Youssef Rakha

Illustration by Gianna Meola

19 | And this is the record of what we accomplished

Wednesday, April 17, 2012—11:00 a.m.—Encounters

This is the record of what we accomplished in April of the second year after the revolution

On the fourteenth, the night still young, I was met by Rooster and Alaa El Rawi at the Antar Café in Agouza. Alaa El Rawi, the Salafist revolutionary with the beard and no moustache: a heart-shaped prayer bruise on his forehead and a talent for kicking up a row. He told me that all the influential pro-Hazim Abu Ismail groups had been spurred to further acts of protest and violence following the morning’s announcement that the Salafist leader was to be disqualified from the presidential elections. It had come to light that his mother had held American citizenship before her death, contravening the constitutionally prescribed conditions for candidacy. (Also disqualified: Major General Omar Suleiman, Engineer Khairat Shater, and seven others.) El Rawi’s words were reassuring, because now the two big pro-Abu Ismail campaigns (the Hazemites and It Has To Be Hazim), along with all the other Salafist revolutionaries, were primed to cause havoc—which is exactly what led to the Defence Ministry sit-in and its bloody conclusion on May 2. More than one person with no axe to grind would declare that for them the revolution had died when the young men of the Ultras and the revolutionary alliances joined forces with the spawn of Abu Ismail down at the ministry, bringing in their wake the hired thugs who then clashed with local residents—and Abu Ismail himself nowhere to be found. One of our greatest victories. El Rawi hung round till I’d told him the time of our next meat feast—on the following Thursday—then excused himself as he had to make evening prayers at the Assad Bin Al Furat Mosque in Doqqi. As I handed him the cash he said, “God reward you well,” and nodded his head to let me know that my instructions—to continue whipping his fellow worshippers at the mosque into the furthest reaches of hysteria—had been received and understood. Rooster was a thug from Amireya who’d morphed into a political activist a year ago. The name came from his high, cracked cockerel’s cry of a voice and his skill with knives, all speed and terrifying precision. Due to his sinuous grace and his ability to elude capture when confronted I’d come to entrust him with the surveillance jobs. He was the one who’d been keeping Moon under observation every day from April 2 onward, either trailing her on foot or following her on the Vespa. His principle benefit being that I could be sure she wouldn’t tumble to his presence. And now he informed me that she hadn’t once gone to Maadi and was spending the night at the apartment in Sahafeyeen whose address I’d given him. Rooster knew it was a third-floor apartment belonging to one of the big contractors and rented out under the new lease act in the name of an army officer, one Colonel Emad Zakariya. Either there or in the apartment next to the Brotherhood HQ. Oddly, she never once went into the headquarters themselves. Dressed normally, with her hair left naturally curly and brown, she got around by taxi; dressed up, hair ironed straight and blond, she rode in the private vehicles of her bourgeois girlfriends. But whenever she stepped out of the building to go to Muqattam she wore a full veil, a khimar that covered head and chest, and would be driven in an old Mercedes to the very door of the residential block in the Al Hadaba Al Wusta neighbourhood, only emerging again once the Mercedes had returned to take her back to Sahafeyeen. From Rooster’s description of the driver I realized it must be the same tall man who’d been chauffeuring Moon in the green Opel the night I’d surprised her in the Deals bar in Zamalek. Rooster told me she’d not attended a single political event since the surveillance had begun.

On the tenth, I received confirmed reports of the arrests of lyric poet Abdel Nasser Qinawi, history professor Salim Abdel Bari, and activist Emad Khashaba, on charges of incitement to violence, the destruction of public property, assaulting conscripted soldiers, and being in possession of deadly weapons. This, on Friday, April 6, in Tahrir Square, during clashes between supporters of Hazim Abu Ismail and civil society activists opposed to the constituent assembly for drafting a new constitution. Salah Nasr and a few of his former colleagues, in the guise of demonstrators, had been hanging out with the three men during the assault on the Mogamma, and Wadei Bey had been told he must act before the end of the month. Things went exactly as planned. Khashaba was released the same day when his place of residence could be proved and the professor was let go inside a week, though on a bail of one hundred thousand pounds. Qinawi was turned over to the military prosecutor pending his transferral to a military prison. You’d know more about that than I would, ya basha. Everyone was proud of Khashaba’s starring role because it brought benefits on the ground, and the professor just needed his ear tweaked: a little fine to make him feel the pinch. Only with Qinawi did we feel this need to spare ourselves any more of his shit.

On the sixteenth, Sharif Tadros met me at Le Grillon. Sharif I trusted most, more or less, because he’d worked for me the longest and was the only one of them I’d known back in the good old days. Graduated with top marks in telecommunications engineering: a clever boy and truly devoted. And from a good family, too, though he had a bit of previous with the Brotherhood and the police. Long story, how I first met him, but basically he’d got scooped up with a bunch of Jihadists, his next-door neighbours in Saray El Qobba—and I had intervened on his behalf with the commander of the Abdeen police station. So, he meets me at Le Grillon to tell me Radwa Adel had signed onto Facebook using a proxy server, making it impossible to trace her IP address and thus to identify and locate the computer she was using. He’d checked, and for the past year the only activity in the email account on her Facebook page had been to receive Facebook’s own automated messages. At which point I realized that I would have to ask Wadei Bey’s advice about Radwa Adel. (When I talked to him later he would say: If there’s anything you need to know, you’ll be told.) But more importantly, Sharif gave me reliable information that the kid called His Excellency was, as suspected, talking more than he should and was in contact with hostile security agencies. And I recalled the way His Excellency had tried and failed to cheat me over the price of a used car, the day I’d gone shopping for the yellow Beetle seven years previously. How, impressed by his ability to pass himself off as the black sheep of an aristocratic family that had managed to hang on to its riches—when in fact he was a peasant from my neck of the woods, from one of the most wretched hamlets in the Lion’s Pool district—how I’d begun to make use of him on an occasional basis until finally recruiting him into the team in April 2011. And now he was trying to trick me again. Sharif brought me the proof that he was working with a state security officer by the name of Aziz Abdel Rahim who, I’d later find out, was a personal friend of Colonel Emad Zakariya. And he swore to me up and down that he loved His Excellency as a person, and that he was just doing his job, so I told him I quite understood and wouldn’t mention to anyone, anyone at all, that I’d got what I knew from him. As soon as he left, I sent a request to His Excellency to meet me on his own at the bookshop the following morning. With Ashraf, Sharif, and the customers all there the shop would be safer than my apartment and yet—if I took His Excellency down to my office in the basement—just as private. In the voice of a beast I summoned Atris to tell him what I would be getting up to the following day, and I felt an enthusiasm that was like joy.

On Friday, April 19, the corpse of His Excellency, a hole from a Beretta M951 round punched through its throat, would be found in front of the Muslim Brotherhood’s stage in Tahrir Square. And though more than one Brother would be charged with his murder the investigations would soon fizzle out when forensics provided definitive proof that it had been the victim who’d jammed the pistol down his throat and pulled the trigger.

18 | A demonstration attended by the client

Wednesday, April 17, 2012—1:00 p.m.—Movies

This is the record of what we accomplished in April

On April 17, I took care of the activist Amr Himeida. I preferred to keep him out of court and jail. For his sake, of course, though also for mine. That’s to say: having heard what he was saying about me behind my back, furnishing an appropriate setting in which I might communicate my advice in person was the judicious thing to do. And as I’d anticipated, my request to use a safehouse in which I’d previously held a meeting was accepted. Just think: I wasn’t even asked what I intended to do with him. All it was: a bit of trouble broke out at a demonstration attended by the client, which led to the military police being called out, who then detained him along with a number of other demonstrators close to where the protest was taking place. Then an official from the Interior turns up and announces he’s taking the detainees for questioning at the nearest police station, and that if they refused then they’d be turned over to the military prosecutor. So, naturally, they choose questioning down at the station and the client goes off with the official in a private van, then after a bit the others are all let go and two men climb in who blindfold and gag him and bring him to the apartment where I’m waiting.

I decided to let the Digger welcome him in and take care of releasing him once I’d gone because I guessed he’d put up no resistance. The Digger, fifty-odd, with his bulging muscles, metallic odour, and glassy eyes, would be more than sufficient to put the wind up Himeida. He’d earned his moniker driving in foundation piles on building sites and even now he’d treat people he encountered on the street as though—as he described it—they were piles themselves. And unlike Salah Nasr his face wasn’t known because he never accompanied us to the demonstrations. Now, having handed Himeida a cup of tea and made sure he’d drunk the whole lot down, and without letting him remove the blindfold, he brought him in to see me. In the room. The interrogation room in this safe house was genuinely amazing. Like the living room of a regular residential apartment, with gilt furniture, thick rug, crystal chandelier, and oil paintings of landscapes. There was even a window with shutters and a marble ledge beneath it on which sat trinkets and a vase. But open the shutters and you’d find a wall immediately outside, and on either side of the window, hidden behind the curtains, were two vertical recesses with iron loops set into their ceilings. The point: that the blindfold wasn’t removed from Himeida’s eyes until the handcuffs had closed on his wrists and the ropes dangling from them had been pulled tight and knotted behind his back, so that his arms were yanked up and he was only just able to stand upright on the very tips of his toes. His back would be hurting him and if he tried to move too much his shoulder might pop out or the muscles tear in his neck—but he’d suffer no visible damage. And of course I was ready with my black hood, knowing full well my features could be made out through the fabric, because I wanted Himeida to recognize me while increasing the margin for doubt and denial. And I had a high dosage of LSD ready to put in the tea Himeida would drink. This was the essence of the punishment, okay? I estimated that the lysergic acid would start to take effect at the same time that the curtains were opened. I’m sitting facing him on the couch, in my mask, and lying on the little tea table everything that was in his pockets when he was detained. To wit: a knife, a wallet containing his ID card, forty pounds, a few photos, a couple of newspaper cuttings, and a coin, then two lighters and a pack of Cleopatra Supers. But behind the second curtain was a computer linked up to two huge speakers and a wireless mike the size of a hazelnut on my collar. That way, when I spoke to Himeida my voice would come from behind me, from a point hidden somewhere else in the room. And it would be loud, dinning and, under the effect of the acid, might even be miraculous. And Himeida spake unto God. I made sure to keep my tone calm and reasonable, even when cursing and making threats. I knew the acid would make Himeida hallucinate the things I was saying as though they were really taking place and that he might leave the safe house convinced that he’d really lived through the scenario I would put to him. You have to prepare the ground if the message is to get through as a final and fully realized idea, you see, and the best way is to have the profitable advice follow the hallucinations of terrifying pain and the threat of death: then the message comes as a deliverance. And that is more or less what happened.

As soon as I began talking to him, Himeida strained to open his eyes and asked, panicked, where we were. Then he closed them again and repeated over and over: For the sake of the prophet, who’s that talking to me? But I didn’t start my speech until he had begun to complain of cramping in his lower belly and I knew that the acid was working. I’m telling you he was blinking in alarm by the time I started in on him and the first thing he did was to start chanting hysterically, Down with military rule! But discovering he couldn’t raise his hand to make a V for victory he turned his face in my direction and looked at me. And what I saw in that expression of his brought joy to my heart. Real joy. It wasn’t fear, or anger, or even pain, so much as that his expression held a kind of submission, or devotion. A piety or religious fervor, but in the true sense of those terms, which is a truly rare thing. And now, every time I ranted at him, I could hear Himeida whimpering with ever greater anguish. And as I talked to him about the pain, his eyes bulged and his body bucked in his despairing attempts to break free. Till the blood started running from his nostrils while he either screamed or mewled: I’m ready to tell you whatever you ask. Anything you ask, I’ll say it. My shoulders. My shoulders. My face. The alien. Please. The alien’s biting. In the end I kept quiet for five minutes, just to enjoy the client’s wailing and trembling. Then the abuse and begging. And breathing deep I caught the stink of piss and shit that had escaped him in his terror. Before falling silent I had him convinced that he was going to die in this room. Then suddenly I lifted my head and told him that he could go home now because we believed he’d got the message. In seconds I had the mike off my collar and had turned out the lights, leaving him in darkness as I closed the door behind me. The whole operation hadn’t taken half an hour. In the living room I shared a laugh with the Digger. I told him to sneak Himeida out and look after my things for me, then bring them over to me that night. And as I left I became aware of my anus, stinging fiercely, and I longed for Moon’s thigh: the cloud of flesh by her knee. The taste of her skin and her on top of me. The sounds that escaped me when she did what she did to me down below.

17 | That lot are all with us

Wednesday, April 17, 2012—5:00 p.m.—Movies

Listen to me, Amr. You’re here because you need to get a few things into your head. It’s obvious you haven’t understood what’s going on, and as result there are people who aren’t too happy at the way you’ve been acting. You were supposed to go to the secret detention center but we felt sorry for you. Tell us, though: who was the son of a bitch who persuaded you that you’d staged a revolution, Amr? If you’d staged a revolution you’d be somewhere a lot nicer than this, no?

And things can be done to you here. The box to your right, see it? That’s a kind of generator. We could pop your legs in a pan of water and hook the wires up to your thighs till you’re shaking like bananas and milk in a blender.

I mean, right now you still look like a human being. What would you say if we cuffed your hands beneath your feet, tied your feet to your neck, then hung you from the ceiling like a chandelier with your arsehole for all to see? You’d be a real collector’s piece, no? Even that blunt knife in your pocket: we can sharpen it and stick the whole thing up your arse. Understand, Amr? That knife of yours, which you threaten people with in the street—when it’s properly red hot it’s going to vanish up your anus, the entire length of it, and you up there by the ceiling like a chandelier. We might even cork you up while its in there and shake you about until your guts are cut to ribbons. You can’t conceive of the kinds of pain that are possible, Amr.

Fine. So what if we told you that this revolution you believe in was just a disinformation operation that we carried out? Trust me. You’re like the plastic slip-ons we wear in the bathroom: anywhere else we wear nice clean shoes and sandals that would put you to shame. Shut up and listen. This is for your own benefit.

There are two kinds of revolutionary in Egypt today. Those who know there’s no revolution, that there’s nothing of the sort, but who do well out of the protests. The protests bring them fame and money. That lot are all with us. And then there are people who have nothing in their lives: the demonstrations compensate them for their lack of knowledge, employment, sense of self—even their virility, Amr. That state of manic arousal they flaunt as though the world’s just a hole to stick their pricks in. Even though, brother, they’ve never fucked a woman in their lives. You’ll have guessed it: you’re the second sort; the dickless type.

Quiet. We’re talking. What, you think that when you go out onto the street you’re a hero, just like that? Heroism’s standing in the street with a knife in your pocket?

And how are you going to change the world, Amr, when you’re hanging onto the Islamists' coattails? You want secular democracy or sharia law? Political reform or the extermination of a godless society? Someone like you, when he starts trotting after the Islamists pleading poverty or repression or any desiccated crap like that, how does he sleep at night? Because the country needs another cunt like you, does it, sucking the Islamists off?

Naturally, I understand you need to put on a show like this in order to feel any semblance of manliness, when everyone knows you’re just a ponce; but really, what halfway intelligent man marries a woman you could fuck backwards for a bottle of beer? The kids tell me you’re hiring her out, but we wouldn’t believe such a thing of you. I mean, your wife’s a good fuck, it’s true. Speaking frankly. But honestly, my friend, what halfway intelligent man marries a woman like that?

Amr, if you were a cut-rate hired thug we’d respect you more than we do now. At least the thug knows who he is and what he’s doing, but you . . .

Get it, you son of a whore? You faggot? Or do you still not understand? We know how to swear, too, but when we swear we don’t go around thinking we’re doing anything more or more important than using foul language. And when we pluck someone like you off the stage it never occurs to us that we’re changing the world.

The sad truth, Amr: the only solution to the tragedy of you and your sort existing in our society is that you die as quickly as possible. We’re getting ready to torture you to death in the living room. We’d have preferred to spare you the torture but sadly you can’t afford one-tenth of what it would cost to kill you without it. Okay, listen: we feel sorry for you and we’re going to bend the rules. Just for you. What do you say? We’ll overlook the pleasure of torturing you and we’ll kill you straight out for these forty pounds of yours . . .

16 | White noise

Friday, April 20, 2012—10:00 a.m.—Events

And here’s the country with a new March of Millions, keeping the tradition alive. Keeping the revolution alive. And the demand that this march chanted was to Exclude The Fulool, the old-guard: the rotten corpses and cadavers that shall be consigned to the dustbin of history. And they granted this chant the square’s stamp of approval, a sanction no voice may gainsay, not even that of parliament. And here’s the Israeli Military Council under the control of the Americans impeding the path of national liberation and referring parliament’s (delayed) approval of limited political exclusion to the constitutional court . . . but in vain. The patriotic revolutionary forces—Islamist, Nationalist, Liberal, and Leftist—are today united, saying as one: No profiteering off the backs of those who paid the price, and: No building a future before the old regime has been swept away. And now here come the guilty parties declaring their deep contrition for the wrong they did the double-crossed revolution and once more setting the pyramid on its base, not its point, thereby uniting the revolutionary ranks behind political exclusion, behind purging, behind setting up revolutionary courts and the confiscation of ill-gotten gains.

15 | Their predatory raids

Friday, April 20, 2012—10:00 a.m.—Events

Their predatory raids prevented sedentary tribes from occupying much of the highlands . . . They successfully asserted themselves against the Arab slave traders; they treated other races with great arrogance; and they took tribute from all, Europeans, Arabs and Africans alike, who were bold enough to pass through their country.—Claud Hollis, “The Masai,” Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol. 42, No. 168 (July 1943)

A new Kandahar Friday and the moran surrounding them. The moran: devils or angels bearing the message. That’s why they kill the moran. These peasants flaunting their God, this is what they are like: the shepherd tribes who endure Enkai’s raids. They fear the moran. They despise them. So they mutter of killing them or conspiring against them. Just the moran. Who are us. Sons of a whore’s religion, knowing who we were and warning the youth—the youth of the April 6 Movement, the Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh youth, the Hamdin Sabahi youth, and all the revolutionary forces with whom they were supposedly allied—warning them against us. Using Amr Himeida and his ilk to warn them. So, Kandahar Friday, and we’re spread out in the crowds of young men, and we’re armed with invisible spears and shields—and no one notices us. Only those who want us dead can see the weapons. The Metre’s feast in our bellies and we’re staring at the beards and the dead skin on their faces. The peasants, flaunting God and revolution. The lard of their bellies lifting the hems of their short robes to the knee, clubs in their hands as they advance. Their expressions: rabid dogs. So we’re looking at them and visualizing it: slicing their cocks up with razors, crushing first their backs with hammers then, as they crawl on their bellies over the tarmac, their exposed knees. And stuck with knives: skin split back off red flesh and black blood in place of eyes. We visualize these things, each of us on his own, but no sooner do we look at one another than each knows exactly what the other is picturing and enters in as though he were the one seeing it. Without speaking a word. The meat the Metre cooked us makes us this way, as though we’re a single creature with a single mind and multiple bodies. And this creature is coming to raid the other creatures and defeat them. Why they’re advancing, dog-faced, drool dripping from their fangs, I don’t know. Our craving to see the Islamists on their bellies has started to leak out of us in the form of words, casual admissions to the youngsters standing around us, as though it's just one more view on one more topic. A drumming in our heads. As though war were dripping off our tongues and down through their earholes into their brains. Drip, drip. From the moment we turned up and dispersed through the groups of Civic Youth (as they call themselves). The Liberals. Though they’re Nasserites and nationalists and communists and socialists and all the congealing leftovers of Eastern Europe and Arab Socialist classics, like that movie Return My Heart. The kids are stuffed to the gills with talk: call themselves Liberals to let you know they aren’t Islamists, when the Islamists ride them like asses. When they wear them like shoes. And our squad with them, working against them from within. Just talk. At least, just talk until the afternoon, because that was when we really got to work on the demonstration. Most of these kids know me personally and just assume I’ve got a phobia of political Islam, nothing more. I grin cheerfully at everyone I see and without giving any kind of clue to what I’m thinking, I start to chant. But I’m considering exactly who I want beaten up and when. I’m considering all the possibilities, and the Plan Bs for when they happen. Working a demo is no joke and I’ve got long experience, dating back before the revolution. The most important thing is that you have the target in mind and keep your emotions one hundred per cent under control as events unfold.

Ashraf Bayoumi asked: Can I go and meet up with the chick outside the mosque? Fifteen minutes, I said, and you better have made sure you know where everyone on your list of names is. And I waved over at the squad who were coming to the protest to snatch Abdel Nasser Qinawi, then went over to join them and one by one enfolded them in my arms. The Islamists were still gathering and I felt the warmth of genuine intimacy with these men. One of them, a stranger, said, Brother, the square’s more like a rectangle today, and I took note of the way the demonstrators were arrayed. Up until the afternoon the square really was like a narrow corridor with droves of new arrivals passing down it: parades or processions. And regular citizens, who were still turning up to Friday demonstrations out of a sense of patriotism and solidarity, turning them into ghastly fetes with flag-waving and blaring music, they stood on either side like a gate through which the droves must pass. Pretty, pregnant with History, giving birth to a revolution. Hiding the pubic shame. And Glory glittered in the square as they wheeled again and again . . . Just an oblong with us at one end and the droves coming to meet us through the midst of these voices. And each band of newcomers either forming a little encampment and setting up stages and tents or breaking up and melting into the crowds behind the gate—while I addressed the youngsters. Debating and carried away. We were drinking tea out of plastic cups when Ashraf came running toward me from a marching column some five hundred meters away. He winked at me and laughed like a whore, then tapped my shoulder and whispered, It’s Himeida, Paulo; Amr Himeida, and pointed with his nose, and I spat on the ground and handed him my cup in order to squeeze my body into the narrow gap between that human gateway and my place at the head of the crowd, and I ran full tilt toward those marching forward.

14 | The way a dog learns

Friday, April 20, 2012—11:00 a.m.—Encounters

The march was just starting. Just a little one but making more noise than anything else. All the sounds had this brassy tone, but there was a rhythmic quality to them and something sad for all that it was very loud and made your ears ring. Out at the front were about seven individuals holding saucepan lids which they banged together like cymbalists in a symphony orchestra, and behind these, three more pulling a handcart surrounded by young men clutching plain chains and bike chains and making them clink and sing. At the back of the cart came a second group, pushing, then about twenty demonstrators, their leader holding a microphone, and to the rhythm of the pan-lids all were intoning in a deep rumble, like a Gregorian chant: Relax, they said, be easy, / But tell me how, said I, / When everywhere I look I see, / State security. Their raised hands held placards depicting fetters and cuffs or clenched fists, and they moved slowly as though at a funeral. And the defiance in their faces was pure fear. From time to time the march would stop while they shouted on, as if hawking up this fear, as if genuinely in pain. Then they would talk among themselves till they’d changed the slogan: O Himeida, now don’t you brood, / Tomorrow the revolution: blood on blood. Seriously? On the cart the activist Amr Himeida stood tall, barefoot in a torn white galabiyya worn with nothing underneath and holding a big sign that read: The counter-revolution: Led by state security. Just like that, standing proud. Galabiyya stained, a filthy body, patchy beard, and hair everywhere. Standing on the cart like a sheaf of sugarcane. There was a distracted absence in his gaze, a foolish grin on his face, and he was barely keeping his balance amid the rocking of the cart and all the noise. I ran up to him, then stopped. Laughter. Terror. Shock. The Digger had told me that when they’d left the apartment, Himeida had tied the blindfold on himself and absolutely calmly uttered the words: At your command, sir. He was steady. Unshaken. So much so that I’d considered bringing him into the team. But if that’s how it was . . . I thought you were tougher, Himeida. I started moving right and left, asking the marchers what it was about: That’s Amr Himeida the activist, right? And they, with the best of intentions, were saying that state security had abducted him and subjected him to brutal torture and that there’s no way we can just let this go . . . And I was gravely nodding my head and dialing up Alaa El Rawi, who was standing by the It Has To Be Hazim stage. I told him where I was and that he should come quick and bring a gang of beards. I was shouting so he’d hear me over the cymbals and chants and when they arrived we made as if we were joining the march and started clambering onto the cart, where we surrounded Himeida clapping and chanting. I’d been fighting back laughter, and now I let my good humor out in a shout. At first, I didn’t glance over at Himeida, surrounded by the beards. Just raised my fist, chanted along, and threw out gestures of solidarity to his comrades in the march. And by the time they’d noticed us and asked us to get down, the kids had already drifted into place—before I could even wink at Alaa to say, Ignore them, they already were. Of course, being scared, they didn’t do a thing. The beat got a bit muddled was all, and there was a fight or two till the cart stopped and the chanting began to falter. Only then did I look at Himeida. I looked him in the eye and laughed. The hero activist, I said and leaned in toward his face as if to kiss him in greeting. El Rawi and the kids had made a circle round the cart and the foolish grin had fled from Himeida’s face. I moved my mouth to his ear and whispered: They learned you manners the way a dog learns. Then I lifted my head and said again: Hero! Hero of heroes! And I was about to start chanting again when he began to whimper. Whimpering and screaming like a frightened child and trying to jump off the cart and the kids who were with me blocking his way. And I held his shoulders and said loudly: You can’t get down, hero, you’ll spoil the march. Get a grip. Then I leaned forward and squeezed him in a way I knew would hurt, and with the voice of a lion I whispered: Like a dog, Himeida. And then I shoved him back as though engaged in a desperate struggle to stop him getting down, and acted as though I was losing my balance, too, then pretended to struggle back upright. And Himeida, falling on his back, started to writhe, drool in his beard. He was making a sound the likes of which I’d never heard before. Know the sound of paper being consumed by fire? Imagine that plus a screeching, grating sound, a scratching, the scream of a frightened child. People coming and going and the human gateway changing shape. We marched along and El Rawi’s gang chanted, Allahu Akbar. Before walking off myself, I paused by the cart to look at Himeida and his comrades, who were off to one side arguing and ignoring him. I heard one say to another: Son of a dog fucked up our march. Told you he was a coward. And I saw another glance contemptuously at Himeida where he lay on the cart. The ones pulling and pushing had all dispersed. Could they just up and leave their hero like that? Just because he hadn’t been injured out in the square? There was a pile of pot lids and chains heaped like a hill or pyramid in the cart alongside Himeida, who lay face-up across the width of the backboards. I can’t say exactly what it was I was seeing in that shot. I longed to have a camera with me but I framed it with my eye. And it was the same grief and dazzlement I felt, as I told myself that evil doesn’t come from one’s needs or their urgency; evil’s just forgetting that one’s urgent needs don’t necessarily have to cause grief. And I saw a tired kid hallucinating on his journey back to Lion’s Pool, but overcome by the desire to roar. Running and roaring like any great lion all the length and breadth of this savanna. And how plentiful the prey, sir! Had all that happened? I laughed, clapped palm on palm then left him there, muttering: You son of a crazy bitch, Himeida.

13 | The light changed and chants

Friday, April 20, 2012—1:00 p.m.—Events

Three of our squad, set up as Islamists with beards and prayer bruises and lines they’d learned off by heart, had gone off with Alaa El Rawi; and Alaa, standing alongside them in the midst of the real Islamists at the stages run by the Hazemites and It Has To Be Hazim next to the Brotherhood’s main stage, was updating me. With text messages he’s updating me while I’m standing on my hind feet roaring at the asphalt. I mean what I say about this roaring, you know. The Metre never comes to the demos with us but he says he’s there, though we can’t see him. And we really can’t. Just sometimes, through the din, we hear the sound of a roaring lion and though no one but us, the squad, pays it any mind, the sound is clear and unmistakable. And when we hear this roar, or the desire to hear it comes over us, we begin chanting—any chant—and our voices grow louder bit by bit until we are roaring without anyone noticing a thing. And in this frenzy of roaring the Metre hears us and responds. Sometimes, like now, it’s as though we’re conducting a whole conversation, just me and him together. And Alaa, updating me via text message. But you, had you been with us, would have heard nothing but the chanting and perhaps shouting, the words unclear. That’s a roar. The days I roar, things turn spherical. The reek of blood is just a taste and the Metre’s meat is in my belly. The square becomes like a see-through sphere and the people are gravel of all shapes and sizes scattered inside it. And if the people get hot enough then the whole ball might skip in the air or change size. Might explode. Work had started late. In the afternoon, after the party atmosphere had died down and the regular citizens had gone home. Those who stayed divided up among the stages once family groups, so enamored of the march toward democracy, had departed and in their wake the rich kids, foreigners, and the bourgeois intellectuals. The ones like Gear Knob, who regard culture—including what they call political work—as a kind of social accomplishment, or prestige. The number of national flags started to dwindle and with them the signs. The light changed and the chants drowned out the music, and the rabid dogs in the Islamists’ faces turned to hyenas, fighting us for our food. I didn’t so much as think of Himeida again after that. In the first hour there were several fights, until more or less half the Liberals left wearing expressions of disgust, despairing over their Utopian ideals. And I was there consoling them, reassuring them, telling them: Despair is treason. And Alaa and his group telling the Brothers something quite different to what me and mine were telling the Liberals—until the hoped-for fight broke out and the military police turned up, shooting into the air. To stop the blasts of birdshot that the Brothers were responsible for and which they would accuse state security of firing, the military police came in shooting. Plucking up the kids to take them into detention, like hens are plucked up by the neck to be slaughtered.

Seven Brothers were tying Salah Nasr up with cable inside a tent in the middle of the road, two more outside to prevent people from entering. He’d had dealings with three of them down at the Qasr El Nil police station in 2008 and they’d recognized him and lured him into the tent. This was our chance. A thick cable of the kind that hurts, knotted around his wrists and ankles so that when the end was yanked it would clamp agonizingly down through skin and flesh and onto bone. And they were standing round him, swearing at him and shouting, Say: I’m an informer, and yanking on the cable. And he was screaming and saying, I’m an informer! Say: I’m a woman. And he’d scream, the sweat running into his eyes: I’m a woman. Say: I’m an unbeliever and I hate God’s law. I’m an unbeliever and I hate God’s law. And so on. And a well-known member of the April 6 Movement, Zaki Fathallah, was holding a video camera and standing there filming it. Until Rooster and I forced our way in and told them to let Salah Nasr go. So they tried to truss us up next to him. The fight started and Zaki Fathallah still standing there, filming. They thought they were up against activists, so they were sure of themselves, and that made it easier for us. In five minutes Rooster had opened up the bellies of three of them and I’d throttled first one unconscious, then another. Don’t think I’m showing off or boasting. It’s got nothing to do with strength or cunning. All it is is that the fear just goes. Another of the effects of the meat and the evil. When anger is the only thing driving you on: no fear, you can do anything. You can turn your left arm into a pincer bent round a man’s neck and clamp his mouth with your right hand while you’re kicking the next guy between the legs to keep him quiet until the first one’s fainted and you’re free to give his friend the same treatment. The fact is there’s no need for the chloroform-soaked cloth you see at the movies. Once fear goes your bare hands are sufficient. As we fought, Salah Nasr managed to untie the cable, and he brought the tent down then opened up the head of the sixth with a length of wood taken from the wreckage while the last of them took off running toward the April 6 crowd. And after we’d taken the MiniDV tape from him and smuggled it out of the square with one of the kids (to be uploaded onto YouTube if we ever needed) we surrounded Zaki and broke his camera, then twisted his arm behind his back and marched him off toward the Brotherhood stage, shouting as we went. We were met by Alaa, who was pretending to be against us: me, Rooster, Sharif Tadros, and four of the squad. You happy about what they’ve done to Comrade Salah? And this animal stood there filming it! One of them was apologizing and another was coming over, ready for trouble, with Alaa whispering in his ear. I winked at Rooster but before anything could happen a third Brother came running, shouting, from where the tent lay in ruins with the bodies choked and bleeding thrown down on the ground. And I cannot say how it was that the distance through which the thin bearded man came toward us appeared so utterly empty, like a desert, the man coming from so very far away, from behind the clouds, but his voice was clear in our ears and screaming in classical Arabic: They murdered the brethren! The infidel sons of dogs murdered the brethren in broad daylight! Sharif was about two meters away, ready with the crates of Molotovs, and Alaa was announcing loudly that he and his crew would go and get supplies and ammo in case there was a battle—this was so he could disappear at the right moment and no one would later ask him what he’d been up to. They’d started tearing up paving stones. Using pieces of metal they had on them, and with their bare hands, they were pulling paving stones out of their clinging asphalt sockets in order to break them up into chunks they could throw. That was what the Brotherhood always did at demonstrations. At the first sign of danger they’d wordlessly bend to the sidewalk. I’d given the order and the Liberals had started gathering, fired up with what I’d been telling them: Abdel Nasser’s Freedom Collective, and Amr Himeida’s lot, along with some of the Hamdin youth and members of various other groups. And inside ten minutes, without a word being spoken, the barricades had been set up inside a vast arc of asphalt, us on one side and the Islamists—led by the Brotherhood, and including a few members of April 6 and most of the Revolutionary Socialists—on the other.

12 | The sweat of lions rampant

Friday, April 20, 2012—5:00 p.m.—Movies

The words of Paulo, son of Baghagho, concerning the pain of death:

The death of those we love causes pain even when we do not grieve. And when death comes to those who fought with us or against us, if we loved them, then we, too, feel our souls departing because they were with us in the shot. Even if we were the ones who caused their death. I was saying that the battle had begun, sir. At the demonstrations we have no fear and the anger drives us. Now I don’t know if you heard about this incident, just another news report about events on the Friday protest they dubbed Setting Destiny. In the papers, they wrote that following the end of the mass march there had been clashes between security and protestors with seven injured and a single fatality. No one went into detail and there was no mention of exchanges of gunfire between Liberals and others of the Islamist persuasion. And that only got out due to chatter on the Internet. The truth is that in the first half hour of the battle before the military police turned up at least five died and dozens were wounded. There was much written on Facebook and YouTube, contradictory and comprehensively wrong for all that it was nothing but details. That’s political analysis for you, even when the professionals are at it. Very precise and very complex claims utterly untethered to the truth. And the speaker so sure of what he’s saying that you—knowing what really happened—you dream of giving him advice like the advice you gave Himeida. So, that said, what chance social media networks: all amateur analysis and pulpits for incitement or propaganda, and with nothing on the line? Strange to say, most of the people who do this kind of propaganda do it for free because they believe they’re in the right. And so life becomes an island of In Focus surrounded by an image that is all Out of Focus. And that island is, itself, of something ugly and boring. As dumb as Saeed Atwa taking the bag from me at Serene House in 2008. And the remainder of the image is colorless and flavorless and contains no trace of anger. Of pain. I am Amer Mohammed Aboulleil. I speak to you of the pain of those we love dying slain as they fight with us or against us on the asphalt. Look you, sir! The gleam of the sweat on the bare breasts of the young men, their shirts about their heads like turbans. The blood welling from heads in small cascades, the fire as it catches in the beards. Follow them as they hurl stones with all the commitment they can muster, then evade bottles that, as soon as they strike, turn to flame. Or vice versa. Hear the threats and abuse and watch us, Rooster and me, each hurling his bottles in tandem with the other. We hunch down by the crate then in the same instant we stand, my forehead held against his, both roaring at the ground. And our heads rocking up and back, bit by bit, but without us drawing back from one another, so that his chin is pressed against mine and both of us roaring to the heavens. And before we ignite and each of us chucks another bottle, look you! and hearken to how our roaring swells. Sharif was working in the front ranks, holding a little mirror he let shine in their eyes to blind them and a whistle in his mouth, like a ref, which he’d blow at other times to distract them. He was doing all this sitting cross-legged on the ground, working away then running back to us to take shelter, then back to work somewhere else, and so on. Suddenly, there were rifles in the hands of newcomers who’d appeared on the Brotherhood side, and now there was the sound of shots and you couldn’t tell if it was birdshot or live rounds. One of the kids went down. Hole in the head. All those injured in the first half hour had got up and run away. He was the first to fall and stay down. Someone else took a bullet in the neck. Whatever they were using, your worship, it wasn’t birdshot . . . He was trying to speak as he stood there, but all he could get out was blood and bubbling. And the bubbling was very loud and . . . just huge quantities of blood. He had this vertical mouth under his chin and he was getting stuff out of it—out of it and out of his regular mouth—but all he was getting out was blood. And there was nothing out of the ordinary about the expression on his face, standing there on his own two legs till they lifted him up and took him away. The smell was getting my blood up, ya basha. By now, I was just roaring straight out, no chanting. We had guns on us but we don’t draw them at demonstrations. And when the military police arrived to break up the battle we imagined that they would be on our side, too, and that the fact the Brotherhood had rifles would be reason enough. So that’s why we went over to where Sharif was chucking stones at one of a group of recent arrivals who’d brought pieces of paving with sharpened edges. Rooster was sprawled flat and had started to crawl. Ashraf Bayoumi had circled round the back and went to complain to an officer. If His Excellency had been with us I would have planted him with the Brothers. The faggot. So: I was roaring as I moved forward and struggling to prevent myself transforming. Staring at them and just about to cross the barrier and throttle them. But then the military police arrived. A small detachment of about fifteen individuals firing their machine guns into the air. They dismantled the barriers and started arresting the kids, but they were only arresting them on our side, and only deploying on the other. I looked at one of them lean down to drag an injured activist by the leg: the sunlight, starting to fade, falling over the red beret perched atop his head as he smacked the kid’s hand away with a truncheon and that beret like red light. In the whole detachment only one was in plainclothes and he held a sniper rifle. A dark man, very tall, his expression remarkably impassive: the only one not dressed in uniform. He was standing off to one side and no one went near him. And when I saw him, something happened to my understanding of the whole scene. For the sun had really gone away now, and it was as though all the sounds had hushed and movement became slow motion through the gloom and smoke. And so it was that I let my thoughts take me away, looking at him and remembering—or making sure—and at that moment I understood that the detachment had come to save the Brotherhood and perhaps for some other purpose as well. His face like stone and taller than any other thing. Was he human, as other men, or something mythical? And what if I transformed before I came to him? I was measuring his shoulder against that of the Metre and so lost in my thoughts that I did not move when he lifted the rifle he was carrying and placing his eye against the scope he aimed it at my head.

11 | Sharif

Saturday, April 21, 2012—10:00 a.m.—Encounters

Later, I would think back over what had happened and be astonished. Over what happened after the tall man, whom I’d first seen with Moon in the bar called Deals, aimed his rifle at my dreaming head. What you have to understand is that I’d asked and I’d asked: absolutely no one knew anything about the man. Many had run across him, sure, but it was as though he could appear in two places at once or as though, like mythical Abu Khatwa, Father of the Stride, he could traverse vast distances in the blink of an eye. And how he engaged with those he met I’ve no idea, but none of those who had met him could recall hearing him speak. Not a word. I would think back over what had happened, I’m saying, and I would order the kids to bring me Moon and shut her up in the office with me. Now listen here: if I’d been prepared to kill Moon I would have done it that night in April when she stayed over in the basement office. I was with her and she couldn’t leave. So now I go to her and bring the picture with me. The picture of Sharif Tadros, which I’d taken a dozen times without my camera to hand, and had made as lovely as could be. When all’s said and done, that’s the purpose of life: to make images of those we love, to make them lovely and live on in our minds, if nowhere else. Here, for instance, Sharif can only be made out with difficulty beneath the orange streetlights and he’s slightly unpleasant to look at—but I’m seeing him in broad daylight. Light a little stronger than daylight, perhaps. Not necessarily stronger, but it’s golden and it gleams; harmonizes with colors and forms and modulates them. And it reveals more details. It makes what you’re looking at dazzle with detail. And it’s impossible for me to explain to you just how beautiful Sharif was, floating there on his back, his arm crooked up and his hand beneath his head, his other arm flung wide. Impossible to explain. Him floating like a moon over the sidewalk of Talaat Harb Square though those present could only see him lying there in the streetlights’ glow, slightly unpleasant to look at. Like a Renaissance painting. Joy or love in his eyes together with something that plays about his lips, like a smile. Every muscle in his face slack. And his skin clear, colored as though lit from within, and his whole frame raised a centimeter off the ground—floating, like I told you. Floating in mid-air. And you don’t notice he’s dead till you spot a small black-rimmed circle in his chest’s dead center: a round hole burned through his blue T-shirt. Not a drop of blood anywhere: just this circle that is both dry and living like an extra limb or organ. Like that mouth of his that kisses your head without kissing it, or the ear poking out like a cactus bud, or his nose: air fills it. If there were such things as angels then surely they would have these organs in their chests, like Sharif. What happened, in brief, was that I heard him say as I stood there lost in thought: Paulo! Look out! And there was an agitation in his voice as he leaped toward me and pushed me to the ground then fell on top of me as the sound of the single bullet from the sniper’s rifle in the tall dark man’s hands rang out. In the same instant. I’ve no idea what happened after that. I understood that the bullet entered his back and exited through that circle in his chest, but where was I exactly? Perhaps I transformed and they just denied the evidence of their own eyes. Perhaps the Metre made me vanish when he saw I was about to transform. Time stood still, and when I came to the world was dark and empty, the kids on the sidewalk, Sharif on his back on the sidewalk at their center, and me sitting cross-legged beside him, rocking back and forth. And when I ask the kids they will tell me that I vanished for half an hour and that they were running away carrying Sharif when I materialized at the entrance to the Shurouq Bookshop’s café as though I was just leaving the place, though it was locked. And without saying a word to anyone I’d sat down cross-legged by the body and, in this position, begun to rock my trunk, leaning down over it then slowly straightening my back and on my face a look of grief. And they said that though I didn’t cry, a weak sound like weeping had risen from my chest. And until the private ambulance came to take him to the hospital or morgue (which one, I’ve no idea) that is how I remained. What they didn’t know is that I was taking his picture. I was seeing him in that daylight I was describing to you and fixing the image as I saw it. Which is why they were genuinely astonished when I refused to go after the ambulance with them and more astonished still when I failed to attend the funeral at the cathedral. They explained it away by saying I was avoiding problems with security, caused by the death of an operative under my command. And I had no way of making them see that everything that could happen had already happened as I had sat beside the body, keening.

translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger