What the author of Book of the Sultan’s Seal said about his companion, the protagonist of the novel and hero of the tale, after the events in the World’s Gate, or Downtown Cairo, from February to November 2011.
This is a description of a stranger far from his land of water and mud. A stranger who has ventured far away from his friends, his companions who were committed to him through rough and easy times. He was given to having a drink with them in the gardens, indulging his eye in delightful gazes and pastimes. But if you must leave and all of this dies away, then what becomes of your close companion, whose alienation in his country is long, whose luck and fortune are small in love and life? And what becomes of a stranger alienated from all peoples, with no impulse or way to adopt a nation for himself … he hopes for nothing but to come across some of his fellow countrymen in order to share with them his feelings, to divert them with a vision that has occurred to him, and to recall for them his age-old anxieties so that tears might run down the sides of his face.
-Abu Hayyan Al Tawhidi, d. 1020
First things first: it may be normal for you to feel a sense of alienation in the place where you live, and for travel to foist a desire for a distinctive homeland on you. What’s unusual is for this feeling to originate not from some disappointment in your own life, in that circle of life you inhabit, but rather from a realization – sudden, to be sure – that there is no point in belonging to any group of humanity that might give meaning to your life. There is a certain hue to the frustration you feel when you see all the falsehoods and absurdities. Your existence amidst all this falsehood and absurdity makes this particular hue absolutely nauseating.
It’s true, this sense of alienation emerges in the wake of a broad societal transformation. It’s also true that the alienation created by this transformation is accompanied by a daily awareness of the event’s significance, an awareness of one’s own involvement in the negative outcomes of the change. A rare and personal moment, completely unrelated to the struggles: you and others like you become an embodiment of the defeated nation. You are no longer on your own as before, and the defeat of the nation is no longer disconnected from you as you had imagined for years. Perhaps you are fundamentally not a human being, you belong to no people deserving a nation, at least not necessarily and not as you wish. This realization of the futility of belonging enables the onset of a re-shaping of reality through words or, as Roberto Bolaño called it, “writing instead of waiting.” Without the creation of forms of reality, neither travel nor emigration will relieve you from waiting. In alienation: writing instead of waiting.
And love. The passion of love as a desire for a miniature nation inhabited by individuals, not citizens, belonging that is painless provided that you remain prepared – contrary to the rule of tribal patriarchs – to do away with the dictums of despotism as needed and to give as many reasons for joy as you take. But this simile is, in the end, a secondary description of love. To all of this, you will find testimony, or a reply, in the following epistle, appended to Book of the Sultan’s Seal, dated November 2011:
My companion Mustafa Çorbaci lived and actualized his reality of non-belonging in print in 2007. Yet he lived in my head, or I lived his reality, throughout the second half of the first decade of the new millennium. Between the beginning of 2005 and the end of 2010, I lived this reality. Creating this companion was part of inhabiting the reality, even if at the time I did not realize the extent of its connection with what was going on in the public sphere, or that what was going on in the public sphere might come to be a transformation. In 2005, after my first visit to Beirut, I suddenly returned to writing in Arabic. My visit coincided with the Cedar Revolution and the moment of its major victory, the final withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. And as would seem to suit a post-nineties writer, for whom the integration of political matters into literature is no longer completely off-limits (indeed, ideology seems to have been practically forbidden for nineties writers), Egypt’s transformation into a repulsive plutocracy under the rule of Gamal Mubarak began to appear through the prism of my re-shaping of reality in the context of literary and actual comparisons between Cairo and Beirut.
(By plutocracy, I mean the rule of the rich. The repulsiveness of this plutocracy during the period of the Policy Council of the National Democratic Party is due to the fact that the plutocrats profited from unwaged wars, a relic of socialism and nationalism beholden to the clever fellows of greed and peace, who all held contracts in a nauseating, peasant-like, hypocritical attitude. This attitude had somehow convinced them that they were really to be held in favor above the nation, or that in their council, they themselves could represent the people. Their plutocracy, as a counterpart to the prototype of liberal capitalism, which they claimed to aspire to, depended on the emergency state, established in Nasser’s era. The emergency state was predicated on Nasser’s claim that he would liberate Palestine, combat colonialism, and unite the Arab lands.)
I recall that the thing which repulsed me most about Cairo when I discovered Beirut and then Tunis through writing was the lowliness and insignificance paid to the individual. This lowliness came about from both the adoption of tradition and the adoption of the false creed of “economic development through stability” – that is, illegitimate gain through legalized means on the condition of stability and the avoidance of risk. From these two sources, new behaviors and activities are put into effect, even in the form of political Islam (where the Jihadi trend developed overall into the Salafi trend, a development from killing in the Dar Al Harb, [the lands outside of Muslim control in the medieval age, to convincing the people that it is necessary to limit human behavior to the rituals of worship and to cut off all channels of ijtihad, or rational interpretation, outside the narrowest possible relation to the literalist Saudi reading of the holy book and its supplements). What goes unmentioned in all of this is that there is no content to the discourse, and it is fruitless. Even if something is achieved, and that is a rarity, there are no standards to measure its worth and no ethical value. No result.
In the effort to somehow absorb what was going on, the Sultan’s Seal was completed. Something had to happen, but perhaps – like the Cedar Revolution – the result would have to be pointless in the final analysis. Toward the end of 2010, directly before the events of the revolution, a poet friend said to me that Arab culture is more performance than truth. He meant culture in the sense of art and literature. We talked and debated until we arrived at the point that in all fields – aside from our own, where individuals are supposed to search for truth (either moral or social or political or even professional truth) in the widest and most basic sense of the search for truth – all that exists are “groups of hoodlums” or “gangs standing on the corner, and whoever’s with us, talks like we do.”
Only now does this conversation bring back to mind how I used to joke around with the real-life counterpart to Rashid Jalal Al Suyuti, the friend to whom Mustafa wrote his book, written in the form of letters to a fictional character, before he emigrated. We used to say that life in Egypt is the expression of stations and views. This expression, whose meaning had stretched and expanded through our use, was coined sarcastically after the title of a book that we saw by chance on one of the sidewalks of the World’s Gate, as Downtown Cairo is called in the book. The title of the book we saw was Personalities and Positions.
Since February 11, 2011, as the absurdity, uproar, and lies accumulate, I have been following the reactions of the elites to the public events. I have been following their justifications, opinions, and visions. I follow, and I get angry. I follow and lose hope. Then, I follow, and I laugh. Then, I follow, and I feel a joyful isolation. I think that my friend and I, though we were wrong to think that nothing could happen in the foreseeable future, were right in our imagination’s inability to predict the outcome if something did happen.
February 18, 2011
Not a week had passed since Mubarak’s withdrawal from power when Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Historical Oddities in the City of Mars was published – finally – from Dar Al Shorouk. It was as if the book had been camping out in Tahrir Square waiting for release, a secret diary buried among those diaries of General Omar Suleiman that we all ironically consumed as helicopters circled in the final week. Sultan’s Seal was my first novel, and I had awaited its publication eagerly throughout a year during which I had no idea that a revolution would occur. I did not foresee any radical change in life. Since even now I don’t know what to feel as I flip through the book’s pages, I cannot help but be struck by an anguished constriction as I sense you learning of the book’s publication. I will not hide it from you: the revolution has made the publication of Sultan’s Seal – as it has made everything else – immeasurably less important.
There is no consolation or justification for my joy in sending you this letter, other than the fact that the novel itself offers a picture of the city that produced the revolution three years before it happened (I finished writing at the start of 2010, and the events in the book occur over three weeks in the spring of 2007). That said, Sultan’s Seal does join together with the people, with all due modesty, in the desire to change the regime. It shares the indignation towards the status quo and the recognition of a conspiracy against freedom in all of its many dimensions. It joins in the search for an identity that might contradict this state of things and be willing to pay the price. I congratulate you all, as I congratulate myself, for the revolution. After the revolution, I hope that there might be some place or time for Book of the Sultan’s Seal. Despite the effort that I spent in completing the book, and despite any benefit that it may hold, the martyrs will always be more valuable than it in your estimation.
Tears of joy from Tahrir Square since the evening of Febuary 11, 2011.
Public Transportation Strike
At the beginning of Book of the Sultan’s Seal, as he drives his car from the House of Marriage to the House of Family, after the final separation from his wife, Mustafa Çorbaci notes in a hybrid language mixing classical and colloquial Arabic: “On the Ring Road, the traffic halted for a moment – as you know, this happens often on the bridge, without reason: I think it is a sudden swerving by a certain number of cars from their lanes to a certain extent at a given moment, in addition to everyone’s being in a hurry. As happens every time, all the horns went off.”
At a later point, he describes disembarking from October Bridge into Isaaf Square: “From above, a block of cars spotted with people as if it were Judgment Day. I recall the resurrection of the dead from their graves, and I remember the common expression ‘I am raising the dead.’ I feel that the whole world is raising its dead.”
The events of the novel occur in three weeks between March and April 2007, slightly less than four years before the events of January 2011. It is no secret that Egyptians have begun to say, about traffic and other matters, that pre-revolution, we thought that nothing could get any worse, but post-revolution, we see that, on the contrary, worse is possible. (Personally I do not think that this deterioration is the result of the weak performance of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in state administration, although that weakness is impossible to deny. Rather, and perhaps to an even greater degree, I think it is due to what the “revolution” has concealed from itself, as well as from the “counter-revolution”: the fact that the very same people in whose name the revolution rose up are themselves rife with corruption and oppression. Actually, prayers in the name of Egypt do not lead to paradise.) In any case, seeing as Mustafa resembles his creator to a great degree, I believe that he would share with me this sentiment, with all its bitterness.
Worse is possible, as is clear from what is happening to me now – a day of reckoning and raising of the dead, the like of which this post-nineties writer could never have summoned the pessimism and impudence to imagine, at least not prior to finishing off theSultan’s Seal in 2010. The same thing was happening to me that had happened less radically to Mustafa because, after February 11, 2011, the employees of the Interior Ministry had found in the so-called animosity of the people an excuse to abstain from carrying out its civil functions. The relative freedom to demonstrate – which was hard won by nameless thousands struck down or killed, and which gave rise to endless self-interested protests without accomplishing what the achievers of this right died for – has today taken the form of a general transportation strike.
This, of course, aside from people’s mania, cutting each other off in road rage, bloody without fail – the sudden shock of the crazy swerve of infinite cars from their lanes in addition to all the effort to win an imagined contest with no finish line and no medals – is nothing other than an image that bespeaks the mania of the powers-that-be at blockading the route to change through the quickest and most violent means. This explains not only the announcement of a state of emergency with no significant political or popular opposition, but also proves that the people indeed produce their own leaders, in some way or another, by some means, in some place or time.
Perhaps the rest of the scene is a comment on the “revolution,” to the extent that it is a comment on Mustafa’s separation from his wife: “At this very minute, the sound pollution formed an orchestra whose instruments emitted only farts, from the most refined to the heaviest kinds, from the long and mournful to the most abrupt and joyful. I felt a marvelous enjoyment as I listened to this forgiving symphony reflect my life in this vast city of twenty million people. It was as if my life up to this point had been a ridiculous Arab film, and this bit of farting was the score to the film’s final scene.”
I’ll mention how it is when I pass Tahrir Square. I find it choking with cars under the control of the traffic police, without a single visible revolutionary trace. I am struck with disbelief. We thought that Tahrir would remain apart from the city of waste and car horns, would become a historical shrine outside of time. We thought that it could never return to its prior state. Our joy in sleeping on the asphalt was perhaps even greater than our joy in protesting. I can scarcely believe it. I feel a sadness as if struck by disaster.
In the beginning, everything became Tahrir Square. Cairo, I mean, became Tahrir. Between the evening of January 18 and the night of the 19th, we were in the mosques of our vast and various neighborhoods (most of us praying reluctantly, perhaps for the first time since childhood). Then, we were down on Qasr Al Aini Street and Qasr Al Nile Bridge, exhausted by walking on foot, dodging projectiles, breathing in gas. We proceeded though the passageways of downtown leading into the Square (this was the nickname we gave it, rather than “Tahrir”), confronted by security roadblocks on our way, facing the violent attempts to hinder us while people looked on from buildings, either choosing to join in with us or closing their windows. Thus, between one day and one night, Cairo ceased to exist. When the bodies, bullet holes, and bomb holes began to appear, security disappeared, only to reappear in constantly renewing forms: it was more intense than a masquerade ball lasting weeks on end.
The streets transformed into a nightly wilderness, bubbling with the danger of gangs under the pursuit of security forces and likeminded groups of volunteers in people’s councils, groups sympathetic to the government that sprouted up between one day and one night, fertilized by the magical force of rumor. The whole day was spent in a space limited to the north and south, respectively, by Abd Al Munim Riyad and the Mugamma, that Soviet – indeed, Kafkaesque – building, the architectural definition of Cairo in July 1952 and a monument to the absurdity of centralized bureaucracy, the grand pomposity of obedience. The Mugamma stands next door to the Amr Mukram Mosque, still the starting point for the funeral processions of important men. The space was limited to the east by Talaat Harb Square and to the west by Qasr Al Nile Bridge.
The entryways were erected by the army apparatus as it settled down, while some of the people volunteered to inspect the others as they passed through the entrances. It was said that we and our army were acting together more or less as one unit in protecting the areas. Yet at some point, it became clear that this was not really the case, and openly facing this truth became forbidden. Whoever said that the army was with the government was siding, in effect, with the government; yet I speak now about the four zones spotted with enormous vehicles like gigantic desert turtles, their shells spread with helmeted soldiers. This space would not have had a north and east, a south and a west, if it were not for the way in which our own minds transformed the space into a geographical square. In any case, it became a square. It became a square, and the square became a city, then the city took on limits. Gradually the means of life appeared: sleeping and eating, medical treatment and worship, with no need for devices for communication. We lost our mobile phones and internet networks, then we got them back. We lived by the regularity of metal and khaki. For eighteen days beginning from midnight on January 28, the dividing line of Abd Al Munim Riyad was itself a stage for confrontations, though the attacks often came from Talaat Harb and Umar Makram as well (a fact about which the army was silent, as we later learned). But the square was also a circle, and, as in the famous drawing by Leonardo da Vinci of the human body according to the ideal geometrical standards of Vitruvius, our utopia developed somehow in the space of overlap between the circle and the square: an oasis in a desert, yet also, with time, a three-fold prison.
What I mean to say is that tens of thousands of people lost their faith in Cairo and became so exasperated by the city that they migrated in exodus to the Square. It became a true public place for the first time since the fifties. It became the body of a person, both a square and a circle. It truly became a person, a person called Tahrir or the Square or the Revolution. As for me and Rashid Al Suyuti, who returned from England for a week to participate in the event and with whom I coordinated my comings and goings, we never spent the night there. We would go just after waking up and return just before the time to sleep. It was perhaps this fact which protected us from the neurosis, even madness, that may later afflict the many people who never left the square during the three weeks. Our journeys on foot, from emptiness to swarming traffic by day and night, from that center of real human activity back to our houses through a false and inactive city, perhaps proved to us the idea of the end of Cairo.
In the charged nights I began to think of the meaning of Tahrir. How can a place be reconciled with an idea or an orientation represented only by a body – a figure – that is entirely ideal? How does your view of any body change when you know its owner? And how do the different places within a place resembling a body become active biological organs or points of attraction like in the Tantric chakra, each fulfilling a certain role. I said to Rashid that the round island that occupies the middle part of the Square is the knee without which the person could neither stand nor walk. The Mugamma in Tahrir is its two feet, and the monument of the war hero Abd Al Munim Riyad, that vulgar metal-plated statue, is a scepter raised up in the left hand parallel to the swelling head, which is raised up above everything in the direction of nothing. The main dividing line of contact cuts across the axis between the Egyptian Museum and the opposite region, in the direction of Talaat Harb.
I said to Rashid that something momentous would happen to those people, even if the whole story ends and all their efforts are a bust. We started to notice the effects of isolation and intimacy: starting at sundown, paranoia would set in among those camping out as to whether there were infiltrators among them gathering information or prodding them on toward harmful acts. There was exaggerated talk of victory and perseverance and of the laxity of morals in our behavior on the square, all in reaction to trivial and unconnected events. There was a frenzy of judgment against individuals – Ahmad Shafik, Omar Suleiman, Anas Al Fiqi, to say nothing of the Mubarak family – without any attention paid to the morality of those figures’ goals or to what they represented, and without any effort to criticize oneself or to probe the extent of those ideas in the social consciousness more generally, or even in our own consciousness.
I told Rashid that it was a body, and he said it was a brain. He said that he wanted to do an anthropological study of Tahrir during the encampment, examining the sites themselves from a Freudian perspective: outside of the circle is the so-called pre-conscious, while the three constituent parts of consciousness – the id, ego, and superego – occupy overlapping sectors in its middle. The id is in its arms and legs: the statue, the Mugamma, and the front lines of the killing. The ego is in the security zone surrounding the central stone cake. The superego (the seat of values and rules) – apart from the Egyptian Museum where the army was imprisoning the thugs – was in the navel itself, where a stationary tank stood, like a point of pilgrimage, engagements raging all around it between protestors and troops, the tank representing the alliance between the people and the army, upon which the legend of the revolution itself has been nurtured.
He drew a square with his finger. He said that it was a window, and he called you over to look at the world through it. After the surprise had left you dizzy, he kept signaling to you to come over. Come here! Come here, there’s a window here! Years later you admit that he convinced you, that you were his partner in the trick. Maybe butting the wall makes sense when you are in a silent room. All that is certain in a game of sallah is that someone gets slapped on the neck.
I am the man who has seen humiliation. He overcame me with the rod of his anger, he led me and steered me toward darkness, away from light. Now the day has returned its light on me. He encircled me and bent low my head. He debased me and sat me down in places dark as death. I call him but he does not answer. I call to him, yet he does not heed my prayer. He fences off my paths and closes off my ways out. He lies in waiting for me like a lion in hiding. He repulsed me, threw me down, left me to perish. He tenses his bow, fires upon me, and launches arrows at me. My people are scorned with laughter. I devour the bitter colocynth, intoxicated by it. He destroys my teeth with stones and feeds me to the dust. So I leave peace far distant, and I forget all that is good. Good to the man who bears the yoke since his youth.
-Liturgy from the Lamentations of Jeremiah chanted by Egyptian Copts
First things first. On the evening of October 9, people incited against the Nazarenes by the official and religious television channels joined together into thug militias beholden to the ruling powers, separate from central security and the military police. Their purpose was not just to divide and terrify, but also to hinder the exercise of peaceful protest, which spoke out in favor of the rights of the Copts. The protesters were barricaded into the area of Maspero, after having faced even more fearful opposition on their way from Shubra at the hands of organized Muslim groups of “Honorable Citizens.” For the first time in my life, I heard of people – outside the area of the demonstration – fiercely beating individuals, even killing them in cold blood, merely for being Christian.
“Peaceful” screams the demonstrator. “Islamic” answer the thugs.
The armored vehicles of the Egyptian armed forces were crushing the heads of unarmed persons, who had been struck down with live fire. It was asserted – falsely – as justification that the protestors were armed and were in the act of killing our defenseless national army. The broadcaster Rasha Magdi sent out a call to the people to come to the defense of its army in the face of the Copts’ enmity. These same Copts have been known throughout modern history to be peaceful, even to the point of forfeiting their own rights, and have often been accused of cowardice as a result.
A number of protesters were imprisoned; this was after corpses had already been mutilated and thrown into the Nile. Yet, it was not even certain that a single soldier had died in these events, known in official reports as “confrontations” between individuals in the army and Coptic demonstrators. It should be noted that some of the demonstrators, and one of the deceased, were Muslims. As was later made clear, one soldier actually died in the events, and official statistics report the deaths of more than thirty demonstrators. Among the victims was one of the most spirited of the January revolutionaries, the mechanic Mina Daniyal, nineteen years old, who went to Maspero that night – as his sister later reported – allured by the call of martyrdom. While the majority of Muslims adopted a sectarian position, their political line could also be interpreted as backing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which, it had become certain, was some extension of the Mubarak regime supported by Washington. And the victims’ families proclaim that their loved ones are now spouses ensconced in heaven, that they were not lost in vain.
When the bereaved express faith and joy at the martyrdom of the lost, their voices verge on total blasphemy, which alone makes their speech so heavy with impact.
In the following days, I – and no doubt also Mustafa Çorbaci – went to sleep perplexed. I had faced an incident of pickpocketing under the pretext of a fight in the neighborhood of Mohandiseen. A couple of my friends came across bandits who would deliver beatings and then take whatever they could find. More than one friend was attacked for looking like a foreigner. It appeared to me, despite the sense of fascism creeping up faster and faster to the surface of life, that Cairo was no longer “secure” as we used to call it, when the Interior Ministry alone was responsible for the full load of organized terrorism. But what perplexed me was not the disquiet and the slipping loose from authoritarian order. It was not even the war crimes that had been committed by the army, or the subsequent disgraceful lies concerning stolen armed vehicles and foreign conspiracies – even now, foreign conspiracies! No. What perplexed me and made me feel an alienation I had never felt before was the capacity of citizens from all levels, even the educated and supposedly cultured among them, to obliterate more than even their political consciousness, their conscience, and the teachings of the Abrahamic religion that they exploit to perpetuate wrongs varying from noise pollution to the suppression of personal liberties. What shocked me more was the obliteration of their desire to know the truth. It perplexed me that Muslim Egyptians could have the capacity to obliterate their desire to know the truth as a result of a petty hatred for an oppressed people no different from themselves.
No wonder. The dissension leveled in accusation of an entire people was inflamed by the General of Aswan (the former military officer, whose immediate resignation had been recommended by an investigative council days before the massacre, to no avail), when he went on television to praise the “dedicated young Muslim men” who volunteered to burn down a church in which prayers have been offered for decades, on the pretext that the building was not licensed for this purpose. But this is another outrage altogether.
Perhaps we can hope that Cairo will appear to Mustafa, rather than as a seal, in the form of a crescent and a cross standing for the region of Maspero and its surroundings. The crescent represents the corniche, while the cross is the area where the innocent were killed.
And for the first time in his life – maybe – Mustafa is embarrassed to be a Muslim.
Let me tell you now, as the spray of the sea refreshes me, about the final stage in the tour of Islamic Cairo, after this call of destiny from in front of the mosque as all became dark. I was in a small alley coming off of Muhammad Ali Street. I said, I’ll walk to Ataba Khadra, wandering in infatuation, not thinking of my own tracks, and then once I arrive I’ll carry on by foot or hitch a ride from there to Jalaa Street. I preferred to stay on foot until I arrived at this long alleyway. I found myself alone in the darkness, a short pick-up truck behind me. Car after car after car with the lights switched off, no indication whatsoever that any car was approaching or that the time of its approach drew near. How did they advance like this without a sound? As if they were walking on velvet, without the slightest sound in either direction.
I felt suddenly that one of them was at my back, just before I was deafened by the horn blast by the driver, as if he were blaring out the exhaustion of his last rights on earth. I was so astonished and staggered that I stopped and quickly crammed my body length-wise between the asphalt and the parked cars on one side of the street in an attempt to let the car pass. From here to the facades of the buildings on the other side of the street is a space the width of a medium-sized car, so that you have to walk in the middle of the road. No sidewalk or anything. For no clear reason, I began to sense a Satanic presence, as if the movement that began with the driver of the private taxi and was mediated by the blond Abu Sabha, whose transcendent power you feel without knowing whether it is closer to good or to evil, needed to end with a confrontation of devils.
I started to look behind me and was struck with constriction and a need to speed up, to rush on. I looked, but at first saw no end to the alleyway. The lights diminished little by little until everything was dark as kohl. I felt shut away into a terrifying place, needing to escape. I kept pushing on. My feet couldn’t reach the end of the alley. Suddenly it was as if the aspect of the place had changed or the space had altered. I began noticing the homes in buildings on the left. But even this, in my state of general desolation, didn’t comfort me. I heard firm steps coming in the opposite direction, so I turned back, my heart thumping, slowing down. The truck was still coming behind my back, harassing me with the car horn. And at that very moment, to the very faint side-light given out from the windows of homes as if for just this purpose, I began to notice them:
A flood of bearded Sunnis, seeming never to end. They were in white galabiyyas, some short and some long, or in pants and shirts. Either their heads were shaved, or they wore colored skullcaps. They passed in front of me, one by one or in pairs, occasionally in small groups. Their faces were grimacing, their eyes flashing. They would appear suddenly from amid the darkness, and then, after passing by me and rubbing shoulders, they would vanish.
The strange thing was that I could only hear their footsteps as they came toward me: once they had passed me, precisely like the trucks, their footsteps would cease to make any sound at all, as if they walked on velvet. There were moments when I could hear them grumbling amongst themselves, but more often they flashed toward me in silence, never offering me greetings. I felt true terror when our shoulders began to rub, Abu Suwait, such a violent terror! Once or twice, I was struck on purpose by an obscure shoulder, but I didn’t speak. I preferred to keep breathing with difficulty, to struggle to keep my movement under control until the lights of the public street might appear.
On the corner I saw the last of them. He was stocky with a large square head – it occurred to me that his face was just the image of a pistachio nut. His beard reached down to his navel and his head was bald. He wore a galabiyya that hardly reached to his knees, nothing covering his legs underneath. He was by himself – I am certain he was by himself – yet he muttered in a voice louder than the others, his voice loud enough for me to hear amid the noise of the public street. I sped up, and it seemed I’d escaped him. But then he returned, appearing suddenly beside me. He struck me on the shoulder with a slanderous bump, and then in a mocking tone: “Mustafa Kamal says hello. Do not think that he will leave you alone.” When I had recovered from the bump and turned around, he had disappeared into the darkness of the alley.
-Excerpt from Book of the Sultan’s Seal, Part Seven
I have said that Mustafa resembles his creator. And although he is not identical to him – it is not possible that he could be exactly identical – what, we might ask, would have happened to Mustafa if he had remained in Egypt until January 2011? Would he have seen a new map of the city emerge from Tahrir Square and connecting to the other points in the city, a map based on the model of the Sultan’s Seal and reflecting Cairo’s transformation to a new structure altogether, in Mustafa’s very hands?
Mustafa discovered, through his personal collapse and then the penetration of that collapse into all the aspects of his life, that the city is one of the hearts of the Islamic nation. This occurred when the ghost of the final Ottoman sultan (Muhammad Wahid Al Din Bin Abd Al Majid, d. 1927) appeared to him. Yet this realization occurred on the basis of a very particular definition of the Islamic nation, a definition that would seem – though it conforms in Mustafa’s imagination with the concept of dult abad madt (the “eternal state” of Ottoman ideology) and serves the historical struggle between Christianity and Islam – to be both false and impossible.
Here – because my companion was connected with his Islamic identity through a positive and far-reaching imagination – there is no avoiding mention of one of the transformations that accompanied the “revolution” between February 11 (“Raise up your Head” Friday) and July 29 (“Friday of Unity and the People’s Will”). (The latter date was monickered “Unity and Light” after the name of one of the biggest retail outlets of Islamic merchandise with branches throughout Cairo. The organizers of the event, with Saudi support, had named it “Friday of the United Front.”) We ought to mention the constitutional matters that the military council took up with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood, a number of their loyal Muslim thinkers, and the legions of Salafists, to say nothing of that element among the traditional Left (socialist and nationalist) that sees in political Islam an alternative to the class struggle and liberation from colonialism, or an assimilation of the two – all tangled up constitutional matters, whether they be amendments, announcements, or concurrent legal movements. The peaceful millions fall every Friday under a new name, while the only ones who now undertake the original work of the revolution – to confront and clash with police – are the Ultras, a group of enthusiastic football fans. The only question is whether the Brotherhood will join them.
In this respect, the event was like any other historical event: the “revolution” had numerous narratives. In my narrative, and in the narratives of others I know who participated since the beginning – whether from the evening of January 25 or, like me, from after the Friday prayer on January 28 – the Islamists played no role. By Islamists, I mean all those belonging to the organization of the Muslim Brotherhood or organized by the various Salafist institutions, in addition to those sympathetic with them. They played no role. They did not share in the events at the beginning except as individuals and in ineffectual numbers.
Mustafa would not have the same approach to the historical moment as these people, and I am sure that he – contrary to what they did – would have shared spontaneously in the events and would not have sided with the military council in what followed. Nor would he have volunteered, as did those Salafists belonging to the Alexandria School who would go on to found the Party of Light, to convince families of martyrs to accept blood money. It seems to me, therefore, that the Islam of Mustafa Çorbaci – his connection to the idea of the caliphate as a solution to the contemporary crisis – is radically different from their Islam.
Mustafa enumerates “the nice things brought about by Islam: poetry, architecture, calligraphy, ornamentation, Quranic singing, Dhikr Sufism, philosophy and science, the prophet’s family and the servants of God, stories, romantic passion, literature of matrimony, the ruling principle of social good, and the noble deeds of morality.” He asserts that “the people are entirely neglectful of these things, and if anyone mentions them at all, it is to curse or forbid them.” Yet, in making this distinction, I do not mean to draw a line between these earlier nice things and those matters which, as Mustafa also says, were “agreed upon since the time when Al Ghazzali is said to have shut the door of ijtihad, God forgive him.” Even all of these latter-day deeds of worship and prohibition have themselves been transformed by political Islam into empty rituals of worship devoid of all content.
There is a deeper difference between the Islam of Mustafa and the prevalent Islam that was made apparent by the events of 2011. One version of Islam is a questioning of the lost self while the other is an answer, severe and foolish, to all possible questions. One is a hope for something glorious while the other is a divinely sanctioned hopelessness.
No wonder. What I mean by a transformation is that a movement began, at least in my narrative and those of people I know, that was motivated at first by the desire to join with the currents of human civilization as it is today – individual freedom, human rights, and the transfer of power. Yet this all ended in the political dispute between Islamists and Secularists, as if the lessons from countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, and Pakistan do not suffice to settle the question of the benefits of a religious state morally, politically, and spiritually. It also resulted in that other dispute, between the Nationalists and the Liberals, in which the first side (labeled with the term “Left”) argues for the impossibility of changing the status quo, no matter what step is taken in that direction, and attempts to spread the lie that whatever does occur is only with the knowledge and planning of the Muslim Brotherhood – thus, the only change to be expected in Egypt will occur through political Islam. (In fact, it was the heads of the nationalist Tagammu Party who were the first to object to sleeping over in Tahrir on the night of January 25, the step which led, through increased security suppression, to the Friday of Anger, and then to the “occupation” of Tahrir.)
The truth is that political Islam, that social hindrance and international scarecrow, is merely a sponge soaking up the waters of class hatred, a sponge that took the place of the Left after the Left was bought, or neutralized, by the powers that be.
At its start, the movement was prompted by the desire to smash the idols, and yet it ended in foolish squabbles over the meaning of Egyptian identity, itself the greatest idol, without which, curiously, the “revolution” itself could not have occurred. “The day that the Egyptian flag began to appear in thick numbers between the signs in Tahrir,” I wrote elsewhere, “I had my first doubts about the counterrevolution.”
It became clear that, in this context, the squabbles were over what it meant to be a Muslim Arab. I know now that this is actually the issue. To be a Muslim Arab means that you do not accept individual freedom, human rights, and the transfer of power, and that you do not strive to change the status quo regardless of your position in the current government. It means that you are beholden to a superstitious consciousness which attributes your problems to a conspiracy against Muslims and Arabs on the part of Unbelievers and Jews (America and Israel), and attributes the political failure of your society to the collaboration of the leaders with that conspiracy.
In an expression that could perhaps abbreviate the whole of Book of the Sultan’s Seal, Mustafa says: “The world has left a sickness in my heart, whose only cure might come from a journey through another world, or through not being – in this world – an Arab Muslim.”
First things first: the revolution created a palpable space in people’s consciousness that permitted an organized attack on the Israeli embassy (celebrated by the Islamists and Nationalists alike, who all treated the lowering of the flag from the embassy building as if it were the liberation of Jerusalem). This attack was carried out in order to announce a renewal of the state of emergency, after much blood had been spilled to end it, and in order to divert attention from the continuing suppression and torture of demonstrators, to say nothing of the military trials and the dismantling of any true attempt to hinder the process of methodical corruption. Mutinous minor officers, meanwhile, who had turned against the military council for the sake of real change were with the blessings of the revolutionaries led into military courts. For these mutinies, as it was claimed at random, were nothing other than an organized conspiracy on the part of the Council itself (though not a single piece of evidence for that has surfaced since April).
The revolution left an opening in the institutions of the media, where their work depends on flattering the official agencies and lying in order to butter them up. It was logical for this gap to be filled by the military council, which rules (precisely as the Mubarak regime had ruled) not in the service of the people or to serve a certain ideology, or even out of greed for power, but rather – as became clear – to gain control over American and other aid money. It was logical that the buttering up of the military council would be accompanied by a makeover for all the different Islamists, as representatives of the only true opposition, in order to force onto a movement against security oppression their ideology of opposition to the world system (which the movement had not adopted in any sense).
The revolution, even if it unleashed the forces of political Islam, did not lead to the admission that the map of Cairo could be transformed into a seal. Between the crescent and the cross – arranged in a new map imagined by Mustafa following the events – puddles of blood were spilled to no consequence, inconsequential because it was the blood of a minority.
What I mean to say is that the revolution did not cure the sickness in Mustafa’s heart. The revolution has not yet occurred.
We rise in revolt so much that our revolts become menstrual cycles
We sleep and wake and find revolution upon revolution
Why do you rejoice, you impure, slut nation?
The one who was struck down said, “This is our country.” The dead said, “we are like you.” And since last Sunday, every time you see a beard or a skullcap, you recall your forefathers as if they were beasts. And since the moment they declared that they were crusaders, there has been nothing but outrage and insolence in your homes. Whoever went out, went out. Whoever was nominated for elections was nominated for elections. Whoever emigrated, he emigrated before the protests broke out. One day they will carry you, inflicted, and before you die you will tell them: “I am like us – or them – or you…”
November. I have arrived to Alexandria at the height of the winter wind. I haven’t been here since the beginning of the year. Rain and cold. Nine months have passed since the revolution and the Sultan’s Seal, and the book has not received the kind of attention that I thought it deserved. People were busy with the revolution, or perhaps there just were no people. Since February – the time of Mubarak’s removal and the book’s publication – the world that you painted has become closer and clearer. The difference was that while Mustafa had lost hope in Arabness and in the post-Christian West in order to imagine a glorious Ottoman Islam, I had lost faith in Arabness, the West, and Islam.
I sit now in my favorite coffee house, Delice, enjoying coffee and internet while the sun sets over the corniche, the sky a brilliant video screen. I think not about the Sultan’s Seal, nor about the revolution, but rather about the meaning of Alexandria – and Beirut – in my life, about their primary and ultimate connections.
Since February, I think, it has become clear that the problem was not in the Mubarak regime itself so much as it was in its basic internal causes. I sit in the Delice coffee house, and I recall the final paragraph of Book of the Sultan’s Seal, with Mustafa, on the balcony of his favorite hotel in Ain Meraisse after his arrival to Beirut:
Just before the end of his research on the Alid state – as he informed us – Mustafa pulled out at random one of the illustrated books on the wonders of archeology, printed by the People’s Publishing House, from amongst the books heaped up to the vaults of the room. He had put the illustrated book between two notebooks on his desk, after dusting it off with the intention of reading it for a short while. But he had not read a word of it until after he arrived in Beirut, to where the scrapbook had traveled by surprise with the notebooks. Mustafa had forgotten it entirely amidst the events of the sixth chapter. At the moment when he found it in his travel bag, as he was going through the notebooks in the hotel room in Ain Meraisse, he felt affection, nostalgia, and disbelief that such a guide should be there by chance to help him execute his task.
That day, with a large rakwa – as they call a Turkish coffee pot in Beirut – he sat on his balcony and read the book. There was nothing in it to help him detect Maaruf Al Shaliji. Mustafa just loved the final paragraphs of the book, which were a dense summary of the two years that preceded the French campaign in Egypt. It confirmed to Mustafa that some of the things he had written – as some of his readers had told him – were really poetry. For Al Jabarti, too, without intending it, had written poetry in these paragraphs:
In these two years, no events occurred to which any soul had aspired … except what has already been indicated … it was all usual causes and signs, without any effects related back to those traces. So looking to the domains of heaven and earth they sought inferences, and they were guided by the star. What was greater than all that was the concurrence of a complete lunar eclipse in the middle of the month of the Hajj at the close of the twelfth year, while Gemini, to which the region of Egypt is related, was in the ascent. And the French sect then appeared following that, at the start of the following year.
Mustafa stood up from the hotel balcony, an aching passion in his heart. He then went out, saying to himself that poetry, like miracles, exists always where no one can expect it.
This morning we heard that tomorrow will mark the “Second Revolution of Anger” throughout the country. It is perhaps the fifth time we’ve heard this expression used. I do not think that I’ll participate, and I anticipate nothing positive. Only, after a little while, I will go to the sea. I will look into the waves in darkness, and I will breath in the air. I do not know how much gratitude I will feel for having crossed through the “revolution” to this point, just as Mustafa crossed over to Beirut. I know only that I will feel gratitude.
The Book of the Sultan’s Seal is divided into nine parts, each consisting of one of Mustafa’s journeys through Cairo, along with his final one to Beirut. Perhaps this epistle is his tenth journey: through an abortive or defeated revolution, toward a second beginning of his attempt to live with some contemporary logic. Book of the Sultan’s Seal begins with Mustafa’s divorce, with him feeling alienated and in need of discovering himself in the surrounding society. Mustafa now feels more alienated than at any other time past: he has left Beirut and left Clodine, his ex-wife who emigrated. He then marries his lover, who is younger and more intensely involved in life. He feels that he has been searching for her his entire life, and he rejoices in his second marriage. Mustafa is rejoicing in his second marriage not because he is less alienated in the Egypt of the revolution. He rejoices because he will no longer search for a nation, or a self, except between the thighs of his wife.
Give the military council its armed vehicles, and let Hizb Al Nour or the Party of Light set the boundaries. Mustafa will no longer ask for a homeland.