To Wake the People: Egypt’s Interminable Haul to Democracy

“The People are asleep my darling”
So she’d tell him;
He, too,
Was careful not to wake the People,
To endure its dreams
Like a kid’s kicks,
To ape its slack tongue like a fool,
To crawl before it on all fours
That he might tell it the story of creation…

— Mohab Nasr (translated by Robin Moger)

Two and a half years after the January 25, 2011 uprising, I’m with my friend Aboulliel in the room I still have at my parents’ house. We’re slurping Turkish coffee and dragging on Marlboros, absorbed in conversation, when suddenly it feels as if we’ve been on the same topic since we sat here for the first time in 1998 or 1999: what should Egypt’s army-dominated government do about the Islamists’ sit-ins?

There are two of them, each thousands-strong, in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque and Al-Nahda squares (east and west Cairo), the latter within walking distance of Dokky, where this apartment is located. They are crippling Cairo’s hobbling traffic and, as a security hazard, blocking the inflow of much needed tourist cash. They include all kinds of adherent of political Islam: Salafist, Jihadist, Jihadist-Salafist, Muslim Brother, renegade Muslim Brother and independently operating Islamist. And they’ve been going on for nearly 40 days, immobilizing the middle-class residential community of Rabaa and taunting the Cairo University students and faculty shuffling about campus near Al-Nahda. Their “defense committees” function like checkpoints, with club-wielding men searching baggage and reviewing IDs. Amnesty International has corroborated reports by independent local news channels like OnTV and CBC that “spies” caught inside them were secretly buried after having their fingers chopped off, among other atrocities. The media claims that each garrison harbors hardcore weaponry, and machine guns have been sighted in use against pro-army citizens who picked fights with protesters marching through their neighborhoods…

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Fake Painting: An iPhoneography Poem

The Angel (Your picture)

wpid-photo2-2013-03-8-17-46.jpg

Sleep now, as though you’d never in your life occupied a frame,
As though your hands had never set even this picture in a frame,
As though they had not arranged cuttings that float

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Nine Poems in English, Illustrated

Out of the blue, which is occasionally a beautiful blue, a reader of Kitab at Tughra gave me an unexpected and very dear gift: nine of my poems in English, beautifully translated. By way of gratitude and to celebrate, I spent the evening making black and white, square format pictures with the poems at the back of my mind – with the intention of producing one picture for each poem. I think of Sargon Boulus as, truly moved, I post these texts with thanks and acknowledgements to qisasukhra

***

The Angel of Death gives counsel to a bereaved parent

 

Barely a minute and you tread with dimmed eyes:

Is your patience exhausted in a minute?

Listen,

There is nothing in all the universe that will show you mercy

Nothing that will halt the saw’s stroke through your bones.

Sit a while

And do not tax me,

Don’t make your misfortune a plea to me

When you know

That I am under orders:

I bear on my shoulders Earth’s lamentations

A thousand times redoubled.

Do not assume that I possess the meaning of anything,

For when blood stains the asphalt

I see a dark blotch, nothing more,

Though I feel all that’s felt by you plus

All those like you.

I’m the one who keeps you company, moment by moment,

Unable to delight in your delight

Because I know your pain entire,

Even in your moments of acutest pleasure.

All I can promise you now

Is that when you look

You shall not find a trace of the dead one in the bed

And as a supplementary service from me,

You shall not find a bed in the room,

Indeed, there’ll be no room there,

And you will stand with nothing before you,

Nothing at all,

And all I ask in return?

Remember

That life is nothing but waiting for me,

Me, who grinds hearts utterly,

Not for a single moment spared

The sound of their beat.

 

 

Alexandria

 

For Mohab Nasr

All these years my friend

As though we’re here by mistake

Waiting until the roads clear

To drive unlicensed trucks

And face the border guards

With forced laughter and cash.

We dream of places that were they found

We’d be no good for, my friend,

Forced to mix with the statues

To swap their talk with them

To be jammed in among them

With frozen limbs, looking and not seeing,

Our heads bowed down at home

We excuse ourselves from going to the quarries

That we might try reproducing in secret,

Mourning our endangered line.

All these years plucking up the courage

To declare we are not statues

And then collapse in pieces from their plinths,

Dead with flattened heads,

With eyes bulging out like mother-of-pearl,

With holes in our bones.

How is it, my friend, after all these years

All we can utter is croaking?

 

The Angel (A god who renounced his faith)

 

You asked me what I would like to be in your eyes,

I said: God.

For a time I granted you favours and punished you.

Were you fleeing my grief, when you failed to tell me

That you had a cuckold Lord bestowing gifts upon you all the while?

How you could not accept my seal stamped on your brow

When you were so set on veneration?

And did you think creating you was such a little thing?

Son of a bitch,

Why let me plow when you meant to burn the fields?

 

 

The Angel (Your picture)

 

Sleep now, as though you’d never in your life occupied a frame,

As though your hands had never set even this picture in a frame,

As though they had not arranged cuttings that float

In an inch of water which you made a sea.

Not your crooked leg among the runners

Nor your teeth clamped on the shoulder that carries you,

Nor a victim, naturally: You’ve never in your life been a victim.

Sleep, despising those you call “coherent”,

Believing that your feet tread a path you forged.

Don’t for one moment ask about the handful of dust

You are wont to throw in the faces of those that call you to account,

Staggered by the abuse; how vulgar it was.

Forget that your air is not your own, that you breathe

With an army of respirators, that you

Are like the moneymen: every step calculated.

You are a beast in your strength; you’re in demand…

Your contemporaries really are spiteful: you are resplendent with tragedy

A pioneering presence on every screen.

Sleep and hug, like the downy pillow, the certainty

That you’re the genius, alone in a society of retards.

Pay no mind to the frame you put around your picture

Nor that once you thought it ugly. Pay no mind

To the fact your picture was ugly, ugly

Enough—once you’d framed it—to burn.

 

 

Coffee on the way back from the airport

 

When the light blinded us, I said to you: Morning’s taken us by storm

And you were muttering, your eye to the glass.

You said: The day’s come much quicker than I expected.

You said: Here is bad, but there is worse;

No. Here is worse than there.

You said: Although I… Although she… Although all these things…

I’m optimistic, then noticed that your coffee

Was no longer crowned with steam.

You were muttering, like I was a mirror or tape recorder,

Just an old container

That traversed the distance with you

Your eye to the glass, from which the night departed

With sudden harshness.

In the 24-hour café:

Another departure hall? The seats on their heads

Legs in the air and your strained face giving out

The same feel as the empty furniture,

The furniture they flip to wash the floor.

You were exactly like the airport:

You did not want to be up at this hour

Where the chairs are flipped and the officers yawn, disgruntled

As they stamp the passports.

You said: How do places get smaller!

You said: How many stamps and visas in my passport?

How many meaningful journeys?

You said: Perhaps life’s more fun south of the equator.

This is how you were muttering when the light blinded us.

I said to you: Morning’s taken us by surprise it seems

And you said: The day’s come quicker than I expected,

Much quicker than I expected.

 

 

A homicide

 

This heavy lamp with the tapered rim

Like a medieval instrument of torture.

Have you seen it squatting innocently between our beds?

(Thus spoke my friend who is staying with me in the room

Where the sea sounds like cars on the Corniche

And in the weave of the blanket I’m sleeping on

The memory of a lifetime spent between Cairo and Alexandria

On the rails.)

I will wait until sleep overtakes you (he went on)

Then raise it high in the air above your head

(And I tried remembering

Why it was we had to take the last train

After nights of unjustified sleeplessness

So that no sooner did we reach our room

Than each lay down on his bed

And there was nothing in the world to warrant waking.)

I’ll wait until sleep overtakes you (he repeated)

And screaming the scream of a suicide bomber on the brink of the deed

Will relieve my hand of the lamp’s weight, over your head.

 

 

Stallion

 

For Ahmed Yamaani

 

A little before dawn I come out of the 24-hour café looking for a newspaper stand where I might find the magazine with my picture in it. I walk a long way through the pitch-dark streets and pass kiosks whose occupants I question, but I don’t find what I want. No one’s with me at the café: I left my laptop open on the table and in my bag hanging from the back of the chair are my house-keys and ID card. Even so, when a white taxi stops for me I get in next to the driver straight away and he drives the car down streets ablaze as if with daylight, though it’s nothing but the orange street lights that have proliferated to a terrifying extent. An hour or more goes by with neither of us speaking, then he stops in a place not pitch-black or ablaze and when I hand him the fare he opens his zipper and takes out his erect black cock. As though I had returned to the 24-hour café, I find myself in the midst of a group of young people, huddled in sixes or sevens around cars from which comes trance music, either talking to one another or standing silent. I feel they’re my friends, or that I’m one of them, but I’m surprised that we’re all males—not a girl or woman among us—and I recall that I haven’t seen a single woman, not in the café, not in the street, not even in my imagination. Then I catch sight of my bag, which has my house-keys and ID in it, on the shoulder of a munaqqaba who’s striding along on the other side of the street and the corner of the laptop’s poking out of the bag’s opening. I try catching up with the munaqqaba but she gets into a white taxi that stops for her and takes off and where I expect to see my picture in the magazine I find a picture of a naked girl who in no time is lying on the café’s table sighing, caressing my forehead, her cunt growing wet, as she says: “Isn’t it awful to be a man in this town?”

 

The claim

 

My thinnest girlfriends always complain

Of gaining weight, which confuses me

When I think of fat girls.

But then I remember

That I’ve never suffered from loving my lover,

Except when it provides a good excuse to leave her,

And I reflect that things are less important

Than they seem, if we look at them

Long-term,

Which eases my terror a little.

So I say to myself that the world is really like this:

The thin fear fat,

The fat love food,

Lovers never suffer for the right reasons

And everything does not ride

On everything.

 

Love (Marriage)

 

But you did not endure all this only to hear the terrible rap of a door closing and know how much you yearn to hide the thing before you, the awful thing that you don’t want to see. At this point, that which gives the world meaning becomes just part of the world, terror takes its own life and the same story ends or begins.

***

Poems by Youssef Rakha

Translations by qisasukhra.wordpress.com (The text may vary slightly on qisasukhra, but there is no such thing as a final draft)

Late-night coffee-قهوة منتصف الليل