Farewell my RepublicOn January 15, 2021 by Mona Abouissa
From holly crusades and revolutions to underground debauchery and parenthood, it is a 20-year quest to survive and thrive in the complexity of Egypt.
Published in Reportagen #61 as Kairo Kann Mich Mal, 2021
Highways are not for girls. Not in my father’s country. Under a billion burning stars, adrenalin filling me, I walked to the dark highway. The bedouins scowled. How many times did they complain to my father, “Your daughter drives too fast, dresses too low, returns too late, your daughter this and that”? By some gender-jackpot I obviously lost, just as their women did, they had access to my relationship with my parents in this forsaken country. In the prime of my youth, I was too foreign, too blue-eyed, too available. A bit lonely, a bit angry. I raised my thumb at approaching fireballs. Music played in my ears, Red Hot Chili Peppers, to dampen the fear. The highway slithered 300km along the Mediterranean, infamous for car crashes and drug deals. Now how far could I get in this lonely matrix of sharia laws and dirty minds? A car stopped, I scanned the man and hopped in.
I ended up in Egypt, one summer between my seventeenth birthday and planes crashing into the Twin Towers. We had a month’s notice to uproot our lives from Moscow to a bedouin enclave. Just at the onset of my hesitant puberty ( friends, boys, music, etc). Only music survived the transition, the rest faded. My father built a house amid a bedouin village, city vacationers and a thousand dogs, seven minutes walk from the Mediterranean and thirty minutes drive from civilisation. The best star view in Egypt. My sister and I played the Russian anthem on full each morning;
Wide spaces for dreams and for living
Are opened for us by the coming years.
Our loyalty to our Motherland gives us strength.
Thus it was, thus it is, and thus it will always be!
Our act of resistance entertained our bedouin neighbours, “Khawagas [gringos] of Hassan” they jeered, and returned to chasing their chickens. A year passed and our house quietened down from our patriotic outbursts. And around the time our school bus overtook tanks carrying sweaty American soldiers to war in Iraq, I started to hop into strangers’ cars. The street lights flickered, rain drummed on the car roof, a lonely driver with unhalal intentions. I lectured him about hitchhiking, freedom and borderlessness, it put him off, at least. In those days before hashtags and Tinder, highways at night belonged to men alone, either low on morals or cash or both, surprised to find a girl in their path. That is where my story starts, on a highway.
My biggest hitch was from Alexandria to Cairo, a 190km highway of plantations with roaming camels, rest houses and a hospital for car accidents. I hitched a ride in a Mercedes with a nice man who knew about hitchhiking (a double rarity). I arrived late in Cairo, grabbed a burger and took a bus home, grinning the whole way. I felt victorious, free and always uncomfortable in the front seat. Discomfort would be a constant for another eighteen years. I would learn to adapt to its weight and in return it would stoop my posture, making me the study of chiropractors, osteopaths, physiotherapists for, probably, the rest of my life. “When did you start having this pain?” they would ask, since I lived in a prying country, I thought. “A couple of months ago,” I’d reply disingenuously. Living in Egypt back then, I found pleasure in insulting it. The thrill of breaking away from the gravitational force of my father and his local minions. I escaped from home one night, climbing off the roof on a bedsheet and hitching a ride in a packed pickup truck, nesting tightly to a confused mother. It wasn’t every night she rescued a khawaga girl under her ample anatomy. I stayed away for a couple of nights then returned home.
My father had forged my driving license via some connections and let me take his jeep for rides. I put headphones on and drove fast, faster, on the highway. Sometimes I switched on a police siren (for some reason this car had one) to scare off drug dealers. That gave me and my sister laughs. I felt pure joy watching the beast swallowing roads like spaghetti. I was a blazing meteor crashing into local sexism, one road at a time. Back home though, my relationship with my parents was deteriorating. There was one thing left to do. To leave.
After two years with my family, I left for Cairo for university. I was left to my own devices to discover what I was made of in a city of another 15 million souls. It offered as many ways for salvation as doom. In the daytime I fought taxi drivers over fares, gathering onlookers telling me to give in (never!), with harassers targeting my thighs or ears, or doormen blackmailing me. I was angry with Cairo, and Cairo was angry with me. At night we suspended our feud, usually at some houseparty where decadence and salvation were in abundance. 2005 to 2011 I spent mostly dancing. Every Thursday and Friday night there were parties; dancing Spanish parties, boring American parties, new year parties, Ramadan parties, fancy dress parties, gay parties, sad parties, afterparties, rooftop parties, stoner parties, parties on boats without toilets where I had to relieve myself hanging off the bow, parties that ended with bottle fights or a police visit. 95% percent of my Cairo life was made in the sweaty glory of those rental flats. I met lifelong friends and enemies, I met the love of my life and, sometimes, I met my inspirations. On the dance floor I reconnected with my body, I threw my arms in the air watching floodlights filter through my fingers, shook my hair like Medusa’s snakes, twisted my legs, kicked the beats and jumped until I couldn’t breathe, I scraped off all the detritus from social coercion. It was where my generation let go. That feeling when your mind is blank and body is yours as the night got darker. Just give me the cheapest Egyptian red, Omar Khayam, and that sensation hits me with all its Pavlovian intensity and, realising it has gone, sadness.
In the mornings I took my hangovers to lectures. Most of the time I gave up. University was dull anyway. I was writing about gardeners, candlemakers discovering their vocation melting wax in their kitchens, a felucca captain taking drunken tourists along the Nile, about botox, and my friends drinking at seedy bars. I believed that everyone had a unique story for me. Until summer 2006.
That summer two things happened; a two-year love affair, intense and unhealthy, ended in a wreck, and suicide terrorists blew up Dahab. I took a nine-hour bus ride across Sinai, a buffer zone surrounded by the Red Sea, to Dahab. I checked into a cheap hostel by the sea, met a man who watched a boy die in his arms, then another with a burned face, and a man saying, “I did drugs and women to forget,” not sure if he did. And finally arriving to Nassef. He sat in front of me, two juices and his terror between us. It was the first time I was writing about death. He looked at the dark sea as if his soul vacated him, and got sucked into the abyss, where police ordered a diver to go and fish out body parts. “The first thing I found was a boy’s arm, I just wanted to get out of the water.” He showed a press clipping of him and two other divers who came here for an easy income, and women, now carrying black garbage bags with tourists’ remains. When the police and press left them alone, Nassef threw himself into drugs and sex, hoping to recollect his sanity. He snapped out, “you want to go to a desert party?” and I was done with candlemakers.
Nassef is dead now. Brain tumour. His Australian wife posted an obituary online. As for me, I kept coming back to Dahab, for one reason or the other; to party, to hunt stories, to kitesurf. On one trip in 2009 under neon lights I listened to intoxicated Ramadan (aka Romario) whispering “I will marry you for real!” in my ear as I watched Egyptian men, young and drunk, on the hunt for salvation, ladies much older with savings to spill, to take them away. Some of them limped to a mosque to purge their devils and others to lawyer’s offices sealing matrimony destined to fail. I returned to a bedouin house my husband and I rented, and typed out how traditional manhood had quietly collapsed. Ten years later back in Dahab, I watched my little daughter trying to eat sand. Facebook made Dahab accessible. An Egyptian generation who had money, looks and brains occupied the resort; girls gave me kite surfing lessons and at night hunted, as the boys opened restaurants and taught my daughter to walk. Everyone under the patronage of the secret police. No more provincial boys clasping elderly women in mini skirts. No more food-chains of lawyers. No more Friday sermons on Dahab’s gateway to Hell. And I missed that.
In Dahab people like to talk, they talk about their exoduses, their frustrations, salvations and some post-tripping revelations (there is always a little of Moses in everyone here), and sometimes someone speaks of ghosts. Ghosts floating over sands, ghosts with animal heads, ghosts with no legs. I did not realise at the time how much Egypt was contorted by wars. How much of its legacy was under our flipflops.
One early morning in 1967 at a Cairo airbase, Samir Michael and his mates took turns waiting in oven-hot MiG19s, the latest dispatch of their USSR ally. They were young, fiery and bored. Suddenly Israeli Mystères attacked, destroying the Egyptian airforce in one morning. Samir was one of the best, that did not matter as he watched his MiG torched, mates blown up on take-off and his base turned into an inferno. A Mystère zoomed at him, Samir took his pistol and ran towards it shooting, I might die but at least I take down that son of a dog. His mates hiding under a truck thought he went mad. He bumped into a wall, the Mystère flew off. He does not like to remember that. When he, and the whole Republic in its geopolitical prime, were insignificant. Egypt lost Sinai, the people lost faith in their army “saviors”, and Samir lost his wings. They used to sashay in their uniform through the new Republic high on Pan-Arabism like rock stars, the naughtiest in the army, the skies and women belonged to them. Now they were to blame, hiding their uniforms in fear.
President Gamal Abdel Nasser began the War of Attrition in 1969, just in time for the latest MiG21 delivery. Samir in his MiG21 chased Israeli Phantoms, far superior yet not as reckless. He watched his mates who got hit plunging into enemy outposts taking a last “son of a dog”. Now Cairo streets are named after them. Unfinished dinners still warm waited back at the base. They joked, humour kept them sane. It ended with a ceasefire in 1973. A few years later Egypt signed a peace with Israel, reclaiming Sinai. Today, the peninsula remains unquiet; the North is hostile from ongoing clashes between the army and ISIS, meanwhile, the South-East coast remains a backpackers’ haven. A 12-hour journey through barren mountains and ruthless checkpoints looking for drugs, terrorists or gigolos arriving at the turquoise line of joy. Dahab would have been a different place, part of Israel and far from my reach. Thanks to Samir and his mates, Romario company can scramble for hunts of their own, Egypt’s millennials can escape a failed Revolution, and I can take my little daughter to swim in a place that once changed me.
I envied Samir like no one before. It was 2016 and I was in his home full of crucified Jesuses. He had a stubborn, even reckless, perseverance. How does it feel to break the sound barrier? “Like a bump,” he said. Samir was one of the best state-trained killing machines with the highest honours awarded by Nasser himself, stashed somewhere here (not that he cared), two confirmed hits and one unsanctioned solo attack on sunbathing Israeli soldiers (their teasing sorties pissed him off) that brought on a mischievous smile. He survived ejecting in the Suez Canal then a beating by angry fishermen mistaking him for an Israeli, fracturing his spine. His wife nurtured him back to mobility on the roof of this house. He was seventy now but still lived the old thrill from pushing his hellish machine to the max, “this pleasure, pleasure of being alive” shivers ran down our spines. Only a few people I know possessed such subatomic swagger; Samir, and my close friend and yoga therapist, Dina capable of dismantling anything from neuroses to dancefloors – and my father. Samir pushed his aerodynamic odds, “a jet is moving at 300 meters per second, imagine how many maneuvers you can do, your reactions must be a tenth of a second, or you die!” said Samir. I almost knew what he spoke of. He could fly at 50cm and pick up groceries if he wished (his self-taught signature). I could zigzag my father’s jeep between two speeding trucks. His first solo flight was at 18 on MiG19. Mine was at 15 on a Jeep Cherokee. I was naughty and so was he, much naughtier. I envied that. I flew a Cessna with an instructor called Mig over the caramel waters of Clacton-On-Sea feeling the wind beating against the wings as I turned, just to feel however slightly Samir’s thrill. I remembered something I forgot, speeding through highways. Back in Egypt, I asked Samir if he felt superior while flying too, “of course!” he said. But my thrill slipped away. Cairo drains you, unless one has an ego big enough to resist, bigger than the capital, an ego capable to take you through Heaven and Hell and back to his wife.
Hosni Mubarak, a former airforce commander turned president in 1981, had the appetite of a shark. Among many other things, he monopolised the 1973 victory. Generations, myself included, grew up learning little beyond the president’s glory. The rest like Samir became a matter of state security – the most overused and sinister excuse of mass control. The Army rose in popularity, the police in its brutality, and the rest in apathy. Mubarak succeeded where his predecessors failed, he scraped the political scene clean. When I arrived in Cairo, people just blamed the president [quietly] for their misfortunes (divorces, unemployment, infertility, hypertension, bad traffic) dreaming of leaving. Egypt switched allies to the US and got its own Phantoms. MiGs were stripped of their engines and littered across freshly erected military museums. The last time Samir was naughty was in 1982, he took a jet for a spin and crashed into a lamppost. He was banned from flying. Near where he lives there is a military panorama with a shrine of MiG carcasses. They peaked into the skies, defying apathy.
In 1973 Samir did not believe in God. His comrades did, they were fighting God’s war. They were scared and martyrdom gave them comfort, they were fighting with one foot in Heaven, it made them reckless. The Israelis were scared of them. Samir believed he survived solely on his innate mavericism. Jesus arrived to him later when he lost his son to a car crash in Sinai. Now he remembered dogfights and found God on his side. I always had a pact with God, with its highs and lows. In Moscow, my father sent us to Arabic school, religion was a big part of it. For a few years, we studied at a Saudi School under its extreme Wahabbi take on Islam and mandatory praying. My religion teachers averted their eyes when I addressed them. Some got busted by my classmates at discos with young blondes. At twelve I had an epiphany, I prayed and didn’t listen to music, fearing hot lead poured in my ears when I die. When not at school, I was fighting with boys who echoed the abuse of their alcoholic parents. It was the post-USSR Godless nineties. I was called genetic garbage born to a traitor mother and a dirty black father and there was no stopping me. My mother was summoned a few times to KGB questioning her relations with exotic leftists. She wisely advised me to drop fights. Never! I broke boys’ noses and punched their stomachs and got shot with BB guns in return. Until I discovered Basketball and, naturally, boys who I did not want to punch. God took a backseat, but the ecstatic sensation of faith never left me. And nor did not a taste for violence.
I have been writing for fourteen years on Egypt and God was always a constant. He either arrived (or more accurately, blasted) into my subjects’ hearts or departed. Everything in Egypt is by God’s will; God willing they will win the war, God willing we beat this virus, God willing we won’t crash this bus, God willing I’ll leave Egypt. It is not easy to live in a God-fearing society. Autonomy is punishable and privacy is scarce. To be immune, one needs status (be a general, a businessman, a celebrity, or the offspring of one) to chose your morals or fetishes. As if problems with God pardoned the vices; drinking, adultery, homosexuality, miniskirts, witty women, secularists. I developed superhuman skills: mind-reading, a menacing stare, the moral flexibility of a Soviet gymnast, and the spitting aim of a sniper.
I only knew a few people who had a real vocation; besides Samir the aerodynamic daemon, I met Essam whose social justice odyssey veered from Islamists to Communists to aging feminists, he splits his time between raising his son and dodging arrests with his anti-state dispatches. On days like this, gray and pandemic, I miss our talks. Then sixty-something Aleya, who was Egypt’s second most famous import beside MiGs – ballet. A force of nature, she tore stages during wars and peace in en-points she still keeps. Hamada, a lion tamer, brilliant and furious, he took his lions with his vocation to Russia, away from “this audience who just get kicks from seeing lions attacking their tamer.” Hamada had countless scars, like his father and his grandmother, and his uncle who died after a lion attack during a show. And painter Shaima, whose dark twisted forms were forged from her insatiable rage against sexism, she left Egypt never to return. She taught me to kill my darlings. Outcasts amid self-flagellating conformism, perpetually tormented and yet happier than the rest. There is a fragility about them, and it always moved me.
In the winter of 2011, millions, including many of my friends, marched in the streets, bringing Egypt to a standstill, to end Mubarak’s state for one reason or the other; be it poverty, inequality, desperation, and last but not least, envy. Things escalated quickly, clashes with the police, shootings, kidnappings, fires, and overcrowded morgues. Thugs were freed from prisons. I was in London at the time, my mother called me saying that my 18-year-old brother took a hunting rifle and joined bedouins defending our neighbourhood. Our Bedouins are known for their unlicensed armory, and my father’s shotgun capable of injuring a partridge paled in comparison. To fall into the revolutionary cause was easy, like falling in love, with a pinch of frustration, bravery and naivety. To sustain it proved difficult, life-threatening even. Egypt was never so hopeful, so xenophobic, so confused and so on fire. I, instead, followed my photographer husband to the state circus.
I was not my revolutionary friends. My adolescence prospered against the backdrop of post-Soviet opportunism; Mc Donalds, MTV, teenage pregnancies, privatisation, Jesus mania, opium mania, and all the spoils of newborn capitalism (my father made himself at the latter). The fall of socialism was brutal but fruitful, spurring a ferocious search for an [Russian] identity, and if one survives a gun robbery (we did) or alcoholism or a collective depression, you might stumble on your own identity. When I did, which happened sometime between the Kremlin and Pyramids, I had a fully developed distrust of self-sacrificial idealism, that caused confusion if not anger among my idealist peers. They, on the other hand, grew up oppressed either by their relatives or presidents. Always anxious, rarely themselves in the country that slumbered peacefully like slugs on a leaf, until 2011. I spent my curfews with lion tamers and magicians and nicotine-addicted clowns. My revolutionary friends threw stones at armed police near my house. At night we all met at houseparties to take a break. In the morning there was another public funeral of lives gone too soon. My friend Asser used to drive us through nocturnal Cairo philosophising over concealed wine. Now he shaved his head, should medics need to access any injuries. It was the first time I saw him totally alive, though we were growing apart. Revolutionaries wanted instant magic; a civil government sans-generals with a constitution that guaranteed rights, good pay, proper healthcare, proper police, Western democracy. My magic was delivered with every drum roll. I disliked the unrest, I could not see my mother as the roads were shut, and so were dialysis centers for my father. He escaped to Moscow, doctors found lesions in his lungs, and I did not see him for over a year. Backstage, we did not talk politics, we spoke of dynasties and rivalries. An elderly woman held her reptiles tight, planted kisses and swayed gently with music. A man inserted knives into a box with an ample woman, she reemerged cheerfully intact (ministers had less luck). Acrobats swung high sending glitter over us. I found refuge among them, outside I felt unmagical.
One evening I sat poking a hole in the leg of an aging yet fiercely cool lion tamer. When Medhat was a teen, a lion bit a chunk of his muscles at rehearsals. He was protected by lion Tomy, his mother’s gift. His mother was the first female lion tamer in the Middle East. Her father and his brother started the first traveling circus back in the 1930s, the pioneers. From then on their descendants inherited the craft, animals and rivalry. President Nasser established the state circus in 1966 uniting all the clans under one red tent, with matching red tape. Performers traveled to study in the USSR and now spoke Russian with me. I watched Medhat (Hamada’s father) clad in a leopard leotard and a satin shirt boogieing to Latin beats then turning to his lions and ordering them to jump, roll, sit and sway with him. Saved by a lion and trained by his mother, he owned the stage, the audience and me among them. Then another night the music stopped and a woman beside me whispered, “God help her!” A lion tried to bite his mistress Luba, “Stay! Stay!” Other lions barred their fangs, their predatory instincts were unsubdued by years of captive inbreeding. No more donkey meat tonight. Luba knew if she turned she was dead – her grandfather made that mistake. Her father Mohamed (Medhat’s rival) rushed into the ring shouting. A lion clawed his hand. “Haaa! Haaa!” At the top of the circus, an illuminated poster showed Medhat inserting his head into a lion’s mouth and Hamada posing opposite the lions’ shrine. It was Medhat’s territory then, not Mohamed’s.
Legacy is everything in places like the circus where prestige and territory come with genetics and nothing else. Just like it was outside. Some drew allegories between Luba and Mubarak. I also saw a link between the sixty-year-old military state and its circus. Lion tamers were on top, in between were acrobats, at the bottom were clowns. Egypt is a stratified class system. The rich drank shots in gated compounds that the poor built for a wage that would buy a single cocktail. Those who had the means discarded Cairo preferring to traverse it in their air-conditioned microclimates unexposed to Cairo’s toxic breath. Ministers’ convoys just closed the roads leaving the rest to wait. They, and Covid19, had power over Cairo’s invincible traffic. Others either invested in a car and the privilege of walking into a nightclub in a skirt that could spark a revolution somewhere. Or resorted to post-Revolutionary Uber. At least their meters worked. On top of us all were the most reclusive and powerful – the generals.
Luba survived her revolt. Mubarak did not. He stepped down a day before my birthday and I climbed on a tank in Tahrir waving an Egyptian flag, everyone went crazy, Egypt was the most ecstatic place on Earth. Later we washed down Mubarak’s farewell and my birthday with G&Ts. Mubarak’s untouchable legacy was served to anyone to peck on. His name was removed from schools, complexes, streets, and even cities. Mubarak tube station was renamed Martyrs (every general-president has a station). His clique disowned him, a former war hero stripped of military privileges. From the debris of his Pharaoh-size status, everyone else emerged; generals like Samir made TV hosts’ jaws drop, Communists waved their red dusty flags after 80 years on the Presidents’ blacklist (I waved one with them, remembering my Soviet childhood), Islamists called for Heavens on Earth, graffiti activists daubed the streets with anti-military murals, and my gay friends took over the party scene emptying their pain and frustration from years of abuse. Now twerking reminds me of curfews circumvented. My father liked Mubarak, most of my friends hated him, I liked houseparties during his autocracy.
Since Egypt deposed the British-backed monarchy in 1952 starting a long-line of general-presidents, the job has a sobering survival rate; Mohamed Naguib, a one-year president, was put under house arrest by his men (Nasser included). Nasser died of a heart attack whilst sipping coffee. Islamists emptied their AK-47s at Anwar Sadat as he saluted the 1973 anniversary parade. Mubarak was wiser, at least for most of his 29-year-presidency. He succeeded where his short-lived predecessors failed, he atrophied the opposition. He colored his hair charcoal black and occupied newspaper front pages. Mubarak established a clan of his own, made up of technocrats, businessmen sycophants and his family. He won elections without a twitch and groomed his son Gamal, a British-educated businessman, to succeed him. Meanwhile, mere Egyptians lived, bred, and died in Mubarak’s Egypt, just another digit in the demographics. Even death fell victim to the president’s charm. Mubarak seemed to last, outliving the revolution, his successor, another nine springs and my father.
My father’s demise was gradual, from 2009 to 2014. It began just before I decided to travel. We accompanied my father for his first dialysis session (I never saw him that scared) and a few days later, John and I packed our bags and bikes, took a bus to Sinai and cycled into Israel. It is a fearsome border for people like me – Egyptian – despite the controversial cold peace. A shuffle of passports, Egyptian to Russian, that involved complex visa manipulations and a lengthy interrogation by an Israeli officer, probing my complicated relationship with my father’s family, and I heard my first shalom. For the next three months of my visa, I manically filed stories of Palestinian desperation and found myself toying with a rifle, surrounded by kids while we all waited for their mother’s chicken. Back in Tel Aviv, I ran around the Red-Light district where we lived, trying to find a functioning Ethiopian call center in the thick of midnight’s blackest transactions to call my family for updates. They were the saddest times of my life.
Three years later a venerable state newspaper ran my Palestinian stories in Arabic. My father took them to show off to his dialysis clique. He was that kind of man, who built his domain wherever you put him. In his twenties he sang James Brown with his band, putting a spell on Alexandria’s women left and right. His father, a loyal communist, was not amused and sent him to study in Moscow. There he met my mother on a train (thank you, Nasser). And between the early eighties till the economic crash of 2003, he had an extensive clique of businessmen ( carpets, crystal, tourism, timber) some quite dubious. He lost his business and then his health, but he never lost his killer charm. As for me, I thought I found my place working for media tycoons from Mubarak’s clique. They had power, money and political insight – the Muslim Brothers would seize control after Mubarak, thanks to millions of God-fearing loyalists across the country. Revolutionaries like my friend Asser thought otherwise, that removing the General would guarantee a civil democratic state. They were wrong, and now Asser lives in Canada. My editors smoked cigars and hated Islamists.
As Islamism condemned half the population (dancers, gymnasts, feminists, fashionistas, and Shiaa) to Hell, I was working under the unhealthy matriarchy of Sohair, a producer-network-director’s wife. Egyptian television is a hostile powerhouse where women grew claws and titanium skins. On camera, I was unpolished and too foreign, not meant to bring a smile to Sohair’s botoxed face. I saw in the mirror my sharp collarbones and thought how many times I tried and failed to fit in. At school, we were taught to be a part of the tribe before the alphabet, like our ancestors. And now when everyone sought a clan or an ideology or even a defeat to belong to, I slowly shrank. I longed for solitude. Then something good happened to me, just before the almost total degradation of my intellectual faculties, I met Brother Mohamed Saeed. One morning, I did not call Sohair, got some proper sleep, packed my bag to Alexandria and jumped into a crowd shouting Allah Akbars.
In the eighties when Brother Mohammed was a teen he wanted to sing. The elders forbade it, music was not halal. He and his musical friends were a part of a cult, indoctrinated by their parents (Islamist clans are built on family trees), and now they had a dilemma. I sat with the chorister Brothers and I wanted to know what I missed in my Wahabi schooling. It took them decades to negotiate an approved repertoire (no love triumphs, no corporal desires, no singing sisters, and never dancing) devoted to Islamic principles. Mohamed now managed Alexandria’s Coast choir which shot to stardom after the Revolution.
I was at the Brotherhood’s gender-segregated rally. They won Parliamentary elections, thanks not only to their followers but also angels who marked the ballot papers, according to one of their MPs. In a few months one of their own, Mohamed Mursi, would become Egypt’s first elected civilian president. The country would spiral into sectarian chaos and as we sheltered at my parents’ house, fanatics would walk through our neighborhood shooting left and right. But at that rally, I happily abandoned my TV feminism to be cocooned by womenfolk reaching out for their holy men with angels on their side, in a forgotten district where faith was as common as hepatitis C. I was the only one without a headscarf, with a distant memory of faith. The Brothers ping-ponged us from one extreme to the next; from the purgatory of Mubarak’s prisons to the thrill of a raffle of domestic appliances and, the jackpot, an Umrah trip. A woman fainted beside me, she won the trip. She got up, grabbed her galabeya, and crawled over supporters like an octopus reaching her arms to hug and kiss the MP. A mother climbed on stage and held a martyr poster of her 16-year-old son who died in clashes with security forces. The crowd and the MPs went silent and the young men in their twenties trilled and rolled their voices; “Oh the white moon rose over us, from the valley of Wada, and we owe it to show gratefulness, where the call is to Allah.” Mobiles flashed like a hundred stars and we all moved and sang under fluorescent lights.
There are a couple of outsiders among them; a bass guitarist who, unlike the Brothers, listened to everything. His photo with the Choristers appeared in a state newspaper claiming that the Brothers ran an underground party scene. His friends made fun of him. Tamer the Maestro on keyboards, he gradually smuggled instruments bypassing the council fatwas. During the day he taught music at Alexandria University. As for the Brothers, all clean-shaven (the beard is subject to an internal hierarchy) in matching black suits, some of them romantics, like alto soloist Islam, who could make even the Elders shed a tear with his divine gift. The Brothers promised to release his first video clip. Or propagandists like the stern Diaa who wanted to cleanse post-Mubarak debauched culture of Romeo-type singers making fortunes off physical desires, and ballet dancers in their illicit leotards. He left the Salafists, a more radical less organised Islamist group, to which his family belonged, for the Brotherhood. His family would not come to see him perform.
Aren’t you afraid? – I asked Mohamed. “If you are afraid you should not be a Muslim Brother!” he said and laughed. I saw a man staring at us. Mohamed could be as loud as he liked in that cafe. It used to be their secret meeting spot. In 2005 the police ambushed and arrested everyone, except Mohamed who’d left earlier. He has a baby on the way and a dead-end dream. In his car we watched footage of him interviewing Brothers on their channel. He longed to be a TV presenter and maybe hoped I could help, but no mainstream media would hire an outlaw Brother. He only had the choir to take care of. Before the Revolution, they performed in secrecy for the Brotherhood’s special occasions. They traveled undercover, separately from their instruments. The roads to their concerts were patrolled, areas shut down, audiences searched and concerts filmed. He and his young choristers were arrested in front of their relatives, like terrorists. They were interrogated about what exactly they did, why they did it, who sponsored them, and whether they grew beards. The flat where the choir rehearsed was within spitting distance of the secret police station. “So they do not waste time looking for us,” Mohamed and the Brothers laughed.
Fear is a part of living in Cairo; either it’s doped drivers or gun clashes or generals’ phobias or pandemics or midlife crises that happen to unravel in this place that can be so ruthless and hungry for your sanity. Living in fear daily until your survival instincts go numb; you eat sandwiches with pickles and cow brains, you start a fight with policemen or beat a harasser’s indecent exposé with your purse, you cross a border to Israel denying your Egyptian nationality, or you start a revolution. Brother Mohamed was not the first who told me about fear. There were many others functioning with a familiar surge of cortisone – the fun and agony of Egypt. But only my fighter pilots like Samir who, unlike anyone else I met, encountered sinister dread from where no one returned intact. At some point, maybe during a crash-landing at the base, killing a cook who would forever bleed out into his soup in their nightmares, or listening to their comrade’s trembling transmission as they sped to martyrdom, awaiting their turn that never came, at that point when one’s sanity is stretched like an elastic band until it snaps. Their whole life they try to bury the damage, keeping a deadly secret, until they cannot stop dread oozing from behind their sunglasses and infecting me as well.
In 2016 I took up kitesurfing in Dahab, on a coral-infested lagoon with strong winds, the best place for unloading Cairo from my system. It was going great until I was jolted off the water by a 24knot wind. I was dragged underwater, running into a coral and emerging with a bloody thigh. A year later I embarked on an odyssey of hedonistic self-searching until one night dread ate me. I raced alone through my flat losing my sanity, feeling all my past demons about to dance on my grave. I escaped Cairo to my parents’ house, where I could run, watching the sun melting into waves just before nocturnal demons’ visits (from 6pm to 11pm). During daytime I sat in my makeshift office on the balcony, watching a lone bedouin building a small house and tried to write again. He assembled white bricks and I assembled my new self. I remembered scared pilots. Next year in 2018, I became a mother. I returned to the lagoon in 2019, got jolted again three meters high, dropped back into the shallows with ropes around my neck dragging me towards the corals thinking not again. I stood up, checking the horror on my instructor’s face and a little piece of skin hanging off my knee. I felt fear scratching under my skin, I hated it. I was tired from sleepless nights. My head was empty, my senses sharp, it was kite, board, my fear and nothing else. We glued my skin back and continued with my heart pounding like a beast against my will. Now I have two scars.
I survived. As for Brother Mohamed and his choir, after a year of sectarian violence, General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi seized the presidency and declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. I never heard from Mohamed again.
I admired my Russian friend Maria’s survival instincts. She was polished, blonde and bold with sharp nails, and to some men, she was lethal. She knew what she wanted, and usually, she got it. One of our nights of excess on the fringes of the Islamist purges (circa 2013), she wanted Hani. Hani Hassan wore all white and shone like a polar star in florescent lights, outshining the rest of our men.”Who is that belenkie [Rus. whitie]?” I asked Maria, “Hani, he is a ballet dancer!” When I was tiny and far from Egypt, I lived in Crimea with my grandparents. My mother was pregnant with my sister and they could not take care of two babies so my grandfather took me in. Back in those telegraph days, they did not see a photo of me for a year. In the evenings my grandparents and I watched ballet on TV. There was something unnatural about those contorted legs, those ballerinas were ethereal to a small child. Then when I was three my mother took me back to Moscow. I was seven when I saw Swan Lake transmitted on repeat, masking the USSR’s collapse. I did not understand politics at the time. But now, grown-up and drunk amid another state’s collapse, something childish within was pulling me to follow belenkie.
I told Hani how I watched ballet with my grandparents and that’s why I was here. I spent three months at the Opera watching the troupe rehearsing Swan Lake – my childhood dream — and it was no fairytale. Too much excruciating physical endurance, hours of monotonous routine and pain, lots of it. I lay in bed at night and heard pointes stomping pom pom pom in my head. After the waiting, I almost missed the show. I upset mister Mohamed Hosni, an officer in charge (there is always one roaming government departments). When Hani was not rehearsing or charming girls or caring for his two daughters, he and his comrades went to protest against the Islamist crackdown on ballet. Hani, the army officer’s son, was the second generation trained by the pioneers like zealous Aleya. President Nasser had sat at the Bolshoi with Khrushchev watching prima Maya Plisetskaya and he wanted swans of his own. By the mid-sixties, Nasser watched his own Bolshoi-trained swans. Now the troupe was mostly local graduates of the state academy, and Russians who escaped the Soviet collapse looking for sun, mangoes and the good life. Hani played the evil wizard Rothbart. He knew he was not as flexible or young as the supporting dancers, but he owned the stage. He said it was about a mixture of strength and charisma, something he brings on stage – or offstage, taming beasts like Maria – and in between dealing with something far more formidable and archaic – Egyptian bureaucracy.
I hate Egyptian bureaucracy. It’s always subject to the whims of those in charge (which depletes anything humane in you) and it is always personal. After a sleepless night, I included in my piece angry mister Mohamed, who made me swirl around him for another permission like a swan. A small vendetta. Hani, on the other hand, was not as subtle. He put together a performance of Rasputin, an Opera-scale challenge to Islamists. He, of course, played the lead and it was a success. I went backstage for the last time, Hani was plastered with female fans his mother’s age demanding that he hold them just like his ethereal ballerinas, meanwhile, in the corridors male dancers chased each other, happy and butt naked. Ballet survived. Soon after Rasputin, the public (along with the generals backstage) brought down President Morsi and the Brotherhood. They were arrested and jailed (Morsi would die in prison later). The generals returned. Hani still dances, not as much though, he has two ballet academies of his own to run. He is still vain. My friend Maria gave up on Egypt and its Hanis, and left for Russia.
I never asked general Samir Nouh (an elite infiltrator in 1973) how many people he killed, I did not have to. After 40 years of hibernation, he was like a bull in a china shop, “One mission, my comrade and I killed thirty in one go!” he said. Mothers dragged their kids off rusting Israeli tanks to see his foray of death and glory. The old Israeli outposts in Sinai are now refurbished with president Al-Sisi’s portraits to welcome the patriotic pilgrimage of men sublimating their hardships with battle fantasies, women secretly fantasizing about army men, and kids who just want to kill imaginary Israelis. Speakers blasted army serenades “God bless their hands ta-ra-ra-raam” on repeat till the point you jiggle it to your husband back home. Boys found a bazooka at the onsite army museum and grinned selfies, I held a Kalashnikov and grinned at my camera. Meanwhile, a group of girls giggled and surrounded an officer in charge, they were the last to leave savoring each last second with the uniformed man. Long ago, President Nasser with his officers and radio broadcasters took a nation suffering a post-colonial trauma to Pan-Arab futurism, ambitious expensive and radical. Egyptians saw Nasser’s spirit in Al-Sisi with his grand projects from the new Suez Canal to a whole new capital. There were two holies; God and Egypt. Al-Sisi, with the help of the secret police rounding up the remains of the 2011 opposition, became the third. “We all die but Egypt lives!” I kept hearing patriots shouting. My palms turned purple from clapping at every mention of “dead enemies” or “we restored Egypt’s dignity” or “he dined with angels”. At one celebration they even had the presidents’ doubles; double Sadat grabbed double Al-Sisi from the clasp of fans with selfie sticks “take it easy on him, he is still new! Hahaha!”
Since I was six I was indoctrinated in Patriotism, and it was never censored. Starting with a dead girl who appeared again and again in my curriculum. I went to an Iraqi Primary school in Moscow which, like any post-colonial Arabic school, had a patriotic itch. With every year adding another layer to Sadam Hussein’s megalomania and the savagery of his foes. To this day I remember the picture of one girl, she had a grinning facial deformity, she hugged her parents and ran to her school and friends, to her death, again and again. During an Iranian raid in 1987, they bombed Belat el Shohada school killing 34 kids. On the next page, she was laying dead in the rubble, smiling. The nineties were bloody in the Middle East, providing fertile material for an already-damaged breed of patriots. In Egypt, I studied armyphiliac patriotism. I heartlessly memorised all the hyperbolic allegory and bulletproof machismo that made modern Egypt with blood and bones and grand visions. Now we, mere civilians, were forever in debt. The Egyptian version sadly lacked any female heroes or dead girls that would stare at me when I closed my eyes. My systematic patriotic brainwashing did not make sense, until now. With every visit to these vicarious celebrations or to the privacy of generals homes – the loneliest places on Earth – over two years, the distance between me and them collapsed. And one day I was knocked down by a revelation, both distressing and relieving, that we all – the mothers, fathers, boys, girls, generals, me – were gawking at our bottomless need to be special. And God forbid that when our time comes to dine with angels we realise that we merely consumed oxygen and carbs. I left my generals in 2016. That was my penultimate story.
I hold my tiny Ella over a glittering Cairo one night where the city and its roads belonged to only us. We are on the fifteenth floor and it is the first time she can see Cairo. Usually, our view is obstructed by layers of dusty infrastructure, our balconies perch over the backs of buildings. Open views in Cairo are as scarce as fresh air. I whisper to her “this is where I had my first houseparty, and there was a revolution, somewhere there I met your father, and far away in the dark are the Pyramids.” She is quietly curled under my chin. I feel a spasm of sadness looking at my domain, feeling my impending departure. On top of this royal palace turned into a Saudi-infested chain hotel, I have my last chance to show Ella my Cairo. It is her first heatwave, temperatures hit over 40c and we migrated into this air-conditioned refuge across the road. When did Cairo become as tiny as my Ella? I still recall when I was young and small in this city, excited at the thought of being devoured by it. With my spirit fierce and heart open. Now Cairo shrank and held no mystery. Either I was not as fearless, or just bored. I was tired of switching between sexy to conservative to furtive, it messes with anyone’s flow at some point. Now I rarely left my island. In the slumbering state that early motherhood brings I realised the worst – I lost interest in Egypt.
The first sign was in 2013, in a tiny flat smelling of communist zeal and urine from a badly cleaned toilet. The place was a secret communist hideout for decades, and after 2011 they had a chance at their socialist dream. I was sitting among communists of my father’s generation and we watched a movie about a Portuguese civilian resistance. I watched the screen lights dance on their tired faces, there was a sad longing for their youth, reckless and fun, that was long gone. I arrived too late. I wanted to reunite my father with his comrades. If only there was proper dialysis here to bring him from Alexandria. I thought that bringing him to that smelly flat would reignite his fierce spirit in his bony body. I imagined my father flaunting his infamous tales to his comrades who, unlike him, did not give up on communism. And he, unlike them, was not humble. I also imagined him holding Ella as she plays with his mustaches. I was late. He passed away shortly after I met the comrades. I have been late ever since. I was chasing stories in the past, meanwhile, Cairo was moving into army-designed futurism, menacing, sterile and creepy.
The pandemic reached Egypt in the spring of 2020, it was not its first. Covid-19 rivaled hepatitis (I had Hepatitis A which killed my enthusiasm for cow-brain sandwiches), typhoid, swine flu, meningitis, AIDS, bilharzia popular among the elderly, and post-revolutionary depression popular among my peers. I never saw Cairo so quiet, not even when we had military curfews. No cars beeping nor nighttime fights. Except for our downstairs neighbour, a former policeman who got drunk and shouted at invisible spies and thieves and faggots and then laughed menacingly. Ella slept peacefully through his binge-drinking marathons. Sometimes he took his party to the streets, sometimes another neighbour poured water on him, and he threatened to arrest everyone. No one dares complain. My husband and I snuck out one night and watched the Nile, listening to frogs croaking. We were shushed away – nothing can make you feel young again like a secret policeman ambushing you. As the pandemic chaos peaked, straining already handicapped healthcare (God forbid you to get ill here), Ella learned to jump. There were no parties or stories or road-tripping, I spent the summer battling flies, nothing else was flying in the skies. Then one day I finally got my visa, flights resumed and we packed our bags and left. As I write, now away from Egypt, watching my daughter catching her first snowflakes on her tongue, I realise that nothing ties me to Egypt. Only this article. And when I am done that’s it. I am gone too.