I know that despair is treason
but the revolutionary in my country
— even if he’s a sinless prophet —
when he sees the tyrant empowered
by the oppressed’s command
amid the rejoicing of the poor
will lose his faith.
They say that despair is treason. I was never comfortable with the slogan. I understand its motivation, but I’m worried that the word “treason” is used lightly. The denial of a natural feeling scares me.
It reminds me of angry crowds circling the midan carrying a bloodied shirt, searching for any traitor who allowed despair to whisper into his mind or his heart. They ruin the sweetness of the midan. We pretend to forget those crowds while we weave the myth of those bright 18 days — but they are always in my nightmares.
In my nightmares they surround my mother; they want to throw her out of the midan. Laila Soueif resists them. Laila Soueif who was born from the womb of defeats and so went into the midan in 1972 and has never left it since. Despair never dared to come near her — even so, they called her a traitor to exorcize their own doubts and fears.
My mother passed onto me a stone cake and my father passed onto me a prison cell. And mindful of our traditions I was given an inheritance better than that of my two sisters, for they inherited morgues and victims of torture and the embrace of grieving mothers. I’m too scared to even ask about their nightmares.
They say that despair is treason. I understood but I wasn’t convinced. They also said to me, “Brother, behind bars you are free.” And here I am behind bars, stripped of my will and my dream, and I know from experience that a bit of me will stay behind these bars even when the decision comes to let me go.
Myths are part of my inheritance. They said, “Who can — for one hour — imprison Egypt?” Even though everyone knows that Tapioca and Alcazar and every — and any — general can imprison her for as many hours as the clocks with green hands he sees in his visions.
They said, “You can’t kill an idea.” But what use are immortal ideas, lost in the noise of gunfire?
Why are we afraid to admit weakness? To admit that we are human, that APCs destroy us and prisons make us lonely and bullets scar our thoughts and our dreams. We are humans suffering defeats, let down by our bodies, made weak by our imperfections, burned by our dreams and paralyzed by our nightmares. Humans looking to love, for support against despair.
like the key to paradise
if you own it
But we enter paradise
in our dreams
and when we die.
If despair is treason, what about hope? At least despair speaks frankly. Hope is treacherous and tricky. Is there any treason uglier than the one committed in the name of a hope you held?
The army, the people, one hand. The law-abiding state. The constitution first. The people. The elected institutions. Yesterday’s comrades. The veteran fighters. The judiciary that fears only God. The masses. The guardians of the midan. The coalition. The organization. The party. The independent media. The national council. The honest officers…
Is there any treason worse than having hopes in some — or all, or any — of the above?
Is there treason worse than holding onto hope that things will get better after a constitution has been ratified that breaks the promise made by those who wrote it: that it would not be completed until every last prisoner had been released?
Is there treason worse than clinging onto any hope in a state whose institutions specialize in treachery, in murder and torture?
Is there treason worse than clinging onto hope in elections around which a national dialogue tries to guarantee the least amount of competition, the surest certainty of results?
Is there treason greater than having any hope in the “candidate of necessity” — even though his qualifications are limited to this “necessity”?
Is there treason greater than retaining any hope in a civil candidate unwilling to declare openly that he will compete with the general?
Is there treason greater than clinging onto hope in masses that raise images of murderers and torturers? Than clinging onto hope in comrades who deny defeat out of pride not defiance — and when the infection spreads and the revolutionaries go back to the streets and the prisons and the morgue they find no comrades to stand by them?
Hope, like despair, is treason. But also, like despair, it’s a normal human weakness. Here in my cell I wrestle with my dreams and my nightmares, and I don’t know which hurts most. Despair and hope pull at me — but I am never a traitor.
We are not free
cling onto tomorrow.
People’s tragedy: they committed
the sin of the wish
with no limit.
On a clear day after two hunger strikes and a snowstorm, the sky quietens and in our hearts there’s calm.
We drink tea in the courtyard. We’ve passed the stage of discussing whether there’s value to our resilience, a chance of our release. After a month of disclosures nothing is left except memories.
And while we tell stories of past imprisonments, when the cells seemed more friendly and comrades more loyal, even though the revolution was — then — an “impossible dream,” I remember me and find me there — in the past — in the metro in my high school uniform with a friend handing out a report complete with photographs of the torture of an old “cattle thief” they set alight with kerosene in Fayoum police station. We change trains quickly before someone recovers from the shock of the photograph and arrests us.
I didn’t tell my father I had taken delivery of my inheritance that day. It didn’t seem important. We were just trying to get rid of some of the anger, to rid the house of that terrible photograph. Hope had no part in this.
There in the past, I found me less experienced and more wise. I write of a generation that fought without despair and without hope, that won only small victories and wasn’t shaken by major defeats because they were the natural order of things. A generation whose ambitions were lower than the ambitions of those who came before, but whose dream was larger.
There’s a lot wrong with me — but I’m no traitor. I’ve committed cowardice and selfishness, I was impatient often and rash sometimes, I was proud and I was lazy but I was never a traitor. I will not betray the revolution with despair or with hope. This is a promise.
Who said we were
Or that we’re
an enchanted generation?
in the dark
we wish for light
Our sin was pride not treachery. We said, “We’re not like those who came before us, and so the young of the Brotherhood are different and the young Nasserites are different and the leftist young are different and the young liberals are different.” The weakness of our myth was exposed when we came up against the young officers.
Today I see us like them, I see us make the same mistakes they made. Despite all our claims to uniqueness and rebellion we are nothing more than loyal children of our families and our motherland, holding onto their constants and virtues and habits and traditions. We hold to this inheritance, so it may pass onto our children.
We’ll say to them, “You’re different, you won’t repeat our mistakes,” but we’ll forget to tell them that this is a wish not a prophecy. We’ll sing them the songs of Ahmed Fouad Negm and Sheikh Imam, or the anthems of Sayyed Qutb and Rifai, but we’ll forget to tell them that this is heritage not resistance. They will rebel, but in the end they will return to their heritage of their own free will. But we’ll forget to tell them that this is inertia not destiny.
How can we not forget when we’re so occupied with the myth of the midan that we neglect the revolution, so occupied with the myth of our uniqueness that we neglect our dreams? How can we not get lost when we’re so occupied with defending the second wave that drowns us?
We scream at them, “It’s not a conspiracy by them against you!” And we forget to tell ourselves, “But it’s a conspiracy by both of them against us.” Or was it, maybe, a conspiracy by us against us? I forget, but I’m sure it’s happened before.
They claim that the first waves were mysterious and dark, but I have an absolute certainty about them. All their details are clear and frank and public and calculated. But the myth, in its attempt to erase weakness and anxiety and violence and absurdity and the anguish of pain and the fragility of the dream, opens the door to them to transmit their mystery!
They claim that the second wave was frank and transparent, but from its first moments it seemed to me wrapped in a familiar mysteriousness, a mysteriousness scattered in my heritage in terse phrases: Black September — Sabra and Chatilla — a unified right wing — the Naksa — Khamis and Baqari — the Defresoir — coups and camp wars Gulf wars… words we inherited without details or explanatory songs or even mocking jokes. As though those words represented only a small part of the consciousness of those who came before us. They forgot to tell us and we didn’t say that in our ignorance we had held them responsible. And today we pretend that we’re not living similar nightmares. We won’t admit that — like them — we are powerless.
The crowding midans
and the millions
the crowding revolutions
made us forget:
that “the dream is the midan”
and the revolution
lives in the self.
Being an adult has strict rules. It’s important not to talk about yourself while you glorify yourself or you’ll be exposed as conceited and trivial. But in prison you have nothing to talk about except yourself; time stops and your will is restricted to the boundaries of your body. When you talk about yourself with a freedom born of necessity — that’s when you find yourself.
There in the past I find me hunched over a keyboard, building with my wife a website that collected every Egyptian blog, refusing to be bound by rules or categories or borders. Blogs found refuge with us when they were rejected by the Tunisian aggregator whose admins had suspicions of the patriotism of refugees and people who fought from abroad. I see me printing a call to set up citizens’ journalism and alternative media and handing it out everywhere I went for years.
We didn’t try to form a bloc or claim a unified identity; we just wanted to express ourselves. We never aimed to dispel the mystery of our contemporary history, or to deny its confusion and our naivety; we just wanted to ensure that its mystery couldn’t be exploited to deny our experience or rewrite our stories — despite us or by us — in an attempt to erase what troubles the authorities, or troubles us.
There, in the past, I find me, with less experience and more wisdom, writing about independent selves resisting their isolation with communal work but refusing to melt into the collective. We co-operate with those who came before us, willing to enter into their projects and their theories as long as we didn’t have to believe in them or preach for them. We didn’t have generation wars or claim uniqueness — but we insisted, and still do, on our tools.
In the absence of despair and hope, nothing remains but the self. Our aim was to emphasize will in a country that aimed to destroy you. Our instinct was to move towards the unknown in a country whose instinct was stasis. We fought for a day, one day that would end without the suffocating certainty that tomorrow would replicate it as all days had been replicated before. All our ambition was that the authorities would spend the night anxious even if that disturbed everybody’s sleep — but even so we dreamed of a sleep and an awakening untroubled by the authorities.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or will its blood
make you drunk
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
(Adapted from Langston Hughes “Harlem”)
Four midans seduce us. Four midans fight over us. Four midans tear us apart between them. Four midans dominate the dreams and nightmares of their people; each midan a siren and a maze, your soul stays captive inside it even if your body leaves.
Four midans fighting, each banishing the others, or denying they ever existed. All the midans are photoshopped except yours. Outside the midans a terrified public looks for stability. Each midan sings the praises of the public, raising slogans and demands — some of which concern the public. But there’s no stability on the horizon, for each denies the other.
The first and original midan is ours, Tahrir and the Revolution Midan. We say it with all conceit and arrogance: the midan is ours. Not the naive conceit they accuse us of, we don’t claim to own the midan, or to have a monopoly on the revolution, but we state that the midan owns us and the revolution has a monopoly on our dreams. This conceit doesn’t come from believing the praise that tells us that we set the fuse for the revolution or were one of its causes, but because the revolution released our energies, and because we took it as our reason to exist. We did not preach the revolution or foresee it, but we dreamed of it and waited for it and so the midan became ours. We built the myth of the 18 days around it, and since then we haven’t left.
The second is the Holy War Midan. They go there for weeks or months, to the arenas of jihad against infidels and kharijites. They move to a community that lives on the lawful gains of raids, the prescribed division of spoils, that governs with Islamic law and punishment. They come back but their souls stay there where the life is the life of the companions of the prophet. They dream of whipping history and slaughtering time.
Don’t judge them too severely, there’s something of us in them. Did we not dream of giving our lives for Palestine? Did we not raise the image of the lord of foreign fighters, Che Guevara? Did we not threaten the army with chants that we’d turn the place into Libya, into Syria? Didn’t some of us try to deal with our nightmares by daydreaming of arms? All revolutionaries go through a phase where they shoot at the hours as they try to kill time.
The third is Rabea Midan. Its people lived for weeks in an idealistic homogenous world, its residents look varied but no one troubles it with dissidence; everyone celebrates the Islamist project, everyone believes in its inevitability and its superiority, Christians and seculars are attenuated and the irresolute of confused creed or faltering faith have vanished.
A world in which the Organization assumes its natural significance and size, its vanguard position, sheds the dirt that clings to it from the deal-making of the past, and recovers from all the wounds of repression.
Their bodies left it under duress but their spirits stayed, circling the blood of their brothers, dreaming of a state within a state and a city within a city and a nation within a nation, solid like a building, resisting under a historic leadership according to a divine plan.
Don’t judge them too severely, there’s something of us in them. Don’t you remember those difficult days after the Battle of the Camel when we would chant, “The People Demand” in the midan, showing off our “harmony in our diversity,” scared, at the same time to leave the midan for fear of the enmity of our neighbors and our families and the cruelty of the Popular Committees we thought were revolutionary till we found them working hard to bury the revolution alive and punish “the Tahrir crowd”? All revolutionaries go through a phase where they’re besieged by utopias and lose control, and it’s then that the torture tents appear in their midst.
The fourth midan is the Mandate Midan. Its people live in a pretty black and white film about the old days when the state was fatherly and strict and the institutions good and caring and the officer a handsome young man and Egypt a slim and elegant farmer woman and the leader beloved and everybody smiling because the plot was always easy and the ending happy. A film repeated every day without being boring and always ending before June 5, 1967, or maybe it ends as you hear the news of the downing of enemy warplanes. How can the general and his fans recover from the mandating fever when they live by feelings we thought were finished half a century ago?
The midan dispersed but their spirits clung to it. In this midan there’s no need to find solutions for corruption or torture or murder or impoverishment or oppression, for they are all rumors. Egypt can never be defeated and her leadership doesn’t make mistakes.
Don’t judge them too severely, there’s something of us in them. Don’t you remember when the chants started, “The People, the Army, One Hand”? Didn’t we stand at the entrances to our midan sorting out friend from foe by checking ID cards? Didn’t we put the judges on the pedestal of our midan and ask them for wisdom? Didn’t we raise the constitution — any constitution — to the level of just retribution? All revolutionaries go through a phase of impossible attempts to return to a time of innocence and childhood and end up in a state of late adolescence.
The storm of
everyone will perish
and the revolution like a relay of waves
will pound to dust
but not destroy.
I don’t mean to say that their midans and ours are the same. But I commit a brief blasphemy only to say that, like us, they’re possessed; you can see bits of us in them, and bits — both good and bad — of our midan in theirs.
In the second midan we saw Popular Committees running life when the authorities withdrew, and in the third we saw women center stage despite their marginal positions in the Organization and on the podiums. In the fourth midan we saw Muslim and Christian truly “One Hand.”
Human like us, prisoners of their midans like us, besieged in them like us, and if our imprisonment and our siege lengthen, our sins will multiply like theirs. I don’t blaspheme in tolerance for them, but for us.
They loved their midans because they lived their dreams there, but we love our midan because we loved life there, and dreamed of a better life for those we love. We might be similar, but I’m arrogant enough to say that our dream sets our midan apart, and that their dreams are nightmares.
In each midan a myth is built that imprisons its people, and myths are built on both dreams and nightmares. They committed great sins in their midans and we committed small ones in ours, but we forget our dreams and build our myths on our nightmares. They committed great sins but we worshipped false gods when we allowed the midan — not the dream — to become sacred. We strayed from the straight path of the revolution when we built shrines to our wounds and our fears. We were locked into our midan because like them we looked for a determining solution and we exchanged our dreams for something less because we thought it would be easier to achieve. We lost our way when we sought people’s love for ourselves and our midan, instead of seeking for what we love for in people. Our midan is the only one built on a dream and on love but people want stability, and stability needs a determining solution, which needs strength and strength kills love and disfigures the dream. The determining solution is treason. It exchanges the power of the people with what is beneath it: weapons or the Organization. It replaces the dream with what’s inferior: the roadmap or the arrangements of power or some crumbs of reform.
The dancer needs
The authority needs
But the revolutionary
when he rises
cares for nothing but
Another night passes with us killing topics with discussion. We shout so that our voices can reach each other through the peepholes of the cells and we fill the ward with noise as we talk about leaks and smear campaigns, about newspapers that berate us for losing our popularity and say we’re in prison because we were unable to be decisive, because the scope of our dreams was too big — as though that were a crime.
I am so angry I escape to myself in the past where I find me in May 2005 on a Wednesday that we thought dark because we had no idea what darkness there was in store for us; on the day of a referendum we thought ill of, not realizing that it was an omen of ills to come; a day when I was inspired by the wrath of women and their refusal to stay home and obey the orders Mubarak wrote on their bodies with the hands of his thugs. That day I was suffocated by our insistence on spaces we thought were safe — like the steps of the Journalists Union — even though we’d discovered there was no safety whatsoever in the military state.
I find myself there with my comrades planning to venture out of downtown and into Sayeda Zeinab where we swept the shrine against our oppressors, and to Zeitoun where we prayed to the Virgin against our rulers. We weren’t trying to summon a metaphysical force to help us, we were mocking our weakness and acknowledging helplessness — but neither our weakness or our helplessness held us back.
I find myself with my comrades there inciting people to regular protests in Imbaba and Shubra and Nahia. It wasn’t an attempt to summon the power of the people, we were just trying to tell them that we too had tasted part of their oppression and their hurt, that we were trying to heal ourselves by being with them, and inciting them to be loud in their complaints.
I find myself there with my comrades defying the heart of our fears at the heart of their power, in Lazoghly. It didn’t occur to us that it was possible for our small group, hemmed in by oceans of Central Security Forces, to decide anything. We were just letting them know that breaking our bodies would not win them the battle.
There, in the past, I find me, wiser and with less experience, answering that academic who today contributes to writing the constitution of the “revolution” when in the past he denied even the possibility of a popular revolution. I answered him by preaching the glad tidings of a revolution that would not seek a mobilizing moment that determined everything in one holy battle, but a continuous process in which the rate of change quickened and the number of revolutionaries grew. I find me writing about the selfish nature of the struggle, and the memorial as the solitary moment that tests the popularity of the fighter, and of how we need to defeat our myths ourselves and how important it is not to become prisoners of our rituals — and prisoners of the safe spaces.
This is our fate. We can only give the people our banners, and we’re not good at anything except inciting them to dream. We have no strength or dominion except love; they love us when their courage gets the better of them and they discover their strength, and they hate us when their fears get the better of them and they’re convinced of their weakness and their need for a strength outside themselves.
They fight, the residents of
over the title
“the man who renounces”
for him who betrays with honesty
all the victors have been defeated
as for us
we chose the margin
In our tradition freedom is rented out to a despot whom we think benevolent if his offer conforms to specifications. This one tries to cut a deal over “national independence,” the other changes the offer to “prosperity,” and someone can ask us to give up freedom in return for security and safety, or the protection of minorities. In our tradition dignity is either for the individual or for the nation; you can’t have both, and justice is either in the courtrooms or the market, not in both.
They entered the midan with us or before us — I don’t remember. The most they wanted was that freedom would be auctioned. We said we don’t mind sharing your experience but we bought our freedom with blood and we won’t cut deals on it. They asked, “So what’s your experience?” We said, “We stay together and we win both dignities and both justices and all freedoms.” They said, “You are so great! This is how the young should be .. you’ve dazzled the world with your wisdom .. beware of leaving the midan.” Then they left the midan — and us.
In our tradition freedom is rented to him who meets the specs. So, has the general met the specifications? Let’s see: the nationalists lined up behind him and preached tidings of a Nasserism that lays siege to friends and avoids enemies, and the leftists lined up behind him and preached tidings of a socialism of debt and removing subsidies and making cuts, and the liberals lined up behind him and preached tidings of the awe-inspiring state and terror-crushing laws.
No dignity of the body or the nation, no justice in bread or in retribution. The general didn’t bargain with them with them with his gold or his sword, he offered them nothing except the honor of appearing in the center after decades spent in the margins. They lined up together in his shadow because the center is narrow and has room only for the general. They didn’t sign contracts or receive payment, they just stood and thanked him for his generosity and tolerance, then they lamented the good youth who’d lost their way and returned to the margins, they said, “What a shame,” or, “Serves them right,” or, “I’m surprised”…it doesn’t matter, in my prison I see them all as equal.
is not big enough for my dream
and the cell
is pure absurdity.
Have you ever seen
on the move
ask for permission
The prison shuts on Christmas day and we’re each in solitary for two days in which the door doesn’t open. Anger overtakes me as I read the newspapers that have discovered for the first time that there are “Copts” amongst us. At mass, raised images of the general are more numerous than images of the man whose birthday it is. I look for a familiar face and find none. Where were all these when we — we ourselves — walked into the cathedral carrying the coffins of the martyrs? Where were they when we stood at its walls protecting it from teargas and bullets? If the Copts have truly left the margins why is the center empty of their poor — the comrades of their martyrs?
The center is treason because there’s room in it only for the general. My anger takes me back, and there, in the past, I see me standing in a protest ignoring its demands and its slogans and handing out a statement written by two friends; a statement written essentially for us not for the public, inviting us to confess to the wound, to speak of the spread of hate, to resist denial. A statement insisting that in Egypt there’s a deep sectarian crisis. Despotism hinders us from facing it, but the crisis won’t go away when the despotism ends. We didn’t seek that day to break into the center or force the issue into it. Our aim was to communicate with ourselves and to discuss the things that hurt us.
There in the past I found me less experienced and more wise. Writing about margins wider than the center, about a history made up of many narratives. Margins — as opposed to the center — are multiple. I find me examining how it’s necessary to interact with all causes and injustices, however marginal their people, even if this angers the people of the center — and how it’s necessary to reject attempts to impose priorities on freedom, dignity and justice.
In the midan we got lost while we built our myth, we forgot that the revolution is not a transfer or retreat from the margins but the margins violently breaking into the center. They distracted us with talk of “the main current” and “the man in the street” until it seemed that the center had enough room for the majority. They traded with us and said it has room for you if you abandon the youth of the barricades and molotovs, the street children, the Copts, the people who were killed or injured outside the midan, and the people of Sinai. One after the other they came to us offering a place in the shadow of the general on condition that we give up one of our margins — a part of us.
The center is treason and I have never been a traitor. They think they’ve pushed us back into the margins. They don’t realize that we never left it, we just got lost for a brief while. Not the ballot boxes or the palaces or the ministries or the prisons or even the graves are big enough for our dreams. We never sought the center because it has no room except for those who abandon the dream. Even the midan was not big enough for us, so most of the battles of the revolution happened outside it, and most of their heroes remained outside the frame.
True I’m touching the ground
but I’m flying in the sky
I dream of living together
in the world itself but
it’s our time and there’s no parting
your kiss still confuses me
and “I love you”
from you disappears
(Adapted from Rayess Bek)
When the dreams of those who came before us rested on the leader, they were defeated with him. And when they found in themselves the ability to kill the leader and end his myth they enjoyed many small victories. We thought we were different; we don’t believe in leaders. We didn’t understand that it was they who freed our tradition from the sway of leaders forever. We’re like them in their strength and their weakness, and we need to free our dreams as they freed theirs. The midan is just a spectacle to express these dreams. Our hearts overflow with the midan out of love for what appeared in it of our dreams. We made of it a myth that imprisoned us, blotted out our experience and dissolved our selves. We got lost inside it and thought it the aim of the dream and the heart of the revolution. It’s our job to kill our myth with our own hands as they killed theirs. It’s time to pull down the midan so that we may be free, so that we may come back to our selves and our revolution.
My mother passed onto me a stone cake and a love that pierces through cell walls. And my father passed onto me a prison cell and a dream not bound by prison walls or surrounded by the edges of a midan or limited by the borders of a homeland. I have not yet received my complete inheritance; I’m still waiting to learn how I can spend my life in the midan without it taking my soul prisoner and emptying my dream, how I can stay inside it and still face the nightmares inside me. I’m still waiting to learn from him how I can leave prison without leaving part of me in the cell, and how I can leave and forgive those who were unjust to me and those who let me down. How I can transform from a thorn in the side of injustice to a support for all those unjustly treated.
Until I get my inheritance complete I shall go back to how I was, without despair and without hope, without a center or a determining solution, dreaming of a revolution not bound by a midan, and comforting the loneliness of my cell with a love unfettered by a jailer.
And finally: “Congratulations for the new coat of paint.”
To erase – for the revolution –
is to give us
to think again
and to write.
We apologize to readers for any confusion in the text, or any wavering in its cohesion. They’re results of the circumstances of its writing. It was not easy for those used to instant expression on mobiles and keyboards to get through a two-week process of writing with pencil and paper (mostly) in solitary. And neither of us had the opportunity of spending time with the complete text.
We apologize also to our colleagues in Ward A, Political, Tora Prison, for what they put up with, as a poet who lived in the first cell in the ward and a blogger who lived in the last tried to co-operate. Both preferred to discuss their text by yelling in the night rather than use up the rare few hours of exercise in the open air.
We tried in this text to express our gratitude to those who dispelled the loneliness of our cells with their love and their care, and our deep belief in a generation that refused to stand in line for the center of the authorities. And it would be remiss not to thank the authorities — were it not for the new “paint” we would not have found the space to think and draw.
Alaa and Douma