I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
– T. S. Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’
I can tell you about my sister’s balcony, overhung with old trees that quiver with birdsong in the morning, a rare treat in this city. I can tell you about her sofa, lump by lump; about the dining table chair she sat in most days to work, an orthopedic cushion strapped to its back. I can tell you about the two armchairs: the one that made me mysteriously itch and the other, too hard, that I would scaffold with complex constructions of cushions before moving once again to the floor, into the nest of my folded legs.
Here, my sister and I spent our July. We stirred fitfully from one spot to another, as days blurred into one another. Around us the two cats played: wrestling on the carpet, curling into our laps, like a remnant of the world.
In the lead-up to 30 June, fuel shortages caused massive queues of cars that snaked out of petrol stations for miles, paralyzing whole streets and the main arteries of the city. Some people panic shopped for groceries, withdrew cash from banks. I hurried to hand in all my freelance assignments before the end of the week. It was impossible to plan anything beyond: a dental appointment, much-needed haircut, movie night with friends – all hovered there in mid-air. Everyone watched and waited and wondered whether the planned mass protests would be a blip, or something big. It felt as though time would fall off a cliff on Sunday. We jokingly called it The End of the World.
Those of us who had gone out before, again and again, were conflicted about what this call to protest meant. Putting a stop to a regime that was the first to be sworn in after our revolution – and which went on to betray its every goal – yes, this had to be done; but the alternative was looking murky. Figures who had tried to sabotage the revolution at every turn were suddenly taking to the airwaves and exhorting the people to rise up. Egged on by a hysterical media, the country seemed increasingly divided between the hypocrisy of religionists, and those who were calling for the army to step in and save Egypt from impending doom. In the chasm that widened between them, we were struggling to find our place.
In the end, I decided to go out on 30 June, my heart lagging behind. I felt obligated to keep saying no, though this time I wasn’t sure what we were saying yes to. Once again I was marching in a mass, human beings and flags as far as the eye could see – possibly bigger and more diverse than ever before. This should have felt like a triumph. Instead I found my body filled with bile, a bitter sense of estrangement that I only later understood. Perhaps the body knows before we do.
The army communiqués came soon after. I didn’t understand what this could mean. I looked to trusted friends for thoughts, by turns stricken and reassured: they will, they won’t; it’s worse, it’s better; it’s the end, it’s a fresh start. Then I woke up one day to news of a massacre at dawn. Then state media began to bandy the word ‘terrorism’ about. Neighbourhoods around Cairo were erupting in vicious violence, people against people. Both sides were baying for blood, justifying killing, blind with fear and the loathing that comes with it.
And in the midst of the masses filling Tahrir, a spate of mob assaults against women began – another ugly, unfathomable thing in a time of senselessness. I remember an acute moment when my sister, who was at the helm of a volunteer operation to rescue women from these attacks, said, in a voice only half-ironic, ‘Why don’t they all just go home?’ These were the same words that others had spent two and a half years directing at her and all of us who have been involved in this revolution from the outset.
I read ‘Back to the Margins’, an article by journalist Lina Attalah. It was written five days before 30 June, but I had been avoiding facing it, and indeed her words hit me squarely in the chest: ‘It is either we have become the counter-revolutionaries, or the revolution has become the counter-revolution.’
There was no place left for me in the protests, and yet I couldn’t stay home, inhaling an awful feed of news. I decided to join the anti-assault operation in Tahrir, returning to the square now with fear and dread, relieved when the mass protests there finally abated.
My friend H, a comrade-in-protest from the start, wrote from Amman: ‘I can feel the fog all the way from here.’
Cairo moved on, as it does, settling into July. I went to stay with my sister. Between my travels and her own and various distances of other kinds, we hadn’t spent much time together in years. As hard as it was to be, it was better to be there, staying up all night, drifting around each other in the rooms; to not have to speak or say or come out of ourselves, to know there is no explanation for now. To just be there, quiet and with her, the wanass of her – a wisp of a word meaning something like this, the consolation of company.
I can’t tell you much about that haze of days, where each one went before sliding thickly into the next. Hours were spent staring into computer screens, eyes like bowls. I suppose we slept, but sleep was something cobbled together from stray hours, after dawn or afternoon, and it didn’t much resemble rest. Things seeped into our dreams.
My sister continued to work; hers was a direct battle against the ugliness. I moved untethered around the house, not knowing what to do with myself, trying to write, to wrangle out some words at a time when I wished above all for silence.
We rarely went out. Some distant part of me registered that Ramadan had begun; there must have been some of the usual gatherings for fitar, the late-night suhoor revelry. It wasn’t that there was nowhere to go: it was that the usual concepts of working, sleeping, eating, going out, seeing friends, doing things for fun – all these seemed like old objects you have to turn over in your hands, whose function you have to puzzle over and which you suspect may no longer have any use. It was as though normal transmission had been suspended and there was nothing yet in its place, a puppet on stage severed of its strings.
And I couldn’t bear to see anyone. There was no point in meeting up with someone you half-like, anyone not dear to you; it seemed ludicrous to try to pick your delicate way around each other. Yet it was too painful to be with close friends. The two or three times I tried, we were like prickly pears, unable to withstand the tightness of our own skin, much less each other. I remember spending an hour with a friend whose energy and perspective always buoyed me, and I just wanted him to be quiet, to stop talking, thinking, analyzing, forging ahead. Just to stop. Just stop, just sit, let it sink in. Let it come, the moment of loss, if it must. Like mourning, like respect.
On 16 July, thirteen days after the coup that wasn’t a coup but was but wasn’t but was, she walked into our lives. Tiny and unafraid, she sauntered right into the apartment, in possession of the world. She sniffed around chairs and potted plants, around the purple monkey that lay in a heap on the floor, all limbs and no stuffing after a run in with Vito. She fended off Vito’s attacks herself with sharp and nimble ripostes of her own, then turned her back on him and nosed her way into the kitchen and his bowl.
We marvelled at how, next to her, he looked like a full-grown cat; how, over the days, his own lithe, wildchild independence melted into something more mellow, a big-brotherliness.
We spent hours watching their elaborate wrestling matches, a strange bright spot in days that had no colour or shape. They seemed sharper somehow, more real, than anything around them. My sister, impressed by the little one’s signature move – a sudden springing leap, grabbing the opponent by the neck and twisting on to her back – wanted to call her Sumo, while I thought of Ma’louba, proud of my pun: meaning upside down, turned over, as well as, literally, ‘coup-ed’. None of our names for her stuck.
Meanwhile, the city went on without us. The few times I left the house, things seemed more subdued – though I wasn’t sure how much of it was my own sense of muteness. The streets were sometimes wide and smooth-sailing where there should have been sticky summer traffic. There must be people huddled inside, I thought: the same people who, all along, had watched the news and cowered in fear. I knew there were others elsewhere taking part in pro-Morsi protests or cheering on army jets as they spun crowd-pleasing shapes across the sky.
And there were plenty of people just out and about, getting on with life, as though we had imagined the whole thing. The handful of times I went out, I found myself staring at the sunshine bathing the asphalt, the woman on the corner with her crate of fresh herbs, her piles of parsley and mint, cilantro and spring onions, the greenness of things. The metro heaving with people, the market outside the station selling mangoes and shoes, the Zamalek kids in Zamalek cafés, the sound of dice against backgammon boards coming from the coffee shop down the road, the two young men who whizzed by on a motorbike shouting to each other animatedly, against the wind, about breasts. It all filled me with a vague astonishment, a grey ghost moving among people who were, implausibly, still living.
Then I went home to my sister and the cats, our makeshift family of four, this gathering of beings that had clustered together in the murk. My sister was reading Shantaram – it was unusual to see her reading – and from time to time she would disappear into her room and curl up around that brick of a book with the ferocity of one guarding her only escape.
I left on 3 August. The day was filled with strange small floods of tears; they came with a start and abruptly left back to nowhere again. I was afraid to go, to leave my sister and the July we had spent together like one long muted ache.
The morning before I left, I cut my hair, packed my things, and woke her up to say goodbye. I told her how hard it feels to leave in a moment this uncertain, and my big sister said: Everything is uncertain, always has been.
We checked an app that pinpoints traffic – and possible protest zones – in the city, and took a way that seemed clear. She dropped me off at the mouth of a bridge that would take me the rest of the way. I waved my thank you, and I saw the quiver in her lips as she mouthed you’re welcome through the silence of the closed car window.
I headed to our parents’ house, close to the airport. For weeks it had been under siege. Two streets away, Morsi supporters had gathered into an open sit-in outside Raba’a al-Adawiya mosque, tens of thousands of men and women, tents and market stalls and whole families with children. The streets around were blocked, at various moments, with people, or army tanks, or barbed wire and walls of crudely piled stone.
I had been gone for ten days when I heard the news of the army and police clearing the sit-in. ‘Clearing’ means massacre, and massacre – I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what it means, especially, when it takes place two streets down from the people you love. My mother was at the newspaper where she works and somehow managed to make it home later that night. My father was there, at home, alone. All he would say on the phone, in that mild, offhand way of his – a retired doctor, he has always maintained his bedside manner, those reassuring tones – was that tear gas entered the house, but he closed the windows and turned on the AC.
Curfews came to the city. I don’t know how August felt, September. I can’t imagine Cairo, all of Cairo, being indoors by seven in the evening, nine or even eleven. In what ways do people go on, in what ways do they not. There’s no point in watching the news. I ask friends how they are, how things really are, but I don’t understand their answers, and I know how hard it is to explain to someone outside.
My sister wrote to me some days ago that the little cat had gone missing. From time to time she emails me pictures of Vito in various states of repose, but with nothing for scale there’s no way of telling how big he’s grown.
Photograph by twiga_swala