Interview with a Revolutionary
I became obsessed with sodomizing Sheikh Arif round about the time his posters started crawling all over the streets. Today is July 20, 2012, right? A little over a year and a half after we toppled our president-for-life, Hosny Mubarak. Sheikh Arif’s posters began to show up only three, maybe four months ago—when he announced he was running in the elections held by the Army to replace said president. They seemed to self-procreate. And the more I saw of them, the more intense was the impetus to make the bovine symbol of virility they depicted a creature penetrated. Penetrated personally by me, of course, and I made a pledge to the universe that it would be.
Yes, indeed, my pale-skinned friend. Just please don’t look so bovine yourself while I tell you. To slip my modestly-sized dingaling into Sheikh Arif’s mighty badonkadonk: out of some sick mixture of fascination and outrage, I guess, it felt more like the purpose of my life than anything I could imagine doing before I died. And the feeling fazed me more than anyone. Even under the historical circumstances, sodomizing Sheikh Arif wasn’t something I could assimilate. With a little loosening of the platysma, I’m sure even you can imagine.
My name is K-h-a-l-i-d (and then) D. (and then) N-a-w-w-a-r-a-h. You know we’ve had TV ads warning us about talking to foreign journalists. Because, the Army tells us, all foreigners are spies. You heard about that too, ha ha! Here, have a cigarette. For one thing, it really makes no difference to my mother’s religion if you are a real operative—you know the expression, “my mother’s religion”? I mean, via business and/or Gulf oil, the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood are both serving foreign interests, right? What difference should it make to my mother’s cunt if you turn out to be a CIA agent? Khalid D. Nawwarah, yes. Drink your beer. I think human beings everywhere should know.
Fear not, gentle spy: I won’t tell you my life story. The important thing is that, like many Egyptians, I’ve spent years pretending to study at a place pretending to be a college that is, in fact, a temple Kafka might have imagined, where priests of social climbing hand out certificates of status to acolytes, granting passage. Totally fucked up. Either you join the mafia of the college-educated or you are cored for life—an apple, yes, to be consumed by the respectable. With the result that standards have been dropping steeply for sixty years, and not just standards of respectability. Like many cyber-activists, who are all dependent on their parents, I attended an expensive private school where I learned my English. Unlike them I’ve always enjoyed reading books in that language, in case you’re wondering how I know things that have nothing to do with either career or country.
You’ve been in Cairo six months, you say. So you know: first we agitated on Facebook. We set a date, a time, and a venue for a big demonstration. Tahrir Square, yes. The riot police killed some of us, and we had an even bigger demonstration. That day they killed so many we ended up occupying the place—millions of us, eventually—protected by the Army. And what were we protesting? Brutality and bureaucracy, control and corruption. Plans to make the presidency a hereditary post, the way it is in Syria. Not, you understand, the conditions of Islam. The plight of the Umma was not on our list of grievances; if anything, we were angry because we didn’t feel we were part of the non-Umma. When we realized something was happening we called it a Revolution, the second, must-see episode in the Arab Spring series.
That was January–February, 2011. And, until February–March, 2012, when it became obvious that our protests were playing into Islamists’ hands and I fell prey to despair, I was deeply involved: as a tweep, a chant-author, a maker of improvised anti-tear gas masks, a field hospital doctor (because, even though I’m thirty-two years old, I’m still a medical student hoping to graduate some day). I was there for every demonstration, every portable slaughterhouse. I saw bodies dismembered by corrugated wheels and blunt swords gashing heads. I hurled stones at people in uniform. I chanted. And that’s how I got the name Che Nawwarah, after the Communist icon Che Guevara. He too was a failed physician. Though now that I’ve read about him, I suspect he was only a fanatical psychopath, a serial killer with pretensions.
The protests started to feel like voluntary sacrificial rites to help the bearded bastards get more power, and I stopped going. I didn’t even try to warn my comrades because I knew they wouldn’t listen. In my despair I could tell the mini-inquisitions were round the corner. Already strangers ruled over us, worse than the tyrants of before. Now that the Islamists were identified with the Revolution, there was no one that would deliver us out of their hand. We would be getting our bread with the peril of our lives because of the thug’s sword. Good Muslims would hang by their hands—not only metaphorically, either—and, by sexual harassment, premature marriage, and female genital mutilation, the women of Cairo would be ravished, so would the maids of the Nile Delta. The faces of true human beings who spoke out would not be spared—but wait! I should explain the difference between Muslim and Islamist in case you’re not an operative and don’t know.
Most Egyptians are Muslim by birth. Many practice, but until the hijab became ubiquitous in the nineties, you could hardly tell. The Islamists are the ones who carry Islam on their person the way you carry an electronic gadget on the subway. From months of study I’ve decided that they don’t stand out in any other way, except maybe by hating women and Christians, foreigners like you and so-called liberals like me. They just have pre-cultural Bedouin beliefs that they call Islam. And they flaunt those beliefs in a range of brands: Nokia-Jihadi (kill the infidels), Samsung-Salafi (kowtow to the autarch and marry as many as four circumcised nine-year-old girls at a time), Apple-Muslim Brotherhood (win elections, win more elections, and win still more elections). . . . The Islamists were the ones who, unbeknown to us, somehow, inherited the Revolution.
You know Jalaluddin Rumi, yeah? The thirteenth-century Farsi poet who became a line of self-help products. On and off, at the time Sheikh Arif appeared in my life, I happened to be reading Rumi’s tome of couplets, Mathnawi. I’m not sure why, considering it’s a pile of regurgitated piety, sludgy from being chewed and rechewed for centuries on end. Maybe I thought it would take my mind off politics. This particular story about a dervish called Daquqi caught my attention. Not much of a story, and I still don’t really get it. But for some reason, as the roll of strange occurrences unfolded, it kept coming back.
My man Daquqi is a very great saint. Beautiful as the moon, wise as the Oracle, caring as Daddy, passionate as Romeo in his love for the All which is the One, etc. He intercedes on behalf of people and performs miracles for them. His prayers are always answered because, any time he wants to, he can get through to the Patriarch Upstairs—the same One who, six centuries back, had sent down his Errand Boy to bring all religion to its conclusion. . . . There is only one thing wrong with Daquqi: he isn’t content to be by himself with God; he wants to meet other saints even after God tells him that, compared to His own, their love is nothing. And so, while still spending the usual inordinate hours praying at night, Daquqi sets out wandering by day—the ocean in a drop and the sun in a mote, etc.—till he arrives at this shore where seven lights appear before him, giant candle flames only he can see. Enchanted, he watches while they become a single light, which later morphs into seven men standing in formation for the ritual prayers he will lead as imam. They also become trees at some point: seven, then one, then six and one; men again, lights again, a tree, one, seven—I don’t know. So they’re praying right there on the sand when Daquqi notices a ship sinking in the distance; he breaks his concentration to intercede on its behalf. By the time the prayer is finished, the ship’s been saved. But the lights/men/trees are upset with Daquqi and they disappear forever, leaving him in perpetual mourning.
Silly story, really. I think it’s supposed to illustrate submission to the divine will, but I guess what made it stick was this idea that God’s love is not enough, that you needed to see Him in human form to be sated, or that we can only talk about the soul for as long as it’s in the body. I probably missed Rumi’s point; then again, it can’t be very healthy to stay up praying all night every night, can it. Instead of distracting me, Daquqi just kind of became part of the Revolution as I thought more and more about His Virtuousness Sheikh Arif.
Arif Kamal Abu Ibrahim: lawyer, wannabe MP (unsuccessful under the Old Regime), TV-Islamist-angelist. He is genial and reverent and funny. The more I pay attention to him, the more I can see a vaguely positive presence, the kind of thing you hang on to if you really hate yourself and don’t know it. He is big; he is pious; he is versed in holy writ. He knows which part of a thief’s hand you must chop off, what kind of rocks are good for stoning an adulteress, when to raid unbelievers, and how to divvy up the loot. He is exactly as petty and pop as he needs to be to lasso countless followers—his need to take over the world is so childish he reminds me of Stewie Griffin—and he plays the followers’ self-hatred like an iPod, to prepare them for helping him do that. Many Islamists believe he is the Leader Egypt Ideally Deserves. I guess that’s what people mean when they say he has charisma: this presence. The sheer size of him and what he says against the Army and injustice make him seem very manly, too—that’s important—although as it turns out. . . . Above his trim silver beard, like a heavy half-moon, he beams out of the slick Twitter-blue background, his chest swathed in a red band. Below it are all three parts of his name, and the slogan: WE WILL LIVE WITH DIGNITY.
But I was telling you about the Revolution. Nearly twenty months now and, as you can see, not much evidence of the term having any meaning. Sometimes I think that’s because within a few months after February 11, 2011—the day the president stepped down and the Army took over—clean-shaven protesters like me had gone home and people with beards started popping out of TV sets. It was our dawn of DEMOCRACY and some of those men would be running for president. Never mind that we were still killed by the hundreds every time we went out to demonstrate, that it was even easier than before to buy votes and manhandle ballots, and that there was no constitution or political tradition. You had to collect thirty thousand signatures to qualify as a candidate for president, unless you could get written endorsement from thirty MPs. Toward the end of 2011, cher DGSE monsieur, we had elected a parliament knowing that the Islamists would automatically win; even as, with Islamist blessings, the temples that are our bodies were being desecrated at street protests—whether by the riot police or the military police or the thug militias, does it matter? But His Virtuousness didn’t need parliament or anything. He not only had one hundred and fifty thousand signatures, he also had more posters than anyone under Allah’s sun. There were so many of them, and in so many different sizes, my friends and I ended up calling him Bu Bi Rahim: the ancient Egyptian god of the electoral publicity poster.
You’ll identify with me, I’m sure, seeing as I too own one of these scary implements of reconnaissance. It can record and instantly transmit not only pictures and sound but also video. Industry standard, the old Masonic apple with a bite taken out of it. Spies of the world, unite, hey? Here, you can see pictures of the protests: graffiti, signs, and slogans as well as posters of Bu Bi Rahim. . . .
But maybe, compassionate coworker, it was not outrage and fascination alone that instilled in my loins the urge to fuck Sheikh Arif. No, not even the despair that led to them in the first place. I’m sure you’ve seen The Matrix? By now the events of last year looked like that kind of video game, a virtual-reality experience on a cosmic scale—as mind-boggling as it is self-sustained. So Egypt Regime Change Challenge for the Wii had to have a forgone conclusion, the kind of big, pious narrative that’s versed in petty pop. The easiest, most obvious plotline, too: it had to end with the Islamists rising to power against the Army’s will. You can see that our role as protestors was predetermined: our euphoria over forcing the president to step down; our struggle with the generals after they took over; our failure to connect with the masses; even my idiot comrades’ support for the Muslim Brotherhood in its pretend fight with said generals. All was programmed into the software. Now it seemed both fair and a kind of compensation to try and bend the rules enough to fulfill my freak desire. Gameplay would proceed as slated whoever the fuck was having the fun. But maybe, for a minute or two, I could work the joystick.
The morning after I first thought of the heavenward butt—I will come back to this—I received an unexpected phone call. April 2, 2012. It has occurred to me since then that, had I promised myself and not the universe that I would bugger Sheikh Arif, that call might never have come. The night before, I had thought of the universe specifically as I muttered the pledge for the first time—as if cutting a deal with it, requesting succor. You think I should’ve thought of God first? But I could never identify with Daquqi. Besides, how can you be sure it’s not the same god that keeps all those mustache-less beards in business, and the prayer marks too—those oblong patches of dead skin they all have on their foreheads that look like a dead woman’s vagina, at least what I imagine a dead woman’s vagina would look like? No, kind informer. The universe is the safer bet.
My iPhone said “Unknown” and I assumed it was an Internet call from some cheap bastard living abroad, but when I swiped the screen with my thumb and put it to my ear there was none of the static I associate with that kind of line. A woman’s voice, clear as a craving, said my name. It was so husky and inviting I felt my shoulder throb, a mean drip of joy battling with the black adrenaline all through my cardiovascular system. (That’s the way I am, for some reason: when I get excited my left shoulder throbs.) I must’ve cleared my throat three times before I finally mumbled:
“I’m sorry I’m phoning out of the blue like this,” the voice went ahead, dead genuine, “but I’m afraid I couldn’t reach you by e-mail, and I thought the phone might be more appropriate anyhow. You probably won’t remember me,” she sounded unbelievably nonchalant, “though you might recall fondling my breasts in a suburban villa in November 2010. You said they were the most gorgeous pair you had ever come across. That evening, by the way, I think I arrived at orgasm seven times.”
“Huh?” My shoulder nearly dislocated itself as, lost between vague memories the voice evoked and the prospect it held dangling, I struggled to think who this might be. “You’re saying—”
“Orgasm, Ustaz Khalid,” once again she used the formal term of address. “I believe you were skillful and kind enough to give me seven of them in straight succession the evening we met. You will of course be surprised that a young Muslim woman of your country should readily concede her own sexual pleasure, but as I’m sure you also realize, the Revolution has changed everything . . . ”
Carol. It was as though I had been looking for her for six centuries—and to find her so unexpectedly at the other end of the line! The moment she confirmed it was her—”Wow,” she giggled, wringing my heart, “You do remember me!”—it all came skidding back. First, this same voice, so dense you felt you could touch it, the way a barely audible moan could crescendo into birdsong. Then the petite, perfect frame; the musky odor of her childlike sex; the way all of her fit over me like an extra layer of skin, skin that could feel only rapture. And then, the responsiveness of her soul as we did things on the mahogany bed, on the crocodile futon, on the hallway parquet among the cushions, out on the lawn to the sound of the dawn call to prayer. How, for all of a paradisal weekend in the wake of a cocaine-and-techno party at a businessman friend’s on the outskirts of Cairo, I relished that responsiveness. She had been introduced winkingly as the kind of working-class college girl whose liberated attitudes (secret from her family) let her prostitute herself without it looking like prostitution. Her name was so unusual it kind of confirmed that idea. Only a Christian girl of her background could be called Carol, and for some reason I knew she was Muslim. I must’ve assumed this wasn’t her real name. But when it turned out we got along—and I am nowhere near filthy rich enough to help with upward mobility—I doubted the truth of the introduction. She seemed to have true warmth—aside from the sheer heat of her, heh heh!—so I gave in. My businessman friend, who owns several ridiculously well-maintained luxury villas in the suburbs while living in the spy-infested, formerly aristocratic island of Zamalek, was happy to leave us in his villa for as long as we wanted to stay. Marriage was mentioned, as it nearly always is; but, after I drove her to Tahrir Square from Sheikh Zayed City (all the high-end suburbs of Cairo are cities, for some reason), it took only two days of not calling for her to disappear. Isn’t it ironic that I dropped her off in Tahrir Square, of all places?
She seriously disappeared. Change of phone number, change of alleged college and part-time job—she had kept her parents’ address from everyone anyway—and none of our friends in common knew anything about her. That kind of confirmed my suspicion that Carol wasn’t what she seemed. I was heartbroken. It freaked me out how heartbroken I was, which might be why I got so wholeheartedly into the Revolution. I hadn’t been thinking of Carol when it occurred to me to sodomize Sheikh Arif, but it’s occurred to me since then that the sense of purpose I felt about that, much like the sense of purpose I had felt about the Revolution, was rooted in my need to find her.
“Where by the religion of your father did you vanish to, you shoe,” I laughed into my iPhone now, feeling close enough to use such profane terminology of endearment. “And what’s with all this formality? Ustaz? Ustaz, by your mother’s cunt?” Now that I knew who I was talking to the throbbing had slowed to a pleasant rate. In reality, of course, I had no idea who I was talking to. Carol did change her tone to trade memories and remarks. She laughed, she snorted; one phrase—“miss that,” I think—released a moan-like sigh that did not quite crescendo into birdsong. She summoned feelings that were so intense they’d had to vaporize just as suddenly as they condensed when I found her in Sheikh Zayed City. But she gave no indication of her whereabouts and no real promise of a reunion; and I forgot to ask what unknown number she was calling from.
I don’t suppose that, in the whole of your time with the Mossad, you’ve ever heard anyone pour out their heart so readily? As I’ve said, the night I met Carol I did wonder about her motives. But, giving up on reaching a conclusion, I resigned myself to her earnestness and my instant love—a love I stupidly thought wouldn’t last longer than two weeks unless I saw her constantly. In the first two days after I went home I worried about controlling the impulse to call her, which must be why, for two days, I didn’t. As it turns out I was never to see her again. (That’s not entirely true, as you will see, but for all intents and purposes . . . ) The more I think about it, even today, the more definitely I feel there is not enough evidence of there existing a human being called Carol—not in the normal sense of human existence, no—not after all I’ve seen. Still, after she hung up that morning, the suspicion that she might not be human didn’t hit me. What happened was I sat down and reviewed what, only hours after I first felt the urge to sodomize Sheikh Arif, the closest thing I have known to a houri of the paradise Allah prepared for the faithful had just told me over the phone:
- That she knew I must be thinking about the sad fate of our Revolution, and I was right to think there was worse to come from the Islamists, “people who simply could not mind their own business,” she said.
- That she was calling because she had been asked by a bunch of guys who knew Bill Burroughs to hook me up with him. (I remembered Carol as having no English and, though she spoke Egyptian Arabic with the same slightly provincial accent she’d had when we met, she pronounced the words “Bill Burroughs” in impeccable American: “The writer, yes. You might think he is dead but that doesn’t mean he can’t meet you.”)
- That Bill Burroughs had heard about my revolutionary work and wanted to discuss the future of the Revolution with me . . .
It was all said casually and I thought she must be joking. Maybe she wanted to show me just how well she had learned English. How involved she had been with the English-speaking core of the Revolution. Even when she set a date, a time, and a venue for my meeting with the Pope of Dope, I assumed it would be her who turned up. I figured that must be why the meeting was so far ahead, almost a month and a half later, on Tuesday, May 22 at 7:15 p.m., outside the Hardee’s in Tahrir Square—exactly where I had dropped her off after our weekend together. (I noticed that she specified the time and place with too much precision, repeating the information several times.) It was moving to think how much blood and tears had become associated with that Hardee’s since I last saw Carol, because I sensed it was equal to how much I missed her. Carol has been away from Cairo and she won’t be back till then, I reasoned; she had left abruptly and, when she decided to return, she resolved to see me again. I did ask about the “bunch of guys” and she was happy to explain, “It’s an organization. A kind of multinational, actually. But you won’t have to meet any of them. It’s called Islam Inc. Nothing to do with the Islamists, of course.” It was then that, remembering Doctor Benway from Naked Lunch and noticing—or being forced to admit I noticed—the gravity of her tone, something jabbed me. For days that thing would stay there, like a rusty skewer below my left lung.
It was not fear; definitely not excitement or suspense. There might have been some adrenaline but it definitely wasn’t black—and only the faintest echo of a throb in my shoulder. I knew the feeling came not only from the phone call I had received but from the bolt that had struck me the night before, making me aware of that unlikely but totally imperative need to bugger Sheikh Arif. The bolt and the call became inseparable. Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I believe what I felt was a kind of grief; it didn’t last as long, of course, but it wasn’t so different from what I felt when my father died. The only question that still dogs me is who or what I was grieving for: Carol, all the casualties from eighteen months of protests, the fate of the Revolution itself, or the fact (already half-known) that my “revolutionary work” was about to be reduced to plotting and carrying out the premeditated rape of a presidential candidate? Maybe I was grieving simply for myself, for the person I had been before any of this happened, a person who could meet Carol, who could go for months without posting a single tweet, who never felt guilty about anyone dying on the asphalt.
So I’m minding my own business watching a late-night rerun of one of the more popular talk shows, and who should happen to be the guest, but presidential hopeful Sheikh/Ustaz Abu Ibrahim? Two equally heavy counterrevolutionary hosts are grilling the Islamist pretender. Like an honest-to-God protester who stops demonstrating forever once the president steps down, I am watching mainly for fun (so I convince myself), and it’s fun, all right: his outrageous philosophies and their full-of-shit refutations—until he gets to the question of avoiding the wicked influences of the West on our Muslim society. He mentions homosexuality by way of example, explaining:
“Men, may the Shaitan stay away from us, who fornicate with other men. That is permitted, nay encouraged, nay even shamelessly paraded in many Western countries.”
“But what we have to worry about is tourism, Sheikh Arif. We cannot scare away the tourists with extreme religiosity. Everyone knows the malady of homosexuality does not even exist in Egypt, why do you stress such imaginary, hypothetical problems . . . ?”
Hearing the bigger of the two hosts spew this out in a growl, I’m stunned. It’s like saying, “Poverty does not exist in Egypt, why worry about hypothetical problems?” I mean, forget political correctness. Anyone who’s spent any time in Cairo knows it’s a Mecca of the White Queer (may Allah grant us the sight of the Kaaba): twinks everywhere, buddy. Young, brown, and virile—so long as it’s worth their time in the long run, they don’t even have to be gay. To deny the very existence of homosexuality when male prostitution is a serious component of your GDP! This is before I find out about Sheikh Arif, you understand. It’s the evening of April 1, 2012, and nothing could be further from my conscious mind than penetration.
Though he is Islamist and stupid, the person being interviewed still represents our Revolution. So I am waiting for him to expose those liars, to tell them it is such willful blindness that was the doom of their president in the first place, to teach them. “You are right” is what comes out of the obese form: “It is true that the ignominious vice of sodomy, God preserve us, has not contaminated Egypt, thank God. Having said that. . . . ” And at this moment comes a cognitive spark so blinding it is almost physical. It’s as if the TV speakers are muffled progressively until the room falls silent. The picture fuzzes up and hops about, resolving into seven little propositions like giant candle flames, merging into an argument so resplendent I can hardly believe I am the one to see it. My enchantment is such I actually stop breathing, just as Daquqi must’ve when he arrived at that beach:
- Two representatives of the Old Regime are pitted against one representative of the Revolution.
- They are my enemies but they have no color; he is my ally in the shit-brown of political Islam.
- They’re trying to catch him out; he’s trying to demonstrate his aptitude.
- Absolutely nothing is under discussion except right and wrong: they see it from the standpoint of alleged common sense; he, from that of allegedly divine decree.
- No side is opposed to what the other stands for: they suck up to divine decree; he sucks up to common sense.
- Although they seem to disagree on everything, there is nothing that matters that the two sides don’t actually agree on.
- The Old Regime and the Revolution are identical.
For an hour I mull this over: Egyptians will not hear the truth however well they know it. So, for the substance of the Revolution to be political, it has to be made up of lies. About protesting for the sake of the poor, about homosexuality, about DEMOCRACY. Therefore the Revolution must be cut off from politics, let alone political Islam. And, for bringing the Revolution so rudely into the realm of holy gibberish—doing so with no more regard for the truth than the Old Regime, either—doesn’t Arif Kamal Abu Ibrahim deserve to experience the ignominious vice of sodomy first hand? Suddenly I felt like Neo, “the One,” the meaningfully human hero who could explode the Matrix—if only a little. Then I promised the universe that this would be my task. I fell asleep unusually peacefully and the next morning I woke up to Carol’s call.
WE WILL LIVE WITH DIGNITY: An awesome slogan, don’t you think? You should realize that, in Arabic, dignity means emancipation. The idea is that people without dignity—the pro-Old Regime counterrevolutionaries of 2011 and those liberals of 2012 who stopped fighting the Army when they realized they were doing the Islamists’ work for them—will always remain slaves. Only Islamists are free men (and they must be male men: women, lacking the genital wherewithal to do God’s will on earth, are appended to His milk and honey; they can only go out covered head to toe in black, and there are disputes about whether their eyes can show). Never mind that the Leader himself is enslaved to all kinds of toilet wash, that people follow him because he panders their own vomit back to them, that he thinks PEPSI is a conspiracy meaning “Pay Every Penny to Save Israel,” for example, or that he wants to set up neighborly vice squads to prevent men from mixing with women a la Saudi fucking Arabia. He is big; he is pious; he is versed in holy writ. He knows that America is the root of all evil and that the way to fight America is Islam.
The irony being, dear minor ayatollah of the SAVAMA, that America invented that same Islam to fight Communism—which was the root of all evil in the seventies. Then again, Islamists were never big on irony. Of course the real irony is yet to come—when it transpires that the Sheikh’s late mother, having busted out to Minnesota to polish the image of Islam after 9/11, was eventually naturalized while there: the Leader whose raison d’être is to sever our umbilical cord with Mama America turns out to have an American mama, ha ha!
You will forgive me for not plunging into the bottomless crater of diseased camel shit that passes for official procedure in this country. In March–April 2011, when the Army first established itself as absolute arbiter by referendum, it was the Islamists—and Sheikh Arif himself, sure—who used their influence to obtain the yes vote. Among many conditions for running that they agreed to was that both the candidate’s parents hold no nationality other than Egyptian. And so my obsession was to take on a new intensity as the saga began: While documents and testimonies made it indisputable that Arif’s mother was an American citizen and so he could not lawfully run for president, scores of supporters—notably members of the “Arif or Jahannam” (as in the Muslim Hell) campaign: one of several—took to aping what we had done over a year before.
True, they were not attacked as savagely at first, but they took themselves so seriously they actually believed the unbelievable: The Americans were shitting themselves in the White House thinking what would happen if Arif came to power, so they decided to interfere to prevent it; and were there in our midst—for shame!—those who would do the Americans’ bidding? At that point all the Islamists seemed to renege on their support for the Army, raising the slogan we had long since come up with: DOWN WITH THE RULE OF THE SOLDIERS. But only the Arifoon (that’s what Abu Ibrahim’s supporters called themselves, as if “Arif” was a state of being) sincerely turned against the generals—which is why, when they decided to move their sit-in from Tahrir Square to the headquarters of the Defense Ministry in Abbassiya, revolutionaries moronically joined them. It didn’t seem to matter whether Bu Bi Rahim told the truth about his mama, or that the absurd if plausible prospect of his rise to power could never affect the bowel movements of anybody in any house.
Eventually the protesters pissed people off so badly that uninvolved residents of Abbassiya joined the thugs in marauding them. By the time the military police went in and wiped out the sit-in, some thirty people had been slaughtered literally like cattle. And, even as he watched footage of the dead during a TV interview a day or two later, making sheepish noises that convinced no one he was sorry, Bu Bi Rahim—now the ancient Egyptian god not only of posters but also of lies—still avoided the question. He avoided the question until he was cornered, then he pathetically denied that his mother was an American citizen. How could he tell people to stop protesting when they were in the right, he declaimed; but, declaimed he, how could he be blamed for sending people to their death when he didn’t even mobilize his supporters. Had he actively mobilized them—here his small, pudgy hand jutted out, slicing the air in that vaguely kung fu gesture he used regularly for emphasis—everyone knows he could have had a hundred times as many people at the Defense Ministry!
That was the point at which I started taking concrete steps. I had watched, enthralled, thinking of Carol and Burroughs and the Revolution, treasuring my Abubrahimophobia while the object of my desire—as it were—distended, gaped wider, asking for my ever more eager prick. Again and again, Arif or Jahannam claimed that the disqualification of His Virtuousness from the race was a ruse of the Army-controlled Presidential Commission; they would remain on the streets until they could live with dignity. Again and again, the son of a water buffalo resorted to the kind of sleazy bureaucratic nitpicking of which he had promised he would purify public life. His mama’s US passport wasn’t registered with the Ministry of Interior, he argued, so there was no proof recognized by Egyptian law of her holding dual citizenship. Though he hardly joined the demonstrators for longer than it took to give them, his speeches about the dishonesty of the Commission and the desire of the Army to make slaves of all of us proceeded like fire in the debris, as the old Arab proverb says. They could only strengthen my resolve.
My obsession with Arif had started the moment I looked at that smooth, effeminate face of his—the size and texture of the palm of your hand, with two tiny eyes wide open, dripping fervor—and saw a version of Hosny Mubarak’s. The reason it took me so long to do anything about it—after fighting the urge a little at first—was that, somehow, without actually being told, I had been told to wait for Burroughs. I had been told to sit tight and watch the man of the receptive anus make such a travesty of both creed and patrimony.
By now people who know anything know I am not gay. Some day the world will see just how irresistible to any true revolutionary are the tight curves of the hip bone, the magnificent fold of the buttocks, the full fleshy substance of the two moons bobbing sumptuously along—always, and insensitively, upstaged by his giant paunch—as the Leader turns to take the podium at the Salafi prayer hub known as the Lion of Islam Mosque, which happens to be a block away from my parents’ apartment, where I still live. They will see that this is the case because he could not be more sexually repulsive.
In the three weeks following that visionary experience, the onset of my obsession, and news of Burroughs—this was the time during which the Arifoon protests took off—it felt right to show him what it might feel like to actually be a woman in the act (milk, honey, and politics notwithstanding). And so, by making him a creature penetrated, to prevail in a minor extra-time battle of my lost war as a true, English-speaking, Arab Spring revolutionary.
At some point—it must’ve been during the first Arif or Jahannam sit-in in Tahrir Square—I recalled a quote from Naked Lunch: “And there was the occasion when President Ra threw the British Prime Minister to the ground and forcibly sodomized him, the spectacle being televised to the entire Arab world”; and I kind of knew I was on the right path. As I would find out, my dear FSB werewolf, the universe’s intervention could never be as simple as an image of Nationalism buggering Empire in the fifties. But I was content with that being a kind of precedent, especially after I looked up and memorized the quote. A Che dancing the chocolate cha-cha with a fat sheikh who wants to be president: somehow that felt like the ideal response to the entire Arab Spring. My concern was that, when the time came, I wouldn’t be able to get it up. But I would take Viagra if I had to. And, with two of my closest comrades who turned out not to be all that serious about the project—they did back off at the last minute—I drew up a plan. The whole time I was thinking what I would tell “Bill Burroughs” when I saw her. Whether I admitted it or not, I wanted her to be proud of me; and maybe that’s why the whole project felt like an action flick in which I was both the filmmaker and the hero watching myself act out the insanely beautiful script I came up with. Because I knew that somewhere Carol was also watching.
With my two comrades—let’s call them Ahmad and Mehammad—I started going to the Lion of Islam Mosque. For twenty-five days we performed the evening prayers there. Twice, we were lucky enough to listen to the Leader give long and elaborate speeches in person. Stewie rubbing his hands together, as it were. Three times we set out with prayer-mates to various protest locations to spend the night at Arifoon sit-ins, mingling.
Trust me, you don’t want to know about those fungus-and-blubber devotion orgies at the Lion: the stink of sweat over freeze-dried jism; animality jam-packed in prehistoric garments swathing all that furious, straitjacketed flesh; facial hair billowing in insect swarms so vast there seems to be nothing else. You don’t want to feel their metaphorical grip on every last twitch in your body; the violence of strangers making sure you conform to the fine points of pious posture, the hellishly amplified gurgling of imams like medieval supplicants gone galactic. The thing about Muslim ritual prayer is there is nothing remotely spiritual about it. I mean, I don’t have a problem with it—so long as people do it quietly, out of sight. But, even individually, Salat involves neither breathing nor concentration. No attempt at contact. All you do is you perform the act, go through the motions; and the motions are so mechanical it’s no different from going to the toilet. When it happens in a group it’s like a communal dump, meticulously choreographed. The mindlessness is such it’s all you can do, once the man in front of you gets on his knees, not to hump him.
Let me spare you my character portraits of the Arifoon we encountered. They’re actually pretty normal young Egyptians, with rigid thought patterns and low IQs and chips on their shoulders in a range of sizes. The Revolution has given them a sense of purpose that feels absolutely, eternally right; and that’s why they never remember that Islam prohibits the worship of humans. But they are easier than most to get information out of; and that’s all we cared about, all things considered. We found out, for example:
- That, during his own time in America, Sheikh Arif grew close to two disciples of His Virtuousness “Sheikh Osama” (as in Bin Laden)—now in Guantanamo—whose vision for the future of the Umma our Leader shares;
- That, despite vicious rumors to the contrary by a shameless hellcat whom His Virtuousness was unfortunate enough to marry, the Sheikh—may God preserve his manliness—is as potent as the best of us;
- That, aside from the legal battle he is valiantly waging to clear his name, the reason Sheikh Arif does not appear at protests is his concern that his “greater presence” would convert millions beyond the Arifoon into soldiers of the faith and thus undermine national stability;
- And, most importantly, that the Moment of Reckoning will happen on the evening of Thursday, May 24, in Tahrir Square, when Sheikh Arif is to lead a protest that will rival and, God willing, surpass that of January 25, 2011, turning into a massive sit-in as of Friday, May 25.
Something tells me this is it: my cosmic opportunity for fucking him; my Moment of Reckoning, or the universe’s.
So, then, for nearly a month, my comrades and I study our target closely. We let our beards grow, shaving only the hair above our lips and using coffee and glue to paint unassuming prayer marks on our foreheads, which we are careful not to wipe off when we put our faces to the floor during prayer. By the end of May, of course, the first round of the elections will be over. It will be clear that Arif is going nowhere, with the runoff vote between a retired general-cum-minister and the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, the more down-to-earth face of Islamism who, thanks to DEMOCRACY, will win. But sheer momentum has kept the slogan creeping over the asphalt to this day: WE WILL LIVE WITH DIGNITY. It’s not clear what the Arifoon have been demanding after the Leader declared his support for the Brotherhood candidate at the Lion. But it seems to me it’s the chips on their shoulders that are driving them, those tiny dynamos of self-hatred. Tiny dynamos of self-hatred are the only thing that has ever driven them, of course. That impotent douche bag was only a kind of catalyst—but it worked. Since May 25 they’ve wanted to get me, too. But we’ll come to that.
Could it be that political Islam is in fact an alien invasion facilitated by a secretly preplanned uprising of the young? Would your colleagues at MI6 know if someone or something from outer space got into our heads and drove us to act in the interest of the Islamists? The Arifoon and Salafis: they truly come across as aliens. And not very interesting ones, either. They are, as we say in Egypt, eggs: human eggs. (That’s the term for “bollocks,” as I believe the English say; it evokes something as slimy and malodorous as an omelet made out of baboons’ sperm-soaked testicles.) Then again, that’s how normal Egyptians come across too, as a rule of thumb. Either you are technically abnormal or you are monkey balls. The only question was whether such a monkey-ball invasion could be countered by the intervention I had in mind. Still, it was less about changing the course of the AI stream than slipping something into its make-believe waters: something small and very venomous, like “the trace program” in The Matrix—Morpheus’s red pill, remember? There’s an actual super-pill in my story too, but not yet.
May 22, 2012. I am to meet William S. Burroughs (1914–1997), the late homosexual junky from America whose books I find more revolutionary than anything overtly political. For some reason other than the fact that I’ve read them, he apparently has something to tell me about the Arab Spring. Of course I didn’t yet believe it was going to be Burroughs. Recalling Carol as if plugged into a five-sense virtual reality system, my excitement was tantric; and I proceeded to my fate in the conviction that a reunion with her was worth five hundred successful revolutions, forget about last year’s Pyrrhic victory. The evening of May 21, I had received a text from “Unknown” reminding me of the time and place with a quote I suspected was from Burroughs cryptically appended: “It’s the little touches that make a future solid enough to destroy.” The message was not signed. But, for as long as I thought of Carol, it wasn’t too hard to forget that it might not be her waiting for me outside Hardee’s.
Trust me, I’ve done enough drugs to believe anything is possible, but I didn’t want to think about the possibility that I was going to discuss the Arab Spring with a ghost: the spirit of a dead man, a political poltergeist. I told Ahmad and Mehammad I was going on a mission to the Square to find out which tent Abu Ibrahim would be in on Thursday. Then, about an hour earlier than necessary, looking like a post-Revolution Salafi, I set out. Not wanting to rack my nerves in traffic or look desperately for parking, I took the Metro. By the time I stepped underground I had stopped compulsively fantasizing, partly because there was something uncannily quiet about the station. “God help you, sheikh,” the ticket vendor told me. (Anyone with a mustache-less beard in Cairo is a sheikh.) Apart from the sound of a train passing on the far side, unusually muffled, the platform was dead—not even the ring of mobile phone—pretty incredible for the Cairo Metro. I waited for a long time, watching across the tracks as another train came and went almost in slow motion. A few moments before my own train blocked the view, the third train on the far side came to a screeching halt. Then—I shit you not—silence. As people soundlessly got on and off I wondered where those who were boarding had come from; I was sure they hadn’t been there a moment before. I had just enough time to glimpse someone I thought I recognized. The tiny figure and slightly lame gait, the short frizzy hair and skin-tight top covered with a light shawl, the Capri pants over knee-high boots, the defiant but at the same time far-away look: it was Carol getting on—to go in the opposite direction. I didn’t have the courage to yell her name, though I was sure she had seen me too and, noticing that I recognized her, looked down.
Instead of plugging me back into the virtual reality system of paradisal love, this glimpse started rotating the skewer of grief in my side. I boarded my train still hoping I was wrong, but I knew now that whatever it was that awaited me at Hardee’s, it wouldn’t be Carol. Incredibly, there was no one else in the whole compartment and, suddenly drained, my shoulder throbbing violently, I flopped down. I put my face in my hands and held back the tears.
Drink up and listen to me now, brave spy: There is no question that the compartment was totally empty; I’d looked around to make sure. And yet, before we arrived at a station, I became aware of a presence right behind me: a slight change in the temperature or the light, just enough to unnerve me. Looking back, I smelled a strong body odor: tar, stale sweat, car exhaust. At the same time I bumped against a bony elbow—someone was sitting next to me. I swear that’s how it happened. How or when this human body had been plopped there, I have no idea. Leaping to my feet, barely able to stand as the train accelerated, I saw an old man wearing a galabeya. He was sitting, legs crossed, looking up haughtily and humming the tune of an old patriotic song we had chanted during the Revolution. The galabeya was torn, covered in stains; the hair was a tangle of impromptu dreadlocks. Except for the intelligence—the sheer sanity—of the eyes, he looked like one of those homeless schizos who are periodically let out of government asylums to spend the rest of their short lives foraging on the streets, never washing or sleeping indoors, never speaking with anyone.
“Wh . . . where,” I stuttered, my shoulder killing me as I took in the rest of the weathered face. “How on earth did you get on?”
“That,” said the toothless mouth, in a quaint, semi-classical Arabic, “is of no consequence, kind sir. You will generously dismiss such questions.” It was a strangely disembodied voice, unnatural but somehow also live, like many voices in many different pitches miraculously molded into a single sound; like a bunch of people speaking in the same voice, all of them in the same incredibly arrogant tone. “Before you,” he gestured theatrically with wrist and arm—like a nineteenth-century magician introducing himself to an aristocratic audience, I thought—“is the Beggar, kind sir. Infinite is the mercy of Allah.” And, bowing in his seat, paying no attention at all to my reaction, “The Beggar is not at present engaged in practicing his profession. The Beggar is here,” he enunciated slowly, “to make a single momentous utterance in your presence, Ustaz—or should the Beggar say Doctor?—Khalid Dawood Nawwarah.”
“How come,” I started spastically, while he gesticulated and bowed once more. “How come how come how come . . . ”
He was humming again.
“But you even know my full name!”
For the remainder of the trip—at which point the specter would vanish just as inexplicably as it appeared; and no one, repeat: no one, came into the compartment until we arrived at the station—the features of that face kept shifting. That was the weirdest part. It all happened within the ten minutes or so to Tahrir, but during that time the Beggar became at least seven different people, all old and haggard, all overconfident as they spoke in those multifarious tones. One of them looked to me exactly as I pictured Daquqi; for a moment I thought I was before the dervish, in the flesh. Another, judging by the pictures and videos I had seen online, looked exactly like Burroughs late in life; another still, like my father. But not one of the people he became lasted for longer than a minute and the transformations were too fast to process. Maybe all old and haggard people look more or less alike, I thought—was I just comforting myself?—but, noticing that I seemed to be facing someone new every minute, I did locate one particular wrinkle and watch it closely: I never actually saw it move, but at one point it just wasn’t where it had been. Wobbling violently now, I could feel my body trembling inside and out, as if some vibrator planted in my shoulder was sending powerful shockwaves through my axial and whence my appendicular skeleton.
“You have something to tell me?” I managed to interrupt his humming, pressing my shoulder and groaning as I sat opposite him, breathing hard. “I’m listening.”
“You are listening, are you, kind sir,” he spoke. “Infinite is the mercy of Allah. It shall be to your credit in His estimation to comprehend that the Beggar speaks for the nation. For certain you are cognizant of the truth that this is a nation of beggars, may Allah forgive His slaves; a nation of whores and hirelings.”
My shoulder calming down, I felt a twinge of patriotic anger, faint beneath layers of longing and anticipation. But before I had time to see his point—I mean, he definitely has a point, whether or not you agree that patriotism is, like religion, an affliction—I realized that it was this that had ended my despair in the first place: Abu Ibrahim and Carol had brought back a sense of meaning. It was as if listening to what he said was slowing down the vibrator until, by the time he finished, it had switched off.
“Now hearken to the Beggar, Khalid Dawood Nawwarah,” he bellowed; and his scowl seemed to ease his mysterious words into my mind, clearing them of mystery (if you asked me to explain what he meant exactly I wouldn’t know how; but nonetheless I could exactly understand):
“You must forego the sun’s desire to unite with the eternally beloved. That shall be your true sacrifice to the nation; the heinous deed you shall perform is in lieu of your long-awaited reunion with the moon. The greater devil has provided you with a seraph to act like a messenger. Remember, then, the Prophet Ibrahim, who put the knife to the neck of his son.”
That was it, word for word. It had barely simmered in my head when I found myself wandering in a Tahrir Metro station as busy and noisy as you’d expect. Once he was gone I felt more or less normal again. Later on I would realize that I knew the “utterance” by heart. But, as I surfaced into the dusty twilight, all I could hear was “Infinite is the mercy of Allah”, over and over. It was 6:25 by the time I emerged from underground. I thought I might as well scout the site in the time I had before my appointment, so I crossed over to the traffic island looking for familiar faces.
Since February 11 of last year I had been to the Square often and it pained me every time. Even when there were nearly a million people there and they were all secular, it paled by comparison to what we called the Revolution. I don’t mean just that you knew it would be practically empty after dark, leaving more hustlers than protesters. The fact that it had already happened with life-and-death urgency and spectacular results made its replay unpleasantly dreamlike at the best of times, like revisiting a past and much better life of your own. At the worst of times, like now—when you could find only the most desperate Islamists, outnumbered by all kinds of whores and hirelings: thugs-on-demand and Saudi flag sellers—it was positively macabre. For half an hour, with the terror of the Beggar still in my system, I had to keep reminding myself that I would wake up from this nightmare.
In a trance I met up with a bunch of Arifoon I had connected with at the Lion, went through the motions of brotherhood in Allah. I made them show me not the makeshift podium from which Sheikh Arif would speak but the tent where he would be before and after. The most influential of them was a wiry engineering student named Musab; I made him promise he would grant Ahmad, Mehammad and me a personal audience with the Leader. (The plan was for Ahmad and Mehammad to coax him to a tent we would set up in the vicinity, making sure he went in alone—on the pretext that we needed him to comfort an old lady, the bereaved mother of “a brother” killed in Abbassiya—while I, with an unloaded revolver, waited there in the dark. We had bought serious camping gear for the occasion, including a Coleman tent that could be firmly zippered from inside: the Arifoon could conceivably turn it upside down but it would take them a while to cut through the nylon with knives—and we counted on them needing no weapons at the center of their territory; if His Virtuousness didn’t make too much noise, they might not realize they needed to do anything . . . ) After excusing myself—“By the will of Allah,” I explained, “I am going to meet a brother at Hardee’s; if Allah intends it I might bring him back to make your acquaintance. Peace and the mercy of Allah and His blessings be upon you, brothers”—I had to find a secluded spot to puke. That’s how terrified and disgusted I was.
In the fifteen minutes or so that I waited outside Hardee’s, I couldn’t stand still. It didn’t help that, from where I stood, the Square began to look like a circle or, rather, a hollow sphere—an LSDish prospect that brought back the trembling and the shoulder pain. It was like looking at the inside of a giant ball to which my side of the road was the only way in: a sort of rectangular gate giving onto the washed-out blue of the sky above and the brown-grey fisheye vista below, all dotted with the off-white angles of the tents and the stark black flags of Al Qaeda. . . . Now take a good long swig of your drink, pal: Except for the occasional remark, it will be impossible to tell you how I felt from then on. Things were so otherworldly, so scary and heartening and exciting and devastating, even my shoulder didn’t know how to respond. A trip—no, a voyage. The voyage of several lifetimes across continents and centuries. And you’re going to have to imagine it.
Daquqi has this vaguely relevant metaphor. He talks about the moon. Everyone knows it’s there, everyone looks out for it. But some people see it wrong. They look at its reflection in a well and think it’s the well, for example; it simply doesn’t occur to them to look up into the sky. Sheikh Arif is someone who sees the moon in a sewer-turned-mutilated-corpse dump that people haven’t ceased to fill with excrement. (Remember what Burroughs said about when he stopped wanting to be president? He thought it made more sense to be Commissioner of Sewers!) But why doesn’t it occur to Daquqi that maybe the moon itself is a misperception of something, or that there may in fact be many moons?
Standing outside Hardee’s, I kept jumping about to dispel the strain, pacing from one end of the gateway to another as I cradled my shoulder and struggled to keep my eyes on the ground—unbearable anticipation. That must be how, when the apparition arrived, all I took in was the cold sensation of a skeletal hand on my upper arm and a swoosh of air ahead of me. Classic horror, huh? Had I not been so fucking rattled I would have laughed my head off. And how the fuck was I going to get an erection with Arif if I felt then the way I was feeling now? “Follow me,” a voice said in English. “Keep moving.” (Until I finally arrived at the dark street corner where my fate would be determined, I kept hearing those four words in the same voice, toneless and unreal, guiding or prodding me.) Two slim, apparently Caucasian young men whose faces I didn’t catch were making a show of having brushed against me by mistake. I was sure neither of them had tapped my arm; but, except for confusing me even more, by now that was hardly the issue. I didn’t notice anything unusual about their clothes as I shadowed them across one of the main streets leading out from Tahrir Square into central Cairo. They walked fast, seeming to glide above or through traffic. Three times I lost them; four times I suspected they were hallucinations that only I could see. Night was falling fast and, while the effort had calmed me somewhat, the scene looked more and more cubist as I jogged ahead. It had very high color saturation; it was soft, smooth, and many-layered; like a double exposure.
I have no idea by what route I came to a stretch of Champollion Street where it was dim and quiet and utterly devoid of company, but a sudden switch to a simple perspective and the sharp, gritty black-and-white of early photojournalism made me feel I had finally arrived. There was no sign of the young men. Another swoosh and the voice said, “You wait here now.” I noticed it had taken on the midwestern, gravelly drawl and deadpan monotone I already knew from recordings. A light went on in a distant building and then he appeared, upright and alert as he strode toward me, eyes glazed. Perfectly normal, believe it or not: flesh, blood, bones, and clothing. By late May the weather was almost as hot as it is now but he was in a trench coat, wearing a fedora and spectacles, exactly as I had seen him on YouTube—not in his old age, more like in the nineteen-fifties, when he still had some substance to his body and his face was relatively clear of wrinkles. “Come,” he barked as he passed me, like a pusher or a detective, and I noticed his hand rested on a bulge over his hip—a gun, I suspected. He went through a door a few steps away and, mechanically, I followed.
It occurred to me that, on an evening like this in the late seventies, when Burroughs lived there, the Bowery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan would have looked no different from this stretch of Champollion Street. Even the dilapidated building whose winding stairway I found myself climbing seemed identical to the former YMCA gym where, without junk at first, Burroughs (at a much later stage in his life than he appeared now) had famously lived. It was surprisingly intimate. Maybe New York wasn’t as different from Cairo as I’d always assumed? We went up two stories and into an apartment that looked exactly as I imagined the Bunker to be, with trash in phenomenal quantities strewn around bits of Second Empire furniture and framed pictures on the walls; I recognized the Shooter’s Supply poster—the black outline of a human figure for target practice—unframed, and a Remington typewriter among some syringes and cotton swabs on a large oval table with no seats. A gooseneck lamp on the edge of that table was the only light.
Burroughs aged thirty-something closed the door to the Manhattan apartment where he was to live aged sixty-something—in Cairo, Egypt. He locked it like a man pursued. Then, taking off his coat and letting it drop on the floor, he unbuckled a shoulder holster with a pistol in it—I had been right about that—and eased it onto the table by the typewriter. Above the sharkskin pants and tired black shoes, he was wearing a simple shirt whose sleeves he proceeded to roll up, undoing the two top buttons as he sat down.
Without a word he nodded to me. Before I knew it—his limbs and torso forming a composite of diagonals against one abstract expressionist painting, large and yellow—he was balanced on a chaise longue, holding an ancient Zippo lighter to a deep, off-color spoon, then with a syringe finding a vein in his left arm and a medical tourniquet above the elbow.
His movements became slower and cooler, more languid, more measured. Otherwise he didn’t seem to be affected by the shot, but it took a while for me to come back into his field of vision. Only then did I realize I was still standing. As I sat down on the armchair opposite, I realized I had been seeing him through a sort of clear screen. Blood, viscid and dark as fig jam, was spurting all over its surface, making nauseating squirting sounds as it stained a millimeter’s thickness of the air between us.
As if he realized what was bothering me, Burroughs chortled and sat up, his shoulders hunched: “But it’s the same inside your body. What is it you’re so disgusted about?” He stood up slowly and sat down again. “You ever hear the one about the Egyptian Partisan?” he started in his trademark staccato drone, as if it was the nineties and he was America’s most famous writer reading his work to a huge audience.
“No. Is that really you? Bill Burroughs?”
“I represent Islam Inc., which means I’m the agent of some secret organization, I forget which.”
“But you’re dead, how—”
“How how how how,” he cawed. “How how how—good heavens, how do you know you’re not the dead one? How, dead, do I know you’re alive? The company sent me to assist you with your mission. Call me Lee,” he cleared his throat. Then, as if to place our exchange in parentheses, he took a pointed breath and leaned forward.
The Egyptian Partisan went around suckling Fundamentalists’ toes. You would, too. Extremely handsome athlete with hypnotic eyes. Got hooked on the Scarlet Constipator, you dig: diabolical preparation of ground Nile crocodile gall bladder, nuciferne and aporphine mixture naturally occurring in the blue water lily, and synthetic tryptamine. Instant metabolic addiction. Constipatees, the addicts are called. Survive on nuts and alcohol. Excrement collects in marble pellets they spontaneously eject once a month. Substance is smoked, sniffed, swallowed, injected, shoved. Hell, I’ve seen Constipatees slicing their arms and pouring the stuff into the gash. Clotty, colorless goo, you dig. Smells sulphuric like a fart. Can be crystallized and pulverized into odorless alcohol-soluble dust. Nothing scarlet about it. Name refers to narcotic effect which deploys the addict in service of Third International, meaning searing yen to dismantle the Institution of Capitalism. Turns you into a Partisan in no time. The more E.P. fought the businessman government in E.—sheer piously uncomprehending blackness of unchecked world market stampeding demonstrations million-man marches protest campaigns awareness-raising leaflets Occupy sit-ins jail sentences confession-less torture by electric shock the gallows—the more Fundamentalists in power. Surely you realize Fundamentalists are more capitalist than Adam Smith. By then S.C. was E. Health Problem Number One and the people in power were all Fundamentalists. As far as they acknowledged existence of S.C., they made it inhumanly expensive. Cut with melted Pritt sticks. E.P.—head growing tadpoles instead of hair, face peeling in blobs of protoplasm, solid wormlike turd permanently dangling out of tattered ass like rabbit tail, motor functions randomly impaired as in ether overdose, mottled fur growing in patches all over the body, and all language communication restricted to “Workers of the world, unite”—is reduced to depending on alms from the Bearded Masters, shrieking “Workers of the world, unite” as if he was saying “Please help me” and slobbering over hands he grabbed to kiss. Taking pity, the Minister buys him as a personal slave. Fundamentalists reintroduced slavery, you dig. Scraping the fungus from under visitors’ toenails is E.P.’s job. A hell of a lot of it. But till you can get some S.C., ingestion of trichophyton rubrum—ringworm of the nail—is indicated. Gives some relief but no hit. Now picture E.P. in above state crawling among swarthy sandaled feet of bearded apes in knee-high white tunics with fungus-marked skin from undried ritual ablutions, begging to orally clean them. Wouldn’t you? “Workers of the world, unite! Workers of the world, unite?” That is what being a Partisan comes to. And how do you know all Partisans are not Constipatees?
Spitting violently between his feet, Burroughs leaned back again. He had sounded more melancholy than mad, but I guess that’s what being mad on heroin sounds like when you’re dead. Not bitter, but weary and melancholy and perversely amused. “We have business,” he said slowly. “After two days you will perform a vital operation. I am here to tell you Islam Inc. has an interest in your success. Six contingencies have been dealt with. This,” he handed me a tablet wrapped in cellophane, “is the seventh contingency. You have to take it thirty minutes before pulling down your pants.”
I looked at the object, unwrapping and wrapping it again in the light. It was shaped exactly like an egg, with the same vertical asymmetry, except it was no larger than an M&M. Stationary, it was a sort of translucent brown; but when you moved it in the light the color changed and you could see the whole spectrum.
“What is it?” I said finally.
“Not junk,” Burroughs grinned. “You did worry about this, yes?” There was something sly about the way his lips curved; and I noticed for the first time that his eyes were no longer glassy. He spoke matter-of-factly, with cruel detachment, but it was as if his eyes were comforting me while he did. “Hentai-RK. Yohimbine-based, basically; you know, the tree bark of Pausinystalia yohimbe,” and I thought he was going to go off again. “But it’s the pharmaceutical industry of another age, or maybe of a different planet—it’s post-sildenafil citrate, which you probably know as Viagra. A superior tab.” For longer than I’d been aware he had readjusted his arms into a pair of incongruent triangles. As he talked, his hand kept coming off his elbow and rising toward me, palm up, fingers taut—a motion I remembered him describing as the junky’s quintessential gesture, the way the limp wrist is the homosexual’s—only to slip it back under his elbow again. “You see those color vortices, they’re mini-portals into your life past and future. Mostly past. Unlike sildenafil, Hentai-RK doesn’t simply help you to get it up, it hands you the biophysical equivalent on a four-dimensional platter. You experience everything you would if you were to taste the same incredibly focused libidinal drive without it.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I nodded anyway. “But you have to understand it is to aid you in performing the operation, not for your amusement. You have to understand this whole side of your life is for the operation. In this and other respects you should try to rethink control.”
He turned away to start cooking another shot. And after that—well, I could tell you he went unhinged and chased me out with his gun. I could tell you he forced me to shoot up, whether heroin or something equally strong, then deposited my limp body on a street corner. I could even tell you we made love; first, he said, I needed to lose my homo virginity in preparation for the Moment of Reckoning. . . . In the state I was in, anything could’ve happened and I could’ve gone along with anything. But the truth is, after putting the pill in my breast pocket, I don’t remember a thing. There was a sense of being in a closed-off space in the middle of a war zone—as if we were in a subterranean nuclear bunker while the radiation cloud mushroomed, incandescent, right over our heads. At some point, I seem to remember, he was flat on his back in the dark—he must’ve been lying on some kind of surface, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was floating—somewhere between the apartment and the sidewalk on Champollion Street. “Understand this,” he said to me, and I couldn’t see him saying it: “Control can never be a means to any practical end. It can never be a means to anything but more control.” The next thing I knew I was at the entrance to the Lion of Islam. Ahmad and Mehammad were a step behind me; and, in a godawful voice, the imam was giving the signal to start prayers. As if instinctively, my hand rubbed my breast in a panic. The Hentai-RK was there.
It’s the little touches that make a future solid enough, not to live with, but to destroy. Was I seeking control by planning to sodomize Sheikh Arif, or avoiding its trap? Provided you don’t ask for chronological or any order, there are plenty of little touches to recount—in the present tense, for your pleasure—from the night that I destroyed my future:
- The three of us hauling the stuff into the traffic island, then setting it up: All sporty-chic except for our Salafi faces, we look like First World hikers who, mistaking Tahrir for the foot of Annapurna, have decided to wait overnight for their Sherpa guides and the attendant llamas. Hysterical sermons are playing out of loudspeakers in the background, mixing with live slogan-chanting—the Judeo-Christian imperialists and their allies, we are told, are the progeny of monkeys and pigs, etc.—but tuneless Saudi recitations of the Quran cutting into the sound make it hard to discern what’s being said. Bearing the statement of the faith in rudimentary calligraphy, Al Qaeda’s black flag flutters weakly. Even in our perfect disguise, we can’t help being intimidated; and it is at this point that Ahmad tells me it may be better to just leave, it’s not worth losing our lives; Mehammad seems to agree with him.
- The time we spend wriggling our way through the Body of the Islamist to our wiry comrade Musab: we finally find him with another guy, Farid, whom we don’t remember seeing. He is short and stocky with a shifty, insolent stare, the self-hatred below the prayer mark on his face more apparent than on any other in the vicinity. His spindly, barbed beard reaches his navel; we can tell he’s against us having our audience with the Leader. “God willing,” he keeps saying, gruffly dismissive, while Musab smiles his reassuring smile, and the hubbub reaches a diminuendo of shuffling as the Sheikh, holding a microphone on some raised surface only steps away, begins to speak to the swarm of pretend revolutionaries who barely cover the traffic island but to us feel very frighteningly many.
- The utter darkness once I zipper the tent shut, the muzzle of my gun on Arif’s Adam’s apple, groping for the noose I’ve prepared, with which—getting him to bend over—I tie his hands behind his back before pulling down his pants with a savageness that makes me think of rape scenes in seventies B-movies: He is silent, or maybe he’s protesting weakly as I proceed, whimpering, but I can no longer hear. The RK is beginning to take effect and reality is vanishing; with it, the strange situation of pulling down my own pants while cooped up in a mountain-climbing tent about to sodomize Sheikh Arif Kamal Abu Ibrahim, surrounded by hordes of increasingly antsy Arifoon who can see or hear nothing. The hairless softness of the flesh into which I sink one hand, fumbling for the Vaseline with the other, is not the hairless softness of his buttocks; and by the time I give the first thrust I am no longer here now; he is no longer Sheikh Arif.
- Afterward, after the seventh thrust: I don’t know where the light is coming from, maybe my eyes have grown accustomed to the dimness, or maybe some hole has been cut in the tent, somewhere unseen. The light is faint but it’s enough to see. I’ve just emerged from the RK trip to the grotesque shock of an obese middle-aged man, naked from the waist down and bent over, his hands tied behind his back, his forehead wedged against a corner of the tent, groaning with evident pleasure as my rock-hard penis moves inside him. Did I imagine it or did I actually hear him say, in impeccable Quranic Arabic, “Give us more of this bounty, generous master, may Allah be generous to and give you more of His”? I have barely said “Live with dignity, bitch” when suddenly I am outside being mobbed and the tent is upside down, the Sheikh looking disheveled but fully dressed as he moves with a small group toward the large tent again. Farid is glaring at me, but it is Musab who, bearing a slab of concrete, is charging, breathlessly urging the others, “Get the infidel!”
- The moment before all this, when Musab leads us into the Sheikh’s presence—Farid fuming with malignant mercilessness as he exhales the words “O Beneficent, O Merciful”—and, in the enormous rectangular tent that commands the scene, at last, one-on-one contact with this blown-up grown-up non-cartoon Arab-Muslim version of Stewie Griffin: His Virtuousness has just finished his speech, urging supporters never to leave the Square until their demands are met, and his face is still flushed from the effort and the resounding response. Immediately we can tell that getting him to see the nonexistent “martyr’s mother” in our tent will take some persuasion. At close range it is clearer than ever: he is so damned cowardly, O Spy, so dependent on the Body of the Islamist to contain and give him purpose, so insincere and insecure, he would never do anything spontaneous or on impulse, however holy. But, perhaps with telepathic help from Bill Burroughs, we’ve prepared a series of pleas like spells, rehearsing the words, emphasis and inflection.
- The way Ahmad and Mehammad lean over His Virtuousness, one on each side, their hands on his shoulders, murmuring the incantations and nodding in my direction as I leave for our tent. I’ve already taken the pill by now and, despite my heart pounding and the shoulder ache, I am curious as to what will happen. Then the Sheikh almost kneeling to get inside, his best I’m-not-sorry-about-your-son-for-he-is-a-martyr-in-heaven look already on his face, while Farid and Musab stand with Ahmad and Mehammad girded by Arifoon: in the spotty brightness of three or four small floodlights at various points in the Square, the moment I look back before pushing the rest of him inside and picking up the revolver I have left there, my two comrades look like frightened rabbits about to hop away. And then Arifoon closing in on the tent, their hands and impromptu weapons intermittently poking the strong nylon: I hear myself muttering sharply into Arif’s ear, “Tell them to sit tight,” and the Sheikh pulling his voice together to bellow, “All is well, my brothers. I call upon you to wait where you are.” Someone cries, “Why did his companions flee, then?” And, on my orders, the Sheikh replies, “They will stop the Old Regime thugs from attacking us.”
- My brief personal exchange with the Leader once I am introduced—I mean, how he comes across when you have tea in a tent with him: pious pomposity and manipulative managerialism are only the crispy crust; beneath that, let’s see. I’m not sure how to explain to you that, without being any less disgusted or outraged, I can feel for him. His obesity, his pathetic eagerness to please (most of which is channeled toward our Father in heaven but will readily splash even the impostors among said Father’s people), and his equally pathetic responsiveness to the emptiest flattery: I can see the whimpering child whose only drive is to follow instructions, to please Baba and be a good boy, to dominate the world through sheer force of being the goodest. Everything in his face—the transparently fraudulent, the puerile, the duplicitous—makes you think of that child . . .
Who could you be, balm of my bones, that my last encounter with your form should be thanks to a supra-chemical named after the pornographic genre of Japanese animation, R. and K. standing for “reality” and “kneading,” respectively? Who could you be, my Carol, my nameless lover whom I know only and improbably as Carol, that after such harrowing absence and the company of the blinded and maimed you should reappear fleetingly in the dream of a dream, indeed the dream of a dream of a dream, my final act of Revolution? Perhaps all there is in regime change is an ache for something of your kind: not imperfect enough to be human, not numerous enough to have presence, not abiding enough to be consensually real. Perhaps Revolution is nothing but the silence of a soul bereaved of you: a silence whose obverse is the wordless talk that is our coitus, the miraculous act that makes me whole and turns the fantasy of regime change into a blood-real protest of Tahrir. But then, because you are no longer, it is nothing. It is a revolving door through which new aliens replace the old and young men die for nothing. One thing I know is no American genius of Tangiers could have imagined you; no conceivable god or angel has that power. Likely you imagined yourself, and Burroughs with you for my sake, knowing all along this would be the extent of regime change for me, for Egypt, perhaps even for the universe whose order says neither you nor he nor Revolution can ever be. You imagined yourself into being, to give me a taste of what would be if the order of the universe allowed me to be real.
Infinite is the mercy of Allah, ha ha! Sorry, I must’ve gone into a trance. That happens a lot when I drink tequila. . . . Fear not, for fuck’s sake: I won’t write a whole letter out loud with you sitting here! What was I saying, though? The actual sodomy, yes. Telling him to live with dignity while my dingaling pummeled his badonkadonk. You will have figured out that, apart from the first and last minute, that’s not what actually happened. I didn’t sodomize Sheikh Arif, not for very long anyway. Although I know that, objectively speaking, I did; I was as vindicated and triumphant as I could be. You will have figured out that my experience was of making love to Carol, in the moonlit backyard of my businessman friend’s Sheikh Zayed City villa or somewhere like it—without Revolution or death, you understand. I was sitting, legs stretched on the grass, with her limbs wrapped around me and her breath in my face. A sort of Yab Yum without the lotus position, but we were deities alright: by straining my biceps femoris—the Hentai equivalent of objectively ramming it into Arif’s liberally Vaselined sphincter ani externus—I could feel my lingam through her yoni reaching all the way to the top of her head, which was also the sky, lighting the eyes of her brain with desire’s sun.
Infinite is the mercy of Allah, indeed: It was as if I had been born so that I could have that moment—so that I could have and lose Carol, then find her one last time at that moment. I knew then what was the secret of my obsession. It also occurred to me that, soul-wise, for my purposes, Carol and Sheikh Arif were one and the same object, as were love and Revolution (as so many Arab poems say): gods and/or angels of Arab Spring Cairo. In all I gave only seven thrusts—slow, measured, incredibly charged—and she must’ve come twice with each, her barely audible moans crescendoing into the nightingale each time. My skin was pure rapture in contact with hers, and rapture was her breath filling my airless lungs.
They say male mammals are always sad after they orgasm, but even devastation is too weak a word for what I felt when, in an upward blast like a rocket launch, my soul passed into her. By the time I came, deep inside her—clutching her kidneys almost, almost feeling her adrenal glands pumping in my palms—I had lost the purpose of life and death. Love was the grotesque shock of an obese Islamist with sperm spilling out of his asshole, mixed with blood and the contents of his sigmoid colon. Revolution was his hands tied behind his back.
Who—no, what: what in the universe—could you be, balm of my bones, that my final act of worship should end thus?
And infinite is the mercy of Allah—in that I didn’t have time to dwell on what was before me. My shoulder’s killing me now, even as we speak; the mere memory makes it throb so hard it hurts. I was suddenly being mobbed and the tent was upside down, the Sheikh looking disheveled but fully dressed. By the intensity of their stares—that subtle transfer of self- to other-hatred so frequent with Salafis—I guessed he had told his followers, not that he was buggered in the tent, not that he enjoyed living with dignity, but that I was a dangerous enemy with a gun. So I knew I was going to get graphically killed there and then. At this point it made such weirdly beautiful sense I hardly minded. Barely dodging Musab’s concrete slab, which flew surprisingly fast for its weight, I kneeled with my arms raised, stretched left and right as far as they would go to heaven—making the victory sign with both hands—like those who, a year and a half before, had died facing Hosny Mubarak’s armored vehicles. It was theatrical and faux-heroic, I know, a bit ridiculous; then again, what wasn’t? No, I didn’t exactly feel like Mel Gibson at the end of Braveheart, though he too was to die for making his point without affecting the course of history—and there was nothing more ridiculous than the way he roared, “Freedom!” I no longer wanted to be the hero, whether a William Wallace of the doomed battle against Islamism or any other. But, until I closed my eyes trying to return to where I’d been just minutes before, I was still heroically watching myself play heroically at being heroic.
Easing myself into darkness, now, hoping death would be instant and painless, I said nothing. I didn’t look up, bring down my arms, relax my hands, or in any way change position. A profound serenity had come over me. I remember the scarlet spots and strokes the floodlights painted on my eyelids. I remember thinking it was neither necessary nor desirable for my life to replay in its entirety in fast-forward mode. I remember registering the fact that, at once vindicated and devastated, I wasn’t thinking of anything.
By the time the sound of gun shots forced me to open my eyes, wondering whether I was already dead, the mob had dispersed considerably. No one was running at me when I stood up. It took a while to realize that, led by two Caucasian-looking faces, the red berets of the military police had surrounded the traffic island and were violently dispersing the protest, firing in the air and chasing the white robes of Arifoon with electroshock batons. I was mildly astonished to see the two leaders rushing toward me, and it was only then—looking past them to the group of Arifoon that was protecting Sheikh Arif, two of them apparently negotiating an exit at the other end—I suspected they were the same young men who had led me to Burroughs two days before. Glaring at them while they motioned me to follow, I could see the faces of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg as they were in the fifties: the one blond and baby-faced with high cheek bones, the other darkish and shy-looking. Once again I heard that toneless American voice without seeing them speak, in English: “Keep moving.” I wanted very badly to ask them whether it was they, Burroughs’ friends, the authors of On the Road and Howl; but three soldiers waging batons were charging at me, no doubt thinking I was among the protesters they targeted: if I didn’t go immediately I would end up unconscious, possibly in custody.
The two ghosts opened a sort of corridor in the middle of the human wall at the edge of the traffic island, holding back four soldiers; each tapped my back as I passed, muttering, “Run, Nawwarah, run!” And, thinking of writers and houris, of Arab Spring, America, and DEMOCRACY, I sprinted across the Square past the Nile Hilton and the Arab League, stopping only below one of the basalt lions guarding the entrances to Nile Palace Bridge. I caught my breath and continued running, running, tripping over couples and panhandlers, dodging cars, picturing my parents’ house where I would shave the beard and wipe off the fake dead skin on my forehead forever. It feels as if I didn’t stop running until I sat down with you on this terrace.
Of course it’s all part of the crackup that is the Revolution: all that I’ve told you and my telling it, down to this very moment when our bill arrives and, taking it from the waiter to slip it onto the table, thus, it comes time to turn to you, looking embarrassed and, indicating that I’m a poor medical student in flight from both Army and Arifoon, a revolutionary robbed of my upper-middle-class status by the struggle, a disinherited patriot reduced to the position of a male prostitute offering my services to white gentlemen downtown, ask you to pay. That’s what Egyptians do best, you understand: they beg, supplementing with sexual favors when necessary. In fact you shouldn’t be surprised if it turns out I made up everything I’ve told you just to get a night of free drinks on the terrace. No, dickhead—I’m paying, forget the bill, here’s a couple hundred guinea for your time. Just please understand that you are part of the crackup, that it was as necessary to imagine you as it was to plough the depths of the Leader’s rectum. I know you haven’t read shit but before we go let me think how Burroughs would express it:
Revolution, then breakdown. The people vote for the Sheikh. The Israeli Embassy is ringed with protesters, but so is the Saudi Embassy. Drooling, slobbering prophets in the Square. Thousands die; millions grow beards. Previously unseen gods of the Sect bless the public sphere with fatal ministrations. Gas shortages give way to mortal combat, but not before a president is elected will there be arbitrary power cuts, you dig. All for the good of Islam. It turns out the General has been in bed with the Brother all along. While a rent boy from good family buggers the Salafi—who, to the boy’s utter amazement, loves it so much he begs for more—the Dissident continues to preach self-mutilation.
And all those sets of seven. Carol, Burroughs, Sheikh Arif, Daquqi, the Beggar, you, and I: Seven figures. Three ghosts, four people; four ghosts, three people. Seven propositions, seven orgasms, seven thrusts. Seven film genres. And seven intelligence agencies. You will have noticed that I mentioned only six in connection with you: the American, the French, the Israeli, the Iranian, the Russian, and the British. Well, obviously there is the Egyptian, too. And, whether or not you work for one or more of them, come to think of it, how can you be sure I don’t? Maybe it is you who works for the Egyptian Mukhabarat and my assignment is to throw dust in your eyes. That would make me the foreign spy in this setup. Intelligence and counterintelligence: Man, can you think of anything more ridiculous?
After the presidential elections the lights will go out in Egypt’s chambers of enlightenment. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that, without the shadow of Hosny Mubarak, the true darkness of those chambers will prove blinding. Intelligent young men will be mobbed before they are taken into custody, and young women without the headscarf will be splashed with acid on the streets. Our inheritance will go to sick men. We’ll get Internet with the peril of our lives. Tweeps will hang by their hands, female activists will be locked underground, and the faces of revolutionaries will never again be spared. The joy of Cairo will be ceased, my pale-skinned friend; our Tahrir Square dance will turn to mourning. From now on, the madness of global capitalism will be paired with mini-inquisitions, constitutionally enshrined by partisans of the Sect. Yeah. A la Saudi fucking Arabia. Americans will have an excuse to fuck us over when it suits them. K-h-a-l-i-d D. N-a-w-w-a-r-a-h, remember. That and the fact that, while a rent boy from good family buggers the Salafi and the Dissident preaches self-mutilation, our benevolent allies are still crying DEMOCRACY. Fear not, motherfucker: Gameplay is proceeding as slated; it’s just that I’ve had my two minutes with the joystick.