
Photograph by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra