For me, the word “Palestinians,” whether in a headline, in the body of an article, on a handout, immediately calls to mind fedayeen in a specific spot—Jordan—and at an easily determined date: October, November, December 1970, January, February, March, April 1971. It was then and there that I discovered the Palestinian Revolution…
On the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, it is worth rereading Jean Genet’s song to the beauty of revolutionaries
“Martyrs’ Square”, Beirut, 2005. photo: Youssef Rakha
For me, the word “Palestinians,” whether in a headline, in the body of an article, on a handout, immediately calls to mind fedayeen in a specific spot—Jordan—and at an easily determined date: October, November, December 1970, January, February, March, April 1971. It was then and there that I discovered the Palestinian Revolution…
When I went to Sabra and Chatila in April 2005, I had already read Jean Genet’s “Four Hours in Chatila”—and loved it. It is a rambling meditation on death and revolution, written within a day of the killing of the entire Palestinian and Shia population of the two refugee camps within greater Beirut—ostensibly in retaliation for the killing of the pro-Israeli Kataeb leader Bachir Gemayel after he was elected president. Kataeb militiamen did the work for the Israeli army on 16-18 September 1982.
“Goyim kill goyim,” Prime Minister Menachem Begin told the Knesset, “and they come to hang the Jews.”
In the end neither Jews nor Maronites were hanged. With the PLO already in Tunis, what transpired was the termination of the Palestinian (Arab) Revolution so conceived—the apex of the counterrevolution led by Israel’s allies, and the end of the glorious legend of the fedayeen.
For reasons that had more to do with where I was in my life than sympathy with the Palestinian cause, when I went to Sabra and Chatila, I broke down in tears. It happened at the end of my walk through the site, at once so inside and outside Beirut that, spending time there, you feel as if you’ve travelled in time. It happened when I got to the tiny cemetery where the remains of some victims of the massacre are buried. There was no obvious context for crying in public, and it must’ve looked ridiculous.
But I was in Beirut for the first time to witness the Cedar Revolution: the young, apolitical uprising against the hegemony of the Syrian regime and its sectarian practices in Lebanon, directed at the army and mukhabarat whose personnel had enjoyed arbitrary power over the Lebanese for as long as anyone could remember. After Iraq’s disastrous liberation from Saddam, this was the first ever evidence of an Arab Spring—and, thinking about being “a virtual Palestinian”, as I had been called in Beirut, my tears anticipated another moment almost six years later, here in Cairo.
A photograph doesn’t show the flies nor the thick white smell of death. Neither does it show how you must jump over bodies as you walk along from one corpse to the next. If you look closely at a corpse, an odd phenomenon occurs: the absence of life in this body corresponds to the total absence of the body, or rather to its continuous backing away. You feel that even by coming closer you can never touch it. That happens when you look at it carefully. But should you make a move in its direction, get down next to it, move an arm or a finger, suddenly it is very much there and almost friendly. Love and death. These two words are quickly associated when one of them is written down. I had to go to Chatila to understand the obscenity of love and the obscenity of death. In both cases the body has nothing more to hide: positions, contortions, gestures, signs, even silences belong to one world and to the other…
In the middle, near them, all these tortured victims, my mind can’t get rid of this “invisible vision”: what was the torturer like? Who was he? I see him and I don’t see him. He’s as large as life and the only shape he will ever have is the one formed by the stances, positions, and grotesque gestures of the dead fermenting in the sun under clouds of flies. If the American Marines, the French paratroopers, and the Italian bersagliere who made up an intervention force in Lebanon left so quickly (the Italians, who arrived by ship two days late, fled in Hercules airplanes!) one day or thirty-six hours before their official departure date, as if they were running away, and on the day before Bashir Gemayel’s assassination, are the Palestinians really wrong in wondering if Americans, French and Italians had not been warned to clear out pronto so as not to appear mixed up in the bombing of the Kataeb headquarters?
I’m pretty sure that circle of sparse vegetation where people are buried is in Sabra, not Chatila. But Sabra and Chatila are so interwoven in my memory it really hardly matters.
The walls and the unpaved ground were white, and white was the dust staining what asphalt there was. As I sobbed uncontrollably before the unmarked graves, what my tears anticipated—unbeknown to me, of course—was the night of 25 January 2011. That evening on my way home from the offices of Al Ahram, having laughed at the concept of revolution-as-Facebook-event, I decided to walk through Tahrir to see if the demonstrations planned for Police Day were any different from endless—useless—protests I had seen since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Then, arriving there, I realised something was happening. The sight and especially the sound of unbelievable numbers of young Egyptians willingly offering up their bodies—not for abstract notions like “resistance” or Islam, not against any greater or lesser devil, but for the right to live like human beings in their own country—made me weep. “It is not Islamist,” I wrote feverishly in my Facebook status later that night. “It is not limited in numbers. And I saw it with my own eyes in Maidan Al-Tahrir.”
After Cedar, it had taken five and a half years for Jasmine to break out in Tunis, driving what would sometimes be called the Lotus Revolution here. Events were not to start for real until 28 January—two days after, hearing the national anthem in a meaningful context for the first time in my life, I sang tunelessly along, tearfully ecstatic. But already, through phone and other communications after midnight, I realised the killing had started. “I want to go out,” I remember telling a Canada-based friend over Facebook chat in the small hours, “but I’m scared.”
At that same moment a younger, renegade-Muslim-Brother friend was running through the streets of Shubra, tattered, soiled and in tears, pursued by armoured vehicles whose siren almost two years later still gives him the shivers. Another, even younger Catholic friend had fielded a load of Central Security pellets at close range; some barely missed his eyes, and he couldn’t get up unassisted; after receiving first aid in the nearest government hospital, he was sneaked through a backdoor to avoid arrest by State Security. During the day, a young woman friend had fainted from an overdose of tear gas and barely escaped being run over. Hundreds were in custody without charge; a good few were beaten up or detained for hours in police cars; some had been haplessly killed, too…
But, on the morning of 26 January, it was as if nothing had happened. The front page of the daily Al Ahram (already notorious for the “expressive” wire picture in which Mubarak was Photoshopped from the back to the front of a group of heads of state) did no so much as mention unprecedented numbers of demonstrators protesting police brutality and corruption in Tahrir. A minor demonstration in Lebanon of all places was highlighted instead. Downtown, I noticed, people went about their business.
What pained me was not “the beautiful young” dead or injured “for nothing”; “nothing” was a condition of their beauty, after all, and perhaps there weren’t enough casualties yet (though in this context what do numbers mean?) What pained me was that a turn of events that promised to yield a voluntary communal purge of society, a sort of post-religion repentance, seemed to come to nothing the next day. It hadn’t, of course; but later when it did come to something that thing very quickly became political, which meant that power would pass into the hands of religion mongers leaving society intact, with all the evil inside it.
By the time Mubarak stepped down on 11 February—not that this is technically true—there was hardly a young or a secular person in Tahrir. There was to be much more death from then on.
The statement that there is a beauty peculiar to revolutionaries raises many problems. Everyone knows, everyone suspects, that young children or adolescents living in old and harsh surroundings have a beauty of face, body, movement and gaze similar to that of the fedayeen. Perhaps this may be explained in the following way: breaking with the ancient ways, a new freedom pushes through the dead skin, and fathers and grandfathers will have a hard time extinguishing the gleam in the eyes, the throbbing in the temples, the joy of blood flowing through the veins. In the spring of 1971, in the Palestinian bases, that beauty subtly pervaded a forest made alive by the freedom of the fedayeen. In the camps a different, more muted beauty prevailed because of the presence of women and children. The camps received a sort of light from the combat bases, and as for the women, it would take a long and complex discussion to explain their radiance. Even more than the men, more than the fedayeen in combat, the Palestinian women seemed strong enough to sustain the resistance and accept the changes that came along with a revolution. They had already disobeyed the customs: they looked the men straight in the eye, they refused to wear a veil, their hair was visible, sometimes completely uncovered, their voices steady. The briefest and most prosaic of their tasks was but a small step in the self-assured journey towards a new, and therefore unknown, order, but which gave them a hint of a cleansing liberation for themselves, and a glowing pride for the men…
Here in the ruins of Chatila there is nothing left. A few silent old women hastily hiding behind a door where a white cloth is nailed. As for the very young fedayeen, I will meet some in Damascus. You can select a particular community other than that of your birth, whereas you are born into a people; this selection is based on an irrational affinity, which is not to say that justice has no role, but this justice and the entire defense of this community take place because of an emotional – perhaps intuitive, sensual – attraction; I am French, but I defend the Palestinians wholeheartedly and automatically. They are in the right because I love them. But would I love them if injustice had not turned them into a wandering people?
Genet just didn’t know about political Islam, did he? He didn’t appreciate the effects on collective consciousness of nearly a century of social-cultural-sexual—forget political—repression, of systematic misinformation, humiliation and discouragement of initiative, of words denoting things other than what they say even in life-and-death circumstances, actions failing to yield consensual meaning, courage going unnoticed and festering “tradition” prioritised over such birthrights as sense, sensibility and sensation.
It was all through Friday 28 January, from noon to midnight, that I drew my own connections between youth, death and the—revolutionary—identity of the tortured. However partially or peripherally, I had that identity too; and I was no longer scared. Without the leisure of Genet’s macabre stroll, without the mythical underpinnings of the Arab Revolution or the feeling that I was a Frenchman among Palestinians with no more reason to be there than the fact that I “loved” them, I perceived how the human body responds to being run over by a speeding vehicle, the colour of what comes out of the head when it is gashed open against a solid surface, the smell of sweat on a dead young body mobbed by loud mourners and the sound of fear. There was water-hosing, live ammunition, slaughter and many things besides.
People trembling before the murder of others on the side of the road, adolescents taking metal fences apart to use as weaponry, valiant, bare-chested battles with tear gas canisters and the increasingly expert hurling of stones and Molotov cocktails: it was a bonanza of desperation, a grafting onto the scene of “revolution” of all the violence and madness prompted by living for decades under inhuman conditions; fear and loathing in the Maidan.
That day there was plenty of opportunity for political identification with Palestinians—Qasr Al-Aini Street looked and felt like the site of an Intifada against a repressive power less competent or self-respecting and so even more brutishly undiscriminating than the Israeli army—but it wasn’t the sight of stone-throwing children facing armed men in uniform that evoked Palestine.
It wasn’t being Arab, or to the left of a counterrevolutionary, pro-Israeli status quo. As would later be confirmed on finding out about Hamas’s atrocious response to Arab Spring demonstrations in Gaza, it was my social (human or cultural) connection with Palestinians that Friday 28 January made me aware of in a new way. And that was practically beyond tears.
As the Lebanese already knew, the position of the secular Arab as a Palestinian—state- or citizenship-less, disinherited, disgraced, betrayed and blamed for being who they are—is even more pronounced under resistance-mongering regimes like the Assads’ than elsewhere. All Arabs have their little Israels to torture them through their respective Kataeb in full view of the international community; even the Islamist banner—“Death to the infidels,” in which the latter word replaces the conventional Arab nationalist “traitors”—does not prevent that.
Many died in Chatila, and my friendship, my affection for their rotting corpses was also immense, because I had known them. Blackened, swollen, decayed by the sun and by death, they were still fedayeen. They were still fedayeen. Around two o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday three soldiers from the Lebanese army drove me, at gunpoint, to a jeep where an officer was dozing. I asked him: “Do you speak French?” — “English.” The voice was dry, maybe because I had awakened it with a start. He looked at my passport, and said to me, in French: “Have you just been there?” He pointed to Chatila. “Yes.” — “And did you see?” — “Yes.” — “Are you going to write about it?” — “Yes.” He gave me back my passport. He signaled me to leave. The three rifles were lowered. I had spent four hours in Chatila. About forty bodies remained in my memory. All of them, and I mean all, had been tortured, probably against a backdrop of drunkenness, song, laughter, the smell of gunpowder and already of decaying flesh. I was probably alone, I mean the only European (with a few old Palestinian women still clinging to a torn white cloth; with a few young unarmed fedayeen), but if these five or six human beings had not been there and I had discovered this butchered city, black and swollen Palestinians lying there, I would have gone crazy. Or did I? That city lying in smithereens which I saw or thought I saw, which I walked through, felt, and whose death stench I wore, had all that taken place?
I know Sabra and Chatila was about racism, imperialism and the ugly side of humanity. I know it had to do with the accepted construction of the Palestinian cause and (confirmed by it) the perennial suspicion that minority (as in non-Muslim) Arab communities are potential traitors to the greater nation even when that nation pretends to be other than the Umma (a pretence now backfiring throughout the region in the worst possible ways). What I have learned from the Arab Spring is that Sabra and Chatila may also have been about something else, something like a mirror image of what Genet saw in the fedayeen. Like the sectarian aftermath of the Arab Spring, like the failure of the so called international community to reign in all the little Israels whose existence Nazism’s progeny justifies, like the failure of Arab societies to make use of the sacrifices of the young and the beautiful, Sabra and Chatila was about Arab self-hatred. It was about the ugliness peculiar to revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries in times of grand narratives that, in the absence of societies to support them, are bound to end badly. In the most oblique way imaginable, Sabra and Chatila is about the ugliness of the fedayeen.
Genet’s text (in italics) quoted as is in Daniel R. Dupecher and Martha Perrigaud’s translation
The Gaza Spring
At the time I had Islamist tendencies. I was still a schoolboy when the inqilab happened in 2007. (Thus spoke Amin, which is not his name: 22, author, activist, affiliate of Fateh, lifetime resident of Palestinian Rafah. We spoke on the roof of a mid-range hotel in Gaza City late last week. By inqilab, the accepted term—literally: “overthrow”—Amin was referring to the post-democratic, forcible overtake of power in the Gaza Strip by Hamas. Now I notice that, every time he said “they” in the abstract, “Hamas”, especially its security apparatus in Gaza, was what he meant.) At first they blew up all the security agencies; it’s unclear why, the buildings were empty. But they did. And they arrested everyone who said ‘I am Fateh’: all the militias, of course, but also civil servants, citizens, students…
We thought it was an overthrow of the Palestinian Authority but it was really an overthrow against Fateh; and it was driven by power hunger… I happened to have relations in Fateh so I could see how they dealt with people. They would give you something called “the acquittal”: ‘Hand over your weapons and you can go, but don’t engage in any activity of any kind whatsoever.’ Sometimes they kept you under house arrest. That was the earliest period. Later President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decision that everyone should stay at home: all the Authority employees. He never called it that but it was a form of civil disobedience—a general strike. Everyone did stay at home, more or less. And so we discovered that they already had a full team of professionals in every field imaginable: security, health, education, everything; it was predictable that they should have security forces since they were a force of the resistance but they turned out to be ready to replace the Authority in every aspect of life.
The next day people just accepted the situation, with unexpected equanimity. We were thinking there would be explosions or attacks, that life would be disrupted as a result of the sudden substitution—nothing happened. Maybe that was the result of people’s discontent with the Authority, because the Authority was somewhat corrupt even though we had lived well under it and you can tell it wasn’t very repressive by the fact that Hamas, its greatest opposition, was allowed to grow, and grow.
In time I slipped out of the crucible of the Islamists. I had no political interests per se but I decided to question what I had believed about Palestine, and I watched from outside. Eventually I became an organised member of Fateh through friends from university. They told me what was Fateh, who were Fateh. I was convinced; maybe because I’d seen the injustice against Fateh, I liked it. But then I also began to understand what was Oslo which at the mosque, within the crucible, they had taught us was wrong, the way they taught us that Fateh were all Zionized: traitors and apostates.
I began to understand the meaning of peace, the different forms the struggle could take, things we used to consider haram (or prohibited by God) without thinking. It may be true that many members of Fateh really did collaborate with the Zionist occupation but the way the security-coordination terms of the Oslo agreement were misrepresented and the way you were supposed to dismiss all of Fateh as godless traitors—that was hugely exaggerated and manipulative, a lie. My first ever political activity was to join a gathering commemorating Arafat on the anniversary of his death. On campus. And I was beaten up: Islamist students from a number of universities attacked and cut it short.
That day I ran away and got on a bus. They stopped it and searched the passengers for the black-and-white kufiya, which they associate with Fateh even though it’s a symbol of Palestine; but I wrapped my kufiya around my torso, underneath my shirt, and I got away. Before that I was neutral—I am not with you, guys, but I’m not against you. Now I am against you. Because something is seriously wrong. We commemorated Abu Ammar (i.e., Arafat) again, and we commemorated Abu Jihad (i.e., Arafat’s comrade in arms, the fidayeen leader and cofounder of Fateh Khalil Al Wazir, who was assassinated in Tunis in 1988); and every time we were subjected to verbal abuse as well as physical attack, and then arrests and summons as well. For a while I even stopped going to university because I was under pressure from my family who didn’t want me involved in any political activity, realising what could happen. So I started reading and finding out about things—what is Hamas, why Hamas, what is Fateh, whatever—and gradually developing an opinion and orientation of my own.
As I fell on the wrong side of them, in the end, the main question was, Eish fih (or, “What’s wrong?”) We wanted to know where they thought they were taking things, what the purpose of the division was (between the Fateh-dominated Authority and Hamas): what is your issue with peace if you are not waging any resistance? Why do you even have a problem with Fateh if you’re adopting the exact same policy? Eish fih…
First we staged a protest against the closing down of Sharik, which is an NGO for young people and creativity and such; it was closed down on the pretext that prostitution went on in there, and that the activists and artists and civil society developers who worked there were in the employ of Israel. The second time I was arrested was on 29 January 2011, the day after the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution (i.e., Angry Friday, as opposed to the 25 January demonstrations that led to it) when we staged a march in solidarity. I was abused. Not beaten up, just insulted, questioned, told, “You are supporting people who are American agents. And what do we have to do with it anyway?” I was held for four hours.
The way it happened was they would send you a summons and you would turn up the next day. You were a prisoner of course but you were treated with relative respect. There were no beatings though the questions were extremely personal and probing… They would shoot us with their cameras, and during the questioning they would review the images and if you were sitting next to a girl you would be asked who that girl was and why she was dressed provocatively and, whatever your response, called all sorts of names. Even when you went to Egypt for a holiday—everyone in Gaza spends part of the summer in Egypt—you could be filmed there and questioned about what you were doing on your return. But no matter how hard you try to cooperate with them they never believe what you tell them. That’s what I discovered the first time I was under clear-cut political arrest, on 27 February, 2011, when I was held for two days.
Already at this point something called the Dignity Revolution has attempted a Fateh overthrow of Hamas. It was a disastrous failure and the suppression was truly stupid, heavy-handed and humiliating; I was among those arrested but I had been interrogated before and they quickly realised I had nothing to do with it… I was arrested again on 11 March and they wanted to keep me till 15 March to prevent me from joining the protests planned for that date, because they believed I could be an influential party. In the end they released me and told me to come back on 14 March before anything happened; I did not, I went to the demonstrations, which on purpose we staged a day earlier than planned.
Anyway, people who were arrested on those occasions formed the core of the group who staged the 15 March protests last year (i.e., Gaza’s mini-revolution and principal contribution to the Arab Spring, which went almost entirely unreported here as elsewhere); the demonstrations were staged simultaneously in coordination with protests in the West Bank. Our purpose was to end the division; we didn’t care who was to blame, we wanted national unity. It’s clear to me now that a party who stops me from pursuing this aim is a party that’s against national unity, maybe even a party who has a vested interest in Gaza’s isolation considering that goods are smuggled in from Israel despite the siege.
We went out on 14 March. We gave a press conference and announced we would start a sit-in then and there; we wanted to stage a carbon copy of the Egyptian revolution. We had the support of all the political factions including some Hamas figures—Ghazi Hamad and Ahmad Youssef, for example—though at this point we were all in the 18-25 age bracket; no one was older than 25. So we stayed the night of 14 March; we had said that no flags would be raised apart from the Palestinian flag.
On 15 March the biggest march we had ever seen arrived in buses and they raised flags that were the Palestinian flag on one side, the Hamas flag on the other. When we argued with them they said the shahadah on the Hamas flag could not be dropped, it was the statement of our faith—”There is no God but God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God”—the usual religious discourse, that is.
In the West Bank it was a slightly different story: after very slight encroachments on the protest, President Abbas ordered the distribution of shawerma sandwiches and drinks to the protesters—I’m sure he was trying to contain the situation but it made him look good.
So on the spot we invented the slogan: ‘Al katiba ya shabab, khalli ej jundi lal ahzab: “To Katiba, young men. Leave the [Unknown] Soldier to the [political] parties.” Katiba is a spot near the university campuses, which are very close together, while the Unknown Soldier you could say is Gaza’s answer to Tahrir Square. What we didn’t have time to think about was that Katiba was a very bad choice from a security standpoint: it’s very easy to be surrounded and controlled there. Anyway, we headed over to Katiba where we put up posters and slogans to make it clear that we had withdrawn from the protest that was misappropriated by the government. They sent people who told us we had to leave by five pm; we said we were not leaving. People went off to bring over tents and supervisions and transported the stuff we had installed in Unknown Soldier the previous day. All was set for spending the night.
At seven pm I was standing with a young man with a beard who was raising the Palestinian flag and I was handing him a glass of tea. I was saying, “You want some tea?” and he was saying “Yes”—and the next thing you know is this surge of bearded civilians with sticks. I won’t even pretended they were just ordinary people because we knew some of them and they were Hamas. (Those are virtually identical to the pro-Mubarak and pro-SCAF “honourable citizens” who attacked demonstrators in Cairo.) Anyway, the first person to hit me, across the chest, was the young man I was handing the tea. Afterwards we found out there were many such infiltrators.
It was like an charge of the Mongols, the most brutish attack you can imagine: beating, insults, abuse of women, even some of our mothers who were there. Some of my friends were so badly hurt they could not move. An activist friend of mine and I escaped and spent the night at a friend’s in Gaza City, and apart from brief appearances on campus we never went home; we stayed hidden for a week because, as we heard, they had distributed our pictures to security so that we could be arrested at checkpoints.
The next day there was a demonstration on campus and it was brutishly suppressed. On 17-19 March we tried again but the numbers had dwindled and many were arrested. Until 30 March, Land Day, when we were arrested on the charge of raising the Palestinian flag to spread sedition.
This is my experience with political suppression. Intellectual suppression is another story. In the briefest possible way: whoever is not with them is against them; and this is hardly unusual for Islamists. I am not the only the example. A female blogger was arrested because of what she wrote on her blog—nothing to do with politics. The first time I was arrested because I had written about my arrest in the Egyptian revolution solidarity protest. Another time, also because of something I had written, on the charge of “spreading secularism and falsifying (not simply misquoting) the Quran”.
After the second arrest we were released to find we had turned into atheists on the street. I even had trouble with my own family. It was a systematic defamation of character. What happened was—I stopped writing poems and articles; and when I started writing again I did it in a different way, not just to protect myself but to protect my family. Later, after a long bout of depression—for weeks I didn’t even step out of the house, I would ask my brother to buy me cigarettes—I decided I wanted to leave Gaza altogether. That was perhaps the strongest effect all this had on my life.
It happened after a visit to Cairo, I was arrested a while after my return on the charge of collaborating with foreign intelligence and being an agent and things like that. This created problems with my friends and even with myself… I stopped undertaking any activity: neither political nor civil nor literary nor intellectual. Once again on my brother returning from Egypt while I was still there, they wanted to arrest him because of me. I couldn’t sort out residency in Egypt and I had to cut short my stay and come back to deal with it.
On all these occasions I was insulted, maybe even pushed around a little, but there was no beating as such. It was nothing compared to people we heard about: someone detained for 180 days; someone forced to stay standing for 40 days; someone suspended from their hands or feeds for extended periods. But the last time I was arrested was after talk of unrest because of the lack of electricity—you know electricity is only available for a few hours a day in Gaza, but if you object you are spreading rumours and perpetrating sedition. There was talk of another attempted overthrow and I had nothing to do with that either but I was arrested again. And this was my worst experience of humiliation and beating. It was only one day, but I went home passed out.
But it was being accused of working for foreign powers that affected me the most. Family relations intervened and negotiated on my behalf until my release was finally secured, but I fell into a long depression. You try to serve your homeland and this is what happens to you? I won’t deny it, it was then that I started thinking, and I continue to wonder about it now: “The homeland is the thing raises you up, that is why you hold it sacred. It is not the thing that humiliates you.”
Interview by Youssef Rakha
Right-click for image url, (c) Youssef Rakha
“You are miracle workers, Youssef. You will ring forever throughout history; Egypt, of course, was there at the beginning of human civilisation, and it and its people continue to be so. Momentous and magnificent, what you’ve done.” – the British writer Niall Griffiths in a private e-mail, 15 Feb, 2011
Having travelled east from Tunis, the principal slogan of the revolution in Egypt remained, unusually for Cairo demonstrations, in correct standard Arabic (and despite the co-option of the term since 11 Feb by every other guard-puppy of the former regime, every shameless beneficiary, and every lying bastard, I still feel utterly entitled to call my revolution by its true name). Hard to say in retrospect whether the incredible evocative, multi-layered power of the four words was already latent within them or was lent them by events and blood, but incredible evocative, multi-layered power they indubitably have:
ASH-SHA’B YUREED ISQAAT AN-NIDHAM.
Ash-sha’b, a word so completely misappropriated by the military in the 1950s and so often abused since then that, until 25 Jan, it could only be uttered ironically, is finally reclaimed, not in the discourse of the revolutionaries but, meaningfully, in their discursive acts. Overnight, a sha’b really does appear on the streets, ready to sacrifice work, home and comfort, even life, to make a point; it is real, it has flesh and blood, it is even capable of being killed (something the guardians of the status quo, predictably enough, demonstrated in a variety of ways). And it exists in sufficient numbers to suspend and overshadow everything else: terror, apathy, expediency, the machinery of repression. At last the word can be used to mean something real, something that can be confirmed instantly by sight.
Yureed: to want, to wish, to will; to have a will. An army conscript ends up as a police officer’s domestic servant; a physician in training is the Doctor’s errand boy; a journalist reports not from the scene of the event but from the office of the government official responsible; the student’s target is neither epistemological initiative nor professional aptitude but the certificate as a token of entitlement (to class, position, rank, kudos); and certificates too, PhDs in particular, can be bought, obtained by pulling strings: it is not simply a matter of corruption; life is hollow, unreal, drained out. As far as it exists at all, deprived of the right to gather, decide for itself, fight back, to say or to be, the people, which in recent memory has only exited as an abstraction, has absolutely no will.
Once again, miraculously, this changes overnight; and thanks to the machinery of violence and untruth, a nidham that has nothing to count on but fear and ignorance, the change very quickly becomes permanent. Before anyone has had time to think, ash-sha’b yureed is the central reference – amazingly, objectives are agreed on without discussion or premeditation, without leadership as it were, and they are shared by every protester regardless of background or orientation – although many, outside the arena of slogans, insist that the instigators and the agents of the revolution are in the end not so much sha’b as shabab (the young, who make up some 60 percent of the population anyway). I would personally take issue with the accuracy of calling this the revolution of the young, but no matter.
In the past, even when it existed enough to protest – as a trade union, a wannabe party or a brutishly repressed organisation of political Islam - ash-sha’b had focused on needing change or imposing it by force, not willing it. Now, overnight, it can actually will.
And what it wills, unequivocally is isqaat an-nidham:
the bringing down (not the changing or reforming) of the regime, the order, the manner of arrangement of things. There is space within that for willing other, grander and more complicated or conventionally organised things: things Arab, things Islamic, things quasi-Marxist, things civic above all… But the point of the revolution is the freedom in which to will those things and the right, eventually, to institutionalise them, the freedom to expose mechanisms whereby, until its outbreak, they could not be collectively willed: plurality and multiplicity within the scope of what everyone can agree on in their capacity as citizens of a modern, independent, self-respecting state.
As yet I can think of three gargantuan obstacles in the way of these freedoms, to which the revolution has been a revelatory, all but divine response: sicknesses that still glare hideously out of the dead body of an-nidham. Interestingly the one thing they have in common is the way they draw on existing and apparently ancient values which may not be undesirable in themselves but have not been holding up in the electronic age.
The postcolonial legacy is similar to that of the Eastern Bloc (centralism, bureaucracy, thought control and Leader worship) – and like the “socialist consumerism” of Party hacks in eastern Europe, since 1970 in Egypt, the police state has lived happily with capitalist excess (since 1981, what is more, and I am not alone in thinking this, the Leader has had neither vision nor charisma).
What this means in practise is that people have to use the technically illegal implements of capitalism (interest and profit) while at the same time pretending to abide by a once meaningful grand notion (if not Free Education then some other benefit of the Virtuous State); hence the informal economy on the one hand (private tuition, to follow through the example) and, on the other, bribery, extortion, wasta, nepotism and the ability of businessmen to monopolise essential products.
Salaries at the state’s invariably overstaffed institutions are kept unrealistically low to provide for the accumulating fortunes of the top five percent of employees in most cases, and perhaps also to keep people busy making ends meet. The last long-standing chairman of the board of Al Ahram, for example, took a cut of advertising revenues for himself while the institution was plunging into debt, not to mention maintaining a private retinue with vehicles and bodyguards at the expense of Al Ahram. That chairman of the board was to Egypt’s strongest “national” press conglomerate precisely what Mubarak was to Egypt: an incompetent promoter of incompetence able to make unthinkable amounts of money in return for being meaninglessly glorified. Controlling the incomes of everyone as if they came out of his own pocket, locked to his position of power with impunity even after he has fallen completely out of touch, for decades on end he rendered his constituency little or no service.
Where interests clash, the law can be invoked arbitrarily by a powerful enough player at any time, interrupting existing modes of interchange but only to a specific, usually personal end. In itself, this generates a self-sustained system of policing where everyone is always by definition wrong and subject to punishment but where everyone is watching everyone else as well, not so much to catch them doing wrong as to catch them doing right: refusing a bribe, performing the task for which they are paid, standing by each other against injustice, telling the truth, daring to challenge state-stamped authority. All such technically legal acts, moving counter to the age-old preference for hierarchy, homogeneity and dependency, actually disrupt the totalitarian order; they delay tasks, they make trouble for individuals; they can ruin lives.
For 15 days among the protesters in Tahrir Square, while order was spontaneously kept from each according to his ability to each according to his need – while security was collectively maintained through ID checks and meticulous searches at entry points – while public services included effective rubbish collection and crime prevention, even the banning of obscenities from slogans and chants – while necessities were transported and distributed, resources divided, space claimed, down to the installing of outdoor bathrooms and the setting up of camps for sleeping in the rain – all that is civic and public and state-operated about life was smoothly undertaken with infinitely more efficiency and conscience than anybody had ever known anywhere in Egypt.
Kafka, as it turns out, is not the price that we have to pay for stability; Kafka is what the problem has been all along.
For Egyptians, I believe, this should be evidence that the sha’b can always get on perfectly without its nidham. There need not be hollow pyramids, doublespeak or universal sameness for Egyptians – Islamists, Copts, seculars, liberals, leftists, even the angry rabble – to be able to live productively and peacefully together; and it is that ability, nothing else, that constitutes the greater good.
Last night there were fireworks in Tahrir. To see fireworks in Tahrir – and no one has ever seen fireworks in Tahir before – it took 18 days of uninterrupted protesting all over the country, the defeat and sudden disappearance of all security forces and the army taking over the streets on the third day, the deliberate disturbance of the peace and the spreading of rumours about protesters and journalists covering their protests – to maximum reactionary and xenophobic effect, the eventual entry on the scene of ruling-party militias and secret-service snipers attempting to disband protesters, some 350 dead and thousands injured, the very reluctant, silent stepping down of a very old president who has been implausibly in power for 30 years and whose family and private army of sycophants controlled and systematically robbed the economy, the eventual dissolution of the so called parliament and, oh yes, oh yes, a certain amount of constitutional emptiness in the meantime (constitutional emptiness is what the last-minute vice president and other government cronies kept invoking as an excuse to stop the president from stepping down, as if their nidham had ever respected any constitution).
The fireworks were not part of a ceremony as such, but celebrations in Tahrir since 11 Feb have been the closest thing to a true people’s ceremony in Egypt; the reason it occurs to no one to describe the celebrations as a ceremony is that the very notion (as in former communist states) has been hijacked by the state – and the state being what it was, ceremony was totally emptied of meaning. Even outdoor concerts routinely, unnecessarily involved vast numbers of Central Security (and they were not above harassing women in the dark). I would say this about a lot of things in Egypt besides the regime as such: religious experience, intellectual engagement, media discourse; all have been shells thoroughly voided of substance, and they acted to turn a predominantly young country into a little old witch of a lady: conservative, malicious, paralytic – a liar.
Some day soon, I hope, people taking to the streets spontaneously to celebrate (a thousands- or hundreds of thousands-strong, heterogeneous group of people exercising the right to use their own public space without being subjected to tear gas bought with their own money) will be the norm in Egypt.
As yet people are only just discovering rights previously, mercilessly denied them – the right to be addressed politely by members of the police, for one relatively widespread example – rights they have been repeatedly told would undermine personal and public safety and national stability when in fact all they really undermined was illegitimate power. Such discourse, like the president, is very old; it belongs with an age during which, unjustifiable as it remains, state control could be justified by lack of information, populist will, a nationalist (anti-imperialist, or proto-Soviet) scheme.
Until a few days ago, agents of the former regime still had the nerve to call such extremely hard-won political participation sedition, lamenting the alleged necessity of bloodshed to prevent it, and to warn of foreign agendas directing events, when everybody knows that no Egyptian government has made it its business to incite sedition or implement agendas as much as Mubarak’s: evidence has surfaced that the former Ministry of Interior was behind the recent bombing of the Saints Church in Alexandria, for one thing; in 2006, in the name of the war on terrorism targetting Hamas, Tzipi Livni announced Israeli war crimes to be committed the next day against the people of Gaza from the presidential headquarters in Cairo; and while Gaza was being bombed, the government refused to open the frontier to injured civilians.
Of course, one condition for silence before sheer age - and age is venerated for its own sake in Egyptian culture – is the separation and isolation of discursive spaces. A poet, for example, can be a reactionary agent of the regime in one space (some official post at some division of the Ministry of Culture) and a prophet of radicalism in another (the almost never-read text). As a socio-economic being, that poet’s existence is circumscribed, sufficiently policed to make it either a mouthpiece of the status quo (opening up space for upward mobility) or a container of silence; it is rendered an organic part of an-nidham. Elsewhere the poet is left to her own devices, but confined to the space in which she has nothing in common with fellow citizens – the private, unconventional, oppositional, atheistic space in which poets have been locked up – she can only reach out to another poet. She too is afraid for her personal safety and what stability she might benefit from as a lone progressive lamb among the grassroots wolves.
In Tahrir, spaces were opened up and, for the first time in our lifetimes, we could see that once the regime left us alone we had a lot more in common than we had ever thought possible; there is a necessary and beautiful space where we can all be together – and it is nowhere near as narrow or negative as the space in which we reject the nidham, although the latter proved to be the only gateway to it. Slogans also referred to freedom, peace and unity. During the protests, in the open air, there was painting and music and theatre as well as prayers (Muslim and Christian); there were creative and hilarious responses to the oppressor outside and the apathetic onlooker at the doorstep. There was a flowering of graffiti; giant drawings seemed to crawl on the asphalt. Many of the smaller signs were literary gemstones, and video footage was quickly converted into songs. Photos were made into artworks of immediate relevance…
Kites in the colours of the flag were constantly flown high in the sky; and the military helicopters, which the protesters did not always trust, seemed to circle them.
Psycho-socio-historians will have a bonanza in Oedipal readings of the 25 Jan Revolution: a work of art that should generate endless departures in the world of the mind. Egypt being the mother (and it was so called in one slogan drawing on traditional patriotic discourse), the absolute ruler – called an idol, a serial killer, a thief as well as a dog – was the hated father. Among the working classes in particular, patriarchy in the form of feeling sorry for “our president” continues to register. (It is easy enough to point out that, with his family fortune estimated at US$70 billion and so much innocent blood on his hands, our president can go to hell. Even if the patriarch were desirable, surely it would have to be a righteous patriarch who cared for his sons? And with references to filial duty consistently invoked in the context of the dirty fight to keep the regime alive – Goliath posing as David’s wronged begetter – I for one can only see respect for this patriarch as a form of eternal self-hatred, a denial of the true messiah, the vomit of treason.) But – and this remains the more relevant point, by far – 25 Jan was, as well as the defeat of the police, an occasion for patriarchy to vapourise.
Just like hierarchy, just like the false homogeneity imposed by the segregation of discursive spaces, patriarchy eliminating the life impulse completely broke down in Tahrir. Sexual harassment, a chronic illness that has dogged public space for as long as anyone remembers, was instantly and completely cured in Tahrir. Female participation, a supposed objective of both government and Islamists somehow never sufficiently realised, was patent and profound. Counsel was imparted irrespective of age but no viewpoint was imposed; and the stifling, father-headed structures of oppositional bodies of the past – modelled as they were on structures of power – spontaneously broke down. A revolution without leaders: the more precise description is to call it a revolution without fathers; even the fathers inside it were creative agents of freedom, the freedom of children, and their designation as fathers did not blind them to the ugliness that besets age when it is disfigured and corrupted.
The authority of the collective will eliminates fear. While the protests went on in Tahrir, patriarchy lived on in the myopic terror of “the popular committees” who, failing to realise that attacks on homes were orchestrated by the regime with the purpose of aborting the revolution, carried their kitchen knives and broom sticks outside and just stood there. For hours on end they moped, obtuse, at the entrances of streets and buildings; they formed checkpoints to search cars, mimicking the notorious checkpoints of the police. They were concerned about their private property first and foremost, and they often blamed the revolution for the threats to which they were subject. They acted tough, but it would take only a gun shot for them to piss themselves freely.
Patriarchy lived on in the attitude of parents who objected to their children participating in the protests, often out of fear for their safety, but just as often out of complacency and paralysis. Other parents brought their infants to Tahrir, painting their foreheads with the word Irhal – “Go away”. The parents of the martyrs gave speeches, urging the protesters to hold their ground.
One elderly gentleman – the father of three – sat next to me on the pavement at the Front, as we had taken to calling Abdulmoneim Riyad Square where the attacks of Black Wednesday were concentrated. That was on the next day, towards sunset, and it was very quiet on the Front. A young woman wearing a cardboard and tin helmet started chanting, “Down with Mubarak.” People were too tired to join in, but the elderly gentlemen kept staring at her, a smile of awe starting to form on his face.
Suddenly he turned to me and pointed in the direction from which the girl’s voice was coming. “You know,” he said. “When I see the likes of her I feel that I’ve wasted my life.” With a mixture of sorrow and delight he started laughing softly. “If she can do that at this age,” he muttered, “what does that say about people like me? When I see the likes of her,” he enunciated loudly, “I feel like a piece of crap.”
Youssef Rakha reviews two years of Intifada-inspired culture
While in no sense dependent on politics, cultural life tends to wait for political upheaval. For many Arabs this is only as it should be: the notion of Sartrian engagement has taken such a hold that it often acts to obscure the very distinction between the two disciplines; the title of “intellectual” covers artists and writers as well as activists and, even, sometimes, politicians. Yet being an intellectual in itself hardly ever implies an involvement in the politics of everyday life — the politics of individual and civil rights, of governmental reform, of autonomous opinion. Rather, and only in times of crisis, it prompts intellectuals to express unevenly strong opinions about regional or international affairs — whether or not this involves direct opposition to government policy. And cultural activities likewise emanate from regional events — so much so that culturally vibrant periods are more often than not defined by the shape and colour of their political backdrop.
One example of this is the surge of political strife that preceded and followed the two-year-old Al-Aqsa Intifada — prompted, in its turn, by Sharon’s visit to the Palestinian holy site, which the Israeli side claimed was more of a cultural than a political act. In the Egyptian context culture was on the wane both generally speaking, and with specific reference to the political forces that drove it. A proposed intellectuals’ tajamu’ (rally), initially focussed on issues of self-expression and creative freedom, instantly dissolved into the more inclusive call to arms that formed around Hizbullah’s widely celebrated victory once Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon. The event was soon followed by the Israeli incursion, and while Gaza and the West Bank were being reoccupied intellectuals were not about to miss the chance to voice discontent with government policy. It didn’t matter that the discontent was rooted in unrelated concerns; it didn’t matter that these concerns would remain unvoiced. The Intifada was once again upon us.
During that first year the flare-up of the second Intifada engendered a culture all its own — one whose tendency to forsake any form of true, risk-ridden support in favour of melodramatically impassioned and over-emphatically orchestrated protest lent the exercise even less credibility. Celebrities began to make special appearances, with actors on state-sponsored stages singing the patriotic praises of Arab unity and promising their audiences an inevitable, if never quite determined, triumph. The most expensive singers had already collaborated on El-Quds Haterga’ Lena (Jerusalem Will Return to Us), a song that affirms what remains an impossible goal as if it were a forgone conclusion, without for a moment suggesting how it might be achieved. Blood donations, seminars, demonstrations overpowered the cultural news. “Caravans” of intellectuals carried food and first aid supplies all the way to Rafah — only to wait indefinitely for those responsible to receive them. The Egyptian knack for disorganisation became an increasingly relevant factor, but what lay at the root of the ineffectiveness of most efforts was the fact that the Intifada — the pop theme of street-peddled wares like hats and scarves, T-shirts and mugs — was appropriated as something over and above (political) reality.
Even in the most highbrow circles, cultural manifestations of solidarity were abundant, but more than the reality of the situation or even the Egyptian response to it, they reflected the state of Egyptian culture itself. The most obvious cultural response was to be found in the popular media, however. The urban folk singing phenomenon Shaaban Abdel-Rehim, arguably the Arab world’s first self-made rapper, made his name with the internationally circulated hit Ana Bakrah Israel (I Hate Israel), a “protest” song, which, without making any direct allusion to the political dynamics of the incursion or the Egyptian government’s response to it, managed to crystallise and express the most popular sentiment in raw form. For two years Shaaban would jump from one summit of popularity to the next, largely due to his quasi-political stance on the ever elusive, ever undiscussed Intifada. Amrika ya Amrika is one example of such a song; so is a duet with his son Essam in which they impersonate Mohamed El-Dorra and his father in the last moments of the former’s life. El-Dorra — in the end a Western-mediated icon — became the centre of too many cultural interventions. And intellectuals, turning increasingly away from the nitty-gritty of the conflict, likewise began to tackle Washington.
With films like Fatah min Israel (A Girl from Israel), production companies had already bought into the Palestinian issue, even the most frivolous comedies (Saedi fil Gamaa El-Amrikiya; Abboud ala El-Hudoud) incorporated a major solidarity component. In the former — the film that made the name of contemporary comedy’s brightest star, Mohamed Heniedi — American University in Cairo students undertake the burning of an Israeli flag. Sharon — for a long time the Egyptian cartoonist’s treasure-trove — began to assume central symbolic significance. Comedian Youssef Dawoud, one disillusioned practitioner who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly, explained that in Zakeya Zakareya Tathadda Sharon — the second of two plays based on Ibrahim Nasr’s tasteless, completely disengaged candid-camera television programme — he was initially contracted to play the part of the dictatorial and cruel head of an orphanage. However, following the emergence of Sharon as an object of universal hatred, if not universal ridicule, the play’s producer renamed Dawoud’s character and provided the actor with a wig. The play had been in no sense a political statement, but in a desperate attempt to make it more commercially viable its producers were content to exploit regional developments. Even if this is an extreme example of an otherwise many-hued trend, the decision to capitalise on a political development without fully understanding or dealing with it typifies the Intifada’s cultural manifestations.
On the home front, 11 September effectively brought the Intifada to an end. Yet along the infinitely curvaceous corridors of Egyptian culture the struggle doggedly continues. America has naturally solicited a greater degree of enmity, with intellectuals, increasingly of the scholar or pundit designation, discussing American foreign policy in relation to regional affairs. Cultural agents are encouraged to express support for the Palestinians, and even hatred for Israel continues to be permissible to some degree. Yet official Arab policy, the increasingly undermined state of Arabs and Muslims everywhere in the world, the plight of the Afghans and the absence of any indication that the Arab-Israeli conflict will be appropriately resolved remain by and large subjects for occasional meditation. Books are written, talks staged. But the fact remains that had the so-called terrorists, whose prerogative it is to resist the New World Order, been in any way culturally inclined, they would probably have produced the most resonant cultural response not only to the Indifada but to the state of things as they are, articulating rather than voicing how they should be.
Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 September 2002
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ماذا ظننتَه سيفعل بعد كل هذا الوقت، الملاك الذي ظهر لك وانتظر أن تتبعه… كيف لم تقدّر عمق ألمه السماوي وأنت تبتعد عن الجبل الملعون كل يوم خطوة، تجرجر حقائبك المثقلة بلحمه على ساعات تجري إلى ما لا نهاية بين ساقيه، وتهزأ إذا ما نهاك تليفونياً عن الكبرياء؟ الآن وقد أصبح الملاك بُخاراً، كسبتَ ما أراد أن يضيّعه عليك. لكن ما الذي فضّلتَه على الخسارة؟ قرية هجرتْها نساؤها؟ خادم يسرق من البيت؟ نجمة مدارها دبلة ستصدأ في إصبعك؟ لعلك ظننته يظهر من جديد، أو نسيت أن في بطنه دمك… يا كافر، كيف ستحلّق الآن؟
قصيدة سركون بولص من ديوان حامل الفانوس في ليل الذئاب
يظهر ملاك إذا تبعته خسرت كل شيء، إلا إذا تبعته حتى النهاية… حتى تلاقيه في كل طريق متلفعاً بأسماله المنسوجة من الأخطاء، يجثم الموت على كتفه مثل عُقاب غير عادي تنقاد فرائسه إليه محمولة على نهر من الساعات، في جبل نهاك عن صعوده كل من لاقيته، في جبل ذهبت تريد ارتقاءه! لكنك صحوت من نومك العميق في سفح من سفوحه، وكم أدهشك أنك ثانية عدت إلى وليمة الدنيا بمزيد من الشهية: الألم أعمق، لكن التحليق أعلى
The bus is more than half empty when I get on…
An old woman in black scuttles down the aisle to my right; before I’ve had a chance to see her face, two glossy pamphlets are in my lap. They are manuals of prescribed supplications, precisely classified by subject, object, even time of day. I’ve seen them too often to maintain an anthropological interest. Looking out the window to my left, I slip the pocket-size compendia into the pouch on the back of the seat in front of me, where someone better disposed could pick them up. I manage to extract some change from my shirt pocket just in time for the dark-robed ghost scuttling back to pick up on her way; the briefest glimpse reveals unusually personable features.
Already we are moving… But if so few passengers are headed for the North Sinai resort town of Arish, why was it so hard to obtain a ticket last night?
Not until we’ve reached Almaza Station, the last stop before the Ismailia highway, do the holidaymakers arrive in droves. (Beyond Ismailia itself, you have only to cross a bridge over the Suez Canal to be on your way to Gaza). With permission from the driver, this is my chance for a last-minute cigarette. All my possessions are neatly bundled in a small vinyl “manbag”, so it’s easy enough to take everything along on my smog-infused stroll round the vehicle. I leave only my book, open face down where I was seated: a very common indication that the seat in question is occupied.
Outside, the upper half of the driver has disappeared into the baggage dungeon that makes up the underbelly of the vehicle, where cases are no doubt being cast into the East Delta Company’s shadowy geometry of departure. Passing his contorted rump, I must dodge more bag-bearers in the heat. Finally, back on board, I’ve shoved my way to where the prayer-dispensing woman first materialised. An extended family fills up the aisle like revolving stalactites.
Among them are three stunning female teenagers; only one wears a headscarf: having closed and cast aside the book, she is plonked happily in my stead. I protest weakly, addressing myself to the nearest grown-up man. Immediately he obliges, but, as if in a punitive gesture, he selects the largest of his male children to position firmly by my side.
YOU CAN generally judge your distance from greater Syria by the taste and texture of Turkish coffee: the more satisfying the beverage, the closer you are. We have barely passed Qantara East, the first major stop on what would be the shortest ground route to Palestine — and, thanks to its identity with Qantara West, a vital link between Sinai and the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya — but the coffee is already superior to what you would get at the offices of this newspaper.
The “rest-house” here is more modest than its Alexandrine counterparts, which makes such quality all the more remarkable. Watching the sun dip lower and lower on the horizon, I make phone calls from the edge of the highway, some distance away from the din of the buses and their patrons. Then, determined to chat up the waiter, I walk back to the cafeteria, make my order and sit down.
Back on the bus the prayer pamphlets have already disappeared. Was it the pretty girl in hijab ? The impending darkness renders watching the video a kind of tunnel vision. Now that the dialogue is English, the volume has thankfully been turned down.
But the second film is Speed, the action flick about a bus with a bomb on it. When I start watching, the driver has been shot in the arm; to avoid an explosion, the woman who takes his place must charge ahead at more than 60 miles an hour irrespective of traffic. Under the circumstances, one vehicle will inevitably be confused with the other as we charge ahead in the dark. It is dizzying.
I’VE BARELY broken into a run on the asphalt when the truck swerves violently, braking a few steps away from me. In a typically North Sinai automotive idiosyncrasy, one half of the highway just outside Arish is set aside for pleasure cycles and promenading; the other, where I’m rushing towards the white Mercedes taxi after what feels like a long wait, is consequently a two-way road.
“I was going to die trying to get in next to you.”
“You might as well admit it: you’re in too much of a hurry.”
I am. The brevity of my stay is weighing on me and a plan spontaneously forms in my head — so I gush it out to the red-faced Bilei tribesman at the wheel:
“I have a booking with the Coral Beach but I’m told that’s too far from town. Can you take me somewhere closer? Will there be rooms available, though? Listen. I want to go to Rafah in the morning, come back in a few hours. Can you do it? How much would it cost?”
Arishi Arabic is a surprisingly organic mixture of Bedouin and Delta dialects very much like the Palestinian colloquial spoken in the Gaza Strip. Whether this is a result of the same tribal roots stretching across the border or of more recent, politically vexed exchange, it makes a pleasant counterpoint to the Hollywood English of the film. They say a Bedouin lives up to his word. By the time I have settled in my mosquito-infested “chalet room” at the “Ubarwai” (as everyone here refers to the former Oberoi, the venue’s present name being Arish Resort), I feel my plan is truly under way.
Ten minutes later another truck is swerving, but this time I’m out of its collision course. The silent, perfectly metropolitan taxi driver will charge me LE4 instead of the LE3 quoted by the Bilei but I don’t mind. He is silent. As I edge out of the Mercedes, winding an improvised path through a crowd that could have been anywhere urban and poor in Egypt, my concern is rather to find someone to talk to.
It hasn’t occurred to me yet, but in the 36 hours I am away from Cairo, it is drivers who will be my salvation. For half an hour at the café I can’t bring myself to approach anyone without feeling too intrusive. I just observe: young backgammon players with interesting hair-dos; middle-aged civil servants drawing on their shisha as they affectionately exchange news; old sheikhs meditating…
My close-cropped hair can’t be helping, I know. Then again, this is hardly a question of my appearance alone. There has to be a convincing excuse for making conversation — a context both fleeting and intimate as well as, crucially, informal. I finish my Coke and find an Internet café. Phenomenally tired by now, I just stand there, roughly adjacent to the high street, waiting to catch a ride back.
A cigarette is all it takes to engage this driver. He is young, slight and pissed off: had he bought cigarettes in his present state of mind, he says, he would have smoked three packs by now. “When I feel suffocated, I just switch on the Qur’an” — the same Saudi recitations are booming all through the five- minute journey — “and drive along.” He only ever smokes this brand, he says, smiling.
What is bothering him?
“The way things are, no one has the luxury to think of politics or the political situation and so begin to do something about them; no one is in any position to do anything but feed himself and his family. Someone says, ‘Come along to a demonstration,’ and all you can think of is the time you’d be wasting there when you’d rather be doing some lucrative work. So there is no activism, though God knows we need it. There is only this breathless running around, and where does it lead to?”
A TRUE PILGRIMAGE is best preceded by a fast. That way the senses are heightened, the body purified; the soul becomes more receptive to the presence of the (political) sacred.
I forgo breakfast too often to claim that this is my intention when, as per my agreement with the Bilei, I set out for Rafah the next morning. I could hardly have thought of it as a pilgrimage, either. But the fact that my driver, Akhdar — a “relation” of the one I contracted — is quick to say, “I am Palestinian”, and the sight of prickly pear-flanked sand dotted with olive groves… the smell of sea air, entirely distinct from that of the western Mediterranean, which I’m used to, and the vague sense of danger as the checkpoints become more frequent — all imbues the experience with a sense of transcendence, a feeling of crossing over into a space both rightful and forbidden, suddenly too close to ignore.
Akhdar is young and serene, subdued. “I’ve got a passport and everything,” he explains with remarkable calm. “But for years now they won’t let me in. I’ve been many times, of course, to see my family. People want to come in here to see their family; sometimes they’re working in other countries and, stopping over in Gaza, they have to come here to travel back to their work places. More often they just need to go to hospital… No, no, I was born here. My mother is [a Bilei?] from Sharqiya. When you have residence you can go anywhere you like, just like an Egyptian citizen, but in other ways it’s not the same.”
He is about to marry, he tells me, but his wife won’t be a Palestinian. Marrying an Egyptian — a girl from Sharqiya, in his case — can raise your chance of obtaining nationality, according to recently introduced laws; that way you can leave the country if you want to, you can claim social and health care; you can feel, as he puts it, “in one piece”. Turning slightly to identify the local headquarters of the country’s most notoriously influential plain-clothes police force, the State Security, Akhdar switches his 1970s Egyptian pop back on. No one cares any more for the Palestinians, he says.
A string of stories about sneaking family members from the other side in through Rafah’s automotive waterways — once, he reports, he was surrounded by no less than 12 machine guns, their muzzles all over his vehicle — is interrupted by a low-rank policeman gesturing for us to stop.
“What is that you’ve got in there?”
His head half inside the window on Akhdar’s side, the policeman nods accusingly towards me, apparently confident that I can’t understand what he says.
” Essalamu alaykom,” I intervene in perfect Arabic, watching the sheepish smile that forms on his lips gradually dissolve into an expression of welcome while I explain who I am and what I’m there for. He nods knowingly to “the opening of the maabar “; I can see him waving in the side-view mirror.
“When people have hair like that, they tend to be Jews,” for which read “Israelis”. Akhdar smiles apologetically while he removes his seat belt again, now that we’re clear of checkpoints; he accepts yet another cigarette, looking ahead. Had he known what I was after, he says, he would have taken me to his paternal uncle, back in Arish; the old man knows a lot of border-passage stories. As it is, speeding, we will wend our way to the maabar first, seeking what relations we can find later in Rafah.
“So what did you do?” I am sounding increasingly disjointed as I take in the surrounding sights. “When you were stopped by those armed policemen, what did you do?”
By now the landscape is more or less identical with film images of the Gaza Strip stored away in the global memory; that strange, green gateway — not a frontier, not a tollbooth — comes within sight. I expected car-studded crowds raising an energetic cacophony. As we approach, slowing, except for a handful of policeman lounging in the shade, the place is in derelict stillness.
“Nothing,” Akhdar is saying, still perfectly calm. “They got us out and searched every nook and cranny of the car. In the end I just left him standing there on the sand — what else? I headed back.”
SINCE the outbreak of war in Lebanon — Israelis levelling Beirut in response to Hizbullah taking two hostages in the south — I have been tormented by the dilemma of how to support the resistance while opposing political Islam, an ideology I take issue with regardless of creed. Still, while people are resisting the insane excesses of empire, can you really reject their driving force?
Akhdar will take a shortcut before slowing down a narrow lane outside his cousin’s house, explaining that this is one of the roads he has used for people smuggling. The maabar is behind us as we turn. Gesturing derisively in its direction, he will point out, again, that it would be pointless listening to the advice we got there… On seeing my press credentials, one uniformed low-rank policeman had started to explain what it means to work at the maabar, day in, day out, when another, plain-clothes one interrupted the conversation, insisting that, before I can speak to anyone, I must have State Security permission.
“You’re a driver, right?” The uniformed officer said to Akhdar, through a window in the gate itself, feigning a helpful tone for my benefit. “You know where it is.”
If I want information I must go to State Security.
In the shade of a tree on the other side of the road, another uniformed officer was dozing off when the plainclothes policeman who had intercepted me went up to him; he raised his head from the table, he put it back down. His plainclothes companion — himself State Security, I suspect — didn’t bother to remove his leg from the seat on which it was placed when he shook my hand. “Nothing at all happened here,” he said, his tone verging on the intimidating. “Nothing worth reporting on, anyway. Do you see any activity around you?” He looked behind him. “A real pleasure meeting you, though…”
Breathing Palestinian air, now, the Islamic resistance dilemma no longer seems to bother me. We have stopped momentarily by an olive field, and it’s hard to believe that the poles in the distance are actually in Palestine. (“I saw Palestine,” I will keep telling friends on coming back to Cairo. “Yes, the country.”) But as we take our seats on the floor at Akhdar’s cousin’s — an older taxi-driver whose large one-storey house might as well be in a refugee camp — it dawns on me with unprecedented intensity that here are the people on the ground, that their lifestyle and beliefs are in no way undermined by Islamism, and that no one, not a single force except for the militants of political Islam are fighting on their side.
Over 500 families are supported by taxi trips from the maabar to Arish, my gracious host explains — his language is even more like Palestinian than anything I’ve heard so far — making at least 2,000 people dependent on the maabar being open, the only time when “there is work”. The Egyptian authorities have nothing to do with it, he insists. “It is the Jews, the Jews,” he says, over and over, “may God bring down their houses.” (There would be no point opening the maabar while the border is closed, and the border, however indirectly, is controlled by the Israeli authorities). The other day when it was open, he tells Akhdar, sipping the fresh mango-and- guava juice he has offered us, the work flowed “like honey”.
Before we leave — just in time for the camel races, back on the outskirts of Arish — he has made two separate points that bring the resolution of the dilemma to a safe harbour in my head:
“People are too concerned with having enough to eat to think about politics, whether or not they would support Hamas if they did;” and “Egyptians get along with Palestinians in Rafah, of course they do, because they are all Muslims; why should Muslim neighbours have problems with each other?”
After so many years of liberalism and enlightenment, I am born again.
The cousin ends up coming along part of the way to ask at the mechanic’s whether a particular spare part is available; there would be no point bringing the relative who needs it all the way from Arish if it wasn’t. (Many such commodities come straight from Israel; and trading in things like clothes and electronics originating there forms a significant part of North Sinai’s informal economy). At one point we take a sharp turn and he taps my shoulder from the back seat:
“See that building there?” I’m wincing in the sun. “That’s Palestine.”
THAT morning when I woke up, there were so many Arabian head-covers in the Ubarwai lounge I couldn’t help suspecting a Gulfie take-over. Only on speaking to one of their wearers — he turned out to be a camel breeder from Aqaba — did I discover what this was about: the Mahrajan Al-Hijjin, one of several three-day “camel festivals” held annually across the country, which draws together tribal Arabs from all over the Middle East and North Africa — all of whom wear the Peninsula’s trademark uqaal. (Several sources pointed out that the colour of the headscarf is a matter of personal taste, nothing to do with tribal affiliations: the blue, Tuareg-like varieties are increasingly popular among the young).
Finding out there would be races this afternoon, I’ve been looking forward to attending them all day — a relaxing denouement to the strain of Rafah — grateful that an unexpected gift should crop up just before I go. Arab nationalism aside, camels are among my favourite animals; and what better way to unwind than standing on the dunes watching them accelerate majestically in the sand, with beautifully decked out child jockeys bouncing in rhythm on their backs — or so I think.
They too will have had no breakfast, according to my Aqaba interlocutor, having spent the last two weeks eating and drinking half of their usual diet in preparation — something that intensifies my empathy now that hunger is wringing my stomach. By the time Akhdar puts on a Bedouin tape — also from Jordan — the horrors of “security” have been cast away.
At the rink we must wait; some say for an hour, some for two. One foj — that is how a single group of competing camels is referred to — is finished; the next hasn’t started yet. Akhdar and I consider the possibilities, setting off for the Ubarwai only to retrace our steps five minutes later: the cars are converging on the area, he says; the foj must be about to start.
Back on the sand we bump into Rabi, the brother of the driver who took me to the Ubarwai in the first place; without changing significantly, Akhdar’s speech appears to emphasise Bedouin over Palestinian inflections when he speaks to him. Rabi is in one of the sedans in which he deals, as he informs me, bringing them back and forth from Cairo. He invites me to sit in the back; later, when the action starts, thanks to his brother’s hospitality, I move next to him in the front.
My right arm will go on stinging for many days from exposure to sand bursts while sticking the camera out the window. The way you watch the race is to speed after the camels alongside the rink, mostly in Toyota pickups bearing up to 20 people in the back, taking pictures where you can — camera mobile phones are incredibly plentiful — and egging along your stud.
Afterwards, in the open space adjacent to where the single, circular lap starts and finishes, the onlookers perform car stunts, competing in daring and aptitude.
That the sedan, also a Toyota, was not meant for sand stunts doesn’t stop Rabi from joining in the show, at which point I’ve been in the car for more than three hours and am desperate to get out. For a long, long time before the foj started, he was crawling around making phone calls and looking for friends, never stopping for more than a few minutes at a time. For a traffic-suffocated city dweller it seemed counterintuitive to call this fun; but for everyone else it was a perfectly natural pastime.
No chance of a contemplative time on the dunes, then. Instead, this adrenaline-pumped ride round and round, with only a few moments to stretch my legs every so often. All the while the slow sundown is doing creative things with the sky — and not a single stationary camel to spend time with so far.
When Rabi disappears in the ring of vehicles waiting for their turn at a stunt, leaving the three of us near the rink to watch, I notice the lone figure of an evidently defeated competitor tethered unpleasantly to the wood. He is performing strange movements with his neck, looking like an ostrich and a bloodhound in turn, apparently unsettled by the presence of so many motor vehicles in the same place. He won’t give me a chance to touch him, though he poses for a few pictures willingly enough, from a distance. At least I step over and exchange a few words.
RABI is Arab to the bone; that means he badmouths other Arabs, making fun of the dha sound with which South Sinai tribes replace the more city-like da of the north (something I remember his red-faced brother doing too). It also means he will do anything for a guest — anything but listen carefully enough to realise that that guest would really like to go now, please. Instead he points out people firing guns into the air, carried away by the all- male, sand-and- uqaal excitement.
On a day like this, no guest or policeman will prevent him from driving on and on in circles, racing ahead like a madman to make sure “those water buffalo” don’t get ahead of him alongside the rink, and identifying tribes by facial features — a process that involves the most outrageous statements: “They will sell everything to buy a car for the mahrajan, come over in it, then sell it off once the mahrajan is over”; “The black ones are Arabs too, but they are black; they’re the worst killers, the black ones”; “Those guys you see over there, each of them has three to seven life sentences to his name, but they go on as before and there’s nothing the police can do to stop them; the police are scared of them”…
When he bumps into a group of resident policemen, indeed, he treats their practise of extortion as a given — a way, for him, to assert generosity or withhold favour. For a similarly long time he complains of not having any cannabis on him; the same goes for water. A need, though pressing, is never pressing enough; it just persists. And the concept of solitude doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense. Always people are coming and going, sometimes summoned by mobile phone, insulted when they fail to answer. Like a true stoner, Rabi has the shortest concentration span.
“The nicest thing is to get high and go round like we’re doing now,” he tells me at one point. And at another: “Do you get high?”
I know I have answered this question before now, so I insist, firmly but gently, that I must go; and following another 15 minutes of pleading on the part of both his brother and Akhdar he finally drives us back to where the taxi is parked.
“You’ve seen enough of this anyway,” he says as I edge out. The real fun is up on the mountain. Over there, there is neither police nor outsiders; people are completely wild…”
FIVE minutes later Rabi phones to say that he is going to Cairo tonight and would I like to go along with him, now that it is too late for a bus. We exchange phone numbers and he promises to phone in an hour. “An hour?” I ask incredulously. He is still at the rink.
Several hours later — I am at another “rest-house” beyond Ismailia, almost at the end of my journey, and the coffee tastes like excrement — Rabi still hasn’t phoned.
“Why in such a hurry?” I remember him saying.
For a week now, I have subjected myself for an hour or more every day to Al Jazeerah’s coverage of the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip. It is no fun seeing bleeding and disfigured children, hysterical women who have just lost loved ones, helpless civilians asking “Why”, old men invoking the wrath of God (not on their assailants per se, but on the fellow Arabs, the Egyptians especially, who have abandoned them). It is quite painful, studying the expressions on the faces of hospital staff as they complain that, for dire lack of resources, they are forced to watch people die, while eternally exonerated and remorseless Israeli officials declaim, with perfectly straight faces, that their effort to rout Hamas is in the benefit of the Palestinian majority.
Yet somehow, as an an Arab – as an Egyptian, especially – I feel that watching Al Jazeerah at a time like this is a necessary penance. According to a Hadith of the Prophet Mohammad, whoever sees wrongdoing must change it, if not with his hand or tongue then with his heart, “and that is the weakest faith”. Watching Al Jazeerah at a time like this is an exercise of the weakest faith: the faith of someone who can or will do no more, because there is little more to be done. To place oneself in the audiovisual thick, to remind oneself that Gaza is in every imaginable way the geographic and demographic extension of north Sinai, an organic part of Egypt, and to admit that, notwithstanding the politics of occupation or of peace, Egyptians are content to watch while the people of Gaza are mass-murdered across (and on) the border – that is the weakest faith.
As a liberal and pragmatic follower of the news, I feel it is a copout – and hypocritical – to blame the Egyptian government for its opposition to the political Islam embodied by Hamas and its insistence that Israel alone should handle the problems of land occupied, or effectively occupied, by Israel. But as a liberal and pragmatic follower of the news, I am disgusted not only with Israel but also with the UN Security Council, with a world order that gives such murderous maniacs the means and the justification to perpetrate such atrocities at will – and with Egypt’s being part of the whole process. And so, suffering the occasional bout of empathy with suicide bombers and the frequent bout of sympathy (against my better judgement) with Hamas, I sit back in my apartment in Abu Dhabi, intently watching Al Jazeerah and muttering to myself:
“And that is the weakest faith.”
وأنت قاعد في الماء في أبو ظبي، تأتيك «الجزيرة» صوتاً بلا صورة من الغرفة المجاورة للحمام، لا تستطيع أن تضع حالك محل أهل القتلى والجرحى المارقين على الشاشة كأشباح معدين للعذاب. أن تكون جالساً مع أمك، مثلاً، ثم تسمع دوياً مفاجئاً وتشعر بارتجاج – وإذا بالحائط قد سقط وقسم رأسك أمك نصفين. حتى والناس يُمسَخون أمام عينك في الامتداد الطبيعي والبشري للبلد التي جئت منها، والعسكريون الإسرائيليون يشرحون (بلهجة فلسطينية مكسرة) أن الجيش الإسرائيلي جيش كبير، الجيش الإسرائيلي جيش قوي، الجيش الإسرائيلي قادر على استئصال الإرهابيين والمخربين مهما حاولوا الاختباء أو الهرب عبر الحدود، لا تستطيع أن تستحضر كم هو قبيح ومروع ما يحصل الآن في غزة. «آخرك» دمعة شاردة أو ضيق عابر في التنفس لعله ينفث أحزاناً شخصية لم تُحسم في رأسك. تسترجع قصيدة كتبتها قبل القصف (انظر الصورة) وتصوغ دراما عبثية عن بيت عائلة لأربابه – نحن – مصالح مع الآخرين:
أمس جاءنا الآخرون فاستقبلناهم بترحاب وتفانينا في ضيافتهم. استمعنا إلى شكواهم من سلوك أهل بيتنا المارقين. وعندما أخبرونا أنهم راجعون غداً لتأديبهم لم نعترض، لم تتغير نبرة صوتنا المحتفية بوجود الآخرين. فقط نسقنا وإياهم فتح أبواب البيت وإزالة العوائق المحتملة من طريقهم، ثم حصار أهلنا الذين يريدونهم في غرفة بعيدة. واليوم عاد الآخرون بالسكاكين المميكنة وصاعقات الكهرباء، عادوا بالمسدسات كاتمة الصوت والخيوط الحديدية، الكمامات والأحماض والخوازيق. ونحن كما نحن في أرجاء بيتنا، نسد آذاننا عما قد يفلت من صرخات في الغرفة البعيدة. نسأل الآخرين على استحياء إن كان يمكن، من فضلهم، أن نكفن جثث أهلنا الخارجة من هناك بلا ملامح، جثة بعد جثة. ونشكرهم بفرح حقيقي عندما، من فضلهم، يسمحون.
تصوغ هذه الدراما فتضحك من غرابتها، وأنت قاعد في الماء في أبو ظبي، لا تستطيع أن تستبدل نفسك بأهل القتلى والجرحى. لكنك تتذكر وجه السائق السمين ذي الجلباب الأزرق يبرئ كل الجهات المعنية من مسئولية الركود الاقتصادي المترتب على إغلاق المعبر إلا «اليهود»، السائق الذي أجلسك على أرض بيته الموبوء بالذباب والفقر، في رفح، ثم اصطحبك إلى أقرب ميكانيكي في طريق العودة إلى العريش وأشار – عند مروركما بحذاء حقل واسع – إلى تلة بدت أقرب من أي شيء: «ها دي فلسطين». تتذكر هذا السائق وأنت تتابع، بشغف بذيء، صعود عدد القتلى من ٢٨٤ إلى ٢٨٧ – غداً يصل إلى ٣٥٠ – ويعود إلى رأسك مشهد وزيرة خارجية إسرائيل صحبة الرئيس في القاهرة، قبل يوم. وأنت قاعد في الماء تتعافى من شرخ شرجي فاقمه الإمساك ولا تعرف ما الذي سببه، شيء غير الغضب والفجيعة يعقد لسانك. «آخرك» ضحكة بلهاء على دراما غريبة صغتها كبديل للدمعة الشاردة وضيق التنفس. فتقسم أنك حالما تقوم من الماء، ستصوب «الريموت» الأسود ككلاشنكوف إلي «الجزيرة» فترديها صريعة «روتانا سينما» أو «ميلودي أفلام» في جزء من الثانية، ولا تعود إلى التلفزيون بعد ذلك إلا لترديه كله صريعاً.